The Geopolitics of a Postmodern University

BarthThe world of geopolitics distilled into campus rivalry at the university? When I was at school this meant the followers of Mario Savio protesting the university’s allowing the United States Army to have a recruitment table up front outside the student union but denying Bettina Aptheker and her father the right of free assemble and their own version of propaganda rich fliers handed out around the campus. John Barth, in his excellent novel Giles Goat-Boy, or the Revised New Syllabus, creates a rollicking version of the political struggle between the West, representing the established hegemony, and the East, representing the evil upstart regime. It’s funny, in this university which, at least by way of analogy represents the entire planet, there is little mention of anything being actually taught to the students of either the West or the East campus or in any of the various mentioned colleges.

But a few comments on the experience of reading Barth, specifically Giles Goat-Boy and also some general comments on Barth’s work and his brand of postmodernism.

The first thing about Barth is that he selects a direction for his novels and he very carefully stays in his postmodern narrative even in the smallest of details. In Giles Barth creates a world that is both contained or surrounding the university (both physically and metaphysically) and everything in the novel (or the created fiction) reflects that world. You see this most obviously in the replacement of certain religious epithets with words more appropriate to school life and education: although Barth never stoops to telling you this, you soon begin to realize that words such as “damned” or “blessed” do not occur in the text; rather you read “flunkèd” or “passèd.” There is actually a god in Giles: but he’s known as the “Founder” whose son came to the campus and gave the Lecture on the Hill. More specifically, here’s the New Tammany College version of The Lord’s Prayer:

Our Founder; Who art omniscient,
Commencèd be Thy name.
Thy College come; Thy Assignments done
On Campus as beyond the Gate.
Give us this term Thy termly word.
And excuse us our cribbing,
As we excuse classmates who crib from us.
Lead us not into procrastination,
But deliver us from error:
For Thine is the rank, tenure, and seniority, for ever.
So pass us.

Barth never breaks from this trop of the university being the civilized world whether suggesting religious life or political life. The flunkèd  Eastern Campus supports dangerous Student-Unionism and sounds an awful lot like the USSR, whereas the passèd Western campus supports Informationalism and other good things. In the history of the university there have been campus riots (CR I and CR II) and currently there is a Quit Riot (Cold War, not the rock group) going on between the East and the West.

Barth is so detailed in his roman à clef that it would take the several reading of the novel to appreciate and understand all the references: some are pretty funny, too.

So that’s my first comment. If you still think Animal Farm is about a bunch of pigs, then Giles Goat-Boy might not be for you; otherwise it is highly recommended. One small caveat: like most novels by John Barth, this one is big and fat, requiring dedication and effort to read. Also, and here I will quote Wikipedia since my opinion differs:

The humor and many events of the book are frequently in extreme poor taste, employing a number of potentially offensive representations of blacks, Jews and women. Even events such as the Holocaust are treated as material for frivolously absurd humor.

Poor taste? How bizarro!

FSMMy second comment on the novel reminds me of when I first learned to program computers and would often be forced to generate messy decision tables to guarantee that my code would accurately make the correct decisions in the midst of a boolean jungle. “Passèd are the flunked;” “Failure is Passage;” “Homosexuals were flogged, irrespective of gender; flagellants were not;” “East is West;” “temperate is intemperate;” etc. In several places in the novel the discussion falls into a maelstrom of logic twisting phraseology that cries out for a good old fashioned finite-state automaton. A good example here is when the Goat-Boy is interpreting the items on his assignment: he must look for many alternate meanings of what at first appear to be simile phrases … sort of like making sure of what “Is” is.

Barth keeps the reader locked into the narrative with the connotational complexity of his text using terms, situations, characters, that are unexpected and logic that can have the reader traveling down a gopher hole if they don’t pay attention to what Barth wrote. So the warning: don’t read with expectations: Barth, at his postmodern best, gives the casual reader many opportunities to find themselves confused and lost in his novel, but then, this isn’t a short drive to the 7-11 … Barth asks you to join his convoy headed to The Mall of America and expects you to read every Burma Shave sign on the way.

One response

  1. Read the Sot-Weed Factor in the late 70s and stopped there. Probably a good idea, as I wasn’t equipped then ( and probably not now) to deal with post-modernist Barth. 35 years on, I may be able to take this on.

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