Fleeing the Universal: The Critique of Post-rational Criticism, by Carl Rapp.
Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. 272 pp. $65.50 cloth. $21.95 paper.
Are we all postmodernists now? At first glance, it seems implausible: most Americans persist in believing in an external reality, assume there is a difference between truth and falsehood, and even claim to believe in the God of traditional monotheism. American culture, however, may be postmodernist even if those who explicitly subscribe to postmodernist precepts are few. The thesis that contemporary society is postmodernist does not assert that most people consciously accept postmodernist doctrines but that these doctrines reflect the working assumptions that most of us live by but refuse to acknowledge. It seems clear that there is little public support for the theoretical notion that there is no significant distinction between truth and falsehood, but it is unclear to what extent we remain willing to acknowledge the authority of objective truth when such acknowledgement is politically or personally inconvenient.
If there is a debate about whether our society can be described as postmodernist, there is also a debate about whether this is a good or a bad thing. The "culture wars" are in large part a debate over whether the trends that make up postmodernism should be encouraged or resisted. The claims of postmodernism theorizing cannot, however, be refuted by condemning the social manifestations of postmodernism, no matter how justified such a condemnation may be. Although the latter provides a setting favorable to the influence of the former, it is important to note that postmodernist theories do not limit their ambitions to the affirmation or even the clarification of contemporary culture. Deconstruction, New Historicism and pragmatism each claim a relevance that extends to the past as well as the present; Derrida has deconstructed Plato, New Historicism is perhaps best-known for its analyses of the European Renaissance, and Richard Rorty, the leading expounder of the New Pragmatism, gained fame with a history of Wes tern philosophy from Descartes to the present.
Arguments about postmodernism often generate more acrimony than insight, especially when it is unclear whether the topic of debate is theory or culture. In Fleeing the Universal: The Critique of Post-rational Criticism Carl Rapp wisely resists the temptation to become entangled in the culture wars. A reader of Fleeing the Universal finishes the...