Monday, September 18, 2006

in defense of pomo

Yesterday morning, I reread an Observer article by Martin Amis, a British novelist, that my friend Jamie sent me. At first glance, the article reads as a disparaging assessment of the contemporary state of Islam:
Well, the civil war appears to be over. And Islamism won it. The loser, moderate Islam, is always deceptively well-represented on the level of the op-ed page and the public debate; elsewhere, it is supine and inaudible. We are not hearing from moderate Islam. Whereas Islamism, as a mover and shaper of world events, is pretty well all there is.
pairs this appraisal with a critique of Western moral passivity and laziness, couched in occasionally deadpan rhetoric.
Male Westerners will be struck, here, by a dramatic cultural contrast. I know that I, for one, would be far more likely to beat my wife to death if she hadn't answered the telephone. But customs and mores vary from country to country, and you cannot reasonably claim that one ethos is 'better' than any other.
My initial problem with the article was that it seemed 1) overly sensationalist and 2) guilty of generalization (two flaws that often come hand in hand). During my second read, however, I felt as though someone had gone through the text with a hi-liter pen and marked the moments that betray a secondary layer of meaning: Amis' implicit distrust and distaste for pluralism--buried within an ostensibly liberal agenda.

Our ideology, which is sometimes called Westernism, weakens us in two ways. It weakens our powers of perception, and it weakens our moral unity and will. As Harris puts it:

'Sayyid Qutb, Osama bin Laden's favourite philosopher, felt that pragmatism would spell the death of American civilisation... Pragmatism, when civilisations come clashing, does not appear likely to be very pragmatic. To lose the conviction that you can actually be right - about anything - seems a recipe for the End of Days chaos envisioned by Yeats: when "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity".'

It seems fitting that a writer whose prose relies on generalizations would also prefer sweeping moral and cultural axioms. More interesting, however, was Amis' bio, which I subsequently read in wikipedia.

Amis's raw material is what he sees as the absurdity of the postmodern condition and the excesses of late-capitalist Western society with its grotesque caricatures.

Aha, I thought--of course a writer who hates postmodern lit would also hate multiculturalism, relativism, localism. But are the two necessarily connected? Establishing a correlation between literary and political tastes seems dangerous, and sheds light on the stumbling blocks I initially faced with my senior thesis.

Like deconstruction--and the two are not one and the same--postmodernism regularly takes a (reductive) beating in the media. As Rapaport writes in The Theory Mess, David Lehman's definition of deconstruction as "a controversial analytics method which turns literature into a play of words, robbing it of any broader significance" gained currency because it appeared in Newsweek (1988).

My friend Matt Morello sent me a link to this article, which appeared in today's Times. In his review of Frank Rich's The Greatest Story Ever Sold, an account of the Bush administration's fraudulent rationale for going to war, Ian Buruma begins by writing:

What is fascinating about the era of George W. Bush, however, is that the spinmeisters, fake news reporters, photo-op creators, disinformation experts, intelligence manipulators, fictional heroes and public relations men posing as commentators operate in a world where virtual reality has already threatened to eclipse empirical investigation.

Remember that White House aide, quoted by Rich in his introduction, who said that a “judicious study of discernible reality” is “not the way the world really works anymore”? For him, the “reality-based community” of newspapers and broadcasters is old hat, out of touch, even contemptible in “an empire” where “we create our own reality.” This kind of official arrogance is not new, of course, although it is perhaps more common in dictatorships than in democracies. What is disturbing is the way it matches so much else going on in the world: postmodern debunking of objective truth, bloggers and talk radio blowhards driving the media, news organizations being taken over by entertainment corporations and the profusion of ever more sophisticated means to doctor reality.

Like Amis, we have another writer who is suspicious of postmodernism--not necessarily a bad thing. I googled Buruma, and found a link to this article--also in the Observer, published in 2001

The dek reads:

They are free to speak their minds, so why don't western thinkers tell the truth about tyranny in the Muslim world?
To again return to the question between literary and political beliefs: Is Buruma (in today's article) shrouding a political remonstration in a book revew? And, as Matt wrote in his email, "Why so much hate for postmodernism? Don't these people read Stanley Fish?"


Matt said...

Am I the only one who did a double-take at the apparent title, "in defense of porno"? I'm not, right?

Hippolyte said...

For an antidote to Amis's turgid prose and lazy scholarship--how many times does he source Bernard Lewis?--see this book review from the late '80s. Said is responding to Netanyahu and the essentialization of "terrorists" spawned by the Israeli occupation, but the operational logic he tears apart is close to Amis's. In fact I think turning from Netanyahu's "terrorism" to Amis's "Islamism" could be a fun study in the fresh new academic field of Comparative Idiocy. Do I smell a senior essay topic?

James said...

Good points about the Amis article. I found myself clenching my teeth at moments. Worse, however, was that much of it was simply "turgid prose." Boring and too long. And sloppy scholarship. As if he has suddenly just read 10 books about Islam (including the ever contentious Lewis) and then wrote it all down quickly in book-report format. But the overall boredom I suffered through the 10,000+ word article was punctuated by moments of brilliance. Amis brought up points that so few ostenibly liberal/artistic/left-leaning people in this country refuse to comment on. Namely, that sometimes, as he puts it, the underdog may not be as "pure" or as "sane" as we hope he is. Leftists defending religiously-fueled terror--even if it can ultimately be linked in some ways to Western imperialism, etc., etc.--is perhaps the most stunning and glaring contradiction I can imagine. While I remain wary of Amis's implicit critique of multi-culturalism (as Mina points out), I respect his courage to point out the bankruptcy of so much of the Left's critique of how (smart) journalists and (generally un-elected) politicians have categorized the war on Islamism.

While deconstruction does play a role in how we categorize a threat such as that coming from Islamism, and does point out how our categorization thereof necessarily relies upon generalizations, prejudice, and ideology, refusing to acknowledge a threat to liberty for what it is foolish and irresponsible. Tell a woman in Afghanistan to deconstruct her burka.

And yes, I thought it was in defense of porno at first as well.

P.S. I linked your blog Mina.