Tuesday, February 7, 2012

BkRev: The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism

Stuart Sim, editor, The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, 3rd ed., New York, Routledge, 2011, 328 pages.

SUBJECT MATTER. Studying postmodernism is difficult for two major reasons. First, postmodernism is an ideology that rejects ideology and other large-scale integrations; students of the subject therefore have trouble "connecting the dots." Second, some of postmodernism's most influential leaders write in a style based on the assumption that words, concepts, and reality do not connect.

Stuart Sim's The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism largely overcomes those difficulties. The book offers articles about postmodernism's positions on philosophy, "critical theory," politics, feminism, gender, lifestyles, religion, postcolonial culture, science, technology, organizations, architecture, the arts, popular culture, and "dissent." For Part I of the book, twenty authors have contributed nineteen chapters on specialized subjects. An example is Ch. 16, "Postmodernism and music." In eleven pages it has twelve subsections such as "'Art for Art's Sake' Challenged" and "Death of the Composer as Originating Genius."

Part II of the book is a 75-page, two-column lexicon of "Critical Terms" that frequently arise in the writings of postmodernists. Example terms are "deconstruction," "binary oppositions," and "double-coding."

THE AUTHORS' GOALS. Sim and the authors he has enlisted aim to show the meaning of this "diffuse cultural movement" (p. xii). The authors are not merely observers; they are advocates as well. They intend to demonstrate "why so many thinkers and creative artists consider [postmodernism] to be worth defending" (p. xii).

The authors answer three broad questions. What are postmodernism's roots intellectually and historically? What are its essential characteristics? What are its cultural consequences?

Generally, the authors are successful in achieving their goals. From this introductory work, a patient reader gains an understanding of the basic nature of postmodernism, notes the elements of postmodernism that even these advocates acknowledge are doubtful, and sees the footprints that postmodernists continue to leave on Western culture today. Though readers will not find in-depth philosophical detection here, they will see enough evidence to enable them to construct their own tentative theory and evaluation of postmodernism.[1]

STYLE. Most of the authors, especially in Part II, "Critical Terms, A-Z," write as clearly as readers could expect from advocates of a movement that values disintegration, pervasive irony, and neologisms. An example of one of the many straightforward identifications of characteristics of postmodernism is the following statement by Angélique du Toit, author of Ch. 10, "Postmodernism and Organizations."

[P]ostmodernism rejects the modernist perspective of a reality perceived through conventional scientific methods and focuses instead on the role of language in constituting reality. (p. 110)

Most of the assembled authors define their terms and offer examples as illustrations. Occasionally readers will encounter puzzling statements such as this one:

The assertedly obsolete body of a performer [in a theatrical production], referenced by Deleuze, above, yet performed for its other -- not wholly unlike the widely distributed self in multi-authored electronic arts where that distributed self is a vehicle for a differently modulated knowledge practice -- does nothing, in the event (taken literally) to erase the drive, in a spectator-other, to identify and to recuperate self from that dispersion and from that performed obsolesence. (p. 199)

On the other hand, the book has additional virtues. Three are: endnotes and bibliography that offer researchers an opportunity to go deeper into primary sources; frequent mentions of criticisms of postmodernism by modernists (which here generally means those who support Enlightenment values such as progress, reason, and universal logic); and cross-referencing, for example, by placing in boldface the postmodernist terms defined in the lexicon at the end of the book.

(A later post will describe postmodernists' views of reason and mysticism, using Sim's book as an initial resource.)

CONCLUSION. Reading The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism gives general readers an overview of the postmodernist movement; and it provides more specialized students of history a starting point for deeper studies.

Related, the postmodernist attack on Plato as the father of philosophy: "The Tragedy of Reason (Bk. Rev.)," Sept. 27, 2009, The Main Event.

Burgess Laughlin

Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, at www.reasonversusmysticism.com

[1] For a clear historical and philosophical detection of postmodernism, I recommend Stephen R. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, expanded (2nd) edition, China, Ockham's Razor Publishing, 2011, 276 pages. I have not yet read the two essays (on free speech and art) added to the end of the second edition. I may review this book later. The author appears to be influenced -- perhaps only indirectly and partly -- by the philosophy of Objectivism. The influence may have come through David Kelley, an ex-Objectivist.

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