Postmodernism: Oppression Everywhere

With a hat tip to A. Greenwood on T&S’s notes from all over, I found the discussion at the Claremont Institute responding to the absurd thesis of C.A. Tripp’s posthumous The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln (2004), which was published a year after Tripp himself had died of AIDS, to be very enlightening.

Allen C. Guelzo provides a succinct statement as to the root of what even makes such a claim plausible in today’s academic circles and intellectual climate in his response to Tripp’s thesis that Lincoln was “primarily gay” and that it was only Lincoln’s homosexuality that actually allowed him to espouse “anti-Establishment” views such as human decency, tolerance, and the emancipation of the slaves (if he had been straight then he would have simply been another oppressive white male Christian deist, so something must explain how he was actually a good person). Guelzo writes that

Surely Lincoln was so public a figure, and homosexuality so leprous an accusation in Victorian America, that not even P.T. Barnum, the Cardiff Giant, and the Feejee Mermaid could have distracted attention from a president who committed sodomy with the captain of his guard.

But this perfectly commonsensical objection has the weight of three gigantic considerations leaning against it. . . .

Our persistent sense that the truth is always being hidden behind veils was fed by the Romantics, nurtured by Marxist theories of false-consciousness and hegemony, and gorged upon in this generation by postmodernists whose stock-in-trade is uncovering hidden traces of oppression in literary and social “texts.” When no “narrative” can be trusted, there should be no surprise that the “subaltern” and the anti-narrative become the default explanations; and when the striking of postmodern poses becomes fashionable in popular historical writing, it’s no wonder that Lincoln should be explained in terms of what he did in the closet rather than what he did as president. In the postmodern climate, nothing is what it appears to be, and so postmodernism contributes its mite to making a homosexual Lincoln plausible.

This seems a concise and accurate description of the nature and agenda of various postmodernisms in the field of literary analysis. When such interpretive modes are introduced into what is supposedly the objective act of relating history, it can open the doors to any agenda to “expose” the “truth” that everyone has supposedly been hiding all these years. These postmodernisms, however, are slippery tools, at best, and become indeed vehicles for driving the most diverse of hypotheses, most of which, however, share the agenda of “uncovering” the “hidden traces of oppression” that are, of course, what any given text is really encoding in its aesthetics.

5 Responses to Postmodernism: Oppression Everywhere

  1. Anonymous says:

    John: Exactly what are you trying to say? What aren’t you saying? ;) 

    Posted by lyle

  2. Anonymous says:

    John,

    By the way, you’re wrong in stating that Lincoln would have been a white Christian male. He wasn’t a Christian. Although later in life he became religious in some general sense, he didn’t believe in the Christian God or in Jesus Christ. See, for example, this book review , by a journalist whose name should be familiar to LDS folks. 

    Posted by RoastedTomatoes

  3. Anonymous says:

    John,
    It is precisely the idea that reading literary history is “objective” that literary postmodernism fights against. Whiel you are correct that postmodern sensibilities can be used to drive almost any agenda, the same can be said of the Bible. It drove the crusades, American slavery, and a number of other specious projects.
    POstmodernism isn’t necessarily about “uncovering hidden traces of oppression.” It does question our assumptions about what we take for granted as “commonsense.” That is, if we can really nail down “postmodern” as a term–I mean, it really just means whatever comes after the modern, which might be counted as the idea that we’ve finally learned how the world works. POstmodernism then questions the ways we know and is a bit mistrustful of the answers we give ourselves. It looks to expose the ideology that tructures our society in unrecognized ways, perhaps, but that isn’t to say that ideology is always oppressive. Many of those who coutn themselves as practicing postmodernists (whatever that might mean for them) are doing so because they have an agenda to push, but that doesn’t mean the agenda is wrong, or that it is always pointing out how oppressive the world is. In fact, those who are anti-post-modern (or otherwise anti-theory) have agendas of their own. Reading a text is simply not “objective.” It is one of the most subjective acts I can think of. 

    Posted by Steve H

  4. Anonymous says:

    RT, I have updated the post to eliminate reference to “Christian” in connection with Lincoln.

    Steve H., my use of the word “objective” came in the context of describing the work of historians, and not as a reference to literary history or theory. Historians get mileage out of a readership thinking that they are presenting history “objectively” for the sake of knowledge and not agenda. I understand that literary analysis, on the other hand, is highly subjective. This is partially why I find formalism, originalism, and even intentionalism to be useful tools in analyses of literary aesthetics. These modalities of interpretation guard at least somewhat against the hijacking of a piece of literature and holding it hostage to an affirmative social agenda of whatever nature. These things creep into any analysis, of course, but setting a work of literature into its historical context and focusing on the author of that piece anchors a piece of literature where it should be.

    It is profoundly misleading to assert that Lincoln was gay and that is the only reason he was capable of emancipating the slaves. 

    Posted by john fowles

  5. Anonymous says:

    Historians get mileage out of a readership thinking that they are presenting history “objectively” for the sake of knowledge and not agenda. 
    Certainly, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have an agenda. The choices a historian makes certainly come of their own values. I’m not saying that’s bad, only that to imply that we can be objective in the sense that our historical or literary analysis is value-free knowledge is a bit disingenuous. Knowlege is always had within a cultural context, if for no other reason than because the language that carries it is cultural in its essence.
    I also find that close formalist reading of a text can be valuable, as long as we don’t assume that the text is transparent and value-neutral. Intentionalism is a bit trickier, as it assumes that there is an authentic author that is accessable, that remains constant, and whom we can access via a text. It is, of course, impossible not to form ssome picture of an author via their text, but this is different than claiming access to the actual author as prior to the text. It was, after all, the formalists that coined the term “intentional fallacy.” If by originalism you mean that hisotrically contextuallizing any text, whether literary or historical, to the extent that that divide is a just one, I would agree, here, as well, that this is useful if we recognize that historical context is always so broad and so complex that we can never fully realize it, and that social and cultural factors are as implortant as oldschool history (wars, overt politics, industry, science), ala new historicism.
    It is profoundly misleading to assert that Lincoln was gay and that is the only reason he was capable of emancipating the slaves.
    Absolutely. It’s like people wjho would fdeclare it feminist pedagogy that I sing in class. They label something they don’t like as mysogynist (lecture, empty vessel theory of education) and then say anything that deviates from that model or improves upon it is feminist. Some queer theorists do much the same thing–hey, look, he was a good guy, must have been gay. It’s a circular argument, and it’s deceptive, as far as I’m concerned. That doesn’t make all questioning of our socio-cultural context misleading. You are correct to assume that such questioning must produce answers well founded in contextualization and close reading of texts, in both a historical and literary context. If anyone uses “postmodernism” as an excuse for bad scolarhip, it’s just that, an excuse.
    BTW, I don’t consider myself a postmodernist, though you might consider some of my work postmodern, as I do examine attitudes towards women in the fiction and poetry of the English romantics and Victorians. I do not, however, simply seek out oppression. I look at cultural attitudes and evaluate the consequences of those attitudes for both men and women without denigrating the texts to which they are attached or the authors of those texts. Such a line of inquiry helps us to understand the origins of our own attitudes and to understand the implications of the texts we read so that we can make choices about what attitudes espoused by the text we may or may not wish to adopt. It can also help us to genuinely better understand both texts and the eras in which they were produced. 

    Posted by Steve H

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