For most people, “reality,” though sometimes elusive, is as palpable as their morning coffee or the gigantic heads carved into Mt. Rushmore. It is simply there. From their point of view, the phrase “get real” means “shape up,” and the fabricated thrills of “reality TV” seem appealingly authentic.
But for many contemporary academics, especially those who bought into postmodern theory in the last few decades, the idea of the “real” raises serious problems. Reality depends on those who are perceiving it, on social forces that have conditioned their thinking, and on whoever controls the flow of information that influences them. They believe with Nietzsche that there are no facts, only interpretations. Along with notions like truth or objectivity, or moral concepts of good and evil, there’s hardly anything more contested in academia today.
Both sides have a point here. No one could survive for a day if he or she really tried to live by the relentless relativism and skepticism preached by postmodernists, in which everything is shadowed by uncertainty or exposed as ideology. But it is also true that the media revolutions of the last century, while they hugely expanded our access to knowledge, created far more effective tools by which that knowledge could be manipulated.
In this conflict, the master strategists in the White House, though they claim to stand by traditional values, are very much in the camp of postmodernism. In the New York Times Magazine last October, for example, a “senior advisor” to President Bush told Ron Suskind that journalists and scholars belong to “what we call the reality-based community,” devoted to “the judicious study of discernible reality.” They have no larger vision, no sense of the openings created by American dominance. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”
He might have added that there are many ways to simulate reality: staying on message, for instance, impervious to correction and endlessly reiterating it while saturating the media environment. Ideologues, whether they’re politicians or intellectuals, dismiss any appeal to disinterested motives or objective conditions. They see reality itself, including the electorate, as thoroughly malleable.
Like the media spin that is its sinister double, postmodernism didn’t spring up from nowhere in the 1970s. Today we can look back on the 20th century as an age of turbulent dislocation and uncertainty. Not only did its wars and genocides uproot whole populations, but its philosophic and scientific ideas, from Einstein and Freud to Wittgenstein and Derrida, uprooted centuries of moral and religious ideals. Modern artists -- beginning with Picasso, Stravinsky and Joyce -- reflected these changes by revolutionizing the medium in which they worked, leaving some in their audience exhilarated and others dumbfounded at seeing older forms of representation turned inside out.
Postmodern theorists, promoting a fluid sense of identity, were only the latest step in unhinging art and discourse from any stable sense of the real world. Just as political upheaval left people physically insecure and globalization left them economically insecure, postmodernism was part of a complex of changes that left them feeling morally insecure, uncertain about who they were or what they really knew.
For some, there was a newfound freedom in all this. But many Americans today, sensing that the foundations of their world have crumbled, feel a deep nostalgia for something solid and real. Surrounded by a media culture, adrift in virtual reality, they seek assurance from their own senses. They turn to what John Dewey called “the quest for certainty.”
I see evidence of this in my own field of literary studies, which has long been in the vanguard of postmodernism. In his book “After Theory,” a widely discussed obituary for decades of obfuscation that he himself had helped to promote, Terry Eagleton mocks “a certain postmodern fondness for not knowing what you think about anything.”
To understand the changes that shook the modern world, my students and colleagues have returned in recent years to long-neglected writers in the American realist tradition, including William Dean Howells, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. For readers like me who grew up in the second half of the 20th century on the unsettling innovations of modernism, and who were attuned to its atmosphere of crisis and disillusionment, the firm social compass of these earlier writers has come as a surprise.
Like Henry James before them, they saw themselves less as lonely romantic outposts of individual sensibility than as keen observers of society. They described the rough transition from the small town to the city, from rural life to industrial society, from a more homogeneous but racially divided population to a nation of immigrants. They recorded dramatic alterations in religious beliefs, moral values, social and sexual mores and class patterns. Novels like Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie” and Wharton’s “House of Mirth” showed how fiction paradoxically could serve fact and provide a more concrete sense of the real world than any other form of writing.
This is how most readers have always read novels, not simply for escape, and certainly not mainly for art, but to get a better grasp of the world around them and the world inside them. Now that the overload of theory, like a mental fog, has begun to lift, perhaps professional readers will catch up with them.