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Ruminations

Several particular aspects of postmodernism and Western culture, primarily from our class discussions but also from the readings, have been ruminating in my mind since we last met.

I have found the discussion of the “real” vs. simulation–the question of authenticity–most troubling. What exactly are the implications of redefining our concept of what is “real”? Jameson, it would seem, believes that in a postmodern society, an original and real object distinguishable from its substitute or reproduction would essentially not exist. “This omnipresence of pastiche is not incompatible with a certain humor, however, nor is it innocent of all passion: it is at least compatible with addiction–with a whole historically original consumers’ appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for psuedoevents and ‘spectacles‘ (the term of the situationists). It is for such objects that we may reserve Plato’s conception of the ’simulacrum,’ the identical copy for which no original has ever existed.” (pp.27-28) This brought to mind an essay I recently read by the decidedly UNpostmodern author C.S. Lewis, in which he quite insightfully discusses the question of distinguishing the real from from the substitute (or the simulation). Even at the time in which he was writing (the late forties and fifties, primarily), this question was one wrestled with by the society. Although his discussion addresses primarily the concept of religion as a reality or a substitute, he makes several points that came to mind as I contemplated the possibility of our society coming to a point when we can no longer determine any difference between the original and its imitation. Lewis first notes that our initial conclusions, when based upon whether something feels or seems reality or original is often deceptive and must be further scrutinized before we make a final analysis. But he also suggests that a copy or substitution for something real (”real,” as we are assuming this is in question) is ultimately always distinguishable as exactly that: “Authority, reason, and experience; on these three all our knowledge depends…I am not now saying that no one’s reason and no one’s experience produce different results. I am only trying to put the whole problem right way round, to make it clear that the value given to the testimony of any feeling must depend on our whole philosophy, no our whole philosophy on a feeling.” (p.41) Granted, Lewis was not addressing the exact same questions of authenticity which we now face, but it made me wonder if indeed we would come to similar results in our determining the real from the simulation if we employed those three tools to test the things in question. However, perhaps it isn’t even a matter of social anxiety at all. Perhaps the reason alarmists such as Jameson bring the issue of originality up in the first place is because they believe that in a postmodern society, those questions would be irrelevant or at least that no one would care or think it mattered much.

Pastiche, which, according to Jameson is directly linked to the loss of originality, could indeed have a lot to do with a loss of historicity which Jameson seems to fear. A YouTube video I saw recently (don’t worry, it’s short, and, I think, quite absurdly amusing, and you’ll need to watch it to understand the following discussion) is an excellent example of verbal pastiche. The creator of the film used clips from an actual interview with Salvador Dali to create a cartoon “interview” that, while ridiculous and funny, entirely lacks a real historical context, at least for me. I have never heard the interview itself, nor have I recently seen a picture of Dali. In watching this video, I found that I constructed a sort of vague structure of Dali as a person, in which he says utterly absurd things (which is, given what I DO know about him, perfectly plausible) and takes on a cartoonlike appearance in my head. And really, in watching and laughing at the video, I’m really not thinking all that much about the actual historically real person of Dali. He is a foil for entertainment. I was actually a little surprised at the ubiquitousness of pastiche in the world around me, and it does cause one to question how much we as a society may indeed have lost a sense of context and meaningful history. I am not saying I agree entirely with Jameson’s “doomsday” theorizing, but I think he raises some valid questions.

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Course Guidelines

COURSE DESCRIPTION

Experimental form, a breakdown between high and low culture, and hyperbolic self-referentiality are just a few of the hallmarks of postmodernism, a notoriously slippery concept that is the focus of this Honors Seminar. But what else is postmodernism? Is it a literary movement? A moment in history? An economic condition? A state of mind? We may not arrive at a definitive answer to these questions, but the novels and theoretical texts we will encounter in this seminar suggest that postmodernism is marked by a fundamental shift in our relationship to technology, mass media, and pop culture. We will closely study novels, graphic novels, and films that revel in, critique, or even resist these elements of postmodernism.

READING

WORKING

  • Participation in the day’s discussion is essential. And of course, to get the most out of the discussion, you must have read and thought about the day’s reading, thoroughly and critically.
  • Every student will contribute to the course blog at least once a week. Posts should run about 300 words and should strive to be thoughtful and nuanced, offering questions and insights rather than descriptions or summaries. You have between Sunday through Saturday to post for the week. Late posts cannot be made up; if you miss a week, then you receive no credit for that week’s blog. Occasionally I will provide questions for you to respond to, but most times the posts will be more open-ended. You might begin with an aspect of the reading that you don’t quite understand, and work out a tentative answer in your post. Or you might relate some of the theoretical work to the fiction we are reading. You may also respond to another student’s post by building upon it, disagreeing with it, or re-thinking it.
  • There will be four inquiry papers this semester, each around 3-4 pages in length. These are not full-blown essays so much as they are structured engagements with very particular aspects of a text.
  • The final project for the class will be an 8-10 page analytical paper, which offers a critical reckoning of some of the larger issues relating to postmodernism as a style or thematic mode, and locating these issues within one or two of the novels we have encountered, or possibly outside texts. A research proposal will be due several weeks before the end of the term. The paper will require outside research, using sources from established academic journals or academic press books.

GRADING

The final grade will be weighted and calculated in the following manner:

  • Course Blog: 20%
  • Inquiry Papers (15% each): 60%
  • Final Project: 20%

I evaluate the blog entries on a scale of 0-4, while I give every other assignment a letter grade. In order to calculate your final grade, I convert the letter grades into a percentage. I weight the grades, and then convert the average back into a letter grade. I use the following standard grading scale:

A+ = 100% / A = 95% / A- = 92%

B+ = 89% / B = 85% / B- = 82%

C+ = 79% / C = 75% / C- = 72%

D = 65% / F = below 60%

Attendance is mandatory (excepting medical emergencies or observation of religious holidays). From the 2007-2008 University Catalog:

Students are expected to attend the class periods of the courses for which they register. In-class participation is important not only to the individual student, but to the class as a whole. Because class participation may be a factor in grading, instructors may use absence, tardiness, or early departure as de facto evidence of nonparticipation.

Late assignments will be lowered one letter grade for every weekday they are overdue, unless prior arrangements are made. Even if you are not in class the day an assignment is due, it is still due for you that day. Assignments more than a week late for any reason will simply not be accepted. Therefore, failure to hand in every assignment on time will make it extremely difficult to pass the course.

HONOR CODE

Students of George Mason University pledge not to cheat, plagiarize, steal, or lie in matters related to academic work. The English Department has issued a statement further clarifying what is meant by “plagiarize”:

Plagiarism means using the exact words, opinions, or factual information from another person without giving that person credit. Writers give credit through accepted documentation styles, such as parenthetical citation, footnotes, or endnotes; a simple listing of books and articles is not sufficient. Plagiarism is the equivalent of intellectual robbery and cannot be tolerated in an academic setting.

Remember, it is perfectly acceptable to refer to and build upon others’ ideas, but you must always identify the source, even when paraphrasing. The university uses turnitin.com to detect plagiarized papers, and I may occasionally require students to submit their written work to turnitin.com’s database. If I suspect plagiarism or any other violation of the Honor Code, I will report the offender to the university Honor Committee, whose penalties range from an F for the course to expulsion from the university.

SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES

If you are a student with a disability and you need academic accommodations, please see me and contact the Disability Resource Center (DRC) at 993-2474. All academic accommodations must be arranged through the DRC.

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