11.0485 gifts at the end and beginning

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Wed, 24 Dec 1997 14:30:05 +0000 (GMT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 485.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

[1] From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> (44)
Subject: silent nights & days

[2] From: Norm Holland <NNH@nervm.nerdc.ufl.edu> (166)
Subject: Xmas gift from an ex-wise-man

Date: Wed, 24 Dec 1997 14:22:54 +0000
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: silent nights & days

Dear Colleagues:

I do two things at this moment in the year: celebrate Christmas with my
family and send a celebratory note to Humanist. This year the family
gathering is especially warm and poignant, since it is likely the last time
for a while that all of us are together in one spot. Offspring disperse in
early January, one to Alaska for a protracted time to study the Inuit
culture there, the other to Toronto, also to study. Gift-giving is of course
an important part of the family event, but as far as I can determine, I've
never before been able to offer a gift to my fellow Humanists at Christmas,
and so bring the two solstitial events together. This year, however, I can
and do: if you go to the Humanist homepage and explore it carefully, you
will find something quite special. Old-timers will know its significance,
but many of you will not, so allow me to explain.

An Excite search for "duck", "mallard" and perhaps also "quack" will reveal
an early thread of discussion that began in a suggestion made by Sebastian
Rahtz and Abigail Young about a secret society or "frarority" of Humanists,
which would have meant a symbol or logo, for which Sebastian suggested the
mallard duck. As I recall, a plan then formed to have T-shirts made, and
perhaps sold at an ACH/ALLC conference. Sebastian then produced the design
and motto, which by now I hope you have found.

Years passed. It was on a visit to Goteborg, Sweden, in April 1994 that our
colleague Jan-Gunnar Tingsell so kindly presented me with a copy of the
printed design. (I hope this gift in return is particularly welcome to him!)
It then had to travel back to Toronto, wait years in a special (paper)
folder, neglected but safe, suffer packing up and shipment across the
Atlantic by sea in a container, unpacking in our first house in Bow (where
from time to time I would run across it), packing up again for the move to
Leyton, then a brief period on the notice-board in my office at King's
before I was able to acquire a scanner, get that to work under Windows NT
with much help from HP Tech Support, construct a Web page for it and upload
the thing. Thus the history of my gift -- with apologies to E. Annie Proulx.

Finally, in the remainder of the quiet time I have before certain members of
my family return with the turkey (this once deviating from a de facto
vegetarian diet), and frantic last-minute grocery-shopping pulls me up the
High Road to Tesco's, allow me to wish all of you the happiness of our
virtual fellowship, at a time of year when so many traditions allow us to
notice such things. I for one treasure it more than I can reckon or compute.

A good, warm and silent night!


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
voice: +44 (0)171 873 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 873 5801
e-mail: Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk

Date: Tue, 23 Dec 97 15:25:30 EST
From: Norm Holland <NNH@nervm.nerdc.ufl.edu>
Subject: Xmas gift from an ex-wise-man

From: Norm Holland <NNH@nervm.nerdc.ufl.edu>

Dear Colleagues,

Hearing a beautiful performance Sunday on the radio of _Messiah_ (Robert
Shaw Chorale, Atlanta Symphony) has put me in an Xmas spirit. I'd
I'd like to send you a gift, courtesty of the New York Times, Sunday
edition. It's a spoof of confessional TV and some other things,
perhaps closer to our hearts.

The picture above this Op-Ed essay, a big picture, shows a television screen
with a man's head and shoulders. The face is obscured by one of those
electronic blobs that turns the image into little squares, and the man's
hands are clawing at the blob, pulling its edges askew. Beneath his
image is a caption band: "J" (for our host) and:


Identity Destroyed
By Postmodernism

Enjoy! And enjoy your holidays, too! --Best, Norm Holland

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company
The New York Times

December 21, 1997, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section 4; Page 11; Column 1; Editorial Desk

LENGTH: 1330 words

HEADLINE: Geraldo, Eat Your Avant-Pop Heart Out

BYLINE: By Mark Leyner; Mark Leyner is the author, most recently, of "The
Tetherballs of Bougainville."



JENNY JONES: Boy, we have a show for you today!

Recently, the University of Virginia philosopher Richard Rorty made the
stunning declaration that nobody has "the foggiest idea" what postmodernism
means. "It would be nice to get rid of it," he said. "It isn't exactly an
idea; it's a word that pretends to stand for an idea."

This shocking admission that there is no such thing as postmodernism has
produced a firestorm of protest around the country. Thousands of authors,
critics and graduate students who'd considered themselves postmodernists are
outraged at the betrayal.

Today we have with us a writer -- a recovering postmodernist -- who
believes that his literary career and personal life have been irreparably
damaged by the theory, and who feels defrauded by the academics who promul-
gated it. He wishes to remain anonymous, so we'll call him "Alex."

Alex, as an adolescent, before you began experimenting with postmodernism,
you considered yourself -- what?

Close shot of ALEX.

An electronic blob obscures his face. Words appear at bottom of screen: "Says
he was traumatized by postmodernism and blames academics."

ALEX (his voice electronically altered): A high modernist. Y'know, Pound,
Eliot, Georges Braque, Wallace Stevens, Arnold Schonberg, Mies van der Rohe. I
had all of Schonberg's 78's.

JENNY JONES: And then you started reading people like Jean-Francois Lyotard
and Jean Baudrillard -- how did that change your feelings about your modernist

ALEX: I suddenly felt that they were, like, stifling and canonical.

JENNY JONES: Stifling and canonical? That is so sad, such a waste. How old
were you when you first read Fredric Jameson?

ALEX: Nine, I think.

The AUDIENCE gasps.

JENNY JONES: We have some pictures of young Alex. . . .

We see snapshots of 14-year-old ALEX reading Gilles Deleuze and Felix
Guattari's "Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia." The AUDIENCE oohs and

ALEX: We used to go to a friend's house after school -- y'know, his parents
were never home -- and we'd read, like, Paul Virilio and Julia Kristeva.

JENNY JONES: So you're only 14, and you're already skeptical toward the
"grand narratives" of modernity, you're questioning any belief system that
claims universality or transcendence. Why?

ALEX: I guess -- to be cool.

JENNY JONES: So, peer pressure?

ALEX: I guess.

JENNY JONES: And do you remember how you felt the very first time you
entertained the notion that you and your
universe are constituted by language --
that reality is a cultural construct, a "text" whose meaning is determined by
infinite associations with other "texts"?

ALEX: Uh, it felt, like, good. I wanted to do it again.

The AUDIENCE groans.

JENNY JONES: You were arrested at about this time?

ALEX: For spray-painting "The Hermeneutics of Indeterminacy" on an overpass.

JENNY JONES: You're the child of a mixed marriage -- is that right?

ALEX: My father was a de Stijl Wittgensteinian and my mom was a

JENNY JONES: Do you think that growing up in a mixed marriage made you more
vulnerable to the siren song of postmodernism?

ALEX: Absolutely. It's hard when you're a little kid not to be able to just
come right out and say (sniffles), y'know, I'm an Imagist or I'm a
phenomenologist or I'm a post-painterly abstractionist. It's really hard --
especially around the holidays. (He cries.)

JENNY JONES: I hear you. Was your wife a postmodernist?

ALEX: Yes. She was raised avant-pop, which is a fundamentalist offshoot of

JENNY JONES: How did she react to Rorty's admission that postmodernism was
essentially a hoax?

ALEX: She was devastated. I mean, she's got all the John Zorn albums and the
entire Semiotext(e) series. She was crushed.

We see ALEX'S WIFE in the audience, weeping softly, her hands covering her

JENNY JONES: And you were raising your daughter as a postmodernist?

ALEX: Of course. That's what makes this particularly tragic. I mean, how do
you explain to a 5-year-old that self-consciously recycling
cultural detritus is suddenly no longer a valid art form when, for
her entire life, she's been taught that it is?

JENNY JONES: Tell us how you think postmodernism affected your career as a

ALEX: I disavowed writing that contained real ideas or any real passion. My
work became disjunctive, facetious and nihilistic. It was all blank parody,
irony enveloped in more irony. It merely recapitulated the pernicious
banality of television and advertising. I found myself indiscriminately
incorporating any and all kinds of pop kitsch and shlock. (He
begins to weep again.)

JENNY JONES: And this spilled over into your personal life?

ALEX: It was impossible for me to experience life with any emotional
intensity. I couldn't control the irony anymore. I perceived my own feelings
as if they were in quotes.

I italicized everything and everyone. It became impossible for me to appraise
the quality of anything. To me everything was equivalent -- the Brandenburg
Concertos and the Lysol jingle had the same value. . . . (He breaks down,

JENNY JONES: Now, you're involved in a lawsuit, aren't you?

ALEX: Yes. I'm suing the Modern Language Association.

JENNY JONES: How confident are you about winning?

ALEX: We need to prove that, while they were actively propounding it,
academics knew all along that postmodernism was a specious theory.

If we can unearth some intradepartmental memos -- y'know, a paper trail --
any corroboration that they knew postmodernism was worthless cant at the same
time they were teaching it, then I think we have an excellent shot at
establishing liability.

JENNY JONES wades into audience and proffers microphone to a woman.

WOMAN (with lateral head-bobbing): It's ironic that Barry Scheck is
representing the M.L.A. in this litigation because Scheck is the postmodern
attorney par excellence. This is the guy who's made a career of volatilizing
truth in the simulacrum of exculpation!


WOMAN: Scheck is the guy who came up with the quintessentially postmodern
re-bleed defense for O. J., which claims that O. J. merely vigorously shook
Ron and Nicole, thereby re-aggravating pre-existing knife wounds. I'd just
like to say to any client of Barry Scheck -- lose that zero and get a hero!

The AUDIENCE cheers wildly.

WOMAN: Uh, I forgot my question.

Dissolve to message on screen:

If you believe that mathematician Andrew Wiles' proof of Fermat's last
theorem has caused you or a member of your family to dress too provocatively,
call (800) 555-9455.

Dissolve back to studio. In the audience, JENNY JONES extends the microphone
to a man in his mid-30's with a scruffy beard and a bandana around his head.

MAN WITH BANDANA: I'd like to say that this "Alex" is the single worst
example of pointless irony in American literature, and this whole heartfelt
renunciation of postmodernism is a ploy -- it's just more irony.

The AUDIENCE whistles and hoots.

ALEX: You think this is a ploy?! (He tears futilely at the electronic blob.)
This is my face!

The AUDIENCE recoils in horror.

ALEX: This is what can happen to people who naively embrace postmodernism, to
people who believe that the individual -- the autonomous, individualist
subject -- is dead. They become a palimpsest of media pastiche -- a mask of
metastatic irony.

JENNY JONES (biting lip and shaking her head): That is so sad. Alex -- final

ALEX: I'd just like to say that self-consciousness and irony seem like fun at
first, but they can destroy your life. I know. You gotta be earnest, be real.
Real feelings are important. Objective reality does exist.

AUDIENCE members whoop, stomp and pump fists in the air.

JENNY JONES: I'd like to thank Alex for having the courage to come on today
and share his experience with us.

Join us for tomorrow's show, "The End of Manichean, Bipolar Geopolitics
Turned My Boyfriend Into an Insatiable Sex Freak (and I Love It!)."

GRAPHIC: Photo: (Jesse Gordon/Click 3X)


LOAD-DATE: December 21, 1997

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