Waiting for Adam, Still
The inarticulate and cringe-inducing scribblings of A.K.M. Adam, a shining example of how not to write and think, prompts me to recall my Sahlins: wackiness ensues.
Monday, 2004-10-11 | Classic Gin, Language, On Writing Well, Philosophy
Rather than taking this opportunity to proclaim, once again, that we live in a Golden Age unrivaled since the 5th century of Athens that we all think of when we meet someone named Pericles or pass by a robed caryatid, I've got some academic laundry to air. The encomium I had planned for Avril Lavigne's album Under My Skin will have to wait for another night when the fate of the universe isn't hanging in the balance.
A.K.M. Adam, whose three initials alone should incur your mistrust, is a biblical scholar. I've recently come into possession of one of his older texts; a certain What Is Postmodern Biblical Criticism?, to be more specific. In it, he adumbrates some postmodern critical techniques in order to demonstrate that we can be better critics if we engage and embrace unfamiliar arguments and interpretations--if we can embrace postmodern criticism. His introduction finds him setting himself to the unenviable task of having to explain and rationalize post modernism. Let's take a look at how he attempts to mount the the old Hesperian Death Horse, shall we?
First, he relies on Cornel West for the first part of his definition of postmodern criticism. West and Adam favor the definition of postmodern criticism as a theory that 'cannot accept any system of knowledge as absolute or foundational; it cannot accept the premise that some body of knowledge, or subject of knowledge, constitutes a unified totality; and it cannot accept mystifying claims that any intellectual discourse is disinterested or pure.' Though Adam is lauded on the back of his book by his editor, a certain Dan O. Via, Jr., for his use of 'plain-language,' he can be confusing at times; it doesn't help that he uses words like 'congeries' and untranslated Latin. Anywho, let's look at these three foundations of his postmodernism.
- Anti-foundationalism is referenced before the first of two semicolons in the long and dense sentence excerpted above. Postmodern critics 'cannot accept any system of knowledge as absolute or foundational,' he says. The idea behind anti-foundationalism, as I learned it from Stanley Fish (whose name is brought up in the opening chapter of Adam's book), is that everything is mediated and therefore we cannot accept any hypostatic claims as anything more than the normative philosophies of certain parties. In 'plain-language,' then, anti-foundationalism is the idea that each man's perceptions are his own and each man's intuition is his own and we should regard the perceptions and the intuitions of our neighbors and fellows as suspect on a very fundamental level. An example of a foundationis Christianity. As dutiful postmodern critics, we understand Christianity as a strong foundationalist claim; as a substantive commitment that is possessed by a person or group of people but which cannot, like all foundational claims, be verified by any independent or objective source.
- Anti-totalization is a practice based on similar selfishness and suspicion--the idea here is that totalizing claims proceed from foundational claims and therefore cannot be trusted as objective or independent. An example of a totalizing claim might be Aristotle's universe--any sort of doctrine that seeks to explain the 'fabric of reality' scientifically or mystically or whatever-ly. We can see how a totalization like Aristotle's unified field proceeds from a foundation--his claims rest upon certain inductive steps that we can attribute to his sensory perceptions or his intuition. >
- Anti-mystification is the simplest piece of Adam's pie. The demystifying approach turns the traditional tools of exploration and study on the disciplines from which we have inherited our tools or exploration and study. For example, if we agree with Marx' or Orwell's border-line schizoid assertion that capitalism is an elaborate farce staged by the world's elite to mollify the global middle and lower class, we might be said to be demystifying. The idea is to look for the political, social or ideological motivations behind things that appear to have arisen from the natural order of things. When we do postmodern criticism, we accept no natural order and we damn sure don't accept any notion of coincidence; everything is contingent and therefore related. The fact that everything is related by grammar school cause-and-effect allows us to be certain that behind every political or social situation lies a mundane cause, indeed, a construction.
In order to cauterize this wound I've opened, I fall back upon a certain anthropologist from the U of C: Marshall Sahlins. In his invectio ad postmodern criticism, Waiting for Foucault, Still he finds in nature a wonderful analogue for the sort of creature we describe when we describe the dutiful postmodern critic. He has the following to say about anthropology and the hegemony that postmodern critics have alleged against it:
There is a certain species of academic whiffle bird that is known to fly in ever-decreasing hermeneutic circles...Quite simply, what we have in the avowed postmodernist is a person who limits his hermeneutical possibilities to a teeny-tiny tautology. When a postmodern critic flatly refuses to regard anything as authoritative (cf. Roland Barthes, who, as Adam reports, went so far as to pronounce 'the death of the author') and demands that no generalizations or typologies be offered, he paints himself neatly into a corner. By declaring that the mediation that characterizes human experience (mediation by our senses, mainly) undermines all truth claims and demanding that reason itself is suspect in this heinous crime, the devout postmodern critic has only his experience to discuss. This severe limitation is not, of course, what we should be training academics for.
Adam goes so far to say the following in his introduction: 'Nothing is pure; nothing is absolute; nothing is total, unified, or individual.' I couldn't help but read that sentence and scribble the following in the margin: 'Except for the preceding statement.'
Therein lies the paradox upon which our whiffle bird feeds. Our creature thrives upon contradicting and undermining himself in each and every act. He does so in order that he might draw our attention to the fact that he has been trained and is able to do so.
A scant two paragraphs into his second chapter, Adam advises us 'to suspend our assumption that our words refer to things, that our expressions mean things, that there are, in fact, "things" at all--including ourselves.'
Avril Lavigne - Together.mp3