We were trying to explain the general concept of postmodernism to a classmate the other day. (The impetus for this discussion was our study of postmodern ethics in Theory of Technical Communication. Most of the students in this class are hard-core tech writers, not Theory Heads. Not that a person can’t be both, but it doesn’t seem to be the case with this group.)
Things started off like this:
“Is it an era?”
“No, it’s more a school of thought.”
“But this is the Modern Age.”
“No, it’s not. That was from around 1890 to around 1955, give or take, depending on who you talk to.”
“Well, so what does this school of thought say?”
“Well, to be simplistic, it says that Truth is relative.”
“But there has to be Truth!”
A bunch of master’s-level students trying to define postmodernism? You know you’re headed down a long, long road.*
I’ve been thinking about this for the past few days, though. How would one teach the concept of postmodern ethics to a group of people who just aren’t that interested in Theory? Assuming a 16-week semester and a grad-level seminar devoted to the subject, I’ve decided I would start with L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, followed by Geoffrey Maguire’s Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. This would take up the first week and a half or so. Everyone should read the original text of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, because it is completely different from the movie and, to my mind, much better. It’s a supremely odd little tale with murder and mayhem and general evility every few pages. (Plus, it provides an excellent opportunity to discuss the ethics of Hollywoodization and, later on, Creative Commons.)
Wicked is a longer read, but not at all difficult. It’s the tale told from the perspective of the Wicked Witch, beginning with her auspicious birth as a little green-skinned girl named Elphaba. Over the course of 400 pages, Maguire develops a psychological case study of her, establishing motives and ethics. (The Wicked Witch is a political dissident! Who knew? This is part of how she ends up in that remote castle.) Eventually, the reader comes to understand Dorothy as a spoiled interloper who has total disregard for the consequences of her actions. The Witch completely gets the raw end of the deal:
And of the Witch? In the life of a Witch, there is no after, in the ever after of a Witch, there is no happily; in the story of a Witch, there is no afterword. Of that part that is beyond the life story, beyond the story of the life, there is – alas, or perhaps thank mercy – no telling. She was dead, dead and gone, and all that was left of her was the carapace of her reputation for malice.
By the time one comes to the end of this, one understands that Evil can be relative. So, correspondingly, is Good. And from there, it is not difficult to understand that Truth is also relative. Once you’ve got that, then a larger discussion of postmodern ethics is easily feasible. You can move on to reading the Canon and whatever else you want to talk about – tech comm, Creative Commons, politics, witches, socioeconomics. Anything at all is fair game.
*That might sound unnecessarily snotty. Don’t get me wrong – I myself am working on my MFA. And I probably couldn’t give you a good, concise definition of postmodernism to save my ass.