Jan/Feb 2004 Book Reviews

Postmodern Pooh

Frederick Crews
Profile Trade (Dec. 2003) 175 pages
ISBN: 1 86197 566 X

reviewed by Ann Skea

Do not assume that because you enjoyed The Pooh Perplex you will like Postmodern Pooh. For one thing, The Pooh Perplex was written in plain English, whilst Postmodern Pooh, being postmodern, is written in the jargon of postmodern literary criticism, which is often impenetrable to those who have not learned to think in circles.

For another thing, Perplex was gently humorous, humanist and humane, and it poked fun at ideologies which are, mostly, well known to the general reader. Postmodern, however, (or so it seems to me) is bitingly satirical in the mode of Jonathan Swift. It is directed at and emulates the most destructive, narrowly focused and distasteful academic wrangling ever to have been regarded as educational, and it is too close to the truth of what is currently happening in literary criticism to be comfortable or funny.

The excellent Frederick Crews sets a light tone in his Introduction, where he offers a seemingly honest account of how Perplex resulted from his desperate search for a project which would ensure him a tenured position at UC-Berkley (or so he says), and of how Postmodern came to follow it thirty-six years later. But nothing in this book can be taken at face value.

Ideologies such as Crews mentions in this Introduction—"Post-Colonialism," "Deconstruction," "Queer Chicana Studies," "Zizekian Lacanianism," Conterhegemonic Post-Gramscian Marxism"—and other such obscure things, are the butt of his satire. And this book presents a collection of papers presented to the Modern Language Association's December 2000 convention in (appropriately perhaps) Washington DC by a spurious panel of "leading figures in the field" of Pooh studies. The panel is chaired by Professor N.Mack Hobbs, successful businessman, academic, promoter of self-interest in all fields, and author of The Last Theory Book You'll Ever Need to Read, which announced the death of literary theory.

Professor Crews (wisely) hands over all responsibility for Postmodern Pooh to N. Mack Hobbs, who convenes and chairs the MLA panel and co-ordinates the production of this book. But Crews's belief that humanism will thus be well served no doubt reflects the extent of his self-professed state of frailty.

Don't get me wrong. In Postmodern, Frederick Crews has done a superb job of demonstrating the very worst aspects of postmodern literary criticism. The trouble is that he has done it so well that I felt I had just sat through the worst, most futile, distasteful and mind-numbing MLA session possible. It demonstrated, ad nauseam, Hobbs' claim regarding "Sex and scholarship": i.e. that "in a twenty-first-century literature department, it would be hard to say where one ends and the other begins." It was full of Hobbs's, so-called "kinky erotic obsessions" and sexual perversion. And it amply demonstrated Hobbs's claim that "even the craziest reading" (of Pooh or any other literary text) "can't be excluded on the basis of textual or even extra-textual evidence": such things as evidence and plausibility are now "old-fashioned scruples."

Some critical puffs on the cover of Postmodern describe it as "deliciously funny" and "hilarious." Sadly, I agreed only with the ones which called it "scary" and (if it were any reflection of what is actually going on in our universities) "past a joke."

Happily, though, I came to the conclusion that I am inextricably stuck in what Crews calls the "freshman casebook" level of literary criticism. And so, I still find the earlier Pooh Perplex more humanist, humane and funny.


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