Postmodernism: Oppression Everywhere

June 29, 2005

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.