Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Postmodern Hell of Theater Departments

Williams Young has been posting a series of very interesting articles over at the “National Association of Scholars” site discussing the effects of postmodernism groupthink on science (and the scientific method) and how this has lead to the proliferation of the "global warming" nonsense. It is a very interesting read, and I highly recommend it.

And I am not trying to change the topic here, but...

I found it particularly interesting in light of a rant I just recently posted on Facebook regarding the decline of theater studies in the university--both his article and my rant have to do with the deleterious effects of this wacky "postmodern" philosophy (for lack of a better word; "philosophistry" would be more accurate) on studies, in general. Both in science (Young) and in humanities (Me).

First off, here is an abbreviated list of "Introduction to Dramatic Literature" classes at a certain Major University. Now this it THE introductory course for freshman beginning to study theater:

  • The Postcolonial and the Global: Power, Politics and Performance
  • Performing Masculinities
  • Performing Patriotism: Pride, Belonging and Dissent in American Culture
  • Theater for Social Change
  • Gender and Disability in Shakespeare
  • Performances of Belonging: Citizenship, Difference, and Nation
  • “Representing Trauma: the Performance of Mourning and Memory”
  • Staging the Crisis
  • Staging Gender: From Antiquity to the Early 1900s
  • Performing the Rememory of History in the American Racial State
  • Empire, Modernity and Modern Drama
  • Theater as Danger: Performing Metafiction:

The most obvious thing about these classes (especially if you read the class description) is: A) Clearly some people have a hard time letting go of their dissertation topic; and B) MUCH MORE IMPORTANTLY (and more disturbingly), is these classes are designed to teach the student WHAT to think.

Back in the dark ages, (about 30 years ago, when I was taking my "Intro to Dramatic Lit" classes), the intro to dramatic lit class was a survey course--we read the works of playwrights from the Greeks up to contemporary playwrights, and a healthy sampling of all. And we read A LOT of plays. We discussed them in class, but the conclusions were ones that we, as students, were free to draw. The humanities was trying to emulate the scientific method that Young describes....

I recall one particularly interesting class (one of the upper level undergrad courses) which was kind of a "before and after" sort of thing. We would read an early play, and then a later play based on it, or on the same subject. For example, we read Euripides's Hippolytus and then Racine's Phedre; Sophocles's Antigone, followed by Anouilh's Antigone; Plautus's Menaechmi followed by Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors; and so on. There was no going into reading these plays with a foregone conclusion: We read them to compare what was different about them, what about the playwright, the period, the culture, the language made these plays unique.

Fast forward 30 years...

Intro to Dramatic Lit classes TELL the students what they must think; and what is taught in these classes is taken as a given, a "truth," (ironically enough, since this is the PoMo crowd, after all.) Such as the evils of colonialism and that dead white men suck, for starters.

It does mystify me as to how feasible, how realistic it is to slap a Marxist interpretation on a play written by someone 2500 before Marx ever existed, someone who had no concept of what Marx would theorize about. Anouilh took Sophocles's play and adapted it--he turned it into a French play of the 1940's. But make no mistake--it is NOT the same play that Sophocles wrote, (not that there is anything wrong with that), it IS a Jean Anouilh play. And back in the dark ages, we read it that way...

The new crop of dramatic lit classes is all about theory and criticism. Starting with the freshmen. Who then read plays through the lens of the latest chic critical theory, and they are given to understand that this is THE ubermeaning of the work; THIS is what the play is ALL ABOUT. ...All because someone managed to slog their way through ten years of dissertation work, forgot everything else they learned, and now has to keep on teaching their dissertation, because they KNOW NOTHING ELSE!

(BTW, not only can you get a BA in "Performance Studies" (AKA, theater) from a Major State University without taking a single class on Shakespeare, but you can get a PhD in Theater from a Major University Known for its Theater Department without reading a single play! Just theory and criticism... It's a sad state of affairs...)


Just thought I would share the course description for one of the above cited courses:

Introduction to Dramatic Literature: Performing Metafiction:
This course challenges its takers to rethink the conventional distinctions (audience/actor; reader/text; ...spectator/spectacle; life/art) traditionally imposed on, and by, aesthetic experience. We are accustomed to treating the art object as precisely that: an ob-ject that stands against, in front of, outside, and (usually) at a safe distance from, its consumer. But what happens when a beholder of, say, a museum-painting enters its frame and proceeds to participate in it (as Asia Argento’s character in her father, Dario Argento’s, 1996 B horror cult-flickThe Stendhal Syndrome, does)? Or when a psychoanalyst’s case study of a patient manifests the symptoms of the illness belonging to his patient (as Freud discovers himself doing in his case study of Schreber, a German high-court judge who believed God sodomized him with solar rays to conceive in his man-womb a Redeemer who would rescue the world from its Matrix-like delusions)? Or when characters become aware they’re characters and revolt against their ‘authors’ (as Will Ferrell tries to do in Stranger than Fiction)? Or when Don Quixote mis/takes himself to be a character in an epic romance? Or when two characters, at first fully-distinguishable from each other, inexplicably — unaccountably, impossibly! — morph into one another (as Jacques Moran, a private detective, and the man he’s pursuing, do in Beckett’s novel Molloy, or as Quentin and Shreve do in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!)? We will study these — and many other — metafictional scenarios to determine why, and under what conditions, responses to art become, themselves, works of art. Or, if you like, why and under what conditions aesthetic consumption becomes aesthetic production, and criticism becomes performance. In the process, your own — written — responses to art will come under special scrutiny. In this [course] we will continue to build on the exegetical and expository skills you acquired there (or in its equivalent) while advancing you to the next stage of composition: the multi-sourced research paper. But fear not those dreaded words! We will spend the first 13 or so weeks rehearsing, step by step — and very slowly — the process/es by which (humanities-based) research is conducted, so when the curtain rises on your own critical ‘performances’ at the end of the semester, you’ll hit every cue.