Material Girl (2)

OK, so back to the evening course that I’d wanted to take but never did.

The idea was that our professor would teach us about an era or maybe just a decade, like the 1920’s, by surveying what was happening at the time across very different parts of human society — literature, art, theatre, music, math, science, economics and current affairs.

We would examine the movements or themes or influences that ran across different disciplines. We would learn how what was happening in the arts might mirror or even influence what was happening in science, for example. Usually, it’s the other way ’round – we look to art to tell us what’s happening to the world. But our mad professor hinted at all sorts of patterns and connections that are lesser known or noticed. What did Stravinsky’s symphonies have in common with developments in mathematics? I have no idea. But our professor talked of this evening course where I might go to find out.

If you are a regular Panic Station reader you won’t be suprised that I was excited about such a course. I’m interested in the connection between things. I like variety and I want to know about how lots of seemingly not-connected-things connect. I want to know about these connections and I want this variety more than I want to know a lot about any one subject.

Am sure someone said something bad about this condition – something about being a jack of all trades, but master of none.

  • The Chinese put it differently – “equipped with knives all over, but none is sharp” 
  • The Iraqi’s say “the one who knows seven professions but is so unlucky” (probably more elegant in Arabic)
  • In Uruguay there’s “he who embraces too much, has a weak grasp”
  • In Spain, “knows about everything, understands nothing”
  • Or in Thailand, “Know like a duck” (what??)

Back to that digressing professor and his course … I’m not sure what the class would’ve been called. A cultural history perhaps? Apparently not, since that tends to involve studying customs and rituals. Maybe a social history? But that too means something more specific … the study of ordinary lives.

Beyond learning about the inter-dependence of art and music and law and science, the other reason I wanted to take the course is because there are certain historical and cultural ideas that I simply do not get. And the mad professor is exactly the sort of person who would have explained them well. He never pulled a “dinner table lecture”.

Dinner table lecturing is what one of my college professors used to do to us. He was our economic history professor. We were learning about the slave trade. What we read and discussed was very interesting, but listening to him was not.

It wasn’t interesting because he didn’t explain anything. He lectured like he might talk at a dinner table full of peers whom he was trying to impress. He alluded to big ideas with formal labels and built complex arguments for and against them, rather than remembering that we had no idea what he was talking about.

However much he digressed, our mad psychology professor would never do that! He was like a kind and patient grandfather. He shed light on things with stories and examples and he kept going until he could see that we could see what he meant.

And in addition to more information about his car accident, one of the things I had wanted the kind, patient professor to answer was this …

WHAT THE HECK IS POSTMODERNISM?

It’s something I’ve never really understood. And once a concept defies you, it annoyingly pops up all over the place. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t run into a reference to, but never an explanation of, the postmodern world.

These very words are tossed into book clubs, movie reviews, random stuff I read … they can even make the nightly news. Which says to me, that I am alone in the world in not really understanding what a postmodernist one  is.

In an age of Google, you may ask why don’t just look it up.

Well I have and I do.

But a satisfyingly, straight-forward answer never crops up. I just get more and more confused by this very abstract idea.

What does this have to do with Madonna’s “Material Girl”? Not a lot, except that it’s the opposite of being abstract and I thought if I labelled these posts, “What the heck is postmodermism – part I, II and III” you might feel the same way as I do about the question and prefer not to get into the whole postmodern debate. Which is what I am about to do — just this one last time.

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