Jargon Abuse: Protopostmodernism

Cultural studies scholars have invented a new word: protopostmodernism. This particular piece of jargon is most upsetting because it represents yet another attack on the discipline of history.

Postmodernism as an idea has merit. However, like many meritorious ideas, some who cleave to this particular brand of cultural studies have jumped into the deep end of fictional scholarship pool. That, or they had one too many whacks with the business end of the absurdity stick. Proto-postmodernism is the assertion that some modernists, a term used to denote cultural producers and critics who shaped cultural discourse around the turn of the twentieth century, were really postmodernists in training. Modernism itself as a term is problematic and imprecise, so defining what is meant by postmodernism is also fraught with imprecision. So, of course, the way to solve this issue of scholarly nomenclature is to add a Greek prefix to a Latin one? Meh.

According to the experts, proto-postmodernists are those personages whose ideas conformed to the postmodernist platform but who were previously considered modernists because postmodernism hadn’t yet been invented. By this logic, Enlightenment thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) should be labeled a proto-postcolonial American. Confused? Proto-postmodernistsu are people who were postmodernist in temperament but who were temporally challenged in the time of their birth. I believe this amalgam of dubious prefixes is an overly complicated way of expressing the English-language idiom “ahead of one’s time” or maybe “the person who had the idea first.” The only way this makes any sense at all is if one factors in the hatred of historical context (and modernism) burning in the hearts of many postmodernists.

History as a discipline examines provable facts and the context in which they occurred. Histories are written from the present tense and involve both deductive and inductive logic, so they, as in all human endeavor, can be flawed, even incorrect. The fault lies in the relatively small amount of historical source material that societies leave behind and in the selection effect that preserves some and destroys other. Human frailty is also always a factor. Nonetheless, historians derive their theories from events and ideas that actually happened. They generally do not assume the correctness of their own theories and then set about proving them. If they did, the result would be more rightly called “fiction” rather than history.

The merit of postmodernism lies in its rejection of alterity, artificial lines of difference that are culturally and historically constructed. Race and gender top the list. Both race and gender are cultural constructions that vary over time and place; they are not biologically determined. A person’s sex is determined by whether one has a Y chromosome or not. How one represents that biological fact to the world determines gender; based on the cultural norms, one’s dress and other external expressions are girly, boyish, or neuter (neither). Race as a concept is more variable than gender, and it is not at all determined by skin color. In America especially, people with very light skin can still be “black.” This itself is a subject for another essay, but I wanted to get the outlines down. Postmodernism, at its best, recognizes the artificiality of these designations. at its worst, it angrily ascribes blame to those historical actors who did not have presence of mind to reject them.

Historians use postmodernist theories as a lens to examine the actions of historical figures. As an example, how one reads Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) can be influenced by the facts surrounding her life. If read in context with how women authors were generally considered by nineteenth century male poets, her poetry will have one set of connotations. If the reader factors in the possibility that Dickinson was involved in a long-time lesbian affair, her work could take on a different cast, even a radical rejection of literary patriarchy. Both readings have merit; there is no one right answer. The responsible scholar will preface his or her analysis by describing the lens through which the text is read and not dismiss any reading out of hand as irrelevant, incorrect, or dangerously biased. Unfortunately, the concept of proto-postmodernism exists to draw such a line.

The problem herein is that race theory was part of wave of scholarship that emerged in the social changes wrought by World War II. Those who lived before World War II did not consider alterity in their cultural criticism because, well, they lived before it was invented. One cannot blame Galileo for failing to acknowledge the Sun’s gravitational pull as such, even though he did recognize a phenomenon that would come to be known as gravity by Newton and then be disproved as gravity by Einstein. So, modernists who thought like postmodernists about lines of difference before postmodernism are now proto-postmodernists rather than individuals who dissented from the ruling idea.

Instead of corrupting the English language, why do scholars who notice layers of complexity not previously considered in a body of thought fail to revisit their own definitions rather than presume that such definitions are carved in stone on a tablet somewhere? This is the academic arrogance at its worst, especially since scholars are not in anything like agreement about a unified definition of “modernism.” Jargon is the first resort of those boxed in by absolute faith in the correctness of their own ideas.

By inventing a new term for old ideas, these cultural studies folks have forgiven so-called proto-postmodernists for the accidental timing of their birth and welcomed them into the fold of the only truly enlightened thinkers, postmodernists. Rather than considering the adjective “modernist” to be a vile epithet to be hurled in disgust rather than what it is, an artificial construction of academic culture to be challenged like any artificial line of alterity, postmodernists should stop trying to impose their presentist ideologically-formed analyses onto historical personages and return to the primary sources to develop a workable, historically valid definition of modernism that can be used by all disciplines.

And yes, T.J. Jackson Lears is wrong about anti-modernism, but that’s a rant for another time.

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