Walking Macao

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 July, 2009, 12:00am

Walking Macao
by Jeremy Tambling and Louis Lo
HK University Press/Instituto
Cultural de Macau

Postmodernism, like political correctness, has fallen across academia like a shower of strontium-90 in the last generation or so. And like any radioactive exposure, these toxic ideologies produce mutant birth defects for decades.

Both - thankfully - are now past their half-life, but it will take another generation before common sense and a respect for facts and objective truth can safely venture back out of the closet.

Jeremy Tambling and Louis Lo, the authors of Walking Macao, Reading the Baroque - both professors of literature - explore the SAR district by district and in the process interpret and discuss elements of 'the baroque' in ways that most general readers would find obscure or absurd.

Here's one example: statues of St Teresa of Avila have such an other-worldly facial expression and beatific gaze because she was actually having an extended orgasm, but didn't realise this sensation was quite what she felt at the time. Such puerile tosh buttresses today's 'standpoint epistemology' where all intellectual positions - however crackpot they appear on closer examination - are equally 'valid'.

Like most other postmodern 'artefacts', the identity of the intended readership of Walking Macao, Reading the Baroque remains 'playfully' mysterious. In the book's defence, it is possible - just - that terms such as 'structural poetics' and 'founded on a rhetoric' have precise, technical meanings that specialists in cultural theory could perhaps explain to the rest of us.

As far as this book is concerned then, either its target readership is: 1) a minority audience of academic specialists who possibly know and understand what these terms mean; or 2) a larger general audience - the jacket publicity suggests this - in which case, larded throughout with obscure terminology, Walking Macao has failed miserably.

Tambling and Lo jointly wrote the text, and the seams and basting stitches that hold their writing together clearly show. But this doesn't matter much because the whole work is a ponderous mass of obfuscation. Unsurprisingly, postmodernism's pantheon - Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault and others from the same French Hall of Shame - dominate the entire 'discourse'. Unfortunately, none of these Gallic 'scholars' was obsessed with factual accuracy. Nor are their disciples.

Inherent in any work that touches on history, which provides a central focus and framework for this book (as far as there seems to be one) is, as British historian Eric Hobsbawn famously noted, 'the professional obligation not to get it wrong - or at least to make an effort not to'. But in works like this one, factual accuracy - boring, bourgeois details such as names, dates and places, minor but enduringly significant real-world signposts for the rest of us - are sacrificed to 'riffs' and 'tropes'. Why, postmodernist frauds allege, should a staid, elitist allegiance to verifiable facts be allowed to stand in the way of 'playful' theories?

Here's a particularly egregious, easy-to-correct example: Steve Wynn does not own the Sands and Venetian casino complexes, Sheldon Adelson does, at least for now. There are plenty of others.

Good historians of any stripe make it look deceptively easy. But it is not easy to distil the bewildering complexity of happenings across time and space into a coherent, meaningful narrative. Any intelligent reader can understand 'normal', well-written academic history; postmodern practitioners, however, like the priests of old, need to surround their discipline with verbal minefields whose obvious intent is to keep lesser minds out.

Some academic disciples (hard sciences, humanities and music) do require the learning of specialised languages.

But it grates when intellectual shenanigans pose as solid contributions to knowledge.

If turgid postmodernist discourse and outrageous cultural theory, artfully disguised in an illustrated art-history guidebook of sorts pique your interest, this book for you. If not, leave it on the shelves.