Ordered hodge-podge

The Postmodern Arts
November 22, 1996

This is a beautifully produced and a carefully, almost too carefully composed book. As a volume in the carefully "formatted" Critical Readers in Theory and Practice series, it contains extended editorial scene-setting for the proliferation of debates around the contentious (and disputed) term postmodernism, followed by "pertinent essays" showing how those have applied to specific cultural activities, particularly in the realms of "popular culture", architecture and the visual arts, "literature" and the "docu-mentary" film. These essays are rather anxiously provided with further editorial cladding, and heroically assiduous biblio-graphies give the essays that rather heavy and "annotated bibliography" effect now common in well-intentioned academic book-making.

The book is bal-anced and attractive in not giving auto-matic palms, although it does give some hostages, to those cultural practices and productions which seem nevertheless to compose our nebulous intellectual horizon.

Indeed, Nigel Wheale makes it clear that it is not merely possible but necessary to heckle a postmodernity of which the Third World, afflicted by an ensemble of cultural practices, communications revolutions, and geopolitical developments is a particularly dubious "bene-ficiary". This theme is taken up here by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who shows, inter alia, in a critique of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, that much wandering in the encrypted labyrinth of Derridean textuality need do nothing to quench a feisty radicalising imperative.

The point is that the novel itself never genuinely questions the codings of gender and remains essentially embedded in a "Eurocentric secular reason". The point then is, if not exactly to forget Rushdie, to "remember Shahbano", the Moslem divorcee who rejected the liberal rhetoric marshalled on her behalf. This order surely remembers Baudrillard's injunction to "forget Foucault", (which this volume more or less does, incidentally, but there is an injunction to "Boycott Baudrill-ard", postmodernity's arch-theorist, in whom, as Linda Hutcheon has put it, "the simulacrum gloats over the body of the deceased referent".

The film maker Trinh T. Minh-ha, however, who holds professorships at California (Berkeley) and San Francisco State, is a little more "po-mo friendly", even gung-ho, in claiming inter alia that "emptying" or "decentralising" meaning is essential. Less positive, but very amusing, is Andrew Goodwin on the aporias of the music "business". Julian Roberts, though sardonic about fashionable commercial architectural "po-mo", is still eager to overcome what he sees as modernism's nostalgic melancholia. Wheale himself writes on the American poet John Ashbery, on the cult movie Blade Runner, and on the work of south London artist Tom Phillips.

The editor is still worried about "postmodernism" as having collapsed the "radical" distance formerly maintained by the academy and its intellectuals from "institutions of power and oppression", but hopes we may continue to act as "gate-keepers of the informatic flow". Lay not that flattering unction to your soul?

Postmodernity is less a badge, an event or a movement, than what Wallace Stevens has called "a name for something that never could be named," which has still to be lived with or coped with.

This book is, understandably enough, a bit of a hodge-podge. But it does form a useful adjunct to such anthologies as those by Thomas Docherty and Peter Brooker, Steve Connor's witty survey, and the impassioned advocacies of Hutcheon.

Edward Neill is senior lecturer in English, Middlesex University.

The Postmodern Arts: An Introductory Reader

Editor - Nigel Wheale
ISBN - 0 415 07776 1 and 126118
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00 and £13.99
Pages - 295

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