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There Are No Postmodernists In a Foxhole

Geoff Nunberg
Commentary broadcast on "Fresh Air," August 20, 2002

Like a lot of my favorite stories, this one begins with a pronoun, this from an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that quoted Harvard President Lawrence Summers in an interview saying, "I regret any faculty member leaving a conversation feeling they are not respected"

The sentence was tailor-made to bundle puristic panties, particularly given the context and speaker -- and in fact a few weeks later, the Chronicle ran an extensive diatribe from a professor of English who took exception to Summers' grammar. According to the writer, Summers should have said "I regret any faculty member's leaving," not "any faculty member leaving." And the antecedent "any faculty member" required the pronouns "he or she," not "they," (Modern academics are particularly attached to the "he or she" construction, which enables them to sound politically correct and pedantic in the same breath.)

The professor went on to chide President Summers for contributing to the general decline of precision in language -- all the more distressing in someone who has presented himself as a crusader for scholarly rigor. Indeed, he said, the woeful state of the language is evident to anyone who listens to National Public Radio for 15 minutes or reads a single section of The New York Times. That's what happens when students are taught that writing is a form of pure self-expression, so that students "need never accept correction; for if it is their precious little selves they are expressing, the language of expression is answerable only to the internal judgment of those same selves." We've come to the point, the writer said, where composition teachers have a horror of acting as language police and grammar itself is regarded as a form of reactionary tyranny.

The response went on in this vein for a full 1750 words, and concluded with an insistence that all college composition courses should henceforth teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else. In short, it was an utterly routine grammatical harangue, distinguished only by the speciousness of the occasion for it. For example, that business about having to use the possessive "any member's leaving" instead of "any member leaving" is one of those mindless superstitions that have been passed on to generations of schoolchildren at the end of Sister Petra's ruler. As the linguist Geoff Pullum pointed out in a letter to the Chronicle, if you really believed the construction was incorrect, you'd have to take a red pencil to Shakespeare, Milton, Jane Austen, and most of the other great figures of English literature. And as for the plural pronoun they, bear in mind that Summers' words were quoted from a spoken interview, and that everybody uses the plural that way in their informal speech.

In fact the only thing that made this disquisition notable is that its author was the redoubtable Stanley Fish, the literary theorist and self-styled champion of postmodern thought. As it happens, in fact, Fish's piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education appeared at about the same time as another extended public pronouncement of his, this one in the July issue of Harper's Magazine, where Fish offered a rejoinder to the attacks on postmodernism from the cultural right.

That anti-postmodernist jihad has been waged with particular ferocity since 9/11, as the right invokes the September attacks in an effort to score a decisive victory in the culture wars. The first salvo was fired just ten days after the attacks by Edward Rothstein, the one-minute intellectual who's resident at the New York Times' culture pages. According to Rothstein, the postmodernists would be unable to condemn the attacks in an unqualified way, since they reject universal values and ideals. In fact, he said, postmodernism leads to establishing a moral symmetry between the terrorist and his opponent. And US News and World Report commentator John Leo warned that our campus cultures have been captured by "the postmodern conviction that there are no truths or moral norms worth defending." The result of that, he says, is an anything-goes morality and a "drumbeat of rule-breaking" that drowns out traditional values.

Now you don't have to be a devotee of academic fashion to see that this is all meretricious claptrap. And in his Harpers article, Fish rightly points out that the "postmodernism" that the conservatives are attacking is a grotesque caricature of what he and others have actually argued. In fact "postmodernist" has become a boogieman word that conservatives use in a way that's reminiscent of how the Church used to talk about "masons."

Distortions aside, though, the attacks on postmodern doctrine are bizarre on the simple face of things. I'll grant you there's a lot academic theorizing that's variously flaky or pretentious -- though anyone who thinks this is a new development ought to take a look at what Dwight Macdonald was saying about academic writing forty years ago. But it takes a singularly loopy turn of mind to see any of this as a social menace. Anybody who seriously believes that the moral order of America is threatened by its literature professors should get back on their meds immediately. It isn't simply that the enterprises of philosophy and literary study have always been inconsequential in American life, and even in the American academy, for that matter. More to the point, there's no group more deeply invested in traditional standards and cultural hierarchy than academic humanists are, whatever theory they drive to work.

In fact when you read Fish's linguistic screed in the Chronicle of Higher Education it becomes immediately clear just how absurd the whole campaign against postmodernism has been. "No norms worth defending"? "Drumbeats of rule-breaking"? "One standard is as good as another"? Not on Stanley Fish's watch! When it comes to the crunch, Fish has ideas about standards that are every bit as conventional -- and as unconsidered -- as anything the cultural right could wish for. And most of his fellow-travelers will readily endorse those values, even if they might not put the argument quite so splenetically. Not to worry: the future of the Republic is in safe hands.

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Copyright © 2002 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.