The term postmodernism has been defined in many different ways, and many critics and authors disagree on even its most basic precepts. However, many agree that, in literature, postmodernism represents the rejection of the modernist tenets of rational, historical, and scientific thought in favor of self-conscious, ironic, and experimental works. In many of these works, the authors abandon the concept of an ordered universe, linear narratives, and traditional forms to suggest the malleability of truth and question the nature of reality itself, dispensing with the idea of a universal ordering scheme in favor of artifice, temporality and a reliance on irony. Many postmodern writers believe that language is inherently unable to convey any semblance of the external world, and that verbal communication is more an act of conflict than an expression of rational meaning. Therefore, much work classified as postmodern displays little attention to realism, characterization, or plot. Time is often conveyed as random and disjointed; commonplace situations are depicted alongside surreal and fantastic plot developments, and the act of writing itself becomes a major focus of the subject matter. Many works feature multiple beginnings and endings. Much postmodern fiction relies on bricolage, which is the liberal use of fragments of preexisting literary material to create a work that places a higher value on newness than on originality. Postmodernism is generally considered to emanate from the social and political ferment of the 1960s. The Prague Spring of 1968 in Czechoslovakia, the Algerian War of Independence, and student protests in France and the United States are believed by critics to indicate a profound distrust in historical and cultural traditions, as well as modernist notions of progress, objectivity, and reason. French philosopher Jacques Derrida is credited as the foremost proponent of postmodern thought, particularly for his concept of deconstructionism. Any work that relies on words to convey meaning, according to Derrida, can be interpreted in many, often contradictory, ways. A thorough textual analysis of such a work reveals that the original author's perception, what he or she declares, is inherently different from what the author describes. Because the term is open to many different interpretations, many diverse works are classified as postmodern. While many works labeled postmodern do not strictly adhere to any formal tenets, a great number of them borrow postmodern techniques and devices, including discontinuous time, recurring characters, irony, and authorial intrusions. Postmodern works also evidence the belief that there is no distinction between reality and fiction, much like there is no inherent relationship between words and the objects they are meant to signify.
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (poetry) 1975
Houseboat Days (poetry) 1977
The Sot-Weed Factor (novel) 1960; revised 1967
Giles Goat-Boy; Or, The Revised Syllabus (novel) 1966
The Teachings of Don B.: Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories, and Plays of Donald Barthelme (short stories and plays) 1998
Writing Degree Zero (criticism) 1967
Critical Essays (criticism) 1972
Mythologies (criticism) 1973
The Pleasure of the Text (criticism) 1975
The Mirror of Production (criticism) 1975
In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities; Or, The End of the Social, and Other Essays (essays) 1983
Simulations (criticism) 1983
Illuminations (criticism) 1968
Little Big Man (novel) 1964
Jorge Luis Borges
Ficciones (short stories) 1944
The Aleph (short stories) 1949
Other Inquisitions (essays) 1952
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SOURCE: "The Self-Conscious Moment: Reflections on the Aftermath of Modernism," in TriQuarterly, No. 33, Spring, 1975, pp. 209-30.
[In the following essay, Alter presents an overview of postmodern fiction, including works by Cervantes, Borges, Flann O'Brien, Nabokov, and John Barth.]
Our literature has been for a hundred years a dangerous game with its own death, in other words a way of experiencing, of living that death: our literature is like that Racinean heroine who dies upon learning who she is but lives by seeking her identity.
—Roland Barthes, "Literature and Metalanguage"
A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. . . . Literature is not exhaustible for the simple and sufficient reason that no single book is. A book is not an isolated entity: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.
—J. L. Borges, "A Note on (Toward) Bernard Shaw"
Over the past two decades, as the high tide of modernism ebbed and its masters died off, the baring of literary artifice has come to be more and more a basic procedure—at times, almost an obsession—of...
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SOURCE: "Postmodernity and Hermeneutics," in boundary 2, Vol. V, No. 2, 1977, pp. 363-93.
[In the following essay, Palmer defends his postulation that postmodernism is an aesthetic movement of limited duration, and that modernity indicates the era beginning with the Renaissance and continuing into the present.]
I. BEYOND POSTMODERNISM TO POSTMODERNITY
"These are apocalyptic times, Doctor," says Strelnikov in Doctor Zhivago, and the same might be said today. Andrew Hacker has said that we stand at "the end of the American era,"1 but the more sobering thought is that we stand at the end of the modern era, an era stretching back not just two hundred but five hundred years. The "storming of the mind" to which Robert Hunter refers2 is the storming of the modern mind: not the mind of modernism, the modern mind.
Something like a general effort to break out of the limits of "modern" thinking is becoming evident today on many fronts. There is the practical gesture of deserting urban life to join an alternative community. In fact "alternatives" are springing up around us: alternative education, alternative agriculture, alternative medicine, alternative nutrition. In the academy, the revolt against positivism is gaining ground in psychology, sociology, political science, philosophy, and other disciplines. In literature there is the...
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In his important work Human Understanding, Stephen Toulmin argues that the epistemological self-image of modern man inherited from the seventeenth century does not cohere with recent thinking in the sciences.15 Scientists on the growing edge of thought today simply do not make use of the presuppositions of rationalist thought, yet these presuppositions persist because no one has come forward to articulate a clear "epistemological self-portrait" of man as viewed in contemporary models of thought. Consequently, present-day lay views of man tend to make assumptions about time, substance, mind and body, causality, and so on, that have been left behind in contemporary scientific theory. Toulmin's project is to bring epistemology up to date.
This version of postmodernity is perhaps the least radical of the ten we will discuss, since Toulmin does not venture to question scientific rationality as such but rather tries to bring contemporary epistemology (especially analytic philosophy) into harmony with advanced scientific theory. (At the end of his first chapter, Toulmin pays homage to Descartes' quest for firm, verifiable knowledge, and he claims only to be trying to bring Descartes up to date—one might say to "demythologize" him.) Yet Toulmin is important to the quest for a postmodern view of man because he is able, from within contemporary philosophy of science, to demonstrate the untenability of basic axioms of modern...
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In philosophy since Descartes and Bacon, and especially since Locke and Hume, the underlying goal has been to extricate thought from metaphysics—or, to use a more loaded term, "superstition." The dream of Descartes one November night in 1619 was the achievement of a single body of verified knowledge in every area of human endeavor. And the obvious way to such a body of knowledge was to be a method that set up criteria for achieving it. Hume, then Kant, then Nietzsche took up the fight against "metaphysics." Kant, as Foucault has noted, preserved the autonomy and freedom of man only by making him an "empirical-transcendental doublet,"18 thus escaping the depressing metaphysical consequences of Hume's radical empiricism. Yet this solution only substituted the metaphysical presuppositions of German idealism for the metaphysics of the great rationalists—Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Wolff.
It is Nietzsche, the relentless iconoclast, who goes to the roots of modern thought and who, in my opinion, is philosophically the door to postmodernity a door entered by Heidegger with results more radical than Nietzsche himself would have dreamed.19 Nietzsche attacked Descartes, Kant, Schopenhauer, Christianity (as a life-denying form of Platonism-for-the-masses), scientific objectivity, romanticism, Wagner, morality, contemporary art, Germans, and so on. When Nietzsche was through "philosophizing with a hammer," the...
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Perhaps nothing is more characteristic of modernity than the growth of science and technology. In premodern times (say, before 1480), human calculative reason was rated as only one among the several capacities of man, and it was always kept "in its place." With the rise of perspective (for with perspective came the spatializing and mathematizing of human reason), the powers of mind to control nature technologically were multiplied many fold. Perspective also separated the viewer of the world from what surrounded him, and by defining objects in terms of extension, of mass, perspective laid the foundations for the familiar Cartesian (and modern) dualism between a nonmaterial consciousness and a world of material objects. Galileo's maxim, "To measure everything measurable and to make what is unmeasurable measurable." may be called the slogan of the modern era. Time, too, came to be conceived in spatial terms, as the visual faculty began subtly to dictate the forms of modern thought. Being became "being-in-space" and time became a measured, linear continuum. An abstract, mental world of measurements, formulae, and conceptual thinking increasingly enabled modern man to take charge of his world.
Perspective, then, is more important than one might at first think. It furnishes the foundation for the spatialized thinking of modernity and the rise of mathematical geometry, which is the prerequisite for building modern machinery, as well as the...
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The technophobia—if one may call it that—found in Heidegger, Slater, and Roszak is by no means the definitive characteristic of postmodernity—a consoling fact, since we seem fated to live in an electronic and technological world for the forseeable future. Is it possible to articulate a perspective that does not uncritically surrender to either technophiles or technophobes? Ihab Hassan, an important literary theorist of postmodernism, believes that it is—that thought today is, under the influence of instantaneous electronic communication and other factors, moving toward a kind of gnosticism; but a "new gnosticism" appropriate to the postmodern age.31
Hassan notes "the growing insistence of Mind to apprehend reality im-mediately; to gather more and more mind in itself: thus to become its own reality. Consciousness becomes all, and as in a gnostic dream, matter dissolves before Light" (P, 122-23). The world in its solidity is dematerializing before our eyes. It is becoming all interpretation. "The Syntropic force of consciousness is remaking our world in every way" (P, 124). In the wholeness of consciousness the extremes of arcadia, as dreamed by the technophobes, and utopia, as dreamed by the technophiles, come together. The two sides of reality—earth and sky, myth and technology, female and male, Eden and Utopia, first and last—form a unity in consciousness. For Hassan, the new technology is not some bête...
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For some, the way beyond modernity is the way outside Western forms of thought: the orient, the Plains Indians, and Africa all offer radically nonmodern forms of reality. In the modern era, these have all been in part subjected to "modernization" (the movement toward centralized government, urbanization, secularization, the breakdown of kinship ties—a process well described by C. E. Black in relation to the "modernization" of Japan and other Asian countries33). But nonwestern viewpoints have penetrated the West as well. This is probably most notable in the vogue of Zen Buddhism and various forms of spiritual discipline from the East, such as yoga, transcendental meditation, and t'ai chi chuan. Nontheistic religions, such as Zen, offer depth in spiritual discipline to Westerners for whom the general credibility of theistic religion has been subtly undermined by the secularity and rationalism of the modern worldview. The use of koans to break the hold of logic on the mind serves as a powerful antidote to the Western rational orientation to the world.
But perhaps no single onslaught on the obvious ultimacy of Western definitions of reality and rationality has been more colorful, provocative, and effective than the four works by Carlos Castaneda describing his apprenticeship to a Yaqui sorcerer and "man of knowledge."34 These works trace an Odyssey in which a young, scientifically and analytically...
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A way of thought is indicated by what it regards as axiomatic, and naturalism is axiomatic for the contemporary scientific view of the world. Naturalism refers to the belief that the natural, material world, including the organic world of nature and our bodies, is an autonomous domain basically unaffected by consciousness—either one's own or that of higher or lower beings. In harmony with this naturalism is the modern view that diseases like cancer or arthritis have nothing to do with the mental state of their possessors. The mind is merely a monitor for pain and other messages from the body, and a receptor of stimuli from the external world. Its powers do not extend to overcoming diseases directly nor to telepathic communication with nature or other human minds.
While the presuppositions of naturalism are of great methodological value in searching for the natural causes of natural events, they have important negative consequences if taken into social relations, religion, or one's general view of things. For naturalism represents a prior judgment that no nonphysical agencies can be at work in our world. It opens the way to reducing reality to what can be observed and verified and then to what can be stated in terms of causal relation. Instances of telepathy or faith healing are incomprehensible within the framework of naturalist assumptions, and it is almost comical to see the absurd lengths to which the empirically minded will go to...
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7. The apostles of "new consciousness"
The most extreme form of transcending modernity is probably that of proposing a whole "new consciousness." Into this category fall many efforts that have little claim to serious attention, efforts that venture off into fantasies and questionable extrapolation from puzzling bits of evidence. The works of von Däniken offer an interesting challenge to the prevailing evolutionary concepts,46 as do the theories on myth as early astronomy suggested in Giorgio de Santillana's Hamlet's Mill.47 Among the striking points von Däniken makes is not only the possibility of human life having been initiated by interstellar visitors but also the idea that human subsolar time may not be the measure for interstellar travel; time may stretch or shrink for beings who venture outside the horizon of the solar system itself. Thus, interstellar travel may not be a human impossibility after all, although it would be anybody's guess who and what would be on earth if and when the interstellar traveller returned.
Perhaps the most interesting ideas about new consciousness revolve around the question of whether a "mutation" of consciousness is about to take place. The French duo of Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, in The Morning of the Magicians and other works, argue that already in our historical past there have been mutations of consciousness—that is, beings...
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The rebellion against the heritage of modernity in psychology has taken the form of an increasingly critical attitude toward the illusions of positivism. Greater methodological reflexivity in the discipline has suggested to psychologists (in some quarters) that the "objectively described" data have become objective only through an act of renouncing large blocks of subjective or otherwise nonobjectifiable reality. Empirical seeing can be a form of empirical blindness to the nonobjectifiable sides of phenomena. Especially in counselling, psychologists have keenly felt the gap between data from the laboratory or from objective studies and, on the other hand, the kinds of inner struggle in which their patients are engaged. We shall single out only a half-dozen or so developments with significance for our theme.
First, there is the rise of phenomenological psychology. Herbert Spiegelberg has devoted a lengthy book to this topic,53 and other books have arisen out of the Lexington conferences on applied phenomenology, published by Duquesne University Press. We shall not attempt to describe this movement. A recent book—Three Worlds of Therapy,54 by Anthony Barton—characterizes the psychotherapeutic approaches of Freud, Rogers, and Jung by imagining the same patient interacting with three different therapists. Three quite different analyses arise. The contrasts are almost caricatures and often are humorous: the...
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Paul Ricoeur observed at the beginning of his book on hermeneutics and Freud (1964) that the problem of language has become the corssroads of contemporary European thought. No one concerned with the problem of language can ignore the tremendous ferment in French thought in the period since 1960, in which perhaps the most colorful development was the vogue of structuralism. The offspring of linguistics and anthropology, more a method than a philosophical position, structuralism intoxicated contemporary intellectual circles like a new and heady wine. Roland Barthes is perhaps the figure who most fruitfully responded to the impetus of structuralist thought. Yet structuralism in France was only one of several currents of thought in a milieu of Marxist literary theory, the continuing legacy of phenomenology and existentialism, and such unclassifiable thinkers as Foucault and Derrida. With Foucault and Derrida French thought takes conscious direction toward the transcendence of modern forms of thought. Foucault asserts that the sciences of man are dead because "man" as a conception is dead. The "study of man" must give way to the more interesting and definitive matter: shifts in forms of representation. Applying the concept of underlying forms of thought (epistemê), which would seem to derive from structuralism, Foucault in The Order of Things attempts an archeology of knowledge that charts fundamental shifts in constellations of forms of...
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One could define postmodern literary theory very loosely as theory that rebels against formalism—especially the New Criticism, with its roots in the aesthetics of Modernism and French Symbolism. One might see, then, already with Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, a movement away from the aestheticism of the New Critics.70 Yet Frye is frankly Aristotelian (as he states in his Preface) and his theoretical self-understanding certainly does not take a "postmodern" turn. Nor are social criticism and eclecticism, as alternatives to New Criticism, radical alternatives that venture beyond modernity. They only modify the extremes of formalist-rhetorical criticism.
The Geneva critics, however, do find in phenomenology the philosophical basis for a standpoint that is not formalist, nor simply eclectic, but genuinely moves beyond the objectivist assumptions of most modern criticism.
Sarah Lawall's excellent survey Critics of Consciousness gives an account of these critics and of a single American critic, J. Hillis Miller.71 Miller is now at Yale with Geoffrey Hartmann, Paul de Man, and others, in a group which well may prove a seminal source of postmodern literary criticism and theory. The influence of Derrida is strong in this group, and has been felt already in Diacritics and New Literary History, as well as in Hillis Miller's review of Joseph Riddel's The Inverted...
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If we want a hermeneutics that survives the transition to postmodernity, I think we need to renew our sense of the mythic meaning of Hermes. Hermes was a boundarycrosser, the god of exchanges of all kinds, as well as messenger-mediator between the realm of the gods and that of man. In ancient Greece, altars to Hermes stood at crossroads and at borders, where exchanges most often took place. Persons of different languages and different countries often made their exchanges at the border. So it is not strange that the term hermeneuein means to translate, to explain. The interpreters of Homer were "hermeneuts" even though their interpretation was not a translation or an explanation but a performance that brought the text to effective presence. The term hermeneutics is rich in associations and meaning; only in modern times does the term become a more specialized process of commentary on texts or validation of texts. When Hans-Georg Gadamer attempted a "philosophical hermeneutics" that approached interpretation in broader terms, he was restoring something of the breadth of meaning the term had in Greek usage.78
Just as the term "postmodern" may be broadened by relating it to postmodernity and not just postmodernism, the term hermeneutics may be broadened by considering it in the context of different forms of mediation and what they entail. For the essential thrust of the term hermeneutics is to involve a kind of...
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Hermeneutics, then, is not an "ism." It is not the property of Heidegger and Gadamer, although I find that they are very helpful in grasping the relation between interpretation and the philosophical movement away from objectivity. Hermeneutics is the discipline of bridging gaps and of theorizing about what is involved in this process. For this reason it is open to the kinds of "reality" that come into view in Castaneda, or R. D. Laing, or James Hillman.
Hermeneutics must go deeper than all merely methodological reflection about interpretation. In fact, it asks about the effects on interpretation caused by the methodological stance itself. It comprises a new reflexivity about interpretation—what happens when interpretation takes place within the context of modern, premodern, and postmodern assumptions about reality. It functions as a critique of methodology, ideology, and epistemology; thus it is already a critique of modernity.
Hermeneutics as philosophical reflection about interpretation takes as its subject the conditions under which understanding takes place. It studies misunderstanding and breakdowns in interpretation because they reveal the absence of conditions necessary for understanding. The focus of hermeneutical reflection is not methodology but the hermeneutical situation. Hermeneutical reflection asks: What happens when one operates on the basis of one view of language rather than another, one view of...
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What do these considerations mean for the teacher-interpreter of literature? They mean that if a change in the conceptions of language, history, truth, myth, art, and understanding is involved, this is not a matter of changing a method of interpreting but the rules of the game; or perhaps, making it a new game. If postmodernity brings this kind of fundamental change the hermeneutical task must take on a new shape.
Obviously this new shape cannot be described in detail, and even my own image of it is but an interpretation, a construction. But I would look forward to a greater dignity for the teacher of literature. I find pale and thin the job-descriptions teachers carry in their minds. Interpreting texts is an important matter. It is not just a dialogical matter, although it must be this: it is an ontological matter, a matter of existing fully. To interpret (should I say perform) a text can be an act as meaningful as any external action one might take. An act of understanding a text can alter one's consciousness, redirect one's life, seal one's fate. Teachers are not hucksters of "aesthetic experiences," they are helpers and builders in the business of "soul-making"—to use a phrase of James Hillman. As the name hermeneutics suggests, one may be the agent of the gods, and one must be able to interact with the "gods." Not the monotheistic God but the gods that shape our lives.
Teaching literature is creative and...
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SOURCE: "Writing about Postmodern Writing," in Poetics Today, Vol. 3, No. 3, Summer, 1982, pp. 211-27.
[In the following omnibus review of several critical works on postmodernist literature, McHale finds similarities and differences among the conclusions drawn by Christine Brooke-Rose, Christopher Butler, Anne Jefferson, and Alan Wilde.]
"Postmodern"? No such word appears in the index of Ann Jefferson's book on the nouveau roman,1 nor does it occur in the chapters that Christine Brooke-Rose devotes to contemporary French writing. Yet Brooke-Rose's index2 does give a number of page-references under "postmodern (postmodernism, postmodernist)," including two entire chapters. All these contexts turn out to be discussions of contemporary American writing: for Brooke-Rose, "postmodernism" is the name of an exclusively American school or movement. But even having restricted it in this way, she is not much satisfied with this equivocal term: "postmodernism," she writes,
is a sort of English equivalent to nouveau nouveau, for it merely means moderner modern (mostmodernism?), although it could in itself (and sometimes does) imply a reaction against "modernism" (p. 345).
Christopher Butler,3 who seems to share none of Brooke-Rose's dissatisfaction, uses the term more or less in her second...
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SOURCE: "Postmodern Theory/Postmodern Fiction," in Clio, Vol. 16, No. 2, Winter, 1987, pp. 139-58.
[In the following essay, Johnston surveys the theories of several postmodernist literary critics, including Brian McHale, Frederic Jameson, Patricia Waugh, and Michel Foucault.]
In recent years the term "postmodernism" has acquired considerable currency, but without there being much consensus as to its meaning or even its legitimacy. For the sake of convenience, I would like to propose three categories for dealing with different versions of postmodernism: literary/aesthetic postmodernism, historical (or cultural) postmodernism, and theoretical postmodernism. In my critical remarks, however, I shall be less concerned with the periodization or the modern/postmodern break per se than with the extent to which these different approaches remain conceptually bound within a modernist domain which some contemporary works of fiction seem to have exceeded.
Probably the most familiar version of postmodernism is the literary or aesthetic one, of which I'll single out only two strands. The first is advanced by people like Patricia Waugh and Brian McHale in England, and Jerome Klinowitz and Ihab Hassan in the United States. What is important for them—what signals the presence of the postmodern—is the foregrounding of literary artifice, the presentation of the work as metafiction or fabulation,...
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SOURCE: "Postmodernism and American Literary History," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. XCIX, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 40-60.
[In the following essay, Hirsch defends New Criticism practices against what he perceives as the failed philosophical underpinnings of postmodern criticism.]
Anglo-American New Criticism had nearly run its course by the end of the 1960s. What had started as an innovative method of reading literary works creatively had, in all too many instances, declined into a robotic and repetitious exercise in counting images and demonstrating paradoxes for their own sake. A clear signal that the end was at hand for the New Criticism was the proliferation of essays that seemed to have as their goal nothing more than adding up various kinds of imagery without regard to their importance or to how the images functioned in the semantic system of the work. In a liberal society founded on an ideology of revolution and progress, change is always at hand; and in the late sixties one could sense that changes in the practice of literary criticism had become not only desirable but inevitable. Unfortunately the forerunners of change that came in the form of attacks on the New Criticism were directed not against particular essays of practical criticism but against such slogans as "the autotelic poem," "the intentional fallacy," and "the affective fallacy"—slogans derived from two theoretical essays that...
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SOURCE: "Critical Literacy and the Postmodern Turn," and "Postscript to 'Critical Literary and the Pstmodern Turn'," in Critical Literacy: Politics, Praxis, and the Postmodern, edited by Colin Lankshear and Peter L. McLaren, State University of New York Press, 1993, pp. 379-420; 421-25.
[In the following essay, McLaren and Lankshear examine the impact of postmodernist literary thought on education and society.]
Educators have become increasingly aware that, far from being a sure means to attaining an accurate and "deep" understanding of the world and one's place within it, the ability to read and write may expose individuals and entire social groups to forms of domination and control by which their interests are subverted. During the past two decades important advances have been made in understanding the ideological role of literacy within the production and "allocation" of economic, political, and cultural power. The "two-sided" character of literacy has been revealed. Developments in the "new" sociology of knowledge and the wider application of Marxist theory to education during the 1970s and 80s greatly enhanced our knowledge of how literacy in particular, and education in general, can serve to domesticate populations and reproduce hierarchies of inequality and injustice. At much the same time, such educational events as the dramatically successful Cuban and Nicaraguan literacy campaigns, and other...
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Poststructuralist theorists, among others (notably, feminists), have criticized educators for working within a discourse of critical rationalism which reifies the humanist subject—the rational, self-motivating, autonomous agent—as a subject of history, change, and resistance. They maintain that what separates being an individual from being a subject is a linguistic membrane known as discourse. Discourses provide individuals with identifications which convert them into subjects. By contrast, the rationalist position associated with the modern Enlightenment rests on a "metaphysics of presence" which constitutes the individual as a noncontradictory, rational, self-fashioning, autonomous being: Descartes' fully conscious "I" immediately transparent to itself. There is a logic of identity here in which the self defines itself in opposition to the "other." The forced unity of this position and the unilinearity of its progressive rationality work to deny the specificity of difference and heterogeneity. The subject is projected as a unity, but this disguises and falsifies the complex disunity of experience.18
The debate over postmodernity is largely related to the advent of multi-national or late capitalism, which has formed, from its "centerless ubiquity,"19 a new postmodern subject out of the pathological jumble of consumer myths and images fed by the global dispersal of capital and its constant promises of fulfillment...
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Another major contribution of poststructuralist theory has been its revelation that texts need to be understood in their historical, political, and cultural specificity. There are no texts which are meant in the same way by readers because readers occupy different subjective positions of articulation. The rhetorical claims of the text are integrated or transformed through the parallel rhetorics of common sense and the everyday against which they are read.
Poststructuralism has provided a necessary shift from a critical focus on text alone to the dynamics of culture and consumption reflected in the reader. Bennett24 cuts across the notion of the unitary experience of reading in suggesting how subjects approach a text with already coded perceptions of "reading formations." These consist of a set of discursive and textual determinations which organize and animate the practice of reading. Reading formations, says Bennett, may be shaped by social positionality (such as the role of class and gender relations in organizing reading practices), intertextual determinations (readers' experience of other texts), and culturally determined genre expectations (the dominant codes that govern the popular text, or subcultural codes such as feminism, trade unionism, Marxism, moral majority thinking, and so forth). Readers are thus placed in a position in which they can potentially refuse the subject position which the text "coaxes" them to...
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Various other obstacles to a political agenda of justice and emancipation have been discerned within postmodern social theory. Barbara Christian's critique of postmodern discourse takes aim at the language of literary critical theory. She condemns this language on the grounds that it "mystifies rather than clarifies our condition, making it possible for a few people who know that particular language to control the critical scene—that language surfaced, interestingly enough, just when the literatures of peoples of color, of black women, of Latin Americans, of Africans, began to move to 'the center.'"37
Still further problems are seen to arise from postmodern attacks on the unified, transcendental ego and the rejection of theoretical procedures for arriving at ontologically and metaphysically secure truth claims. In particular, postmodern theorists are seen as at risk of lapsing into an ethical relativism and a burgeoning nihilism. French versions of postmodernism have been seen as reflecting "a disturbing kinship with facism," and Jürgen Habermas has actually accused Bataille, Foucault, and Derrida of being "young conservatives."38
Peter Dews has taken up this latter line, revealing its ethical and political implications. He targets post-structuralism, with its "Nietzsche-inspired assault on any putatively universal truth" and its tendency to implicitly equate the rational principle of...
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If feminists have advanced some of the more strident critiques of postmodern social theory on behalf of a politics of material engagement in the cause of freedom and justice, they have also given clear pointers to a way ahead. In resisting "the dangers inherent in a complete decentering of the historical and material" and in their task of "changing the power relationships that underlie women's oppression," feminists offer postmodernist discourse a way of dealing with contradictions which do not decenter their own categories of analysis in such a way that political reform is immobilized. Feminist discourse can move analysis away from the word and toward the world, since, according to Mary Hawkesworth, "feminist accounts derive their justificationary force from their capacity to illuminate existing social relations, to demonstrate the deficiencies of alternative interpretations, to debunk opposing views." It is "precisely because feminists move beyond texts to confront the world" that they are able to give "concrete reasons in specific contexts for the superiority of their accounts." From the perspective of feminist theory, postmodern anthropology may actually "erase difference, implying that all stories are really about one experience: the decentering and fragmentation that is the current experience of Western white males."40 The dangers are obvious:
If the postmodernist emphasis on multivocality leads to...
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Recent work by Larry Grossberg on the relationship between structure and agency offers valuable insights for further developing a critical poststructuralist agenda in literacy research and practice. The structure-agency debate has haunted critical social theory for decades: initially in its modernist "moment," but later within poststructuralist theorizing as well.
Grossberg detects the carryover of an Althusserian view of subject formation into dominant strands of poststructuralism, resulting in an unwanted determinism. The subject becomes essentially a passive occupant of a particular discursive construction, although individuals are not all constructed equally. Social groups are positioned differentially within domains of subjectivity—that is, places from which one experiences the world—and according to discursively constituted systems of social differences (black/white, gay/hetero, poor/rich, female/male, and so on). Different discourses (economic, educational, legal, medical) enable or constrain the power that allows subjects to give voice to their experiences within specific systems of language and knowledge. The process of ideology constructs sets of "cultural identities" which determine the meaning and experience of social relations within fields of difference such as race, gender, class, and sexual preference.
Grossberg is critical of the determinism in such poststructuralist conceptions of the formation...
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The United States as global educator; constructing the "other". The United States is fast becoming the global educator par excellence. This is of growing concern for those interested in developing critical research practices for the study of literacy. Through its ideologies of individualism and free enterprise, it is fostering tutelary democracies among the "barbaric" and "uncivilized." This raises the following questions: How can we avoid reconstituting the "Other" in the language of a universal, global discourse (in this case an uncritical acceptance of liberal humanism)? How can we refrain from keeping the "Other" mute before the ideals of our own discourse? What research practices must exist in order to restore the marginalized and disenfranchized to history?
Inden argues that U.S. pedagogy is underpinned by a commonsense theory of the mind which assumes that most students are converted to the American way of life before entering school. Except in the most stubborn cases, the teacher need merely convey to the students' reasoning faculties through books (which mirror the world rather than deal with physical objects situated in the world) information needed to live in a natural, rational universe of commonsense enlightenment whose social analogue is U.S. civic culture.50 Here educators confront the legacy left by the colonizer, especially in relation to minority populations in U.S. schools, where there are concealed...
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Eagleton argues that the discourse of modernism in the teaching of English constitutes both a moral technology and a particular mode of subjectivity. Dominant forms of teaching English serve to create a bourgeois body/subject that values subjectivity in itself. This occurs through "particular set[s] of techniques and practices for the instilling of specific kinds of value, discipline, behaviour and response in human subjects."57 Within liberal capitalist society the lived experience of "grasping literature" occurs within a particular form of subjectivity which values freedom and creativity as ends in themselves, whereas the more important issue should be: freedom and creativity for what? It would seem that one alternative to the modernist pedagogy decried by Eagleton would be a poststructuralist approach to teaching. But poststructuralist pedagogy, although an improvement on modernist approaches, can appear politically progressive while still serving the interests of the dominant culture.
Mas'ud Zavarzadeh58 has recently attacked poststructuralist theory and pedagogy, arguing that the dominant humanist and poststructuralist pedagogies used in the academy are similar in that both reflect a resistance to theory. Whereas humanist pedagogy constructs a subject that is capable of creating meaning, poststructuralist pedagogy offers textuality as a panhistorical truth that exists beyond...
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SOURCE: "Individual Voice in the Collective Discourse: Literary Innovation in Postmodern American Fiction," in Sub-stance, Vol. 27, 1980, pp. 29-39.
[In the following essay, Russell surveys the fiction of several contemporary American authors, including Thomas Pynchon, to convey his belief that postmodernism reflects the ambiguity and self-consciousness of life in the latter half of the twentieth-century.]
Since World War II, a new aesthetic and social configuration—the postmodern—has appeared in Europe and the Americas. Studied, but only imprecisely defined, by scholars, artists and writers alike, the postmodern signals a significant change in the nature of the individual's relationship to society. Like the dominant aesthetic traditions of the past 150 years, modernism and the avantgarde, postmodernism displays an alienated, if not antagonistic, response to the aesthetic, ethical and spiritual concerns of bourgeois culture. But with few exceptions, contemporary writing is much less anguished and is narrower in scope than its predecessors. Rare are the heroic modernist efforts to conceive metaphoric or mythic systems to both encompass and transcend the social referent. At the same time, the bravado of the avant-garde assault on culture is curiously lacking. At the heart of recent innovative writing is a troubled and problematic creative sensibility. The writer's analytic stance still fosters a...
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SOURCE: "The Name of the Rose' as a Postmodern Novel," in Naming the Rose: Essays on Eco's 'The Name of Rose, ' edited by M. Thomas Inge, University Press of Mississippi, 1988, pp. 48-61.
[In the following essay, Parker examines the postmodernist tendencies of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose in light of Eco's own literary criticism.]
We live in a decade of "post's": poststructuralism, postmodernism, and the teasingly paradoxical postcontemporary. Almost no one, however, seems happy with the term postmodern. It is most often used, as one critic puts it, "pis aller," as if it were a tool designed obsolete or a category always empty.1 In his Postscript to "The Name of the Rose, " Eco slips by its insufficiencies with characteristic good humor, noting its ever-widening range and variety of application, and ultimately presenting it as "an ideal category—or better still, a Kunstwollen, a way of operating."2 This tendency toward a functional, not a descriptive, definition is characteristic of his humor: Eco moves at once from the ambiguities of what to the palpabilities of how, treating the postmodern as an ironic "reply to the modern" (67). Despite some deprecating preliminaries, Eco takes pains to recast this term, redefining it with some of the irony he holds so central to a postmodern attitude. By the end of this section of the Postscript,...
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SOURCE: "Postmdernism and Barth and the Present State of Fiction," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 60-72.
[In the following essay, Bradbury discusses the fiction of John Barth, finding that the author uses self-reflexive techniques to comment on American culture.]
It is a commonplace of postmodernist fiction that it contains within itself a degree of self-reflection and selfreference. Indeed, the absence of these elements from more recent departures within the development of, particularly, American fiction has led to claims for the rise of a new realism within the genre. The irony of this change is that it has been contemporaneous with the development of a poststructuralist criticism which has as one of its major projects the disassembly of classic realist texts into their component writerly parts.
In the manner of his writing, if in no other, John Barth has resisted the tides of 'conservative realism' as they have swept back towards presenting the 'good old' values of straight-talking fiction as the new avant-grade. The postmodernists, the game-players, the questioners of the ontological and epistemological status of fiction, have been supplanted by Raymond Carver and friends; those describers of a world with which 'we are all familiar'—and the ideological ramifications of this phrase for an increasing conservatism do not need to be spelled out by me....
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SOURCE: "Postmodern Romance: Don DeLillo and the Age of Conspiracy," in The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 89, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 337-53.
[In the following essay, McClure examines novelist Don DeLillo's adaptation of popular novels of different genres, including science fiction, espionage, and occult adventures.]
Don DeLillo crafts his fictions out of the forms of popular romance: out of the espionage thriller, the imperial adventure novel, the western, science fiction, even the genre of occult adventure. He may conduct us, in one novel, across several genres: Running Dog begins as a spy story, turns, as one of the characters remarks, into a western, and ends on a note of New Age adventure, with the introduction of a figure out of Castañeda's Don Juan books. Contemporary literary theory invites us to see in such minglings the project of pastiche: a play across forms uninflected with any impulse to criticism or reanimation. But DeLillo is not simply playful; there's a logic to the transitions he orchestrates, an urgency to the shiftings and sortings, a critical edge to his appropriations. He is engaged in tracing a kind of history of romance: challenging the modernist notion that global secularization and "rationalization" would make its production impossible; showing how these very processes produce new sources for romance. And he is interested in exploring the power of the new formulas,...
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SOURCE: "Practicing Post-Modernism: The Example of John Hawkes," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 38-57.
[In the following essay, Unsworth defends Jerome Klinkowitz's assertion that contemporary artists and writers influence each other by examining the relationship between John Hawkes and Albert Guerard.]
"The excitement of contemporary studies is that all of its critical practitioners and most of their subjects are alive and working at the same time. One work influences another, bringing to the field a spirit of competition and cooperation that reaches an intensity rarely found in other disciplines" (x). In these remarks on "contemporary studies," Jerome Klinkowitz takes for granted that contemporary writers and their critics belong to one "discipline," the academic discipline of literary study. This affiliation of criticism and creative writing within a single institutional framework does indeed compound the influence that critic and author have on one another's work, as it multiplies the opportunities and the incentives for cooperation; but rather than simply celebrating this fact, as Klinkowitz does, we ought to inquire into the consequences of the professional interaction and practical interdependence of author and critic, particularly as it affects the creativity of the former and the judgment of the latter.
John Hawkes provides an excellent...
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SOURCE: "The Postmodern Novel: The Example of John Irving's The World According to Garp'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 49-62.
[In the following essay, Wilson claims John Irving 's The World According to Garp as an example of postmodern literature precisely because it borrows stylistically from such diverse writers as James Joyce, John Cheever, and John Barth.]
As a novel that recapitulates within itself a history of twentieth-century fiction, John Irving's The World According to Garp illustrates a key aspect of postmodernism, that of formal replenishment. The earlier segments of Garp exhibit strong elements of modernism whereas in its final third, Irving's book is a postmodern novel of bizarre violence and black humor, flat characters, and metafiction—a mode of writing one might expect from the pen of John Barth, Robert Coover, or Thomas Pynchon. Specifically, in its first segment, Garp is the artist's bildingsroman like James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Then Garp becomes a mid-century novel of manners dealing with the surface tone, the daily rituals, and the social patterns of American couples, its chief drama being found in adultery and sexual interaction—a novel such as one might have expected from John Updike or John Cheever. However, in John Barth's concept of a literature of...
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The postmodern novel contains all the earlier modes of the novel, contains them intrinsically within the process by which a literature of exhausted possibilities replenishes itself. Such commentators as Albert J. La Valley, Herman Kahn, and Christopher Lasch may see causes of change in recent literature in deep cultural contexts. La Valley says that the new literature reflects a new consciousness that has been "inspired in part by the breakdown of our culture, its traditions, and its justifications of the American social structure," (1); Kahn and Wiener refer to our culture as being in the "Late Sensate" stage, our art, including literature, reflecting a culture in the state of decline (40-41); and Lasch argues that "Bourgeois society seems everywhere to have used up its store of constructive ideas" and that there is "a pervasive despair of understanding the course of modern history or of subjecting it to rational direction" (xii). However, the originator of the expression "literature of exhaustion," John Barth, referred to it as "the literature of exhausted possibilities" and says that by "'exhaustion' I don't mean anything so tired as the subject of physical, moral or intellectual decadence, only the usedupness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities" (Klein 267). Despair might be the reaction of a contemporary writer of fiction when he or she faces the realization that the limited number of possible variations in the form of fiction...
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Because the term zone comes from Gravity's Rainbow, this category highlights the relationship between Garp and Thomas Pynchon's great novel. Speaking of the zone of occupation in defeated Germany, Brian McHale says that as Gravity's Rainbow unfolds, "hallucinations and fantasies become real, metaphors become literal, the fictional worlds of the mass media—the movies, comicbooks—thrust themselves into the midst of historical reality." As such, "Pynchon's zone is paradigmatic for the heterotopain space of postmodernist writing" (45). The World According to Garp has a zone, as I shall argue, that fits Gravity's Rainbow's paradigm. Brian McHale suggests that behind all the postmodernist fictional construction of zones "lies Apollinaire's poem, 'Zone' (from Alcools, 1913), whose speaker, strolling through the immigrant and red-light districts of Paris, finds in them an objective correlative for modern Europe and his own marginal, heterogeneous, and outlaw experience" (44). However, an even better explanation might be found in Philip Roth's observation that "the toughest problem for the American writer was that the substance of the American experience itself was so abnormally and fantastically strange, it had become an 'embarrassment to one's own meager imagination'" (Bellamy 3). "If reality becomes surrealistic," Joe David Bellamy asks, "what must fiction do to be realistic?" (5). It must become bizarre,...
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Umberto Eco notes the shift in contemporary novels, where an author "renounces all psychology as the motive of narrative and decides to transfer characters and situations to the level of an objective structural strategy." Eco sees this "choice familiar to many contemporary disciplines" as one in which an author passes "from the psychological method to the formalistic one" (146). Eco's words fit with Robert Scholes's prediction that the key element in the coming new fiction would be a new dimension of the "care for form" (41). This noncharacter orientation provides a point of reference between The World According to Garp and Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, which is organized neither by plot nor by revelation of its intentionally flat characters but by the structural relationship of game and ritual and the progressive transformation of the one into the other.
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Metafiction is another instance where fiction turns away from outside reality and seeks a subject intrinsically suited to the written word. In this method, the technique of composition becomes to some extent the subject of fiction itself.3 If television and movies are vastly better adapted to creating an illusion of reality—the depiction of objects—then fiction must find other subjects for its own surivival, just as painting turned to the nonrepresentational when painters recognized the photograph's power to recreate a scene accurately. In the metafictional dimension, we see the connection of The World According to Garp to other postmodern fiction, for example to the stories John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, especially the title story, in which the implied author presents himself as trying—and failing—to write a conventional story by the cookbook-recipe method but actually writing a postmodern story. Of another story in the volume, "Autobiography," Barth says in his author's note, that it is "the story, speaking of itself (x).
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP AS POSTMODERN FICTION
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As a novel that shifts from mode to mode, The World According to Garp illustrates the postmodern as a literature of replenishment: Garp recapitulates within itself a history of the twentieth-century novel, performing a tacit critique of the earlier forms. Irving starts in an early twentieth-century mode. Reviewing the fiction of this era, Irving Howe (Klein 124-41) says that whereas nineteenth-century realism studied social classes, early twentieth-century fiction studied the rebellion of the Stephen Dedaluses against behavior patterns imposed by social classes in a particular country. In this conception, the modern novel came into being when James Joyce reconstructed the existing form of the bildingsroman to create A Portrait.4 More than merely recasting the autobiographical novel into the "individuating rhythm" of Dubliners, Joyce helped form the modern consciousness itself. D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers shares this feature with Joyce's A Portrait; and although Lawrence's novel retains more of the trappings of nineteenth-century realism than Joyce's book, both create characters that do not fit into their own world but who express an aesthetic that is familiar in our intellectual climate.5 John Irving achieves similar effects in his bildingsroman.
The bildingsroman form is suited to linearity of narrative flow, reflecting the linear growth of a...
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The nearly gothic episodes of the first two sections prepare us for the novel's final section. The salient events in the third section are intrusions of public life into the private: assassinations, mob violence, and highway mayhem, much of it not accidental. The public/private dichotomy presents itself most clearly in Garp's refusal to accept the fact that a strictly women's memorial service for his mother, Jenny Fields, is not a private funeral but a public, political event. It would be unthinkable to bar a son from the one, but unthinkable to welcome a man to the other.
As for the bizarre, not only is the setting moved to Jenny Field's madcap home for "injured women" at Don's Head Harbor; but even more significantly, we suddenly find ourselves in a world as strange as the fictional zones of a Thomas Pynchon or a John Hawkes, if not one reaching the extremes of a William Burroughs. In the final section of Irving's novel, T. S. Garp expresses the dominant feeling: "Life is an X-rated soap opera" (338). Akin to both fantasy and myth, this feeling becomes progressively objectified when the horrible "Under Toad" first grows from a family joke, introduced analeptically, into a code word for speaking about a hovering fear. Then, although the reader's mind tries to reject overt supernaturalism, the Under Toad becomes a veritable character, a vengeful beast who at times becomes as real as Grendel in the Old English poem. The...
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The third section, more than the first two, bears out the postmodern ethic by which to declare a character psychologically flat need not be to denigrate the author's skill. Irving's mistrust of over psychologizing may have led to his statement that "the phrase 'psychologically deep' is a contradiction of terms." Irving feels that such a view "is a terribly simplistic and unimaginative approach. Ultimately it is destructive of all the breadth and complexity in literature" (McCaffery interview 11). Complexity in the final third of Garp arises from structure, from ironic genre manipulation, from the problematic nature of the text's relationship to the world, and not from any probing of psychological motive that might lead to internal character revelation. The third section of the text is marked by a lack of interest in motive: of assassins, of the Ellen Jamesians, of Garp when he insists on performing actions that he knows draw destruction down upon himself, even though he desires safety. While reflecting the postmodern distrust of "the subject" as a useful category, the flattening of character in the third section of Garp may, even more, express a sense of the individual's powerlessness within an absurd situation.
The novel draws its unity, not from continuity of plot, as in the premodernist novel, nor from analysis of character, a feature of modernist fiction, but partially from the operation of motif: a repetition of...
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Irving's novel alludes to the phenomenon of metafiction when discussing the rejection note that Garp received for "The Pension Grillparzer": "The story is only mildly interesting, and it does nothing new with language or with form" (129). Tinch, Garp's former instructor, said he really did not understand the "newer fiction" except that it was supposed to be "about it-it-itself. . . . It's sort of fiction about fi-fi-fiction," Tinch told Garp. Garp did not understand either and, in truth, cared mainly about the fact that Helen liked the story. But although Garp was not interested in metafiction at this stage of his career, we can see that Irving is to some degree practicing this aspect of the new fiction in the third section of Garp. While the accounts of Garp's earlier novels may bear a certain resemblance to Irving's own earlier works, these need not be considered metafictional manifestations; one merely suspects Irving of a certain wry humor of self parody, while he remains in the traditional mode of autobiographical fiction or even within the mere technique of an author drawing on his own experience for his fiction.8 In contrast, when we enter the third section we encounter Garp's novel The World According to Bensenhaver, with its obvious similarity in title to The World According to Garp. Although there are significant differences between the novel we are reading and the one we are reading about, the...
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SOURCE: "Surfiction: A Postmodern Position," in Critifiction: Postmodern Essays, State University of New York Press, 1993, pp. 35-47.
[In the following essay, Federman proposes that surfiction is the only contemporary literature that revels in humankind's intellect, imagination, and irrationality because it recognizes life itself as fiction.]
Now some people might say that the situation of fiction today is not very encouraging, but one must reply that it is not meant to encourage those who say that!
Writing about fiction today, one could begin with the usual clichés: the novel is dead; writing fiction is no longer possible nor necessary because real fiction happens, everyday, in the streets of our cities, in the spectacular hijacking of planes, in space, on the Moon, in the Middle-East, in China, in Eastern Europe, and of course on television (especially during the news broadcasts); fiction has become obsolete and irrelevant because life has become much more interesting, much more dramatic, much more intriguing and incredible than what the dying novel can possibly offer.
And one could go on saying that writing fiction is now impossible (as many theoreticians and practitioners of fiction have demonstrated lately) because all the possibilities of fiction have been used up, abused,...
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SOURCE: "Contemporary Short Fiction and the Postmodern Condition," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 32, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 147-59.
[In the following essay, Clark examines the viability of the short story in the age of postmodernist literature.)
Entangled on one side with the tribe, on another with the marketplace, the short story inhabits postmodernity differently from the novel. It moves differently, and in ways still unarticulated, on the force field of contemporary culture, participating in what Fredric Jameson has called a "revival of storytelling knowledge" in the postmodern world and giving voice to the increased "vitality of small narrative units" (Foreword xi) but inadequately explained with respect both to its modernist precursors in Chekhov, Joyce, and Welty and to its raw materials, life at the end of the twentieth century.
While a few story writers (Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, William Gass, and Max Apple, among them) have advanced under the sign of the postmodern, producing in sometimes-brilliant miniature the kinds of metafictional, anti-mimetic, ontologically indeterminate narration writ large in the postmodern novel, many recent stories appear to have no significant share in those ironies and indeterminacies. The working class passivity of Raymond Carver's characters, the middle-class anomie of Ann Beattie's seem no more than lifelike, minutely reflective of...
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SOURCE: "Languages of Post-Modernism," in Chicago Review, Vol. 27, No. 1, Summer, 1975, pp. 11-22.
[In the following essay, Davidson examines some defining characteristics of postmodernism that have appeared in American poetry and art.]
Aristotle tells the story of C ratylus, who became so infatuated with Heraclitean notions of flux and change that he proceeded to amend the famous statement, "No man steps into the same river twice," to the effect that 'no man can do it once.' His reasoning, apparently, was based on the fact that in the interval between the time that man touches the surface of the river and when his foot touches the bottom, the river has already changed. So committed was Cratylus to this view that he finally gave up speaking altogether (since to form words was to give a false image of permanence) and could be seen about the public square only waggling his finger.
The crisis of Cratylus is the crisis of all modernisms, since the act of taking up a new reality involves a reevaluation of the terms in which it is embodied. Cratylus' silence might be seen as the recognition of Heraclitus' failure and his finger waggling as the attempt to "do" philosophy in a manner coincident with its ideas. The contemporary poet is in the same situation: how is it possible to "do" poetry authentically without resorting to the rhetorics and dictions of the previous period?
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SOURCE: "What Is Living and What Is Dead in American Postmodernism: Establishing the Contemporaneity of Some American Poetry," in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 22, No. 4, Summer, 1996, pp. 764-89.
[In the following essay, Altieri finds that contemporary American poetry has to a significant extent divested itself from the stylistic and thematic traits of postmodern critical theory.]
I think postmodernism is now dead as a theoretical concept and, more important, as a way of developing cultural frameworks influencing how we shape theoretical concepts. With its basic enabling arguments now sloganized and its efforts to escape binaries binarized, it is unlikely to generate much significant new work.1 On this I suspect most critics would agree. But that then raises the more troubling question of whether the notion of postmodernism has any more vitality as a rubric capable of sponsoring significant new work in the arts. Perhaps now that the theory has lost much of its power it may be possible to recognize how much it appropriated from the arts and to focus on differences between the two orientations. It may even be possible to regain for the arts some of the cultural authority they at least thought they possessed before "theory" took over the role of shaping how imaginations might cultivate alternatives to the ideologies dominating "official culture."
I propose to show how some...
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When I use the term postmodernist theory, I refer to conceptual work conforming to the parameters of one or more of five basic discursive frameworks that provide partial, overlapping arguments devoted at least in part to characterizing postmodern culture and its consequences. The first, and now least current, of these orientations has been devoted to clarifying how the arts see themselves as reacting critically to the formal and cultural values basic to late modernism—for example, by undoing the primacy of optical experience; by shattering formal purity so as to let through the "noise of the world" with all its historical density; by challenging the idealization of poetry as an engagement with universal tragic realities demanding mature, self-reflexive, balanced contemplative attitudes; by letting form play with the imperatives of function; and by cultivating those event-qualities within art that create the mysterious openness that Ihab Hassan calls "indetermanency."
Traces of these themes remain in the other four discourses, but their basic concern is with transforming predicates about art into those that apply to the overall cultural theater: the emphasis on surfaces culminating in Warhol now takes the form of a general claim about the simulacral texture of contemporary life; Robert Rauschenberg's flat-bed principle becomes a generalized openness to heterogeneity and contradiction; Jasper Johns's duplicities become Jameson's...
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SOURCE: "Postmodernism: Extension or End of Modernism? Theater between Cultural Crisis and Cultural Change," in Zeitgeist in Babel: The Postmodernist Controversy, edited by Ingeborg Hoesterey, Indiana University Press, 1991, pp. 216-28.
[In the following essay, Fischer-Lichte distinguishes between Modernism and Postmodernism in the theater.]
The controversy surrounding postmodernism which has currently aroused fierce debate in various fields on different levels culminates in the persistent question of whether postmodernism has effected a complete break with modernist traditions, or whether it has, on the contrary, only radicalized the trends first formulated and pronounced by modernism and extended its conclusions. Both viewpoints are vigorously upheld. This is all the more extraordinary since the ground on which the controversy should be discussed is not yet clearly plotted: Does the modernism dealt with here begin with the Querelle des anciens et des modernes or with the Enlightenment? With the industrialization of Western Europe or with Nietzsche? Should one see the historical avant-garde movement as an integral component of modernism (as most European critics seem to do), or should modernism be defined by the exclusion of the avant-garde movement (as many American critics would argue)? In attempting to examine the question of whether the "true" Epochenschwelle [threshold of an epoch] is...
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Calinescu, Matei and David Fokkema, eds. Exploring Postmodernism: Selected Papers Presented at the XIth International Comparative Literature Congress, Paris, 20-24 August 1985. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1987, 269 p.
Includes essays by Ihab Hassan, Marjorie Perloff and Stefano Rosso.
Caramello, Charles. Silverless Mirrors: Book, Self & Postmodern American Fiction. Tallahassee: University Presses of Florida, 1983, 250 p.
Traces the development of the authorial self throughout American fiction.
Docherty, Thomas, ed. Postmodernism: A Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, 528 p.
Includes a wide range of essays by major postmodernist thinkers, including Frederic Jameson, Ihad Hassan, Jean Baudrillard, and Umberto Eco.
Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988, 268 p.
Maintains that postmodernism embraces history while challenging its assumptions, and that postmodernism is deliberately contradictory.
Journal of Modern Literature 3, No. 5 (July 1985): 1065-1268.
Presents essays from Timothy Materer, Charles Baxter, and others that trace the development of literature from such modernists as Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein to...
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