WEEK 11: Brave New Words: How Literature Will Save the Planet by Elizabeth Ammons

Brave New Words: How Literature Will Save the Planet by Elizabeth Ammons

Brave New Words: How Literature Will Save the Planet by Elizabeth Ammons


Published in 2010 and directed towards an academic audience, this wasn’t a “fun” read per se. However, it reaffirmed the personal ideologies that led me to become an English major in the first place.

Author Elizabeth Ammons (who is a professor of literature at Tufts University and sounds like someone I would really like to meet someday) begins with an analysis of postmodern theory and how it’s “bedrock commitment to antifoundationalism, indeterminacy, multiplicity, and decenteredness” leads to a lack of faith in the generation being educated in the postmodern era. My generation.

Now if that sounds like a lot of literary mumbo-jumbo to you, that’s because it is. To put postmodern theory into real people speak, it came to be in the post-civil rights era when people of color and women were insisting that their literature and voices had every right to be a part of the canaan, along with the traditional literature predominantly written by white males. As a result postmodern theory began to assert that because “all” forms of knowledge and expression are worth studying, none can be more worthy than others, thus there are no absolutes. Central to this theory is a general sense of ambiguity, that if everything matters, then nothing matters.

So you are probably thinking that this has nothing to do with your daily life, so why write an entire book about it? A professor of mine once explained the pervasive “trickle down” tendency of academic theory to me via a scene in “The Devil Wears Prada.” When Meryl Streep playing a wonderfully vile Miranda Priestly explains to Andy that her “lumpy blue sweater” is actually “cerulean blue” that “filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin..and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff,” she is describing a perfect metaphor for the way academic theory works. It filters into our lives in subtle yet significant ways. After all, “YOLO” culture got it’s roots from somewhere.

I suspect this theoretical perspective is part of the reason “The Walking Dead” has become such a hit series as of late. If you haven’t heard of the show because you have been living under a rock somewhere, it focuses on a handful of characters and their struggles to survive in a post-apocalyptic, zombie infested world. When you look at the prevalent themes in the show, they often deal with not only survival, but the willingness to survive at all. So many of the characters struggle to find reason to keep fighting for life in the wake of losing loved ones or having nowhere to go. They struggle for hope, for a faith that gives them reason to keep fighting. I see many of my peers struggling for this very same hope that things can be different in a world where everywhere they turn things are going wrong.

This lack of faith has begun to grow like a wild tree fungus, choking to death those who can’t manage to separate themselves from the societal nihilism. Rooted in postmodern theory, it is the opposite of the right-wing, religious fundamentalists who never dare to question their faith and are vilified by left-wing academia. Yet, at it’s core, the two strains of belief are cut from the same cloth: a stubborn commitment to belief, or a stubborn rejection of belief. Postmodernism’s unwavering commitment to “nothingness” and “meaninglessness” without question leaves so many young people feeling indifferent and discouraged in the face of the future. Ammons states a reality that so many modern humanists don’t realize – the nature of humanity requires us to need to believe in something. Postmodernism leaves us with a gaping hole where that belief should be.

But the author argues that it doesn’t have to. Humanists, and those teaching the generations growing up right now should see it as their responsibility to teach young people not only about the injustices going on in the world, but also how we can go about fixing them. Hope incites change, and literature and the humanities are great avenues to instill hope in our young people.

For a very insightful article on how the U.S. has instilled hopelessness in it’s young people, check out 8 Reasons Young Americans Don’t Fight Back: How the US Crushed Youth Resistance. But don’t get discouraged, there are still people out there committed to creating change, regardless of what the world is shouting at them. Surely, Ammons is one of them. Check out the PDF version of the book, provided by the Project MUSE database.

Overall score: On a literary level, a 5. If you’re not into the academic jargon, this review is all you  need to get the gist.

Questions or Comments? Let me know!


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