The end of year. A new year begins. We mark this time with traditions that seem to have been with us forever—egg nog, Auld Lang Syne, the ball drop at Times Square, fireworks everywhere, pine needles in unlikely spots from an aging Christmas tree, resolutions and promises–but we also now have a seasonal tradition that is only three years old. Various news organizations tell us how many falsehoods Trump has told in the last annum. This might not seem as festive as other traditions, but it is becoming as entrenched.
It is mystifying that a president can produce so much that is false and still have the support of so many. Probably no simple explanation can satisfy, but I suggest that we consider the effect of a literary theory. While the juxtaposition of “literary theory” and “Trump” may seem bizarre, bear with me.
At one time, literary scholars uniformly saw a text as the creation of the author. The writer “owned” it and determined its meaning. Readers searched for what Hawthorne or Stendhal or Locke or Pound meant.
However, a competing view emerged. It noted that an author cannot determine how a reader reacts to a given text. These new literary theorists led by Jacques Derrida maintained that it is critical readers who determine what a piece of writing means, which may not necessarily be what the author intended it to mean.
This “postmodern” or “deconstructionist” approach transformed the meaning of “truth” in a text. If the author’s intention is the meaning, then there is just one “truth,” and those exploring a writing were all after the same thing. But if the crucial question is not what the writer means, but how the text is interpreted by its readers, there can be as many “truths” as there are readers. Something may be true for one reader and not another. Truth no longer was a single, objective concept but was subjective and variable. A text could have many meanings depending on who’s reading it.
As long as postmodernism was confined to literary theory, it had limited significance, but it broke out into other disciplines. Anti-authoritarians and the New Left promoted the notion that many “facts” were the product of entrenched, Western, white, and male-dominated thinking. Instead, the new critics maintained that in reality there were no universal truths but only personal ones shaped by cultural and social forces. Postmodernism denied an objective reality existing apart from human perception. Knowledge, they said, was filtered through class, race, gender, and other factors.
This approach had merit and gave valuable perspectives on history and society. So, for example, there is not one truth about capitalism. The economic system is different from the perspective of the corporate officer or the migrant worker picking lettuce. Class, race, and gender, the postmodernists maintained, shape thinking about the value of the police. The positive effects of Christopher Columbus are viewed differently from various perspectives.
Postmodernism points out that received wisdom is often the product of a limited or biased view and should not be uncritically accepted. That point has great value and should be a call to work harder to comprehend a given phenomenon. More information, more views should be sought to improve understanding. I should not accept that a mountain is forested just because the south face is covered in trees. The north face may be barren. I must go around the mountain to get a better understanding of it.
This can be difficult work that might not completely satisfy. So, for example, if I want to understand what happened on December 29, 1890, at Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota, postmodernistic thinking could tell me that I cannot just accept the official army reports. I should seek the views of Lakota members, army regulars, bystanders, and others. I might have to learn about the Ghost Dance movement and how a ghost dance appeared from the Lakota perspective versus the perspective of the soldiers on that day. I could expect to find contradictions and gaps in information and perhaps not a completely satisfying understanding of the massacre, but my understanding would be deeper because I sought out different perspectives rather than just relying on official reports.
However, those undertaking this endeavor still believe there are objective facts. Hundreds of men, women, and children were killed that day. I am seeking to get a better understanding of those facts, and I expect that you would reach a similar understanding if you, too, undertook this endeavor. We may not agree completely, but we are after the same thing–an objective truth.
But this “postmodernism” is not the postmodernism of the literary theory. The textual analysts rejected that there was a single truth that all critical readers were after. Instead, they concluded that the meaning of the text varied from reader to reader and that “truth” was subjective. If an understanding was true for a reader, it was true even if was not true for a different reader. In one way, then, postmodernism deepened our understanding of the world when the assault on traditional knowledge required seeking different perspectives on a phenomenon. However, it was another matter when this literary theory crossed over into other fields bringing the message that truth is “relative” or “contingent”; that there is no objective truth; and that truth is subjective.
(continued January 8)