Monday, February 4, 2008

PoMo Lit Crit is Torture. No, Really - I Mean It.

In a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, professor of comparative literature responds to J.M. Coetzee's novel, Diary of a Bad Year. Coetzee apparently accuses postmodern literary criticism - the kind taught in effete college classrooms like the ones I used to sit in - of enabling the kind of mental acrobatics that get young American Muslims convicted of attempted terrorism, with bad home videos serving as conclusive evidence. I'm still trying to figure out the argument but haven't read the book yet - I'm working from the essay here.

Anyway, the essay's author, Peter Brooks, seems to have taken Coetzee's criticism very much to heart - so much so that he applies it to the torture memos issues by the Bush Administration. Good heavens, he asks - is Coetzee right? Has postmodern literary deconstructionism (the kind I assume he teaches in his classroom) enabled people like Alberto Gonzales to come up with the supple, situated, contingent definitions of pain and suffering that he and his cronies so skillfully deployed in the torture memos? Reflecting on the memos, Brooks writes, "We may uneasily sense that we are witnessing a tricksy free play of the signifier of the sort that literary critics and philosophers are sometimes accused of sponsoring... [the memo] resonates at moments as a kind of parody of literary interpretive deconstruction at its worst."

Now, I've not read Coetzee's book, but... oh, good grief. Gonzales, Yoo, Bybee and the whole crew were dead set on creating a legal justification for coercive interrogation techniques. Of COURSE they left standard definitions twisting in the wind - they had a legal basis to establish, one that had to snake in circuitous fashion around multiple legal and conventional norms against the mistreatment of prisoners. Just because the end result is as syntactically painful as a Derrida essay doesn't mean that there's a link between the torture memos and postmodern literary criticism.

Read it for yourself. Navel gazing or perceptive argument? You decide.

Thanks to Gregory Starrett for this one.

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