Pooh-poohing postmodernism

Frederick Crews, author of the long-awaited sequel to The Pooh Perplex, discusses the transformation of academic disciplines into 'incomprehensible crap'.

Sandy Starr

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‘The essays that the graduating BAs would submit with their applications were often brilliant. After five or six years of PhD work, the same people would write incomprehensible crap. Where did they learn it? They learned it from us.’

Frederick Crews, Emeritus professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley, is telling me about his time spent dealing with graduate admissions to the university’s PhD programme. He subsequently retired from academic life, to slate it in his new book Postmodern Pooh.

Postmodern Pooh is a sequel to Crews’ 1963 book The Pooh Perplex: A Student Casebook. The Pooh Perplex was a satire of various schools of literary theory. It was written in the form of analyses, by imaginary critics, of the children’s classic Winnie the Pooh – and gained a cult following in the USA. Postmodern Pooh is written in a similar form, but is a more thorough and scathing attack on the product of the post-Sixties culture wars in academic thought.

‘This is probably the longest delay for a sequel that the world has ever seen’, says Crews. ‘The Pooh Perplex was written right off the top of my head, in 20 days, with almost no reading behind it. This book took two years to write, and they were two years of hard labour, because I did the research.’

But the research paid off. As a former English undergraduate, who was once stranded and bewildered in the outer reaches of obscure literary theory, I found Crews’ pastiches of post-structuralist, Marxist, feminist, cyber-, new historicist and post-colonialist literary theory painfully hilarious.

Each of the book’s imaginary contributors seems to be modelled on a real-life critic – although Crews wisely insists that ‘no identification of the characters in Postmodern Pooh will be done by me’. But all of the embarrassing secondary material cited in the book, written by prominent critical figures, is real. ‘Every single quotation is genuine and accurate’, says Crews. ‘I really enjoy seeing how far people can sink, and I have at least 20 times as much material as I used.’

So what’s wrong with contemporary literary criticism? A good clue in Postmodern Pooh can be found in the contribution by Carla Gulag – who has co-administered the ‘ever popular Marxism and Society Program’ and ‘lectured and written widely on topics pertaining to Critical Sociology, Critical Anthropology, Critical Legal Studies, and Critical Criticism’. For Gulag, ‘the truly essential tasks of criticism’ are: ‘cognitive mapping, reconciling emergent and residual forms, weighing symbolic against diachronic factors, detecting and disabling master narratives, retotalising the Real, and deciding what is hegemonic over what, and why’ (1).

Crews has little time for such vacuous jargon. ‘My academic friends tend to be the scientists, and they say: “What are your colleagues up to?” They just can’t fathom why people would waste their time in this way.’ According to Crews, the notion of a specific literary theory which holds all of the answers is self-defeating. ‘People are always looking for the master key to interpretation. If you believe in a theory that applies to all of literature, you’ve essentially tied your hands.’

One target that comes in for a particularly hard time in Postmodern Pooh is identity politics. ‘You take an academic field and you try to translate it into an efficient instrument of your own ethnic, class or gender identity. And that’s fine – it gives you a momentary thrill’, says Crews. ‘The trouble is that the discipline of knowledge disappears. And then it becomes extremely tedious, because the results of your investigation are already given before you start.’

As a consequence, he explains, ‘so-called disciplines are losing their disciplinarity. They’re losing the sense that there are any grounds on which we can criticise one another, except the grounds of membership, of factionalism. For me, this is the end. It’s entirely possible that it can be reversed in some way, but not during my career.’

Crews is concerned, not just about the prevalence of postmodern twaddle in his own area of literary criticism, but about its impact upon academia as a whole. ‘A typical first-year graduate student in English, now, has a cannier sense of the profession than I had at the age of 40’, he complains. ‘What that means is, they’re aiming for one of these little niches – a gender niche, an ethnic niche, or what have you. So their perspectives have already been narrowed. They are completely oriented to the profession, they master the jargon of the profession, and for the rest of their lives they essentially speak to each other.’

Such developments are the reason why Crews chose to retire from his academic post, to focus on journalism and writing books. ‘In many ways, I was at the top of my profession. But I wanted to get out, because I was being paid in order to be an influence in my field, and I had no influence whatsoever. Absolutely none. I don’t think you can deal with people like this, and the reason you can’t deal with them is that they understand the system better than you do. They know what is rewarded.’

Postmodern Pooh is intended to satirise not just a few celebrity critics, but the kind of critical writing that academics and students generally tend to come up with today – evasive, incomprehensible, and making enormous, unjustified claims for the power of texts and language. Here’s a sample from Felicia Marronez, Sea & Ski Professor of English at the University of California:

Pooh is trying to say that nothing short of a thoroughgoing revolt against the equivalence of word and thing, name and person, signature and certification can overcome the stifling of our linguistic freedom. A comparable insight enabled Derrida to show that South African apartheid, which some dull analysts had blamed on a tenacious and fearful white minority, was actually brought about by phonetic writing.’ (2)

On occasion, the focus of Crews’ attacks lies outside of academia. It should be noted that Crews is best known in the USA not as a commentator on cultural studies, but as a critic of psychotherapy; and is infamous for his attacks on recovered memory syndrome, in books such as Memory Wars: Freud’s Legacy in Dispute. Some of these other bugbears are shoehorned into Postmodern Pooh, where, although admittedly funny, they feel a little out of place.

In a contribution entitled ‘The Courage to Squeal’, Dolores Malatesta proclaims: ‘the strongest evidence of Piglet’s early abuse…is the fact that he doesn’t have any conscious memory of it at all. Neither did I, for that matter, when I started my own therapy.’ (3) When I ask Crews whether he was motivated to write Postmodern Pooh by anger, he says with grim humour: ‘Yes. I’m a little reluctant to admit it, because my psychoanalytic friends have given me a lot of free psychiatric help, telling me how angry I am.’

N Mack Hobbs, the final contributor to Postmodern Pooh, concludes with a cynical recommendation that academics ‘kick back and acknowledge that we’re in this criticism racket together, not for the sake of “truth” but just to earn a meal ticket by tooting our little horns’ (4). Given the prevalence of such academic cynicism today, and Crews’ own decision to retire from academic life, does he believe that the pursuit of knowledge is now best undertaken within academia, or outside of it?

‘Membership in the academy or non-membership in the academy isn’t really the point’, argues Crews. ‘The point is, are intellectuals saying things that the public can genuinely learn from? When they’re only talking the jargon of their own field, the public is learning nothing. There has to be an effort to take the serious disciplines of knowledge and communicate them to the public in a way which is not debased.’

Anyone concerned with the state of intellectual debate can agree on that, whatever their discipline. Postmodern Pooh may not avert corrosive trends in academia, but it does provide us with a useful precis of what went wrong with the culture wars. And did I mention that it’s very, very funny?

Postmodern Pooh, by Frederick Crews, is published in the UK by Profile Books and in the USA by North Point Press. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

Read on:

The offended university, by Munira Mirza

(1) Postmodern Pooh, Frederick Crews, Profile Books, 2002, p36

(2) Postmodern Pooh, Frederick Crews, Profile Books, 2002, p15

(3) Postmodern Pooh, Frederick Crews, Profile Books, 2002, p126

(4) Postmodern Pooh, Frederick Crews, Profile Books, 2002, p170

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