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Back to reality, again

16 September, 2006

The frequency of polemical attacks directed at so-called ‘Postmodern Theory’ in the newspapers tends to dull our responses, reducing them to mere polemical reactions. It was thus unsurprising to find yet another example today in the pages of the Spectrum supplement of the weekend Herald, and equally unsurprising that my first reaction was a kind of undifferentiated negativity. Given time to reflect on this new polemic – “Reality’s triumph over the relative”, by Larry Buttrose (sorry, I can't find a link) – I have decided to prepare a short response, not because this polemic is particularly outrageous, but simply that we sometimes need to answer this propagation of damaging simplifications for the sake of our own sanity, and to imagine that such ideas can be answered, rather than merely tolerated or ignored.

Buttrose begins by explaining how he came to “Theory” by taking a job teaching creative writing in an Australian university, a job which also involved teaching some of the ideas associated with French poststructuralism. His initial point is that these ideas, limited as they are, are communicated in “comically grotesque jargon” which presents an immediate barrier to intellectual and creative activity. Buttrose laments his despairing students, struggling against the lack of clarity in this writing. Remarkably, Buttrose suggests that “Theory”, or rather its anti-democratic opacity, “may have muddled the political will of a generation”, and that a crisis of the Left is attributable to the muddying of the waters accompanying a Theoretical take-over of the humanities. (Reading about this is actually remarkably heartening for a ‘Theory’-prone researcher in the humanities: my tendency to write long sentences turns out to be more politically efficacious than economic deregulation or changes to the forms and operations of power and sovereignty!)

The specific text that Buttrose cites as an example is Roland Barthes’ short-and-sharp “The Death of the Author”. According to Buttrose, Barthes is concerned with challenging “the authority of the author over his or her own work”. Barthes is seen as Theoretically assaulting the creativity of authors. On the contrary, it is Barthes who is asserting the creativity of writing: he is arguing that writing produces more than a reflection of the intentions of its author, that writing moves beyond the identity of its author, and is hence able to travel out into the world. More importantly, Barthes is arguing against a kind of criticism (and not, as Buttrose imagines, against “authors” themselves) that tries to explain literature by recourse always to the life and character of an author. In other words, Barthes is trying to break a dogma that beset thought in his own intellectual context. That he did so at the instigation of what he read in the literature of Mallarme, Valery, the surrealists and others, is only the most immediate reason to believe that Barthes is not anti-author.

Buttrose accuses postmodern “Theory” of arguing that “all meaning is deferred, relative and subjective.” This is a very simple idea of what is going on in the work of Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Kristeva, or Lyotard, and it may be too much to ask, within the frame provided by a polemical exchange, for some evidence or citation to support this assertion. At any rate, it is Buttrose’s own thinking that is most open to this characterisation. Buttrose argues that the work of an author, when it arrives in the form of writing, continues to contain within it the meaning that the author has given it, and their intention, and that they alone can answer the misinterpretations brought to the work by its readers. It is this very theory, I would argue, that implies “meaning is deferred, relative and subjective”. Deferred, because it’s meaning is not set until that point, whenever it may be, that the author has agreed with an interpretation; relative, always to the author’s intentions and ideas about their own writing, (which will change because people’s ideas change, a point on human nature that I’m sure Buttrose would support); and subjective, since meaning, for Buttrose, is always determined by the meaning attributed by the author – a singular subject – to his or her written words.

My point, though, isn’t really that Buttrose is stupid, or has simply got it wrong, although in some ways it seems he has engaged in a great deal of wilful misinterpretation. Indeed, Buttrose himself precludes this argument: those who disagree with “Theory” are always said not to understand it, and that if they did they would agree. This is not my point at all, as I very often find myself disagreeing with Foucault, Derrida et al. Rather, by way of conclusion, it seems that this kind of polemic has become ubiquitous in a way that it is argued that “Theory” has. That means that, for all of Buttrose’s admirable investment in creativity and engagement, the way in which he asserts those values is precisely as stultifying as he imagines postmodernism to be. A very broad spectrum of comment – left and right - works in exactly this way: it legitimises itself at the expense of “Theory”, but it doesn’t go so far as to ever get to the substance of it’s project. My main request then –and it is an idea with which Larry Buttrose will be familiar as a creative writing teacher – is that, in future, please try to show, and not merely to tell us, how darned creative and engaged you are. The first step in that direction is to jettison the clichéd polemic.

UPDATE: My name is Adam Gall, I'm a postgrad in the department. My profile is being updated, in case anybody wants to "call me out" for what I've written here.


top work Adam. Very fun to read! kept me smiliing and shaking my head at Buttrose at same itme. haha

This is a topic of discussion on a sister blog, too:


Congratulations Adam Gall on your refutation of Buttrose's naif, faux (but NOT faux-naif - he's too in love with his own polemic for that). I'd groaned and downloaded it thinking that someone had to show how shallow and above all aggro-defensive it was (like the rantings of so many who have TAUGHT theory without ever studying it [!]) but you've saved me the trouble.

my tendency to write long sentences turns out to be more politically efficacious than economic deregulation or changes to the forms and operations of power and sovereignty!)

With great respect Adam. no it's not. Just bad, unclear writing! As a Professor of Biochemistry at a major University I've spent a lifetime urging PhD students to write clearly-perhaps with some flair and style as well.
You and Larry fall into the metaphor trap. One or two occasionally works well, but a procession of them, such as Larry's "the rococo tabernacle of intellectual chic, Theory enjoyed....."
and endless other examples.....for God's sake, give us a break!

Professor Fidge,

For me, clarity is only one of many possible qualities worth pursuing in writing. It does happen to be a quality that is pursued in universities, although not everywhere by itself. I rarely choose to pursue clarity alone, and in this respect I have to defend Larry Buttrose!

The statement of mine that you refer to was, of course, a deliberate absurdity designed to push the implications of Larry's argument to a point that even he doesn't really seem to agree with.

The quotation you offer from Larry's prose is equally strategic, I might add. You see, he is echoing the qualities that he attributes to 'theory' in his own text. This gives the reader an 'experience' of the argument itself.

I would also love to know what a "metaphor trap" is, and what exactly is at stake when one has fallen into it.

Thanks for your comments...

Brilliant, Adam. Just brilliant.

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