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What’s Wrong with Postmodernism?

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What’s Wrong with Postmodernism collects seven of Christopher Norris’s reviews of recent work in literary theory. Throughout, Norris appears to assume that his readers possess substantial background knowledge in politics and philosophy as well as literary theory. He clearly deserves his reputation as the most philosophically astute of British literary theorists and, considering the abstruseness of the topics under consideration, he also manages to be surprisingly clear.Two purposes permeate the collection. The first is to criticize postmodernism, described as “the upshot of a generalized incredulity with regard to all theories, truth-claims, or ‘scientific’ notions of system and method.” Through discussion of Jean Baudrillard’s Selected Writings and Stanley Fish’s Doing What Comes Naturally, Norris argues that in addition to its obvious intellectual flaws, postmodernism leads in the political sphere to malaise, cynicism, and apathy. The appeal of postmodernism, he suggests, is due to the failure of literary theories based on Ferdinand de Saussure’s structuralism; fortunately, because there are approaches to the philosophy of language other than Saussure’s, the postmodernist turn is not irresistible.The second purpose of What’s Wrong with Postmodernism is to defend deconstruction–and its patron saint, Jacques Derrida–against the accusations of postmodernist irrationalism found in J?rgen Habermas’s The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity and John M. Ellis’s Against Deconstruction. Norris contends that deconstruction, properly understood, is not itself guilty of postmodernist irrationalism, even if Derrida’s epigones sometimes are. –Glenn Branch

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