Published on Webdiary - Founded and Inspired by Margo Kingston (/cms)

Howard and post modernism

By M. F. McAuliffe
Created 29/04/2006 - 07:37

A debate about post-modernism has simmered beneath the surface of a number of Webdiary debates in my view. MF McAuliffe's first piece for Webdiary gives us the opportunity. Thanks MF.

by MF McAuliffe

On April 21st The Age reported the Prime Minister as attacking [1] "the teaching of 'dumb' English ... in ...various parts of the country."

The reason for this dumbness? "The English syllabus in Australian schools ... is falling victim to postmodernism and political correctness" ... [and is treating] ... traditional texts no differently from pop cultural commentary."

Peter Craven helpfully appeared in the same issue to intimate [2] that, according to postmodernism "there is no aesthetic value that's not illusory, and that our kids might as well be studying any old aspect of pop culture ... rather than King Lear or the poetry of Keats."

The basis of that assertion is "the postmodernist notion that everything is relative."

Postmodernism of course, says no such thing.

Postmodernism says that some texts are privileged over others, just as some people, castes and classes are. For example: Arundhati Roy often says that she is everything a woman should not be - small, ugly and clever. In colonial India, could she ever have published a book? What publishing house would have let her past the front door, a small, dark, ugly, native woman?

Keeping Arundhati Roy in her place - out of school, out of print, on the street - is not simply a case of not being able to see past appearances. Postmodernism contends that war and politics arrange appearances in hierarchies of value/acceptability to justify the way the world's goods are divided.

Could Mersault, a Frenchman in Algeria, have casually killed anyone but an Arab?

Traditional teaching of The Stranger talks about the coldness and anomie of Mersault’s psychology, links it to technology, the emergence of mass man/mass culture, the lack of worth of the individual in our huge impersonal cities. The traditional version essentially ends by lamenting the passing of towns and villages. Postmodernism points out the unstated racism at the centre of the situation. The lack of emotion or even reason for the killing has already been built into the social structure, into what postmodernism would call the signifiers or coding, of 'Arab'. The postmodernist reading does not end up in a wank of nostalgia.

At its best, postmodernism reveals the assumptions behind the work or the world depicted in the work. That's what makes it interesting. That's what makes it dangerous.

The Age included the syllabus from this year's VCE. So let's take a Postmodernist look at what the Prime Minister would see if were doing the VCE this year:


Now for the traditional texts:


The Prime Minister is well-known for his support of:


and his opposition to:


So it's clear that the Prime Minister's problem with the Eng. Lit. syllabus is as political as all get-out. Who, if he is John Howard, wants the kids studying justified dissent, the unjustifiability of your current war, the corruption of the ruling class, the with-a-little-action thoroughly avoidable miseries of being on the whip-end of autocracy, theocracy, or royalty narcisistically demented?

"Postmodernism" and "political correctness" are buzz-words from Hate Week.

They - their Howard-Craven versions - are there to distract academics, letter-writers, Mums and Dads and playwrights [3] from the two points that matter:


And for the future of Australian intellectual freedom, that indirectly-announced intention is as radical and wrong as everything else he has done.

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