“A Whole New Literate Public”

Question: Where do we\r\nstand today in relationship to modernism and postmodernism?

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Louis Menand:  Yeah,\r\n well, that’s one of those\r\nquestions that you can’t answer.  I\r\nmean, yeah, we’re probably post-postmodernism?  But\r\n what was postmodernism such that we’re post of it?  So\r\n it’s pretty tricky.

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But I think that the period of the 50’s and 60’s \r\nwas a\r\nperiod of kind of high veneration of the modernists, like Eliot, and \r\ncomparable\r\nfigures in the world of art, and so on. \r\nAnd the 60’s and the 70’s kind of replaced that with a different\r\ncanon.  So when I started out, I\r\nwas actually a Victorianist, that was my field.  I\r\n did 19th Century British literature, but by some fluke of\r\nthe job market, I got a job teaching modern literature and ended up \r\nwriting a\r\nbook on T. S. Eliot, who was, in those days, sort of king of modern \r\nliterary\r\nform, and criticism as well.

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But now the canon’s very different from that \r\nperiod, people\r\ndon’t write about Eliot and Pound any more, so that’s really changed a\r\nlot.  And I think our sensibility\r\nis not modernist anymore, that is, sensibility of people who are \r\ninterested in\r\nart and literature.

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Question: Are we\r\nexperiencing a broader decline in cultural literacy?

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Louis Menand:  I\r\n wouldn’t say that.  I mean, it’s, decline’s a \r\nfunny word to\r\nuse about any cultural moment.  I\r\nthink things are different from the way they were 40 or 50 years ago, \r\nbut the\r\nmedia are different, interests are different, you know, the demographics\r\n are\r\ndifferent.  It’s just a different\r\nworld.

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Just in higher education alone, more people go to \r\ncollege\r\nnow, by enormous amounts, than went to college in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s.  So that represents a whole new literate\r\npublic that’s a consumer of literature, of news, of print, of, you know,\r\nopinion.  And that’s a bigger\r\naudience and much more diverse audience than it used to be.  So it’s really hard to talk about\r\ndecline.  I think it’s just things\r\ndo shift.  And then when things\r\nshift, one’s own role in the culture shifts along with it and you have \r\nto\r\nadjust to that.

Whether we’re in postmodernism, post-postmodernism, or some other phase, one thing we’re not in is cultural decline.

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