Coming to terms with the twentieth-century ‘-isms'(Part I of II) [Archives:2003/691/Education]

December 4 2003

By Dr Anil K Prasad, Associate Professor & Head,
Department of English, Faculty of Arts,
Ibb University,
Email: [email protected]

'Every mere ism is a mere misunderstanding and the death of history'
(Martin Heidegger, What Is A Thing?: 1967 p 60-61)

Any student of contemporary art, literature, criticism, theory, history and culture today is all at sea with the inundation of new coinages with the affixes of '-ism', 'de/di-' and 'post-', but certainly is not at ease when s/he is trying to come to terms with this sea change in the history of ideas. Now the world of reading/interpreting and teaching/learning contemporary art, literature, criticism, theory, history and culture has witnessed a mystifying change with many patterns of interrelationships between the reader/viewer/audience and the text/discourse/artifact and the word/medium/tool and the world provides the context. Many theories, many approaches, many directions, many milestones make every reading a misreading/'anti-reading' and create nihilistic doubts in the readers making inroads across the borders of history, anthropology, philosophy, psychology, literary criticism, linguistics, semiotics, folklore, mythology, media studies, cyber culture, digital culture and the list goes on.
Twentieth-century has witnessed a shift from the interest in the canonical to the regional/local, from the study of pure literature to language-based approaches making English language teaching a massive money-spinning global industry. This has given rise to another shift from the aestheticism of art to its utilitarian function and popular appeal, from autonomous utterances of the author to the interplay of social and cultural voices with their unavoidable participation in the common stock of literary and linguistic conventions and procedures that are “always already” in place and constitute the discourse into which we are born (Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 1999) and finally from the authority of the author to the death of the author pursuing semantic indeterminacy as a will-o'-the-wisp with the binary oppositions (e.g. good/evil, male/female, nature/culture, speech/writing etc.). It has been an age of 'aesthetic reflection on the nature of modernity' (Giddens, A. The Consequence of Modernity, 1990:45) with the innovative, inventive and ground-breaking use of the form and function of language.
It has also witnessed a journey from a nostalgic yearning for a lost sense of unity, and constructs an aesthetics of fragmentation as in Eliot's Waste Land (1922) and Joyce's Ulysses (1922) with 'the peace that passeth understanding' and the emphatic affirmation of Molly's ' nd yes I said yes I will yes.' respectively to the postmodern celebration of fragmentation, negation and hysteria in a carnival of contradictory cultures and worldviews. The Prufrocks of yesteryears who hesitatingly retreated into the maze of images of the grand narratives of religion, history and culture are 'now suspended on the flow of ultratechnological images in a consumerist hyperreality across mediascape and mindscreen to which they can only passively surrender' like the tramps in Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1948) for who 'Nothing is certain'.
'Unity' and 'wholeness' in form, as concepts central to interpretation, are 'unceremoniously ousted and now relegated to the periphery of critical concern' (Davis, Robert Con. Ed. Contemporary Literary Criticism: Modernism Through Poststructuralism, 1986: 9) On the other hand, new historicists see history as co-text, which needs to be re-interpreted. They focus on the historical and cultural production of a 'text', its meanings, its effects, and also for further critical interpretations and evaluations. They are concerned with what Louis Montrose said, 'the historicity of texts and the textuality of history' (Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms 1999: 183). This is to say that texts are related to other discursive and rhetorical practices and structures, and they are part of the history that is still in the making, still in the process of being written. The death of the author and the subsequent attack on the authority of the text gave birth to a reader who is the 'centre' in the process of reading. Further flights into the space of hyper reality have given rise to the cyberpunk literature (with the publication of William Gibson's cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer in 1982) creating in the modern reader a dread of being transformed, in the future, into a 'cyborg': 'a split, a hybrid identity, a cybernetic organism: a human computer', half human and half computer; living in the world dominated by multinational corporate business empires with fractured identities. In the university curricula, William Wordsworth's description of Nature's beauty: 'The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,/Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and the temples lie/ Open unto the fields, and to the sky;/All bright and glittering in the smokeless air' and William Gibson's description of Nature in Neuromancer, shaped by the consciousness of technological revolution: 'The sky above the port was the color of television, turned to a dead channel' are being placed side by side.
Now the text is considered a self-sufficient object, a body of writing controlled by linguistic and literary codes, and a play of 'differences' that generate innumerable and mutually contradictory paradigms of 'undecidability and desemanticization'. In addition to the opposition to eurocentricism, logocentricism, ethnocentrism and androcentricism, the contexts of culture, gender, history, race, neocolonialism and psychology have also exercised considerable influence on the reading and interpretation of texts. It has been rightly remarked:
In global shifts such as these – dislocating and potentially painful shifts in which sense and nonsense, the central and the marginal, are seen to switch places – we witness ourselves moving from one paradigm to the other, from a world that already made sense to a world that is just now making sense. This revolution in criticism, and the resultant shift in the way we understand literature, poses an ontological difficulty of the highest order. This difficulty more than any other, explains both the challenge and the excitement of (and also the hostility toward) contemporary theory and literature. (Davis, Robert Con. 1986: 9)
In the process of reading/interpretation, teaching/learning, are we influenced by these shifts and swings?