Post Modernist Semantics and the practical Lobster Farmer

Chapter 1 : Postmodernism: What, whence, whither, why?1

By James Dallas, Sanatogen Professor of Intertextuality, Central University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Postmodernism,2 not to be confused with post-modernism or post modernism,3 can be best summarised in the sage words of Michel Foucaulff: "Le texte, c'est d'établir une textualisme en récréant le textualité du texte. Fancez-vous une échagge?."4 The notions of textuality, discourse and the essentially problematic nature of self are themes gambolling like fishes in the postmodern stream.5 Chasing them, as fishermen in the wellingtons of truth, are reflections on the nature of the body,6 the nature of modernities,7 the modernity of natures,8 and the relationship between man and kangaroo.9 Thus, the corpus delicti is a veritable smorgasbord.10 But how best to devour it? And therein lies the nub, the nature of the liberation of postmodernity from the tyranny of signification, objectivity and meaning; for one can devour it however one likes.

Crucial tools to do this are the two knives with which we may cut the Schwarzvald Kirschtorte that is the quote-unquote "text": the serrated breadknife of semiotics,11 and the jewel-handled dagger of deconstruction.12 Semiotics could be deconstructed as a new way of signifying the significance of signification, the science of signs and signs of signs.13 But I wouldn't bother if I were you. Deconstruction, on the other hand, could be signified as a kind of reversal of the process of construction, a "de", as it were, "construction" of the text.14 Thus, in the mid-1970s a generation of French intellectuals, now household names,15 decided that Marxism had become a bit dull and so cast around for another obscurantist theory to prove their intellectual superiority to the rest of civilisation.

Sorry, got a bit carried away there, what I meant to say was: they developed a new approach to the text-untext dialectic,16 by declaring that the author was dead and the words wrote the agent.17 A series of unpleasant legal actions followed from a number of authors who believed themselves to be alive; and their agents proved surprisingly resistant to textual construction;18 but close biographical study showed that most authors, including Shakespeare, Austen, Molière and Bulwer-Lytton, were in fact dead,19 and the idea was taken up with alacrity by all concerned, because it seemed like a bit of fun.

Twenty years have passed since those heady days, years which have seen the expansion of postmodern semiotics, hermeneutics and semantics over many fronts and in many colourful ways, like a giant blossoming coconut tree, replete with the hairy nuts of wisdom and the nutty jism of knowledge. Many a metaphorical wolf has been kept from the all-too-concrete door by the research grants, stipends and lucrative publishing deals unlocked by the postmodernists; many a dusty English faculty has found itself desperately trendy once more.20 Yet still my students ask me, poor benighted fools that they may be, "yeah, but what is postmodernism?". And I respond by telling them to watch the films of Mr. Tarantino, to mull the meaning of Ms Ciccone's conical breasts, to reflect on Warhol and titivate at the shores of Planet Spice. And then to textualise them, to hermeneutise and deconstruct, to discourse and prate. "Then will we understand postmodernism?" they ask? "Ah, but no!" I reply, "but you'll have had more fun than I had when I was a student, and we had to read books".

- Ian Jackson

1 I would like to thank the following sweeties who made this article possible: Professor James Middleditch of the University of Mid-Central Utah; Dr. Patrick Seagull of Barnes-Wallis Institute, Petit Vierge, Idaho; Dr. Michelle Esmeralda, currently on sabbatical in Sing-Sing, NY; my graduate students whose names escape me, and of course Bonzo, my poodle. Be home soon darling!

2 For an attempt at signifying what this term might mean and deconstructing its potentialities, see my Text, Sign, Self, Other: a sketch of a discourse (4 vols., New York 1998-2004). Alternatively, if you have been set this article on a media studies reading list, try Dipstich, A brief history of difficult ideas in cartoon form for stupid and lazy people who are doing media studies (London, 1993), then go and watch Countdown.

3 A mistake made incessantly in Clarke, Postmodernities, (Chapel Hill, 1978); Scannel, Postmodernisms (Kansas, 1992) and Jones, Modernising the Royal Mail: a study in mechanisation, (Nether Bowell, 1968).

4 Foucaulff, Puniez-moi, gros garçon!: Le discours du discipline, Tome I, (Paris, 1980), p. 678; trans. as Some writings on philosophy from France, (London, 1993).

5 See Derrida, Textualising discourse (Berkeley, 1979), Skinner, The discourse of texts (Cambridge, 1992), Edelweiss, Textualising the self, (Llanberis, 1990), Hinge, Problematising discourse: Self, Text, Other, (Sheepdip, 1998), and of course Tockel's seminal article, "What the hell am I doing here? I thought I was special, so fucking special, but I'm a creep", Modalités, XXVI, (1967), pp. 678-987.

6 Such as Derridable, Pensées d'une sage, XVI, (1967), Ch. 3, "Corps dont j'ai saurait"; Roy Portnoy, Naughty Bits: A History of Carnal Knowledge, (3 vols., 1996-9, London); MacDirty, Eroticising the body: six essays and lots of pictures, (Soho, 1997).

7 Trockel, Ullmann and Freunde, Das ist modernismus?, (Berlin, 1993); cf. Al Jolson, "Modernism isn't as modern as it used to be", Radio Times, XXV (1983), pp. 45-6.

8 See Schama, The embarrassment of my riches: a big book with glossy pictures and a television series (Yale, 1995); Brewer, The humiliation of the imagination: why can't I sell as many books as Simon? They've got just as many pictures, you know. (London, 1996).

9 See Sheila Bruce, "Tie me kangaroo down, sport": inventing marsupiality, 1700-1990, (Wogga Wogga, 1998); R. Harris, What's wrong with screwing kangas anyway?: a plea for toleration, (Broken Hill Maximum Security Facility, 1999).

10 On smorgasbard, see Svënskäva, Smoöõôleen, (Stockholm, 1946), p. 78.

11 I owe this characterisation to a conversation with Jean-Jenet Houlot of the Spartacus bath-house, San Francisco, 1979. Happy days indeed.

12 This one, on the other hand, I made up myself. Clever, no?

13 A futile attempt to do this is Ewing, The semantics of semanticism, (Ougadougou, 1942).

14 A certain kind of trendy academic does like this kind of laboured and stunningly obvious etymological explanation, so I thought I'd better put one in to keep the bastards happy. Makes them feel clever in lectures, y'know.

15 Such as Jean-Marie Jif-Lémon, K. L. Vimto, and of course Professor K. P. Pinutz.

16 now there's a word you don't see much any more.

17 In particular, see J. Sui-Generis, "L'idéologie est mort, vive l'idéographie!", Anale XIV (1967), pp. 567-1,289; M. Beregovie, "Dialeclectisisme!", Émissions, V (1968), pp. 78-9; for Anglo-Saxon responses see M. McLuhan, The Global Village Idiot (London, 1967), and Pothead (pseud.), "What's all this freaky French shit about then, man?" Spunk! I (1969), p. 10.

18 See: Cartland, Amis and Kerouac vs. Foucault (New York Court of Appeals, 1972); Regina and The People and Le Peuple vs. Université de Paris V (International Court of Justice, 1971-86).

19 Although Bulwer-Lytton's death has itself subseqently been disputed: see R. M. Kayim, "A dark and stormy controversy: the debate over mid-Victorian writers' putative immortality", Quotes and Nearies, XXV (1995), pp. 413-824.

20 except Keele.