The price of elephant jokes

The Illusions of Postmodernism
February 28, 1997

One of the most pressing controversies in British television centres on the malleable features of a young comedian, Chris Morris, and his scathing new series Brass Eye. Morris asks celebrities to pronounce judgement on fictional, and faintly ridiculous issues, pretending they are real: a deadly, new drug called "cake"; the tragic case of an elephant sticking its trunk up its own backside; weasel-fighting in the East End.

Having been filmed many months ago, the celebrities are now horrified to find themselves on screen making considered and rather pompous, remarks on subjects we know to be the product of a scriptwriter's imagination. They howl in outrage; we, the sophisticated audience allowed to share the joke, just giggle.

This is bread and butter to the analyst of postmodern discourse: a work of pop culture championing the slipperiness of meaning; the playful, ironic tones of the sting; the plaintive protests of those stung, quaint relics of an earlier age when face value was a thing of true value. Although defenders of Morris's programme point to its satirical bite, there is something else altogether being celebrated here: irreverence, disrespect and most of all a glorious blurring of truth and fiction.

Postmodernism may have started as a healthy, questioning blast of relativism in an academic world fixated on stealthy meanings and truth claims, but its influence has spread into unimagined territory. Brass Eye is what happens to a culture that has got used to dancing on the graves of authors, ideologies, mass movements, of history itself. The earnest, ingenuous desire to seek the truth has become subservient to the ironic quip and the quick laugh.

Terry Eagleton's slim, waspish volume reminds us of the price we have paid to get this far. He ends his last chapter with a final, telling condemnation of a doctrine he believes has outstayed its welcome. Claiming, surely correctly from any liberal viewpoint, that the ultimate test of an ideology is how it would shape up to fascism, he finds postmodernism seriously wanting: "...its cultural relativism and moral conventionalism, its scepticism, pragmatism, and localism, its distaste for ideas of solidarity and disciplined organisation, its lack of any adequate theory of political agency: all these would tell heavily against it."

On his way to his weighty conclusion, Eagleton makes his case with elegance and conviction. He is, crucially, witty. He understands that one of the greatest attractions of postmodernism is its tone. When there are no fixed truths in your universe, you can afford to make merry with the pranks: when there are no limits, nothing is beyond a joke. Eagleton responds in kind: "Talk of whether the signifier produces the signified or vice versa ... is not quite what stormed the Winter Palace or brought down the Heath government"; "... from Bakhtin to the Body Shop, Lyotard to leotards, the body has become one of the most recurrent preoccupations of postmodern thought." A second attraction of his thesis is the degree to which postmodernism is perfectly aligned with the similarly ever-shifting, flexible nature of late 20th-century capitalism. Again, Eagleton makes his point with admirable economy: "(Postmodernism's) nervousness of such concepts as truth has alarmed the bishops and charmed the business executives, just as its compulsion to place words like 'reality' in scare quotes unsettles the pious burgher in the bosom of his family, but is music to his ears in his advertising agency."

Indeed, it is something of a surprise that postmodernism should come to be associated with centre-left, social progressivism at all, given its amorality and impatience with ideological imperatives. Postmodernists love the hybrid, the plural, the transgressive; but so does capitalism, which is also determinedly antirational, reinvents itself with speed and spontaneity, and seeks to fetishise desire. The shopping mall can live perfectly happily with assaults on Enlightenment values.

As one would expect, Eagleton comes to postmodernism from a "broadly socialist perspective". He pays due respect to a "rich body of work" on racism and ethnicity, on the paranoia of identity-thinking, on the perils of totality and the fear of otherness, but finds solace only in the things postmodernism ultimately rejects. In rationality, for instance: "Reason at its best is related to generosity, to being able to acknowledge the truth or justice of another's claim even when it cuts against the grain of one's own interest and desires. To be reasonable in this case involves not some desiccated calculation but courage, realism, justice, humility and largesse of spirit."

He also wonders why, in an era and system which are more "total" than ever (the global economy, the worldwide information web, the planet-threatening advance of some technology), radical intellectuals are keener than ever to fragment, and to destroy the claims of any grand narratives. Universality, as he says, is not an ideological illusion. There is much to pick on here: the book is a collection of articles printed in journals ("the most postmodernist aspect of this book is its shameless self-plagiarism"), so it is structurally unsatisfying. The first two chapters are the most provoking, skillfully sketching the political context that enabled postmodernism to thrive.

But it is time, Eagleton suggests, to move on. Back to ideals, grand theories, seriousness (with the odd joke thrown in) and a commitment to what we believe in. That elephant with its unfortunately placed trunk could yet make it as a trenchant metaphor for a movement which is fast imploding into blithe irrelevance.

Peter Aspden is deputy arts and literary editor, The Financial Times.

The Illusions of Postmodernism

Author - Terry Eagleton
ISBN - 0631 20322 2 and 20323 0
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £30.00 and £9.99
Pages - 147

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