What does Craig Owens mean when he defines postmodernism as an effect or expression of “a tremendous loss of mastery” by previously dominant forms of Western culture in The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon and Foe by J. M. Coetzee?

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When, in his essay "The Discourse of Others," Craig Owens defines postmodernism as "a tremendous loss of mastery . . . not primarily a cultural mastery, but an economic, technical, and political one" (176), he seems to refer to what he will later call a "refusal of mastery." That is,...

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When, in his essay "The Discourse of Others," Craig Owens defines postmodernism as "a tremendous loss of mastery . . . not primarily a cultural mastery, but an economic, technical, and political one" (176), he seems to refer to what he will later call a "refusal of mastery." That is, instead of actually losing a sense of mastery (which, it seems, he believes to exist in prior periods of art, writing, etc.). He seems not to suggest that postmodernism is inherently inferior to other art forms but that a conscious stray from traditional artistry is necessarily present. For each of the two texts, The Crying of Lot 49 and Foe, there are certainly two different examples of this "refusal of mastery."

Starting chronologically, The Crying of Lot 49, which was published in 1966, takes a seemingly direct refusal of traditional literary mastery. Where Hemingway (and many others) wrote directly to the point, crafting beautiful and poetic prose with as effective word choice as possible, Thomas Pynchon unreels sprawling depictions of nearly psychedelic scenes. This is clearly depicted immediately, with the first sentence of the novel reading,

One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Mass came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.

Of course, a sprawling and seemingly unfocused opening sentence such as this might, had it been written by a less talented novelist than Pynchon, seem entirely amateurish. Even still, many critics find Pynchon's sensory-overload-style prose improperly unrestrained. Yet, that didn't stop the novel from appearing on Time Magazine's 100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to 2005.

The Crying of Lot 49 skillfully attempts to unravel an incredibly complex plot of federal mail conspiracies and queerly-named characters (Mike Fallopian was a character name that gave several critics a difficult time). The novel begins and ends without any absolute resolution of the plot. Events are only minimally explained, and, unlike many pulp novels or noir films that precede it, a conveniently wrapped-up plot is wholly avoided. Such traits—the coherent and decipherable plot, a restricted usage of prose and poetry—are mostly absent in Pynchon's novel. It's important and interesting to note the literary scholar Ian Gregson, who considered postmodernism to be "the move away from narrative, from representation."

In his introduction to the novel Slow Learner, Thomas Pynchon writes,

As is clear from the up-and-down shape of my learning curve, however, it was too much to expect that I'd keep on for long in this positive or professional direction. The next story I wrote was The Crying of Lot 49 . . . in which I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I'd learned up until then.

This admission by Pynchon seems to, in a sense, reflect Owens's own musings on postmodernism's "lack of mastery." Owens's suggestion that many postmodern artists employ a refusal of mastery is likely the case with Pynchon; his insistence on pummeling the reader with more information than is typical in literary prose is surely intentional. His views on 1960s American society are harshly satirical. His complex and difficult-to-navigate plot seemingly depicts the complex nature of life itself.

In terms of Coetzee's Foe, which acts purely as a sort of reimagining of Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe, the instance of a "loss of mastery" comes partly from its being an example of metafiction. Metafiction, which acts as a sort of partner to postmodernism, insists on crafting a piece of fiction that is, in a sense, self-aware of its being a work of fiction.

Foe seems to be in dialogue with itself, its readers, the novel Robinson Crusoe, and the entire idea of the colonial fiction that Robinson Crusoe belongs to. Literary critic Peter Morgan suggests that Foe "willingly and self­-consciously displaces itself," a suggestion that can further link the book to Owens's ideas of mastery. Paying close attention to the word self-consciously, one can gather that Foe lacks a mastery found in other fields of literature, in which confidence exudes through the author's skill. This is, of course, not to consider Coetzee to be an unskilled writer. It's more important to understand that Coetzee's tendency to have his work be self-aware also suggests that his work recognizes its own flaws.

Lastly, looking at the form of Foe, which exists mostly in the form of notes written by Susan Barton to the eventual author of Robinson Crusoe, Mr. Foe, it can show how the novel exists in Owens's idea of a lack of mastery. The traditional idea of a narrative is scrapped in favor of a philosophical idea of authorship's relation to words and people in general.

Where traditional and often masterful novelists and poets frequently created their work by adhering to specific standards, Thomas Pynchon and J. M. Coetzee, in their novels The Crying of Lot 49 and Foe, seem to stand boldly and intentionally against this tradition. In the case of Pynchon, by creating seemingly unnecessary wordiness and dizzying incomprehensible plots, a new form of expression is found; the traditional mastery is consequently scrapped. With Coetzee, by playing with the idea of what makes a piece of literature and by creating self-conscious metafiction, the author accepts and understands his own limits as an artist and, consequently, his own lack of mastery.

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