Postmodern?

10 April 2009 at 5:51 AM | Posted in News | Leave a comment

A reader asks if multilingual literary criticism is postmodern. First of all, although I used the term postmodern to classify certain kinds of literary criticism in my book Beyond Futility: The Filipino as Critic (1984) (I shudder just thinking that I actually wrote that book!), I now am very uncomfortable with the term. First of all, the term itself was used to describe certain types of art pieces in the 1870s, which was more than 130 years ago! When the term is used not to refer to the movement called postmodernism but merely to indicate a time period (roughly, anything after the First World War), it becomes even more of a misnomer, because surely something must have changed in the last hundred years.

Once, I taught a graduate course where I told the students that I would not accept any critical paper that did not use a theory labeled “post-” (postmodernism, postmarxism, postfeminism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, etc.). I’ve quickly gone beyond that cruel joke on students. Now, I make my requirements even more cruel: I tell my graduate students that they have to use a theory that started (note: started, not flourished) in our own century, namely the 21st century. They get stumped, of course, but the point is to make them realize that theory is dead (and they, therefore, now have to make it on their own).

Multilingual criticism (for lack of a better name) would be postmodern in the sense that it comes as a conscious effort only after the 20th century, which used to be pretty modern when we were living in it. It would not be postmodern in the sense that it reacts to what is or was modern, because writers have been multilingual from the beginning of literature, and so have some critics (even Plato might have read some Chinese or at least translations from Chinese, because some of his ideas on literature are suspiciously like those of much earlier Chinese literary critics). Modernism, as it is defined in most dictionaries of literature, is a fairly recent concept or movement, but multilingual writing of or about literature predates it, so multilingual criticism cannot be post-modernism.

Oh, if you wanted to be cute but not quite accurate, you could say that postmodernism, like any other post- theory or movement, is like a Post-it® (self-stick marker): the label arbitrarily sticks to one thing but can be removed very easily and made to stick to something very different.

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