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Postmodernism is an idea that has been extremely controversial and difficult to define among scholars, intellectuals, and historians, because the term implies to many that the modern historical period has passed. Nevertheless, most agree that postmodern ideas have influenced philosophy, art, critical theory, literature, architecture, design, marketing/business, interpretation of history, and culture since the late 20th century.

Postmodernity, a separate term, describes social and cultural conditions connected to the era in which postmodernism arose.


[edit] Overview

Scholars and historians most commonly hold postmodernism to be a movement of ideas contrary to modernism. Modernism is concerned with the metaphysical aim of uncovering a fundamental truth that lies beyond what we consider to be 'reality'. The Modernist interest in what lies beneath the surface of human existence, was influenced by the works of (among others) Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity and the questions posed by Quantum Theory. Postmodernism questions whether these ideals can actually exist at all.

In a nutshell, the pro-postmodernism argument runs that economic and technological conditions of our age have given rise to a decentralized, media-dominated society in which ideas are simulacra and only inter-referential representations and copies of each other, with no real original, stable or objective source for communication and meaning. Globalization, brought on by innovations in communication, manufacturing and transportation, is often cited as one force which has driven the decentralized modern life, creating a culturally pluralistic and interconnected global society lacking any single dominant center of political power, communication, or intellectual production.

Postmodernism's adherents often argue that their ideals have arisen as the result of particular economic and social conditions, including what is described as "late capitalism" and the growth of broadcast media, and that such conditions have pushed society into a new historical period. However, a large number of thinkers and writers hold that postmodernism is at best simply a period, variety, or extension of modernism and not actually a separate period or idea.

Postmodern scholars argue that such a decentralized society inevitably creates responses/perceptions that are described as post-modern, such as the rejection of what are seen as the false, imposed unities of meta-narrative and hegemony; the breaking of traditional frames of genre, structure and stylistic unity; and the overthrowing of categories that are the result of logocentrism and other forms of artificially imposed order.

Scholars who accept the division of post-modernity as a distinct period believe that society has collectively eschewed modern ideals and instead adopted ideas that are rooted in the reaction to the restrictions and limitations of those ideas, and that the present is therefore a new historical period. While the characteristics of postmodern life are sometimes difficult to grasp, most postmodern scholars point to concrete and visible technological and economic changes that they claim have brought about the new types of thinking.

Critics of the idea claim that it does not represent liberation, but rather a failure of creativity, and the supplanting of organization with syncretism and bricolage. They argue that post-modernity is obscurist, overly dense, and makes assertions about the sciences that are demonstrably false.

There are often strong political overtones to this debate, with conservative commentators often being the harshest critics of post-modernism. There is a great deal of disagreement over whether or not recent technological and cultural changes represent a new historical period, or merely an extension of the modern one. Complicating matters further, others have argued that even the postmodern era has already ended, with some commentators asserting culture has entered a post-postmodern period. Alan Kirby has argued, in his essay "The Death of Postmodernism, and Beyond", that we now inhabit an entirely new cultural landscape, which he calls "pseudo-modernism".

[edit] Term

As with many other divisions, the use of the term is subject to the lumpers and splitters problem. There are those who use very small and exact definitions of postmodernism, often for theories perceived as relativist, nihilist, counter-Enlightenment or antimodern. Others believe the world has changed so profoundly that the term applies to nearly everything, and use postmodernism in a broad cultural sense. People who believe postmodernism is really just an aspect of the modern period may instead use terms such as "late modernism".

[edit] Descriptions of postmodernism

  • "Postmodernism is incredulity towards metanarratives." Jean-Francois Lyotard [1]
  • "The theory of rejecting theories." Tony Cliff
  • "A generation raised on channel-surfing has lost the capacity for linear thinking and analytical reasoning." Chuck Colson [2]
  • "Postmodernist fiction is defined by its temporal disorder, its disregard of linear narrative, its mingling of fictional forms and its experiments with language." - Barry Lewis, Kazuo Ishiguro
  • "Weird for the sake of [being] weird." - Moe Szyslak, of The Simpsons [3]
  • "It’s the combination of narcissism and nihilism that really defines postmodernism," Al Gore [4]
  • "Post-modernism swims, even wallows, in the fragmentary and the chaotic currents of change as if that is all there is." - David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989. [5], [6], [7]
  • "We could say that every age has its own post-modern, just as every age has its own form of mannerism (in fact, I wonder if postmodern is not simply the modern name for *Manierismus*...). I believe that every age reaches moments of crisis like those described by Nietzsche in the second of the Untimely Considerations, on the harmfulness of the study of history (Historiography). The sense that the past is restricting, smothering, blackmailing us." - Umberto Eco, "A Correspondence on Post-modernism" with Stefano Rosso in Hoesterey, op cit., pp. 242-3 [8], [9]

[edit] Development of postmodernism

[edit] From modernism

Modernity is defined as a period or condition loosely identified with the Industrial Revolution, or the Enlightenment. One "project" of modernity is said to have been the fostering of progress, which was thought to be achievable by incorporating principles of rationality and hierarchy into aspects of public and artistic life. (see also post-industrial, Information Age).

Although useful distinctions can be drawn between the modernist and postmodernist eras, this does not erase the many continuities present between them. (These continuities are the reason that some refer to post-modernism as both the continuation as well as the cessation of modernism.) One of the most significant differences between modernism and postmodernism is its interest in universality or totality. While modernist artists aimed to capture universality or totality in some sense, postmodernists have rejected these ambitions as "metanarratives."

This usage is ascribed to the philosophers Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard. Lyotard understood modernity as a cultural condition characterized by constant change in the pursuit of progress, and postmodernity as the culmination of this process, where constant change has become a status quo and the notion of progress, obsolete. Following Ludwig Wittgenstein's critique of the possibility of absolute and total knowledge, Lyotard also further argued that the various "master-narratives" of progress, such as positivist science, Marxism, and Structuralism, were defunct as a method of achieving progress.

Writers such as John Ralston Saul among others have argued that postmodernism represents an accumulated disillusionment with the promises of the Enlightenment project and its progress of science, so central to modern thinking. 'Bold text'

[edit] Notable philosophical contributors

Thinkers in the mid and late 19th century and early 20th century, like Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, through their arguments against objectivity, and emphasis on skepticism (especially concerning social morals and norms), laid the groundwork for the existentialist movement of the 20th century. Writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Samuel Beckett, drew heavily from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and other previous thinkers, and brought about a new sense of subjectivity, and forlornness, which greatly influenced contemporary thinkers, writers, and artists. Karl Barth's fideist approach to theology and lifestyle, brought an irreverence for reason, and the rise of subjectivity. Post-colonialism after World War II contributed to the idea that one cannot have an objectively superior lifestyle or belief. This idea was taken further by the anti-foundationalist philosophers: Heidegger, then Ludwig Wittgenstein, then Derrida, who examined the fundamentals of knowledge; they argued that rationality was neither as sure nor as clear as modernists or rationalists assert.

Features of postmodern culture begin to arise in the 1920s with the emergence of the Dada art movement. Both World Wars contributed to postmodernism; it is with the end of the Second World War that recognizably post-modernist attitudes begin to emerge. Some identify the burgeoning anti-establishment movements of the 1960s as an early trend toward postmodernism. The theory gained some of its strongest ground early on in French academia. In 1979 Jean-François Lyotard wrote a short but influential work The Postmodern Condition: A report on knowledge. Also, Richard Rorty wrote Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes are also influential in 1970s postmodern theory.

Marxist critics argue that postmodernism is symptomatic of "late capitalism" and the decline of institutions, particularly the nation-state. The literary critic Fredric Jameson and the geographer David Harvey have also identified post-modernity with "late capitalism" or "flexible accumulation". This situation, called finance capitalism, is characterized by a high degree of mobility of labor and capital, and what Harvey called "time and space compression." They suggest that this coincides with the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system which they believe defined the economic order following the Second World War. (See also Consumerism and Critical theory). Other thinkers assert that post-modernity is the natural reaction to mass broadcasting and a society conditioned to mass production and mass politics. Related to this critical perspective on the economic, political and ideological realities of capitalist modernity is the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, who informs the versions of postmodernism elaborated by such authors as Murphy and Bielskis. On their account, MacIntyre's postmodern revision of Aristotelianism poses a challenge to the kind of consumerist ideology that now promotes capital accumulation.

The movement has had diverse political ramifications: its anti-ideological ideas appear to have been conducive to, and strongly associated with, the feminist movement, racial equality movements, gay rights movements, most forms of late 20th century anarchism, and even the peace movement, as well as various hybrids of these in the current anti-globalization movement. Unsurprisingly, none of these institutions entirely embraces all aspects of the postmodern movement in its most concentrated definition, but they reflect, or borrow from, some of its core ideas.

Influencer Year Influence
Søren Kierkegaard c.1843 "Truth is Subjectivity", stressing the importance of experience and relativity over absolute, concrete thoughts
Friedrich Nietzsche c.1880 no fixed values, God is dead, all perception is interpretation
Dada movement c.1920 a focus on the framing of objects and discourse as being as important, or more important, than the work itself
Karl Barth c.1930 fideist approach to theology brought a rise in subjectivity
Martin Heidegger c.1930 rejected the philosophical grounding of the concepts of "subjectivity" and "objectivity"
Ludwig Wittgenstein c.1950 anti-foundationalism, on certainty, a philosophy of language
Thomas Samuel Kuhn c.1962 posited the rapid change of the basis of scientific knowledge to a provisional consensus of scientists, coined the term "paradigm shift"
W.V.O. Quine c. 1962 developed the theses of indeterminacy of translation and ontological relativity, and argued against the possibility of a priori knowledge
Jacques Derrida c.1970 re-examined the fundamentals of writing and its consequences on philosophy in general; sought to undermine the language of western metaphysics (deconstruction)
Michel Foucault c.1975 examined discursive power in Discipline and Punish, with Bentham's panopticon as his model, and also known for saying "language is oppression" (Meaning that language was developed to allow only those who spoke the language not to be oppressed. All other people that don't speak the language would then be oppressed.)
Jean-François Lyotard c.1979 opposed universality, meta-narratives, and generality
Richard Rorty c.1979 philosophy mistakenly imitates scientific methods; argues for dissolving traditional philosophical problems; anti-foundationalism and anti-essentialism
Jean Baudrillard c.1981 Simulacra and Simulation - reality created by media

[edit] Deconstruction

Main article: Deconstruction

Deconstruction is a term which is used to denote the application of post-modern ideas of criticism, or theory, to a "text" or "artifact". A deconstruction is meant to undermine the frame of reference and assumptions that underpin the text or the artifact.

In its original use, a "deconstruction" is an important textual "occurrence" described and analyzed by many postmodern authors and philosophers. They argue that aspects in the text itself would undermine its own authority or assumptions and that internal contradictions would erase boundaries or categories which the work relied on or asserted. Post-structuralists beginning with Jacques Derrida, who coined the term, argued that the existence of deconstructions implied that there was no intrinsic essence to a text, merely the contrast of difference. This is analogous to the scientific idea that only the variations are real, that there is no established norm to a genetic population, or the idea that the difference in perception between black and white is the context. A deconstruction is created when the "deeper" substance of text opposes the text's more "superficial" form. This idea too is not isolated to post-structuralists but is related to the idea of hermeneutics in literature; intellectuals as early as Plato asserted it and so did modern thinkers such as Leo Strauss. Derrida's argument is that deconstruction proves that texts have multiple meanings and the "violence" between the different meanings of text may be elucidated by close textual analysis.

Popularly, close textual analyses describing deconstruction within a text are often themselves called deconstructions. Derrida argued, however, that deconstruction is not a method or a tool but an occurrence within the text itself. Writings about deconstruction are therefore referred to in academic circles as deconstructive readings.

Deconstruction is far more important to postmodernism than its seemingly narrow focus on text might imply. According to Derrida, one consequence of deconstruction is that the text may be defined so broadly as to encompass not just written words but the entire spectrum of symbols and phenomena within Western thought. To Derrida, a result of deconstruction is that no Western philosopher has been able to escape successfully from this large web of text and reach that which is "signified", which they imagined to exist "just beyond" the text.

The more common use of the term is the more general process of pointing to contradictions between the intent and surface of a work and the assumptions about it. A work then "deconstructs" assumptions when it places them in context. For example, someone who can pass as the opposite sex is said to "deconstruct" gender identity, because there is a conflict between the superficial appearance and the reality of the person's gender.

[edit] Social construction, structuralism, post-structuralism

Often opposed to deconstruction are social constructionists, labelled as such within the analytic tradition, but not usually in the case of the continental tradition. The term was first used in sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann's book The Social Construction of Reality. Usually in the continental tradition, the terms structuralism or post-structuralism are used. Maurice Merleau-Ponty is seen as the biggest contributor to structuralism, which is epitomized in the philosophy of Claude Levi-Strauss. Michel Foucault was also a structuralist but then turned to what would be termed post-structuralism, although he himself disputed that his views had been post-structuralist. Structuralism historically gave way to post-structuralism; often the role of postmodernism within the analytic tradition is played down, although works by major figures of the analytic tradition in the 20th century, including those of Thomas Kuhn and Willard Van Orman Quine, show a similarity with works in the continental tradition for their lack of belief in absolute [truth] as well as in the pliability of language. In the continental tradition, most works argue that power dissimulates and that society constructs reality, while its individuals remain powerless or almost powerless. Often, both continental and analytic sources argue for a renewed subjectivity, borrowing heavily from Immanuel Kant, while they largely reject his a priori/a posteriori distinction. They both minimize discussions of practical ethics, instead borrowing heavily from post-Holocaust accounts of the need for an ethics of responsibility, which is very rarely practically defined. One of the large differences between analytic postmodern sources and continental postmodern sources is that the analytic tradition by and large guards at least some of the tenets of liberalism, while many continental sources flirt with, or completely immerse themselves in, Marxism.

See article Postmodernism Manifestations

[edit] Criticism

The term postmodernism is often used pejoratively to describe tendencies perceived as relativist, counter-enlightenment or antimodern, particularly in relation to critiques of rationalism, universalism or science. It is also sometimes used to describe tendencies in a society that are held to be antithetical to traditional systems of morality. The criticisms of postmodernism are often complicated by the still-fluid nature of the term, and in many cases the criticisms are clearly directed at poststructuralism and the philosophical and academic movements that it has spawned rather than the broader term postmodernism.

[edit] As political

Michel Foucault rejected the label of postmodernism explicitly in interviews but is seen by many to advocate a form of critique that is "postmodern" in that it breaks with the utopian and transcendental nature of "modern" critique by calling universal norms of the Enlightenment into question. Giddens (1990) rejects this characterisation of modern critique by pointing out that a critique of Enlightenment universals were central to philosophers of the modern period, most notably Nietzsche. What counts as "postmodern" is a stake in political struggles where the method of critique is at issue. The recurring themes of these debates are between essentialism and anti-foundationalism, universalism and relativism, where modernism is seen to represent the former and postmodernism the latter. This is why theorists as diverse as Nietzsche, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, and Butler have been labelled "postmodern", not because they formed a historical intellectual grouping but because they are seen by their critics to reject the possibility of universal, normative and ethical judgments.

[edit] As intellectually and artistically disingenuous

Charles Murray, a critic of postmodernism, defines the term:

By contemporary intellectual fashion, I am referring to the constellation of views that come to mind when one hears the words multicultural, gender, deconstruct, politically correct, and Dead White Males. In a broader sense, contemporary intellectual fashion encompasses as well the widespread disdain in certain circles for technology and the scientific method. Embedded in this mind-set is hostility to the idea that discriminating judgments are appropriate in assessing art and literature, to the idea that hierarchies of value exist, hostility to the idea that an objective truth exists. Postmodernism is the overarching label that is attached to this perspective.

– Charles Murray, [1]

Central to the debate is the concept of "objectivity" and what it means. Denial of the practical possibility of objectivity is held to be the postmodern position, and a hostility towards claims advanced on the basis of objectivity its defining feature. It is this underlying hostility towards the concept of objectivity, evident among many contemporary critical theorists, that is the common point of attack for critics of postmodernism. Many critics characterise postmodernism as an ephemeral phenomenon that cannot be adequately defined simply because, as a philosophy at least, it represents nothing more substantial than a series of disparate conjectures allied only in their distrust of modernism.

The most prominent recent criticism of postmodern art is that of John Gardner. Gardner wrote that the classification "post-modern" / "modern" applied to the art of his time was an evasion, a stab at nothing - i.e., a move to elude the basic function of criticism, which, according to Gardner, is to judge art's moral value.

The Stuckist art movement has issued a series of manifestos denouncing postmodernism for what they see as its "scientific materialism, nihilism and spiritual bankruptcy".[5]

[edit] As a false distinction

The antipathy of postmodernists towards modernism, and their consequent tendency to define themselves against it, has also attracted criticism. It has been argued that modernity was not actually a lumbering, totalizing monolith at all, but in fact was itself dynamic and ever-changing; the evolution, therefore, between "modern" and "postmodern" should be seen as one of degree, rather than of kind - a continuation rather than a "break." One theorist who takes this view is Marshall Berman, whose book All That is Solid Melts into Air (1982) (a quote from Marx) reflects in its title the fluid nature of "the experience of modernity."

As noted above, some theorists such as Habermas argue that the supposed distinction between the "modern" and the "postmodern" does not exist, but that the latter is no more than a development within a larger, still-current, "modern" framework. Many who make this argument are academics with Marxist leanings, such as Seyla Benhabib, Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, and David Harvey (social geographer), who are concerned that postmodernism's undermining of Enlightenment values makes a progressive cultural politics difficult, if not impossible. That is, how can people effect any change in people's poor living conditions, in inequality and injustice, if they don't accept the validity of underlying universals such as the 'real world' and 'justice'? {Fact|date=February 2007}} How is any progress to be made through a philosophy so profoundly skeptical of the very notion of progress, and of unified perspectives? These critics argue that the postmodern vision of a tolerant, pluralist society in which every political ideology is perceived to be as valid, or as redundant, as the other, may encourage individuals to lead lives of a rather disastrous apathetic quietism. This reasoning leads Habermas to compare postmodernism with conservatism and the preservation of the status quo.

Such critics often argue that, in fact, such postmodern premises are rarely, if ever, actually embraced — that if they were, we would be left with nothing more than a crippling radical subjectivism. They point to the continuity of the projects of the Enlightenment and modernity as alive and well, as can be seen in science, in political rights movements and in the very idea of universities.

To some critics, there seems to be a glaring contradiction between maintaining the death of objectivity and privileged position on one hand, while the scientific community continues a project of unprecedented scope to unify various scientific disciplines into a theory of everything, on the other. Hostility toward hierarchies of value and objectivity becomes problematic to them when postmodernity itself attempts to analyse such hierarchies with, apparently, some measure of objectivity and make categorical statements concerning them.

[edit] As empty rhetoric

The criticism of postmodernism as ultimately meaningless rhetorical gymnastics was demonstrated in the Sokal Affair, where Alan Sokal, a physicist, wrote a deliberately nonsensical article purportedly about interpreting physics and mathematics in terms of postmodern theory, which was nevertheless published by Social Text, a journal which he and most of the scientific community considered postmodernist. Interestingly, Social Text never acknowledged that the article's publication was a mistake but supported a counter-argument defending the "interpretative validity" of Sokal's false article, despite the author's rebuttal of his own article. (see the online Postmodernism Generator)

[edit] See also

[edit] Theoretical postmodernism

[edit] Cultural and political postmodernism

[edit] Postmodernism in law

[edit] Postmodernism in theology

[edit] Notes

    [edit] References and further reading

    [edit] Books

    • Anderson, Walter Truett. The Truth about the Truth (New Consciousness Reader). New York: Tarcher. (1995) (ISBN 0-87477-801-8)
    • Ashley, Richard and Walker, R. B. J. (1990) “Speaking the Language of Exile.” International Studies Quarterly v 34, no 3 259-68.
    • Bauman, Zygmunt (2000) Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
    • Beck, Ulrich (1986) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity.
    • Benhabib, Seyla (1995) 'Feminism and Postmodernism' in (ed. Nicholson) Feminism Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange. New York: Routledge.
    • Berman, Marshall (1982) All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (ISBN 0-14-010962-5).
    • Bertens, Hans (1995) The Idea of the Postmodern: A History. London: Routledge.(ISBN 0-145-06012-5).
    • Bielskis, Andrius (2005) Towards a Post-Modern Understanding of the Political: From Genealogy to Hermeneutics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
    • Brass, Tom, Peasants, Populism and Postmodernism (London: Cass, 2000).
    • Butler, Judith (1995) 'Contingent Foundations' in (ed. Nicholson) Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange. New Yotk: Routledge.
    • Callinicos, Alex, Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique (Cambridge: Polity, 1999).
    • Castells, Manuel (1996) The Network Society.
    • Farrell, John. "Paranoia and Postmodernism," the epilogue to Paranoia and Modernity: Cervantes to Rousseau (Cornell UP, 2006), 309-327.
    • Giddens, Anthony (1991) Modernity and Self Identity, Cambridge: Polity Press.
    • Harvey, David (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (ISBN 0-631-16294-1)
    • Hicks, Stephen R. C. (2004) Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (ISBN 1-59247-646-5)
    • Jameson, Fredric (1991) Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (ISBN 0-8223-1090-2)
    • Lyotard, Jean-François (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (ISBN 0-8166-1173-4)
    • --- (1988). The Postmodern Explained: Correspondence 1982-1985. Ed. Julian Pefanis and Morgan Thomas. (ISBN 0-8166-2211-6)
    • MacIntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (University of Notre Dame Press, 1984, 2nd edn.).
    • Manuel, Peter. "Music as Symbol, Music as Simulacrum: Pre-Modern, Modern, and Postmodern Aesthetics in Subcultural Musics," Popular Music 1/2, 1995, pp. 227-239.
    • Murphy, Nancey, Anglo-American Postmodernity: Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion, and Ethics (Westview Press, 1997).
    • Natoli, Joseph (1997) A Primer to Postmodernity (ISBN 1-57718-061-5)
    • Norris, Christopher (1990) What's Wrong with Postmodernism: Critical Theory and the Ends of Philosophy (ISBN 0-8018-4137-2)
    • Pangle, Thomas L., The Ennobling of Democracy: The Challenge of the Postmodern Age, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991 ISBN 0-8018-4635-8
    • Sokal, Alan and Jean Bricmont (1998) Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science (ISBN 0-312-20407-8)
    • Taylor, Alan (2005) We, the media. Pedagogic Intrusions into US Film and Television News Broadcasting Rhetorics', Peter Lang, pp. 418 (ISBN 3-631-51852-8)
    • Torabully, Khal, Coolitude: An Anthology of the Indian Labour Diaspora (avec Marina Carter, Anthem Press, Londres, 2002) ISBN 1843310031
    • Vattimo, Gianni (1989). The Transparent Society (ISBN 0-8018-4528-9)
    • Veith Jr., Gene Edward (1994) Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (ISBN 0-89107-768-5)
    • Coupland, Douglas (1991). "Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture" (ISBN 0-312-05436-X)
    • Alexie, Sherman (2000). "The Toughest Indian in the World" (ISBN 0-8021-3800-4)

    [edit] External links

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