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Non-fiction review – POMO OZ: Fear and Loathing Downunder

POMO OZ: Fear and Loathing Downunder
Niall Lucy
Freemantle Press

POMO OZAh, postmodernism. The word makes us shudder, or cheer or jeer or laugh or roll our eyes. The multiplicity of reactions it engenders surely reflects the multiplicity of meanings it has accumulated. Reading Niall Lucy’s POMO OZ: Fear and Loathing Downunder, one is by turns entertained, informed and at a few points, I am sorry to say, indifferent. This minor quibble has nothing to do with the writer’s skill – the prose is lively or what I would tentatively and wankily describe as ‘sparky’ – and all to do with the topic itself. Is not postmodernism a little bit, you know, done?

Sure, it has influenced a generation of artists and thinkers, and it managed to generate a bit of controversy now and then, but reading Lucy’s book, one wonders why postmodernism? And why now? Many of the debates POMO OZ engages with (the chapters are structured around speaking to and about a publication or a debate surrounding publications that concern themselves with postmodernism) are from a few years back now. Gavin Kitching’s book, The Trouble with Theory (2008), is the most recent of the anti-pomo publications Lucy addresses. Now, this probably has more to do with publication lag than anything else, but if we are to expose and evaluate the rampant conservative hysteria over postmodernism, shouldn’t we have some more up to date issues and, more to the point, a thicker book? If this sort of anti-pomo tirade really is ‘retold on more or less a daily basis in Oz’ (p. 11), shouldn’t we have a bit of a tome on our hands, instead of a slender 142 pages?

It seems on both sides of the ‘pomo’ debate, the role and influence of pomo itself is overstated. In my own experience as an honours student in literature (which was only in 2007) postmodernism was taught to me in historical terms, an 80s–90s ‘thang.’ It’s a relic. Not as musty and crumbly as Modernism, mind, and certainly not as pungent as Romanticism, but a relic nonetheless. It is also not as insidious and widespread as the anti-pomo wowsers bemoan, but neither is it important enough to defend vigorously against said wowsers.

Sure, the wowsers get it wrong. They often don’t know what they’re talking about when they throw around terms, be it postmodernism, poststructuralism or deconstruction. But so what? They’re wowsers; histrionic buffoons who think anything that does not fit their narrow understanding heralds the end of the world.

You’ve got to make it simple for them. This Lucy does try to do, particularly in chapter three, ‘The War on English’, where he answers some of the common misconceptions the wowsers make about postmodernism. While I am pretty much in agreement with a lot of Lucy’s answers, particularly his characterisation of postmodernism as an extension or outgrowth of modernism and hence a continuation of the Enlightenment project, this view is not shared by all people who call themselves postmodernist (who does these days? Who ever did?) or critical theorists who study postmodernism. Some theorists might say that postmodernism is ardently opposed to the Enlightenment project and in their substantiations might make an excellent case. There is so much theoretical debate about what postmodernism actually is that the wowsers get confused with even a quick glance at some of the theory. So I think this is where a lot of the bewilderment and concomitant ire comes from.

All that said, Lucy does pull off quite a feat in this little book; he talks about postmodernism with panache and wit, without sounding like a pro-pomo reflection of his anti-pomo counterparts. He consistently makes you laugh, and wry humour, though perhaps a ‘symptom of the postmodern’, is not often used to a great degree in studies of postmodernism. So while you are left wondering why postmodernism still needs defending, the writing distracts you with its refreshing brashness and a healthy mix of rigour and naughtiness.

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Comments

  1. Hi Matthew,
    That’s the same Niall Lucy who wrote a book a few years back attacking the various newspaper pundits, isn’t it? What’s the politics of this new book? I seem to remember that in the earlier one (and I could have this wrong: it’s ages since I read it), he argued that the Left needed to defend postmodernism against the Right. Is that the argument here?

  2. Hi Jeff,

    I don’t think that is quite the argument he is making in this book. There is some talk of the Left and postmodernism, but it is more about countering the oft-spouted opinion by those on the Right that postmodernism is ‘leftist.’

    Because it is more a collection of different essays, the book itself tends not to have a central thesis, more a motivation for answering the misconceptions that many (on both the Left and the Right) have about postmodernism. At least that’s what I think is going on.

    Matt

  3. If anyone who has absorbed pomo thinking, which is easy enought because it doesn’t actually have a central thesis subject to rational and critical evaluation so that it can be decisivley rejected, imagines that they are on the left then they having themselves on. The left project is to defend and extend democracy which is avaowedly a modernist project. If your not a modernist then you are opposed to that project.

    I’d have hoped that the following quote from the review would be tongue in cheek but I’m not that confident:

    “Sure, the wowsers get it wrong…They’re wowsers; histrionic buffoons who think anything that does not fit their narrow understanding heralds the end of the world.”

    If it ain’t funny then it sure is a nice line in abusive dialogue.

    • Anthony,
      You wrote:
      “If anyone who has absorbed pomo thinking, which is easy enought because it doesn’t actually have a central thesis subject to rational and critical evaluation so that it can be decisivley rejected, imagines that they are on the left then they having themselves on. The left project is to defend and extend democracy which is avaowedly a modernist project. If your not a modernist then you are opposed to that project.”

      Your observation is a testimony to the merits of the postmodernist project.

  4. I flipped through this book a few weeks ago, and wasn’t impressed. There’s lots of gotcha! pedantry – Derrida and Deleuze rejected the label “postmodernist”: so what? Many anti-pomo arguments from conservatives are trivial, sarcastic and insubstantial, but pomo defenders aren’t obliged to keep the same tone.

    And I don’t think pomo is a relic. Hardcore evangelists may nowadays be few, but that’s because most of its assumptions/arguments have (at least in my experience) become accepted wisdom throughout humanities departments. I think it’s accomplished something similar in the humanities to what Ben Fine has described as “economics imperialism” in the social sciences.

    Judging by what I’ve seen, it’s as difficult to write a lit/history/gender/cinema/cultural studies thesis without mentioning “power” or “performativity” as it is compulsory to do “rational choice” economics.

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