Sunday, June 05, 2005

Postmodern Fog Has Begun to Lift

Postmodern Fog Has Begun to Lift
from the Los Angeles Times

[ . . . ] Postmodern theorists, promoting a fluid sense of identity, were only the latest step in unhinging art and discourse from any stable sense of the real world. Just as political upheaval left people physically insecure and globalization left them economically insecure, postmodernism was part of a complex of changes that left them feeling morally insecure, uncertain about who they were or what they really knew.

For some, there was a newfound freedom in all this. But many Americans today, sensing that the foundations of their world have crumbled, feel a deep nostalgia for something solid and real. Surrounded by a media culture, adrift in virtual reality, they seek assurance from their own senses. They turn to what John Dewey called "the quest for certainty."

I see evidence of this in my own field of literary studies, which has long been in the vanguard of postmodernism. In his book "After Theory," a widely discussed obituary for decades of obfuscation that he himself had helped to promote, Terry Eagleton mocks "a certain postmodern fondness for not knowing what you think about anything."

To understand the changes that shook the modern world, my students and colleagues have returned in recent years to long-neglected writers in the American realist tradition, including William Dean Howells, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. For readers like me who grew up in the second half of the 20th century on the unsettling innovations of modernism, and who were attuned to its atmosphere of crisis and disillusionment, the firm social compass of these earlier writers has come as a surprise. [. . . ]


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