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Q: In the '60s, you were among the first to try to bridge the
gap between high and low cultures. Now, after three decades,
we've seen high culture, or the so-called canon, besieged by
popular culture and multiculturalism. We have today a new
sensibility that, depending on one's perspective, either
surpasses or parodies the kind of sensibility that you heralded
in the last essay of Against Interpretation (1966). We now live
in an age of total eclecticism and global interpenetration,
which many people, including myself, call the postmodern. So
far, your reaction to postmodernism seems largely inimical. And
you refused to allow the Camp sensibility that you helped make
famous to be co-opted by the postmodernists because "Camp
taste... still presupposes the older, high standards of
discrimination" ("Writing Itself" 439).
SS: I never thought I was bridging the gap between high and low cultures. I am unquestioningly, without any ambiguity or irony, loyal to the canon of high culture in literature, music, and the visual and performing arts. But I've also enjoyed a lot of popular music, for example. It seemed we were trying to understand why that was perfectly possible and why that wasn't paradoxical... and what diversity or plurality of standards might be. However, it didn't mean abolishing hierarchy, it didn't mean equating everything. In some sense I was as much a partisan or supporter of traditional cultural hierarchy as any cultural conservative, but I didn't draw the hierarchy in the same way.... Take an example: just because I loved Dostoevsky didn't mean that I couldn't love Bruce Springsteen. Now, if somebody says you have to choose between Russian literature or rock 'n roll, of course I'd choose Russian literature. But I don't have to choose. That being said, I would never argue that they're equally valuable. But I was very struck by how rich and diverse one's experiences are. Consequently, it seems to me a lot of cultural commentators were lying about the diversity of their experiences. On the other hand, there are a lot of things in mass culture that didn't appeal to me, notably what's on television. It seems very non-nourishing, conventional, bland, trivial. So it wasn't a question of bridging the gap. It's simply that I saw a lot of simultaneity in my experiences of pleasure, and felt that most discourse about culture was either philistine or shallowly snobbish. So it wasn't this is "here," and that's "there," and I can make a bridge. It was that I understood myself to have many kinds of experiences and pleasures, and I was trying to understand why that was possible, and how you could still maintain a hierarchical sense of values.
This is not the sensibility that's called the postmodern--by the way, that's not the word I use or find useful to use. I associate postmodernism with leveling and with recycling. The word modernism arose in architecture. It has a very specific meaning. It meant the Bauhaus School, Corbusier, the box skyscraper, the rejection of ornament. Form is function. There are all sorts of modernist dogmas in architecture, which came to prevail not only because of their aesthetic values. There was a material support for these ideas: it's cheaper to build buildings this way. Anyway, when the term postmodernism began to be used across the field for all the arts it became inflated. Indeed, many writers who used to be called modern or modernist are now called postmodern because they recycle, use quotations--I'm thinking of Donald Barthelme, for instance--or practice what's called intertextuality.
Q: Yes, the way writers are being relabelled as postmodern is at times baffling. For example, I was startled when Fredric Jameson, whose work I greatly admire, cited Beckett--who for me is a terminal product of high modernism--as a postmodern author.
SS: Jameson is the leading scholar who has tried to make more sense of the category of postmodernism. One of the reasons I remain unconvinced by his use of the term is that I don't think he's interested in the arts. Not really. Not even in literature. He's interested in ideas. If he cared about literature he wouldn't have quoted--at great length--Norman Mailer. While you illustrate your ideas with quotations from novels, you're also implicitly suggesting to people that they read these books. I think that either Jameson doesn't know that Mailer isn't a very good writer, or that he doesn't care. Another example is when Van Gogh and Warhol are treated as equivalent by Jameson for the sake of theory-building, for fitting examples into his theory. That's when I get off the bus. In my view, what's called postmodernism--that is, the making everything equivalent--is the perfect ideology for consumerist capitalism. It is an idea of accumulation, of preparing people for their shopping expeditions. These are not critical ideas....
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