Frederick Crews has set himself a daunting task: to parody a postmodern criticism that is already itself a parody of real writing and thinking. Crews, a professor emeritus of English from the University of California at Berkeley, has long been one of the most trenchant critics of various academic fads and fashions; particularly enjoyable is his collection of essays Skeptical Engagements (Oxford, 1986). The wounds Crews inflicted there on the postmodern/post-structuralist beast should have killed it, but the ensuing years have seen the creature flourish as never before, fed by tenure, astronomically rising tuition costs, foundation lucre, and the sheer unaccountability built into the academic Lilliput.
Reasoned analysis having failed, perhaps satire will have more luck. After all, Freudian/psychoanalytical criticism was once the rage, and Crews’s earlier parody, The Pooh Perplex: A Freshman Casebook (New York, 1963), surely contributed to the demise of this sort of reductive criticism, which now seems as quaint as phrenology. One hopes Postmodern Pooh can have the same effect, though I doubt it will. Postmodernism has an advantage that Freudian-inspired criticism lacked: a camouflage of liberationist pretensions and the institutional cover of identity-politics multiculturalism, not to mention the sheer ignorance of the badly educated who have flocked to graduate programs in the humanities.
Crews presents his parodic essays as the fruit of an MLA conference, and that is where the difficulty of “metaparody” begins, for the titles of Crews’s talks would not be particularly noticeable in any MLA conference program from the last twenty years; in fact, they are tame compared to some of the titles that invariably make it into the local paper at convention time. The satiric essays themselves likewise contain statements that are indistinguishable from postmodern cant. Consider the following pairs of phrases, and see if you can determine which is Crews’s, and which comes from an actual text:
Everything in our bildopedic culture . . . in our telematicometaphysical archives . . . is constructed on the protocalary charter of an axiom.
Graphemically aleatory and semioclastic, it is a sign without meaning.
The rememoration of the “present” as space is the possibility of the utopian imperative of no-(particular)-place.
[Foucault’s] paradigmatic European prison and asylum cannot begin to explain how a despised indigeneity gets catachrestically imbricated in a dominant.
Give up? The second and fourth are Crews’s. The first is from Derrida, the third from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Such parody is difficult because it needs to exaggerate some peculiar feature in order to reveal the emptiness behind the awful prose. But when the target of the parody is already absurdly exaggerated and meaningless, what’s the point?
Despite this drawback, Crews is still able economically to capture the inherent silliness of each of the critical approaches he skewers. New Historicism, for example, is a flashy approach that links a work of literature to some (usually) obscure contemporary cultural production or event, the link justified by taking for granted an unproven reductive determinism that asserts everything in society is generated by the same power-engine of exclusion and domination. Thus Crews’s new historicist, the aptly named Victor Fassel (i.e. “facile”) pontificates: “A court pageant sank the Spanish Armada; . . . Macbeth prompted the introduction of sanitary controls over soup ingredients; . . . the outcome of the Battle of Antietam was determined by martial themes in Emily Dickinson; and . . . Wordsworth’s poems brought about a speculative boom in daffodil futures.” As silly as these causal links are, they are no more unbelievable than the well-known New Historicist links of Caliban to colonialism or Mansfield Park to slavery.
Crews gives each current postmodern fad its just desserts, from deconstructionists and lesbian feminists to post-colonialists and neo-Marxists. In every case, Crews quotes generously from real-life critics, as if to remind us that it’s worse than we might think if we should accuse Crews of unfair exaggeration. In the neo-Marxist parody, by the appropriately named Carla Gulag, the “Joe Camel Professor of Child Development at Duke,” we are treated to loony statements by the sublimely creepy Frederic Jameson, such as his claim that Mao’s doctrine was “the richest of all the great new ideologies of the 60s,” this murderer of millions faulted only for stopping too soon. Then there is Jameson’s take on Martin Heidegger, whose support for Hitler was “morally and aesthetically preferable to apolitical liberalism.” Crews captures beautifully the totalitarian essence of Jameson’s thought when he has Gulag opine, re Jameson’s belief that criticism “liquidates the experience in question,” “We aren’t fully participating in Marx’s tradition until this liquidation has occurred.”
In addition to satirizing the various critical approaches, Crews delivers some well-deserved hits on Harold Bloom and Stanley Fish. The former appears as Orpheus Bruno, whose ascendancy began with his study The Breaking of the Wind, and whose gaseous egotism matches that of his model: “I see three exceptional souls—Falstaff, Pooh, Bruno!—standing together and towering over their respective epochs like the triple pillars of the world.” And Crews captures neatly, in N. Mack Hobbs, the “Trustees’ Portfolio Tracking Stock Professor of English at Princeton University,” Stanley Fish’s Hobbesian careerism and Snopesian opportunism: “I myself am all for multiculturalism, affirmative action, and the rest of the progressive agenda, which has never posed much of a threat to my career.”
My only uncertainty in reading Postmodern Pooh is how to take what is obviously a satire on Roger Kimball, who appears as Dudley Cravat III, managing editor of the monthly magazine Fundament, whose motto is “They shall not pass.” Crews in his Introduction tells us that he demanded that Cravat, “a social and cultural critic I especially admire,” be included on the panel to provide a traditional perspective, but of course the “Crews” of the Introduction is clearly a character too, a satire on the well-meaning but ultimately flabby old-style liberal of the sort partly responsible for postmodern barbarism in the first place. Be that as it may, Cravat-Kimball is presented as a constipated conservative and a shrill snob still angry over discovering that there is no university market for traditionalist scholars, and that theory has destroyed the character-improving, hence conservative, role of great literature. Kimball may deserve tweaking for his occasional de haut en bas pomposity, but at least he is honest about his elitism, unlike the postmodern snobs who hide theirs behind liberationist rhetoric. But more important, Kimball is mostly right, and the comments Crews puts in Cravat’s mouth are also accurate and reprise most of the criticisms implied by Crews’s satire.
Postmodern Pooh is a fun read, but only if one has some familiarity with the various species and sub-species of nonsense that have corrupted literary study in most Western universities. For those (such as graduate students) needing a guide to the intellectual crimes and misdemeanors of the postmodern thugs, Graham Good’s Humanism Betrayed. Theory, Ideology, and Culture in the Contemporary University (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001) offers a concise, well-argued critical examination of the anti-liberalism and anti-humanism not just of postmodernism, but of identity politics as well, linking both to the bureaucratized university. Good reminds us of the high stakes not always evident in Crews’s satire—the hard-won Western ideals of the autonomous individual, free inquiry, and aesthetic appreciation, ideals defaced by the postmodern vandals and philistines.
Bruce S. Thornton is professor of classics and humanities in the department of Foreign Languages at California State University in Fresno, and is the author of several books, including Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization (Encounter, 2000), and Plagues of the Mind (ISI Books, 2000).
Posted: March 27, 2007
Testing the Metaphor