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Why Postmodernists

Don’t Climb



by Alistair Rennie


Arriving at the summit of Broad Cairn is to reach a point of wilderness where there are no manmade objects in sight, where the landscape is uncontained by the elasticity of horizons, where only a rough plateau of peaks surges like whales between granite breakers. It is to reach a point, as MacDiarmid said of Liatach, that ‘Lives in the mind like a vision’, a place that allows you to feel a unity of presence among all things, of a kind which animals express through action and which we express through the actions of our words.

And, coming here, I think: why should I extract from sheer appearances a factitious meaning or invest the world with passing values which, by others, are regularly replaced? Why should I intellectualise the aboriginality of a post-glacial terrain and blur its unequal facades with fallible and, equally, fallacious notions? Affirmation or denial is useless here. Here, there can be no pretence other than an imagined resistance to your vulnerability.

This is a world insuperable to scrutiny: the world as it is. Why impose on it the transforming influence of ideas that covet controversy rather than Truth? Why even bother with Truth when this, in itself, requires no existential validation? And maybe this is what MacDiarmid meant when he wrote:

What happens to us
Is irrelevant to the world’s geology
But what happens to the world’s geology
Is not irrelevant to us.
We must reconcile ourselves to the stones
Not the stones to us.

                             - ‘On a Raised Beach’

I begin to think that reality is not under but over the surface and that we have penetrated too far its immediate depth. In going deeper we have only gone shallower in relation to what we seek. This surface and its immediacy are a sheer simplicity, so sheer as to be almost horizontal in proportion to the excessively vertical gradients of consciousness. Which makes me think, too, that it is only by experiencing the extreme places of the earth that the simplicity of living reveals itself with expressive force, appearing like a gap between the seasons, as if newly conceived from among the dusts of space. Or can it be approached through other means? Through the poetry of MacDiarmid, for instance, or something else as equally real?

In contrast to the reality of MacDiarmid’s poetry or Broad Cairn, I put the phenomenon of postmodernism or, what I will call, pretending to be a tree. Now, trees are “nice” and are part of what we used to refer to as “nature”. But pretending to be a tree involves certain risks. Chief among these is an adherence to propositions like, ‘Thought means nothing: it is… the illusory autonomy of a discourse or a consciousness whose hypostasis is to be deconstructed’ (Jacques Derrida, Positions). Other risks include developing an unmitigated cynicism towards everything; an aversion to social rituals, such as marriage or keeping pets; and an irresistible urge to branch out, as it were, into contingent fields of interest, such as literary theory, which means giving up – well, just about anything we used to enjoy about “literature”, or anything that fascinated us, scared us or arrested our attentions with a plethora of formerly-invalid-now-thoroughly-vacuous “transcendental signifieds” that, once upon a time, we were actually misguided enough to think might actually mean something.

But, literary theory, man, is where it’s at. I mean, talking about literature without really talking about it. How cool is that? And literature sucks, man, cause it’s another one of those illusory generic distinctions that does not kick the ass of the intertextual matrices of discourses that constitute “history”. And saying literature sounds, like, really old-fashioned and, you know, like pompous. It’s like saying “disco” instead of “club”. In fact, let’s deconstruct it. L-i-t-e-r-a-t-u-r-e. See? Now it’s like shown to be totally false, man, like it’s all symbols subject to an infinite variety of “play”, a bit like one of those soccer matches (metaphor alert, man –  I’m right inside the linguistic hall of mirrors of what I’m trying to explain! Cool) where just about anything can happen within the limited parameters of a given set of principles that, really, are just a bunch of stupid illusions conjured out of the Great Evil of the “western metaphysical tradition” (which means that the referee is like… um… a symbol of logocentricity, man, imparting an absolute value at the centre of the entire construct. But he’s not there by virtue of any imminent projection of Truth. He’s like an employee of the Ideological State Apparatus of the Football Association. And he makes an awful lot of erroneous offside decisions, which is where the dis-integrity of the system is likely to reveal itself. And then the stadium becomes like a representation of grammatical and syntactic rules, with regulated rows of seats that the fans can tear up and rearrange when they get angry, like they’re deconstructing – like the fans are a manifestation of the contradictory logic that “always already” inheres in the linguistic system).

But what is postmodernism (and already post-post-modernism, and presumably soon post-post-post-. . .)? Is there anyone who knows? Ask a postmodernist and he or she will make up an answer on the spot. Meaning they don’t really know. But maybe that’s it. Postmodernism is being able to account for something without actually having to account for it. It is, one might say, the activity of unaccounting for things, of rendering them invalid without having to go to the bother of offering plausible alternatives. Postmodernism can unaccount for itself. Look! I’m doing it now! And it can turn arguments inside out and contradict itself, because that’s what postmodernism is and what e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g is anyway. Inevitably. As a consequence, merely, of being able to think. Through language. Because, as Jacques Derrida says:

[One] cannot legitimately transgress the text toward something other than it, toward a referent… whose content … could have taken place outside of language … There is nothing outside of the text.                     
                                                       - Of Grammatology

Resisting this newly found sense of treedom is to find that, as we enter its theoretical and terminological roots, postmodernism blatantly misleads. The trouble is, there are certain modes of theory and thought which have become givens and which you are obliged to comply with, even while you can see that these thoughts and theories are no more valid than any that have gone before them. These theories, though, are received and acted upon as if they are valid and as if everything else is a misguided accumulation of outmoded “assumptions”.
It is the arrogance with which postmodernism dismisses everything else in its wake without necessarily having made an attempt to understand it which (in a pretend kind of sense) chainsaws me. And the greatest pitfall, of course, is the development of a “new” set of principles which require a “new” terminology which gives an impression of novelty only through the conjuring tricks of language. To read the “deconstruction” of this or that has become an embarras-sing cliché. To say “the subject” or “agency” when we are clearly referring to measures of sentience is the deliberate de-humanization of a context which, funnily enough, is entirely human. It is a terminology that offers uniform linguistic solutions to concepts that have no uniformity and which often tends towards a sloppiness with its pronounce-ments which are strangely contradictory of its empirical overkill.

Like this one, for example, by Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean-Loup Thebaud, which (God bless ‘em) actually tries to explain postmodernism:

Postmodern (or pagan) would be the condition of literatures and arts that have no assigned addressee and no regulating ideal, yet in which value is regularly measured on the stick of experimentation.
                                                                 - Just Gaming

Now, hold on. Am I imagining things or did they say ‘pagan’? Well, that’s a conjuring trick of the highest calibre, like holding up a word and saying, ‘Look, it’s a leaf!’ But let’s be clear about this. One thing that postmodernism most definitely is not is pagan. It represents, in fact, the very opposite of pagan. Let me give you a better definition: Pagan is the raw simplicity of natural states, whereas postmodernism doesn’t even allow the word “natural” into its vocabulary. Postmodern is the excessive determinations of an excessively civilized class of intellects who have theorized themselves into a corner of distance from the rawness of nature (which exists beyond the ontological frontiers of agency – an alien “other” from which we have become detached as a result of our self-conscious apprehension of the difference between “nature” and “culture”). So nature gets rejected, and people who like nature – well, they’re just deluding themselves. Or maybe it’s the case that the fascination for nature is actually a fetish, perhaps a manifestation of repressed sexual desires, so that the fetish for nature would be a result of … er … human nature

And let’s be clear about this. When we talk about nature we’re not talking solely about “spiritual”  or “aesthetic” appreciations of nature’s “beauty”, but raw physical landscapes that will kill you if you don’t know what you’re doing in them. The removal at a distance by postmodernists of themselves from the reality of their environment convinces me that they are the ones who are creating an illusory version of reality that has no correspondence whatsoever to the extreme reality represented, for example, by the Cairngorm Mountains:

                                                   Cairngorms @ Alistair Rennie




nder aimlessly over the Cairngorms and you will suffer the consequences of an impact that no philosophical argument can possibly render invalid. That impact would materialise, first, as fear and later, probably, as hypothermia. And that’s what interests me, the emotional and physical repercussions of the impact. That’s what literary theory should be – an exploration of the terrain of literature.

The biggest problem with postmodernism and its baggage of theories is that it consists, precisely, of theories. Consequently, there is too much stuff written in academia or the media these days that doesn’t relate to the reality of our experience of literature.

Postmodernists tend to forget that the act of reading can be measured in terms of its effect, above all, on the emotional capacities of the reader (not, as many might think, on his or her intellectual capacities, which are practically redundant during the act of reading, awakened only in the aftermath of thinking about what has been read).

The reader’s interests in a book lie, not in exposing the underlying deficiencies of the linguistic or epistemological system, but in what the book engenders as a consequence of manipulating language in order to create particular effects. These effects may even be metaphysical, culminating as an “essence” that forms beyond the physical aspect of the words themselves. But let’s just call it, for the sake of argument, an emotional residue resulting from the cerebral impact of the linguistic delivery. The act of deconstructing the text, meanwhile, is a retrospective application of principles which have no impact on the reality of our  reading experience at all.

The inefficacy of postmodernism is something you can learn, equally, by climbing mountains like the Cairngorms. To say that consciousness resides in language alone is like saying that colour resides in these mountains alone and that their eclectic shades cannot somehow mount an expressive correspondence between the forms they inhabit and the forms that receive them, whether these forms are the lochs absorbing – and, by absorbing, deepening – the elapsing pigments of the braes or the still pools of the attentive mind absorbing, to a point of preliterate transparency, the
beauty projected upon (not by) them. In a similar way, but in reverse, this is what happens when you read a book. A fundamental awe is received, not as something that pre-exists the text, but as something that, from the text, is generated.

Being a postmodernist (or, better still, a post-postmodernist) is like standing up and waving your arms around with exaggerated vigour and saying, ‘Hey, look at me. I’m a tree!’ And everyone looks at you and thinks, ‘What the hell is he on about?’ If you have entered this condition, there is, I’m afraid, nothing you can do about the fact that you are not a tree. Disappointing as it may seem, sometimes a reality is a reality; and, by the same token, trying to claim otherwise is a fashionable denial of the fact that

                                                                     . . . all the ideas

that madden men now must lose their potency in a few years
And be replaced by others.

                                                                                     - On a Raised Beach

But extreme reality will not be replaced. The Cairngorm Mountains will not accept the things we call fashions, movements, trends, unable to suffer the fallacy of one thing superseding another and suddenly rendering the other invalid. No climatic variation will adjust the established form of a terrain or expose its mortifications to anything more than a fleeting interference. And even these – the light that emboldens a granite cleft, the mist that dampens an igneous buttress – are the select manifestations of permanent features capable of performing various aspects of themselves. And the same, in the end, can be said for



Alistair Rennie was born in the North of Scotland and now lives in Italy. He has published short fiction in The New Weird and Fabulous Whitby anthologies, Weird Tales Electric Velocipede and Shadowed Realms.


Editor's note: Alistair Rennie is one of those multi-talented people with biographies they keep to themselves but others would lie to brag about, the other common characteristic of these people being: modesty. Not only has he made a living by his brawn but by his sense of taste and even his brain—a part of him that he miraculously saved from ruin though higher education did its best.

I will brag right here that I recognised his genius in storytelling before he thought to use it, so it is no surprise to me that Booklist has called him a "rising star".

Alistair Rennie can be reached at

"Most of the papers which are submitted to the Physical Review are rejected, not because it is impossible to understand them, but because it is possible.
Those which are impossible to understand are usually published."
- Freeman Dyson,"Innovation in Physics"

Fun with Postmodernism:
The Postmodernism Generator
A physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies

virtuous medlar circle

is part of
Anna Tambour and Others
"Why Post-Modernists Don't Climb Mountains" copyright © 2004 by Alistair Rennie. The picture of the Cairngorms is also copyright © by Alistair Rennie.
This essay appears here with thanks to Alistair Rennie, whose payment was less than a brass razoo.
It is one of a series of invited pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. A.T.
The Virtuous Medlar Circle © 2004