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Notes and Fragments THE PARANOIA OF POSTMODERNISM by William Bywater Postmodernism's relentless refusal to accept any description, theory , or state ofconsciousness at face value, its unswerving insistence that what seems most clear and certain is least likely to be so, and its maneuvers which demonstrate that stability in meaning or in sense of self must give way to eternal slippage have all been cited as evidence of postmodernism's nihilistic and destructive character. At an earlier time we may have thought that because nothing is certain then something new is possible. Yet even this ontological hope together with the existential courage which would have led some to assert their own meaning in the face of unending uncertainty now appear to be undermined by the march of postmodernism. The self which formerly was able to confront nothingness is now dissolved into a concatenation ofsignifiers or ajumble ofdisconnected images. The hope which might have sprung from the dissolution ofthe old values is rendered as suspect as those old values themselves. Postmodernism does not refresh us with a sense of renewal, rather we seem to be frozen with intellectual paranoia . My thesis is that to a remarkable extent postmodernism exhibits the qualities which David Shapiro finds to be central to the mode of functioning which he calls the paranoid neurotic style.1 More specifically, it is not that deconstructionists and other postmodernists are paranoid but that the portrait of the postmodern critic drawn by Stanley Fish, for example, in Is There a Text in This Class?2 is a portrait of someone exhibiting a style of functioning similar to Shapiro's paranoid. When 79 80Philosophy and Literature we examine postmodernism's suspiciousness as a phenomenon of paranoia we can discover how postmodernism perpetuates itself and thus places limits on the horizon of thought. The paranoid style, says Shapiro, involves an intense, sharply perceptive but narrowly focused mode of attention. Attention is directed not to overt content but to the searching out of clues which will reveal the hidden, but real, meaning of the objects of attention. The obvious is regarded as misleading and as something to be seen through. So, the paranoid style sees the world as constructed of a web of hints to hidden meaning. Each clue or hint is scrutinized to see that it conforms to the examiner's anticipations. Conformity is achieved because perception has become rigid and narrow. Elements in experience which do not conform are regarded as appearance. Either they are discarded as misleading or irrelevant or, finally, they are seen to be clues which point to the expected. Shapiro argues that the elaborate suspiciousness of paranoia is not designed to protect a person from some concrete danger but from surprise: "the paranoid person is continuously occupied and concerned with the threat of being subjected to some external control or some external infringement of his will" (pp. 81-82). This condition Shapiro calls unstable autonomy. His view is that paranoid persons have a fragile or britde sense of autonomy which leads them to be in a state of hyperalertness for threats to their autonomy. This can lead paranoid people to a posture ofhaughty contemptuousness orcold disdain toward superiors and toward authority in general. The suspiciousness of postmodernism certainly leads to a search for clues within the text which eventually are used to undermine the authority of the text. These clues are marshalled into an argument designed to show that the text cannot provide rules or norms for its own interpretation. The postmodernist critic is then in a position to assert authority over the text in, for example, a reader response approach to criticism in which, to quote Fish, "the reader's response is not to the meaning; it is the meaning" (p. 3). Further resistance to authority can free the critic even from the possibility that some reader's response could be established as normative. Readers do not form a homogeneous community all of whom experience a text in the same way. The clues in a text give rise to a variety of readings none of which is definitive. This situation might appear to increase the danger to one's autonomy by increasing the number of norms...


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pp. 79-84
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