Theory in chaos

“Postmodern literary theory is now transforming itself so rapidly that Marxist, feminist, deconstructionist, and psychoanalytic critics (and others) are flocking back to the drawing board in droves as they search for new approaches to writing and teaching.

Indeed, some academics say that postmodern theory is on the way out altogether and that the heady ideas that once changed the way literature is taught and read will soon be as extinct as the dodo and the buggy whip.” —Christian Science Monitor It is becoming fashionable to say that postmodernism has lost its relevancy outside the ivory tower. Ironically, that might be seen in some circles as a very postmodern thing to say. No, actually, old-school humanists who find plenty ‘there’ in literature have been ‘anti-theoretical’ for decades. How did literary theory gain sway, then?

Postmodern literary theory is rooted in mid-century European philosophy, though it didn’t begin to catch on in America until the late ’60s; the Johns Hopkins University conference on “The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” which featured Jacques Derrida and other master theoreticians took place in 1966 and is generally regarded as the theoretical equivalent of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock.

These were, of course, revolutionary times: The initial phase of the civil rights struggle was peaking, and serious opposition to the Vietnam war was getting underway. College students were chucking out their parents’ ideas about race, class, patriotism, sex, music, and recreational drugs the way they might toss a faulty toaster oven out an open dorm window: If it doesn’t work, ditch it.

Theory played right into this mind- set; it challenged lazy notions about what’s right and what isn’t and brought fresh air into a classroom full of mildewed literary practices.

The problem is that by the time theory’s anticapitalist, antibourgeois assumptions became standard fare in colleges and universities, the consumer revolution was in high gear…

A second problem for theory is theorists themselves. Fundamentalism is always ugly, and many of the secondgeneration professors who followed famed theoreticians like Derrida merely applied their ideas dogmatically, thus guaranteeing that theory would became static and stale. Eventually, theory’s freewheeling skepticism became as one-dimensional as the celebrations of objective truth it sought to replace.

Perhaps it was inevitable, it strikes me, that literary theory itself would have to become an object of study and deconstruction by the theoreticians. Although this article bandies about the term, it does not own up to the central role that Marxist ideology had in laying the groundwork for ‘literary theory’, IMHO. It would seem to me that subsuming the products of culture to the conditions of production in a modern society, as a dialectical materialist analysis prescribes, was a necessary and perhaps sufficient precursor to challenging the idea of an unambiguous and unimpeachable truth in a literary work.

Save Hubble campaign gaining momentum

New Scientist: “A grassroots campaign to save the Hubble Space Telescope, started after NASA cancelled a crucial servicing mission, is gaining momentum.

NASA announced on 16 January that the space shuttle mission scheduled for 2006 would no longer take place. It would have extended Hubble’s life until about 2010 by installing replacement gyroscopes. These are needed to point and stabilise the telescope. At the moment only three of the original six are working well, and with three being the minimum number, Hubble’s life expectancy is just a few years at best.” —New Scientist An online petition is here.

New brain disease could be affecting many thousands

“A newly discovered neurodegenerative disease could be affecting tens of thousands of men around the world, say researchers.

The disease closely resembles Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and senile dementia, but appears to be caused by a genetic defect linked to fragile X syndrome. Until now carrying the defect was not thought to be harmful.

Researchers believe the new disease, named FXTAS (fragile X-associated tremor/ataxia syndrome), may affect up to one in 3000 men, with most sufferers being over 50 years old.

‘FXTAS may be one of the most common causes of tremor and balance problems in the adult population and yet it is being misdiagnosed,’ says Paul Hagerman, a biochemist at the University of California, Davis and one of the research team. ‘Thankfully it can now be identified with a standard DNA test.'” —New Scientist One in my continuing “where-was-a-disease-before-it-was-found?” series of stories [which is similar to my “if-a-tree-falls-in-the-forest” series?].

Mysterious mass die-off of vultures solved

“The catastrophic decline of griffon vultures in south Asia is being caused not by a mysterious disease, as had been thought, but a common painkiller given to sick cattle.

If the treated animal dies and is eaten by vultures, a single meal can be enough to kill the bird. The scientists who made the discovery now want the drug banned from veterinary use and are holding a meeting next week with officials from Nepal, India and Pakistan.” —New Scientist

‘Geek’ image an urban myth

“The findings of the first World Internet Project report present an image of the average net user that contrasts with the stereotype of loner ‘geeks’ who spends hours of free time on the internet and rarely engage with the real world.

Instead, the typical internet user is an avid reader of books and spends more time engaged in social activities than the nonuser, it says. And, television viewing is down among some internet users by as much as five hours per week compared with net abstainers, the study added.”

Dean goes bust

Joe Trippi, the iconic architect of Howard Dean’s Internet-driven campaign, is gone. And so are the millions of dollars that Dean raised from legions of grass-roots supporters over the last year. Pessimism is reportedly consuming Dean’s campaign volunteers, known for their idealism and infectious optimism until recently. Trippi was indeed inspirational, but a shakeup per se does not necessarily put the kiss of death on a campaign; it was only several weeks ago that Kerry changed campaign managers, with all sorts of pundits’ comments about how he couldn’t run a country if he couldn’t keep a campaign in order. What is more worrisome, and what comes as a surprise to me, are the reports that the Dean campaign’s coffers are empty. It must be a surprise to the media as well, since in the aftermath of his Iowa and New Hampshire defeats, considerations of Dean’s continued viability have usually involved citing the continuing size of his war chest. What will happen to Dean’s ability to raise additional campaign contributions is another matter. It could be argued that raising small contributions from the idealistic grassroots may make him less vulnerable to defections among funding sources.

And: The Death of the Doctor: “Dean is inevitably doomed. —Doug Ireland, So what happens now to the ‘Democratic wing of the Democratic Party’?? Can Dean’s internet constituency become a permanent grassroots underbelly with any clout?