The Dark Side of “Postmodern Moonshine”


In our summer 2006 issue, we ran a comprehensive overview of how postmodernism has degraded composition on our campuses. Steve Kogan enlarges that indictment and charges that the movement has deliberately corrupted every area of English instruction—from the acquisition of skills and knowledge to the more fundamental mission of developing in students the habits of disciplined learning.

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  1. 1.

    Contrast the history of the course in its first ten years (1919–1929) with its problems in the 1970s and beyond, in Timothy P. Cross, An Oasis of Order: The Core Curriculum at Columbia College (Office of the Dean, 1995), chapters 3 and 7.

  2. 2.

    The following lines reflect the high level of discourse in the two-year history supplements for the course: “Dictatorship . . . severs the state from the community, and never more so than when it proclaims the two to be one.... The order it sets up is not harnessed to the communal frame of order. It arrogates to itself complete independence from that frame. It has no abiding rules, no fundamental laws. Its own law is always that of the hour,” from The Web of Government (1947), by Robert M. MacIver, in Chapters in Western Civilization, Vol. 2, ed. Contemporary Civilization Staff of Columbia College, Columbia University (New York: Columbia University Press, 1948), “Totalitarian Life and Politics,” Section I, 425–26.

  3. 3.

    Nan Miller, “Postmodern Moonshine in English 101,” Academic Questions, vol. 19, no. 3 (Summer 2006).

  4. 4.

    Heather MacDonald, “Theorese,” Academic Questions (Summer 1993).

  5. 5.

    One has to be careful not to exaggerate superficial differences between Marxism and postmodern theory. In “The University as Agent of Social Transformation: The Postmodem Argument Considered,” Academic Questions (Summer 1993), Jerry L. Martin remarks that postmodernism “retains strands of Marxism” but debunks the very concept of objectivity and “the pursuit of disinterested truth,” whereas “traditional Marxists were always realists” and thought that “factories and workers and owners ... were real, that children really worked fourteen-hour days and miners really died of black-lung disease,” 58. Marx and his followers were hardly pursuing “disinterested truth,” however, no matter how much they spoke of factories, workers, and owners. One has only to read Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (c.1850) to appreciate the fact that there are no real people in the writings of Marx, only generic “oppressors” and “proletarians,” an obsessive hatred for the existing order of things, and a drive for radical change. By contrast, every page of Mayhew’s work is filled with vibrancy and life and a genuine regard for actual people in all the particularity of their speech, behavior, trades, psychology, and terms of survival. Despite their authors’ Marxist politics, the best examples of leftwing historiography, such as Christopher Hill’s Milton and the English Revolution and E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, stand closer to the tradition of Mayhew than to Marx.

  6. 6.

    In “An ABC of Modern English Studies: The Death of Criticism,” Heterodoxy (May–June 1993), “Discourse Production: Composition Studies in the Grip of Literary Theory,” Academic Questions (Spring 1994), “In Celebration of George Orwell,” Academic Questions, (Winter 1996–97), and “Herman Melville and his Marxist Critics,” Praesidium (Summer 2006). I have drawn on some of my findings in support of my present argument.

  7. 7.

    For a detailed list of “antifoundationalist” writers on philosophy, science, history, and legal, literary, and composition theory, see Ruth E. Ray, The Practice of Theory: Teacher Research in Composition (Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1993), 11. According to Ray, the term was coined by Stanley Fish.

  8. 8.

    Friedrich Nietzsche, “Crisis of Modernity,” in Twilight of the Idols (1888), trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1968), Section 39, 93–94.

  9. 9.

    Oswald Spengler, The Hour of Decision, trans. Charles Francis Atkinson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1934), 118.

  10. 10.

    Catherine E. Lamb, “Beyond Argument in Feminist Composition,” College Composition and Communication (February 1991), 16.

  11. 11.

    William Covino, “Making Differences in the Composition Class: A Philosophy of Invention” (1981), in Sharon Crowley, A Teacher’s Introduction to Deconstruction (Urbana’ National Council of Teachers of English 19R9) 16

  12. 12.

    Michael Rogin, Subversive Genealogies: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), 119.

  13. 13.

    “All tasks that really call upon the power of attention are interesting for the same reason and to an almost equal degree. . . . If we have no aptitude or natural taste for geometry, this does not mean that our faculty for attention will not be developed by wrestling with a problem or studying a theorem. On the contrary it is almost an advantage.” Simone Weil, “Reflections on the Right Uses of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” in Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1951), 106. In these brief lines, Weil provides the strongest pedagogical argument I know against “relevant” subject matter and “individualized” instruction.

  14. 14.

    Miller, 25.

  15. 15.

    Miller, 25. Her citation is taken from Jane Danielewicz, Teaching Selves: Identity, Pedagogy, and Teacher Education (Albany: SUNY Press, 2001).

  16. 16.

    Karl Marx, The German Ideology, in Patrick Gardiner, Theories of History (New York: The Free Press, 1959), 129. According to Lewis S. Feuer, it was a collaborative effort by Marx and Frederich Engels “in their mid-twenties,” as was The Communist Manifesto, in Marx and Engels: Basic Writings on Politics & Philosophy, ed. Lewis S. Feuer (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1959), 246.

  17. 17.

    “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class,” Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, in Feuer, 26.

  18. 18.

    Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 41.

  19. 19.

    Spengler, The Hour of Decision, 118.

  20. 20.

    Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 23ff.

  21. 21.

    Even the rarified abstractions of deconstructionist theory aim at radical change. In “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” Jacques Derrida announces that his critique of language embraces the very origins of “Western Science and Philosophy” and that he is fascinated by Levi Strauss’s “critical search for a new status of discourse” through the “abandonment of all reference to a center, to a subject, to a privileged reference, to an origin, or to an absolute archia [beginning],” in Modern Criticism and Theory, ed. David Lodge (London and New York: Longman Group UK Ltd., 1988), 108, 115–116. The value of new historicism to postmodern theory lay in bridging the gap between “materialist” critiques of society and deconstruction, which proved to be as malleable in the hands of Stephen Greenblatt as it was for feminist, post-colonial, and other self-styled subverters of their academic disciplines.

  22. 22.

    In reply to the accusation that “communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality” and “’therefore acts in contradiction to all past history,” Marx and Engels claim that the “eternal truths” of religion and morality are merely ideological props for the age-old “exploitation of one part of society by the other” and will only vanish “with the total disappearance of class antagonisms,” in The Communist Manifesto, 27. Postmodern theorists have enlarged the scope of this attack to include any traditional norm that falls within their own particular bias as a “social construction.”

  23. 23.

    Michael Carter, Where Writing Begins: A Postmodern Deconstruction (2003), in Miller, 24.

  24. 24.

    Miller, 24–25.

  25. 25.

    Marx, Theses on Feuerbach (1845), in Feuer, 245. This is a classic instance of Marx’s disregard for “the pursuit of disinterested truth,” in which he dismisses in a single breath the long line of transformative ideas in philosophy, science, mathematics, religion, and technology that has marked the intellectual history of the West.

  26. 26.

    Miller, 27.

  27. 27.

    Danny J. Anderson, “Deconstruction: Critical Strategy / Strategic Criticism,” in Contemporary Literary Theory, ed. G. Douglas Atkins & Laura Morrow (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1989), 151. “Subversion” is a word of choice among theorists themselves: “Since schools are a mainstay of logocentrism, the adoption of deconstructive attitudes toward institutional pedagogies is necessarily a subversive act,” in Crowley, 53, n. 8.

  28. 28.

    Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1921), 40.

  29. 29.

    Miller, 20.

  30. 30.

    Linda Haas, “In Search of Dignity: Liberatory Literacy in the Two-Year College,” Teaching English in the Two-Year College (December 1992), 260–61.

  31. 31.

    Danielewicz, in Miller, 25.

  32. 32.

    Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 25.

  33. 33.

    Miller, 25.

  34. 34.

    Mac Donald, 39–40, makes the following astute observation: “Where once a scholar of Jacobean drama and of the Barbizon landscape school commanded separate subjects and critical tools today they study and speak the identical poststructuralist goo of ‘discoursive spaces,’ the ‘engendering of difference,’ the ‘contestation of phallogocentrism,’ and the ‘problematics of the gaze.’ The ascendancy of Theorese in an area of study is always accompanied by the eclipse of its traditional subject matter.”

  35. 35.

    Miller, 10.

  36. 36.

    Haas, 261

  37. 37.

    James Berlin, “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class,” College English (September 1988), 487.

  38. 38.

    Andrea Lunsford, “Intellectual Property, Concepts of Selfhood, and the Teaching of Writing,” Journal of Basic Writing (Fall 1992), 65.

  39. 39.

    Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 22.

  40. 40.

    Cecelia Tichi, “American Literary Studies to the Civil War,” in Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies, ed. Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1992), 218.

  41. 41.

    Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1988), 3. The facts are otherwise, for the traditional study of literature since the inception of German studies in philology has been preeminently historical through deep studies in ancient mythologies and national folklores, literary biography, the social and political contexts of literature, and the history of texts themselves. Greenblatt also fails or refuses to understand that a great work is both of its time and of perennial interest, “News that stays news,” as Ezra Pound writes in his ABC of Reading.

  42. 42.

    Miller, 30.

  43. 43.

    H. Aram Veeser, Introduction to The New Historicists, ed. Veeser (New York and London: Routledge, 1989), xi. The reduction of literature to “materialist practices” is grounded in Marx’s “materialist philosophy of history.”

  44. 44.

    Veeser, xiii.

  45. 45.

    One of the truly all-purpose abstractions in the postmodern lexicon. A google search reveals that anything can be “problematized,” i.e., “problematizing our understanding” of literature (Atkins and Morrow), “our understanding of the Enlightenment’s use of the term ‘enthusiasm’” (Church History), “our conception of curriculum,’ “our understanding of history,” “our teaching,” “our knowledge,” “mathematics,” and “the term ‘psychotherapy.’”

  46. 46.

    Atkins, 19.

  47. 47.

    Atkins, 17, l8.

  48. 48.

    Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, 94.

  49. 49.

    Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Letter of September 15, 1919, in Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, vol 1, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1973), 328.

  50. 50.

    Nothing could be further from the abstractions of modern literary theory than Lionel Trilling’s observation that “In its essence literature is concerned with the self” and that its function, “through all its mutations, has been to make us aware of the particularity of selves,” in Freud and the Crisis of our Culture (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1955), 58, 33.

  51. 51.

    Luce Irigary, Speculum of the Other Woman (1985), in Robert de Beaugrande, “In Search of Feminist Discourse: The ‘Difficult’ Case of Luce Irigary,” College English (March 1988), 272.

  52. 52.

    Kurt Spellmeyer, “‘Too Little Care’: Language, Politics, and Embodiment,” College English (March 1993), 272.

  53. 53.

    Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 76.

  54. 54.

    Anderson, 151,

  55. 55.

    Michael Ryan, “Political Criticism,” in Atkins & Morrow, 201.

  56. 56.

    Nietzsche, 94. The full sentence reads: “The décadence in the valuating instinct of our politicians, our political parties goes so deep that they instinctively prefer that which leads to dissolution, that which hastens the end.” For Nietzsche, this process depends on self-deception. In The Anti-Christ, written immediately after Twilight, Nietzsche remarks that “this desiring not to see as one sees ... is virtually the primary condition for all who are in any sense party: the party man necessarily becomes a liar,” Section 55, 173. In light of postmodern theory, which claims Nietzsche as one of its own, it is noteworthy that he contrasts “The décadence in the valuating instinct” with the discipline of philology, his own area of expertise, which “is to be understood here in a very wide sense as the art of reading well—of being able to read off a fact without falsifying it by interpretation, without losing caution, patience, subtlety in the desire for understanding,” 169.

  57. 57.

    Andrew Sledd, “Readin’ not Riotin’: The Politics of Literacy,” College English (September 1988), 499.

  58. 58.

    Carolyn Eriksen Hill, Writing from the Margins: Power and Pedagogy For Teachers of Composition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 149.

  59. 59.

    John Clifford, commenting on Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous, and Luce Irigaray, in “Discerning Theory and Politics,” College English (September 1989), 530–31.

  60. 60.

    See Miller’s discussion of Lindermann’s “Three Views of Composition,” College English (March 1995) in “Fallacy 6: ’Freshman composition: No Place for Literature,” 27–29.

  61. 61.

    Miller, 28.

  62. 62.

    Joseph Harris “The Plural Text / The Plural Self Roland Barthes and William Coles,” College English February 1987), 164.

  63. 63.

    Gary Taylor, Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 357.

  64. 64.

    Edward Said, “Two Visions in Heart of Darkness,” in Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 24.

  65. 65.

    Tichi, 220. The character of the novel is anything but a mirror of factory production. As Walter E. Bezanson observes in “Moby Dick: Work of Art” (1953), “There is no over-reaching formal pattern of literary structure on which Moby Dick is a variation... . It is a free form that fuses as best it can innumerable devices from many literary traditions, including native modes of contemporary expression,” in the Norton Critical Edition of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1967), 669.

  66. 66.

    Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 412. Jameson has it exactly backwards. It is Hemingway who is inaccessible to him, in particular the Nick Adams stories in Hemingway’s In Our Time (1925), which trace the life and intellectual development of his central character Nick Adams from an upper midwestern childhood and adolescence in pre-World-War-I America to the war in Europe and his return, to which one could add the story of Harold Krebs’s homecoming in “Soldier’s Home” and Nick Adams’s return from post-war Europe in the posthumously published story “On Writing,” in which Hemingway, through Adams, describes in detail the world view that informs the “selective type of sentence which he practices.”

  67. 67.

    See David Wykes, A Preface to Orwell (London: Longman, 1987), 88, and Carol Freedman, “Writing, Ideology, and Politics: Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’ and English Composition,” College English (April 1981), 332,

  68. 68.

    George Y. Trail, “Teaching Argument and the Rhetoric of Orwell’s ’Politics and the English Language,” College English (September 1995), 582.

  69. 69.

    Carl Freedman, “Antimonies of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984),” in Critical Essays on George Orwell, ed. Bernard Oldsey and Joseph Browne (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1986), 93

  70. 70.

    Jameson, 367.

  71. 71.

    Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, trans. Charles Francis Atkinson, 2 vols. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926–28), vol, 2, 427n.

  72. 72.

    Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, Inc., 1968), 23–49. The Communist Manifesto provides a perfect example of the “prohibition of questions” in Marxist terms: “The charges against communism made from a religious, a philosophical, and, generally, from an ideological standpoint are not deserving of serious examination,” 26.

  73. 73.

    Paul de Man, “The Resistance to Theory” (1982), in Lodge, 366.

  74. 74.

    See, for example, Ray, 46–47: “It may (should?) be that no ‘pieces’ of writing are ever completed in such a class. . . . In other words, a deconstructive pedagogy would devise ways to engage students as active readers—that is, re-writers—of the teachers’ writing—her course. It would encourage students to revise assignments and syllabi, to reject an assigned text and choose new ones.”

  75. 75.

    As my old Humanities I instructor, the poet Louis Simpson, observed twelve years ago, “once that kind of hermeticism is ensconced it repeats itself. You hire people like yourself. It’s pretty appalling,” in “Van Doren at 100: Remembering Columbia’s quintessential great teacher,” Columbia College Today (Winter 1995), 20. On the same page, John Hollander notes that “a mere ten years ago I would never have talked about responsible work in learned journals as trash. I might say something was uninspired or uninteresting, but I would talk about its reflecting a certain competence. No more.” I have looked in vain for similar observations in more recent issues of the school’s alumni journals.

  76. 76.

    Veeser, xii.

  77. 77.

    Crowley, 6. In her presentation of deconstructionist theory, Crowley notes that, for Jacques Derrida, the “‘self’ is tied to words,” and from the “assumption of self-presence, it was an easy step to infer a similar presence, or being-here, of all that seems to exist in the world,” 2. Self-identity, however, is “tied” to a good deal more than words, namely, the non-verbal world of inner drives and feelings, our image-making faculties, and the experience of sheer sensations, all of which is the stuff of literature, as it is of daily human life.

  78. 78.

    Mac Donald, 39.

  79. 79.

    Catherine Gallagher, “Marxism and the New Historicism,” in Veeser, 47.

  80. 80.

    Jameson, “The Politics of Theory: Ideological Positions in the Postmodern Debate” (1984), in Lodge, 375.

  81. 81.

    Judith Lowder Newton, “History as Usual? Feminism and the ‘New Historicism,” in Veeser, 161.

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Kogan, S. The Dark Side of “Postmodern Moonshine”. Acad. Quest. 20, 219–234 (2007).

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  • Postmodernism
  • Learning
  • Teaching composition
  • Composition theory
  • Nihilism
  • Intellectual diversity
  • Thought police