Monday, August 04, 2008

Lyotard, Joyce, and Postmodermism

I feel somewhat embarrassed that I have not update this blog in over 6 months. After logging into my LJ account and realizing that I had not posted anything for nearly two years, I wanted to revive my blogs and use them for different focuses. This blog at its core has always been an academic and social justice. My goal is that people will able to thing about issues in new and inventive ways. While I hope to keep some of the original body politics focus, I plan to use this blog from this point as a place to explore my personal and professional interests in literature, critical theory, philosophy, language acquisition, and public policy. Now on to the subject at hand. The post below was started on or around August 4, 2008.

Lyotard , Joyce, and Postmodernism

Since I have been spending almost three months official unemployed (graduate from college in May), I have had time to go back to my personal library and some of the texts from my classes. As a prospective French teacher, I need to keep both my language and critical analysis skills from falling off too quickly (in order to keep my sanity and hope intact). Last night, I decided to read something from one of my elephantine analogies that I have collected in fours years of studying literature - Critical Theory since Plato. Having taking a survey course on literary theory, I have developed a greater interest in philosophy and its intersections with literature. Thumbing through the Table of Contents, I decided to read an article by Jean François Lyotard entitled "Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?" The concept of postmodernism is at the center of academic thought in the humanities as it has empowered numerous camps of skeptics. This argument often centers around the growth in the important of theory in humanities, especially in literary criticism. To my surprise, Mark Bauerlein, one of the bloggers for the Chronicle for Higher Education, recently wrote an entry that describes the lasting impact of this divide called "How Theory Damaged the Humanities." Even if you did not notice the rather bleak and ominous title, the language of the very first sentence would give you are clear indication of how Bauerlein feels about the rise of critical theory:
Hard as it is to believe, given the passions it continues to arouse, 42 years have passed since critical theory started to infiltrate the humanities in the United States.
The evil double agent images that Bauerlein evokes with the word infiltrates prepares the reader for his thesis: critical theory doomed the future of the humanities when having a comprehensive grasp of it became an essential professional competency. While this seems like a rather petty complaint on the surface, Bauerlein is really trying to get the more profound problem: competency in critical theory has began to replace traditional content knowledge. Like some of those who replied to his post, I agree that echo chamber of theorist studying theory has done some damage to the brand of the humanities, especially in America. The more esoteric a discipline becomes, the greater risk there is that people will not see the point of studying or funding it. More to Bauerlein's point, it also takes the humanities away from its central goal to study the cultural products of humanity in all its maddening diversity. In addition, the rise of critical theory has forces a generation or two of scholars to amass a body of knowledge that has passed out of favor: "The theories that one had to master saw their day pass, and in the cold light of time it no longer seems necessary to know the arguments of deconstruction, reader-response … They grounded graduate training and hiring and promotion and publication in an enterprise that was uncertain and fluctuating. They announced that theory marked a revolution, but theory wasn’t strong enough to sustain a new institution."

One of my greatest disagreements with Bauerlein, shared by a fellow commenter, was his interpretation of a Paul de Man quote he used to bolster his point about the rise of the unnecessary burden of theory. In a letter advising the Irvine Comp Lit department, de Man depicts a future in which literary scholars will need “a new kind of skill … the capacity to use and feel at home in a whole series of different critical and theoretical codes and systems, as one would use a particular foreign language, without remaining rigidly locked into any one of them, but rather developing the capacity to translate those findings into different codes, systems, critical positions, as the case may require.” While I must admit that I have not had the privilege to the read the letter in question, it is clear that de Man did not expect a world in which theory was center of content or that holding a particular theory was a mark of inclusion in a cult of the righteous, as has happened especially with followers of deconstruction. In this new academic landscape, a broad knowledge of critical theory would be a set of tools with which literary scholars could use to do the work of analyzing and studying culture and its products. Clearly, de Man sees critical theory as means and not an end. It is that transition from theory as tool to theory as subject that cause the challenges to the future of humanities.

This long winded introduction has a point. Reading Lyotard's article about postmodernism solidifies a key reading of the role of Joyce's works in English and world literature. Lyotard opens the essay by describing the character of the period. The short and powerful opening line sets the tone for the entire piece: "This is a period of slackening - I refer to the color of the times" (1418). The words slackening and color are essential underlying concepts in this essay. Postmodernism, for Lyotard, is not a set of beliefs or theories but an ethos that has change how disciplines, theories, and beliefs are approached. Postmodernism marks the slackening of traditional categories or lines of inquiry. Early in the work, Lyotard makes reference a critic who sees postmodernists as "neoconservatives" who hope to "get rid of the uncompleted project of modernism, that of the Enlightenment" (1418). The project of the Enlightenment, in its absolute sense, has been ended by postmodermism. Works like Orientalism and Surveiller et punir, works also cited by Bauerlein as he examined the death grip of Theory on the humanities, challenge the notion the Enlightenment ideas are both objective and the product of the positive evolution on the human spirit. As Lyotard sets out to the develop in the essay, postmodernism shows the interconnectedness of "cognitive, ethical, and political discourse, thus opening the way to a unity of experience" (1418).

What is striking to me is how the concept of the unity of experience enriches a critical aspect of Joyce's purpose for Ulysses (and Finnegans Wake). Joyce's major works challenge that the very definition of previous stable concepts of the novel, literature, and the book. In works of Lyotard, Joyce creates an identity of writing "which is the victim of the an excess of the book (au trop de livre) or of literature" (1422). By not holding to the convention wisdom about structure, plot, form, and language, Joyce presents reality in a way that readers has never experienced. The personal, social, and ethical turmoil of Bloom, Stephen, and Ireland rise through variety of forms. Ulysses works as a work precisely because Joyce uses "[t]he whole range of available narrative and even stylistic operators" without "concern for the unity of the whole" (1422). However, the concept of "unity of the whole" needs to be carefully considered. Ulysses would not work as a piece of literature if the different chapters of the work did not create a unified whole. At this point, the reference to the Enlightenment at the beginning of the essay becomes important. Lyotard references to the "unity of whole" alludes to the three unities that was the mainstay of 18th century French playwrights. In a certain respect, Lyotard's description of Joye's writing is in the same vein as Coleridge's defense of Shakespeare - the power of Joyce's genius allowed him to create a work that transcends the norms of literature. The major difference is that Lyotard does not associate genius with god-like creative powers. For Lyotard it is Joyce's ability to see the possibility of overcoming the limits of the convention of the book. Joyce's visionary position has led to a whole class of scholars who write about postmodern Joyce. Joyce's position as modernist postmodernist thus begs the question: what is the true starting point of postmodernism? Lyotard's final definition of the postmodern hints at an answer:

The postmodern would be that, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in the presentation of itself ; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; [...]. A postmodern artist or writer is the position of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by preetablished rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgment, by applying familiar categories to the text or the work. Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for. (1423)
Applying this to Joyce and other modernist writers, it becomes clear that the impetus for the modern and the postmodern are born in the same moment. In seeking to present the unpresentable, writers like Joyce create texts that explore the limits of the printed word. Revelations like this are the main reason why I disagree that a knowledge of theory, placed in its just perspective, are harmful in the long term to the humanities and literary criticism. The multiple lenses of theory lock new wellsprings of understanding about how literature functions and challenges the reader to take new positions in relationship to the text. The danger is when we privilege a theory over reality. In future posts, I hope to show that the postmodern impetus is present throughout Western literature as writers increasing work against convention to express the previously unexpressed.

Works Cited

Lyotard, Jean François. "Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?" trans. Régis Durand. Innovation/Renovation:New Prespectives on the Humanities. eds. Ihab Hassan and Sally Hassan. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1983. 329-41. Rpt. in Critical Theory Since Plato. 3rd ed. eds. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005. 1418-23.

Monday, October 08, 2007

She lives !

So my goal is to get back in the habit of posting to this blog. I am in the process of trying to get an idea about what it my thesis will be about, so that will probably be the source of many of these posts.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Errors in Redefining the Psychology of Ethics

Anyone who has studied developmental psychology in recent years has come across the theories of Carol Gilligan. A student of Kohlberg, she challenged the theory of her mentor as she began to see that Kohlberg's stages of moral development value moral positions are more often exhibited by men over those more frequently associated with women. Clearly, Gilligan has hit on a point that is at the heart of all problems of stage theories: given the flexibility of human development and the variety within high functional human behavior, stages often lead to the codification of the researcher's ideas of normal. In Kohlberg's case, he clearly places his judgments about ethics into an understanding of how human beings develop ethically. Another problem is that Kohlberg doesn't address the problem of even defining ethics since philosophy has struggle with this question without any clear resolution. Comparing Kant, Hume, and Levinas, for instance, produces three very different views of what is ethics.

More on ethics to come.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The High Court Has Extended Choice to End of Life

Tuesday, January 17, 2006, the US Supreme Court has begun the fight to keep the feds out of death choices. In a 6-3 decison, the court ruled in Gonzales v. Oregon aganist the Justice Department decision to use federal Controlled Substaces Act to take legal action aganist Oregon doctors who participate in physician-assisted suicides under the Oregon Death with Dignity Act.

While death should not be the first choice of any person who is in any painful situation, Americans should have the right to choice whether or not they want to terminate their life if they have a terminal illness and are in a state of mind to do so. With proper oversite, phyisicians can play an important role in this, providing their patients with the fastest and most painless method of death. Having the right to control my life should include deciding how I end it.

For More Information

Court Clashes over doctor-aided suicides

- This MSNBC article cover the oral arguments of Gonzales v. Oregon

State of Oregon: Physician-Assisted Suicide

- Oregon goverment website about the details of the 1994 ballot iniative

Physicians' Experiences with the Oregon Death with Dignity Act

- A New England Journal of Medicine study about the use of law

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

My Body is My Business, Even When Unconscious

I like would to preface this message my saying that I have been reading to the and listening to its podcasts off and on for a year. I have begun to realize that while many of its writers are willing to see issues completely, others, like Steven E. Landsburg, seem set on lashing out against those who cannot accept the world as they - and in this case, the conservative status quo - see it. Unfortunately, very biased writers are not vetted more thoroughly by Slate's editorial staff.

Recently, Tirhas Habtegiris, who, like many working class Americans, did not have health insurance, unfortunately ended up in Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano with advanced lung cancer. Not only was she unable to provide for her own health care, but her family was not the position to pay for what must have been costly care for the not only lung cancer but other palliative care. Despite these terrible circumstances, Baylor Regional decided to unilaterally decided to remove this woman from life support, instead of trying to work with family to their financial situation.

Mr. Landsburg's article seems to belittles any blogger who considers the hosptial to have an obligation to try insure this woman receives complete and quality medical care before deciding to discard her to turn over hospital like a sort of medical McDonalds:

Here, for the edification of bloggers everywhere, is an example of an economic consideration: If you ask people—and especially poor people—what their most dire needs are, you'll find that "guaranteed ventilator support" ranks pretty low on the list. OK, I haven't actually done a survey, but I'm going out on a limb here and predicting that something like, say, milk, is going to rank a lot higher up the priority list than ventilator insurance (Landsberg, paragraph 3).
While agree that most low income American would probably choose a necessary like milk over Landsburg's chimera of "ventilator insurance," hospitals, and society in general, have are a responsiblity to care for the weakest among us. We should not just make decision for other about how they died because we have failed at trying to balance free market health care system with resonable care for working poor and indigent, and their living constitutes a burden on the medical system.

Lansberg continues to do the issue a diservice by taking away from the issue, making this crisis not about the pathetic state of health care industry in this country but about the opportunity costs of "ventialor insurance" :

Now let me remind you what "compassion" means. According to Merriam-Webster Online (which, by virtue of being online, really ought to be easily accessible to bloggers), compassion is the "sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it." By that definition, there is nothing particularly compassionate about giving ventilator insurance to a person who really feels a more urgent need for milk or eggs. One might even say that choosing to ignore the major sources of others' distress is precisely the opposite of sympathetic consciousness.


At that point, there's a powerful human instinct to come to the rescue. Well, more precisely, there's a powerful human instinct to demand that someone else come to the rescue. (I'm guessing that in the wake of the Habtegiris case, nobody at the Daily Kos has taken to funding ventilator insurance for the poor.) (Landsberg, paragraphs 5 and 12)

This argument has nothing to do with insuring American poor for guarantee ventilator access but the state of health care in America and our society lack of commitment to the poor. If we could have a system which maximizes the benefits of free market health care system with a government security for those who are of low income, we will not only face the dilemma of whether or not to end life of simply the hospital's economic situation. I believe that if there a decision between "ventilators versus tax cuts or ventilators versus foreign wars," then the health of American citizen should win whenever possible. No man can enjoy a tax cut from the grave and may curse it in his sick bed. Being a Judeo-Christian society (which many on the religious right seems to try to remind us of continually), we have an obligation to take care of less among us. This moral mandate includes making sure that we choose to maintain life when a patient's personal wishes are uncertain.

While Steven Landsberg wallows in the pregnant chads of Tirhas Habtegiris story, we must remember the big picture: each person should be allowed to have equal access to preventive and urgent, living-saving health care

For More Information

The Daily Kos

- YucatanMan goes into greater detail both other aspects of this issues, including race and the current Bush involvement in the Texas law which allows for such a situation to occur.

Do the Poor Deserve Life Support?

- Steven Landsberg's Article

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Bienvenue Mes Amis!!

Welcome to La Vie Bohème. This blog will become the center of the discussion of the broad spectrum of sexual politics from the new frontiers of the modern feminist movement to struggles for Sex Worker Rights. We will change the supremacy of the Old Guard of Progressivism and see what contributions which they are really making to improvement of society. Love should not be a government business.

Gloria Steinem and Sexual Bigotry - Who Knew?

Feminists beware: Mother Steinem is, and has continuously been, on the wrong side of body politics.

I know that this statement and my title for this entry will angry and offend those who have great admiration and respect for Gloria Steinem and her work in the advancement of the Women's Rights Movement in America. I would like to begin by saying I also respect Gloria Steinem's achievements. Her willingness to be herself and to challenge the stereotypical, patriarchal norms of American society gave the movement the momentum it needed to force the system to take notice. However, like many figures who have made positive changes, her ideas have become a part of an ossified ideological shrine which many feminists, young and old, have been afraid to challenge. I want to start by going back to one of Steinem's 1970 writings in which she express her opinion about homosexuality and then discuss her current positions on sex-worker rights.

Socially-Actualized Women Lead to Less Gay Men.

On August 31, 1970, in a Time Magazine article, Gloria Steinem provides her vision of what the world would look like if we embraced equalized gender relations and women were free to fulfill the desires and act upon their ambition. To cite directly from "What It Would Be Like if Women Win," Steinem concludes that there would be "[n]o more domineering wives, emasculating women, and 'Jewish mothers,' all of whom are simply human beings with all their normal ambition and drive confined to the home." While most of this article points towards goals which anyone who wants gender equality and sexual freedom would agree are laudable results: a gender-neutral economic and athletic meritocracy, in which equal pay for equal work applies equally to both genders and athletic ability is judged purely on skill; a political world where the skills of compassion and communication are as valued as brute power and agression; a social support system which allow for equal involvement of mother and father in child-rearing; and ultimately, true choice for men and women to decide their economic, political, and social fate.

Unfortunately, Gloria Steinem limits that social, particularly sexual, freedom when it comes to men having alternative sexual lives. For Steinem homosexual men, while some clearly are expressing their natural sexual affinities, others are using homosexuality to simply escape the polarity of male -female gender roles: "Paradoxically, the number of homosexuals may get smaller. With fewer overpossessive mothers and fewer father who hold up an impossibly cruel or perfectionist idea of manhood, boys will be less likely to be denied or reject their identity as males." This statement was, and continues to be, an offensive, outdated mode of thought. First, Ms. Steinem makes no refer to any impact that equalized gender roles might have on the lesbian community. So while men are simply running from the oppression of a gender-skewed culture into the arms of their own sex, women, implied from her silence, are completely able to choose a relationship with another women with no fear of merely fleeing the social construct of what is feminine. More egregiously, she blindly accepts a social fallacy meant to control and oppress the sexuality of both men and women. Through equaling male homosexuality with a denial or rejection of the masculine, Steinem perpetuates a gender binary in which anything which is not strictly "masculine" is "feminine," and vice versa. This statement, out of the line with the rest of essays, seems to unknowingly accept the social line on gender and sexuality: not only does she seem to accept that any person who has sex with a man feminine but also accept the gender hierarchy which makes masculine more valuable than feminine, a tool which used by those who seek to maintain the status quo in which women are relegated to subservience and and men express their dominance through ensuring that women remain oppressed. This statement, on the hand, gives a olive branch to those which Steinem states fear that women want “to exchange places with men,” by placating the associated fear that gender equality means the feminization of society, also arms those in the religious right who seek to fight broad based support to deny the “legally binding marriage” which she foresees in the sentence before, for if social progressive see homosexuality as a perversion of right, how can anyone believe that homosexuals deserve social rights. Gloria Steinem's narrow views on who can benefit for sexual freedom determine the power and progression of the movement to bring true gender equality.

Gloria Steinem and Sex Worker Rights Movement

The movement for sexual freedom has moved from the free choice in the bedroom to the sex industry, where women have been using the bodies for centuries to provide for their economic needs. Internationally, sex workers, mostly those in prostitution, but also pornography and exotic dancing, have began to organize for the decriminalization and regulation of the sex-work industry which would allow women to choose when and how they use their bodies. While the Sex Worker Rights Movement wants to prevent what is mostly women and children from being placed in sex slavery, it also wants men and women to able to freely choose sex work. The Sex Worker Rights Movement wants to extend sexual freedom in economic arena as well. However, many “traditional” feminist, like Gloria Steinem, seek to prevent the movement's success for they see any use of sexuality in situations other than as completely "socially equal" expression of love in a relationship as inappropriate and a form of female sexual oppression. Scarlot Harlot, a leading figure in the Sex Worker Rights Movement, has noted the opposition of Steinem to the new avenue for the liberation of sexuality:
I see it as Gloria Steinem verses Angela Davis. Angela, a local resident, endorsed our recent decriminalization efforts and Gloria Steinem endorsed the opposition, actually part of a campaign against the sex worker rights movement. Angela Davis has taken into consideration the criminal injustice system, the racism in arrest, conviction, and sentencing - while Gloria is still attached to the anti-porn, anti-prostitution views. (from

As many who are versed in Steinem's views on traditional marriage, it becomes clear that her views on sex work comes from a liberated understanding of the antiquated social norm which she believes she is trying to reform: that female sexuality must be protected from the savagery of the male libido. While the current situation in most places where sex work occurs lack the necessary protection for sex workers from clients who wanted to abused those who provide them with these services, the goal of those who want women to able to have complete control of their sexuality should be to provide them with social safeguards which allows sex work to occur as safely as possible. Gloria Steinem would rather see her sisters in jail and prevented from procuring the only living that some women can make to support themselves then focus on the improving of the working conditions in the sex industry. Gloria Steinem seems trapped in the sexual binary of the social ideas which she has fought against for ages. She is blinded, or willfully ignores, the continuum of sexuality and the goal of the Women's Movement to give sexual equality to all.