Intro to Postmodernism: Questioning the Truth Claim

PALS is excited to kick off our 2018-2019 academic year with a guest post by Matthew Luter. Luter is on the English faculty at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Jackson, Mississippi and author of Understanding Jonathan Lethem. In this post Luter discusses how he introduces postmodernism to his students through an intriguing classroom activity, which touches on ideas of truth and asks students to contemplate the distinctions we make between fact and fiction. 

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Gustav Klim

Literary postmodernism is a tough concept to introduce to my high school students. Many students have never heard the term postmodern at all; a few are aware of it as a kind of buzzword that has become a right-wing boogeyman; and more than a few are a little turned off by how academically highfalutin’ it sounds. In order to introduce it to my students, I developed a set of tasks that lean into rather than steer away from the complications of literary postmodernism. To highlight the inherent contradictions and paradoxes of the postmodern, I begin with discussion of language and narrative, which quickly turns to some broader philosophical questions.

This lesson has become an unlikely favorite of my students, which genuinely surprises me. Yes, the activity is interactive and mostly lighthearted… but it’s also deeply abstract, does not resolve its big questions neatly, and—oh yeah—involves me straight-up lying to my students for a large chunk of class time. I’ll explain.

I generally use this activity with junior or senior American literature courses that have already spent a few weeks with some major texts of the modernist era. As a result, I position the postmodern as both a natural outgrowth from modernism and a sharp contrast against it, with help from a few bite-sized pieces of literary theory. In explaining how modernism and postmodernism differ, I borrow most heavily from Brian McHale’s distinction in Postmodernist Fiction between modernism as a movement interested in epistemological questions and postmodernism’s shift to the ontological (once those two “ologicals” get defined, of course). Another useful theoretical text, Ihab Hassan’s “Toward a Concept of Postmodernism,” includes a chart of opposed binary descriptions of modernism and postmodernism, and a few of its more accessible pairings have proved helpful. My students have already encountered canonical modernist texts like The Great Gatsby and A Streetcar Named Desire that invite investigative interpretation, asking readers to sort through what is and isn’t true about the checkered pasts of their main characters. The day’s focus, then, is the shift from asking what is true to to asking what is real.

Toward that end, I give small groups of students paragraph-length case studies recounting recent literary or cinematic stories in which the lines between the real and the unreal (or in some cases, the labels fiction and nonfiction) wind up considerably blurred. Examples I’ve used include the controversy surrounding James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces; the disqualification of Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line from consideration for the Best Documentary Oscar; and Art Spiegelman’s letter to the The New York Times objecting to their initial placement of Maus on the fiction bestseller list. Each case study includes enough information about the text in question to get the group started in discussion, as well as a few conceptual questions, mostly asking students to consider where the ambiguity lies anyway regarding the reality or nonfictionality. For instance, the group assigned James Frey discusses, “How does labeling a book fiction or nonfiction alter how readers consume it?” The group addressing The Thin Blue Line, a documentary which includes re-enactments of events in a crime’s timeline, considers, “In what ways might such a film be best understood as fact, and in what ways is it fiction?” And after learning that Maus is a well-researched Holocaust survivor narrative presented in graphic novel form, a third group discusses, “Why would such a book have ever been classified as fiction at all?”

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Crucially, I designate this day of class a tech-free meeting: no laptops out, no Googling additional information about these stories. That’s because one group has a story that’s totally made up: the fake story I currently use describes a political candidate hiring a lookalike to play himself in campaign commercials, while writing all of the text for the ads himself. Students are asked: if the candidate is in charge of the content of the message, and he never claims to be the lookalike (or vice versa), are voters being deceived? Has lying happened?

After some small-group discussion time, each group introduces their story to the full class, presents how they have answered their assigned questions, and invites additional responses from classmates. After hearing from all four groups, I introduce to the full class a fifth and final case study: “Some element or elements of at least one of these stories is made up. What is the fictional information? And if we got good class discussion out of it today, does it matter?”

For a few minutes, the class becomes a fairly upbeat game of Call My Bluff—and most of my students successfully identify the fully fictional story. But the second half of the final case study shakes some students up—which is the point. Some students quickly decide that the day’s activity has all been in good fun, concluding that the exercise would be problematic only if I were to end class without coming clean. But others are a bit more unsettled for a moment, and usually, at least one student in each class asks how they are to know I haven’t misled them on other class days. Some students flatly respond, “Well, we don’t.” Others respond that the debriefing discussion taking place currently—my admission to having misled them briefly—means that in the end, no one has really been misled at all. And so on. The best part is that the ensuing conversation winds up being one among students; we all know the teacherly joy of the class discussion in which students talk to each other instead of sending every comment through the teacher. And so, a brief introduction to a new literary period has turned into a discussion on the more abstract philosophical question of under what circumstances, if ever, it may be appropriate to play with factuality as a means to an end.

As a result, the lesson has proved useful for me in introducing texts such as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which calls into question its own truth claims in “How to Tell a True War Story” and “Good Form,” and Don DeLillo’s White Noise, which encourages readers to question which authority figures ought to be believed amid the airborne toxic event. I could imagine it working equally well to introduce texts in the tradition of speculative fiction—especially those, like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, that posit alternative American histories. Or intentionally multi-voiced texts that work, Rashomon-like, to complicate the credibility of any individual speaker when multiple accounts contradict each other, or fiction that relies on overtly unreliable narrators. The lesson sets up individual postmodern texts, but it also makes visible and experiential postmodernity’s essential distrust of grand narratives, authority figures, and easy binaries like fact-versus-fiction.

I am well aware of the risks this lesson takes. Some students find such radical skepticism disturbing and dislocating, while others feel quite liberated by the sense that it gives them permission to ask tough questions and to question authority. And in our present age of claims to alternative facts and accusations of fake news, to present an outright falsehood to students on the same playing field as verifiable information—even temporarily—might be read, I know, as exacerbating all that is problematic about the postmodern marketplace of ideas, not as helping to explain those difficulties. As a result, I do think of this activity as one best placed late in a school term, after a certain trust and rapport within a classroom has been established.

But in my experience, explaining the idea of “the truth claim” as an abstract rhetorical idea only gets students so far. We can talk about how readers’ expectations are shaped by the label nonfiction or fiction on the back of a book. We can talk about how, in literary history, the dividing line between nonfiction and fiction has not always been as sharp as many would like it to be now.  And students can certainly offer accounts of their own experiences that “didn’t seem real” even as they were experiencing them, from the grief of losing a loved one unexpectedly to the euphoria of sharing a state championship with their teammates. They’ve all had reason to question their own realities, even if they don’t yet share the literary critic’s vocabulary for such an episode.

This activity has succeeded in my classroom not only because it helps students acquire that vocabulary, but also because it gives students a moment of genuine doubt as to why—or indeed, whether—the authority figure presenting them with a truth claim ought to be believed as representing something that is real. After all, to make a truth claim about a story is to make an assertion about what is ethical or desirable—or even possible—in the world we share. Discussing this idea, I would assert, requires attention to fact, to fiction, and to what things, both fruitful and dangerous, can follow when the lines between the two are blurred. I hope students leave this class session, then, with a solid introduction to American postmodernism, but even more so, a clearer understanding of what’s at stake when we call something true or false—or a little of both.

 

Contributor Bio: 

Matthew Luter (@matthewjluter) is on the English faculty at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Jackson, Mississippi. He is the author of Understanding Jonathan Lethem (University of South Carolina Press, 2015), and his articles, on authors including Don DeLillo, Ellen Douglas, Willie Morris, and Bret Easton Ellis, have appeared in journals including CritiqueThe Southern Literary JournalGenre, and Orbit.  He is a founding board member of the International David Foster Wallace Society.

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