A Movement in the Mirror:
American Studies in the 1970s

by Lisa Guernsey


2. The Postmodern Stroke

These reports of the "death" of humanist scholarship were (and still are) hardly unique to the movement of American Studies and in fact may still be in the process of imploding the Academy in general. Critics today describe this doubt and questioning of humanism and modernity as a fundamental intellectual stroke of the postmodern age; the search for knowledge has turned from a quest for the objective "truth"--or at least consensus about this truth--to an interminable disbelief in the existence of this truth, a delegitimation of anything that tries to call itself objective, and a predilection for dissensus.  The death of humanism has been the subject of often anxious discussion for nearly 20 years, and has sent a shiver down the spine of any traditionally operating educational institution. If there is no objective truth, what should be taught? If there is no body of knowledge that provides the most fundamental answers to life's questions, what is the role of the professor?13

Zooming in toward a particular field--in this case, the American Studies movement--the questions hold even more urgency.  American Studies provides an interesting case-study of postmodernism's symptoms and effects. Jean-Francois Lyotard's definition of postmodernism--"incredulity toward metanarratives"14--encapsulizes American Studies scholars' distrust of the myth-symbol approach. Suddenly faced with not just one but innumerable narratives about the history and culture of America, most American Studies scholars are now unable (and unwilling) to hold down one method of inquiry, and some, as a result, grope blindly toward methods and theories too numerous to count. The myth-symbol approach is still considered by many to possess several fulfilling advantages,15 but its humanistic, "essence"-finding method of inquiry has now been sideswiped by a new, invigorating, and exasperating postmodern realization that, in the face of so much diversity and so many differing perspectives, that "essence" just might not be there.16

Continue to chapter one, part three, The Culturological Shift

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