- “Since at least Plato . . .” and Other Postmodernist Myths
If there were a law against jumping on bandwagons, then M. J. Devaney’s volume might be one of the few recent attacks on poststructuralism that would escape the prohibition. For here, finally, is a study which has something different to say in this debate. One of the assumptions about poststructuralism which is implicit in the work of both those who see it as a danger and those who see it as a great progress is that this philosophy is something radically new. What Devaney argues is that there is really nothing special behind all of the hype of postmodernism—that most postmodernist ideas are either “trite . . . uncritical, or . . . as old as Plato” (p. 2).
Devaney’s own assumption seems to be that there is some kind of unity in what is called postmodernism. Indeed, one doesn’t always know if she is talking about postmodernism or poststructuralism or in some way saying they are exactly the same thing. At one point Devaney uses (or borrows) the term “poststructuralist postmodernism” (p. 68); does that mean there might be a [End Page 255] structuralist postmodernism? It is time to tidy up the vocabulary here. My suggestion would be to leave the term postmodernism to the arts themselves, and confine poststructuralism to theory—since, as Devaney herself efficiently shows, there is no necessary connection between theory and the arts.
In any case, Devaney is right to insist, in her first part on the “Innocuous Logic of ‘Both/And’” that poststructuralism hasn’t really destroyed traditional logic in an unprecedented way: “Whatever the source,” she argues, “theorists of postmodernism harbor misconceptions about classical logic. They reject something called ‘either/or thinking,’ which they often appear to associate with the law of the excluded middle, and affirm instead something they call ‘both/and thinking,’ which they suggest violates the law of noncontradiction” (pp. 35–36). Devaney is a finely trained logician, and she effectively shows that the law of noncontradiction is never really violated. Moreover, “no cancellation of the law of noncontradiction is required in order to ‘affirm a plurality of possible meanings,’ since it does not exclude affirming that a word or sentence, say, may have a plurality of possible meanings in the first place” (p. 76).
All of this is an argument against the supposedly “repressive” character of this law. Her second part—on the “‘Grand Narratives’ of Postmodernism”—delves further into the errors of “postmodernist” thought. Where the poststructuralist argues, for example, that contemporary literary realism can be connected to the political conservatism of Reagan, Thatcher, and Kohl (p. 99), Devaney responds that there is absolutely no connection between politics and epistemology, or between politics and metaphysics. Her basic strategy is, typically, to show that each outlandish poststructuralist claim is really nothing more than a “banal fact” (p. 41).
When she turns from theory to criticism, Devaney makes the same point (indeed, she really only has one point to make). Poststructuralist critics exaggerate the novelty of their favorite artists; Escher, Barth, or Robbe-Grillet are not actually defying logic, since, technically speaking, all they give us are apparent contradictions and not actual ones. Devaney maintains that the picture of literary realism portrayed by postmodernism is simply “a strawman of anti-realist polemics” (p. 144) and that, pace theorists such as N. Katherine Hayles, there is no necessary connection between the literature and the philosophy of a particular period: writers are not necessarily the “stupid and unreflecting mouthpieces” (p. 158) of the science or philosophy of their time. Indeed, Devaney holds that much confusion comes from conflating philosophy and literature; from believing that there is some automatic link between realism in literature and realism in metaphysics or epistemology. For Devaney, “literary realism cannot be defined in terms of a commitment to a theory about the nature of reality” (p. 120).
Most of this volume is essentially negative and one starts to wonder what can indeed be defined. By trying to downplay the extravagant claims of poststructuralism, Devaney may be missing...