In the future, everyone will be John Malkovich for fifteen minutes.


One of the best parts of teaching literature is the vicarious thrill of discovery. After a first encounter, you and I will never be able to read “Sunday Morning” or Angels in America or Gatsby for the first time ever again. Instead, going back to those texts will be like revisiting a beloved foreign city where we might discover a little café tucked away on a picturesque back street, or enjoy the familiarity of a favorite museum, but never again will turn a corner and BOOM! see the Eiffel Tower/Colosseum/Golden Gate Bridge with virgin eyes. Maybe that beloved city is where you live, and after years of trudging its streets you hardly even look up anymore. I once had a professor whose first entry on the syllabus was “Hamlet, AGAIN.” But to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, when one is tired of Hamlet, one is tired of life. The trick is learning to see it with fresh eyes.

Every new semester brings that chance, which is what makes my job so fun. This semester, though, I’ve been teaching Introduction to Literary Theory to newly-declared English majors, which is considerably stranger. The students are reluctant travelers, to say the least. Our journey seemed to be going fine until we reached postmodernism, at which point everyone scrambled back on the tour bus and demanded to be taken back to the hotel.

Since postmodern theory resists codification, lists, bullet points, and the Sharpie highlighter—basically, all the ways these students have learned to learn—it presents them with an unpleasant challenge. Things seemed to be going well during the weeks leading up to the unit. They went along with the idea that there is no one “correct” reading of a text. Ditto to the concept that language is an arbitrary system that creates meaning only in relation to itself. But they did not want to hear that words may not obey our attempts to use them, and they definitely did not want to hear that meaning is contingent, relative, and unfixed. Absolutely not.

Remember the Palmolive TV commercial that featured Madge in the beauty salon? All the women were there seeking therapeutic emollients to repair their dishpan hands. Madge chattered away about Palmolive, and when a woman asked whether it was gentle enough for her skin, Madge crowed, “You’re soaking in it!” Cut to the woman marveling at a detergent so mild that she’d believed it was part of her manicure.

I’d thought that my students would settle into studying postmodern culture with ease because, well, they’re soaking in it. With The Simpsons in its 21st season (longer than my students have even been alive) and Grandmaster Flash in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, my job was practically done, right? These are kids who pop gray-market Adderall so they can stay awake for all-night tournaments of Guitar Hero! But no. I soon realized that expecting them to “get” postmodernism simply because they’re saturated with it is a little like expecting them to “get” organic chemistry simply because they’re carbon-based life forms. So after the theory readings came a parade of examples for discussion.

Borges, “The Library of Babel.” Warhol’s Marilyn. Paul’s Boutique. Rauschenberg, “Erased De Kooning Drawing.” John Cage performing 4’33” (you should have seen them squirm!). Richter’s photorealistic paintings. It went on and on. Incomprehension. Resistance. I wanted to shout, “Don’t you UNDERSTAND? You’re fucking SOAKING in it!”

Eventually, a timid raised hand. “So, would you say that, like, a movie, like…Being John Malkovich is, you know, like, postmodern?”

I wanted to weep with happiness. This movie, a big Hollywood film, was released ten years ago—around the time my students were learning to write in cursive (if they even teach cursive anymore; I don’t know). For them, it’s a “classic.” They had a tough time thinking of it as edgy, experimental, or even a little bit weird. But it turned out to be the key into their minds. We talked about it forever: style, narrative, performance, the premise itself. That led to the inevitable conversation about whom each of us might want to be for a random fifteen-minute interval, and why. Which eventually brought us around to the most delicious question of the day, the one that made everything fresh again:

“Are we still postmodern?”

What comes next? What is it called? And if it doesn’t position itself explicitly in relationship to modernism and 20th-century culture, what defines it?

So, what do you think? And who would you want to be for fifteen minutes?

20 responses to “In the future, everyone will be John Malkovich for fifteen minutes.”

  1. Dave says:

    I love it. Malkovich is such a great movie, truly a classic.

    I wonder, if the kids really are swimming in postmodernity (“How do you explain ‘wet’ to a fish?”) — it’d be fun to try teaching them backward, like, “You take away this, this, and this, and you get Modernism. See how it’s different from what you all assume has always been the case?” I don’t really know what I’m talking about here, though.

  2. Rachel says:

    You’re really on to something, Dave. No one likes to be told that their reality is just one of many historical developments, or that they make choices based on ideology that they don’t even recognize as such. Maybe it’s not postmodernism they struggle with so much as everything that precedes it.

  3. g.a. says:

    TGW is so not going anywhere. This is as good as it gets! I loved the Palmolive bit.

  4. ScottyGee says:

    But “teaching” postmodernism in the most modern of settings: academia? Isn’t that like teaching French in English? Not that it shouldn’t be done. It just seems like there’s an inherent disconnect — the students’ desire for the appropriate codified response, an A, and your desire to take them out of the black and white and into a shifting reality.


  5. ScottyGee says:

    I LOVE THIS POST SO MUCH I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHERE TO START. I had this exact discussion about “Are we still postmodern? If not, what “are” we “in” now?” two days ago in my Metafiction/Postmodernism class. I ended up trying to make predictions about when postmodernism will be said to have “ended” by future pigeonholers, if in fact it’s already over (my overgeneralization was to grasp at that platitude that perhaps 9/11 was the end of irony and a return to sincerity)–but it’s hard for them to get, no matter what era I’m teaching, that just because something is written in, say, 1978, doesn’t inherently mean it’s a postmodernist text. (ditto 1928/modernism, fill in the blanks, etc.) Of course mine are having the same struggles as your students, although the whole semester has been an attempt to define this undefinable genre, so they aren’t being thrust into it just now. In teaching “experimental” fiction, I have repeatedly had to face the reality that “they’re soaking in it”–it’s hard for them to recognize what’s so novel about metafiction, for example, when almost every bit of pop culture that’s been created in their lives seems to employ it.

    Borges, Barthelme, Barth, and Calvino have been slowly beginning to make this all take shape for them, but like you, I ultimately turn to Charlie Kaufman–“Adaptation” is the one crucial to teaching the concept for me.

  6. swells says:

    Sorry–that last comment was me. Or perhaps my name being overwritten was just the death of the author . . .

  7. back to ScottyGee says:

    Maybe I’m wrong here, but for something to be considered truly postmodern, doesn’t the author (filmmaker or whomever) need to be in on it (or intend for the statement to be postmodern)? If this is the case, can we say that most of what the youth swim in today is postmodern? And if much that we see on Youtube isn’t postmodern — but clearly carries many of the traits of the genre — don’t we have to say that it’s something else. That it’s in fact more modern in its earnestness? I think we should call it something else. Some title that captures the way we (as a culture) buy into our own bullshit. The way we see much of what we do as so important and “historical” makes me think that we are (in a postmodern way) involved in an Endtime. Maybe something that has to do with this theme is appropriate…

    I’ll take my comments off the air.

  8. Rachel says:

    I don’t know, Scotty. Do you think everyone in the 20s and 30s was walking around thinking, “Oh, I’m so alienated and fragmented by war and technology and this is my stream-of-consciousness awareness, my psychological splintering….”? I don’t. Intentionality isn’t really part of it for me, especially because “periodization” doesn’t seem to happen until after the fact.

    So much of what we call PM involves ironic distance and meta-production, but anyone who spends time with teenagers knows that they are all big fat Romantics at heart, like Young Werther, the ultimate emo boy. But if you share your earnest sincerity via YouTube and liveblogging, does that make you….postmodern?

    You make an excellent point about the futility of teaching this stuff in a classroom, though. I was cringing inside while giving them a brief history of punk rock. Joe Strummer would have spit on me,

    Steph, I can’t believe you’re doing a whole semester of this stuff! Wow! As for “what’s next,” my students came up with a mass rejection of corporatized cultural “product” in favor of smaller DIY communities…what a colleague of mine calls “microclimates of feeling.” But I really don’t know either.

  9. Tim says:

    Oh, to have more time to comment! I’m in the dentist’s chair, waiting for the anesthetic to take. Great post! More to come. . . .

  10. Gary Smith says:

    * Timidly raises hand

    Would Donnie Darko be considered postmodern?

  11. ScottyGee says:

    “Do you think everyone in the 20s and 30s was walking around thinking, “Oh, I’m so alienated and fragmented by war and technology and this is my stream-of-consciousness awareness, my psychological splintering….”?

    No. But I think that modernist artists (including philosophers) did. And if we define an era after the fact, how can we say that we’re living in postmodern times? But this is why I think our moment is different: we are “periodizing” as we go along. In our time, the contemporary has collided with the historic. This is why we are obsessed with the world ending (or people ending) on our watches. We ultimately see ourselves as a bygone species. Won’t we all be so disappointed if we don’t live to see the Apocalypse?

  12. My thoughts on this concept feel so much more elementary than those that have been expressed, but I know how much the mass of comments means to Lane, so I’ll toss my opinions in with the mix.

    I had lots of fun studying art history and literary criticism–those classes were probably my favorite in my undergraduate stage. Part of the reason I liked post-modernism was because, while analyzing under the post-modern idea, we as students could throw any wild-eyed, random crappo idea out into the open air and it was considered a legitimate consideration for discussion and analysis.

    And because we don’t know whether we’re still in the post-modern era or whether we’ve passed on to something more random and crappo (or even something more ordered, because we’re now living in a post-9/11 world that demands that we put order to the political hell we live in), we really could write about anything in our papers that concerned the post-modern era. Still living in it or past it, we could get sloppy/experimental as students/artists because the very nature of post-modernism hid it as our excuse. I could be as flyby as I dared as long as I explained the idea thoroughly and as fully as possible.

    Yes, it took me awhile to understand what post-modernism was as a concept (and the professors warned us it would take a lot of stretching and subconscious mulling), but those of us who got it had this gleam in our eyes that came from the glee of getting away with what is considered BS in the academic world.

    Gary: now that you bring it up, I wonder the same thing. I’m not actively operating under post-modernist theory anymore, so I wouldn’t be able to answer it for you. Part of me says, “Who cares? It was a brain trip.”

    ScottyGee in 11: I know I want to see the Apocalypse–Mormonism and Christianity in general predict some amazingly weird stuff.

  13. swells says:

    By the way, Rachel, I can’t stop thinking about how deftly you wield and extend that travel metaphor in this post.

  14. lane says:

    what a great conversation!

    Rob Storr who curated the RIchter retrospective asserted on a panel recently that we are still in Modernism.

    anyway, i got food poisoning last night from eating too much bleu cheese, so that’s all I have. Some lame Rob Storr reference.

  15. Gary Smith says:

    Rachel, I agree with your opinion that most young students are Romantics at heart. I think it would be much easier for one not familiar with the complex philosophies of postmodernism to understand and identify with say, Amory Blaine, than Meursault (even though he isn’t exactly a postmodern character.)

    I sometimes joke that my high school English teachers “poisoned” me, because I have been trained to read literature with classification and exegesis in mind, which isn’t always a bad thing, but when some encounter the amorphous or indefinable, they find it baffling.

    Having just graduated HS, I feel that the emphasis taught in literary interpretation is to simplify and categorize, so embracing diversity and contradiction is counterintuitive to the student of high school English. (I’m assuming that that your students are Freshman and recent HS graduates, seeing as they are newly declared English majors etc.)

    Looking back, I think I’ve re-written things you have already said, but I guess my point is that even though we are surrounded by postmodern culture, our first reaction is to consume, second (if ever) to classify, and last to embrace and revel in the diverse and conflicting strata of modern thought.

  16. crankyprof says:

    12: I think I (and many others) might take issue with the idea that PM theory allows the thinker to “get away with” what s/he openly admits is “crappo,” “flyby,” “sloppy,” “BS”–bad argument is bad argument, exploratory or no. There’s a difference between intellectual experimentation and unsubstantiated crappo! It is true, though, that under the auspices of PM being “undefinable” and “anything-goes,” a lot of BS tries to fly by. You gotta catch that shit and throw it back.

  17. Rachel says:

    #9: Tim, I hope your dental appointment goes well. “Anesthetic” doesn’t sound too promising. Wouldn’t it be good if you could take “anaesthetic” before going to, say, a crappy art opening?

    #11: Scott, I agree with you completely. In fact, my students glommed on to a similar passage in their Jameson reading (“Postmodernism and Consumer Society):

    “…the disappearance of a sense of history, the way in which our entire contemporary social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past, has begun to live in a perpetual present and in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions of the kind which all earlier social information have had, in one way or another, to preserve [….] The informational function of the media would thus be to help us forget, to serve as the very agents and mechanisms for our historical amnesia.”

    Do you think people crave the apocalypse simply because they want to be shaken up?

    #13: Steph, thanks–I was afraid of laying it on too thick. I hope the preying-on-my-students’-minds-for-vicarous-life (i.e., Malkoviching) metaphor wasn’t too cloying, either.

    Oh, and Gary, those HS skills will always come in handy!

  18. g.a. says:

    16: I’m glad you threw it back, because 12 *was* full of shit. If professors really let you get away with crappo they weren’t doing their jobs.

  19. ScottyGee says:

    Rachel, thank you so much for giving me a reason to think about PoMo all day. I wish I could just stay home and continuously comment, but a man’s gotta work ya know!

  20. Alan Kirby says:

    Wonderful post – thank you.

    I’ve just published a book whose argument you may find interesting – I hope you don’t mind if I mention it here. It says that postmodernism has been superseded by a cultural dominant based on digital textualities. It’s called “Digimodernism”, and it’s published by Continuum. I have a website where you can find the introduction, and a blog where I mull over related issues. In 2006 I wrote an article on which the book is based called “The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond” – you can find it on the web, and it begins by considering the very issue of today’s students versus postmodernism.

    All the best