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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.

Richard E. Palmer

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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.]


"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...

(This entire section contains 1464 words.)

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"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 rejection of tradition, of coherence and rationality, of nameability. (Beckett: "In the silence, you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on"—The Unnamable.) In literary interpretation, one finds efforts to move beyond formalism and merely rhetorical criticism—speech act theory as the basis for a new criticism, new literary history, and more recently "deconstructionist" theories of language and text. The aestheticism inherent in formalist poetics becomes increasingly inadequate to the kinds of literature that are appearing and to the kinds of experience with a text which the reader may be seeking.

In literature and literary theory, the revolt against modernism—however one may choose to define the term—should be seen within the context of a whole constellation of rebellions. This means much more than recognizing that modernism is a phenomenon in music, representational arts, theater, painting, and so on; it means sensing something of the larger significance of these rebellions as part of the winding down of modernity itself. This winding-down is taking place in many different forms and levels of human endeavor; it involves a major change in worldview. I am suggesting that we should see postmodernism in the context of this larger transformation to which I have given the name postmodernity.

Postmodernism and postmodernity differ, then, profoundly. Postmodernism is something like a movement or current of thought, whereas the term postmodernity points to a diverse range of activities—indeed to a coming era of time. Postmodernism might last a decade or two, postmodernity some five hundred years; or perhaps all the time after the end of the "modern era," which I take to occupy the period from about 1480 to the present, perhaps to 1987. (This is the date the Aztec calendar predicts as the end of the age, and also the end of a sequence of five ages.3) The New Yorker can announce that "postmodernism is dead" and suggest that "postpostmodernism" is now the thing;4 on the other hand, postmodernity is not a movement and its death cannot be announced. Moreover, the modernism to which postmodernism is "post" was a literary-artistic movement in France, then Spain, then England and the Americas.5 Modernity, however, does not refer to "modernism" at all but to the five-hundred year cultural epoch in Europe extending from the Renaissance to the present. This epoch, I believe, is drawing to an end as we prepare for the transition to a "postmodern" consciousness and a "postmodern" era.

The vast difference in meaning between postmodernism and postmodernity has consequences for postmodern literary theory. As radical as postmodernism may seem to its exponents in the arts and in critical theory, it barely hints at the kind of epochal change implied in the term postmodernity. For instance, the postmodern literary theorist may be quite ready to reject the aesthetics (and aestheticism) of modernism as static and logocentric and to make a new start in terms of literary form, but he may balk at rejecting the heritage of humanism. The place of man at the center of things, of reason as man's best hope against the powers of irrationality, of nature as essentially separate from and alien to the being of man—these must remain axiomatic even while great changes in style and value take place. To call into question the heritage of humanistic rationality, the humanistic view of the world, the humanistic conception of the status of man in the cosmos—that would be going too far. So the post-modern artist and literary theorist may be ready for postmodernism but not for postmodernity.

To turn against modernity itself means to call the modern epoch, with all its artistic, scientific, and cultural grandeur, all its huge successes, into question. It involves the need for radical thinking—that is, thinking that goes to the roots. It means examining the foundations of modern thinking that took shape in the Renaissance: the secular self-assertion, the frenzy to measure everything—Galileo's famous maxim was "To measure everything measurable and to make measurable what is not yet measurable!"—and the effect of dichotomization between a monadic, observing subjectivity and a world of (essentially material) objects. It means calling into question the Enlightenment's faith in endless progress through scientific rationality. And it means exploring the impact of the rise of perspective on the structure of modern consciousness: the tendency to "see" in terms of extension and the situated observing eye, the spatializing of objects and of time—and ultimately the dominance of spatializing modes of thought. William Ivins has called this process "the rationalization of sight."6 In Heideggerian terms, the turn against modernity involves calling the "subjectism" (Subjektität) and "will to power" at the heart of technology into question and realizing the extent to which they shape modern thought.7

It is one thing for the urban intellectual in New York or Paris to join the avant-garde theoretical critique of modernism; it is quite another matter to call liberal humanism and the beauties of traditional humanistic rationality into question. Alternative definitions of the nature of the real—such as Zen Buddhism, the reality experienced by primitives and shamans, the egolessness of schizophrenia—would shake the foundations of rationality and must be rejected. That would be "getting irrational." To talk about "epochal transformations of culture" (William Irwin Thompson), or the "rhapsodic intellect" (Theodore Roszak), or the "separate reality" of the shaman (Carlos Castaneda), or religious transcendence in relation to schizophrenia (R.D. Laing), would be to turn away from the only realistic response to the hard problems of today—technological rationality. It would be taking inter-planetary refuge from the reality of stinking rivers.8 the hard realities of unemployment, pollution, inflation, overpopulation, energy shortage, and so on, cannot—say the humanists—be solved by retreat into orientalism, romanticism, or schizophrenia. One can, as a liberal, academic, humanistic intellectual, protest against metaphysical thinking without going off the deep end.

Clearly, then, it is one thing to call modernism into question and quite another to try to venture beyond modernity itself. To be a "postmodern literary theorist" may not change anything about the way one is doing business as a liberal, urban, academic intellectual. To take the turn toward postmodernity, on the other hand, calls the benefits of modernization itself into question.9 It calls the academic system, with all its sophisticated testing, into question.10 It calls the liberal solutions to social problems into question. The "postmodern literary theorist" may be ready for sophisticated talk about language, philosophy, and social evils, but not for a real revolution—in either academia or society at large.

Whether or not we stand "at the edge of history," as William Irwin Thompson believes,11 or at a transitional point on the way to a new epoch and a "new consciousness" which will be as different from the modern as it was from the pre-modern (as Jean Gebser argues12), certainly a broad spectrum of thinking today is attempting to venture "beyond modernity."13 The thinkers in this spectrum do not represent a single, unified standpoint, nor even the cohesiveness of a movement that could be labelled an "ism." The term "postmodern" is not generally associated with them. Yet they provide a more encompassing context of rebellious thinking within which to place the more distinct phenomenon of postmodernism. Furthermore, many of their views have profound implications for hermeneutics, affecting the basic terms of the hermeneutical situation. Accordingly, the next section will review ten distinct versions of postmodernity which have a direct significance for hermeneutics.


1. Outgrowing the epistemological self-portrait of modernity

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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 thought rooted in Descartes.

It is important and only fair to recognize that within contemporary science itself are modes of thought totally out of harmony with our inherited spatialized, perspectival awareness.16 For example, I see Jürgen Habermas' Logik der Sozialwissenschaften and his more recent Knowledge and Human Interests (trans. 1971) as offering a valuable articulation of the ways in which the goals of scientific knowledge dictate in advance the shape of that knowledge. Habermas follows Nietzsche in seeing all knowledge as shaped by certain overriding "interests," and insists that it is the task of philosophy to explore the connection between the shape of knowledge and the goals of knowledge.17 The case against the illusions of a one-dimensional, objectivist view of knowledge (and of man) can thus arise from within scientific thinking itself.

Representative Works

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John Ashbery

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (poetry) 1975

Houseboat Days (poetry) 1977

John Barth

The Sot-Weed Factor (novel) 1960; revised 1967

Giles Goat-Boy; Or, The Revised Syllabus (novel) 1966

Donald Barthelme

The Teachings of Don B.: Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories, and Plays of Donald Barthelme (short stories and plays) 1998

Roland Barthes

Writing Degree Zero (criticism) 1967

Critical Essays (criticism) 1972

Mythologies (criticism) 1973

The Pleasure of the Text (criticism) 1975

Jean Baudrillard

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

Walter Benjamin

Illuminations (criticism) 1968

Thomas Berger

Little Big Man (novel) 1964

Jorge Luis Borges

Ficciones (short stories) 1944

The Aleph (short stories) 1949

Other Inquisitions (essays) 1952

William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch (novel) 1959

Nova Express (novel) 1964

Italo Calvino

The Castle of Crossed Destinies (novel) 1979

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (novel) 1982

invisible Cities (novel) 1986

Truman Capote

In Cold Blood (nonfiction) 1966

Alejo Carpentier

Explosion in a Cathedral (novel) 1963

Robert Coover

The Public Burning (novel) 1977

Julio Cortázar

A Manual for Manuel (novel) 1978

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari

Anti-Oedipus (criticism) 1977

Paul de Man

Blindness and Insight (criticism) 1971

Allegories of Reading (criticism) 1979

Jacques Derrida

Of Grammatology (criticism) 1967

Writing and Difference (criticism) 1967

E. L. Doctorow

Ragtime (novel) 1975

Umberto Eco

A Theory of Semiotics (criticism) 1976

The Name of the Rose (novel) 1983

Foucault's Pendulum (novel) 1989

Michel Foucault

Power: The Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984 (criticism) 1999

Carlos Fuentes

The Death of Artemio Cruz (novel) 1964

Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude (novel) 1967

Chronicle of a Death Foretold (novel) 1982

William H. Gass

Fictions and the Figures of Life (criticism) 1970

Habitations of the Word (criticism) 1985

Gerard Genette

Narrative Discourse (criticism) 1980

Alasdair Gray

Lanark: A Life in Four Books (novel) 1969

Jürgen Habermas

Knowledge and Human Interests (criticism) 1972

Ihab Hassan

Paracriticisms (criticism) 1975

Frederic Jameson

Postmodernism; Or, The Logic of Late Capitalism (criticism) 1991

Julia Kristeva

Desire in Language (criticism) 1980

Jean-François Lyotard

The Postmodern Condition (criticism) 1984

Herbert Marcuse

The Aesthetic Dimension (criticism) 1978

Vladimir Nabokov

Pale Fire (novel) 1962

Charles Olson

The Maximus Poems (poetry) 1960

Thomas Pynchon

V (novel) 1963

The Crying of Lot 49 (novel) 1966

Gravity's Rainbow (novel) 1973

Ishmael Reed

Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970 (poetry) 1972

Alain Robbe-Grillet

For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction (criticism) 1965

Susan Sontag

Against Interpretation (criticism) 1966

Gilbert Sorrentino

Mulligan Stew (novel) 1979

Ronald Sukenick

98.6 (novel) 1975

Tzvetan Todorov

Introduction to Poetics (criticism) 1981

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Slaughterhouse Five; Or, The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (novel) 1969

Breakfast of Champions (novel) 1973

Tom Wolfe

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (nonfiction) 1968


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Robert Alter

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 serious fiction in the West. The creators of self-conscious fiction in our time do not constitute a school or a movement, and the lines of influence among them, or to them from their common predecessors, often tend to waver and blur when closely examined. Some of these writers have tried their hand at shorter fictional forms, which, after the Borgesian model, one now calls "fictions" rather than "short stories"; but most of them, perhaps inevitably, have turned back to, or stayed with, the novel, attracted by its large and various capacity to convey a whole imaginatively constituted world. Scattered over three continents, they are an odd mixture of stubbornly private eccentrics, on the one hand, and promulgators of manifestoes, on the other; of powerfully evocative novelists or conductors of ingenious laboratory experiments in fiction; of exuberant comic artists and knowing guides to bleak dead ends of despair.

This mode of fiction is variously practiced by such diverse figures as Raymond Queneau, Samuel Beckett, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor, Claude Mauriac in France; John Fowles in England; Robert Coover, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, Kurt Vonnegut in this country; J. L. Borges and Julio Cortázar in Latin America; and, of course, Vladimir Nabokov, perched on his height in Switzerland, working out of three literary cultures. The whole reflexive tendency in contemporary fiction has been reinforced by the prominence of selfconscious cinema since the early sixties in the work of directors like Fellini, Antonioni, Resnais, and Godard. Film, because it is a collaborative artistic enterprise involving a complicated chain of technical procedures, almost invites attention to its constitutive processes; and there is a clear logic in the involvement in filmmaking of several of the French New Novelists, or in the repeated recourse to cinematic composition by montage in a writer like Robert Coover. The close parallels between what is happening now in the two media suggest that the selfconsciousness of both may reflect a heightened new stage of modern culture's general commitment to knowing all that can be known about its own components and dynamics. Our culture, a kind of Faust at the mirror of Narcissus, is more and more driven to uncover the roots of what it lives with most basically—language and its origins, human sexuality, the workings of the psyche, the inherited structures of the mind, the underlying patterns of social organization, the sources of value and belief, and, of course, the nature of art.

If this is the moment of the self-conscious novel, that is decidedly a mixed blessing, as the spectacular unevenness of innovative fiction today would indicate. The growing insistence of self-awareness in our culture at large has been both a liberating and a paralyzing force, and that is equally true of its recent developments in artistic expression. In this regard, criticism must be especially wary. The kind of criticism that often has to be invoked in discussing a traditional realistic novel is in the indicative mode: yes, we know that a woman like Rosamund Vincy would act in just that way, with just such a gesture, toward her husband at a given moment in Middlemarch because it seems right, because it corresponds to some subtle, gradually acquired sense of human nature in our extraliterary experience, and to this we can only point, signaling an act of recognition we hope others will share. Most self-conscious novels, on the other hand, lend themselves splendidly to analytic criticism because they operate by the constant redeployment of fiction's formal categories. Is the critic interested in the narrative manipulation of time, the arbitrariness of narrative beginnings, the writer's awareness of literary conventions, the maneuvering of language to produce multiple meanings, the expressive possibilities of punctuation, paragraphing, typography? It is all laid out for him across the printed pages of Tristram Shandy, ready to be analytically described, with no apparent need for recourse to a touchstone of "rightness" outside this and other literary texts. For this reason an astute critic, impelled by his own professional concern with formal experiment, can easily make a piece of self-conscious fiction sound more profound, more finely resonant with implication, than it is in fact. None of Robbe-Grillet's novels really equals in fascination Roland Barthes' brilliant descriptions of them. Queneau's Exercices de style (1947) is an intriguing and at times immensely amusing book, but it is just what its title implies, a set of exercises; and to suggest, as George Steiner has done, that it constitutes a major landmark in twentieth-century literature, is to mislead readers in the interest of promoting literary "future shock."

The instance of Exercices de style is worth pausing over briefly because it represents one ultimate limit of the whole self-conscious mode. Queneau begins his book by reporting a banal anecdote of a young man with a long neck and a missing button on his coat who is jostled in a crowded bus. He tells this anecdote ninety-nine times, constantly changing the narrative viewpoint, the style, the literary conventions; going as far as the use of mathematical notation and anagrammatic scrambling of letters in one direction, and the resort to heavy dialect and badly anglicized French in the other; even rendering the incident in alexandrines, in free verse, as a sonnet, as a playlet. All this is extremely ingenious, and, I would admit, more than ingenious, because as one reads the same simple episode over and over through all these acrobatic variations, one is forced to recognize both the stunning arbitrariness of any decision to tell a story in a particular way and the endless possibilities for creating fictional "facts" by telling a story differently.

The controlling perception, however, of Exercices is one that goes back to the generic beginnings of the novel; and to see how much more richly that insight can be extended into fictional space, one has only to think of Sterne, where a "Queneauesque" passage like the deliberately schematic "Tale of Two Lovers" is woven into a thick texture of amorous anecdotes that critically juxtapose literary convention with a sense of the erotic as a cogent fact of human experience. Precisely what is missing from Exercices de style is any sense—and playfulness need not exclude seriousness—of human experience, which is largely kept out of the book in order to preserve the technical purity of the experiment. I don't mean to take Queneau to task for what he clearly did not intend; I mean only to emphasize that criticism need not make excessive claims for this kind of writing. Queneau, of course, has written full-scale novels of flaunted artifice, both before and after Exercices de style, that do involve a more complex sense of experience. One of the great temptations of the self-conscious novelist, however, is to content himself with technical experiment, trusting that in these difficult times (but then the times are always difficult) the only honesty, perhaps the only real profundity, lies in technical experiment. This is the chief limiting factor in most of Robbe-Grillet as well as in Coover's collection of fictions, Pricksongs & Descants. In both, one can admire the virtuosity with which narrative materials are ingeniously shuffled and reshuffled yet feel a certain aridness; for the partial magic of the novelist's art, however self-conscious, is considerably more than a set of card tricks.

The other, complementary fault of the self-conscious novel, also much in evidence among its contemporary practitioners, is to give free rein to every impulse of invention or fictional contrivance without distinguishing what may serve some artistic function in the novel and what is merely silly or self-indulgent. After all, if in an old-fashioned novel you have to describe a petulant, spoiled young woman like Rosamund Vincy, you are obliged to make her as close a likeness as you can to observed examples of the type, and so some commonly perceived human reality provides a constant check on your inventiveness. If, on the other hand, you are writing a novel about a novelist who invents still another novelist who is the author of bizarrely farfetched books, there is scarcely any piece of fabrication, however foolish or improbable, that you couldn't put into your novel if you set your mind to it. The Irish writer Flann O'Brien, in one of the earliest postmodern novels of flaunted artifice, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), has devised just such a book. The second-remove novelist invented by the first-person narrator-novelist gives birth to a full-grown man (that is, a new character); but while this writer, fatigued with parturition, is asleep, his characters rebel against him, resenting the roles he has assigned them. In the end, they subject him to the most hideous torture and maiming, recounted in detail page after page—by writing chapters of a novel (within the novel-within-the-novel) in which he suffers these horrors. This scheme of recessed narratives also involves an amalgam of different kinds of fiction, starting with domestic realism in the frame story and running through the gunslinging western and the novel of erotic sensationalism to fairy tales and Irish myth.

"A satisfactory novel," the young writer who is the narrator tries to explain to a friend at the outset, "should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity."1 At first glance, this might seem a perfect capsule definition of the self-conscious novel, but upon consideration the formulation makes it too easy for both the writer and the reader. If one thinks of the history of the self-conscious novel from its early masters down to Gide, to the parodistic or overtly contrived sections in Joyce and the Nabokov of Lolita and Pale Fire, "sham" becomes far too crude and demeaning as a synonym for artifice or imaginative contrivance. The artifice, moreover, should not be flatly "self-evident" but cunningly revealed, a hide-and-seek presence in the novel, a stubbornly ambiguous substratum of the whole fictional world. To imagine, then, the reader regulating his credulity at will is to reverse the whole process of the self-conscious novel, in which it is the writer who tries to regulate the reader's credulity, challenging him to active participation in pondering the status of fictional things, forcing him as he reads on to examine again and again the validity of his ordinary discriminations between art and life and how they interact.

Flann O'Brien, however, following the formula he attributes to his own protagonist, in fact produces a hodge-podge of fictions in which nothing seems particularly credible and everything finally becomes tedious through the sheer proliferation of directionless narrative invention. At Swim-Two-Birds is a celebration of fabulation in which novelistic self-consciousness has gone slack because fiction is everywhere and there is no longer any quixotic tension between what is fictional and what is real. I am not aware that it has influenced later books, but it has certainly proved to be a novel ahead of its time, for its faults of conception and execution provide a perfect paradigm for those of much contemporary fiction, especially in this country, where a new literary ideology of fabulation has too often turned out to mean license, not liberty, for the novelist. In reading many of the voguish new writers, one is frequently tempted to invoke the words of the narrator at the end of John Barth's story "Title": "Oh God comma I abhor self-consciousness."

Those inclined to argue that the novel today is in a grave state of decay often draw evidence from the current popularity of self-conscious fiction, which they tend to see as a dwarfed offspring of the modernist giants, turned away from life, dedicated to the onanistic gratifications of the artist pleasured by his own art. It would of course be foolish to claim that we are now in anything like that extraordinary period of innovative literary creativity of the 1920s when modernism was in flower, but the opposite inference, that narrative literature has reached some terminal stage of sterility, is by no means necessary from the facts of contemporary writing. I have dwelt upon the two chief temptations of the self-conscious novelist—arid exercise and indiscriminate invention—precisely because they should be recognized as dangers, not taken as the inevitable results whenever a writer determines artfully to expose the fictiveness of his fiction. In fact, the prominent flaunting of artifice has led to some of the most impressive successes in the contemporary novel as well as to some of its most evident lapses, and the successes are by no means restricted to elder statesmen like Beckett and Nabokov. (In America, one might mention Barth, who in different books has been both an impressively original writer and an embarrassingly puerile one; or Coover, who has gone beyond manipulations of technique to a vividly imagined satire where fantasy and reality enrich one another.) The old question of the death of the novel, which seems as doggedly persistent as the novel itself, is in the air again, and I believe an understanding of the self-conscious tradition in the novel which stands behind many contemporary novelists may help set that hazy issue in clearer perspective.

One of the newly prominent American novelists, John Barth, has himself given a new twist to the death-of-the-novel argument in a widely read essay first published in 1967, "The Literature of Exhaustion."2 Barth settles on Borges, Beckett, and Nabokov as his exemplary figures to expose the condition of narrative literature now, and that condition as he describes it proves to be thoroughly contradictory—apocalyptic and elegiac, at the end of an ultimate cultural cul-de-sac yet somehow reaching toward exciting new possibilities. The "exhaustion" of the title is defined as "the used-upness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities," and the work of Borges is taken to be the clearest model of this contemporary literature of exhaustion. The Argentine writer "suggests the view," according to Barth, "that intellectual and literary history . . . has pretty well exhausted the possibilities of novelty. His ficciones are not only footnotes to imaginary texts, but postscripts to the real corpus of literature." The characterization of Borges' fiction is memorable, and not without cogency, but Barth has worked himself into a corner by following Borges in this fashion, and he is constrained to use the last two paragraphs of his essay in a rapid maneuver to get out of the trap. For even if reality has come to resemble for the writer the library of a Borgesian fable where all the books that can ever be written already exist, even if Borges' Pierre Menard is an emblem of the modern writer's wry destiny, "creating" the Quixote by laboriously reconstituting it word for word in a version identical verbatim with Cervantes'—Barth himself nevertheless writes novels which he hopes have some novelty, and he is not willing to dismiss the literature of our age as a mere postscript to a completed corpus.

Now, two paragraphs are not much space to get out of such a quandary, so Barth resorts to a kind of literary intervention of divine grace: confronted with a labyrinthine reality of exhausted possibilities, the writer of genius finally can rely on his genius to achieve the impossible, to create a new literature when there is nothing left to create. "It's the chosen remnant, the virtuoso, the Thesean hero, who . . . with the aid of very special gifts . . . [can] go straight through the maze to the accomplishment of his work." (The italics are Barth's.) This strikes me as a peculiarly elitist and miraculist notion of literary continuity and renewal. Good writing has of course always required gifted writers. Now, however, Barth seems to be saying, we have come to such a pass that it is virtually impossible to write anything at all. Nevertheless a few geniuses, having recognized that difficult fact, will somehow manage to create.

Borges himself, as we shall see, is far from agreeing with this idea, but in any case the choice of Borges as the paradigmatic postmodernist is in one respect misleading, precisely because Borges the prose writer is an inventor of parables and paradoxes, not a novelist. That is, Borges of the ficciones is concerned with a series of metaphysical enigmas about identity, recurrence, and cyclicalty, time, thought, and extension, and so it is a little dangerous to translate his haunting fables into allegories of the postmodern literary situation. Books, real and imaginary, and books about books, of course figure very prominently in Borges' fictions; but he is after all a remarkably bookish man, and the contents of a library are the aptest vehicle he could have chosen for writing about knowledge and its limits, the ambiguous relation between idea and existence, language and reality, and many of his other favorite philosophical puzzles. The fact that Borges is a fabulist, not a novelist, hardly suggests that the fable is all there remains for fiction to work with now. Were he a novelist, his prototypical protagonist would not be a meditative wraith wandering through the hexagonal mazes of the infinite Library of Babel, but a man or woman—one glimpses the possibility in his most recent stories—with a distinctive psychology living among other men and women, acting against a background of social values, personal and national history. Such a figure, it seems safe to assume, would have a rather different relationship to the written word, past and present, than does the inhabitant of the great Library or the assiduous Pierre Menard.

Borges, it should be noted, has argued trenchantly against the whole idea of exhausting artistic possibilities in a brief essay, "A Note on (Toward) Bernard Shaw"3—which, not surprisingly, is hardly at all about Shaw. He begins with a list of fanciful notions, from the thirteenth century to the twentieth, of combinational reservoirs that would encompass all books, systems of ideas, or art works. One of these, "the staggering fantasy" spun out by the nineteenth-century popularizer of science Kurd Lasswitz "of a universal library which would register all the variations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols, in other words, all that is given to express in all languages," is nothing less than the scheme of Borges' "The Library of Babel." But, he immediately goes on to say, such writers, by reducing art and philosophy to "a kind of play with combinations," forget that a book is not a flat, fixed entity composed of combined letters making an unchanging design in language. Every book exists through a collaborative effort with the imagination of each of its readers—the controlling idea of Pale Fire is not a trivial one—and so it changes with its readers, with their life experience and their accrued reading experience. Literary tradition, in other words, does not and cannot exist as a mass of determined data in the memory-bank of a computer. "Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that no single book is." The more books that are written, the more complicated with meaning are the books that exist before them, and the more possibilities there are for creating new works out of old books and new experience.

Nothing could demonstrate this more forcefully than the inherently allusive structure of the novel as a genre. Don Quixote becomes more than it initially was after its transmutation into the "Cervantick" Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy, after The Red and the Black, Madame Bovary, Moby-Dick, Ulysses, and The Castle, Each successive creation—to follow the implicit logic of Borges' plausible notion about a book's existence—does not foreclose future possibilities but rather opens up new vistas for creation out of the common literary tradition. A book is not an integer but "a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships," which of course grow with the passage of historical time and literary history; and so "The Library of Babel" must be, after all, a metaphysician's nightmare, not a novelist's.

But let us return to the relation Barth proposes between Borges' own practice in his ficciones and the foreseeable possibilities of imaginative writing. Without begrudging Borges the general acclaim he has recently received, both in America and in France, I think one may resist the implication of Barth and others that he represents the future of fiction. Robert Coover, although he does not mention Borges by name, seems to have an idea of this sort in mind when he takes up where Barth's essay leaves off in his Dedicatoria y Prólogo a don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the bilingual preface to his "Seven Exemplary Fictions."4 Unlike Barth, Coover applies the notion of exhaustion not to literary forms but to a general contemporary sense of reality and to the whole legacy of cultural values today: "But don Miguel, the optimism, the innocence, the aura of possibility you have experienced have been largely drained away, and the universe is closing in on us again. Like you, we, too, seem to be standing at the end of one age and on the threshold of another.... We, too, suffer from a 'literature of exhaustion'" A quiet version of apocalyptic thinking is very much in evidence here. We love to think we are on the threshold of a radically new era, but in fact the continuity of much of contemporary fiction with its literary antecedents is too substantive to be dismissed as mere vestigial reflex. Contemporary novelists resemble Cervantes (as Coover recognizes further on) because of the underlying operations of their imaginative enterprise, not because our historical moment parallels his in marking the beginning of a new age. And the proposed contrast between Cervantes and the contemporaries seems overdrawn. The least innocent of writers, Cervantes ironically undercuts the innocence and optimism of his hero, and through the strategies he devises for doing that he invents the novel. In any event, Coover goes on to argue from the supposed draining away of optimism in our age the conversion of the novelist to fabulist:

We seem to have moved from an open-ended, anthropocentric, humanistic, naturalistic, even—to the extent that man may be thought of as making his own universe—optimistic starting point, to one that is closed, cosmic, eternal, supernatural (in its soberest sense), and pessimistic. The return to Being has returned us to Design, to microcosmic images of the macrocosm, to the creation of Beauty within the confines of cosmic or human necessity, to the use of the fabulous to probe beyond the phenomenological, beyond appearances, beyond randomly perceived events, beyond mere history.

Some judgments it may be wise on principle to decline making at all, and I see no way of knowing at this point in history whether we are in fact witnessing the death of the humanistic world view. To base an argument for a new form of fiction on such a sweepingly prophetic historical assertion must in the end compromise the persuasiveness of the literary argument. In any case, of Barth's three exemplars of the literature of exhaustion, only one, Borges, really corresponds to this description of Coover's. In regard to Beckett, all that strictly applies is the pessimism and the sense of a closed universe, and it is Nabokov who once tartly observed that "cosmic" is but a slippery "s" away from "comic." Both Beckett and Nabokov are by intention, in their radically different ways, comic rather than cosmic writers; both are novelists rather than fabulists in their concern with the naturalistic textures of experience, whatever various structures they make of them. Both resemble Cervantes in deriving Design not from an image of eternal Being but, on the contrary, from a sense of the contradictions between traditional literary practice and their immediate perception of human reality.

The most questionable of Coover's claims, however, is that the writer of fiction is now moving "beyond mere history." Borges the fabulist does just that, but unless the novel is really dead, the one thing it ultimately cannot dispense with is history. The pressing actuality of historical time, or of an individual lifetime, or of both, is the stuff of all good novels, including self-conscious ones, the perennial subject that the medium of the novel—a sequential narrative use of unmetrical language extended at length in time—seems almost to require. Cervantes initiates the genre by using parody and the translation of literary criticism into narrative invention to juxtapose a literary dream of a Golden Age with real historical time. On the plane of individual experience, Sterne in his ultimate self-conscious novel makes time so much his subject that the printed text becomes a maze of intersecting, mutually modifying times—the time of writing and the time of reading, the actual duration of an event, time as a literary construct, time as an ambiguous artifact of memory or consciousness.

Perhaps the most reliable index to whether a piece of self-conscious fiction is closed off from life is whether it tends to diminish the actuality of personal and historical time. Queneau's exercices are only exercises because time doesn't really exist in them; it is only a necessary hypothesis to move the skinny young man from the beginning of the anecdote to the end. Robbe-Grillet's cinematic use of the present indicative, together with his constant shuffling of versions of each narrative incident in order to destroy all sense of causal sequence and of time, is a technical tour de force precisely because it goes so strenuously against the grain of the medium, which is, after all, prose fiction, not film. As a result the virtuosity of his achievement is inseparable from its marked limitations. The same could be said of the composition by montage in Coover's shorter fiction or, on a cruder level of technical skill and imagination, of Barthelme's satirical collages. It is instructive, however, that Coover is now working on a novel involved with public events in the Eisenhower years, a book he describes as "an historical romance." And, to judge by a published section, his reentry into history, cannily seen through the revealing distortions of fantasy, can produce energetically engaging fiction.

In the case of Robbe-Grillet, the one really striking success among his novels is the book in which his ubiquitous technique of suppressing temporal progression has a powerful psychological justification. Jealousy is a compelling novel because its imprisonment in a present indicative that circles back on itself again and again is the perfect narrative mode for a man whose consuming obsession has robbed him of any time in which things can unfold. The jealous husband, always the excluded observer peering at his wife and her supposed lover from oblique angles through a hatchwork of screens and obstacles, can only go over and over the same scanty data, reordering them and surrounding them with conjecture, describing them with a seemingly scientific objectivity that is actually quite maniacal. Consequently what is often felt elsewhere in Robbe-Grillet as an anomalous mannerism is here firmly grounded in the novel's peculiar facts of character and fictional situation.

Queneau's Exercices de style, as I intimated earlier, is a limited experiment that explores the most extreme possibilities of an underlying practice of his novels while deliberately omitting what is ultimately most essential to them—the potent force of time, analogous to the time of real experience, that sweeps along the imaginary personages and events. Over against Exercices one might usefully set a novel like Le Chiendent (1933), Queneau's remarkable fictional farce in the self-conscious mode. At the center of this grand display of verbal highjinks, parodistic ploys, hilarious stylizations, and satiric illuminations, stands a death—that of Ernestine the serving-girl, which, for all its abruptness, improbability, and absurdity, has large reverberations in the novel. "When a tree burns," says Ernestine, dying on her wedding night, "nothin's left but smoke and ashes. No more tree. That's like me. Nothin left but rot, while the li'l voice that talks in your head when you're all alone, nothin's left of it. When mine stops, it ain't gonna talk again nowhere else."5

The last section of Le Chiendent takes off on a zanily fantastic extrapolation from destructive modern history. At the very end, three of the protagonists, among the handful of survivors of a long bitter war between the French and the Etruscans (!), meet again and openly share the awareness that all their actions have been relentlessly tracked down and recorded by a book—the one we have been reading and are about to finish. Not pleased with all they have done, they wonder whether it might be possible to erase—raturer—or, rather, "literase"—littératurer—certain episodes. But no, the thing cannot be done: as one of them observes, even in these literary circumstances "time is time, the past is the past." Then, in a final paragraph, Queneau dissolves his joined characters into separate and unconnected entities, concluding with a single silhouette, not yet a realized character, one among thousands of possible alternatives—which was precisely the image of the novelist-artificer's arbitrary choice in the making of fictions that began the whole novel. And yet the arbitrary invention is one that has been elaborated in order to reveal something about the real world. The whole farce is in fact a sustained metaphysical meditation on the dizzying paradoxes of being and nonbeing, in life and in fiction; and that meditation culminates in these last two pages, where the characters are finally shuffled back into the shadowy pre-world of fictional beginnings but are not allowed the more-than-human luxury of reversing, altering, or erasing the particular experiences they have lived out in the time allotted to them.

It may seem a bit odd to insist on a connection with historical or personal time in a kind of novel devised to mirror its own operations, but the contradiction, I think, disappears upon close consideration. Language is of all art media the one most thoroughly and subtly steeped in memory, both public and private. It is not easy to use language for the length of a novel, out of a self-conscious awareness of its function as the medium of the fictional artifice, without in some way confronting the burden of a collective or individual past that language carries. Language through its layer upon layer of associations opens up complex vistas of time, and these tend to reveal—ultimately for cultures, imminently for individuals—loss, decline, and extinction. The continuous acrobatic display of artifice in a self-conscious novel is an enlivening demonstration of human order against a background of chaos and darkness, and it is the tension between artifice and that which annihilates artifice that gives the finest self-conscious novels their urgency in the midst of play. Tristram Shandy's wild flight from death across the pages of Volume VII in Sterne's novel provides the clearest paradigm for this general situation. In the two major novelists of our own century who magisterially combine the realist and self-conscious traditions of the novel, Joyce and Proust, it is again death and the decline of culture into ultimate incoherence that powerfully impel the writers to the supreme affirmation of art. The void looms beyond Bloom's Dublin and Marcel's Paris, as it does beyond Biely's St. Petersburg, Virginia Woolf s London, and the invented lost realms of Nabokov; and that is why art is indispensable.

Perhaps this may make every novel with self-conscious aspects sound like a version of Sartre's Nausea, but that is only because Sartre provides an emphatically defined, programmatic formulation of the general pattern. What I would like to stress is that even a novel worlds away from any intimation of existentialist views may tap this tension between the coherence of the artifice and the death and disorder implicit in real time outside the artifice. The tension is present even in Fielding, with his fine old eighteenth-century confidence in the possibilities of coherent order and his meticulous preservation of the purity of the comic world. An example may be helpful here. In Book V, Chapter XII, of Tom Jones, after a bloody brawl in which Tom has laid Blifil low only to be vigorously battered by the redoubtable Thwackum, the narrator, surveying the bruised combatants, takes off on one of his so-called essayistic excursuses:

Here we cannot suppress a pious wish, that all quarrels were to be decided by those weapons only with which Nature, knowing what is proper for us, hath supplied us; and that cold iron was to be used in digging no bowels but those of the earth. Then would war, the pastime of monarchs, be almost inoffensive, and battles between great armies might be fought at the particular desire of several ladies of quality; who, together with the kings themselves, might be actual spectators of the conflict. Then might the field be this moment well strewed with human carcasses, and the next, the dead men, or infinitely the greatest part of them, might get up, like Mr. Bayes's troops, and march off either at the sound of a drum or fiddle, as should be previously agreed on.

The narrator spins out this fanciful hypothesis for another paragraph, then brings himself up short: "But such reformations are rather to be wished than hoped for: I shall content myself, therefore, with this short hint, and return to my narrative." What is all this doing in the middle of Tom Jones? To dismiss it as mere casual banter or extraneous digression is to ignore the integrity of Fielding's art and of his vision of life. The passage is a virtuoso aria set in the optative mode. It turns from The History of Tom Jones to history proper, but with a series of careful indications of a condition contrary to fact. It begins and ends with an explicit stress on "wish," and all the verbs are subjunctive or conditional. The emphasis through anaphora on "then" ("Then would war . . ."; "Then might the field be . . .") points to an era that exists not now or soon but in the imagination alone. This condition is underlined by likening the weaponless battles to those of a popular Restoration farce, The Rehearsal ("Mr. Bayes's troops"), and by proposing that war should be conducted like theatrical convention, by previously agreed-upon signals.

Within the comic frame of Tom Jones's fictional world, we know very well that no fate much worse than a bloodied nose will be allowed to befall any of the personages who matter. Fielding, by proposing for the space of two paragraphs that this frame be extended into real historical time, is doing something more than make a suggestion for "reformation," as he pretends, or a satirical comment on historical man's irrationality, as is evident. What the excursion into optative history points up is that the whole comic world of the fiction is beautifully arranged, sanely humane in its essential playfulness—and ultimately unreal. The age-old impulse of the storyteller bespeaks a basic human need to imagine out of history a fictional order of fulfillment, but when the narrative is a novel and not a fairy tale, one is also made aware of the terrible persistence of history as a murderous realm of chaos constantly challenging or violating the wholeness that art can imagine. By the time we arrive at the narrator's explicit signal for the end of the excursus, "I shall content myself . . . with this short hint, and return to my narrative," we see with renewed clarity all that stands outside the artful narrative, inimical to it.

I have chosen from many possible texts, old and new, an example from Fielding in order to emphasize certain underlying continuities of concern between the novelists of our own age and the early masters. A clearer recognition of such continuities, which more often than one would suspect manifest themselves even on the level of fictional technique, might make us less inclined to see ourselves at the decisive end of an era, our writers footnoting with fables a literary corpus that has used up all the possibilities of primary creation. Looking over the actual production of living novelists in both hemispheres, I find it hard to believe that it is inherently more difficult to write a good novel now than in earlier periods. The realist mode of fiction that attained such splendid achievements in the nineteenth century may by now largely have run its course (though that, too, might be a presumptuous conclusion), but the self-conscious novelistic dialectic between art and reality initiated by Cervantes seems abundantly alive with new possibilities of expression, perhaps even more than ever before as the self-consciousness of our whole culture becomes progressively more pronounced. To write a good self-conscious novel today one does not have to be a unique "Thesean hero" finding a way out of some impossible labyrinth, but simply an intelligent writer with a serious sense both of the integrity of his craft and of the inevitably problematic relationship between fiction and life.

A case in point is Claude Mauriac's The Marquise Went Out at Five (1961), one of the most interesting novels to come out of the fervor of fictional experiment in France during the past fifteen or so years. Mauriac's book might be especially instructive as a concluding example because in both its design and its execution it ties up many of the major themes we have been considering, and because Mauriac, a gifted writer but surely no Borgesian wonderworker defying the limits of nature, achieves what he does, not through impossible genius, but simply by an imaginative and keenly critical management of the self-conscious mode.

The Marquise Went Out is the third of four interlocking novels aptly called Le Dialogue intérieur. The title of the novel is taken from Breton's "First Surrealist Manifesto," the relevant passage appearing as the epigraph. Breton quotes Valéry on the imbecillc beginnings of most novels. Valéry would never permit himself, he once told Breton, to write a sentence like, "The Marquise went out at five." We then turn the page of Mauriac's novel and of course find it begins, "La Marquise sortit à cinq heures. The Marquise went out at five." At first, in the kaleidoscope shifting of interior monologues—perhaps a hundred different characters become posts of observation—with no indication of transitions, the reader has difficulty orienting himself; but gradually a fictional novelist, Bertrand Carnéjoux, emerges distinctly as the principal point of reference. As Carnéjoux stands at his window looking down over the Carrefour de Bucis, where all the events of the novel take place, one begins to suspect that all the interior lives exposed in the book are finally what he, the writer as distanced observer, projects onto the figures he sees. He is the fictional writer acting out his author's own literary impulse, in a contemporary version of the old quixotic pattern, by making a novel out of the world he inhabits:

. . . Express the double brilliance, orangeish red bright yellow, of the bouquets, no, they're potted plants. Add to these two patches of bright color the movement transporting them, not fast but jolting, and the black mass of that old lady carrying her nasturtiums—they are nasturtiums, I think. I'm no different as an author from all the authors who ever existed since men first began to write. Using other devices, but analogous ones. Making use just as fallaciously, as arbitrarily, of the world I claim—quite insanely—to possess. At best I've tried to explain and justify the increasing presence, considered ridiculous by some people, of writer-heroes in the works of writers. . . .6

The sense of the writer's predicament as a perennial, not peculiarly modern, difficulty is notable: all serious novelists must confront the arbitrariness, the necessary falsification, of the worlds they invent through words. In his critical writings, Mauriac has coined the term alittérature to describe this intrinsic problematic of literature. All literary creation worthy of the name, now and in previous ages, is seen as a reaction against the inevitable falsity of antecedent literature, a restless devising of strategies to escape being "just" literature. I think the idea is more historically accurate than the notion of a contemporary literature of exhaustion, and The Marquise Went Out at Five is a persuasive demonstration of its efficacy as a rationale for the continual renewal of literature.

By the conclusion of the novel, Carnéjoux, the novelist as self-observing observer, imperceptibly gives way to the author of The Marquise Went Out at Five. The evoked world of fiction, revealed as fiction, shrivels up, and, as at the end of many of Nabokov's novels, the fabricator of the fiction himself stands in its place. Mauriac now describes precisely what he has given us: "A novelist animated by a novelist whom I (myself a novelist) have put into a novel in which, however, nothing was invented, a labyrinth of mirrors capturing some of life's sensations, feelings and thoughts" (p. 310). Cervantes' emblematic image of the mirror—it is of course also Nabokov's favorite—is complicated in Borgesian fashion by a labyrinth not because the old quixotic probing of reality through fiction has changed in nature, but only because our sense of the complexity of the enterprise has been many times multiplied by both historical and literary experience. (One might observe that as early as 1913 Andrey Biely was using the image of the labyrinth of mirrors in his St. Petersburg.) Mauriac, it should be noted, does not in the end make the facile gesture of some contemporary novelists who simply shrug off their own fictions as, after all, mere fictions: he avows the artifice but affirms it as a means of mirroring "life's sensations, feelings and thoughts," fiction seen as perhaps the only way to get at a whole range of real human experience.

After a paragraph of reflections on the Parisian square that has been the scene of the novel, Mauriac goes on to summarize and make even more explicit this baring of artifice as the basic procedure of his book: "Thus the novel has in its penultimate pages gradually faded away, and disappeared, without masks or make-believe, giving way to the novelist who, if he has put himself directly into his book, has at the end purified it of its last traces of fiction by granting it a truth in which literal exactitude was preferred to literature" (p. 311). The literal exactitude is of course necessarily a pretense, still another novelistic gesture (as Cervantes first shrewdly saw in his play with supposed documents), literature passing itself off as alittérature in order not to seem "literature" in the pejorative sense. In any case, the edifice of fiction that engaged our thoughts and emotions for a good many hours has been swept away, and the novel can conclude in the very next sentence by setting on its head that beginning borrowed from Valéry by way of Breton: "The Marquise did not go out at five . . ." Much earlier, we learned that the Marquise of the initial sentence was no marquise at all, and now the predicate as well as the subject is torn from its apparent exactitude and cast into the shadowy realm of fabrications.

All this might be mere cleverness if the novel did not have the impelling sense it does of the urgency, the philosophical seriousness, of its enterprise. What drives Bertrand Carnéjoux, and behind him Claude Mauriac, is an acute perception of two concentric abysses beneath the artifice of the novel—history and death. The Marquise Went Out, set between five and six on one warm afternoon in a few thousand square feet of the Carrefour de Bucis, attempts to exhaust the human experience intersecting that carefully delimited time and place. But as Carnéjoux and his inventor realize, such an undertaking is "doomed to failure" because "the unity of actual time . . . [is] surrounded, penetrated, absorbed .. . by the infinite pullulation of innumerable past moments" (p. 270). Though Mauriac explicitly compares the achronological method of composition here through a long series of separate "takes" with the methods of a film-maker, the effect is precisely the opposite of cinematic composition in Robbe-Grillet because Mauriac accepts and works with the essentially time-soaked nature of language as a medium of art.

Each of the interior monologues gives us glimpses of a deep tunnel into a private past, while Carnéjoux, overviewing the scene, weaves into the texture of the novel substantial quotations from actual historical documents of life in the Carrefour de Bucis from the middle of the thirteenth century to the post-World-War-II era. The documents reveal what in the poesy of a blurb one might call a "vivid panorama" of Parisian existence from medieval artisans to activists of the Revolution to the literary dinners of the Goncourt brothers. What is actually revealed, though, is the raw realm of chaos on the other side of Fielding's ironic observations about history—a long catalogue of rape, murder, torture, theft, perversion, brutality. Contemplating these documents, Carnéjoux is simultaneously aware of the senselessness of history and of the incomprehensible brevity of all human life. As he writes, he is rapidly, irrevocably, rushing toward the point where he will be no more than a few scratches on the historical record, like Mestre Giles the tile-maker and Richart the baker, listed as residents of the Rue de Bussy in the Tax-Book of Paris for the Year 1292. At the end, the author draws particular attention to this perception: "Bertrand Carnéjoux records in his novel, and I record in the novel in which I have given life and speech to Bertrand Carnéjoux, that impossibility of conceiving what seems so natural in others, what one has spent one's life fearing, knowing oneself ineluctably threatened by it in the beings one loves and in oneself: death" (p. 309).

Some readers may feel that Mauriac is too explicitly direct in the way he reveals these fundamental matters of motive and design in the making of his novel, but the fiction itself bears out in concrete detail what otherwise might seem portentous assertion. A writer, about to vanish like every human being born, has only words to grasp with at some sort of tenuous, dubious permanence. Words console, words are the most wonderful of human evasions; but the writer, using them as truly as a writer of fiction can—which is to say, with a consciousness of how their enchantment transmutes reality into fiction—comes to perceive profoundly what words help us to evade. The seriousness and the ultimate realism of the novel that mirrors itself could have no more vivid demonstration.

Perhaps the most basic paradox of this mode of fiction, which functions through the display of paradoxes, is that as a kind of novel concentrating on art and the artist it should prove to be, even in many of its characteristically comic embodiments, a long meditation on death. Myth, folktale, fable, and romance, all the archaic forms of storytelling from which the novel was a radical historical break, overleap or sidestep death as an immediate presence in the timeless cyclicality of divine lives or in the teleological arc from "once upon a time" to "lived happily ever after." The great realist novels of the nineteenth century, though they may be filled with scenes of disease and dying, are in another sense also an implicit evasion of death because, as the paradigmatic instance of Balzac makes clear, behind the vast effort to represent in fiction a whole society, the spawning of novel after novel with crowds of personages overflowing from one book to the next, was a dream of omnipotence, the novelist creating a fantasy-world so solid-seeming that he could rule over it like a god.

When the writer, on the other hand, places himself or some consciously perceived surrogate within the fiction's field of probing consideration, his own mortality is more likely to be an implicit or even explicit subject of the novel. It was Diderot who observed that one should tell stories because then time passes swiftly and the story of life comes to an end unnoticed. The novel as a genre begins when Don Quixote, approaching the grand climacteric or fiftieth year, which was old age in his time, realizes that his existence has amounted to nothing and proceeds before it is too late to make his life correspond to a book. The knight's peculiarly literary quest is a revealing functional analogue to that of the novelist, the literary man who invented him, and so Cervantes is not merely mocking chivalric romances through the don's adventures but contemplating, in the most oblique and searching way, the unthinkable prospect posed by his own imminent end.

I suspect that death in the novel might be a more useful focus for serious discussion of the genre than the death of the novel. What I have in mind is of course not the novelistic rendering of deathbed scenes but how the novel manages to put us in touch with the imponderable implications of human mortality through the very celebration of life implicit in the building of vivid and various fictions. This is the ultimate turn of the Copernican revolution in the making of fictions that Cervantes effected. The impulse of fabulation, which men had typically used to create an imaginary time beautifully insulated from the impinging presence of their own individual deaths, was turned back on itself, held up to a mirror of criticism as it reflected reality in its inevitably distortive glass. As a result it became possible, if not for the first time then surely for the first time on this scale of narrative amplitude and richness, to delight in the lifelike excitements of invented personages and adventures, and simultaneously to be reminded of that other world of ours, ruled by chance and given over to death. The mirror held to the mirror of art held to nature, in Cervantes and in his countless progeny, proved to be not merely an ingenious trick but a necessary operation for a skeptical culture nevertheless addicted, as all cultures have been, to the pleasures and discoveries of fabulation. Ongoing literary history is always modifying our vision of earlier stages of literary development, and the course of the novel from Joyce to Nabokov and beyond may to some degree require a shift in perspective upon what happened in the novel during the three centuries before our own. Today, as varieties of novelistic self-consciousness proliferate, the mode of fiction first defined when a certain aging hidalgo set out to imitate his books appears far from exhausted. On the contrary, in the hands of gifted writers it comes to seem increasingly our most precisely fashioned instrument for joining imagined acts and figures with real things.


1 Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (New York: Pantheon, 1939), p. 33.

2The Atlantic Monthly, 220 (August 1967), pp. 29-34.

3 J. L. Borges, Labyrinths, ed. Yates and Irby (New York: New Directions, 1964), pp. 213-216.

4 Robert Coover, Pricksongs & Descants (New York: Dutton, 1969), pp. 76-79.

5 Raymond Queneau, Le Chiendent (Paris: Gallimard, 1933), p. 206.

6 Claude Mauriac, The Marquise Went Out at Five, tr. Richard Howard (New York: George Braziller, 1962), p. 69.

Gerald Graff

SOURCE: "The Myth of the Postmodern Breakthrough," in Literature Against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society, The University of Chicago Press, 1979.

[In the following essay, which was first published in slightly different form in 1973, Graff identifies postmodernism as both visionary and apocalyptic, and asserts that despite claims to the contrary, postmodernism derives from Romantic and modernist literary theory.]

The postmodern tendency in literature and literary criticism has been characterized as a "breakthrough," a significant reversal of the dominant literary and sociocultural directions of the last two centuries. Literary critics such as Leslie Fiedler, Susan Sontag, George Steiner, Richard Poirier, and Ihab Hassan have written about this reversal, differing in their assessments of its implications but generally agreeing in their descriptions of what is taking place. What is taking place, these critics suggest, is the death of our traditional Western concept of art and literature, a concept which defined "high culture" as our most valuable repository of moral and spiritual wisdom. George Steiner draws attention to the disturbing implications of the fact that, in the Nazi regime, dedication to the highest "humanistic" interests was compatible with the acceptance of systematic murder.1 Sontag and Fiedler suggest that the entire artistic tradition of the West has been exposed as a kind of hyperrational imperialism akin to the aggression and lust for conquest of bourgeois capitalism. Not only have the older social, moral, and epistemological claims for art seemingly been discredited, but art has come to be seen as a form of complicity, another manifestation of the lies and hypocrisy through which the ruling class has maintained its power.

But concurrent with this loss of confidence in the older claims of the moral and interpretive authority of art is the advent of a new sensibility, bringing a fresh definition of the role of art and culture. This new sensibility manifests itself in a variety of ways: in the refusal to take art "seriously" in the old sense; in the use of art itself as a vehicle for exploding its traditional pretensions and for showing the vulnerability and tenuousness of art and language; in the rejection of the dominant academic tradition of analytic, interpretive criticism, which by reducing art to abstractions tends to neutralize or domesticate its potentially liberating energies; in a less soberly rationalistic mode of consciousness, one that is more congenial to myth, tribal ritual, and visionary experience, grounded in a "protean," fluid, and undifferentiated concept of the self as opposed to the repressed Western ego.

I want here to raise some critical questions about the postmodern breakthrough in the arts and about the larger implications claimed for it in culture and society. I want in particular to challenge the standard description of postmodernism as an overturning of romantic and modernist traditions. To characterize postmodernism as a "breakthrough"—a cant term of our day—is to place a greater distance between current writers and their predecessors than is, I think, justified. There are distinctions to be drawn, of course, and both here and in the final chapter of this book I shall try to draw them. But this [essay] argues that postmodernism should be seen not as a break with romantic and modernist assumptions but rather as a logical culmination of the premises of these earlier movements, premises not always clearly defined in discussions of these issues. In the next chapter I question the Utopian social claims of the postmodernist sensibility by questioning the parallelism they assume between social and esthetic revolution.

In its literary sense, postmodernism may be defined as the movement within contemporary literature and criticism that calls into question the traditional claims of literature and art to truth and human value. As Richard Poirier has observed, "contemporary literature has come to register the dissolution of the ideas often evoked to justify its existence: the cultural, moral, psychological premises that for many people still define the essence of literature as a humanistic enterprise. Literature is now in the process of telling us how little it means."2 This is an apt description of the contemporary mood, but what it neglects to mention is that literature has been in the process of telling us how little it means for a long time, as far back as the beginnings of romanticism.

It is clear why we are tempted to feel that the contemporary popularity of anti-art and artistic self-parody represents a sharp break with the modernist past. It does not seem so long ago that writers like Rilke, Valéry, Joyce, Yeats, and others sought a kind of salvation through art. For Rilke, as earlier for Shelley and other romantics, poetry was "a mouth which else Nature would lack," the great agency for the restitution of values in an inherently valueless world. Romantic and modernist writing expressed a faith in the constitutive power of the imagination, a confidence in the ability of literature to impose order, value, and meaning on the chaos and fragmentation of industrial society. This faith seemed to have lapsed after World War II. Literature increasingly adopted an ironic view of its traditional pretensions to truth, high seriousness, and the profundity of "meaning." Furthermore, literature of the postwar period has seemed to have a different relation to criticism than that of the classic modernists. Eliot, Faulkner, Joyce, and their imitators sometimes seemed to be deliberately providing occasions for the complex critical explications of the New Critics. In contrast, much of the literature of the last several decades has been marked by the desire to remain invulnerable to critical analysis.

In an essay that asks the question, "What Was Modernism?" Harry Levin identifies the "ultimate quality" pervading the work of the moderns as "its uncompromising intellectuality."3 The conventions of postmodern art systematically invert this modernist intellectuality by parodying its respect for truth and significance. In Donald Barthelme's anti-novel, Snow White, a questionnaire poses for the reader such mock questions as, "9. Has the work, for you, a metaphysical dimension? Yes ( ) No ( ) 10. What is it (twenty-five words or less)?"4 Alain Robbe-Grillet produces and campaigns for a type of fiction in which "obviousness, transparency preclude the existence of higher worlds, of any transcendence."5 Susan Sontag denounces the interpretation of works of art on the grounds that "to interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of 'meanings.'"6 Leslie Fiedler, writing on modern poetry, characterizes one of its chief tendencies as a "flight from the platitude of meaning."7 As Jacob Brackman describes this attitude in The Put-On, "we are supposed to have learned by now that one does not ask what art means."8 And, as Brackman shows, this deliberate avoidance of interpretability has moved from the arts into styles of personal behavior. It appears that the term "meaning" itself, as applied not only to art but to more general experience, has joined "truth" and "reality" in the class of words which can no longer be written unless apologized for by inverted commas.

Thus it is tempting to agree with Leslie Fiedler's conclusion that "the Culture Religion of Modernism" is now dead.9 The most advanced art and criticism of the last twenty years seem to have abandoned the modernist respect for artistic meaning. The religion of art has been "demythologized." A number of considerations, however, render this statement of the case misleading. Examined more closely, both the modernist faith in literary meanings and the postmodern repudiation of these meanings prove to be highly ambivalent attitudes, much closer to one another than may at first appear. The equation of modernism with "uncompromising intellectuality" overlooks how much of this intellectuality devoted itself to calling its own authority into question.


The nineteenth century's elevation of art to the status of a surrogate religion had rested on paradoxical foundations. Though in one sense the religion of art increased enormously the cultural prestige and importance of art, there was self-denigration implicit in the terms in which art was deified. Consider the following statement by Ortega y Gasset, contrasting the attitude of the avantgarde art of the mid-twenties, that art is "a thing of no consequence" and "of no transcendent importance," with the veneration art had compelled in the previous century:

Poetry and music then were activities of an enormous caliber. In view of the downfall of religion and the inevitable relativism of science, art was expected to take upon itself nothing less than the salvation of mankind. Art was important for two reasons: on account of its subjects which dealt with the profoundest problems of humanity, and on account of its own significance as a human pursuit from which the species derived its justification and dignity.10

Ortega attributes the prestige of art in the nineteenth century to the fact that art was expected to provide compensation for the "downfall of religion and the inevitable relativism of science." But the downfall of religion and the relativism of science were developments which could not help undermining the moral and epistemological foundations of art. Once these foundations had been shaken—and the sense of their precariousness was a condition of the romantic glorification of the creative imagination—art could scarcely lay claim to any firm authority for dealing with "the profoundest problems of humanity" and for endowing the species with "justification and dignity." It is only fair to add that Ortega's own philosophical writings are profound commentaries on this crisis of authority in modern experience.

From its beginnings, the romantic religion of art manifested that self-conflict with its own impulses which Renato Poggioli, in The Theory of the Avant-Garde, identifies as a defining characteristic of avant-garde thought.11 The ultimate futility and impotence of art was implicit in the very terms with which romantic and subsequently modernist writers attempted to deify art as a substitute for religion. The concept of an autonomous creative imagination, which fabricates the forms of order, meaning, and value which men no longer thought they could find in external nature, implicitly—if not necessarily intentionally—concedes that artistic meaning is a fiction, without any corresponding object in the extra-artistic world. In this respect the doctrine of the creative imagination contained within itself the premises of its refutation.

Recent literature forces us to recognize the precariousness of the earlier religion of art, to see that the very concept of a creative imagination on which it depended contains an unavoidable difficulty. For an order or pattern of meaning which must be invented by human consciousness out of its inner structure—whether it is thought to derive from the private subjectivity of the individual, from some intersubjective Geist that is assumed to be common to all minds, or from the humanly created forms of custom and convention—is necessarily uncertain of its authority. Old-fashioned textbook descriptions of romanticism stressing the affirmative flights of the romantic priests of art ignored the ambivalence pervading romantic writing. Wordsworth, for example, celebrating the spirit in nature which "rolls through all things," pauses self-consciously to consider that this celebration may rest on "a vain belief," justifiable only on pragmatic grounds. And his affirmation of this spirit is haunted by his difficulty in determining whether man actually perceives it as an external reality or creates it out of his own mind. The Shelleyan stereotype of the poet as the "unacknowledged legislator of the world," a godlike creator who brings forth a new cosmos ex nihilo and soars beyond the range of commonsense reality, is, from another perspective, only an honorific reformulation of the alternate stereotype of the poet as a marginal person, a hapless trifler or eccentric who inhabits a world of autistic fantasy and turns his back on objective reality. The secret and unacknowledged collaboration between rebellious literati and their philistine detractors remains an unwritten chapter in the social history of art. Both poetolatry's glorification of the artist as a demigod and philistinism's denigration of him as an irresponsible social deviant share a common definition of the artist as a special kind of person, one who perceives the world in a fashion different from that of ordinary objective judgment. An inner connection links the doctrine of imaginative autonomy and the philosophical and social alienation of art.12

For the romantic belief in the power of the autonomous imagination was chastened by the recognition that the order and truth generated by this imagination are no more than arbitrary and subjective constructions. If imaginative truth is determined from within rather than without, how can a poet know whether one myth prompted by his imagination is truer than any other? And what basis has he for claiming that his particular myth is or should be shared by others? In the very assertion that poetry endows the universe with meaning—the proposition of Shelley's Defence—there lay an implied confession of the arbitrary nature of that meaning. Romantic esthetics typifies the more general crisis of modern thought, which pursues a desperate quest for meaning in experience while refusing to accept the validity of any meaning proposed. The paradox of the sophisticated modern mind is that it is unable to believe in the objective validity of meanings yet is unable to do without meanings. The ambiguous status of the concept of meaning in modern esthetic theory is one outcome of this paradox. For the last two centuries, theorists have engaged in a tightrope act in which the significance which must be ascribed to art in order to justify its importance has had to be eliminated from art in order to guarantee its innocence and authenticity. Thus we have the numerous self-contradictory attempts in the twentieth century to define art as a discourse somehow both referential and nonreferential, closed off from the external world yet embodying profound knowledge of the external world.13


The equation of romanticism with "subjectivism" is, of course, a misunderstanding of the intentions of the major romantic thinkers, who glorified not the idiosyncratic subjectivity of the private ego but transcendental subjectivity of universal man, sometimes identified with the Absolute itself. Thus for Shelley, "a poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth" according to "the unchangeable forms of human nature, as existing in the mind of the creator, which is itself the image of all other minds."14 By assuming the unity and universality of "all other minds," this view makes it possible to do without an external ground of order and value. Henry David Aiken notes that nineteenth-century thinkers came "increasingly to recognize that objectivity is not so much a fact about the universe as it is a matter of common standards of judgment and criticism." Objectivity, in other words, was redefined as intersubjectivity: "Intersubjective norms are not agreed to by the members of a society because they are objective, but, in effect, become objective because they are jointly accepted."15

In other words, societies do not abide by certain rules because these rules are, by some preestablished standard, normative. Rather, societies choose to regard certain rules as normative, and these rules then become established as such. This reasoning refers normative judgments to what we now call an "existential" act of choice. In doing so, however, it begs the question of how this choice is made. On what basis does society choose? To take a provocative but nevertheless pertinent example, suppose one faction of society prefers a policy of genocide against certain minorities while another prefers a policy of democratic freedom. Is there no standard of good reasons that can be invoked to show that democratic freedom constitutes a wiser choice than genocidal extinction? (I have translated the problem into one of values, but the case is not altered when the question is one of what to regard as objectively true.) The notion that choices determine norms rather than obey them does away with the idea that there are certain norms that ought to be chosen by societies and thus precipitates a radical cultural relativism. It is true, of course, that force, not good reasons, has governed most societies. Yet if we give up the notion that such reasons can exist prior to choice, we deny the legitimacy of resisting force.

To argue that the nature of a concept is whatever people believe it to be may be an adequate strategy as long as everybody in the relevant group believes the same things. It becomes a nonanswer when the nature of the concept has become a contested issue. The appeal to what people believe breaks down as soon as the question arises of whether they ought to believe it. The appeal to intersubjective consensus begs the question at hand; it was the breakdown of such consensus, when the literary and the commercial-utilitarian factions of society began to inhabit opposed mental worlds, that in large degree occasioned the cultural problem. It is this dilemma that may have induced Kant himself, in at least one passage, to swerve from his customary position and assert that our mental acts of constituting reality must be controlled by an external object. In the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, Kant poses the question of how we can assure ourselves that our judgments are shared by others. His answer is surprising: "there would be no reason for the judgments of other men necessarily agreeing with mine," Kant says, "if it were not for the unity of the object to which they all refer and with which they accord; hence they must all agree with one another."16 This answer is surprising because elsewhere Kant insists that it makes no sense to speak of a "unity of the object" as if it were prior to our thinking, because unity inheres not in the object but in the conditions of our common understanding, specifically in the category of unity by which our minds constitute the object. Here Kant seems to undo his Copernican revolution by making our ability to constitute the object as a unity depend on the unity of the object in itself prior to our apprehension. In order to account for the universality of our perceptions, Kant is forced to lapse into the sort of "correspondence" theory of truth that his philosophy has presumably done away with.

But of course the great influence of Kant's thought—whether Kant intended it or not—was precisely to discredit this correspondence theory of truth, and to rule out any talk about the way reality coerces our judgments. And in the absence of any appeal to such a coercive reality to which the plurality of subjectivities can be referred, all perspectives become equally valid. The romantic Absolute degenerates into a myth or, as we now say, a fiction. The logic of romantic transcendental philosophy led to a relativism that was certainly antithetical to what most romantic thinkers intended, yet which furthered the loss of community they were seeking to redress.

This distinction between the intent of romantic argument and its consequences makes it possible to resolve some recent scholarly controversies over whether the romantics were humanists or nihilists. In a sense, both sides are right. The opposing theories of romanticism do not really conflict, since they are not talking about the same aspects of the subject. Those who see romanticism as positive and optimistic (notably, M. H. Abrams in Natural Supernaturalism and René Wellek in "Romanticism Reconsidered") base their view largely on what the romantics themselves consciously intended—to respect common truth and the artist's responsibility to his community. Those who by contrast see romanticism as nihilistic (critics such as J. Hillis Miller, Morse Peckham, and Harold Bloom), base their views on the logical consequences of romantic ideas, independent of intentions. Certainly neither Kant nor any of the thinkers and poets who were influenced by his ideas thought they were proposing a radical relativism that would reduce all values and all reality to a set of fictions. In this sense, Wellek is right when he objects to Peckham's statement that "Romanticism learns from Kant that it can do entirely without constitutive metaphysics and can use any metaphysic or world hypothesis as supreme fiction." Wellek replies, rightly, that one "learns" nothing of the kind from Kant: "I am not aware of a single writer in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century to whom this description would apply. Who then rejected the possibility of metaphysics or treated it as supreme fiction?"17 Nevertheless, in fairness to Peckham's view, there is warrant for arguing that the effect of the romantic argument was to do just this.


The developments we have been discussing have their origins in the social and philosophical crises of modern culture. The critical and scientific philosophies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries severed the ancient connection between rational, objective thought and value judgments. Not only values, but all ideas of order which went beyond factual sense-data became increasingly viewed as inherently subjective, a fate which would overtake objective fact itself at a later date. There set in the condition which Erich Heller has described as "the loss of significant external reality," the sense that the objective world and the realm of meanings and values are irreparably divided.18 Regarded by most thoughtful men up to the end of the Renaissance as a support for the eternal ethical, metaphysical, religious, and esthetic absolutes, "reason," in its empiricist and Cartesian forms, appeared as a threat to the survival of absolutes. As soon became clear, this new reason undermined not only received certainties and traditions but eventually the axioms of rationalism as well. Left to progress without check, reason threatened to yield up a universe in which the result of ethical inquiry, as William James would put it, "could only be one of those indeterminate equations in mathematics which end with 0 = 0," since "this is as far as the reasoning intellect by itself can go. . . . "19 This was the "universe of death" encountered by many romantic writers and their protagonists—Goethe's Faust, Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, and Carlyle's Teufelsdröckh among them.

In such a universe, choice and action were paralyzed, and literature was deprived of its moral function.

A number of social developments immensely deepened this skepticism toward reason. Industrialism intensified the separation of fact and value by institutionalizing objective thought in the form of technology, commerce, and, later, bureaucracy, administration, and social engineering. "Reason" thus became equated with amoral mechanism, with the commercial calculus of profit and the laissez-faire economy, with means and instrumental efficiency over ends, with a regimented, overorganized society which destroys ritual, folk customs, and the heroic dimension of life. In this kind of society, reason appears commonly as a cause of alienation rather than a potential cure: a value-free, depersonalized, finally aimless and irrational mode of calculation that serves the goals both of arbitrary terror and dull commercialism.

At the same time, the fragmentation of the emerging democratic and urbanized society generated an awareness of the private interests and prejudices motivating the use of reason. The recognition that thought serves "ideological" purposes gradually gave rise to the view—at first a suspicion, later a programmatic theory—that all thinking is ideological, that there is no disinterested basis on which the competing claims of different nations, classes, and individuals can be compared and judged. As shared forms of social experience disappeared, the belief in the possibility of shared experience weakened. Reason, which from one point of view was inhumanly neutral, was from another as relativistic, partial, and "human" as passion. And as the growth of class consciousness threatened the stability of established order, reason was associated with blind fanaticism, with a demented overconfidence in the ability of theory alone to reform reality. As advances in knowledge became more spectacular, society was plagued by a sense of the discrepancy between the pervasiveness of intellectual analysis and the poverty of its results, between the avidity with which knowledge was pursued and its inability to answer questions of pressing human importance. With the proliferation of scientific knowledge, men felt oppressed, rather than enlightened, by "explanations."

All these developments helped shape an outlook which sees modern history as a kind of fall from organic unity into the original sin of rationality and which thus longs to escape or "transcend" the burden of reflective consciousness. By his fall into reason, man had apparently lost the harmony of subject and object, self and nature, senses and reason, individual and society, play and work—all this for the sake of the questionable benefits of progress. As Schiller put it in a moving statement, "we see in irrational nature only a happier sister who remained in our mother's house, out of which we impetuously fled abroad in the arrogance of our freedom. With painful nostalgia we yearn to return as soon as we have begun to experience the pressure of civilization and hear in the remote lands of art our mother's tender voice. As long as we were children of nature merely, we enjoyed happiness and perfection; we became free, and lost both."20 Schiller believed that the compensations of freedom and progress were ultimately sufficient to justify the loss, and that at any rate there could be no going back: "That nature which you envy in the irrational is worthy of no respect, no longing. It lies behind you, and must lie eternally behind you."21 Nevertheless, he cannot help conveying the implication that the advent of rational consciousness and the critical spirit represents a great fall from grace.

One consequence of these developments was to weaken further the classical ideal of an integrated unity of man based on the hierarchical subordination of the "lower" to the "higher" faculties. Even in those German thinkers who glorified Greek culture, this hierarchical view of man, which it was natural enough to associate with tyrannical monarchy, gave way to an "organic" ideal of unity. Reason was not necessarily excluded from this organic unity, but its primacy was usurped by another faculty—sometimes called "Reason" but actually closer to imagination, myth, and fantasy, since it does not conform to "conceptual" or "theoretical" reality, but dictates its laws to reality through an autonomous human consciousness. Mere passive understanding was associated with conformity to traditional authoritarian political systems. Again, this rethinking was necessitated by the fact that understanding had been dehumanized through a kind of guiltby-association: with soulless technology, with hierarchical social authority, with amoral political economy, with ideological fanaticism, and with a useless and oppressive machinery of explanation.

Given the circumstances, it was inevitable that the crisis of the industrial order would be diagnosed as a case of excess of reason at the expense of the inner life, or in Shelley's phrasing, "an excess of the selfish and calculating principle" and "the materials of external life" over "the power of assimilating them to the internal laws of human nature."22 It would have to follow that the "human" goals of personal fulfillment, feeling, values, and creativity are arrived at only by overcoming objective consciousness. As Northrop Frye points out, in a statement on Shelley that reveals Frye's own guiding philosophy, "Shelley puts all the discursive disciplines into an inferior group of 'analytic' operations of reason. They are aggressive; they think of ideas as weapons; they seek the irrefutable argument, which keeps eluding them because all arguments are theses, and theses are half-truths implying their own opposites."23 In other words, reason cannot take us beyond 0 = 0. Worse still, it is arrogant, aggressive, and divisive. With objective reason thus dehumanized, the autonomous creative imagination becomes the only hope for cultural salvation.

From this era dates one of the commonplaces of modern social criticism. This is the view that progress in objective knowledge and its practical applications has far outstripped progress in the moral and human sphere. Though this complaint seems correct to the point of obviousness, the way it is stated unobtrusively insinuates that moral and human concerns are fundamentally independent of the search for objective knowledge. From this it is a mere step to the idea that objective understanding of the world and human values (including the values expressed through the arts) are inimical, or that the best one can hope to do is to combine these opposing impulses in an uneasy alliance. In this alliance, objective thinking is to be controlled, directed, and humanized by a morality which is implicitly understood to be nonobjective and thus of dubious status right from the beginning. Even when romantic thinkers such as Shelley, Wordsworth, and Carlyle view science as potentially beneficial and capable of harmonizing with literature, the division of labor they adopt equates literature with the "internal," science and objectivity with the "external" phases of existence. This paves the way for the sharp separation of function that we find in so much subsequent literary and cultural criticism, and finally for the outright assault on objective reason that characterizes the recent cultural left.


In their very reaction against the scientific reduction of experience, the humanists conceded certain premises of science. W. H. Auden describes this underlying agreement between science and romantic humanists as follows:

Modern science has destroyed our faith in the naïve observation of our senses: we cannot, it tells us, ever know what the physical universe is really like; we can only hold whatever subjective notion is appropriate to the particular human purpose we have in view.

This destroys the traditional conception of art as mimesis, for there is no longer a nature "out there" to be truly or falsely imitated; all an artist can be true to are his subjective sensations and feelings. The change in attitude is already to be seen in Blake's remark that some people see the sun as a round golden disc the size of a guinea but that he sees it as a host crying Holy, Holy, Holy. What is significant about this is that Blake, like the Newtonianc he hated, accepts a division between the physical and the spiritual, but, in opposition to them, regards the material universe as the abode of Satan, and so attaches no value to what his physical eye sees.24

As described here by Auden, Blake's position converts a seeming disaster into a victory for the spirit: the spirit has lost its basis in objective nature and reason; but this is no misfortune, since it is better that the spirit not be "enslaved" to nature and reason anyway. What looks at first like the alienation of literature from its source of philosophical (and social) authority is actually a liberation. In this fashion, the new esthetics of romanticism made a virtue of necessity, or what was perceived as a necessity, by construing literature's dispossession of an objective world view as a fortunate fall into "autonomy." Humanists, from this point on, freely and happily choose to embrace a conception of art's station which has been forced upon them by the constraints of the historical situation. From the perception enforced by science that literature has no objective truth, one moves to the conclusion that this is for the best, since objective truth is merely factual, boring, and middle-class.

This strategy of redeeming a bad situation by redescribing it is seen in the various theories of "disinterestedness" that arose in eighteenth-century esthetics and were perfected by Kant in the Critique of Judgment. For Kant the judgments of taste peculiar to art constitute a "pure disinterested satisfaction," as opposed to judgments that are "bound up with an interest." The judgment of taste is "merely contemplative," that is, it is "indifferent as regards the existence of an object." It is "not a cognitive judgment (either theoretical or practical), and thus is not based on concepts, nor has it concepts as its purpose." Art embodies "the mere form of purposiveness" without aiming at a practical purpose, just as art incorporates the raw material of the concepts of the understanding without being itself conceptual.25 It can hardly be accidental that this insistence on separating art from practical interests began to gain popularity at the very moment when the concept of "interest" was losing its metaphysical authority on the one hand, and acquiring derogatory commercial connotations on the other. Nor can it be accidental that art began to be defined as "purposeless" at the very moment when it was in fact losing its traditional social purpose as a means of understanding experience. A new class was arising that did not look to art for an explanation of things as they are and saw no useful purpose in art. How better to answer this class (while accepting its assumption) than to deride the concept of "useful purpose" and to excuse art from any responsibility to it? Thus art came to be celebrated for a freedom from purpose that had been thrust upon it by default.

Over and over, we find that modern esthetic concepts come about as rationalizations of states of affairs that art had little to do with bringing about. From the perception that "poetry makes nothing happen," as Auden in our century has said,26 we move to the imperative that poetry ought to make nothing happen, and finally to the axiom that it is not real poetry if it aims at practical effect. By this logical route, the alienated position of literature ceases to be an aspect of a particular historical condition and becomes part of literature's very definition. Of course this pose of withdrawal from practical effect continues to be highly ambiguous. In its very adoption of a "purposeless" stance, literature performs the practical purpose of combatting philistinism. The very retreat of literature into formalism constitutes an assault on the utilitarians and an attempt to counteract their social and personal influence.

Yet the conditions which had brought about the need to conceive the antidote in these terms made its success unlikely. The strategy of promoting art to the status of universal legislator rested on an implicitly defeatist acceptance of art's disinheritance from its philosophical and social authority. The high claims made for art by writers like Shelley and Kant made the attenuated social and philosophical authority of art seem like a form of power rather than of weakness. These claims rationalized art's already marginal social position. The terms in which the literary imagination was praised converted it into a sentimental compensation while imperceptibly conceding literature's loss of explanatory power. The way in which art was supposed to overcome the division between the rational or the practical and the creative—through a projection of "the internal laws of human nature"—only tended to deepen this division and to make it seem part of the very nature of things. Enemies of the fragmentation, specialization, and dissociation of modern society, the romantics themselves dissociated art from practicality and objective reason and paved the way for later theorists who would regard it as a specialized mode of discourse. These arguments reinforced the division of labor which made "imagination" the province of the artist and abstract thought, logic, and common sense the monopoly of other people.


Having been dispossessed of a rational world view, literature must be conceived as an "organism" that somehow, in a fashion infinitely described but never successfully explained by several generations of literary theorists, "contains" its meaning immanently within its concrete symbols or processes. Esthetic theory embarks on the attempt to explain how the concrete artistic structure can mean even though the structure does not rely on the now-discredited discursive, conceptual, referential forms of thought and expression. Though this appeal to nonconceptual models is supposed to help heal the divisions within culture, its actual tendency is to reinforce the isolation of art and its withdrawal from public accessibility.

The definition of literature as a nondiscursive, non-conceptual mode of communication has been proposed in a great variety of forms, closed, open, and mixed. It is a continuous impulse from the beginnings of romanticism to the latest postmodernisms. From Coleridge and his German predecessors to recent formalists, there runs a common theory of art as a symbol that contains or "presents" its meanings intransitively, by contrast with discursive signs or concepts, which make statements "about" external states of affairs. Despite mounting attacks, the theory shows no sign of losing confidence even today. Thus a recent critic, Leonard B. Meyer, can write with assurance: "There is a profound and basic difference between scientific theories, which are propositional, and works of art, which are presentational"27—as if it were necessary to choose between the propositional and the presentational, as if a work of art could not be both at the same time.

The denial of the propositional nature of literature makes it difficult for literary theory to make a place—as most theorists still wish to do—for a defensible notion of artistic significance. Rejecting the idea that literature is propositional, the critic is forced into a dilemma: on the one hand, he tries to elaborate a description of literary meaning that does not appeal to propositions, and plunges into obscurity and mystification; on the other hand, he tries to clarify that description by bringing it into line with our familiar notions of meaning and contradicts himself, since those notions are propositional. Furthermore, every time the critic tries to speak of the meaning or "theme" or "vision" of a particular, concrete work, he can hardly help sliding into a propositional conception of literature. Despite these difficulties, the critical refusal to see literature as propositional remains strong. In the main tradition of modern esthetics—which includes such figures as Croce, Richards, Dewey, Cassirer, Langer, Eliot, Jung, Frye, Jakobson, and Ingarden—literature and art deal with experience only as myth, psychology, or language, not as an object of conceptual understanding. A number of these theorists define art as the experiential complement of understanding without its content—as does Langer in her theory of art as "virtual experience" or Eliot in his view that poetry does not assert beliefs but dramatizes "what it feels like" to have them—again as if experience and ideas "about" experience were incompatible.28 The intention of these theorists is not to make art irrelevant to life; art in its own ways allegedly gives order and form to life. But this artistic ordering is not supposed to offer itself as understanding, and it does not solicit verification by anything external to the work or to the autonomous consciousness out of which the work arose.

It often follows that the content of a literary work, assuming it is even valid to attribute content to literary works, has no interest in itself but serves merely as a pretext, the "bit of nice meat," according to Eliot, that the burglar holds out to the house dog while going about his real work.29 Consequently, the reader need "believe" only provisionally, if at all, in the truth of the picture of reality presented by the work. Behind this thesis that belief is an inappropriate frame of mind in which to approach literature is the feeling that either there are no beliefs one can legitimately risk affirming, or that the belief-affirming modes of thought and expression have been hopelessly discredited. Often these theorists claim that art is a higher form of "knowledge," but since this knowledge is not conceptual knowledge "about" the world, since it does not invite belief, its credentials are not clear. The various theories of art as nonconceptual knowledge fail to provide art with any stronger cognitive function than was provided by I. A. Richards's logical positivist theory of art as pseudo-statement.30

From the position that the literary symbol means no more than itself (autotelic art), it is only a step to the position that literature has no meaning (anti-teleological art), or that its meaning is totally indeterminate and "open" to interpretation. The theory of the nondiscursive symbol, though capable of supporting Coleridge's affirmation of literature's transcendent truth, is equally capable of supporting the bleakest, most naturalistic denial of transcendence. Consider a brief illustration. Emerson, in a famous passage in "Self-Reliance," says that "these roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose."31 Emerson's rose is a Coleridgean symbol—self-sufficient, complete in itself, untranslatable, yet an embodiment of the immanence of God in nature. Though the feeling-tone of Emerson's statement is far different, the underlying logic is the same as that of the following statement by Robbe-Grillet: "the world is neither significant nor absurd. It is quite simply."32 Both Emerson and Robbe-Grillet are concerned with the intransitivity of natural objects, but the analogy with artistic objects is obvious. Neither nature nor art means anything apart from itself—they simply are. Behind Emerson's rose there is the Over-Soul, whereas behind Robbe-Grillet's inexpressive objects there are only hysteria and paranoia—the demystified postmodern equivalent of the Over-Soul. Emerson's object is intransitive because it means everything, Robbe-Grillet's because it means nothing. But whether it is affirmatively or negatively expressed, the esthetic of self-contained meaning is symptomatic of an intellectual situation in which intelligibility is being emptied from the world, so that objects and artworks appear only in their simple presence. The logic underlying the romantic glorification of literature as an autonomous lawgiver is identical to that underlying the post-modern repudiation of literature and its pretensions to interpret life.

The theorists who have adopted these positions rarely suppose that they are draining literature of meaning or cutting it off from life. Charged with doing so, they offer disclaimers: "We are not draining literature of meaning but trying to get at the special character of that meaning; we don't mean to sever literature from life, only to redefine this extremely complex relation." Such disclaimers are largely rhetorical, however, since the critics do not make clear how it is possible to avoid the apparent implications of what they say. The fact that we do not want a certain implication to follow from our statements does not in itself prevent it from following. If a critic asserts that literature is an autonomous creation that is not obliged to conform to any preestablished laws, he does not disarm the charge of irresponsibility by adding, "of course I do not mean to suggest that 'anything goes' in literature and that writers are totally free to violate fundamental dictates of common sense." For one has to answer, "Why shouldn't anything go, if your original proposition is taken seriously?"

Having overthrown the mimetic theory of art, romantic and postromantic theories soon became the targets of the skepticism they had helped popularize. Their inability to define the cognitive function of art in any but the most equivocal terms has made earlier twentieth-century theorists vulnerable to the kind of attack from more recent critics which they themselves once levelled against traditional mimetic theory. This vulnerability emerges in current attacks on the New Criticism, a subject treated at length in my fifth chapter. With a kind of poetic justice, the New Criticism has been dethroned from its position of preeminence by arguments perfected by itself. The New Critics engaged in quixotic endeavor to defend poetic meanings by arguing that "a poem should not mean but be." In this effort they manifested the ambivalence about meaning and representation that is endemic to modern thinking about art. It demands only a moderate amount of historical sense to see that when Susan Sontag or Roland Barthes indicts the reductive nature of New Critical interpretation they revive the very charge which the New Critics had levelled against their own opponents, namely, "the heresy of paraphrase." We now see the same kind of accusation levelled against "organic" concepts of literature that the New Critical organicists levelled against mimetic concepts—the accusation of reducing the work to a determinate formula. Adepts of interpretation with a profound skepticism toward interpretation, the New Critics proposed a theory of literature that conflicted with their analytical method. While their close readings of texts called attention to the importance of meaning in literature, their theories aroused suspicion of the idea that a literary work can be said to have anything so discursive as a meaning, or that that meaning can be formulated by criticism. That the New Critics in the seventies are routinely disparaged as meaning-mongers and hyper-intellectualizers testifies to the continuing power of the skepticism they themselves helped to popularize. Here we see an example of the way the terms of the modern critical heritage inform the postmodern denigration of this heritage.

A logical evolution, then, connects the romantic and post-romantic cult of the creative self to the cult of the disintegrated, disseminated, dispersed self and of the decentered, undecidable, indeterminate text. Today's cultural battlefield is polarized between traditional humanists on one side and nihilistic "schismatics," in Frank Kermode's term, on the other.2 Yet the humanists who celebrate the arts as the sovereign orderer of experience often seem nihilistic in their view of life. This nihilism is particularly overt in a critic like Northrop Frye, who praises Oscar Wilde for the view that "as life has no shape and literature has, literature is throwing away its one distinctive quality when it tries to imitate life."33 How Frye came to know with such assurance that "life has no shape" is not clear, but if he is right one wonders what difference it should make if literature throws away its distinctive quality, or how literature—or anything—can have a distinctive quality. But those like Frye and Kermode, who defend humanism as a necessary fiction that somehow permits us to make sense of a reality known in advance to be senseless, share the same presuppositions as schismatics such as Artaud, Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, and Robbe-Grillet. The schismatics conclude, with better logic, that, if humanism is indeed a fiction, we ought to quit this pretense that it can be taken seriously.34


If postmodern literature extends rather than overturns the premises of romanticism and modernism, we should expect this relation to be visible not only in the themes of literature but in its forms. Consider as an example the following passage from Barthelme's Snow White:

"Try to be a man about whom nothing is known," our father said, when we were young. Our father said several other interesting things, but we have forgotten what they were. . . . Our father was a man about whom nothing was known. Nothing is known about him still. He gave us the recipes. He was not very interesting. A tree is more interesting. A suitcase is more interesting. A canned good is more interesting.35

Barthelme here parodies Henry James's advice to the aspiring fiction writer: "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost."36 Barthelme inverts the assumptions about character, psychology, and the authority of the artist upon which James, the father of the modernist "recipe" for the novel, had depended. In postmodern fiction, character, like external reality, is something "about which nothing is known," lacking in plausible motive or discoverable depth. Whereas James had stressed the importance of artistic selection, defining the chief obligation of the novelist as the obligation to be "interesting," Barthelme operates by a law of equivalence according to which nothing is intrinsically more interesting than anything else.37 Such a law destroys the determinacy of artistic selection and elevates canned goods to equal status with human moral choice as artistic subject matter. In place of Jamesian dedication to the craft of fiction, Barthelme adopts an irreverent stance toward his work, conceding the arbitrary and artificial nature of his creation. Retracting any Jamesian claim to deal seriously with the world, Barthelme's work offers—for wholly different reasons—the sort of confession of the merely "make-believe" status of fiction to which James objected in Thackeray and Trollope. The novel's inability to transcend the solipsism of subjectivity and language becomes the novel's chief subject and the principle of its form.

It would seem that the Jamesian esthetic could not be stood on its head more completely. But only a surface consideration of the comparison can be content to leave it at that. James himself, in both his fiction and his criticism, contributed to the skepticism which Barthelme turns against him. T. S. Eliot wrote that Paul Valéry was "much too sceptical to believe even in art."38 The remark applies, in greater or lesser degree, to all the great modernist worshippers at the shrine of high art, not excluding James. Consider James's view of the infinite elusiveness of experience, which is "never limited, and . . . never complete,"39 an elusiveness he dramatized in the interminable ambiguities of his later fiction. James combined an intense dedication to unraveling the secrets of motive and action with an acutely developed sense of the ultimate impossibility of such an enterprise.

Conflicting with James's insistence on the importance of artistic selection and shaping is the curiously subjectivistic justification James came to accord to this process. He frequently asserts, in his later reflections, that the orderings of the artist cannot derive from or be determined by the raw material of life itself. As he observes in The American Scene:

To be at all critically, or as we have been fond of calling it, analytically minded .. . is to be subject to the superstition that objects and places, coherently grouped, disposed for human use and addressed to it, must have a sense of their own, a mystic meaning proper to themselves to give out: to give out, that is, to the participant at once so interested and so detached as to be moved to a report of the matter. That perverse person is obliged to take it for a working theory that the essence of almost any settled aspect of anything may be extracted by the chemistry of criticism, and may give us its right name, its formula, for convenient use. From the moment the critic finds himself sighing, to save trouble in a difficult case, that the cluster of appearances can have no sense, from that moment he begins, and quite consciously, to go to pieces; it being the prime business and the high honour of the painter of life always to make a sense—and to make it most in proportion as the immediate aspects are loose or confused.40

James seems to be saying there are no objective determinants guiding the act of "making a sense" of experience. The "mystic meaning" of events is not in the events themselves, or controlled by them, but in the observer. James perceives that in these circumstances there is danger that the observer may "go to pieces" unless he is adequate to the artist's task of fabricating his own sense. But though James assigns "high honour" to the fabricator and shame to the person who surrenders to confusion, one might question his valuations. Could one not say that the artist who saves himself by inventing fictions of order he knows to be arbitrary is engaging in a deception of which the confused observer is innocent? Is it less honorable to "go to pieces" in honest confusion than to create forms of coherence whose truth is admitted to be mythical? James rests his claims of honor for the artistic process on the damaging admission that artistic order is not grounded on anything outside itself.

Perceiving that the modernist's seriousness rests on admittedly arbitrary foundations, the postmodern writer treats this seriousness as an object of parody. Whereas modernists turned to art, defined as the imposition of human order upon inhuman chaos—as an antidote for what Eliot called the "immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history"—postmodernists conclude that, under such conceptions of art and history, art provides no more consolation than any other discredited cultural institution. Postmodernism signifies that the nightmare of history, as modernist esthetic and philosophical traditions have defined history, has overtaken modernism itself.41 If history lacks value, pattern, and rationally intelligible meaning, then no exertions of the shaping, ordering imagination can be anything but a refuge from truth. Alienation from significant external reality, from all reality, becomes an inescapable condition.


In carrying the logic of modernism to its extreme limits, postmodern literature poses in an especially acute fashion the critical problem raised by all experimental art: does this art represent a criticism of the distorted aspects of modern life or a mere addition to it? Georg Lukács has argued persuasively that the successful presentation of distortion as such presupposes the existence of an undistorted norm. "Literature," he writes, "must have a concept of the normal if it is to 'place' distortion correctly, that is to say, to see it as distortion."42 If life were really a solipsistic madness, we should have no means of knowing this fact or representing it. But once the concept of the normal is rejected as a vestige of an outmoded metaphysics or patronized as a myth, the concepts of "distortion" and "madness" lose their meanings. This observation provides a basis for some necessary distinctions between tendencies in postmodern writing.

In Jorge Luis Borges's stories, for example, techniques of reflexiveness and self-parody suggest a universe in which human consciousness is incapable of transcending its own mythologies. This condition of imprisonment, however, though seen from the "inside," is presented from a tragic or tragicomic point of view that forces us to see it as a problem. The stories generate a pathos at the absence of a transcendent order of meanings. As Borges's narrator in "The Library of Babel" declares, "Let heaven exist, though my place be in hell. Let me be outraged and annihilated, but for one instant, in one being, let Your enormous Library be justified."43 The library contains all possible books and all possible interpretations of experience but none which can claim authority over the others; therefore, it cannot be "justified." Nevertheless, Borges affirms the indispensable nature of justification. As in such earlier writers as Kafka and Céline, the memory of a significant external reality that would justify human experience persists in the writer's consciousness and serves as his measure of the distorted, indeterminate world he depicts. Borges's kind of postmodern writing, even in presenting solipsistic distortion as the only possible perspective, nevertheless presents this distortion as distortion—that is, it implicitly affirms a concept of the normal, if only as a concept which has been tragically lost. The comic force of characters like "Funes the Memorious" and of solipsistic worlds such as those of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" lies in the crucial fact that Borges, for all his imaginative sympathy, is not Funes, is not an inhabitant of Tlön, and is thus able to view the unreality of their worlds as a predicament. His work retains a link with traditional classical humanism by virtue of its sense of the pathos of this humanism's demise. The critical power of absence remains intact, giving Borges a perspective for judging the unreality of the present. His work affirms the sense of reality in a negative way by dramatizing its absence as a deprivation.

Whatever tendency toward subjectivism these Borges works may contain is further counteracted by their ability to suggest the historical and social causes of this loss of objective reality. Borges invites us to see the solipsistic plight of his characters as a consequence of the relativistic thrust of modern philosophy and modern politics. If reality has yielded to the myth-making of Tlön, as he suggests it has, "the truth is that it longed to yield." The mythologies of "dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism" were sufficient "to entrance the minds of men."44 The loss of reality is made intelligible to the reader as an aspect of a social and historical evolution. At its best, the contemporary wave of self-reflexive fiction is not quite so totally self-reflexive as it is taken to be, since its very reflexivity implies a "realistic" comment on the historical crisis which brought it about. Where such a comment is made, the conventions of anti-realism subserve a higher realism. Often, however, this fiction fails to make its reflexivity intelligible as a consequence of any recognizable cause. Estrangement from reality and meaning becomes detached from the consciousness of its causes—as in the more tediously claustrophobic and mannered experiments of Barthelme and the later Barth.45 Even in these works, however, the loss of reality and meaning is seen as a distortion of the human condition.

Far different is the attitude expressed in the more celebratory forms of postmodernism. Here there is scarcely any memory of an objective order of values in the past and no regret over its disappearance in the present. Concepts like "significant external reality" and "the human condition" figure only as symbols of the arbitrary authority and predetermination of a repressive past, and their disappearance is viewed as liberation. Dissolution of ego boundaries, seen in tragic postmodern works like Invitation to a Beheading as a terrifying disintegration of identity, is viewed as a bracing form of consciousness-expansion and a prelude to growth. Both art and the world, according to Susan Sontag, simply are."Both need no justification; nor could they possibly have any."46 The obsessive quest for justification which characterizes Borges's protagonists is thus regarded, if it is noticed at all, as a mere survival of outmoded thinking.

It is symptomatic of the critical climate that Borges has been widely read as a celebrant of apocalyptic unreality. Borges's current celebrity is predicated to a large degree on a view that sees him as a pure fabulator revelling in the happy indistinguishability of truth and fiction. Richard Poirier, for example, urges us in reading Borges to get rid of "irrelevant distinctions between art and life fiction and reality."47 But if distinctions between fiction and reality were really irrelevant, Borges's work would be pointless.

But then, in a world which simply is, pointlessness is truth. There is no ground for posing the question of justification as a question. We can no longer even speak of "alienation" or "loss" of perspective, for there never was anything to be alienated from, never any normative perspective to be lost. The realistic perspective that gives shape and point to works of tragicomic postmodernism, permitting them to present distortion as distortion, gives way to a celebration of energy—the vitalism of a world that cannot be understood or controlled. We find this celebration of energy in the poetry of the Beats, the "Projective" poets, and other poetic continuators of the nativist line of Whitman, Williams, and Pound, in the short-lived vogue of the Living Theater, happenings, and pop art, and in a variety of artistic and musical experiments with randomness and dissonance. It is also an aspect of the writing of Mailer, Burroughs, and Pynchon, where despite the suggestion of a critical or satiric point of view, the style expresses a facile excitement with the dynamisms of technological process.48 Richard Poirier states the rationale for this worship of energy, making energy and literature synonymous: "Writing is a form of energy not accountable to the orderings anyone makes of it and specifically not accountable to the liberal humanitarian values most readers want to find there."49 Literature, in short, is closer to a physical force than to an understanding or "criticism of life," both of which are tame and bourgeois. This celebration of energy frequently seems to hover somewhere between revolutionary politics and sophisticated acquiescence to the agreeably meaningless surfaces of mass culture.

The acquiescence seems to have the upper hand over the politics in the esthetics of John Cage. Susan Sontag says that "Cage proposes for our experience a world in which it's never preferable to do other than we are doing or be elsewhere than we are. 'It is only irritating,' he says, 'to think one would like to be somewhere else. Here we are now.'"3 Cage, she writes, "envisages a totally democratic world of the spirit, a world of 'natural activity' in which 'it is understood that everything is clean: there is no dirt.' . . . Cage proposes the perennial possibility of errorless behavior, if only we will allow it to be so. 'Error is a fiction, has no reality in fact.'"50 Elsewhere Cage puts it this way: "We are intimate in advance with whatever will happen."51 Both nostalgia and hope are impossible because history has disappeared, replaced by an immanent present which is always, at every changing moment, the best of possible worlds. We are "intimate" with this present, not because it has any meaning or potential direction, but precisely because it is so pointless that to expect any meaning or direction would be out of the question. If one feels estrangement in contemplating this pointless world, it is because one has not yet abandoned the anthropocentric expectations that are the real source of our problem.

Alienation is thus "overcome" by the strategy of redescribing it as the normal state of affairs and then enjoying its gratifications. Political intransigence, from this point of view, is but a symptom of inadequate adjustment—the inability to get beyond old-fashioned alienation and immerse oneself in the unitary stream of things. Calvin Tomkins, admiring Robert Rauschenberg for his "cheerful and nearly total acceptance" of the materials of urban life, quotes the artist as follows: "I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly, because they're surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable."52 What is interesting in Rauschenberg's statement is the way it endows urban commercial ugliness with the permanence and unchangeability of nature—one might as soon do something about it as do something about rain or wind. Whatever one may think about the urban anti-culture, the thing is real and is not going to go away because a few intellectuals happen not to like it, so therefore one had better learn to love it. One does not try to change the world but rather alters one's perspective (or "consciousness") so as to see the world in a new way.


The assumption that alienation is the normal and unalterable condition of human beings has gained strength from structuralist theories of language described in my introduction: since meaning arises wholly from the play of differences within artificial sign systems, it follows that meanings are arbitrary and that everything we say in language is a fiction. Sometimes this assertion that everything is a fiction immunizes itself from criticism by claiming itself io be no more than a fiction. Thus Sontag tells us that "one can't object" to Roland Barthes's exposition of structuralist ideas "simply because its leading concepts are intellectual myths or fictions."53 Robert Scholes summarizes this post-structuralist outlook as follows:

Once we knew that fiction was about life and criticism was about fiction—and everything was simple. Now we know that fiction is about other fiction, is criticism in fact, or metafiction. And we know that criticism is about the impossibility of anything being about life, really, or even about fiction, or, finally, about anything. Criticism has taken the very idea of "aboutness" away from us. It has taught us that language is tautological, if it is not nonsense, and to the extent that it is about anything it is about itself. Mathematics is about mathematics, poetry is about poetry and criticism is about the impossibility of its own existence.54

The doctrine is particularly widespread in discussions of recent fiction. Raymond Federman, a theorist of "surfiction," informs us that the authentic fiction writers of our day "believe that reality as such does not exist, or rather exists only in its fictionalized version."55 As William Gass puts it, "the novelist, if he is any good, will keep us kindly imprisoned in his language—there is literally nothing beyond."56

No doubt structuralism, properly understood, is only a method of analysis and need not carry the dismal ontological conclusions which such critics have derived from it. But one of its exponents, Perry Meisel, after reassuring us that "structuralism is a method, not a program or an ideology," goes on to say that "structuralism realizes that alienation is the timeless and normative condition of humanity rather than its special modern affliction."57 For, according to Meisel, "semiotics is in a position to claim that no phenomenon has any ontological status outside its place in the particular information system(s) from which it draws its meaning(s)." From the proposition, unexceptionable in itself, that no signifier can mean anything apart from the code or sign system which gives it significance, one infers the conclusion that no signifier can refer to a nonlinguistic reality—that, as Meisel puts it, "all language is finally groundless." There is, then, no such thing as a "real" object outside language, no "nature" or "real life" outside the literary text, no real text behind the critical interpretation, and no real persons or institutions behind the multiplicity of messages human beings produce. Everything is swallowed up in an infinite regress of textuality.

Meisel does not hesitate to draw the social moral of all this: "the only assumption possible in a post-Watergate era," he writes, is "that the artifice is the only reality available."58 Since artifice is the only reality, the old fashioned distinctions between "intrinsic" and "extrinsic," literature and life, are abolished. Literature and life are thus reconciled, but only by the strategy of enclosing "life" itself in an autonomous process of textuality which cannot refer beyond its structuring activity. The gulf imposed by romantic esthetics between literary and practical discourse is closed, not by ascribing objective truth to literature, but by withdrawing it from all discourse. Fact and value are reconciled by converting fact along with value into fiction. These reconciliations are dictated not only by philosophical and linguistic theory but by "the post-Watergate era." One wonders whether the moral of the Watergate episode might not actually be that some degree of penetration of artifice, some detection of the hidden facts is after all possible. But structuralist skepticism does not wait to be questioned on such points. Its method of demythologizing thinking ends up teaching that no escape from mythmaking is possible.59

The position of structuralism and poststructuralism, however, on the postmodern spectrum of attitudes is equivocal. On the one hand there is Derrida's influential invocation of "the joyful Nietzschean affirmation of the play of the world and the innocence of becoming, the affirmation of a world of signs which has no truth, no origin, no nostalgic guilt, and is proffered for active interpretation."60 On the other hand, there is the insistence on the risk involved in the enterprise of doing without a truth and an origin as anchoring points outside the infinite play of linguistic differences. As Derrida puts it, "this affirmation then determines the non-center otherwise than as a loss of the center. And it plays the game without security."61 As he does often, Derrida here seems to be echoing Nietzsche, who stated that "the genuine philosopher . . . risks himself constantly. He plays the dangerous game."62 However, neither the joy nor the risk invoked by this view seems fully convincing. The joy of affirmation is a diluted joy, since it comes about as a consequence of the absence of any reality or meaning in life to which effort might be directed. And the element of risk in the "dangerous game" becomes minimal when (a) relativistic philosophy has eroded the concept of error, and (b) the culture of pluralism and publicity has endowed deviation and eccentricity with "charisma."

The postmodern temper has carried the skepticism and anti-realism of modern literary culture to an extreme beyond which it would be difficult to go. Though it looks back mockingly on the modernist tradition and professes to have got beyond it, post-modern literature remains tied to that tradition and unable to break with it. The very concepts through which modernism is demystified derive from modernism itself. The loss of significant external reality, its displacement by myth-making, the domestication and normalization of alienation—these conditions constitute a common point of departure for the writing of our period. Though for some of this writing they remain conditions to be somehow resisted, a great deal of it finds them an occasion for acquiescence and even celebration. Unable to imagine an alternative to a world that has for so long seemed unreal, we have begun to resign ourselves to this kind of world and to learn how to redescribe this resignation as a form of heroism. And for some observers, to whom I turn in the next chapter, this loss of a reality principle is not a loss at all but a condition of political revolution.


1 George Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (New York: Atheneum, 1967), 162.

2 Richard Poirier, The Performing Self: Compositions and Decompositions in the Languages of Contemporary Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), xii.

3 Harry Levin, "What Was Modernism?" Refractions:Essays in Comparative Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 292.

4 Donald Barthelme, Snow White (New York: Bantam Books, 1968), 82.

5 Alain Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, trans. R. Howard (New York: Grove Press, 1965), 87. Unless indicated, italics in quotations are not added.

6 Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (New York: Delta Books, 1967), 7.

7 Leslie Fiedler, Waiting for the End (New York: Stein and Day, 1964), 227.

8 Jacob Brackman, The Put-On: Modern Fooling and Modern Mistrust (Chicago: Regnery, 1971), 68.

9 Fiedler, Cross the Border—Close the Gap (New York: Stein and Day, 1972), 64.

10 Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art, 46.

11 Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, 66.

12 On this ambiguity of the romantic theory of autonomy, probably the most helpful analysis is still that of Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, 1780-1950 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966), 30-48.

13 Murray Krieger analyzes this antinomy in the New Criticism and other literary theories in The New Apologists for Poetry (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956) and other works.

14 P. B. Shelley, "A Defence of Poetry," in Adams, Critical Theory Since Plato, 502.

15 Henry David Aiken, ed., The Age of Ideology (New York: Mentor Books, 1956), 23.

16 Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, trans. Mahaffy, revised L. W. Beck (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1950), 46.

17 René Wellek, "Romanticism Reconsidered," Concepts of Criticism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), 201-2.

18 Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind: Essays in Modern German Literature and Thought (New York: Meridian Books, 1959), 172.

19 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: New American Library, 1958), 153.

20 Friedrich von Schiller, Naive and Sentimental Poetry, trans. J. A. Elias (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1966), 100.

21 Ibid., 101.

22 Shelley, Defence, 511.

23 Northrop Frye, The Critical Path: An Essay in the Social Context of Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971), 94.

24 W. H. Auden, The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), 78-79.

25 Kant, Critique of Judgment, in Adams, Critical Theory Since Plato, 383, 384.

26 Auden, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, ed. Richard Ellmann and Robert O'Clair (New York: Norton, 1973), 742.

27 Leonard B. Meyer, "Concerning the Sciences, the Arts, AND the Humanities," Critical Inquiry, 1, no. 1 (September 1974), 166.

28 T. S. Eliot, "The Social Function of Poetry," in Critiques and Essays in Criticism, 1920-1948, ed. R. W. B. Stallman (New York: Ronald Press Co., 1949), 107; Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953), 234.

29 Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (London: Faber and Faber, 1933), 151.

30 Once again, further documentation can be found in my Poetic Statement and Critical Dogma.

31 R. W. Emerson, "Self-Reliance," Selected Writings (New York: Modern Library, 1950), 157.

32 Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel 19.

33 Northrop Frye, The Secular Scripture: A Study in the Structure of Romance (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), 45-46.

34 This point is elaborated above, 181 ff.

35 Barthelme, Snow White, 18-19.

36 Henry James, "The Art of Fiction," in Criticism: The Foundation of Modern Literary Judgment, revised edition, ed. Schorer et al. (New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1958), 49.

37 Ibid., 47.

38 Eliot, "From Poe to Valéry," To Criticize the Critic (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965), 39.

39 James, "The Art of Fiction," in Schorer, Criticism: the Foundation of Modern Literary Judgment, 48.

40 James, The American Scene (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 273.

41 Eliot, "'Ulysses,' Order, and Myth," in Selected Prose, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), 177.

42 Georg Lukács, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, trans. J. and N. Mander (London: Merlin Press, 1963), 33.

43 Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths: Selected Stories and other Writings, trans. J. Irby (New York: New Directions, 1964), 57.

44 Ibid., 17.

45 See above, 220-21.

46 Sontag, Against Interpretation, 27.

47 Poirier, The Performing Self, 40.

48 On Mailer, see above, 216-20.

49 Poirier, The Performing Self, 40.

50 Ibid., 93.

51 John Cage, "Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) Continued," TriQuarterly, 18 (Spring 1970), 101.

52 Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde (New York: Viking, 1965), 194.

53 Sontag, Introduction to Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero (New York: Hill and Wang, 1953), xx.

54 Robert Scholes, "The Fictional Criticism of the Future," TriQuarterly, 34 (Fall 1975), 233. Scholes's last sentence echoes a remark of T. S. Eliot's: "The poet makes poetry, the metaphysician makes metaphysics, the bee makes honey, the spider secretes a filament; you can hardly say that any of these agents believes: he merely does" ("Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca," Selected Essays [New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1960], 118).

55 Raymond Federman, ed. Surfiction: Fiction Now and Tomorrow (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1975), 7.

56 William Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life, 8.

57 Perry Meisel, "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Structuralism but Were Afraid to Ask," National Village Voice (September 30, 1976), 43-45.

58 Ibid.

59 Jonathan Culler argues in this vein against the Tel Quel critics in Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), 247-50.

60 Derrida, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," quoted and translated by Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics, 247. I have used Culler's translation of this passage, which is more accurate than the standard English translation by Macksey and Donato in The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, ed. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972), 264.

61 Derrida, "Structure, Sign, and Play," in Macksey and Donato, The Structuralist Controversy, 264.

62 Nietzsche, as quoted by Gayatri C. Spivak, Translator's Preface to Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), xxx.

Ihab Hassan

SOURCE: "Pluralism in Postmodern Perspective," in ThePostmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory andCulture, Ohio State University Press, 1987, pp. 167-90.

[In the following essay, which was first published in 1986, Hassan discusses the historical aspects of postmodernism, concluding that the postmodern approach is the most appropriate to depict the wide-ranging aspects of human life in the twentieth-century.]


Postmodernism once more—that breach has begun to yawn! I return to it by way of pluralism, which itself has become the irritable condition of postmodern discourse, consuming many pages of both critical and uncritical inquiry. Why? Why pluralism now? This question recalls another that Kant raised two centuries ago—"Was heisst Aufklärung?"—meaning, "Who are we now?" The answer was a signal meditation on historical presence, as Michel Foucault saw.1 But to meditate on that topic today—and this is my central claim—is really to inquire "Was heisst Postmodernismus?"

Pluralism in our time finds (if not founds) itself in the social, aesthetic, and intellectual assumptions of postmodernism—finds its ordeal, its Tightness, there. I submit, further, that the critical intentions of diverse American pluralists—M. H. Abrams, Wayne Booth, Kenneth Burke, Matei Calinescu, R. S. Crane, Nelson Goodman, Richard McKeon, Stephen Pepper, not to mention countless other artists and thinkers of our moment—engage that overweening query, "What is postmodernism?" engage and even answer it tacitly. In short, like a latterday M. Jourdain, they have been speaking postmodernism all their lives without knowing it.

But what is postmodernism? I can still propose no rigorous definition of it, any more than I could define modernism itself. The time to theorize it, though, to historicize it, is nearly at hand, without muting its errancies, vexations. These bear on problems of cultural modeling, literary periodization, cultural change—the problems of critical discourse itself in an antinomian phase.2 Still, the exhaustions of modernism, or at least its self-revisions, have prompted incongruous thinkers to moot its supervention. Thus Daniel Bell, a "conservative" sociologist, testifies to "the end of the creative impulse and ideological sway of modernism, which, as a cultural movement, has dominated all the arts, and shaped our symbolic expressions, for the past 125 years."3 And thus, too, a "radical" philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, tries to distinguish—vainly, as I see it—between the "premodernism of old conservatives," the "antimodernism of the young conservatives," and the "postmodernism of the neoconservatives."4

All "superventions" aside, let me offer a catena of postmodern features, a paratactic list, staking out a cultural field. My examples will be selective; my traits may overlap, conflict, or antecede themselves. Still, together they limn a region of postmodern "indetermanences" (indeterminacy lodged in immanence) in which critical pluralism takes shape.5


Here, then, is my catena:

1. Indeterminacy, or rather, indeterminacies. These include all manner of ambiguities, ruptures, and displacements affecting knowledge and society. We think of Werner Karl Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty, Kurt Göder's proof of incompleteness, Thomas Kuhn's paradigms, and Paul Feyerabend's dadaism of science. Or we may think of Harold Rosenberg's anxious art objects, dedefined. And in literary theory? From Mikhail Bakhtin's dialogic imagination, Roland Barthes' textes scriptibles, Wolfgang Iser's literary Unbestimmtheiten, Harold Bloom's misprisions, Paul de Man's allegorical readings, Stanley Fish's affective stylistics, Norman Holland's transactive analysis, and David Bleich's subjective criticism, to the last fashionable aporia of unrecorded time, we undecide, relativize. Indeterminacies pervade our actions, ideas, interpretations; they constitute our world.

2. Fragmentation. Indeterminacy often follows from fragmentation. The postmodernist only disconnects; fragments are all he pretends to trust. His ultimate opprobrium is "totalization"—any synthesis whatever, social, epistemic, even poetic. Hence his preference for montage, collage, the found or cut-up literary object, for paratactic over hypotactic forms, metonymy over metaphor, schizophrenia over paranoia. Hence, too, his recourse to paradox, paralogy, parabasis, paracriticism, the openness of brokenness, unjustified margins. Thus Jean-François Lyotard exhorts, "Let us wage a war on totality; let us be witnesses to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name."6The age demands differences, shifting signifiers, and even atoms dissolve into elusive subparticles, a mere mathematical whisper.

3. Decanonization. In the largest sense, this applies to all canons, all conventions of authority. We are witnessing, Lyotard argues again, a massive "delegitimation" of the mastercodes in society, a desuetude of the metanarratives, favoring instead "les petites histoires, " which preserve the heterogeneity of language games.7 Thus, from the "death of god" to the "death of the author" and "death of the father," from the derision of authority to revision of the curriculum, we decanonize culture, demystify knowledge, deconstruct the languages of power, desire, deceit. Derision and revision are versions of subversion, of which the most baleful example is the rampant terrorism of our time. But "subversion" may take other, more benevolent, forms such as minority movements or the feminization of culture, which also require decanonization.

4. Self-less-ness, Depth-less-ness. Postmodernism vacates the traditional self, simulating self-effacement—a fake flatness, without inside/outside—or its opposite, self-multiplication, self-reflection. Critics have noted the "loss of self" in modern literature, but it was originally Nietzsche who declared the "subject" "only a fiction": "the ego of which one speaks when one censures egoism does not exist at all."8 Thus postmodernism suppresses or disperses and sometimes tries to recover the "deep" romantic ego, which remains under dire suspicion in poststructuralist circles as a "totalizing principle." Losing itself in the play of language, in the differences from which reality is plurally made, the self impersonates its absence even as death stalks its games. It diffuses itself in depthless styles, refusing, eluding, interpretation.9

5. The Unpresentable, Unrepresentable. Like its predecessor, postmodern art is irrealist, aniconic. Even its "magic realism" dissolves in ethereal states; its hard, flat surfaces repel mimesis. Postmodern literature, particularly, often seeks its limits, entertains its "exhaustion," subverts itself in forms of articulate "silence." It becomes liminary, contesting the modes of its own representation. Like the Kantian Sublime, which thrives on the formlessness, the emptiness, of the Absolute—"Thou shalt not make graven images"—"the postmodern would be," in Lyotard's audacious analogue, "that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself."10 But the challenge to representation may also lead a writer to other liminal states: the Abject, for instance, rather than the Sublime, or Death itself—more precisely, "the exchange between signs and death," as Julia Kristeva put it. "What is unrepresentability?" Kristeva asks. "That which, through language, is part of no particular language. . . . That which, through meaning, is intolerable, unthinkable: the horrible, the abject."11

Here, I think we reach a peripety of negations. For with my next "definien," Irony, we begin to move from the deconstructive to the coexisting reconstructive tendency of postmodernism.

6. Irony. This could also be called, after Kenneth Burke, perspectivism. In absence of a cardinal principle or paradigm, we turn to play, interplay, dialogue, polylogue, allegory, self-reflection—in short, to irony. This irony assumes indeterminacy, multivalence; it aspires to clarity, the clarity of demystification, the pure light of absence. We meet variants of it in Bakhtin, Burke, de Man, Jacques Derrida, and Hayden White. And in Alan Wilde we see an effort to discriminate its modes: "mediate irony," "disjunctive irony," and "postmodern" or "suspensive irony" "with its yet more radical vision of multiplicity, randomness, contingency, and even absurdity."12 Irony, perspectivism, reflexiveness: these express the ineluctable recreations of mind in search of a truth that continually eludes it, leaving it with only an ironic access or excess of self-consciousness.

7. Hybridization, or the mutant replication of genres, including parody, travesty, pastiche. The "de-definition," deformation, of cultural genres engenders equivocal modes: "paracriticism," "fictual discourse," the "new journalism," the "nonfiction novel," and a promiscuous category of "para-literature" or "threshold literature," at once young and very old.13 Cliché and plagiarism ("playgiarism," Raymond Federman punned), parody and pastiche, pop and kitsch enrich re-presentation. In this view image or replica may be as valid as its model (the Quixote of Borges' Pierre Menard), may even bring an "augment d'être. " This makes for a different concept of tradition, one in which continuity and discontinuity, high and low culture, mingle not to imitate but to expand the past in the present. In that plural present, all styles are dialectically available in an interplay between the Now and the Not Now, the Same and the Other. Thus, in postmodernism, Heidegger's concept of "equitemporality" becomes really a dialectic of equitemporality, an intertemporality, a new relation between historical elements, without any suppression of the past in favor of the present—a point that Fredric Jameson misses when he criticizes postmodern literature, film, and architecture for their ahistorical character, their "presentifications."14

8. Carnivalization. The term, of course, is Bakhtin's, and it riotously embraces indeterminacy, fragmentation, decanonization, selflessness, irony, hybridization, all of which I have already adduced. But the term also conveys the comic or absurdist ethos of postmodernism, anticipated in the "heteroglossia" of Rabelais and Sterne, jocose prepostmodernists. Carnivalization further means "polyphony," the centrifugal power of language, the "gay relativity" of things, perspectivism and performance, participation in the wild disorder of life, the immanence of laughter.15 Indeed, what Bakhtin calls novel or carnival—that is, antisystem—might stand for postmodernism itself, or at least for its ludic and subversive elements that promise renewal. For in carnival "the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal," human beings, then as now, discover "the peculiar logic of the 'inside out' (à l'envers), of the 'turnabout,' . . . of numerous parodies and travesties, humiliations, profanations, comic crownings and uncrownings. A second life."16

9. Performance, Participation. Indeterminacy elicits participation; gaps must be filled. The postmodern text, verbal or nonverbal, invites performance: it wants to be written, revised, answered, acted out. Indeed, so much of postmodern art calls itself performance, as it transgresses genres. As performance, art (or theory for that matter) declares its vulnerability to time, to death, to audience, to the Other.17 "Theatre" becomes—to the edge of terrorism—the active principle of a paratactic society, decanonized if not really carnivalized. At its best, as Richard Poirier contends, the performing self expresses "an energy in motion, an energy with its own shape"; yet in its "self-discovering, self-watching, finally self-pleasuring response to . . . pressures and difficulties," that self may also veer toward solipsism, lapse into narcissism.18

10. Constructionism. Since postmodernism is radically tropic, figurative, irrealist—"what can be thought of must certainly be a fiction," Nietzsche thought19—it "constructs" reality in post-Kantian, indeed post-Nietzschean, "fictions."20 Scientists seem now more at ease with heuristic fictions than many humanists, last realists of the West. (Some literary critics even kick language, thinking thus to stub their toes on a stone.) Such effective fictions suggest the growing intervention of mind in nature and culture, an aspect of what I have called the "new gnosticism" evident in science and art, in social relations and high technologies.21 But constructionism appears also in Burke's "dramatistic criticism," Pepper's "world hypothesis," Goodman's "ways of world-making," White's "prefigurative moves," not to mention current hermeneutic or poststructuralist theory. Thus postmodernism sustains the movement "from unique truth and a world fixed and found," as Goodman remarked, "to a diversity of right and even conflicting versions or worlds in the making."22

11. Immanence. This refers, without religious echo, to the growing capacity of mind to generalize itself through symbols. Everywhere now we witness problematic diffusions, dispersals, dissemination; we experience the extension of our senses, as Marshall McLuhan crankily presaged, through new media and technologies. Languages, apt or mendacious, reconstitute the universe—from quasars to quarks and back, from the lettered unconscious to black holes in space—reconstitute it into signs of their own making, turning nature into culture, and culture into an immanent semiotic system. The language animal has emerged, his/her measure the intertextuality of all life. A patina of thought, of signifiers, of "connections," now lies on everything the mind touches in its gnostic (noö)sphere, which physicists, biologists, and semioticians, no less than mystic theologians like Teilhard de Chardin, explore. The pervasive irony of their explorations is also the reflexive irony of mind meeting itself at every dark turn.23 Yet in a consuming society such immanences can become more vacuous than fatidic. They become, as Jean Baudrillard says, pervasively "ob-scene," a "collective vertigo of neutralization, a forward escape into the obscenity of pure and empty form."24

These eleven "definiens" add up to a surd, perhaps absurd. I should be much surprised if they amounted to a definition of postmodernism, which remains, at best, an equivocal concept, a disjunctive category, doubly modified by the impetus of the phenomenon itself and by the shifting perceptions of its critics. (At worst, postmodernism appears to be a mysterious, if ubiquitous, ingredient—like raspberry vinegar, which instantly turns any recipe into nouvelle cuisine.)

Nor do I believe that my eleven "definiens" serve to distinguish postmodernism from modernism; for the latter itself abides as a fierce evasion in our literary histories.25 But I do suggest that the foregoing points—elliptic, cryptic, partial, provisional—argue twin conclusions: (a) critical pluralism is deeply implicated in the cultural field of postmodernism; and (b) a limited critical pluralism is in some measure a reaction against the radical relativism, the ironic indetermanences, of the postmodern condition; it is an attempt to contain them.


So far, my argument has been prelusive. I must now attend to those efforts that seek to limit—quite rightly, I believe—the potential anarchy of our postmodern condition with cognitive, political, or affective constraints. That is, I must briefly consider criticism as genre, power, and desire—as Kenneth Burke did, long ago, in his vast synoptics of motives.

Is criticism a genre? Critical pluralists often suppose that it may be so.26 Yet even that most understanding of pluralists, Wayne Booth, is forced finally to admit that a full "methodological pluralism," which must aspire to a perspective on perspectives, only "seems to duplicate the problem with which we began"; so he concludes, "I cannot promise a finally satisfactory encounter with these staggering questions, produced by my simple effort to be a good citizen in the republic of criticism."27 Booth's conclusion is modest but also alert. He knows that the epistemic foundations of critical pluralism themselves rest on moral, if not spiritual, grounds. "Methodological perspectivism" (as he sometimes calls his version of pluralism) depends on "shared tenancies" which in turn depend on a constitutive act of rational, just, and vitally sympathetic understanding. In the end Booth stands on a kind of Kantian—or is it Christian?—categorical imperative of criticism, with all that it must ethically and metaphysically imply.

Could it have been otherwise? Throughout history, critics have disagreed, pretending to make systems out of their discord and epistemic structures out of their beliefs. The shared tenancies of literary theory may make for hermeneutical communities of provisional trust, enclaves of genial critical authority. But can any of these define criticism both as a historical and cognitive genre? That may depend on what we intend by genre. Traditionally, genre assumed recognizable features within a context of both persistence and change; it was a useful assumption of identity upon which critics (somewhat like Stanley and Livingstone) often presumed. But that assumption, in our heteroclitic age, seems ever harder to maintain. Even genre theorists invite us, nowadays, to go beyond genre—"the finest generic classifications of our time," Paul Hernadi says, "make us look beyond their immediate concern and focus on the order of literature, not on borders between literary genres"28 Yet the "order of literature" itself has become moot.

In boundary genres particularly—and certain kinds of criticism may have become precisely that—the ambiguities attain new heights of febrile intensity. For as Gary Saul Morson notes, "it is not meanings but appropriate procedures for discovering meaning" that become disputable—"not particular readings, but how to read."29 Since genres find their definition, when they find any, not only in their formal features but also in labile interpretive conventions, they seldom offer a stable, epistemic norm. This makes for certain paradoxes in the "law of genre," as Derrida lays it, a "mad law," though even madness fails to define it. As one might expect from the magus of our deconstructions, Derrida insists on undoing genre, undoing its gender, nature, and potency, on exposing the enigma of its "exemplarity." The mad "law of genre" yields only to the "law of the law of genre"—"a principle of contamination, a law of impurity, a parasitical economy."30

One is inclined to believe that even without the decreations of certain kinds of writing, like my own paracriticism, the configurations we call literature, literary theory, criticism, have now become (quite like postmodernism itself) "essentially contested concepts," horizons of eristic discourse.31 Thus, for instance, the latest disconfirmation of critical theory, the latest "revisionary madness" is Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels's statement against theory.32 Drawing on the pragmatism of Richard Rorty and the stylistics of Stanley Fish, the authors brilliantly, berserkly contend that "true belief' and "knowledge" are epistemologically identical, that critical theory has no methodological consequences whatever. "If our arguments are true, they can have only one consequence .. . ; theory should stop," the authors conclude.33 In fact it is their own conclusion that will have little consequence, as Knapp and Michaels themselves admit. So much, then, for the case of the self-consuming theorist.

My own conclusion about the theory and practice of criticism is securely unoriginal: like all discourse, criticism obeys human imperatives, which continually redefine it. It is a function of language, power, and desire, of history and accident, of purpose and interest, of value. Above all, it is a function of belief, which reason articulates and consensus, or authority, both enables and constrains.34 (This statement itself expresses a reasoned belief.) If, then, as Kuhn claims, "competing schools, each of which constantly questions the very foundations of the others" reign in the humanities; if, as Victor Turner thinks, the "culture of any society at any moment is more like the debris, or 'fall out' of past ideological systems, rather than itself a system"; if also, as Jonathan Culler contends, "'interpretive conventions' . . . should be seen as part of . . . [a] boundless context"; again, if as Jeffrey Stout maintains, "theoretical terms should serve interests and purposes, not the other way around"; and if, as I submit, the principles of literary criticism are historical (that is, at once arbitrary, pragmatic, conventional, and contextual, in any case not axiomatic, apodictic, apophantic), then how can a generic conception of criticism limit critical pluralism or govern the endless deferrals of language, particularly in our indetermanent, our postmodern period?35


To exchange a largely cognitive view of our discipline for another that more freely admits politics, desires, beliefs is not necessarily to plunge into Hades or ascend Babel. It is, I think, an act of partial lucidity, responsive to our ideological, our human needs. The act, I stress, remains partial, as I hope will eventually become clear. For the moment, though, I must approach power as a constraint on postmodern relativism and, thus, as a factor in delimiting critical pluralism.

No doubt, the perception that power profoundly engages knowledge reverts to Plato and Aristotle, if not to the I Ching and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. In the last century, Marx theorized the relation of culture to class; his terms persist in a variety of movements, from totemic Marxism to Marxism with a deconstructionist mask or receptionist face. But it is Foucault, of course, who has given us the most cunning speculations on the topic.36 The whole burden of his work, since Folie et déraison (1961), has been to expose the power of discourse and the discourse of power, to discover the politics of knowledge. More recently, though, his ideology had become antic, to the chagrin of his orthodox critics.

Foucault still maintained that discursive practices "are embodied in technical processes, in institutions, in patterns for general behavior, in forms of transmission and diffusion."37 But he also accepted the Nietzschean premise that a selfish interest precedes all power and knowledge, shaping them to its own volition, pleasure, excess. Increasingly, Foucault saw power itself as an elusive relation, an immanence of discourse, a conundrum of desire: "It may be that Marx and Freud cannot satisfy our desire for understanding this enigmatic thing which we call power, which is at once visible and invisible, present and hidden, ubiquitous," he remarks.38 That is why, in his late essay "The Subject and Power," Foucault seemed more concerned with promoting "new kinds of subjectivity" (based on a refusal of those individual identities which states force upon their citizens) than with censuring traditional modes of exploitation.39

In a Foucauldian perspective, then, criticism appears as much a discourse of desire as of power, a discourse, anyway, both conative and affective in its personal origins. A neo-Marxist like Jameson, however, would found criticism on collective reality. He would distinguish and "spell out the priority, within the Marxist tradition, of a 'positive hermeneutic' based on social class from those ['negative hermeneutics'] still limited by anarchist categories of the individual subject and individual experience."40 Again, a leftist critic like Edward Said would insist that the "realities of power and authority .. . are the realities that make texts possible, that deliver them to their readers, that solicit the attention of critics."41

Other critics, less partisan and less strenuously political, might concur. Indeed, the "institutional view" of both literature and criticism now prevails among critics as incongruous in their ideologies as Bleich, Booth, Donald Davie, Fish, E. D. Hirsch, Frank Kermode, and Richard Ohmann. Here, bravely, is Bleich:

Literary theory should contribute to the changing of social and professional institutions such as the public lecture, the convention presentation, the classroom, and the processes of tenure and promotion. Theoretical work ought to show how and why no one class of scholars, and no one subject (including theory) is self-justifying, self-explanatory, and self-sustaining.42

The ideological concern declares itself everywhere. A bristling issue of Critical Inquiry explores the "politics of interpretation," and the facile correlation of ideology with criticism drives a critic even so disputatious as Gerald Graff to protest the "pseudo-politics of interpretation" in a subsequent number.43 At the same time, a critic as exquisitely reticent as Geoffrey Hartman acknowledges the intrusions of politics in his recent work.44 The activities of GRIP (acronym for the Group for Research on the Institutionalization and Professionalization of Literary Study) seem as ubiquitous as those of the KGB or the CIA, though far more benign. And the number of conferences on "Marxism and Criticism," "Feminism and Criticism," "Ethnicity and Criticism," "Technology and Criticism," "Mass Culture and Criticism," keeps American airports snarled and air carriers in the black.

All these, of course, refract the shifts in our "myths of concern" (Northrop Frey's term) since the fifties. But they reflect, too, the changes in our idea of criticism itself, from a Kantian to a Nietzschean, Freudian, or Marxist conception (to name but three), from an ontological to a historical apprehension, from a synchronous or generic discourse to a diachronic or conative activity. The recession of the neo-Kantian idea, which extends through Ernst Cassirer, Suzanne Langer, and the old New Critics, ambiguously to Murray Krieger, implies another loss—that of the imagination as an autochthonous, autotelic, possibly redemptive power of mind. It is also the loss, or at least dilapidation, of the "imaginary library," a total order of art, analogous to André Malraux's musée imaginaire, which triumphs over time and brute destiny.45 That ideal has now vanished; the library itself may end in rubble. Yet in our eagerness to appropriate art to our own circumstances and exercise our will on texts, we risk denying those capacities—not only literary—which have most richly fulfilled our historical existence.

I confess to some distate for ideological rage (the worst are now full of passionate intensity and lack all conviction) and for the hectoring of both religious and secular dogmatists.46 I admit to a certain ambivalence toward politics, which can overcrowd our responses to both art and life. For what is politics? Simply, the right action when ripeness calls. But what is politics again? An excuse to bully or shout in public, vengeance vindicating itself as justice and might pretending to be right, a passion for self-avoidance, immanent mendacity, the rule of habit, the place where history rehearses its nightmares, the dur désir de durer, a deadly banality of being. Yet we must all heed politics because it structures our theoretical consents, literary evasions, critical recusancies—shapes our ideas of pluralism even as I write here, now.


Politics, we know, becomes tyrannical. It can dominate other modes of discourse, reduce all facts of the human universe—error, epiphany, chance, boredom, pain, dream—to its own terms. Hence the need, as Kristeva says, for a "psychoanalytic intervention . . . a counterweight, an antidote, to political discourse which, without it, is free to become our modern religion: the final explanation."47 Yet the psychoanalytic explanation can also become as reductive as any other, unless desire itself qualifies its knowledge, its words.

I mean desire in the largest sense—personal and collective, biological and ontological, a force that writers from Hesiod and Homer to Nietzsche, William James, and Freud have reckoned with. It includes the Eros of the Universe that Alfred North Whitehead conceived as "the active entertainment of all ideals, with the urge to their finite realization, each in its due season."48 But I mean desire also in its more particular sense, which Paul Valéry understood when he wryly confessed that every theory is a fragment of an autobiography. (Lately, the fragments have grown larger, as anyone who follows the oedipal psychomachia of critics must agree.) And I mean desire, too, as an aspect of the pleasure principle, that principle so freely invoked and seldom evident in criticism.

Here Barthes comes elegantly to mind. For him, the pleasure of the text is perverse, polymorph, created by intermittences of the body even more than of the heart. Rupture, tear, suture, scission enhance that pleasure; so does erotic displacement. "The text is a fetish object, and this fetish desires me," he confides.49 Such a text eludes judgment by anterior or exterior norms. In its presence we can only cry, "That's it for me!" This is the Dionysiac cry par excellence—Dionysiac, that is, in that peculiarly Gallic timbre. Thus, for Barthes, the pleasure of the text derives both from the body's freedom to "pursue its own ideas" and from "value shifted to the sumptuous rank of the signifier."50

We need not debate here the celebrated, if dubious, distinctions Barthes makes in that talismanic text; we need only note that pleasure becomes a constitutive critical principle in his later work. Thus in Leçon, his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, Barthes insists on the "truth of desire" which discovers itself in the multiplicity of discourse: "autant de langages qu'il y a de désirs. "51 The highest role of the professor is to make himself "fantasmic," to renew his body so that it becomes contemporaneous with his students, to unlearn (désapprendre). Perhaps then he can realize true sapientia: "nul pouvoir, un peu de savoir, un peu de sagesse, et le plus saveur possible. "52 And in A Lover's Discourse, which shows a darker side of desire, Barthes excludes the possibility of explication, of hermeneutics; he would rather stroke language in erotic foreplay: "Je frotte mon langage contre l'autre. C'est comme si j'avais des mots en guise de doigts."53

Other versions of this critical suasion come easily to mind.54 But my point is not only that critical theory is a function of our desires, nor simply that criticism often takes pleasure or desire as its concern, its theme. My point is rather more fundamental: much current criticism conceives language and literature themselves as organs of desire, to which criticism tries to adhere erotically ( "se coller, " Barthes says), stylistically, even epistemically. "Desire and the desire to know are not strangers to each other," Kristeva notes; and "interpretation is infinite because Meaning is made infinite by desire."55 Happily, this last remark leads into my inconclusion.

Let me recover, though, the stark lineaments of my argument. Critical pluralism finds itself implicated in our postmodern condition, in its relativisms and indetermanences, which it attempts to restrain. But cognitive, political, and affective restraints remain only partial. They all finally fail to delimit critical pluralism, to create consensual theory or practice—witness the debates of this conference. Is there anything, in our era, that can found a wide consensus of discourse?


Clearly, the imagination of postmodern criticism is a disestablished imagination. Yet clearly, too, it is an intellectual imagination of enormous vibrancy and scope. I share in its excitement, my own excitement mixed with unease. That unease touches more than our critical theories; it engages the nature of authority and belief in the world. It is the old Nietzschean cry of nihilism: "the desert grows!" God, King, Father, Reason, History, Humanism have all come and gone their way, though their power may still flare up in some circles of faith. We have killed our gods—in spite or lucidity, I hardly know—yet we remain ourselves creatures of will, desire, hope, belief. And now we have nothing—nothing that is not partial, provisional, self-created—upon which to found our discourse.

Sometimes I imagine a new Kant, come out of Königsberg, spirited through the Iron Curtain. In his hand he holds the "fourth critique," which he calls The Critique of Practical Judgment. It is a masterwork, resolving all the contradictions of theory and praxis, ethics and aesthetics, metaphysical reason and historical life. I reach for the sublime treatise; the illustrious ghost disappears. Sadly, I turn to my bookshelf and pick out William James's The Will to Believe.

Here, it seems, is friendly lucidity, and an imagination that keeps reason on the stretch. James speaks crucially to our condition in a "pluralistic universe." I let him speak:

He who takes for his hypothesis the notion that it [pluralism] is the permanent form of the world is what I call a radical empiricist. For him the crudity of experience remains an eternal element thereof. There is no possible point of view from which the world can appear an absolutely single fact.56

This leaves the field open to "willing nature":

When I say "willing nature," I do not mean only such deliberate volitions as may have set up habits of belief that we cannot now escape from,—I mean all such factors of belief as fear and hope, prejudice and passion, imitation and partisanship, the circumpressure of our caste and set. As a matter of fact we find ourselves believing, we hardly know how or why. [W, 9]

This was written nearly a century ago and remains—so I believe—impeccable, unimpugnable. It proposes a different kind of "authority" (lower case), pragmatic, empirical, permitting pluralist beliefs. Between these beliefs there can be only continual negotiations of reason and interest, mediations of desire, transactions of power or hope. But all these still rest on, rest in, beliefs, which James knew to be the most interesting, most valuable, part of man. In the end our "passional nature," he says, decides "an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds" (W, 11). James even suggests that, biologically considered, "our minds are as ready to grind out false-hood as veracity, and he who says, 'Better go without belief forever than believe a lie!' merely shows his own preponderant private horror of becoming a dupe" (W, 18).

Contemporary pragmatists, like Rorty, Fish, or Michaels, may not follow James so far. Certainly they would balk, as do most of us now, when James's language turns spiritual:

Is it not sheer dogmatic folly to say that our inner interests can have no real connection with the forces that the hidden world may contain? . .. And if needs of ours outrun the visible universe, why may not that be a sign that an invisible universe is there? . . . God himself, in short, may draw vital strength and increase of very being from our fidelity. [W, 55, 56, 61]

I do not quote this passage to press the claims of metaphysics or religion. I do so only to hint that the ultimate issues of critical pluralism, in our postmodern epoch, point that way. And why, particularly, in our postmodern epoch? Precisely because of its countervailing forces, its indetermanences. Everywhere now we observe societies riven by the double and coeval process of planetization and retribalization, totalitarianism and terror, fanatic faith and radical disbelief. Everywhere we meet, in mutant or displaced forms, that conjunctive/disjunctive technological rage which affects postmodern discourse.

It may be that some rough beast will slouch again toward Bethlehem, its haunches bloody, its name echoing in our ears with the din of history. It may be that some natural cataclysm, world calamity, or extra terrestrial intelligence will shock the earth into some sane planetary awareness of its destiny. It may be that we shall simply bungle through, muddle through, wandering in the "desert" from oasis to oasis, as we have done for decades, perhaps centuries. I have no prophecy in me, only some slight foreboding, which I express now to remind myself that all the evasions of our knowledge and actions thrive on the absence of consensual beliefs, an absence that also energizes our tempers, our wills. This is our postmodern condition.

As to things nearer at hand, I openly admit: I do not know how to prevent critical pluralism from slipping into monism or relativism, except to call for pragmatic constituencies of knowledge that would share values, traditions, expectancies, goals. I do not know how to make our "desert" a little greener, except to invoke enclaves of genial authority where the central task is to restore civil commitments, tolerant beliefs, critical sympathies.57 I do not know how to give literature or theory or criticism a new hold on the world, except to remythify the imagination, at least locally, and bring back the reign of wonder into our lives. In this, my own elective affinities remain with Emerson: "Orpheus is no fable: you have only to sing, and the rocks will crystallize; sing, and the plant will organize; sing, and the animal will be born."58

But who nowadays believes it?


1 "Maybe the most certain of all philosophical problems is the problem of the present time, of what we are, in this very moment," writes Michael Foucault in "The Subject and Power," reprinted as "Afterword" in Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, ed. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow (Chicago, 1982), 210. The essay also appeared in Critical Inquiry 8 (Summer 1982): 777-96.

2 I have discussed some of these problems in The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature, 2d ed. (Madison, Wis., 1982), 262-68. See also Claus Uhlig, "Toward a Chronology of Change," Dominick LaCapra, "Intellectual History and Defining the Present as 'Postmodern,'" and Matei Calinescu, "From the One to the Many: Pluralism in Today's Thought," in Innovation/Renovation: New Perspectives on the Humanities, ed. Ihab Hassan and Sally Hassan (Madison, Wis., 1983).

3 Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York, 1976), 7.

4 Jürgen Habermas, "Modernity versus Postmodernity," New German Critique 22 (Winter 1981): 13.

5 For homologies in scientific culture, see my The Right Promethean Fire: Imagination, Science, and Cultural Change (Urbana, Ill, 1980), 139-71.

6 Jean-François Lyotard, "Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?" trans. Régis Durand, in Innovation/Renovation, 341. On the paratactic style in art and society, see also Hayden White, "The Culture of Criticism," in Liberations: New Essays on the Humanities in Revolution, ed. Ihab Hassan (Middletown, Conn., 1971), 66-69; and see William James on the affinities between parataxis and pluralism: "It may be that some parts of the world are connected so loosely with some other parts as to be strung along by nothing but the copula and. . . . This pluralistic view, of a world of additive constitution, is one that pragmatism is unable to rule out from serious consideration" ("Pragmatism," and Four Essays from "The Meaning of Truth" [New York, 1955], 112).

7 See Jean-François Lyotard, La Condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir (Paris, 1979). For other views of decanonization, see English Literature: Opening Up the Canon, ed. Leslie Fiedler and Houston A. Baker, Jr., Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1979, n.s. 4 (Baltimore, 1981), and Critical Inquiry 10 (September 1983).

8 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, ed. Walter Kaufmann, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York, 1967), 199; see Wylie Sypher, Loss of Self in Modern Literature and Art (New York, 1962); see also the discussion of the postmodern self in Charles Caramello, Silverless Mirrors: Book, Self and Postmodern American Fiction (Tallahassee, Fla., 1983).

9 The refusal of depth is, in the widest sense, a refusal of hermeneutics, the "penetration" of nature or culture. It manifests itself in the white philosophies of post-structuralism as well as in various contemporary arts. See, for instance, Alain Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, trans. Richard Howard (New York, 1965), 49-76, and Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (New York, 1966), 3-14.

10 Lyotard, "Answering the Question," 340. See also the perceptive discussion of the politics of the sublime by Hayden White, "The Politics of Historical Interpretation: Discipline and De-Sublimation," Critical Inquiry 9 (September 1982): 124-28.

11 Julia Kristeva, "Postmodernism?" in Romanticism, Modernism, Postmodernism, ed. Harry R. Garvin (Lewisburg, Pa., 1980), 141. See also her Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York, 1982), and her most recent discussion of "the unnameable" in "Psychoanalysis and the Polis," trans. Margaret Waller, Critical Inquiry 9 (September 1982): 84-85, 91.

12 Alan Wilde, Horizons of Assent: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Ironic Imagination (Baltimore, 1981), 10. Wayne Booth makes a larger claim for the currency of irony in postmodern times, a "cosmic irony," deflating the claims of man's centrality, and evincing a striking parallel with traditional religious languages. See his "The Empire of Irony," Georgia Review 37 (Winter 1983): 719-37.

13 The last term is Gary Saul Morson's. Morson provides an excellent discussion of threshold literature, parody, and hybridization in his The Boundaries of Genre: Dostoyevsky's "Diary of a Writer" and the Traditions of Literary Utopia (Austin, Tex., 1981), esp. 48-50, 107-8, and 142-43.

14 See Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism and Consumer Society," in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend, Wash., 1983). For a counterstatement, see Paolo Portoghesi, After Modern Architecture, trans. Meg Shore (New York, 1982), p. 11, and Calinescu, "From the One to the Many," 286.

15 See M. M. Bakhtin, Rabealis and His World, trans. Helena Iswolsky (Cambridge, Mass., 1968), and The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, University of Texas Press Slavic Series, no. 1 (Austin, Tex., 1981). See also the forum on Bakhtin, Critical Inquiry 10 (December 1983).

16 Bakhtin, Rabelais, 10-11.

17 See Régis Durand's defense, against Michael Fried, of the performing principle in postmodern art ("Theatre/SIGNS/Performance: On Some Transformations of the Theatrical and the Theoretical," in Innovation/Renovation, 213-17). See also Richard Schechner, "News, Sex, and Performance Theory," Innovation/Renovation, 189-210.

18 Richard Poirier, The Performing Self: Compositions and Decompositions in the Languages of Contemporary Life (New York, 1971), xv, xiii. See also Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York, 1978).

19 Nietzsche, The Will to Power, 291.

20 James understood this when he said: "You can't weed out the human contribution . . . altho the stubborn fact remains that there is a sensible flux, what is true of it seems from first to last to be largely a matter of our own creation" (Pragmatism, 166).

21 See Ihab Hassan, Paracriticisms: Seven Speculations of the Times (Urbana, Ill., 1975), 121-50; and Hassan, The Right Promethean Fire, 139-72. It was José Ortega y Gasset, however, who made a prescient, gnostic statement (see p. 96, above). And before Ortega, James wrote: "The world is One just so far as its parts hang together by any definite connexion. It is many just so far as any definite connexion fails to obtain. And finally it is growing more and more unified by those systems of connexion at least which human energy keeps framing as time goes on" (Pragmatism, 105). But see also Jean Baudrillard's version of a senseless immanence, "The Ecstacy of Communication," in The Anti-Aesthetic, 126-34.

22 Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking (Indianapolis, 1978), x.

23 Active, creative, self-reflexive patterns seem also essential to advanced theories of artifical intelligence. See the article on Douglas R. Hofstadter's latest work by James Gleick, "Exploring the Labyrinth of the Mind," The New York Times Magazine, 21 August 1983:23-100.

24 Jean Baudrillard, "What Are You Doing After the Orgy?" Artforum (October 1983):43.

25 See, for instance, Paul de Man, "Literary History and Literary Modernity," Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (New York, 1971), and Octavio Paz, Children of the Mire: Modern Poetry from Romanticism to the Avant-Garde (Cambridge, Mass., 1974).

26 See, for instance, the persuasive article of Ralph Cohen, "Literary Theory as Genre," Centrum 3 (Spring 1975): 45-64. Cohen also sees literary change itself as a genre. See his essay, "A Propadeutic for Literary Change," and the responses of White and Michael Riffaterre to it, in Critical Exchange 13. (Spring 1983): 1-17, 18-26, and 27-38.

27 Wayne Booth, Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism (Chicago, (1979), 33-34.

28 Paul Hernadi, Beyond Genres: New Directions in Literary Classification (Ithaca, N.Y., 1972), 184. See, further, the two issues on convention and genre of New Literary History 13 (Autumn 1981) and 14 (Winter 1983).

29 Morson, The Boundaries of Genre, 49.

30 Jacques Derrida, "La Loi du genre/The Law of Genre," Glyph 1 (1980): 206. This entire issue concerns genre.

31 The term "essentially contested concept" is developed by W.B. Gallie in his Philosophy and the Historical Understanding (New York, 1968). See also Booth's lucid discussion of it, Critical Understanding, 211-15 and 366.

32 See Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels, "Against Theory," Critical Inquiry 8 (Summer 1982): 723-42, and the subsequent responses in Critical Inquiry 9 (June 1983). "Revisionary Madness: The Prospects of American Literary Theory at the Present Time" is the title of Daniel T. O'Hara's response (pp. 726-42).

33 Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels, "A Reply to Our Critics," Critical Inquiry 9 (June 1983): 800.

34 The relevance of belief to knowledge in general and conventions in particular is acknowledged by thinkers of different persuasions, even when they disagree on the nature of truth, realism, and genre. Thus, for instance, Nelson Goodman and Menachem Brinker agree that belief is "an accepted version" of the world; and E. D. Hirsch concurs with both. See Goodman, "Realism, Relativism, and Reality," Brinker, "On Realism's Relativism: A Reply to Nelson Goodman," and Hirsch, "Beyond Convention?" All appear in New Literary History 14 (Winter 1983).

35 Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2d ed. (Chicago, 1970), 163, my emphasis; Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca, N.Y., 1974), 14; Jonathan Culler, "Convention and Meaning: Derrida and Austin," New Literary History 13 (Autumn 1981): 30; Jeffrey Stout, "What Is the Meaning of a Text?" New Literary History 14 (Autumn 1982): 5. I am aware that other thinkers distinguish between "variety" and "subjectivity" of understanding in an effort to limit radical perspectivism; see, for instance, Stephen C. Pepper, World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1942); Stephen Toulmin, Human Understanding: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts (Princeton, N.J., 1972); and George Bealer, Quality and Concept (Oxford, 1982). But I wonder why their arguments have failed to eliminate, or at least reduce, their differences with relativists; or why, again, Richard Rorty and Hirsch find it possible to disagree about the "question of objectivity," which became the theme of a conference at the University of Virginia in April 1984.

36 Jürgen Habermas, in Knowledge and Human Interests, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro (Boston, 1971), and Technik und Wissenschaft als "Ideologie" (Frankfurt am Main, 1968), also offers vigorous neo-Marxist critiques of knowledge and society. Kenneth Burke, in A Grammar of Motives (New York, 1945), preceded both Foucault and Habermas in this large political and logological enterprise.

37Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, trans. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Ithaca, N.Y., 1977), 200.

38 Ibid., 213

39 See Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism, 216-20.

40 Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, N.Y., 1981), 286.

41 Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), 5.

42 David Bleich, "Literary Theory in the University: A Survey/' New Literary History 14 (Winter 1983): 411. See also What Is Literature? ed. Hernadi (Bloomington, Ind., 1978), 49-112.

43 See Critical Inquiry 9 (September 1982); and see Gerald Graff, "The Pseudo-Politics of Interpretation," Critical Inquiry 9 (March 1983): 597-610.

44 See Geoffrey Hartman, "The New Wilderness: Critics as Connoissuers of Chaos," in Innovation/Renovation, 87-110.

45 "If social circumstances . . . contradict too powerfully the [Romantic] world-view of literature, then the Imaginary Library, first its enabling beliefs and eventually its institutional manifestations, can no longer exist," remarks Alvin B. Kernan, The Imaginary Library: An Essay on Literature and Society (Princeton, N.J., 1982), 166.

46 Though "everything is ideological," as we nowadays like to say, we need still to distinguish between ideologies—fascism, feminism, monetarism, vegetarianism, etc.—between their overt claims, their hidden exactions. Even postmodernism, as a political ideology, requires discriminations. Lyotard, for instance, believes that "the postmodern condition is a stranger to disenchantment as to the blind positivity of delegitimation" (La Condition postmoderne, 8; my translation); while Foster claims a "postmodernism of resistance," a "counterpractice not only to the official culture of modernism but also to the 'false normativity' of a reactionary postmodernism" (The Anti-Aesthetic, xii). Interestingly enough, French thinkers of the Left—Foucault, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze—seem more subtle in their ideas of "resistance" than their American counterparts. This is curious, perhaps paradoxical, since the procedures of "mass," "consumer," or "postindustrial" society are more advanced in America than in France. But see also, as a counterstatement, Said's critique of Foucault, "Travelling Theory," Raritan 1 (Winter 1982): 41-67.

47 Kristeva, "Psychoanalysis and the Polis," 78. In our therapeutic culture, the language of politics and the discourse of desire constantly seek one another, as if the Utopian marriage of Marx and Freud could find consummation, at last, in our words. Hence the political use of such erotic or analytic concepts as "libidinal economy" (Jean-François Lyotard, Economie libidinale [Paris, 1974]), "seduction" (Jean Baudrillard, De la séduction [Paris, 1979]), "delirium" or "abjection" (Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror) "anti-Oedipus" (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane [New York, 1977]), "bliss" (Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller [New York, 1975]), and "the political unconscious" (Jameson, The Political Unconscious). See also Ihab Hassan, "Desire and Dissent in the Postmodern Age," Kenyon Review, n.s. 5 (Winter 1983): 1-18.

48 Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York, 1955), 276.

49 Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, 27.

50 Ibid., 17, 65.

51 Roland Barthes, Leçon inaugurale faite le vendredi 7 janvier 1977 (Paris, 1978), 25.

52 Ibid, 46.

53 Roland Barthes, Fragments d'un discours amoureux (Paris, 1977), 87. A few sentences in the paragraph which this sentence concludes have appeared in my earlier essay, "Parabiography: The Varieties of Critical Experience," Georgia Review 34 (Fall 1980):600.

54 In America, the work of Leo Bersani has addressed such questions as "Can a psychology of fragmentary and discontinuous desires be reinstated? What are the strategies by which the self might be once again theatricalized? How might desire recover its original capacity for projecting nonstructurable scenes?" And it answers them by suggesting that the "desiring self might even disappear as we learn to multiply our discontinuous and partial desiring selves" in language. See A Future for Astyanax: Character and Desire in Literature (Boston, 1976), 6-7.

55 Kristeva, "Psychoanalysis and the Polis," 82, 86.

56 William James, "The Will to Believe" and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York, 1956), ix. All further references to this work, abbreviated W, will be included in the text.

57 James once more: "No one of us ought to issue vetoes to the other, nor should we bandy words of abuse. We ought, on the contrary, delicately and profoundly to respect one another's mental freedom: then only shall we bring about the intellectual republic; then only shall we have that spirit of inner tolerance without which all our outer tolerance is soulless, and which is empiricism's glory; then only shall we live and let live, in speculative as well as in practical things" (W, 30). How far, beyond this, does any postmodern pluralist go?

58Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1820-1872, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes, 10 vols. (Boston, 1909-14), 8:79.

C. Barry Chabot

SOURCE: "The Problem of the Postmodern," in Zeitgeist in Babel: The Postmodernist Controversy, edited by Ingeborg Hoesterey, Indiana University Press, 1991, pp. 22-39.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1988, Chabot argues that postmodernism eshibits more continuity with traditional literary methods than most critics admit.]

During the past fifteen years we have increasingly heard and read about something variously termed "fabulism" (Scholes), "metafiction" (McCaffery), "surfiction" (Federman), and, with growing unanimity, "postmodernism." The former terms were typically developed in efforts to account for apparent changes of direction and emphasis within recent fiction. "Postmodernism," on the other hand, is a broader term and has been pressed into service to describe developments throughout the arts; it is even said that we live in a postmodern society. Any number of people obviously believe that a cultural rupture of some moment has occurred, and that its mark is discernible across the range of our cultural activities. There seems to be little agreement, however, about the precise nature and timing of the supposed break, and even less about how we can most adequately characterize its effects upon our cultural products.

I remain doubtful that a rupture of such magnitude has occurred and want here to register a minority report. Our lack of an adequate and widely accepted understanding of literary modernism makes many arguments for the postmodern initially plausible, but much of what has been termed postmodern derives quite directly from the work of earlier writers. In order to demonstrate the hesitancies, confusions, and contradictions within and between various characterizations of the postmodern, I want to investigate the work of several representative critics. For the sake of focus, I shall concentrate initially upon characterizations of our recent novel; if my conclusions are valid, they should apply as well to comparable accounts of our recent poetry and drama.


When Ihab Hassan writes in Paracriticisms that the "change in Modernism may be called Postmodernism," he emphasizes the continuity between these literary movements (43). He locates the origins of the latter in 1938, with the publication of Sartre's La Nausée and Beckett's Murphy, but he is not primarily attempting to define the sensibilities of entire eras. "Modernism," he writes, "does not suddenly cease so that Postmodernism may begin: they now coexist" (47). Modernism and postmodernism for Hassan thus provide competing visions of the contemporary predicament, and it is as likely that a particular work will be informed by the one as by the other. Hassan does not completely neglect the temporal dimension implied by the terms themselves. He understands both as responses to the character of life and thought in the twentieth century. If individuals earlier in the century had reason to be apprehensive about the possibilities then available for perpetuating viable forms of life, there has subsequently been even more reason for disquiet. Modernism and postmodernism, respectively, represent the literary equivalents of such more pervasive concerns. "Postmodernism," writes Hassan, "may be a response, direct or oblique, to the Unimaginable which Modernism glimpsed only in its most prophetic moments" (53). Such sentences award the primacy of vision to postmodernism, but its perceptiveness is largely the product of its times, which have made the awful possibilities we face only too clear.

Hassan defines neither modernism nor postmodernism. Instead he offers a catalogue of characteristic modernist concerns—urbanism, technologism, dehumanization, primitivism, eroticism, antinomianism, and experimentalism; he then glosses each, providing instances of the forms it takes within postmodernism. In regard to primitivism, for instance, Hassan writes that its modernist forms represented a use of ritual and myth to structure contemporary experience, whereas its postmodernist forms move away "from the mythic, toward the existential," initially in the work of the Beats and later "the postexistential ethos, psychedelics (Leary), the Dionysian ego (Brown), Pranksters (Kesey), madness (Laing), animism and magic (Castaneda)" (56). As his examples make clear, for Hassan postmodernism is not exclusively a literary phenomenon; rather, it represents a broad cultural response to pressing contemporary issues, and is as likely to emerge within social practices as within artistic products.

Despite the potential importance of the postmodernist program, and despite his own desire to stay in sympathy with whatever is most current, Hassan's assessment of postmodernism is finally ambiguous. He concedes that modernists frequently resorted to questionable means in shoring up such artistic authority as they could muster, citing Hemingway's code as an example, but observes that postmodernism "has tended toward artistic Anarchy, in deeper complicity with things falling apart—or has tended toward Pop" (59). The choice between authoritarianism and anarchy seems a devil's choice, and it is not altogether clear, to Hassan at least, that the latter is unmistakably the course of wisdom. Finally, however, Hassan's reservations about a post-modern aesthetic go much deeper. It releases new imaginative energies, but Hassan worries that we might now have entered a time when no art "can help to engender the motives we must now acquire; or if we can long continue to value an art that fails us" (59). I am not sure how to take this reservation—does it imply that our needs are too pressing for us to fiddle with art, or that our art already fails to provide us with the necessary direction? In the end, Hassan suggests that postmodernism is in danger of being overwhelmed by the very cultural crisis that originally called it into existence.

Jerome Klinkowitz accepts Hassan's designation of postmodernism, and thus needs another term to designate work manifesting what he takes to be an independent and more recent impulse. He offers several—"Post-Contemporary, " "disruptivist," "Superfiction," and most recently "self-apparent"—but there are reasons to assimilate Klinkowitz's efforts within the broader attempt to define postmodernism.1 Klinkowitz has assumed the role of apologist for a relatively small group of recent fiction writers; he is, accordingly, eager to differentiate their particular virtues from those of other writers. Among readers of contemporary fiction, Klinkowitz is almost alone in believing that his writers form an identifiable school distinct from postmodernism. Hassan, for instance, cites several writers Klinkowitz would term disruptivists when developing his own understanding of postmodernism. I shall return to this question later, and shall assume for the present that, despite his intentions, Klinkowitz is struggling to define a version of postmodernism.

Klinkowitz locates the emergence of disruptivist fiction "with the publishing season of 1967-68, when for the first time in a long time a clear trend in literary history became apparent" (ix). Disruptivist fiction is particularly adamant about the need to abandon the mimetic aspirations of the traditional novel. "If the world is absurd," writes Klinkowitz, "if what passes for reality is distressingly unreal, why spend time representing it" (32). Such statements suggest that the disruptivists believe the world is not now worth representing, whereas others suggest that representation is not possible and has always been a misplaced aspiration. Whatever the rationale, on Klinkowitz's account disruptivists are concerned with "not just the reporting of the world, but [with] the imaginative transformation of it" (32). The transformative power of the imagination enters this fiction in two ways. First, at the thematic level, it figures in the plot, as in Vonnegut's use of time-travel in Slaughterhouse-Five. More importantly, however, it appears in the self-reflexiveness of its characters (who frequently know that they are fictive constructs) and narrators (who frequently comment on the difficulties they are having in constructing the piece at hand). Such narrative shifts frustrate whatever tendencies readers might have to suspend disbelief and take the work at hand as a representation of some common world; in the same way, they perform the instructive function of demonstrating the ways and means by which readers too make their worlds.

Hassan's postmodern always hovers on the edge of despair and enervation, but Klinkowitz's disruptivist fiction is almost programmatically playful and energetic. "The writers we're discussing are out to create a good time," writes Klinkowitz in the prologue to The Life of Fiction (4). These qualities are not ancillary to disruptivist fiction, and their absence is sufficient reason to read writers out of the disruptivist camp. Thus Klinkowitz terms Barth and Pynchon "regressive parodists," and apparently believes that the former's influential essay, "The Literature of Exhaustion," has retarded appreciation of the disruptivists (ix). Barth's self-reflexive characters typically feel caught in and by their self-consciousness. It is a condition they would escape, whereas in disruptivist fiction it is perceived precisely as the condition of imaginative freedom. Exuberance is also what obviously differentiates disruptivist fiction from the French New Novel. In each of his books Klinkowitz approvingly quotes Barthelme's observation that the French New Novel "'seems leaden, selfconscious in the wrong way. Painfully slow-paced, with no leaps of the imagination, concentrating on the minutiae of consciousness, these novels scrupulously, in deadly earnest, parse out what can safely be said'" (174). Barthelme's description of the New Novel seems a catalogue of characteristics that disruptivist fiction on Klinkowitz's account is at pains to avoid.

Hassan's postmodernism and Klinkowitz's disruptivist fiction are similar in the emphasis each places on the transformative potential of the imagination. This similarity might account for Hassan's running together of writers from Beckett to Sukenick into a pervasive postmodernism; Klinkowitz, on the other hand, believes that to "the newer writers, Beckett is as traditional as Joyce" (LF 2), and accordingly would differentiate sharply among modern, postmodern, and disruptivist fiction. Hassan locates postmodernism within a general sense of cultural crisis and potential calamity; although he has written a cultural history, The American 1960s, Klinkowitz concentrates on the writers in question and rarely alludes to larger cultural issues. This difference in the ways they situate their work might account for a corresponding difference in tone: Hassan is prophetic, edgy, uncertain that the imagination will prove equal to the tasks at hand; Klinkowitz can be as bouncy as the authors he values, and since he sets the imagination no particular problems to solve he need not doubt its adequacy.

Alan Wilde also finds an affirmation at the core of what he terms postmodernism, but its character is far less exuberant and has quite different sources. Horizons of Assent: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Ironic Imagination is a closely reasoned study of the shift in the novel during this century from modernism, through what Wilde terms "late modernism," to postmodernism. Wilde pays particular attention to the characteristic uses and meanings of irony; he argues that these shift as the century progresses and that each of his three phases corresponds to a characteristic form of irony.

For Wilde modernism is characterized by what he terms disjunctive or absolute irony, "the conception of equal and opposed possibilities held in a state of total poise, or, more briefly still, the shape of an indestructible, unresolvable paradox" (21). Wilde distinguishes absolute irony from an earlier and more pervasive form, which he terms "mediate irony." It "imagines a world lapsed from a recoverable . . . norm" (9) and has as its goal the recovery of that earlier wholeness. The modern ironist, by way of contrast, confronts a world apparently in such fundamental disarray that no recovery of previous states seems possible. The modern ironist nonetheless attempts to impose a shape or order, and for his efforts achieves "not resolution but closure—an aesthetic closure that substitutes for the notion of paradise regained an image .. . of a paradise fashioned by man himself (10). Since the order achieved by the modern writer is exclusively aesthetic, he ends at a remove from the world he would make cohere. With no course of action clearly preferable to any other, in the end the modern ironist is finally inactive as well as detached, unable to commit himself to the world without thereby destroying the order he has struggled to create.

Wilde illustrates his definition of the modernist program primarily through references to the novels of E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. In the work of other and generally younger writers, especially those who come to attention during the thirties, he sees a subtle shift indicative of what he terms the "late modern" sensibility. His chief examples of the late-modern are Christopher Isherwood and Ivy Compton-Burnett. These writers are typically less concerned with depth than with surfaces; as a result, the relations between language and world are thought to be less problematic than among the modernists, and appearances are again held to be valuable in understanding people and events. The obvious pleasure that Isherwood and his narrators take in some aspects of their worlds not only contrasts with the discomfort typical of the modernists, it also implies that they have partially overcome the detachment characteristic of the latter.

In their participation in their worlds, the late-modernists anticipate what Wilde terms postmodernism. Although he calls Woolf s Between the Acts "still the most impressive of postmodern novels" (48), Wilde argues that postmodernism "is essentially an American affair" (12).2 On Wilde's account, postmodernists typically deploy "suspensive irony." It involves the perception of "experience as random and contingent . . . rather than—the modernist view—simply fragmented" (27). Nonetheless, postmodernism does not press for or impose order, even one limited to the aesthetic realm; instead, the contingent world is simply accepted. Modernist paradox thereby gives way "to quandary, to a low-keyed engagement with a world of perplexities and uncertainties, in which one can hope, at best, to achieve what Forster calls 'the smaller pleasures of life' and Stanley Elkin, its 'small satisfactions'" (10).

Wilde isolates two strands within postmodernism. The first consists roughly of Klinkowitz's disruptivists, especially Ronald Sukenick and Raymond Federman, but Wilde attends less to their statements of intention than the effects of their practice. On Wilde's reading, Sukenick and Federman, for all their overt hostility to modernism, end by unintentionally reproducing, in an attenuated form, many modernist dilemmas; "they are," he writes, "Modernism's lineal descendants (or perhaps its illegitimate sons), patricides manqués" (144). Wilde's other strand of postmodernism employs "generative irony: the attempt, inspired by the negotiations of self and world, to create tentatively and provisionally, anironic enclaves of value in the face of—but not in place of—a meaningless universe" (148). The world envisioned in these works is even more contingent than that found in modernist fiction, but its narrators and characters accede to that condition, recognizing that it cannot be redressed. Instead, they recognize that their worlds contain pleasures as well as pains, and therefore choose not to distance themselves, in the manner of their predecessors, from the phenomenal world. Elkin's The Living End, Apple's "The Oranging of America" and "Disneyad," and several of Barthelme's later stories serve as Wilde's primary examples of this postmodernism. It embodies "a vision that lacks the heroism of the modernist enterprise but that, for a later and more disillusioned age, recovers its humanity" (165).

Wilde's characterization of postmodernism does not, like those by Hassan and Klinkowitz, place a premium upon the imagination. For Hassan, the postmodern imagination must redeem a world on the brink of calamity, and its prospects for success are at best problematic; for Klinkowitz, the world similarly requires redemption, but he apparently has no doubt that the postmodern imagination is equal to the task. On Wilde's account, postmodern writers find the world fully as contingent, but he finds in them a willingness to endure the random and a capacity to identify sources of gratification within it. Both Klinkowitz and Wilde believe that an affirmative moment defines postmodern fiction, but they identify its sources differently. For Klinkowitz, what is affirmed is finally the supposedly transformative power of the imagination; for Wilde, on the other hand, it is the phenomenal world itself, which, amidst its various turnings, upon occasion throws up gratifying possibilities.


The efforts by Hassan, Klinkowitz, and Wilde to define postmodernism are representative of many others, and display many of the same strengths and weaknesses. They bring contemporary writers to our attention, provide insights into their particular ambitions, and begin to place them within the strands of literary and cultural history. Each defines postmodernism, however, in ways that are not only distinct but in the end mutually exclusive. Wilde's late-modern, for instance, is not the same as Hassan's postmodern, even though both are located in the thirties; and Hassan links the fiction of Beckett and Sukenick, whereas Klinkowitz sees the latter as being in rebellion against the former. The primary difficulties in the way of the very concept of postmodernism, in other words, involve its definition and inclusiveness.

As the term suggests, postmodernism is invariably defined vis-à-vis modernism—postmodernism is what comes after and in opposition to modernism. But there is little agreement about the nature of modernism, many characterizations of it enjoying some degree of currency within the profession. In Wilde's account, for instance, modernism is equivalent to the use of a particular form of irony, what he terms absolute irony. I have no quarrel with his readings of Forster and Woolf, but I find it difficult to extend the term so defined to cover the work of other writers typically termed modernists, such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, or Stevens and Hart Crane. One wonders, in other words, if Wilde's postmoderns would seem equally distinct from modernism if they were read within the context of earlier American instead of British writers. Perhaps the differences that Wilde finds derive as much from differences between the national literary traditions, differences obscured by his framework, as from any supposed change in the literary sensibility that has occurred over time. Although I frequently find Wilde's readings of individual works compelling, such doubts leave me with questions about the history he constructs from them.

Unlike Wilde, Klinkowitz does not venture detailed accounts of the succession of literary sensibilities during the century. His conception of disruptivist or self-apparent fiction is the most narrow of the three surveyed. It identifies writers of a particular school, but then claims that it represents an entire generation of writers come of age during 1967-68. In Literary Disruptions he writes of a "generational gap" between Barth and Barthelme, which "has obstructed the critical understanding of new fiction" (175). When he reduces the relations between disruptivist and other fiction to the terms of generational conflict, Klinkowitz introduces several difficulties. One of his disruptivists, Kurt Vonnegut, is in fact eight years older than John Barth, and his first novel was published in 1952, four years before Barth's The Floating Opera; Klinkowitz is thus in the anomalous position of having a rebellious son who in fact arrives on the scene earlier than the figurative father. Such local anomalies, however, are the least of Klinkowitz's conceptual difficulties. I want to discuss three that particularly disable his argument.

First, Klinkowitz is concerned largely with younger or at least recently arrived writers who clearly feel a need to make a space for themselves on the literary scene. They do so in part by issuing manifestos and granting interviews in which they attempt to differentiate their own efforts from those of earlier and already established writers. As an apologist for these writers, Klinkowitz takes them at their word, rarely questioning either their announced goals, the measure of their success in meeting them, or their statements concerning the position of their own work in regard to that of other writers. A curiously naive species of literary history is the result, especially when one considers that Klinkowitz writes at the same time that Harold Bloom and others have been demonstrating how complicated the relations among writers can be. Klinkowitz's literary sons (and they are all sons) overcome their literary fathers with little difficulty, and the latter never survive to disfigure the former's efforts. We now know to be suspicious of such characterizations of literary succession, where literary influence is conceived purely as a negative affair and breaks between literary generations appear absolute.

Second, Klinkowitz, like the writers he admires, is so intent upon celebrating this generation that he fails to recognize the ways in which it simply continues or modifies the literary heritage. Wilde, for instance, observes that "the Surfictionists recall ('in attenuated form') nothing so much as the aesthetic manifestos of the earlier decades of the century" (144). When Sukenick and Federman engage in polemics against the novel as currently practiced and invent neologisms to identify themselves, they continue the tradition and rhetoric of Pound, Breton, and other poets earlier in the century. Indeed, one way of understanding these writers involves recognizing the extent to which they have adapted to the writing of fiction many of the practices common to poets during the teens and twenties. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner did not issue manifestos, nor did they devote much energy to berating other novelists to their own advantage. Poets of that time, especially those who self-consciously considered themselves part of the avant-garde, did engage in such activities, and the Surfictionists seemingly follow their example, simply adapting it to the conditions of another time and genre. This adaptation is particularly clear in the case of Sukenick, who wrote a dissertation and first book on the poetics of Wallace Stevens. In his own subsequent fiction Sukenick adapts Stevens's poetics to the condition of the contemporary novel, but large portions of the poet's work survive the adaptation virtually unaltered. Klinkowitz simply passes over such borrowings, either because he does not notice them, because they weaken his case, or because he believes the transportation of poetic doctrines and practices to fiction in itself constitutes a significant innovation. Whatever the reason, the neglect of such continuities with writers earlier in the century casts doubt upon Klinkowitz's account of the disruptivists.

Although Wilde does not use the language of generations and is characteristically more cautious in suggesting the kinds of departures that constitute postmodernism, his own account of the phenomenon encounters similar problems. Stanley Elkin is one of Wilde's exemplary postmoderns. Elkin wrote a dissertation on Faulkner and has said in an interview that Saul Bellow is probably the writer who has influenced him most strongly. "To the extent that I imitate anyone," he continued, "I think I may—in dialogue—imitate Saul Bellow" (140). Few people, including Bellow himself, would consider Bellow a postmodern writer, and Faulkner is certainly one of the foremost American modernists. Like Faulkner and Bellow, Elkin writes an extremely rhetorical prose. Although each possesses a distinctive voice and puts it to distinctive ends (consider, for instance, the differences between Faulkner's Flem Snopes and Elkin's Ben Flesh in The Franchiser), it seems excessive to posit an additional difference between them of the kind usually associated with the transition between modern and postmodern.

Modernism, in its usual usage, is a fairly capacious term, one covering a range of literary practices. A final difficulty in the way Klinkowitz and others typically propose definitions of the postmodern involves their violation of modernism in this larger sense. "Modernism" is not a term equivalent to "Imagism," "Futurism," "Surrealism," "Vorticism" and the like, which refer to specific literary schools or movements; instead, it is the term invoked to suggest what such particular and divergent programs have in common. It is a period concept; and its use involves the claim that in the end, and whatever their obvious differences, the individual energies of the time possess enough family resemblances that it makes sense to refer to them collectively. Modernism refers to whatever Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, to name only American writers whose credentials as modernists seem beyond question, have in common. By its very nature, then, modernism is a second-order concept.

Since modernism is a period concept, one encompassing many divergent specific movements, it is likely to be surpassed or replaced only by a concept of the same kind and with comparable reach. The emergence of Surrealism, for instance, did not represent the overcoming of modernism so much as the emergence of another dimension within it. When we consider the various claims being made for the emergence of what is being called "postmodernism," we must ask whether the tendencies in question resemble in kind Surrealism or modernism. Klinkowitz, as we have seen, believes that the disruptivists form an identifiable "school" (x); we have also seen that they are unmistakably indebted to modernist poets for their means of self-promotion and their aesthetic. There are thus reasons to believe that these writers represent, like the Surrealists, a late development within modernism rather than its replacement. The rhetoric used in clearing themselves a place, of course, makes larger claims; but I understand the rhetorical intensity as itself in part a legacy from modernism, and in part as deriving from the felt urgency, at this late date, of claiming some necessarily marginal territory as its own.

Unlike Klinkowitz, Hassan recognizes that modernism is a period concept. He acknowledges the diversity of literary modernism when he catalogues its various schools and movements. His lists, however, fall short of providing definitions for either modernism or its supposed successor, because he does not indicate what the items on either list have in common, or what differentiates them from other contemporary cultural phenomena. He provides something of an anatomy without a conception of the whole the various organs and limbs finally compose. His attention is on the immediate future, or better on the question of whether we shall have one, and does not pause over what might be considered academic questions.

The situation in regard to Wilde's characterization of recent literary history and the emergence of the postmodern is somewhat more complicated. Wilde defines modernism narrowly, as the consequences that follow from the use of what he terms absolute irony. The emergence more recently of what Wilde terms suspensive or generative irony provides the grounds for claiming that it constitutes a new or postmodern sensibility. The narrow conception of modernism, in other words, is what lends credence to the claims for postmodernism; but, as mentioned earlier, I doubt the adequacy of Wilde's characterizations of modernism. My doubts take two forms. First, I doubt that it is possible to say that the entire range of modern novelists employ absolute irony. It seems that Wilde has mistaken a form of modernism for modernism itself, much as if he had identified it with, say, Pound's Imagism. Second, even if Wilde could make a reasonable case for the pervasiveness of absolute irony in this body of fiction, I do not believe he would thereby be identifying its most distinctive feature. I do not believe, in other words, that one can define modernism formally, despite its own obvious formal intensities; as a period concept, modernism must be approached more broadly and its distinctive features sought in the relationships it establishes with both the literary tradition and the immediate cultural context.

Horizons of Assent is in most respects the best book now available on our recent fiction, and Wilde's failure to develop a satisfactory account of postmodernism is therefore especially instructive. By its nature the postmodern is conceived in contrast to the modern—the era, sensibility, or set of literary strategies it would supplant. The initial plausibility of Wilde's description of postmodernism turns out to depend upon his prior conception of modernism. When that conception is found wanting, the claims for an emergent postmodernism are simultaneously thrown into doubt. In the absence of an adequate and widely accepted conception of modernism, we shall probably continue to be presented with claims in behalf of an emergent postmodern; but at least for the near term I doubt that upon inspection any will prove any more substantial than those already proposed by Hassan, Klinkowitz, and Wilde.3


In a series of recent essays, Fredric Jameson has been developing his own conception of postmodernism. It is explicitly a period concept, and thus does not fall prey to the difficulties enumerated above. Jameson believes that postmodernism has become the cultural dominant for the entire social order; accordingly, its force is to be found as much in the economy, the cinema, philosophy, and architecture as in literature itself. Indeed, Jameson says that his own formulation of postmodernism initially took shape in response to the continuing debates concerning the nature of contemporary architecture.4 Since Jameson's use of the term is so distinctive among literary critics, it will be instructive to see if it proves more adequate to its appointed task.

At crucial points in these essays, after lengthy discussions of various cultural manifestations of what he terms postmodernism, Jameson alludes to its characteristic economic forms. His conception of economic postmodernism clearly derives from Ernest Mandel's Late Capitalism. Mandel argues that Western capitalism has evolved through three distinct stages: market capitalism, monopoly capitalism, and since the 1940s, what Jameson calls multinational capitalism. This latest form simultaneously clarifies the logic of capitalism and, to an unprecedented degree, expands its reach, drawing the entire globe within its ambit. In his contribution to The Sixties without Apology, Jameson suggests that the upheavals of that period parallel the culminating moments of the transition from monopoly to multinational capitalism, a shift that was largely completed by the early seventies. The postmodern, or so Jameson argues, is the culture appropriate to this last phase of capitalism, just as realism and modernism, respectively, had been appropriate to its earlier forms (78).

Jameson enumerates a number of constitutive features of this postmodern culture—among them, "a new depthlessness," "a consequent weakening of historicity," "a whole new type of emotional ground tone" (58), and the dissolution of the individual subject—but a new sense of space seems to hold a privileged position. The preoccupation of modernism with "the elegiac mysteries of durée and of memory" (64) have been replaced within the postmodern by a comparably intense concern with spatial questions. This apparent shift makes Jameson's interest in contemporary architecture especially relevant. He analyzes John Portman's Bonaventura Hotel in Los Angeles as postmodern, and suggests that the building aspires less to be a part of its environment than to be "a total space, a complete world, a kind of miniature city" (81), capable of replacing the city itself. Its interior is a stage for continual movement via escalators and exposed elevators; but what most distinguishes the building is the way it deprives patrons of spatial coordinates so that they are often unable to relocate shops on its balconies. Jameson believes that the confusion felt by the visitor to the Bonaventura Hotel is the architectural equivalent of a more fundamental confusion felt by inhabitants of the postmodern era; namely, our inability "to map the great global multinational and decentered communicational network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects" (84). Postmodern architecture, in Jameson's eyes, reproduces the experiential conditions of multinational capitalism.

In a review of two recent novels, Don Delillo's The Names and Sol Yurick's Richard A., Jameson illustrates how this difficulty manifests itself within fiction. The latter is a version of the common conspiracy novel (the postmodern, says Jameson, effects a new relation with the forms of popular culture [PC 54-55]); it uses the image of the telephone system to suggest the ways in which people's lives have become interconnected. That image represents Yurick's attempt to conceptualize or map the locations of his characters within a world as disorienting as Portman's hotel. Delillo's narrator is an American abroad, an employee of a risk insurance firm, who is increasingly unable to assess the risks in an increasingly dangerous world. He picks up pieces of information, fragments of puzzling knowledge, but cannot make them cohere into anything resembling a map of his surroundings. Each of these novels, according to Jameson, struggles with the special spatial dilemma of contemporary life: "That dilemma can be schematically described as the increasing incompatibility—or incommensurability—between individual experience, existential experience, as we go on looking for it in individual biological bodies, and structural meaning, which can now ultimately derive only from the world system of multinational capitalism" (116). The solutions found in these works differ markedly: Yurick constructs an image that evokes the interconnections that cannot be directly experienced, whereas Delillo renders the experience of living amidst fragments that, however suggestive of some larger order, resist our effort to piece them together.

Jameson's account of the postmodern is immensely suggestive. He seems to be a person unable to forget or ignore anything; his work, accordingly, invariably contains striking analogies and connections among the most disparate phenomena. I have only sketched a portion of his argument, but it should be clear that his conception of the postmodern differs strikingly from those discussed earlier. In particular, Jameson's postmodern is systematically a period concept, one that reaches not only across various movements and genres, but as well across the various arts and other social institutions in the contemporary world. Its very reach, however, produces an order of difficulties distinct from those discussed in regard to Hassan, Klinkowitz, and Wilde.

As we have seen, Jameson coordinates an apparent preoccupation with space with the establishment of a genuinely multinational economic system. He recognizes, of course, that the economic system became increasingly international throughout the earlier period of monopoly capitalism, as previously isolated cultures were penetrated and opened as markets. Jameson believes, however, that the effects upon local cultures of these earlier penetrations were comparably benign and that they are now being dramatically transformed as the logic of multinational capitalism takes hold on a global scale. I am not in a position to judge the adequacy of such sweeping claims; I do question, however, some of the cultural consequences Jameson would derive from them. In particular, I question his claim that contemporary arts are uniquely concerned with locating the individual within some "postmodern hyperspace" (83). Jameson himself makes substantial use of Kevin Lynch's The Image of the City, which argues that the "alienated city is above all a space in which people are unable to map (in their minds) either their own positions or the urban totality in which they find themselves" (89). Such cities and the confusions to which they give rise predate postmodernism, but Jameson nowhere differentiates specifically postmodern forms. Similarly, since at least the early years of this century Western culture has been exploring the implications of an increasingly interconnected world; such explorations have taken various forms, such as the use of artist resources drawn from other cultures, and the depiction of travel through distant and disorienting lands. The culminating achievement of Jameson's most recent book, The Political Unconscious, is his reading of Conrad's Lord Jim, one of many exemplary works concerned with such issues. Neither experiences of spatial dislocation nor the existence of a multinational world, in other words, are unique to the last decade. The manifestations of both might have changed and become more pronounced, but Jameson would then have to demonstrate how differences in intensity have become differences in kind, such that one can speak of a distinctly postmodern disorientation. I suspect that Jameson's reliance upon Mandel's economic stages compels him to make claims for corresponding cultural transformations that he has not as yet adequately supported.

As we have seen, architecture holds a special place within Jameson's conception of postmodern culture. Not only is it the art primarily concerned with the spaces we inhabit; the recent debates within architecture have also informed Jameson's own formulations in important ways. Within architecture, the claims for postmodernism have developed in an especially clear way, and Jameson has largely appropriated these claims for more sweeping purposes. I believe that the reason postmodernism has emerged with special clarity within architecture has to do largely with the remarkable agreement within that field about the nature of modernism, the aesthetic it would replace. Architectural modernism consists largely of the so-called International Style. The increasingly strident reaction against the main tenets of this style is carried out in the name of postmodernism. The comparative uniformity of architectural modernism lends credibility to the claims of its new rivals that they constitute a genuinely postmodern alternative.

The situation within architecture, in other words, is quite different from that within the other arts, particularly literature. Literary modernism, as we have seen, has been characterized by a great diversity of separate movements and styles. It possesses nothing comparable to the Seagram Building. Since many different and competing aesthetic programs collectively constitute literary modernism, the claims of any particular program to supercede literary modernism per se must be scrutinized with some care; upon inspection, as we have seen, such programs are likely to represent new alternatives within modernism, not alternatives to it. The claims for the emergence of a genuine architectural postmodernism, on the other hand, possess a greater initial credibility due to the more monolithic quality of its predecessor.

Different cultural spheres, then, seemingly require different conceptualizations in terms of periods. By way of explanation, it might be said that different spheres evolve at different paces, depending upon a welter of factors, including both internal dynamics and their locations within the culture as a whole. In the case at hand, however, it is probably more to the point that the parallel between literary and architectural modernism was never more than an analogy. That is, roughly contemporary movements within architecture and literature were both termed modernism, but their contemporaneity and designations were all that they had in common. The mere fact that both have been termed modernism has clearly tempted many to claim more substantial similarities between them, or to see both as manifestations of an overarching cultural shift; but such findings have invariably been metaphoric or analogic: architectural and literary modernism have about as much in common as any two contemporaries named John Smith.

Jameson, in brief, errs in attempting to apply the debate within contemporary architectural circles to contemporary culture generally. What might be true of one art need not be true of others. In particular, a genuine postmodern alternative might be emerging within architecture; but we have less reason to believe that a corresponding phenomenon is occurring within literature, due to the different nature of what is called literary modernism. A rhetoric of postmodernism might be common to both fields, but in the latter it is misplaced, at most a sign of impatience. Since Jameson is attempting to develop a period concept that encompasses all of social life, he presumes that changes occur across a broad front and thus discounts the conditions specific to discrete cultural spheres. As a Marxist, Jameson knows that contending energies are likely to be operative at any particular time, and that resolutions among them achieved in one sphere need not have occurred elsewhere. Social life changes unevenly. In his work on postmodernism, however, Jameson's awareness of these facts remains theoretical; whenever he gets to actual cases, postmodernism seems to be progressing apace in every cultural sphere.

If Jameson sometimes argues that significant changes are occurring within all cultural spheres, at other times his argument for an emergent postmodern culture takes a different form:

The first point to be made about the conception of periodization in dominance, therefore, is that even if all the constitutive features of postmodernism were identical and continuous with those of an older modernism—a position I feel to be demonstrably erroneous but which only an even lengthier analysis of modernism proper could dispel—the two phenomena would still remain utterly distinct in their meaning and social function, owing to the very different positioning of postmodernism in the economic system of late capital, and beyond that, to the transformation of the very sphere of culture in contemporary society. (PC 57)

Jameson here argues that the conditions under which cultural production and reception take place have so changed that culture itself has been thoroughly transformed. I in fact agree with this assessment, but would not go on to say that we therefore now have a postmodern literary culture. American literary modernism was crucially shaped by its relations with the whole of contemporary social life; but it is best defined by the set of strategies it developed in response, and thus by the relations it establishes with the contemporary social order. Consistency would seem to demand that a proper literary postmodernism be defined in the same manner; that is, not alone by the social conditions in which it reaches us, but as well by the strategies it deploys for existing within those conditions.

Jameson is currently embarked upon an anatomy of contemporary culture; literary matters obviously figure in this undertaking, but only in a subsidiary manner. The entire undertaking is prone to the kind of error we have already seen in regard to his generalization of architectural debates. It is instructive to compare the difficulties encountered by Jameson in developing a conception of postmodernism with those encountered by Klinkowitz and Wilde. The latter, as we saw, generated initially plausible definitions of the postmodern by countering it with an impoverished sense of modernism. In particular, they failed to acknowledge that modernism is a second-order, period concept, and thus proposed definitions of postmodernism that could as well or better be conceived as developments within modernism itself. Jameson, on the other hand, knows that modernism is a period concept. His generalization of the situation within architecture, however, provides him with a fairly monolithic modernism against which he can conceive a postmodern alternative. Architectural modernism, in brief, serves the same function in Jameson's formulations that absolute irony serves in Wilde's. Since he conceives postmodernism as a period concept, Jameson then wants to locate parallel developments in other cultural spheres. In the process, however, he typically minimizes crucial differences among the spheres, thereby creating the erroneous appearance of a culture undergoing change in a fairly uniform manner. Jameson knows that cultural change is an uneven affair, but the ambition to describe an entire cultural transformation apparently leads him to pay more attention to claims for cultural change, and then to lend his voice to them, than the available evidence seems to warrant.


Our survey of difficulties encountered in proposing definitions of some emergent postmodernism leads to several proposals. First, before we can speak meaningfully of the postmodern we require an adequate conception of modernism. That conception, at least in regard to literary modernism, must guard against mistaking one of its constitutive movements (Surrealism, for example) for modernism itself; it must, that is, be a period concept, able to clarify what its different and competing movements have in common. That definition, too, should be specific to literature. The existence of something termed modernism in other cultural realms does not mean that these various artistic modernisms have much in common. Different cultural realms have different histories, needs, and opportunities; and these differences combine to assure that "modernism" will mean different things in each. Finally, we should profit from the example of Wilde and at least initially confine our investigations of literary modernism to individual national traditions. Otherwise we too are likely to mistake differences between national literatures for developments within literature itself. Different national literatures differ in the same ways that literature differs from architecture; since at any given time a national literature represents a specific disposition of cultural forces, each reacts uniquely to any attempt to introduce new and necessarily competing aesthetic programs. The distinctive colorations achieved by literary modernism within the British and American traditions are largely due to the native traditions, with their existing relations among competing interests.5 It seems only prudent, therefore, that we attend to the configuration achieved by literary modernism within single national literatures before venturing more expansive characterizations of it. This research strategy was recently pursued successfully by June Howard, whose Form and Function in American Literary Naturalism conceives the work of Jack London and others as responses to the particular disposition of social and literary forces in the United States at the turn of the century. I am suggesting, in short, that we pursue a comparable program in regard to American literary modernism, for until we have an adequate conception of literary modernism, all claims for anything called postmodernism, like those addressed here, are likely to be premature.

It might be argued that these difficulties in establishing the canon and shape of a nascent postmodernism are only to be expected. The argument might invoke the authority of Thomas Kuhn, and claim that such critics are attempting to describe a shift between prevailing paradigms, and that such confusions are characteristic of transitional periods, times that lack the securities provided by stable intellectual coordinates. The tools of the old order are not appropriate to the new, assuring that those who use them will fail; the intellectual tools of the new order, on the other hand, are either unfamiliar or not yet to hand, with the result that their use is uncertain. Such arguments beg the question. They assume that we are in fact witnessing the emergence of some genuinely postmodern culture, whereas I want to question that assumption. It seems to me at least equally plausible that what some are calling postmodernism is actually a late development or mutation within modernism itself. I have presented several arguments to support my contention: (1) that no satisfactory and widely accepted account of postmodernism now exists; (2) that much of what is called postmodern in fact derives directly from modernism; and (3) that most arguments for its existence achieve their initial plausibility largely through impovershed characterizations of modernism, especially characterizations that neglect its nature as a second-order concept.

I suspect that the term's currency has more to do with impatience than with actual conceptual shifts. Modernism has been with us for the better part of the century. Its own restless search for innovation in part informs efforts to move beyond it. Some contemporary writers want to claim for their own efforts as radical a departure from now established strategies as that achieved earlier in the century. All honor seems to belong to the founders, and these writers want to avoid thinking of themselves as like Kuhn's normal scientists, working out the residual problems left them by the true innovators. Comparable motives inspire their academic apologists. In the end, as Frank Kermode has shown, there is considerable satisfaction in believing that one inhabits a cusp between eras, not the least of which is the belief that one is replicating the heroic phase of modernism. We might sympathize with such desires, but it seems to me that we should receive announcements of postmodernism's arrival as skeptically as we do commercials for other new products in the marketplace.

Whatever the merits of my arguments, the term "post-modern" has entered our lexicon and will doubtless continue to be used. Too many factors conspire to keep it in circulation, not least of which is inertia, the tendency for anything once set in motion to continue on its way. At the moment, however, the term is an empty marker. It holds a place in our language for a concept that might one day prove necessary; in the meantime, it is the recipient of the ambitions and apprehensions that our prospects for the future evoke.


1 The first two terms appear in Literary Disruptions, the third in The Life of Fiction, and the last in The Self-Apparent Word. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations of Klinkowitz are from Literary Disruptions.

2 This claim obviously puts Wilde's conception of postmodernism at odds with Hassan's and in line with Klinkowitz's and Rother's.

3 The tendency to reduce modernism to some caricature of itself in order to get a definition of postmodernism off the ground is especially strong when critics define both terms simply against each other and in isolation from the implicit series of period concepts; see, for example, Lodge.

4 "Postmodernism" 54. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations of Jameson are from this essay.

5 Compare the opening sentences of Jeffrey Herf's Reactionary Modernism: "There is no such thing as modernity in general. There are only national societies, each of which becomes modern in its own fashion" (1). Herf studies a phenomenon much wider than literary, architectural, or any other specific cultural modernism, but his research strategy resembles my proposals.


Barthelme, Donald. "After Joyce." Location 1 (1964): 13-16.

Elkin, Stanley. Interview, Contemporary Literature 16 (1975): 131-45.

Federman, Raymond. "Surfiction—Four Propositions in Form of an Introduction." In Surfiction: Fiction Now and Tomorrow. Ed. Raymond Federman, 5-15. Chicago: Swallow, 1975.

Hassan, Ihab. Paracriticisms: Seven Speculations of the Times. Urbana: U. of Illinois Press, 1975.

Herf, Jeffrey. Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Howard, June. Form and Function in American Literary Naturalism. Chapel Hill: U. of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Jameson, Fredric. "Periodizing the Sixties." In The Sixties without Apologies. Ed. Sohnya Sayres et al., 178-209. Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press, 1984.

"The Politics of Theory: Ideological Positions in the Postmodernism Debate." New German Critique 33 (1984): 53-65.

"Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism." New Left Review 146 (1984): 53-92.

Review of The Names, by Don Delillo, and Richard A., by Sol Yurick. Minnesota Review 22 (1984): 116-22.

——"Wallace Stevens." New Orleans Review 11 (1984): 10-19.

Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. The Life of Fiction. Urbana: U. of Illinois Press, 1977.

——Literary Disruptions: The Making of a Post-Contemporary American Fiction. Urbana: U. of Illinois Press, 1975.

——The Self-Apparent Word: Fiction As Language / Language As Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

Lodge, David. The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy, and the Typology of Modern Literature. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.

McCaffery, Larry. The Metafictional Muse: The Work of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William Gass. Pittsburgh: U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1982.

Rother, James. "Parafiction: The Adjacent Universe of Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon, and Nabokov." Boundary 25 (1976): 21-43.

Scholes, Robert. Fabulation and Metafiction. Urbana: U. of Illinois Press, 1979.

Wilde, Alan. Horizons of Assent: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Ironic Imagination. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.

2. Postmodernity and the project of going beyond metaphysics

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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 thought-forms on which the nineteenth century lived were in pieces. Nietzsche's thought was a conflagration, a purification of modern thought, and a careful study of his work is radical therapy for many illusions in twentieth-century thought.

Nietzsche passionately hated his own time, which he identified with the untragic this-worldliness of the Greek Alexandrian age. The modern age, he argued, lives on the lethal legacy of Socratic thinking—grounded in abstractions and theories, and willing to die for truths produced by rational deduction. Modernity, as Nietzsche saw it, is a combination of Alexandrian this-worldly trivality and Socratic absurd logocentrism. Nietzsche attacked the metaphysical view that man is a "thinking thing" or some kind of mental substance lodged in inert matter. This Cartesian dualism creates the "mind-body problem" and a view of man as a "ghost in a machine" (to use Gilbert Ryle's famous phrase from Concept of Mind). Nietzsche questioned whether what we call "consciousness" is truly the seat and core of subjectivity; rather, he suggested that in each human being a plurality of interpretative principles or centers (Herrschaftszentren)), like medieval fiefdoms, are in tension and competition with each other. Waking consciousness is only one of these centers, and perhaps a monitor of things rather than king of them all. He resolutely denied every metaphysical order of reality—that is, any order of reality above and outside the phenomenal world in which we have our experience. Such a belief, he held, was merely a form of Platonism. No firm and enduring "reality" lies behind the phenomenal world—no Hinterwelt.

For Nietzsche, human knowledge does not represent a contact with a "truth" behind phenomena; rather, it is a function of our life-goals. As Habermas has articulated it in the present decade, knowledge is "interest-guided."

Objective, scientific knowledge does not give us the form of the "way things are"; it is fabricated by the artistry of understanding in conformity with the purpose of gaining control over nature. If our interest or aim were different, our knowledge would take another form. Habermas, for instance, distinguishes the knowledge-guiding interests of the empirical-analytic sciences (a technical-cognitive interest) from the historical-hermeneutic sciences (a practical and action-orienting interest), both of which differ from the "critical sciences," which are neither technical nor pragmatic but emancipatory. Psychoanalysis is an example of the latter and is for Habermas the model of emancipatory reflection. Habermas attaches a special importance to emancipatory reflection for through its reflexivity man liberates himself from illusions. The knowledge gained from emancipatory reflection, unlike the other forms of knowledge, is worthless unless the subject himself is liberated through it. In its philosophical form, "critical theory" has the function of turning reflection back on the agent. Habermas holds that for this reason it goes beyond merely "hermeneutical" reflection to a form of thought that frees man from the internal and external chains of ideology.20

We could say, then, that Nietzsche, and after him, Habermas (as well as Marx and Freud) show the ideological character of human knowledge, shattering the firm underpinnings for knowledge as something grounded in immutable principles or transcendental categories. Thus, Nietzsche went beyond an attack on metaphysics to argue that knowledge itself, as the artistry of an interestguided understanding, cannot be "truth" in the old rationalist sense. There are only different forms of "fiction." What we call "truths," said Nietzsche, are merely the useful "fictions" by which we live.21

3. Transcending objectivism and technological rationality

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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 natural basis for the metaphysics of objectivity. To it can be traced the problems that have dominated modern philosophy—the mind-body problem, the subject-object dichotomy, and the epistemological foundations for both rationalist and empiricist thought.22 The quest for verifiable knowledge rests on the assumption of a central, verifying subject, with a method or set of definitions that gives sense to the world. The egocentric, humanistic, and reason-centered cast of modern thought is rooted in the perspectivist model epitomized in Dürer's famous woodcut of a man looking through a grid as he draws a human body. The abstractness, the reduction of the model to spatial squares, the separation of the observer from the object, so that it appears to him only in terms of extension—these are all reflected in the famous woodcut. The saying of Protagoras that "man is the measure of all things" depends for its meaning on the dimensions of man. A definition of man emphasizing his spiritual nature will provide a different measure, however, than a merely humanistic definition. One might say in general that with the rise of perspective, measurement—that is, extension—becomes the measure of all things.

William Blake and the great romantic poets, especially Wordsworth, were among the first really effective voices of protest against modernity, and they were among the first to perceive the inner relationship of modernity to objectivizing and technological thought. Blake attacks the "single vision" of Newton's sleep which manacles the mind. The visionary gleam whose loss Wordsworth laments with the passing of childhood is the light of a way of seeing before reason and morality separated man from nature.23 Yet pleas on behalf of nature, imagination, and the life of the senses could not halt the movement of invention, exploration, annexation, and exploitation spreading itself across the modern scene. In fact, the romantic protest seemed to point away from the central thrust of social development and invention to aesthetic escapes that belong after business hours. Romantic and postromantic literature and art became the compensation for an increasingly machine-dominated economic system.

Among the most trenchant critics of contemporary technology is Theodore Roszak, who consciously goes back to romanticist thought and visionary reality. His first major work, The Making of a Counter Culture, attempted to articulate a critique of technological rationality and scientific objectivity. Although probably more an attempt to supply after the fact a theoretical background for the counterculture than a description of the beliefs and motives of the quotidian cultural dropout, Roszak's work offers a sharp critique of prevailing cultural assumptions and reveals some of the seamy side of the modern idolatry of objectivity. Where the Wasteland Ends and, most recently, his Unfinished Animal continue and expand the critique, with explicit philosophical dependence on romantic and visionary realities.24

The case against technological rationality is stated with trenchancy on quite different philosophical foundations by Philip Slater and by Herbert Marcuse. Slater attacks the ideals on which American capitalist individualism is based, especially the pursuit of lonely success through competition. Technology is the perfect instrument for these ideals, yet it is self-defeating. "Technology," says Slater, "is an extension of the scarcity-oriented, securityminded, control-oriented side of man's nature, expressed vis-a-vis a world perceived as unloving, ungiving, and unsatisfying."25 For Slater the solution is to turn away from the masculine virtues toward the feminine. Yet "Western culture is founded on the oppression of women and of the values associated with them: wholeness, continuity, communion, humanism, feelings, the body, connectedness, harmony."26 No less penetrating in his criticisms of a technologized rationality that leads to modern "one-dimensional man," Herbert Marcuse bases his case on assumptions derived from Hegel, Marx, and Freud.27 Marcuse argues for a transcendence that is able to overshoot and comprehend the prevailing structures of thought and the culturally created needs generated by them. We should be seeking not just more and better ways of meeting our "needs" as presently conceived, but a "redefinition of needs." In arguing for such a transcendence, Marcuse offers a postmodern global critique of the prevailing culture.

But unlike Slater and Roszak, Marcuse takes a basically Freudian attitude toward "irrationality" and civilization; he argues that only Reason (Vernunft)—some kind of post-technological rationality—will meet man's present crisis. Man frees himself from Nature and creates civilization through Reason, and it is only through Reason that man can realize himself as an historical being. "Civilization produces the means of freeing Nature from its own brutality .. . by virtue of the cognitive and transforming power of Reason. And Reason can fulfill this function only as post-technological rationality, in which technic is itself the instrumentality of pacification."28 Marcuse obviously defines reason as much more than the mere calculative faculty in man. It is something like "mind" or "spirit." By following the Freudian analysis of desire and of cultural repression, Marcuse can define liberation in terms of a social order free of repression of desire and free of the artificial needs created by the present onedimensional rationality—without having recourse to romantic terms like a "rhapsodized intellect" (Roszak), post-humanistic "visionary reality" (Roszak and others), or Slater's "feminine values." For Marcuse, irrationality and mysticism are not the way beyond technological rationality; what is needed is a new rationality that can control technique in behalf of liberation instead of repression, the satisfaction of eros without the abandonment of civilization.

Critiques of technology and technological objectivity are also found in Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Hans-Georg Gadamer. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the thinking of all three overshoots the basic horizons of modern technologized thought.29 Nietzsche saw through modern objectivity as a disguised form of the will to power over nature: the heart of technology, therefore, is the will to power. Heidegger took the definitively postmodern step, however, in negating the will to power, subjectcenteredness, and humanism itself. Heidegger argued that man must take a "step back" from das vorstellende Denken—representational thought. He must, in other words, take the step back from everything that has been constituted by the structure of modern thought. He must call subject-centeredness and humanism into question. He must call into question the presupposition that we must continue indefinitely in a time from which the gods and all divinity have fled. We must redefine what it means to "be" in the world and in the matrix of time; we must reask the most fundamental question of all—the meaning of being. Gadamer, as a follower of Heidegger, criticizes the modern conception of consciousness as inherited from Descartes and Kant, and even the "transcendental subjectivity" of Husserl. Aesthetics has been "subjeetivized" since Kant, he argues, and needs to be put on a whole new footing.30 The subjectcenteredness of modern thinking gives us a distorted view of language and of dialogue. Ultimately, it gives us a false view of understanding as unhistorical and undialectical. Although he does not philosophize with a hammer, like Nietzsche, nor urge us to leap back from all representational thought, like the later Heidegger, Gadamer does so alter the fundamental notions on which modern interpretation operates that one has the feeling of transcending the general horizons of modern thought.

Further Reading

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Secondary Sources

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 such later writers as Theodore Roethke and Samuel Beckett.

Mazzaro, Jerome. Postmodern American Poetry. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980, 203 p.

Argues that the roots of postmodern poetry are found in the works of W. H. Auden, Randall Jarrell, Theodore Roethke, David Ignatow, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, and Elizabeth Bishop.

McCaffery, Larry, editor. Postmodern Fiction: A Bio-Bibliographic Guide. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986, 604 p.

Collection of essays on such topics as metafiction, experimental realism, science fiction, and postmodern journalism.

McGowan, John. Postmodernism and Its Critics. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991, 296 p.

Examines Marxism, neopragmatism, and poststructuralism as represented by Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.

Newman, Charles Hamilton. The Post-Modern Aura: The Act of Fiction in an Age of Inflation. Evanston, Ill.:Northwestern University Press, 1985, 203 p.

Finds that there is little distinction between the the avant-garde and modernism in contemporary art.

Putz, Manfred and Peter Freese, editors. Postmodernism in American Literature: A Critical Anthology. Darmstadt: Thesen-Verlag, 1984, 238 p.

Includes essays by such critics as Ihab Hassan, Raymond Federman, and Leslie A. Fiedler.

Russell, Charles, editor. The Avant-Garde Today: An International Anthology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986, 269 p.

Contains essays by American, European, and Japanese critics on the nature of avant-garde literature in the era of postmodern practice.

Tani, Stefano. The Doomed Detective: The Contribution of the Detective Novel to Postmodern American and Italian Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984, 183 p.

Examines the influence of such detective novelists as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett on the antidetective postmodern works of Umberto Eco, John Gardner, Leonardo Sciasicia.

Thiher, Allen. Words in Reflection: Modern Language Theory and Postmodern Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1984, 247 p.

Uses predominant critical definitions of writing from David Hume, John Locke, and Goethe to examine the nature of postmodern writing since the publication of works by Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, and Jacques Derrida.

Trachtenberg, Stanley, editor. The Postmodernism Moment: A Handbook of Contemporary Innovation in the Arts. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985, 323 p.

Includes essays on architecture, art, dance, film, literature, music, photography, theater, and appendices on postmodern German and Latin American literature.

4. A. "New Gnosticism": Ihab Hassan

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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 noire but a kind of magic that, in its instantaneity, images an overcoming of all mediation. "Technology, like myth, suggests that man is creating a universal consciousness which renders mediated actions and speech gradually obsolete. A measure of radical American innocence is required to hold this view." (P, 138).

For Hassan, then, contemporary philosophical and scientific thinking at its best has messianic and mystical tendencies. It is not leading us into a jungle of materialistic barbarism or an abyss of triviality and shallowness, but upward into a mystical participation in universal consciousness—what Tielhard called the noösphere. It is the beginning and end of consciousness, the realm of dream and of creativity. "The dreaming animal, floating between his inner and outer worlds, began to weave the web of consciousness, of his language, culture and technics. Creativity began in the deep."32 Thus the following formulation: "Ideology, Utopia, and Fantasy: agents of change, quests for a new reality, memories of a Dream" (P, 157).

Hassan's "new gnosticism" introduces a quite different form of postmodernity from the first three we have considered. It is unashamedly mystical and visionary, willing to tap the creativity of the depths as it wells up in dream and fantasy. It forms a radical contrast to prevailing modes of modern reflection. Filled with luminous insights, Hassan's position brings forward the possibility of a less hostile relationship between postmodern thinking and technology. This is not to say that gnosticism itself does not carry with it inherent liabilities for any philosophy of consciousness and any viable view of time and being; however, this is not the forum to unfold these problems but rather to indicate the fruitful, distinctive character of Hassan's contribution to postmodernity.

5. The movement beyond Western forms of reality

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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 oriented Western investigator of hallucinogenic drugs slowly begins to suspect that his "hallucinations" and the other experiences to which don Juan Matus introduces him are not figments of his imagination but a "separate reality." His experience of the world, his definitions of what is real and imaginary, are but the products of a life-long set of interpretive habits that he has woven around himself like an invisible net. His reality is not the one "universal" reality, with only primitives and madmen outside it; it is "a" reality with definite limits. Furthermore, the warrior code by which don Juan lives is stronger and more viable—even for Carlos—than that of his own Western upbringing. Not only the Western view of reality is called into question but also the Western way of life in its spiritual emptiness and weakness. That is to say, it calls the lessons of modernity into question.

Nonwestern languages have always beckoned the Westerner outside the forms of thought structured by Greek and other Indo-European languages. Yet the modern strategy is to retain a detached and objective distance from other languages as merely "other structures of organizing experience" (the experiences being assumed to be universal) and thus as no threat to the Western view of reality. As the Europeanization of humanity proceeded, Edmund Husserl, for instance, could look forward to universal structures based on European models, just as European science and technology were being exported throughout the world. The next step would be a universal language in which all these universal (Western, modern, secularized) experiences could be articulated. Yet this approach betrays a European definition of language, of man, of reality. But if one looks, for instance, at the African philosophy of language (e.g., of the Bantu languages), the issue is not merely that of comparative structures of language but the African view of words as living and creative.35 A word brings a thing into being, for the Bantu, which contrasts with the Western-modern view of words as conveyors of information and human "experience." This indicates something else very important: one's anthropology—that is, one's philosophy of man and his place in the world—stands behind one's philosophy of language, and ultimately one's philosophy of reality is reflected in one's use of language.

Thus, a study of Hopi language, or other American Indian languages, brings one into contact not just with a quite different perceptual field and mode of understanding "the world." It is not just another set of words for (pre-given) Western (read "universal") "realities." The study of Indian or of Oriental languages makes us vividly aware that the mindset of "modernity" as we experience it is in part a phenomenon of Western linguistic reality. Linear logic, for instance, has a connection with the structure of Western languages. Thus, a preliminary step for a "perspicuous view"36 of modernity is the transcending of Europe—both spiritually and linguistically.

Finally, the rehabilitation of myth and the recent intense study of the mythic view of the world leads one outside Western and modern modes of reality. One becomes vividly aware that the fading of earlier mythical connectedness to the earth and of the sense of one's place in relation to it is directly related to the phenomenon of modernization and the rise of scientific modes of thought. The massive urban centers of culture which have been found most efficient for the scientific and technical mastery of the natural world through industrialization also tend to insulate modern man from relatedness to the cycle of the changing seasons and from a direct sense of relatedness to his natural habitat. Ernst Cassirer sees the scientific and mythic views of the world as antithetical.37 What is involved is more than the loss of relatedness to the earth, however; the mythic and the scientific are two ways of sensing and defining what is "real." What is lost is a whole set of realities: the old sense of nature as holy (now it is a tool for man's use); the humility of man in the face of nature (nature must obey man); a sense of the sacred (modern man lives in a secular world). Nature no longer "speaks" to man; its gods have fled. Modern man lives in a dürftiger Zeit—a time of need—as Hölderlin and after him Heidegger and William Barrett note.38

Revived interest in spiritualism, astrology, alchemy, shamanism, and the occult all register the fact that the Western rational-humanistic view of reality is no longer so self-evident as it was even ten years ago. Furthermore, the feeling is growing that there may be alternatives to the unsatisfying shallowness of the modern sense of reality. Whatever the merits of spiritualism, occultism, and astrology, the study of myth makes us aware of modes of life which link up with cosmic forces.39 One can, of course, study myth in a detached, objective way that does not call the modern worldview into question; but one can also try to reclaim what has been lost. The latter is the only way that transcends the modern view of things without recourse to gnosticism. For myth does not imply gnostic immediacy but living within history, although that history may be cyclic.

6. Beyond naturalism

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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 deny them.

Yet if one is not blind or pathologically closed off from the clear evidence of one's senses, there are firm indications that the mind is not nearly so limited as modern naturalism would have us assume. While it is not feasible here to enter into cases, one may mention a few recent works that raise the most interesting challenges to the naturalistic standpoint: Lyall Watson's Supernature40 and Joseph Chilton Pearce's The Crack in the Cosmic Egg and Exploring the Crack in the Cosmic Egg41 give a veritable catalog of instances that suggest agencies beyond the ken of naturalism. Dr. Irving Oyle, in The Healing Mind,42 shows remarkable medical cases from his own practice where the action of mind on the healing process was evident. These were not just cases of "psychosomatic illness" but of clinically serious diseases. The career of Edgar Cayce, the remarkable psychic, raises many questions about telepathy, perception of illness at great distances, the intuitive prescription of treatment, and so on.43 In his autobiography, The Center of the Cyclone, John Lilly raises interesting possibilities of realities quite beyond the level of naturalism.44

Of course, Martin Buber in I and Thou45 submits a powerful critique of the limits of naturalistic seeing—without recourse to psychic phenomena, myth, mystical unions, or universal noospheres. Naturalism, in Buber's terms, locks itself into the I-it relationship. This walls one off in advance from the kinds of experience—the kinds of "reality"—that only come into being when one says the "you" of genuine relationship. Buber makes us aware that "relationship" is a prime condition of meaning; from the I-you relationship arises a different and deeper meaning forever closed to the person who does not say "you." The naturalistic stance does not say "you," thus prescribing limits on the meaning that will arise for it. The first step beyond the metaphysics of modernity, then, is to break the bewitchment of naturalism.

7. The apostles of "new consciousness"

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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 whose mental powers were as far above the normal as the human is above the apes.48 Colin Wilson's novel The Philosopher's Stone49 fantasizes on the implications of a qualitatively higher consciousness able to travel back in time and plumb the origins of life on the planet.

But the most serious and systematic effort to articulate a "new consciousness" is that by Jean Gebser, the late Swiss historian of art and culture. In his 700-page masterwork, Origin and Present, Gebser argues that a "new consciousness" is already emerging which stands in radical contrast to that which has dominated the West since the Renaissance. The "new consciousness" is non-perspectival and holistic and has found a post-perspectival conception of time. José Argüelles, in his Mandala and The Transformative Vision,50 argues for 1987 as the end of our era. The rise of a new consciousness will follow, along with the beginning of a new age. Gebser's argument does not rest on Hindu or Aztec myth, nor on a cyclic view of history, but on the evidence from many disciplines collected over two decades, indicating movement toward a consciousness in which the basic ego-centeredness and single-dimensionality of modern thought is overcome in the "logic of fields" and in the dissolution of perspective in modern art. Among many examples he alludes, for instance, to a 1926 Picasso drawing which shows several sides of a woman's figure at once.51 The artist tries to overcome one-dimensional time by an intuitive articulation of the object from many sides.

One might say that the formalism of Picasso's cubistic seeing leads into (1) the desire to perceive the interior form, and (2) the desire to see the form from all sides at once in a new kind of unity. In this post-perspectival holism Gebser sees anticipations of a "new consciousness" that overcomes mensural time and space, a consciousness that differs radically from the single-perspective orientation of modern consciousness. He finds parallel anticipation in diverse realms of human activity—in mathematics, in the natural and social sciences, in literature, and in the arts. While one may find Gebser's analyses stretched and in details unsatisfactory, the issue remains: are we today undergoing a mutation52 (as he calls it) in consciousness as fundamental as that which gave rise to the modern age? Is a qualitatively higher consciousness on the horizon?

In the spectrum of seven versions of "postmodernity" just discussed, the last is closest to fantasy. Many might see it as a construction influenced by apocalyptic anxiety or wishful thinking. The seven have run the gamut from Stephen Toulmin's sober, methodical project of constructing a new epistemological self-portrait to fantasies of "higher consciousness." The spectrum does not present disciplines but merely suggests dimensions or approaches to the transcendence of modernity. To it I would like to add a very cursory discussion of three areas of study where one can find significant impulses toward transcending the thought-forms and presuppositions of modernity: psychology, philosophy of language, and literary theory.

These three disciplines have in common a concern with man as an interpreting being, and with the linguistic forms in which the interpreting process takes place. In all three, standpoints informed by positivism, naturalism, and narrowly objectivistic thinking have moved—often under the influence of phenomenology—toward existential, phenomenological, or "hermeneutical" views of language and interpretation. These developments, if not necessarily postmodern, do point in that direction.

8. New foundations in psychology

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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 hundreds of sessions with the detached Freudian, the mystical and far-away look of the Jungian, and the Rogerian endlessly repeating the client's statements and adding nothing of his own. None of the three therapies is precisely phenomenological, but Barton argues that phenomenology gives the best standpoint for understanding that the differences arise in the encounter-relationship with the therapist; as Buber says, meaning arises in relation.

Second, the complex of developments generally referred to as "third-force psychology" has found its articulation especially in the work of Abraham Maslow, who has been studying healthy and heightened states of being.55 Of interest is the strongly humanistic education of most "third-force" psychologists. The writings of Maslow, Eriksen, Rogers, and Rollo May are rich in the influence of literature, art, and philosophy. In this regard, for instance, Rollo May, classically educated, is not afraid to draw on concepts like "eros" or the demonic and to trace these to their Greek roots.56

Third, R. D. Laing significantly emphasizes situation—a debt to Sartre and Goffman—and appreciates the metaphysical and religious dimensions of schizophrenia. His trenchant analyses of "mystification" in the family in The Politics of Experience57 make it clear that Laing has in mind a critique of the modern way of being-in-the-world, with its relentless competitiveness, exploitation, and terrorism within the family. Jules Henry (Pathways to Madness58) and Thomas Szasz ( The Myth of Mental Illness59) are willing to raise global questions about the legitimacy of the modern definitions of sanity. (Of course, Foucault in Madness and Civilization60 has shown the social-political function of mental asylums.)

Fourth, some recent post-"third-force psychology" is moving toward a "transpersonal psychology" open to mystical experience and to states and concepts totally alien to the empirical tradition: bliss, awe, the "higher self," spirit, the sacralization of daily life, synergy, compassion.61 Transpersonal psychology is open to dimensions of the psyche that have been systematically bypassed in modernity: for instance, "nonordinary reality" and states of heightened consciousness. The character of these concerns stands in the starkest contrast to that of traditional psychology and reveals the negative consequences of a perspective that is philosophically defined by naturalism.

Fifth, one can mention the recent interest in hermeneutics on the part of psychologists, especially in response to the works of Paul Ricoeur, such as Freud and Philosophy.62 In a recent issue of Journal of Religion centered on the theme of hermeneutics,63 Peter Homans contributed an article on hermeneutics and psychology. Under the influence of phenomenology and hermeneutics, Robert Sardello at the University of Dallas is developing a new program and with it a redefinition of psychology itself.64

Sixth, the contribution of Jacques Lacan pushes psychology toward a new stage.65 Influenced by Hegel, Heidegger, and Sartre, as well as by Saussure and Jakobson, and by structural anthropologists like Mauss and Lévi-Strauss, Lacan brings to his analysis of the hermeneutics of the analytic situation a background in philosophy, phenomenology, structural linguistics, and anthropology, not just his training in Freudian analysis. Lacan brings to Freudian psychoanalysis a vision of the deeply linguistic character of the psychoanalytic situation. Every utterance in the psychoanalytic situation, even the most meaningless word or phrase, is addressed to someone. As the analyst listens, he gives by his very presence a situation and meaning to the discourse—a theater for its performance.

Finally, one might note the emergence of James Hillman's "polytheistic" psychology. More explicitly and systematically than any of the psychologists we have mentioned, Hillman calls modernity into question. Monotheism, ego-psychology, male-domination (Apollonianism), and nominalism all go together to mark modernity with their repressive, materialistic, and desacralized vision of life. Reformation theology, says Hillman, represents the resurgence of a monotheistic, anti-feminine orientation. Not accidentally, we can date the rise of modernity from the Reformation. Hillman is a Jungian, and his view is that we must rehabilitate the gods and rediscover the "soul" which has become enigmatic or so hidden as to be virtually undiscoverable. Hillman's recent Re-Visioning Psychology is both a program for the future and a comprehensive frontal attack on the foundations of modernity.66 Whatever the validity of his overall program, his analysis of the psychological bases of modern thought is unaccustomed illumination of the modern psyche.

9. Radical philosophy of language

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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 representation and communication—say, in language, economics, and biology.67 Depth shifts in these structures are what count, Foucault says, not the political-historical decisions of the living characters that seem to move on history's stage.

Lévi-Strauss and other anthropologists looked for underlying structures with structuralist techniques that could reduce data to certain atomic units, but this did not lead to the conclusion that "man is dead." Rather, their structuralism offered a clever set of tools, a method of analyzing bodies of material by reducing them to a few definitive signs, a fairly simple, scientific attitude. For all its penetration of hidden codes and "mythologies," for all its exciting methodological fruitfulness, structuralism did not turn away from modern presuppositions but was a rarified extension of the quantifying, analytical, and reductionist modes of modern thought. Only in the hands of a thinker like Foucault, who transcends the method with a comprehensive theory of his own, does it take on the power to encompass and transcend the development of modern thought.

French thought takes the postmodern turn in the work of Jacques Derrida. Derrida, having the hermeneutical capacity to enter into the center of a philosopher's thought and to think it from the inside, understood the issue of modernity from his first critique of Husserl's treatise on geometry.68 He deconstructs both Husserl and Heidegger and moves toward a view of language and of being that ventures radically beyond the presuppositions of modern ontology and philosophy of language,69 beyond both phenomenology and structuralism.

It is beyond our scope here to enter into the many facets of French contemporary thinking about language, such as that found in the works of the Tel Quel group—Sollers, Kristeva, Greimas, Genette, and others. It is enough to say that radical thinking about language leads to a fundamental questioning of modern views of language, time, and being.

10. Postmodern literary theory

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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 Bell72 Riddel himself should be mentioned in this context, for his book, devoted principally to the "counterpoetics" of William Carlos Williams, is a major effort in postmodern theory of literature. Riddel attempts to apply premises from Derrida and Heidegger to Paterson, which Williams' rebellion against literary and critical Modernism makes an ideal case study in postmodern aesthetics.

An independent and brilliant literary theorist of "post-modern literature" is Ihab Hassan, whose Dismemberment of Orpheus73 and Paracriticisms are major documents in articulating the theory of postmodernism. Hassan's Orpheus book finds the breakdown of the muse as seen in the literature of silence, absurdity, ambiguity, the void, and determined non-literariness as central to postmodernism. He devotes chapters to de Sade, Hemingway, Kafka, Genet, and Beckett. In Paracriticisms, Hassan seeks a gnostic reconciliation of scientific Utopian thinking with technophobic clinging to arcadia, bringing into the realm of "postmodernism" the literature of vision and the literature of imaginative science fiction. Hassan's openness to paraliterary forms should force the "English teachers" of America to stretch their categories—and it exerts the same pressure on postmodern theorists who might prefer to stick with Williams.

Three journals in particular take a special interest in exploring literary postmodernism: Diacritics, New Literary History, and boundary 2. Among the major contributions of these magazines has been an opening of American thinking to European modes of criticism. In particular, several valuable articles on the literary postmodern appeared in Volume 1 of boundary 2 (1972-73): David Antin's "Modernism and Postmodernism"; Charles Altieri's "From Symbolist Thought to Immanence: The Ground of Postmodern Poetics"; and William V. Spanos' "The Detective and the Boundary: Some Notes on the Postmodern Literary Imagination." A special issue of New Literary History was also devoted to postmodernism.74 A recent review of Nathan Scott's Three Modern Moralists takes up the problem of a postmodern ethics.75 This is simply a random listing with many omissions.

William V. Spanos has taken up the project of developing a "postmodern hermeneutics" based on Heidegger's Being and Time. As the title of his forthcoming book, Icon and Time,76 indicates, Spanos sees a basic dichotomy between the spatialization of being as represented in icons and images (in modernism) and the temporalization of being-in-the-world (in Being and Time). According to Spanos, the New Critics took their formalist aesthetics from the spatialized thinking of French Symbolism, and its English versions in Eliot, Yeats, and Pound. On the other hand, Heidegger's Being and Time introduces a new and radically temporal ontology, a new definition of being in terms of time, care, anxiety, and guilt, which both defines the horizon of postmodern literature and conditions post-modern literary theory. The ramifications of this position are considerable, for they challenge the basic logocentrism and spatialized character of modernity and not just of modernism. Although Icon and Time has not yet appeared, major portions of it may be found in previous issues of boundary 2, as well as in this present issue.

Finally, Edward W. Said's major recent work, Beginnings, represents an impressive articulation of French poststructuralist thought in Said's own formulation and application to literary works and literary history.77 To the image of a center or an "origin" Said opposes the image of a beginning that has no "origin" but represents a combination of historical situation and human intention. Whereas the implicit ontology of structuralist thinking assumed a balanced and static structure, Said follows Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida in denying the center, the logos. Centers are finite and temporal—nomadic centers of meaning which will eventually change; they were not made eternally at some point of origin in creation. Thus, a text is "produced," is begun, in the intention of a human agent; its origin is a "beginning" by a person in a situation. Again the radically temporal and finite character of a beginning contrasts with the idea of a fixed, metaphysical origin-point, a logos. Said specifically contrasts his position with that of Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism, where Platonism and tonality-centeredness contrast with his, Said's, decentered emphasis on the constructed and finite character of human knowledge and especially human fictions. In doing so, he suggests a standpoint beyond the metaphysics and the poetics of modernism.

Said's book has important hermeneutical implications. He suggests an image of the interpreter of the text that makes him not the knower of an "origin"-truth but a constructor, like the original writer of the text, of a meaning. Meaning is constructed, not given to man. Interpretation has analogies in the performance of an actor on the stage, who has a humanly created text and also a theater in which he must again bring that meaning into being. Enter man the interpreter, constructor, performer, the being with intentions and methods of bringing those intentions to fulfillment.

This survey has been necessarily impressionistic rather than systematic, but it may give some idea of the variety of thought that goes under the heading of postmodern literary theory. Much has been left out—for instance, the contemporary German theorists, like Wolfgang Iser, Hans-Robert Jauß, and Rainer Warning, and many contemporary American theorists, such as Fish and Holland, who make a frontal attack on the tradition of formalism and philological objectivity in the name of reader response or speech act theory. But these few citations outline at least some dimensions of postmodern literary theory.


Postmodernity affects hermeneutics in many ways. It suggests that a one-dimensional definition of interpretation built around a perspectival model will not do. It suggests that a definition of hermeneutics in terms of establishing the "correct" interpretation of texts is unduly narrow and one-dimensional in setting a single interpretive standard and reference-point. It opens up new models of the interpreter's mediation. And most important, postmodernity raises the question of a transition and transformation so radical as to change the fundamental views of language, history, truth, time, and matter—so radical that "understanding" become a quite different process. It raises the possibility, in other words, of a "new hermeneutics."

1. Hermes: God of the gaps

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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 mediation—a bridging the gap between languages, times, and even different levels and realms of existence. Hermes is the original "god of the gaps," one might say. For, historically, hermeneutics has arisen out of gaps: the gap created when the text is in another language and one must mediate between language-worlds, or the gap between historical present and a time long ago. These gaps have helped to define "the hermeneutica! problem." Yet the problem of "making one-self understood" by a person of another life-style is also a form of the hermeneutical problem, as would be any form of "communication" with non-human being. Hermes has many gaps to preside over today, and a careful study of them would yield important insights, I believe, into the nature of communication between beings. I would like simply to list a dozen or so such gaps that are worthy of study and take up one of them for further examination—the gap between modern and "postmodern" consciousness: God and man, language and language, past and present, man and woman, parent and child, ordinary and nonordinary reality, Eastern mind and Western mind, mountaintop and everyday experiences, man and dolphin, Black and White, Native American and Immigrant American (first-, second-, or seventh-generation), doctor and patient, expert and layman, man and superman, and of course modern and postmodern consciousness.

The hermeneutical problem of bridging the gap between modern and postmodern sets-of-mind goes in both directions: the problem of understanding a postmodern way of thinking when the assumptions and furniture of our thinking are themselves given by modernity, and the problem of a person who, having achieved a postmodern, postspatialized, postperspectival, or holistic framework, must then communicate it to someone who has not reached it. One strategy is to study carefully the emergence of the modern from premodern ways of thinking so as to be able to specify the contrasts and as much as possible the generative factors in modernity. It then becomes possible to show that modernity is an historically created form of consciousness and can be changed again in history. This places subject-object metaphysics, modern objectivity, the exploitive, manipulative, mechanistic stance of modernity, the visualizing-spatializing modes of thought, and so on, in the context in which they arise—a context which can then be surpassed. Although premodern consciousness is obviously not a goal, it can be an aid in the identification and then transcendence of modernity.

2. Toward a broader conception of hermeneutics

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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 history rather than another, one view of truth rather than another, one view of art rather than another? It asks what modernity has done to these views and what would be the effect of a quite different set of views. And it asks what might happen to our conception of understanding if it is not taken as a mere computer-like mechanical operation of the mind but rather—the site of ontological disclosure? deeply rooted in lifeworld and "form of life"? able to found a world and hold it in being?

3. Toward a new interpretive self-awareness for teachers

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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 delightful, for we are in the fictive, ontological, playful business of "creating a world." To read Homer, Dostoevsky, or Joyce is not a mere amusement with no implications for the soul; it is learning what soul is about. When a teacher of literature plays his game according to objectivistic rules, he loses. He yields to a self-understanding and sense of task that technologizes understanding and renders his work irrelevant to his audience. As teachers of literature, we are closest to the visionary and auditory imagination of man. The imagination and its doors of perception must be cleansed of the effects of modern thinking and modern education.

Teachers of literature are not scientists or librarians, and these should not function as models for our interpretive task. We need a clearer understanding of our roles as mediators, of what mediation does, and of the status of mediation (as ontological event). To be seen in terms of being an "expert on styles" or an encyclopedia of information on cultural history or an aesthetician of the "pleasures of poetry" cheapens our function as interpreters—and this cheapening is precisely the consequence of modern objectivizing modes of thinking and valuing. The modern world views teachers of literature as in love with the past, not in touch with the present. This is in part because we ourselves do not have a hermeneutically adequate view of the interpretive present. To interpret a text in a way that restores its power, the interpreter is dialectically engaged both with the present and with the past—at a depth not attained by moderns. It is not through mere analytical dexterity or imaginative sympathy that a mediator is able to bring a text to life. Because he is grounded in the present world and in the present dimensions of his own existing, he can catch the resonances of the text more fully. Without the engagement with the present the past would be meaningless.

So I argue that a more adequate hermeneutics, and a critical sense of the limits of modernity, will give a new dignity to the teaching of literature and, to the teacher himself, a deepened interpretive self-awareness.


1 See Andrew Hacker, The End of the American Era (New York: Atheneum, 1971).

2 Robert Hunter, The Storming of the Mind: Inside the Consciousness Revolution (Garden City: Doubleday, 1972). Hunter is only one of many who are "storming" the modern mind. However, I personally am out of sympathy with his view that electronic media, especially television and rock music, are the true transformers of consciousness, and that one can thus dispense with such oldfashioned pursuits as philosophical reflection. Hunter is heavily influenced by the media-determinism of Marshall McLuhan and the gestalt psychology of Fritz Perls.

3 See José A. Argüelles, The Transformative Vision: Reflections on the Nature and History of Human Expression (Berkeley: Shambhala, 1975), p. 248.

4 "The Talk of the Town," The New Yorker, August 11, 1975, p. 19.

5 In his history of postmodernism in Spanish-American literature, Octavio Corvalan has in mind the general period between the two world wars, in which major Spanish writers reacted against the aesthetics of modernism that had come into Spanish literature under the influence of French Symbolism. See El postmodernismo (New York: Las Americas Publishing Company, 1961): "La denominación postmodernismo abarca el período cuyos límites históricos son las dos guerras mundiales. Claro está que las primeras manifestaciones de una estética nueva aparecen algunos años antes de 1914 . . ." (p. 7).

6 William M. Ivins, Jr., On the Rationalization of Sight: With an Examination of Three Renaissance Texts on Perspective (New York: Da Capo Press, 1973). For a full treatment of modern consciousness as based on perspectival consciousness arising in the Renaissance, see Jean Gebser, Ursprung und Gegenwart, 3 vols. (Munich: DTV, 1973), forthcoming in translation through Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio. Gebser emphasizes the way in which perspective spatializes thought and mechanizes time.

7 See such works as Heidegger's The End of Philosophy or Identity and Difference (New York: Harper & Row, 1973 and 1969).

8 I am indebted to John Romano, Columbia University, for this delightfully pungent phrasing in his critique of my paper. I wish to thank Professor Romano and also Professor Leon Goldstein of SUNY-Binghamton for their frank criticisms as respondents at the Symposium. In the light of these, I have made important deletions and attempted to sharpen the distinction between postmodernism and postmodernity.

9 See C. E. Black, Dynamics of Modernization (New York: Harper & Row, 1968).

10 See Richard Ohmann, English in America: A Radical View of the Profession (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).

11 See William Irwin Thompson, At the Edge of History: Speculations on the Transformation of Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), and Passages about Earth: An Exploration of the New Planetary Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1974).

12 See Gebser's Ursprung und Gegenwart, cited above.

13 I devoted a series of public lectures in the spring of 1976 to thinking beyond modernity, at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, and may publish them under the title Beyond Modernity. In a book that appeared in the fall of 1976, Frederick Ferré approaches the problem of transcending modernity in a way parallel to my own. See his Shaping the Future: Resources for the Post-Modem World (New York: Harper & Row, 1976). Ferré uses the term "post-modern" (with a hyphen) in the broader historical sense I am suggesting.

14 It may be of interest to note that the first draft of this paper was entitled "Some Versions of Postmodern" (echoing Some Versions of Pastoral) and was intended as a lengthy preface to a discussion of the "postmodernity" of Heidegger. (The latter was contributed to the special issue of boundary 2, "Martin Heidegger and Literature," Winter 1976.) Its purpose was to stretch the meaning of the term "postmodern" in the direction of Heidegger's postmodernity by showing a spectrum of efforts to transcend the increasingly manifest limitations of modern culture. I have here added to it a short section before and a short section after, but the central purpose has remained the same.

15 Stephen Toulmin, Human Understanding, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972).

16 See Gebser, Ursprung und Gegenwart, vol. 2, Die Manifestation der aperspektivischen Welt, for examples from the natural and social sciences as well as the arts.

17 Jürgen Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), especially pp. 301-17. See also his postscript to a collection of Nietzsche's epistemological writings: Friedrich Nietzsche, Erkenntnistheoretische Schriften, Nachwort von Jürgen Habermas (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1968).

18 See Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Pantheon, 1970), p. 318.

19 For a little fuller account of Nietzsche as door to a postmodern interpretive self-awareness, see my article "Toward a Postmodern Interpretive Self-Awareness," Journal of Religion, 55 (July 1975), esp. 322-26 (special issue on the theme of hermeneutics), and also my paper for the Heidegger Circle, "The Contribution of Heidegger to a Postmodern Interpretive Self-Awareness," forthcoming in the published proceedings of the 1975 meeting, through Ohio University Press.

20 See Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, cited above.

21 "Metaphysics, morality, religion, science—in this book these things merit consideration only as various forms of lies: with their help one can have faith in life." The Will to Power, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1968), 853, p. 451.

22 See Gebser's much fuller account of this argument in Ursprung und Gegenwart, cited above. I devote a lecture to Gebser in my series of Minnesota lectures, mentioned above, note 13.

23 Wordsworth, "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Earliest Childhood."

24 Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture (Garden City: Doubleday, 1969); Where the Wasteland Ends (Garden City: Doubleday, 1972); Unfinished Animal (New York: Harper & Row, 1975).

25 Philip Slater, Earthwalk (Garden City: Doubleday, 1974), p. 19.

26 Slater, Earthwalk, p. 129.

27 See especially Marcuse, Reason and Revolution (Boston: Beacon, 1960), which gives an excellent introduction to Hegel; Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston: Beacon, 1955); and One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon, 1965).

28 Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, p. 238.

29 See Heidegger, The End of Philosophy and Identity and Difference, cited above, as well as the valuable new collection of Heidegger's later major essays, Basic Writings (New York: Harper, 1977). Three volumes by Gadamer have appeared recently: his masterwork, Truth and Method (New York: Seabury, 1975); a selection of his major articles, Philosophical Hermeneutics, ed. David Linge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976); and Hegelian Dialectic, trans. Christopher Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976). In Nietzsche, see principally The Will to Power, cited above, especially Book III.

30 See the opening part of Gadamer, Truth and Method, esp. pp. 39-73.

31 See Ihab Hassan, "The New Gnosticism: Speculations on an Aspect of the Postmodern Mind," boundary 2, I (Spring 1973), 547-69, later included in Paracriticisms (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1975), pp. 121-47. Subsequent references to Paracriticisms in text, abbreviated P.

32 Hassan, "Models of Transformation: Ideology, Utopia, and Fantasy in America," Paracriticisms, pp. 151-76; citation is to p. 151.

33 See C. E. Black et al., The Modernization of Japan and Russia (New York: Free Press, 1975).

34 Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968); A Separate Reality (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971); Journey to Ixtlan (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972); Tales of Power (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974).

35 See Janheinz Jahn, Muntu (New York: Grove, 1961), especially Chapter 5.

36 I allude here to Wittgenstein's remark on the difficulties of gaining a perspicuous representation of our language. Philosophical Investigations, 122.

37 Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1944), and in his larger Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, 3 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953, 1955, 1957).

38 " . . . und wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?" says Hölderlin in "Brot und Wein," to which Heidegger has reference in the famous essay "Wozu Dichter?" in Holzwege (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1950), pp. 248-96; Poetry, Language, Thought, pp. 91-142. Karl Löwith took the phrase for the title of his book on Heidegger, Heidegger: Denker in dürftiger Zeit (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1953), and after him William Barrett used it more generally in his recent Time of Need: Forms of Imagination in the Twentieth Century (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).

39 This is one of the bases of the I Ching, as well as the individual-centered astrology of Dane Rudhyar.

40 Lyall Watson, Supernature (New York: Bantam, 1974).

41 Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg, (New York: Pocket Books, 1973), and Exploring the Crack in the Cosmic Egg (New York: Pocket Books, 1975); originally published by Julian Press.

42 Irving Oyle, The Healing Mind (Millbrae, Calif.: Celestial Arts, 1975).

43 See the biographies by Thomas Sugrue or Jesse Stearn, or the many publications of the Association for Research and Enlightenment in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

44 John Lilly, The Center of the Cyclone (New York: Bantam, 1973); originally Julian Press, 1972.

45 Martin Buber, I and Thou, newly translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970).

46 Von Däniken, Chariot of the Gods (New York: Bantam, 1971), and others. Von Däniken assumes the intervention of beings from outer space in the initiation of "human" life on the earth.

47 De Santillana, Hamlet's Mill (Boston: Gambit, 1969).

48 Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, The Morning of the Magicians (New York: Avon Books, 1968).

49 Colin Wilson, The Philosopher's Stone (New York: Warner Books, 1974).

50 José Argüelles, Mandala and The Transformative Vision (Berkeley: Shambhala, 1972 and 1975, respectively).

51 Gebser, Ursprung und Gegenwart, I, 61.

52 See "Bewußtseinsmutationen," Gebser, I, 24-26.

53 Herbert Spiegelberg, Phenomenology in Psychology and Psychiatry (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972).

54 Anthony Barton, Three Worlds of Therapy (Palo Alto, Calif.: Mayfield, 1974).

55 See Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1968), and The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (New York: Viking Press, 1971).

56 Rollo May, Love and Will (New York: Norton, 1969).

57 R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (New York: Ballantine, 1967).

58 Jules Henry, Pathways to Madness (New York: Vintage, 1973).

59 Thomas Szasz, The Myth of Mental Illness (New York: Harper & Row, 1974).

60 Foucault, Madness and Civilization (New York: Random, 1973).

61 See the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology.

62 Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971).

63 Vol. 55 (July 1975).

64 I was recently asked to lecture on the relevance of hermeneutics. The text, "Hermeneutics and Postmodern View of the Psyche," is to be published in a collection edited by Robert Romanyshyn and Robert Sardello.

65 See Jacques Lacan, Écrits (Paris: du Seuil, 1966).

66 James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology (New York: Harper & Row, 1975). See also his earlier work, The Myth of Analysis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972).

67 The English title of Les Mots et les choses is The Order of Things, cited in footnote 18 above.

68 See Derrida's La voix et le phénomène (Paris: PUF, 1967), available in translation through Northwestern University Press.

69 See Derrida, De la granimatologie (Paris: de Minuit, 1967), translation by Gayatri Spivak forthcoming from Johns Hopkins.

70 Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).

71 Sarah Lawall, Critics of Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968).

72 Joseph Riddel, The Inverted Bell (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974). Miller's review appeared in Diacritics, "Deconstructing the Deconstructors," 5 (Summer 1975), 24-31. Riddel replied in a subsequent issue.

73 Hassan, The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

74 "Modernism and Postmodernism," 3, No. 1 (Autumn 1971).

75 See J. W. Cullum, "Nathan Scott and the Problem of a Postmodern Ethics," boundary 2, 4 (Spring 1976), 965-72. Cullum rightly distinguishes postmodernism from postmodernity: "The Anglo-American literary quirk called Modernism lasted scarcely fifty years; the age called modern has endured for some four hundred and fifty. The passing of our cultural modernity into postmodernity is therefore a far more significant event than the passing of Modernism into Postmodernism" (p. 965).

76 Forthcoming from Berkeley: University of California Press.

77 Edward Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method (New York: Basic Books, 1975).

78 See Norman O. Brown, Hermes the Thief (New York: Vintage, 1969), and Karl Kerényi, Hermes: Guide of Souls (Zurich: Spring, 1976).

Brian McHale

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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 sense of "a reaction against 'modernism'," certainly not in her first sense—"most-modernism," more of the same new thing—since for him it indicates a "quite distinct phase of historical development" requiring a "quite distinct reorientation of our critical and psychological responses" (pp. x-xi). But Butler's "postmodernism" is not, like Brooke-Rose's, restricted to American writing, about which he has little to say, as a matter of fact. For him the nouveau roman is also "postmodern," as indeed are contemporary avant-garde movements in the other arts—painting, music. Finally, Alan Wilde4 is the only one of the four to take the term completely for granted, to the point of putting it on his title page. It is perhaps no coincidence that he is also the only American of the four, for, as he himself says—and here Brooke-Rose would probably agree with him—"postmodernism is essentially an American affair" (p. 12). But not so American as to preclude his drawing a number of analogies with the nouveau roman.

"Postmodern"? Obviously there is not much consensus here about whether the term ought to be used at all, let alone where or when. Just as obviously, however, all four of these new books are concerned with more or less the same phenomena, and, what is more to the point—for it justifies herding them together here in this review—all four are concerned with them in much the same way. Other differences aside, these books are all essays in descriptive poetics, a new kind of writing about what I would call postmodern writing. Most writing about post-modern writing to date has been polemical or apologetic. This includes, naturally, the postmodern writers themselves in their roles as critics and self-explicators, as well as their popularizers and advocates—see, for example, Sarraute 1956, Robbe-Grillet 1963, Sontag 1966 and 1969, Ricardou 1967, 1971, and 1978 (see Ann Jefferson's review in Poetics Today 2:1b), Barth 1967 and 1980, Gass 1971, 1975, and 1978, Sukenick 1974-1975, 1975, 1976, and 1977, Federman 1975, Hassan 1975. But it also includes a number of critics who have claimed to be describing and explicating when they have actually been engaging in veiled (and not-so-veiled) polemic, among them Heath 1972, Alter 1975, Klinkowitz 1975, and Zavarzadeh 1976 (see Ria Vanderauwera's review in Poetics Today 1:3). Only very recently have genuinely descriptive accounts of postmodern writing begun to appear—for example, Dällenbach 1977, Lodge 1977.

All four of these new books contribute to this more descriptive, more "scientific" perspective on postmodernism. Not that they do not occasionally lapse into the older polemical manner. Butler, indeed, devotes two full chapters to a polemic on the value and prospects of postmodern art. But at least he gives us fair warning, frankly titling these chapters "Polemic"—which is more than can be said for some of the earlier postmodern critics. In general, however, the polemical and apologetic impulse in these books is very much subordinated to the descriptive one.

If the underlying impulse is uniformly descriptive, the specific descriptive approaches vary considerably from book to book. Jefferson's poetics is very much in the mainstream of French structuralism, so long as we allow "French" to embrace also the recently "rediscovered" Russian protosemiotician Mikhail Bakhtin. Brooke-Rose, by contrast, positively flaunts her eclecticism—"plural ltd" is how she describes her approach (p. 51)—and certainly there is in her book a wider range of reference to post- and non-structuralist theory, not least of all psychoanalytic approaches, than in Jefferson's. This ought not to obscure the fact that basically she too is, after all, classically structuralist in orientation, and like Jefferson receptive to Bakhtinian ideas, which loom large in her final chapter. Wilde's approach is avowedly phenomenological—Merleau-Ponty is the authority most often cited—although he cautions us, quite rightly, not to expect "an orthodox phenomenological study" (p. 14). Butler is the least systematic and theory-conscious of the four, the most "common-sensical."

All four books, I should hasten to say, are more or less successful at what they set out to do. Jefferson's is perhaps, in its own terms, the most successful, although it is also the most limited in scope—the most successful because the most limited? By contrast, Brooke-Rose's book seems somewhat diffuse, unfocused, even rambling, casting its net too wide (metatheory, genre theory, the reader, Lacan, realism, science fiction, Henry James, Tolkien, Robbe-Grillet, parody and stylization . . . ), yet it is also prodigal of insights and alternatives, a constant provocation to response and debate (as this review will demonstrate).5 Wilde is the subtlest interpreter of the four, sometimes perhaps too subtle for his own, and our own, good. Butler's book, though somewhat thinner than the others, is nevertheless of great interest because of its comparisons among artistic media.

This brings us to a further point of similarity and difference. None of these books, except Jefferson's, could be described wholly adequately as "writing about post-modern writing," even under the broadest definition. Butler, Wilde, and Brooke-Rose all exceed the limits of this topic in one direction or another. Butler, as I have just said, is interested above all in comparisons among media; that is, he is as much concerned with postmodern music and painting as he is with writing. Wilde sticks with writing, but not with postmodernism: better than twothirds of his book is devoted to modernism and what he calls "late modernism." Brooke-Rose, as I have already indicated, ranges the most widely of all. Indeed, the heart of her book lies not in the material on the nouveau roman or American postmodernism at all, but in her three impressive chapters on The Turn of the Screw (originally published in PTL 1:2, 1:3, and 2:3, 1976-1977). None of these "extras," however impressive, fall within my purview here. I shall have my hands quite full enough with trying to identify the common themes in these four authors' approaches to postmodern writing, reflecting at the same time on the state of the art of descriptive poetics of postmodernism.


Is there a conflict of interests when a practicing artist knows too much about the theory of his or her art? For instance, Christine Brooke-Rose herself, author of, among other things, the four postmodern novels (or so at least I would call them) Out (1964), Such (1966), Between (1968), and Thru (1975): does her novelistic art suffer because she also theorizes about postmodern writing? Personally, I think not; but there are many who would say that too much theory is detrimental to practice. Christopher Butler reexamines the all-too-familiar complaint that postmodern writers merely illustrate their a priori theories of writing, but from a neutrally descriptive standpoint, rather than the usual normative one. All postmodern art, he argues, gravitates either toward the pole of deliberately disorganized, even aleatory, art (e.g., Cage's aleatory music, Burroughs's cut-up technique), or the pole of theory-dominated art, where the work of art tends to become simply "the demonstration of its own methods" (p. 52). At the theoretically overdetermined extreme he places "integral serialism" in music, conceptualism in the visual arts (but also Abstract Expressionism, because of the way it was made a hostage to the criticism written about it), and some aspects, at least, of the nouveau roman. When it succeeds—as it does, says Butler, in Claude Simon's Triptyque (1973)—theoretically over-determined writing has the capacity to "aestheticize" areas that had previously lain outside the bounds of art:

The theory of literature [ . . . ] becomes aesthetically interesting. Its [literature's] medium and formal procedures become part of its content, as abstraction did of painting (p. 153).

At their worst, both postmodern tendencies, under- and overdetermined alike, are apt to produce the same kind of perceptually complex, "all-over" art which simply frustrates and defeats the perceiver (pp. 147-148).

Alan Wilde in some respects corroborates Butler's analysis. He warns of "the danger on the one hand of a too flaccid acceptance of disorder" in postmodern writing—Butler's underdetermined, aleatory art—"and, on the other, of a too easy retreat into a reductive, minimalist aestheticism"—Butler's theoretically overdetermined art (p. 47). And like Butler he also finds, as we shall see in a moment, that what from one perspective look like opposite poles, from another appear as extremes that meet.

Nevertheless, Wilde's general emphasis tends to be rather different from Butler's, falling not on the theme of the domination of practice by theory, but, on the contrary, on the gap between theory and practice. Wilde introduces this theme first in the context of modernist writing. "Modernist literature is by now virtually inextricable from the shape modernist criticism has impressed upon it" (p. 20), and nowhere is this truer than in the case of modernist irony. The modernists' practice of irony (or ambiguity, tension, paradox, or whatever cognate one prefers) is normally seen through the filter of modernist criticism like that of Cleanth Brooke; but Wilde finds here "two different models, superficially kin but, in the final analysis, subtly and determinedly at odds" (p. 25). Irony for Brooks reconciles irreconcilables and guarantees resolution and organic unity, while for the modernist writers themselves it is far less reassuring, the mark, rather, of alienation, willful imposition of aesthetic control, mere closure in the absence of any true resolution (pp. 22-27).

Wilde returns to his theme of the noncoincidence of theory and practice in the postmodern context. Here he discerns it among the self-proclaimed "Surfictionists"—Raymond Federman, Ronald Sukenick, and others—who practice an aggressively self-reflexive and antimimetic mode of writing. "Connoisseurs of chaos," the Surfictionists exalt messiness, randomness, disruptive energy—in theory, at least. In practice, a curious thing happens:

The apparently free-wheeling form [ . . . ] in fact conceals—and without too much prying reveals—a more fundamental principle of abstraction [ . . . ] the supposedly aleatory, shapeless, self-destroying story [ . . . ] exists within the inhibiting grip of the idea to which it relentlessly refers, just as we, as readers, are finally locked into the confines of a still more limiting structure: the structure of the narrator's consciousness (p. 140).

Whatever they may claim in theory about the openness of their art to disorderly reality, in practice the Surfictionists manifest "a need for order that outreaches that of the most chaos-ridden of the modernists" (p. 144). In short, Butler's extreme of underdetermined writing here collapses into its supposed opposite, overdetermined writing that is completely beholden to an a priori theory—in this case, the theory of underdetermined art!

Wilde relates this reductive strain in postmodern writing to the modernist tendency toward aestheticism, art for art's sake (p. 144), a connection which Butler, too, had made (p. 132). The Surfictionist Ronald Sukenick may reject in theory the explicit aestheticism of his fellow postmodernist William Gass, but Sukenick's own practice of writing exhibits the same art-for-art's-sake tendency as Gass's (Wilde, p. 145).

Wilde also compares the reductive aestheticism of the Surfictionists to aspects of the nouveau roman (pp. 177, 185), thus returning us to the question, already raised by Butler, of the relation between theory and practice in contemporary French avant-garde writing. It is a question which divides Jefferson and Brooke-Rose. If Butler's view of the nouveau roman is that it approaches the theory-dominated pole, while Wilde emphasizes the gap between certain postmodern theories and the corresponding practice, then Brooke-Rose can be said to align with Butler, Jefferson with Wilde.

Ann Jefferson cautions us against reading the nouveau roman through the filter of its practitioners' theoretical pronouncements (p. 56). Often, she observes, their theories lag well behind the theoretical implications of the novels themselves in sophistication (pp. 112-117). It is not to Sarraute's or Robbe-Grillet's or Butor's critical essays that one should turn for theoretical insights, but to their novels, for "fiction articulates theory more interestingly and exhaustively than any explicitly theoretical writing. [ . . . ] It is the novels which produce the theory and not the theory which produces the novels" (p. 7). She is above all suspicious of the rhetoric of advocates of the nouveau roman, such as Jean Ricardou, who proclaim its "subversion, violation or infraction of some supposed fictional norm" (p. 164). In the face of such rhetoric she emphasizes instead the way in which the New Novelists' practice of writing continues and indeed illuminates the conventions of traditional narrative. If these fictions are subversive of the norms of fiction, this is only because fiction, even the most conventional "Balzacian" realism, is always subversive of its own norms. The virtue of the nouveau roman is to make us aware of how "All novels can be read as the laboratory of narrative" (p. 17), of how all fiction is "a laboratory of mimesis [ . . . ] character and language" (p. 197).

Subversion, violation, infraction, transgression of fictional norms: this sort of rhetoric, of which Jefferson is so skeptical, is exactly the language Christine Brooke-Rose adopts in describing the nouveau roman. Indeed, "Transgressions" is the title of her chapter on the nouveau (and nouveau nouveau) roman, a chapter in which she measures the new fiction against the "classical structures" of narrative, using Gérard Genette's "Discours du récit" as a convenient statement of the norm.

Thus, for Brooke-Rose the nouveau roman is norm-violating art, while for Jefferson it is norm-displaying art. Or, to put it differently, Brooke-Rose proffers an account in which explicit theory and actual practice converge and the work of art "demonstrates its own method," while in Jefferson's account theory and actual practice diverge, revealing the presence of "two different models, superficially kin but, in the final analysis, subtly and determinedly at odds." What exactly is at stake here can be seen if we examine an area of specific disagreement between Jefferson and Brooke-Rose. One "transgression" which Brooke-Rose describes involves free indirect discourse (FID). "A stereotype of the realistic novel" (p. 323), FID is conspicuous by its absence from the nouveau roman, according to Brooke-Rose (cf. Pascal 1977: 140). Yet Jefferson claims that FID does occur in the novels of the nouveau romancier Nathalie Sarraute; indeed, she follows A.S. Newman (1976) in asserting that "free indirect speech amounts to a fundamental principle of writing" in Sarraute's fiction (Jefferson, p. 147). This ought to be an empirical matter, easily resolved; so, who is right, Jefferson or Brooke-Rose?

The dispute proves not so easy to adjudicate after all. In one sense, Brooke-Rose is obviously right, and Jefferson implicitly acknowledges this when she admits that "the primary grammatical markers of free indirect speech are not present" in her examples from Sarraute's Vous les entendez? (p. 149). No surprise there, for Vous les entendez?, like the rest of Sarraute's novels and most other nouveaux romans, uses the present tense for narrative purposes rather than the "epic preterite" of conventional fiction; therefore backshifted tense (past tense where the present tense of direct speech would be expected), which identifies FID, simply cannot occur. This is why Jefferson, apparently hedging, is forced to speak of "cognate forms" which are "similar to free indirect discourse" or "variants of free indirect speech" (pp. 150-152).

But is she really hedging? After all, Brooke-Rose also shows herself to be willing to extend the notion of FID to include instances where the background norms of the text preclude one or other of the primary grammatical markers—in Joseph McElroy's Plus (p. 269), or Ronald Sukenick's 98.6 (p. 382). She even goes so far as to commend McElory for his "highly original use of free indirect discourse" (p. 269). In short, Brooke-Rose herself recognizes the existence of "cognate forms" of FID. But, in the absence of grammatical markers, what makes them "cognate"? Here Jefferson supplies the answer, and it is an answer which proves her to be right after all, and Brooke-Rose wrong, about the place of FID in the nouveau roman.

Jefferson's point about FID is that even in conventional realistic fiction it is subversive of the mimetic intentions that presumably motivated its introduction there in the first place. As "language on the loose" (p. 143), FID is irreducibly ambiguous both in respect of its origin (who speaks?) and in respect of its object of representation (speech or thought?) (p. 146). Thus, though in conventional fiction it is no doubt used with a view to heightening psychological immediacy and realism, in fact it only makes mimesis that much more obscure and problematic. The "cognate forms" devised by Sarraute in Vous les entendez?—or by Sukenick in 98.6, or McElroy in Plus—are wholly analogous to "classic" FID from the point of view of function and effect, but must differ formally because the background norms of these texts happen to preclude FID as such. Thus, Jefferson, and Newman before her, are right that we must "differentiate between free indirect speech as a syntactic form"—a syntactic form which, Brooke-Rose is perfectly right to point out, does not happen to occur in Sarraute's fiction—"and as a principle of writing" (Jefferson, p. 152).

The moral of the story? Brooke-Rose, committed to the New Novelists' own theoretical projections of their practice of writing, treats the presence or absence of FID as a distinguishing mark, a measure of the absolute discontinuity between the new writing and older, mimetic forms. Jefferson, emphasizing instead the noncoincidence of theory and practice, sees how an essential continuity, the same "principle of writing," joins conventional novelists' use of FID with the New Novelists', practice of "language on the loose," despite the New Novelists' claims to subvert conventional fiction. Continuity or discontinuity with the past: clearly we have here another of the leitmotifs of the new approaches to postmodernism.


Ann Jefferson, as we have just seen, makes the strongest case for viewing postmodern writing—or at least French postmodern writing—as continuous with traditional modes of fiction. More than continuous, it is actually, paradoxically, conservative, by her account. The nouveau roman, she tells us, "restores to us a new past [ . . . . ] it has thrown new light on the literature with which we have always lived" (p. 208). She evokes Harold Bloom's notion of poets' "anxiety of influence" to describe the relationship between the nouveaux romanciers and the powerful precursor-figure of Balzac—the bogeyman of all French postmodernist polemic—a relationship of creative misreading which affirms the strength of the realist tradition at the same time that it struggles against it (pp. 208-209). This simultaneous affirmation of and resistance to realism manifests itself in all aspects of the poetics of the new fiction: in story, where plot disappears as a medium of representation and principle of narrative ordering, only to be replaced by narrative ordering itself as the object of representation (pp. 56-57); in character, where individual psychology, a powerful means of conferring intelligibility and articulating theme, is supplanted by the thematic problem of character and intelligibility (p. 88); in the language of fiction, where, as in the case of FID and its surrogates, the problematic nature of traditional narrative discourse is brought into sharper focus through the very displacement of traditional linguistic forms. Finally, even the New Novelists' notorious rejection of the principle of mimesis, the kingpin of all traditional realist aesthetics, can be seen as after all an affirmation of the tradition, for the antimimetic self-reflexiveness of the nouveau roman lays bare the essential self-reflexiveness of all fiction:

The nouveau roman deserves the title anti-novel only in so far as all fiction does. [ . . . ] The reflexivity of the nouveau roman, its concern with itself as fiction [ . . . ] derives from its very structure as fiction (pp. 174, 175).

In short, the nouveau roman manifests neither an absolute break with the past, nor, as some of its advocates have claimed, the triumph of a hitherto excluded countertradition (De Sade, Poe, Lautréamont, Kafka, Roussel, Bataille, Artaud . . . ). Rather, it belongs to the mainstream, and its relevance to the poetics of classic realist fiction is as great as, or greater than, its relevance to the poetics of the new or the marginal.

Christopher Butler takes a position almost diametrically opposed to Jefferson's, championing the newness of the new writing (although not unequivocally, as it turns out). It was Butler, we recall, who spoke of a "quite distinct phase of historical development," and it is he who voices the doubt that treating the contemporary avant-garde as simply more modernism (or "most-modernism," as Brooke-Rose says) can be of much use:6

The attempt to prove that everything has been done before can indeed advertise a scholarly ingenuity in digging out similarities, but it would do little to display the unique overall shape of contemporary culture (p. 132; cf. also p. xi).

Postmodern aesthetics represents for Butler a revolutionary break with the past, which can conveniently be dated from Pound's later Cantos, Sartre's La Nau ee (1938), and, inevitably, Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1939) (pp. 4-5). Yet even Butler has his moments of misgiving, when postmodern writing seems not so absolutely a new thing, a clean break with the past, but integrally related to the tradition—parasitic upon it, even. This is so insofar as the new writing relies upon its readers' awareness of the norms of realistic fiction from which it deviates: "its revolutionary techniques are parasitical upon earlier ones and will remain so, just as analytical cubism will always retain its relationship to representation" (p. 153; cf. Lodge 1977:245). Perhaps we ought to see this as just a restatement of Jefferson's theme of the essential continuity between the classic poetics of fiction and the new poetics, merely recast in negative terms—a small difference, yet all the difference in the world from Jefferson's point of view, since it is her purpose "to outline a theory of fiction which includes the nouveau roman and does not give it a purely negative role" (p. 174).

Alan Wilde offers a more complex picture of continuity and discontinuity than either Jefferson's solidarity of past and present or Butler's (somewhat equivocal) revolutionary break. It is his purpose to do justice to the "jagged course of literary history" (p. 120). Like Butler, he insists on the difference between modernism and postmodernism, which is epitomized for him by the difference between their typical forms of irony: on the one hand, the disjunctive irony of modernism, which seeks to control disconnectedness from a superior vantage-point "above" the world, shaping irreconcilable opposites into an unresolvable paradox; on the other hand, the suspensive irony of postmodernism, which takes for granted "the ironists' immanence in the world he describes" (p. 166), and, far from claiming to master disconnectedness, simply ("or not so simply," Wilde interjects) accepts it as such (p. 10 et passim). These different forms of irony mirror and implement different modes of consciousness. Disjunctive irony is the form of a crisis of consciousness, the modernists' sense of the irreducible gap between their need for order and the disorderliness of reality (p. 49). Suspensive irony, by contrast, mirrors the postmodernists' acceptance of the world as "manageably chaotic" (p. 44), their ability, as Donald Bartheleme puts it, to "tolerate the anxiety" (quoted by Wilde, p. 45).

But if Wilde distinguishes fairly sharply between the modernist and postmodernist sensibilities, he is at the same time skeptical of simplistic "refutations" of modernism in postmodernist polemical writings (pp. 19-20, 43-44). For his map of discontinuity leaves room for a large measure of continuity as well. Like Butler, Wilde locates the "crisis point" of the shift of sensibility before the Second World War (p. 87), but his choice of "breakthrough" texts and writers differs strikingly from Butler's. Finnegans Wake is included, of course, but, surprisingly, so are Virginia Woolf s Between the Acts (1941), which Wilde calls "the most impressive of postmodern novels" (p. 48; Wilde's emphasis), and the stories in E.M. Forster's posthumous The Life to Come (1972). Forster's stories, projecting "a world in which the unexamined life is the only one worth living" (p. 88), are "no longer modernist" (p. 87), Wilde tells us, but anticipatory of Beckett, the Surfictionists, the nouveau roman, and even of Andy Warhol and photorealism (pp. 70, 88). In short, "high" modernists such as Woolf and Forster actually traverse in the course of their careers the entire distance from premodernist modes through modernist disjunctiveness all the way to postmodernist suspensiveness. The fact that texts like Between the Acts and The Life to Come, conventional enough in form though not in vision, were written by the modernist masters themselves "runs counter to the notion of a sharp break between modernism and postmodernism" (p. 87).

So too does Wilde's concept of "late modernism" as a "space of transition, a necessary bridge between more spacious and self-conscious experimental movements" (p. 120). This "space," occupied by such writers as Christopher Isherwood and Ivy Compton-Burnett, is characterized by a shift from the modernist thematics of depth to the postmodernists' horizontal orientation, from "the epistemology of the hidden" (p. 107) to the "epistemology of surfaces" (p. 109; cf. Ann Jefferson on the New Novelists' rejection of the "hidden life" and its revelation as an organizing principle of fiction, pp. 88-97). One ought to avoid, however, simply conflating the practice of a late-modernist writer like Compton-Burnett with postmodernist aesthetics (p. 113). For one thing, Compton-Burnett continues to exercise "the Flaubertian-Joycean privileges of the godlike observer" (p. 121): she is still above the world she describes, not, like the postmodernists to come, of it. The most that can be said of her and the other transitional figures Wilde discusses is that they are "hybrids" of older and newer tendencies (p. 113)—but hybrids which, whatever postmodern theorists of the "school of apocalyptic leaps and irrational flights" (p. 103) may say to the contrary, bridge the gap between modernist and postmodernist writing.

If Wilde's account of continuity and discontinuity in postmodernism is more nuanced than either Jefferson's or Bulter's, then Brooke-Rose's is, potentially at least, even more so. But something seems to have gone wrong with the organization of her book, so that it is almost impossible to make out Brooke-Rose's version of literary history.

Brooke-Rose's approach to the nouveau roman, as we have already seen, emphasizes discontinuity, the transgression of obsolete ideas of narrative order. But earlier chapters of her book had seemed to emphasize continuity rather than discontinuity. Some two-thirds of A Rhetoric of the Unreal is devoted, as its subtitle says, to "narrative and structure, especially of the fantastic"—that is, the classic fantastic of Poe's "The Black Cat" and Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, together with its neighboring genres, the "marvelous" and the "uncanny." Criticizing Tzvetan Todorov's classic analysis of the fantastic, Brooke-Rose suggests in these early chapters that the "pure fantastic," characterized by absolute ambiguity between natural and supernatural explanations, might be seen to belong to a more general category embracing not only medieval allegory (which Todorov had explicitly excluded from his fantastic genre) but also "many modern (non-fantastic) texts which can be read on several and often paradoxical levels" (p. 71). This seems to promise a connection between the classic fantastic of Poe and James and postmodern writing, and indeed several times in her discussion of the nouveau roman Brooke-Rose hints at just such a connection. Robbe-Grillet's novels, she writes, "produce an effect of the uncanny if not the same effect" (p. 310), "an eerie effect," she writes in another place, "close to the fantastic, or, in Todorov's terms, to the uncanny [the explicable fantastic]" (p. 336). An effect, not the effect; close to the fantastic or to the uncanny: what are we to make of such thoroughly unhelpful formulations? If they do not leave us with a very clear idea of Robbe-Grillet's novels, neither do they go very far toward making the promised connection with Poe's and James's fantastic.

Nor does Brooke-Rose reclaim this loose thread in her concluding chapter on American postmodernism. Indeed, she makes it all but impossible for herself to do so, for here she abandons the formal description painstakingly developed in earlier chapters from Todorov's theory of the fantastic and Philippe Hamon's analysis of realism, in favor of an analysis based instead on the work of Mikhail Bakhtin. This analysis, she says, "cut[s] across all the philosophic, semiotic, psychoanalytical, thematic and formal considerations we have had so far" (p. 364); she means the considerations of other postmodern critics cited in the preceding chapter (Sontag, Hassan, Zavarzadeh, Lodge), but she might as well have meant her own earlier considerations. For this abrupt shift of theoretical models leaves us no way to join up her readings of the American postmodernists with her earlier discussions of the varieties of the fantastic. Hers, in short, is a highly discontinuous rhetoric of the unreal.

This is ironic, in that Brooke-Rose's reading of the American postmodernists, based on Bakhtinian notions of parody and stylization, stresses the excessive continuity of postmodern writing with earlier modes. Parody and stylization depend upon the maintenance of a distance between the parodying or stylizing text and the original model being parodied or stylized. If this distance dwindles, as Brooke-Rose insists it does in many post-modern parodies and stylizations, then the parody or stylization becomes indistinguishable from its model, becomes, in short, an imitation, "simply the model in its fatigued aspect" (p. 369). Brooke-Rose's special villain is Thomas Pynchon, whose fictions set out, she says, to parody the modes of intelligibility of classic realistic fiction but end up by simply reenacting those modes, "tipping over into realism" (p. 371). Discontinuity, the distance these texts ought to be maintaining from realistic fiction, collapses into continuity, even identity, with it.

The postmodern parodists seem, on the whole, worse offenders than the stylizers. Brooke-Rose finds less fault with the stylizations of William Gass, Richard Brautigan, Donald Barthelme, Ishmael Reed, and Ronald Sukenick, than she does with the parodies of Pynchon, Robert Coover, and John Barth. Perhaps, she suggests, the stylizations succeed better because they are generally shorter than Barth's or Pynchon's loose and baggy monsters (p. 373). Now this is a suspiciously ad hoc explanation, so much so that one begins to wonder whether it might be not the parodies but the theory of parody that is at fault here.

In the first place, what is the difference between parody and stylization anyway? Brooke-Rose is vague (pp. 370-371), but then so was Bakhtin before her (which no doubt is one reason why he is so often cited these days, in such a variety of contexts). Parody, for Bakhtin, reverses the evaluative "direction" or "orientation" of the parodied model, while stylization retains the original "orientation," taking care, however, to keep the original and its stylization distinct (see Bakhtin 1973:157-161). Even if this formulation were perfectly transparent and unproblematic, which it certainly is not, Brooke-Rose's application of it here is frustratingly inexplicit. On what grounds, for instance, is Barthelme classified as a stylizer rather than a parodist? or Pynchon as a (failed) parodist rather than a stylizer? Brooke-Rose never explains. In Pynchon's case in particular, even if we grant that his texts are globally parodic, there are still many local effects of what I would certainly call stylization, some of which Brooke-Rose dismisses as feeble parody (pp. 368-369).7

In any case, all this signally fails to clarify the relation between postmodern writing and the classic fantastic, which Brooke-Rose had led us to hope she would clarify. The key to this relation is in her possession, if only she had gone ahead and used it—namely, the principle of hesitation, central to Todorov's theory of the fantastic and, consequently, to her own (p. 63 et passim). In a fantastic story such as The Turn of the Screw, the text (and the reader) hesitate between a natural explanation of events—the governess is undergoing a nervous breakdown—and a supernatural one—the ghosts are really there. An uncanny text resolves the hesitation in the natural direction, a marvelous one in the supernatural direction; a "pure fantastic" text never resolves it at all. No doubt it is the extension of the principle of hesitation to the nouveau roman that underlies her description of Robbe-Grillet's novels as "close to the fantastic, or [ . . . ] to the uncanny." La Jalousie, Brooke-Rose writes, "can be read either in the objectivist way (complete absence of jealous man) or as the interior monologue of a husband obsessively spying on his wife" (p. 331)—that is, the reader hesitates between a naturalization in terms of psychological realism, and one in terms of the "practice of writing" itself (cf. Heath 1972). This account converges with that of Ann Jefferson, who castigates Bruce Morrissette (French postmodernism's favorite whippingboy) for his overeager psychologizing of Robbe-Grillet's texts (pp. 67-71, 113-114), herself proffering a reading in which "hesitation itself becomes finally more interesting than either of [the] mutually exclusive alternatives" (p. 71; cf. also p. 136).

But Brooke-Rose fails to sustain this reading of the nouveau roman in terms of hesitation, performing psychological naturalizations which are distinctly Morrissettian in tone: the abrupt shifts from image to image in La Jalousie reflect the jealous husband's evasions (pp. 294-295), the confused representation of the world in Dans le Labyrinth is a projection of the soldier's mental confusion (pp. 307, 309), etc.4

By the time she reaches American postmodernism, Brooke-Rose seems utterly to have forgotten the principle of hesitation. Postmodern fiction, we are told, is about the uninterpretability of the world, a parody of the world's interpretability in classic realist fiction. Novels such as Barth's Sot-Weed Factor (1960) and Giles Goat-Boy (1966), Pynchon's V. (1963) and Gravity's Rainbow (1973), or Coover's Public Burning (1977), "dramatise the theme of the world's non-interpretability" (p. 364; cf. p. 373). Over-interpretability, which would seem to characterize the worlds of Barth, Pynchon and Coover even better than uninterpretability, is, according to Brooke-Rose, really the same, not the opposite, theme: the world is equally unintelligible whether it means nothing or means too much for anyone to be able to absorb and master it all (pp. 367, 371).

But is this the only possible reading of these texts? Might not uninterpretability and over-interpretability, far from being merely variations on a theme, actually be "mutually exclusive alternatives" between which we hesitate? This possibility is explicit in Gravity's Rainbow. Here paranoia is defined as "nothing less than the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected" (Pynchon 1973:703), while "there is also anti-paranoia":

If there is something comforting—religious, if you want—about paranoia, there is also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long (p. 434).

Paranoia and anti-paranoia, the world as over-interpretable and as uninterpretable: these are the poles between which Pynchon's characters, plots, represented world, and narrative voice oscillate, and it is not at all clear where Pynchon himself or his text as a whole come to rest. The reader, faced with two mutually exclusive world views and compositional principles ("everything is connected," "nothing is connected to anything") hesitates, and hesitates, and hesitates some more. Unless, becoming impatient, he opts for one of the two alternatives—as Brooke-Rose does for anti-paranoia, the position reached toward the close of Gravity's Rainbow by characters such as Slothrop and Tchitcherine who, abandoning their paranoid quests for order, lapse into passivity and dis-integration, "not a thing in [their] heads[s], just feeling natural" (Pynchon 1973:626). Now this is a curious thing for Brooke-Rose to be doing—identifying with the phenomenological perspective of a character (or characters)—since earlier in A Rhetoric of the Unreal she herself had demonstrated with great ingenuity how the critics of The Turn of the Screw inadvertently identified with the perspective of James's protagonist-narrator, reproducing the neurotic governess's errors, omissions and distortions in their own criticism (p. 132). Neurosis, she observed, is contagious: "the structure of a neurosis involves the attempt (often irresistible) to drag the 'Other' down into itself, into the neurosis, the Other being here the reader" (p. 156). Anti-paranoia is contagious too, it appears, so irresistible that it drags down even Brooke-Rose, who was forewarned.

What I am arguing here is that hesitation continues to be the ruling principle of the postmodern "unreal" as it was of the classic fantastic, except that now it operates at a "higher" level. In the classic fantastic, we hesitate between two competing explanations, one bearing on the world "out there" (the supernatural explanation), one bearing on the observer's limited and distorted perspective (the natural one); it is, in short, an epistemological hesitation. In postmodern writing, we hesitate between competing structures of reality, alternative worlds—an ontological hesitation. Thus, in the case of Gravity's Rainbow, there is one structure of reality in which "everything is some kind of plot" (Pynchon 1973:603), where vast international cartels stage-manage the lives of individuals and of nations alike (see p. 566), and are themselves in turn determined by the inner dynamics of their own technologies (see p. 521). And there is a second world in which "nothing is connected to anything" and things fall apart, not least of all characters:

There is also the story about Tyrone Slothrop [the story is called Gravity's Rainbow] who was sent into the Zone to be present at his own assembly—perhaps, heavily paranoid voices have whispered, his time's assembly—and there ought to be a punch line to it, but there isn't. The plan went wrong. He is being broken down instead, and scattered (p. 738).

Pynchon's two worlds are mutually exclusive and irreconcilable, and no final choice is possible between them.

This analysis of postmodern writing in terms of hesitation between competing ontologies has been anticipated in part by Alan Wilde. He writes of Donald Barthelme:

Like the pop artists, Barthelme puts aside the central modernist preoccupation with epistemology, and it may be the absence of questions about how we know that has operated most strongly to "defamiliarize" his (and their) work. Barthelme's concerns are, rather, ontological in their acceptance of a world that is, willy-nilly, a given of experience (p. 173).

I agree with Wilde when he makes the absence of the characteristically modernist epistemological questions a distinguishing mark of postmodernism, but disagree with his suggestion that postmodernist ontology is unproblematic. On the contrary, what epistemology was for the modernists, ontology is for the postmodernists: not "willy-nilly" given, but richly problematic, the source of the tensions that structure their fictions.

What is finally most surprising about A Rhetoric of the Unreal is that Brooke-Rose, herself a writer of fictions of ontological hesitation, should turn a blind eye to the principle of ontological hesitation and instability in postmodernism. "I draw the line as a rule," says the protagonist of her novel Such, "between one solar system and another" (Brooke-Rose 1966:128), but of course that is the last thing that he does. He and his author everywhere confuse the "solar system" of his earthly life with that of his equivocal afterlife. Brooke-Rose similarly confronts and conflates our contemporary reality and the speculative future in her postmodern science-fiction novel Out, or ontological levels in her Escher-like fiction Thru (see Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, "Ambiguity and Narrative Levels: Christine Brooke-Rose's Thru" Poetics Today 3:1, Winter 1982).9 "Fiction articulates theory more interestingly and exhaustively than any explicitly theoretical writing," Ann Jefferson has told us, and it is certainly true of Christine Brooke-Rose's practice and theory.


We have just seen how Alan Wilde characterizes Barthelme's concerns as "ontological in their acceptance of [the] world," which brings me to my final theme, the fate of mimesis in postmodern writing. Wilde, it will be recalled, compares Barthelme's writings to Pop Art. Both phenomena manifest, he says, the more generative strain of postmodernism which, unlike the reductive, art-forart's-sake strain of Gass and the Surfictionists, refuses to withdraw into the "heterocosm" of the autonomous artwork, but continues to engage with the world of experience (pp. 147-148 et passim). Wilde quotes Robert Indiana: "Pop is a re-enlistment in the world" (p. 149). Barthelme's fictions, too, are a re-enlistment in the world, for, although they may lack "an easily paraphrasable theme or an extractable moral," they still possess "human reference of one kind or another" (pp. 168-169). The "kind" varies. Some of Barthelme's fictions project recognizable human emotions—small emotions, however, "not anomie or accidie or dread but a muted series of irritations, frustrations, and bafflements" (p. 170). Others are more purely ludic, playing with the world's objects trouvées; but, says Wilde, "whether even play is without meaning is another matter" (p. 172).

Christopher Butler concurs. He, too, sees in Pop Art a continued engagement with the world (pp. 90, 93), and, like Wilde, connects Barthelme's writing with Pop, at the same time distinguishing it from purist and elitist trends in postmodernism (pp. 118-119). But Butler goes a step further, making explicit the conclusion that Wilde had left implicit: namely, that postmodernism (at least some varieties of it) is mimetic art after all. Just as modernist innovation seemed antirepresentational in its time, but with hindsight can be seen to have been mimetic, so the "mimetic commitments" of postmodernism may become more apparent with the passage of time (p. 159).

Now this ought to be a surprising conclusion, at least to critics and viewers-with-alarm like Robert Alter (from whom I have stolen the title of this section; see Alter 1978) and Gerald Graff (1979), who reject postmodern writing for its supposed abandonment of "mimetic commitments." Yet, if postmodernism has given up on mimesis, as Alter and Graff allege, how is it that all four of the books under review here ultimately affirm the mimeticism of postmodern writing, one way or another? "One way or another"—there's the rub. For what these authors mean by "mimesis" would, one suspects, scarcely satisfy realists as severe as Alter and Graff.

"The logic of criticism has come full circle," Gerald Graff writes.

From the ancient view that literary fictions illustrate general truths, we moved to the view that literary fictions illustrate fictions. But having in the meantime discovered that reality is itself a fiction, we reassert that, in illustrating fictions, literary fictions reveal truth. In a paradoxical and fugitive way, mimetic theory remains alive. Literature holds the mirror up to unreality (1979:179).

This is a travesty, of course, but not so gross a travesty that it does not bear a good deal of resemblance to Ann Jefferson's maneuvers in her account of nouveau romanesque mimesis. The nouveau roman, by her account, is ultimately "realistic" in its laying bare of the systems through which we construct reality, not only in fictions but also in everyday life. Robbe-Grillet's La Maison de rendez-vous, for instance, represents "the nature of the discourse which we use to talk about the world, particularly the language derived from popular fiction (trash)[ .. . ]"(p. 192; cf. Butler pp. 46-7). "The shape of the narrative lens through which we view so much of our experience," Jefferson writes, "is itself brought into focus by these novels" (p. 166). So there is a mimetic commitment here, but it is a commitment to the imitation of discourse about the world, not the direct representation of reality that Graff and Alter have in mind.

Brooke-Rose generally seems to share Jefferson's structuralist approach to mimesis. Realism, for her, is not so much a correspondence to reality "out there" as a relation to other discourse. Every new "advance" in realism has been achieved not through a closer approximation to the real, but through violating the norms of the last "realism": "the 'real' merely gets displaced whenever an earlier exploitation becomes exhausted" (p. 411, fn. 14; cf. Jakobson 1971). Yet there is also another impulse in Brooke-Rose's book, somewhat at odds with this one. The new "unrealism" may be the most recent in a series of displacements of the "real," but it is also in part directly mimetic, reflecting an "unreal reality" (cf. Zavarzadeh 1976). "That this century is undergoing a reality crisis," Brooke-Rose writes in her opening sentence, "has become a banality, easily and pragmatically shrugged off (p. 3); but she does not herself shrug it off easily, nor, evidently, does she find it banal, since she returns to it again and again. She concludes that

ultimately all fiction is realistic, whether it mimes a mythic idea of heroic deeds or a progressive idea of society, or inner psychology or, as now, the non-interpretability of the world, which is our reality as its interpretability once was [ ... ](p. 388).

Thus Christine Brooke-Rose, for all her credentials as structuralist theoretician and postmodernist practitioner, is in certain respects surprisingly in accord with Gerald Graff, antistructuralist and anti-postmodernist:

The representation of objective reality cannot be restricted to a single literary method. Fantastic or nonrealistic methods may serve the end of illustrating aspects of reality as well as conventionally realistic methods, and even radically anti-realistic methods are sometimes defensible as legitimate means of representing an unreal reality. [ . . . ] The critical problem—not always attended to by contemporary critics—is to discriminate between anti-realistic works that provide some true understanding of non-reality and those which are merely symptoms of it (1979:12).

The only difference between Graff's position and Brooke-Rose's is the degree of dogmatism and parti pris with which this "critical problem" is formulated and resolved—but it is a crucial difference, precisely the difference between the practice of traditional literary criticism and the practice of descriptive poetics.

So, despite everything that has been written by apologists both for and against postmodernism about its abandonment of mimesis, the mimetic commitment apparently still persists, albeit transformed. Or at least so we must conclude on the strength of these four new essays on the descriptive poetics of postmodern writing. The question is, is it even possible to write fiction that has no mimetic commitment whatsoever? or to write about fiction in such a way that no mimetic commitment emerges? I raise this question not in the interest of any polemic, whether for or against postmodernism and its apologists, but in the interests of poetics.


1 Ann Jefferson, The Nouveau Roman and the Poetics of Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980. 209 pp.

2 Christine Brooke-Rose, A Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in Narrative and Structure, Especially of the Fantastic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981. 416 pp.

3 Christopher Butler, After the Wake: An Essay on the Contemporary Avant-Garde. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980. 173 pp.

4 Alan Wilde, Horizons of Assent: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Ironic Imagination. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981. 200 pp.

5 This is a convenient place to register a protest against the slipshod editing of A Rhetoric of the Unreal. There is a serious misprint on its very first page, and on nearly every page thereafter. Even Cambridge University Press sometimes nods, apparently.

6 The case for viewing postmodernism as simply more of the same new thing has been put most uncompromisingly by Frank Kermode in a book appropriately titled Continuities. "There has been only one Modernist Revolution," Kermode writes, "and [ . .. ] it happened a long time ago. So far as I can see there has been little radical change in modernist thinking since then" (1968:24).

7 Brooke-Rose gives several examples from Pynchon's V. (1963) of the "realistic machinery" of "constant shifts of viewpoint," signalled by opening gambits of the form "new place/new person + explanatory description," e.g.:

As the afternoon progressed, yellow clouds began to gather over Place Mohammed Ali, from the direction of the Libyan desert [ . . . ] For one P. Aïeul, café waiter and amateur libertine, the clouds signalled rain (Pynchon 1963:52).

This hackneyed device of transition, she claims, parodies realism, but so clumsily and repetitiously that the parody collapses into imitation. But is this really parody? Two of her three examples come from Chapter 3, in which a complicated spy-story is rendered through the successive perspectives of no fewer than eight uncomprehending minor characters, concluding with the "camera eye"—a deliberate tour-de-force, in short, an elaborate stylization of modernist multiple-viewpoint conventions, just as Chapter 9 is a stylization of Conrad, and Chapter 11 of Proust.

8 Christopher Butler very sensibly observes that Robbe-Grillet's oeuvre is not a monolithic whole, and that the earlier novels from Les Gommes (1953) through Dans le labyrinth (1959) really do lay themselves more open to psychological naturalization than the later "ludic" novels from La Maison de rendezvous (1965) on (pp. 51-52).

9 Brooke-Rose's Between (1968) is, it seems to me, the odd man out, a "regression" to epistemologically oriented fiction. Of course, Out too is rich in epistemological issues, but here it becomes a question of how far epistemological hesitation can go before it turns into ontological hesitation. How many times must a sequence be exposed as the protagonist's fantasy before the stability of this novel's represented world is fatally compromised? Out, in short, is a boundary-text, in this respect resembling Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), which also teeters on the line between epistemological and ontological orientations, between modernism and postmodernism.


Alter, Robert, 1975, Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self-Conscious Genre (Berkeley, Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press), 218-245.

——, 1975 "Mimesis and the Motive for Fiction," TriQuarterly 42 (Spring), 228-249.

Barth, John, 1967. "The Literature of Exhaustion," Atlantic (August), 29-34.

——, 1980 "The Literature of Replenishment: Postmodernist Fiction," Atlantic (Jan.), 65-71.

Bakhtin, Mikhail, 1973 [1929]. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, trans. R.W. Rotsel (Ann Arbor: Ardis).

Brooke-Rose, Christine, 1966. Such (London: Michael Joseph).

Dällenbach, Lucien, 1977. Le récit spéculaire: essai sur la mise en abyme (Paris: Seuil).

Federman, Raymond, 1975. "Surfiction—Four Propositions in Form of an Introduction," in: Surfiction: Fiction Now . . . and Tomorrow, ed. Raymond Federman. (Chicago: Swallow Press), 5-15.

Gass, William, 1971. Fiction and the Figures of Life (New York: Vintage Books).

——, 1975 On Being Blue (Boston: David R. Godine).

——, 1978 The World Within the Word (New York: Knopf).

Graff, Gerald, 1979. Literature Against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society, (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press).

Hassan, Ihab, 1975. Paracriticism: Seven Speculations ofthe Times (Urbana, III: Univ. of Illinois Press).

Heath, Stephen, 1972. The Nouveau Roman: A Study in the Practice of Writing (London: Elek).

Jakobson, Roman, 1971 (1921). "On Realism in Art," in: Readings in Russian Poetics, ed. Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press), 38-46.

Kermode, Frank, 1968. Continuities (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul).

Klinkowitz, Jerome, 1975. Literary Disruptions: The Making of a Post-Contemporary American Fiction (Urbana, III: Univ. of Illinois Press).

Lodge, David, 1977. The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy, and the Typology of Modern Literature (London: Edward Arnold).

Newman, A.S., 1976. Une poésie des discours: essai sur les romans de Nathalie Sarraute (Geneva: Droz).

Pascal, Roy, 1977. The Dual Voice: Free Indirect Speechand its Functioning in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel (Manchester: Manchester UP).

Pynchon, Thomas, 1963. V. (New York: Bantam).

——, 1973 Gravity's Rainbow (New York: Viking).

Ricardou, Jean, 1967. Problèmes du nouveau roman (Paris: Seuil).

——, 1971 Pour une théorie du nouveau roman (Paris: Seuil).

——, 1978 Nouveaux problèmes du nouveau roman (Paris: Seuil).

Robbe-Grillet, Alain, 1963. Pour un nouveau roman (Paris: Minuit).

Sarraute, Nathalie, 1956. L'ère du soupçon (Paris: Gallimard).

Sontag, Susan, 1966. Against Interpretation (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).

——, 1969 Styles of Radical Will (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).

Sukenick, Ronald, 1974-1975. 'Twelve Digressions Toward a Theory of Composition," New Literary History 6, 429-37.

——, 1975 "The New Tradition in Fiction," in Federman 1975: 35-45.

——, 1976 "Thirteen Digressions," Partisan Review 43, 99-101.

——, 1977 "Fiction in the Seventies: Ten Digressions on Ten Digressions," Studies in American Fiction 5, 99-108.

Zavarzadeh, Mas'ud, 1976. The Mythopoeic Reality: The Postwar American Nonfiction Novel (Urbana, III.: Univ. of Illinois Press).

John Johnstone

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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, and above all the writer's self-conscious awareness of the fictionality of literature and its status as a construction of language. The writers working according to these assumptions who are most often cited are Borges and Nabokov (especially the latter's Pale Fire), Barth, Barthelme, Coover, Calvino, Cortázar, Butor, Robbe-Grillet, Sollers, Fowles, and Handke. While the advocates of this strand tend to focus on fiction, those of the second, who are associated with the periodical Boundary 2 and would include such critics as William Spanos, Paul Bové and Joseph Riddel, concentrate their attention on poetry. Since this second group will not be of direct concern here, let me characterize them very briefly. First of all, drawing particularly on the work of Heidegger and Derrida, they oppose T. S. Eliot's modernism with the postmodernism of Pound's Cantos, W. C. Williams' Paterson, and Charles Olson's Projective verse. Joseph Riddel, the most Derridean of this group, argues for example that these poets must be understood in terms of a "double deconstruction," both of their immediate predecessors and themselves, undertaken in order to problematize a poetry of the Word (as logos) and such notions as "tradition," "origin," and "citation."1 Following the Derrida of "Structure, Sign, and Play," Riddel argues that the Moderns are haunted by a "nostalgia for origins," whereas the Postmoderns make what Derrida describes as "the Nietzschean affirmation—the joyous affirmation of the freeplay of the world and without truth, without origin, offered to an active interpretation."2 The problem with this approach, as J. Hillis Miller points out in a review of Riddel's book on Williams, is that it is too easily reversible, and fails to account for the heterogeneity within a text or body of texts. Both Williams' poems "Asphodel" and "Patterson Five," Miller asserts, are "modernist and Post-Modernist at once, and can be shown to be so."3 The problem is to show, Miller continues, that "periods differ from one another because there are different forms of heterogeneity, not because each period held a single coherent 'view of the world'" (31). And something similar could be said, mutatis mutandis, about Spanos' claim that modernist poetics privileges spatialization whereas postmodern poetics privileges temporalization.4

Because it does not appear to involve the problems of periodization, the current practice of what is called "metafiction" may provide a more convenient example of aesthetic postmodernism. In a recent book, Patricia Waugh argues that metafiction, broadly defined as "fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality," exhibits a literary self-consciousness different in kind from that of typically modernist work.5 The latter valorize consciousness by asserting a purely aesthetic order (like "spatial form" or the "epiphanies" of Joyce and Woolf) which compensates for the breakdown of traditional values and order in the "objective" historical world. The postmodernists, in contrast, are apt to regard such orderings of an aesthetic consciousness with satirical skepticism (as in Beckett's Watt), or to take them to an extreme by openly flaunting and manipulating the work's artifice and conventionality (the double ending of Fowles' fake "Victorian" novel The French Lieutenant's Woman, Calvino's dramatization of the reader in If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, or Nabokov's use of chess, mirrors, and acrostics throughout his fiction).

In the aesthetic version of postmodernism, consciousness is no longer a privileged source of order or an aestheticizing instrument, and has been pre-empted by a more direct concern with language as a field of endless re-articulations. Hence the conventions, assumptions and strategies of writing as such are much more important for the postmodernist, for whom language is no longer the idealistic and expressive medium of a pre-existing consciousness or ego, but a material part of the world, "always already" there. In various ways, therefore, postmodernist writers treat language "semiotically," restoring its opacity and immanent objecthood, sometimes even employing its arbitrary orderings and rules to generate new structures. This shift in ground or conceptual basis (from consciousness to language) also explains why modernist symbolism gives way to postmodernist allegory (which stresses the gap between signifier and signified), and the unified subject of modernism to the dispersion of the subject in the multiple signifying systems of postmodernism. In short, for the postmodernist, structure replaces interiority (or the subject's consciousness and intentionality) as the locus of meaning.

Within this general problematic, Waugh focuses mainly on how metafiction avoids the charge of self-indulgent aestheticism. In laying bare the conventions of realism and then playing with them, she argues, metafiction illustrates how imaginary worlds are created, and thereby helps us "to understand how the reality we live day by day is similarly constructed, similarly 'written'" (18). Yet this asserted analogy remains too undeveloped in Waugh's argument to have much analytic value, and is symptomatic of a problem to which we'll return. Of more pressing concern to her is the difference between metafiction and another kind of postmodern fiction that breaks down or dissolves this "meta" dimension. Citing a surrealistic story by Leonard Michaels called "Mildred" which deliberately confuses literal and metaphorical assertion (one character starts to eat another after the phrase "eating one's heart out" is uttered), Waugh notes its proximity to a "schizophrenic construction of reality" (38). Unlike metafiction, where the "real" and the "fantasy" world are held apart in a state of tension, in Michaels' story there is no "metalingual" means to distinguish between them.

The distinction Waugh draws here recalls the one Brian McHale makes between the epistemological uncertainties of modernism (how can we know a reality whose existence is not in doubt but which is rendered only through the limited perspectives of the characters—Henry James' The Turn of the Screw being a kind of locus classicus) and what he sees as postmodernism's refusal to distinguish between ontologically different realities.6 In this view, if a work of fiction deliberately confuses oncological levels by incorporating visions, dreams, hallucinations, and pictorial representations in a way that makes them indistinguishable from what is depicted as apparently "real," then it is postmodern. Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, where it is often difficult to tell whether a scene is actually happening or is only a character's dream, hallucination, or fantasy, provides one clear example; Alain Robbe-Grillet's In the Labyrinth, where a description of a painting or photograph on the wall will suddenly become a scene we have entered, another. Similar blurrings of ontologically distinct levels of representation, we may see, occur in Robert Coover's story "The Babysitter," Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude, Doris Lessing's Briefing for a Descent Into Hell, J. G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition, and most of the novels of William Burroughs. About the latter novels, Waugh remarks that "contexts shift so continuously and unsystematically that the metalingual commentary is not adequate to 'place' or to interpret such shifts" (37). And of course, as she observes, other kinds of postmodern fiction also refuse to provide "explanatory metalingual commentary" on their disorienting fictional strategies. Like Gravity's Rainbow, Joseph McElroy's Lookout Cartridge and A Smuggler's Bible threaten intelligibility through the sheer proliferation of codes and patterns of meaning which produce an overdetermination of meaning sometimes difficult to distinguish from meaninglessness, a situation allegorized in Barthelme's cryptic story "The Explanation" in City Life.

But in drawing a distinction between "schizophrenic" and "meta-" fiction, what is really at stake? Is it only a classification scheme for difficult kinds of postmodern fiction? To explain the function of metafiction, Waugh has recourse to theories of culture-as-play such as we find in the work of J. Huizinga and Roger Caillois. In contrast to the examples cited above, "metafiction functions through the problematization rather than the destruction of the concept of 'reality.' It depends on the regular construction and subversion of rules and systems. Such novels usually set up an internally consistent 'play' world which ensures the reader's absorption, and then lays bare its rules in order to investigate the relation of 'fiction' to 'reality' . . ." (40-41). In Waugh's examples the relationship usually turns out to be simple analogy, as in Muriel Spark's novel Not to Disturb (1971), where the machinations of a group of enterprising servants to film the imminent deaths of their aristocratic employers—in order to capitalize on the sensationalism of the event—mirror the novelist's efforts to construct a fictional world. Yet one only has to compare this novel with something like J. G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) to sense a strong critique of such self-reflexive fiction. Ballard's text is presented as a series of tableaux in which gestures, geometric landscapes, and various public images—of movie stars, the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, astronauts—are obsessively rearranged. Although no coherent narrative emerges, allusions to the mental breakdown of the central figure, whose name changes slightly from chapter to chapter, and to the fatal car crash of his wife, provide the reader with some orientation. But what at first seems to be a deliberate assault on fictional coherence gradually achieves an intense (although abstract) consistency as we come to realize that the novel does not so much represent the breakdown of the individual's interior world as demonstrate that these images of contemporary culture—patricularly images of atrocity—can be charged with meaning only in relation to the detached (even de-cathected) intentionality of a pathological subject. That is, pathology becomes a condition of the novel's formalism, as we see in its repeated assertion of the car crash as a "conceptual event" linking together its various geometries of violence and sexual perversion.

Faced with such an example, and others could be cited as well, "metafiction" begins to look like a containment strategy or a stabilizing function serving a modernist critical perspective. Nor is it clear that the mechanisms in Waugh's examples of metafiction are essentially different from the self-reflexive strategies of modernist works, where the process of their creation or self-begetting becomes their overt subject. I would further suggest that what metafiction preserves and what this other kind of postmodernist fiction threatens is the status of the author as the subject of a unified and coherent intentionality. One can play games only with such a subject, even if that subject is but a formal fiction. The analogy Waugh asserts between fiction as an authorial construction and reality as a social construction fails to hold, since the latter can in no way be said to have a "unified" author or subject. More generally, in Waugh's concern to separate overtly "schizophrenic" fiction from "metafiction"—and thus retain a unified and controlling authorial subject, we can see the limitations and difficulties that befall a formalist attempt to define postmodernism. For it is not only in "schizophrenic" fiction that the subject and representation become problematic, since metafiction itself also raises the problem of representation. As already indicated, the analogy between the construction of the social fabric in its various aspects and that of an artistic illusion in fiction is far too general to explain the specifically late modern or postmodern concern with autorepresentation, and its tendency to represent the processes of the fictional work's construction or even self-generation. Formalism can describe how this concern is manifest in a given fictional text, but seems unable to provide a convincing account of why it takes place.

Fredric Jameson confronts the problem of representation and the schizophrenic subject more directly.7 Taking a clearly historical approach, Jameson proposes to understand postmodernism as the mode of cultural production that typifies a third evolutionary stage in the development of capitalism. In this scheme, which is based on Ernst Mandel's analysis of late capitalism, the first moment of emergent modernism corresponds to the first stage of market capitalism, and is represented directly in the ninteenth-century realist novel. The second or monopoly stage, the stage of imperialism, corresponds to the era of High Modernism, and finds its fullest "expression" in the "totalizing"aesthetic structures of Schoenberg and Joyce, and in the proliferation of numerous personal writing styles as so many "strategies of inwardness" elaborated in recoil against the ever more reified surfaces and impersonal forces of modern life. In this essay Jameson argues that we have arrived at a third moment in this scheme, "postmodernism," which is dominant or hegemonic in current cultural production in a way that modernism proper never was, and that it corresponds to the new de-centered networks and operations—to what Jameson calls the new world space or "hyperspace"—of multinational and global capitalism.

While admitting that many of postmodernism's various features can be read back into key works of modernism, Jameson insists that in postmodernism they are not only dominant (in Roman Jakobson's sense of stylistically foregrounded) but also assume a different social and even structural function in contemporary society. For whereas the great works of modernism articulated a critical distance from or positioned themselves in opposition to the social status quo (whether from the political Left or Right), and thus maintained a dialectical or critically negative relationship to bourgeois culture (empirically, modernist works were perceived as ugly, dissonant, obscure, scandalous, immoral, subversive and anti-social), postmodernist works have not only been absorbed and to some extent institutionalized without resistance, but have become an important source of novelty—as fresh images and stylistic devices—for the fashion changes of current commodity production. For Jameson this means that high culture no longer constitutes, as it did for modernism, a Utopian realm of freedom which can stand above the brutal determinisms and degradations of everyday life. And yet, unlike his predecessor Georg Lukács, who denounced modernism as the pathological product of a disintegrating bourgeois individualism and exhorted socially responsible artists to return to critical realism, Jameson does not condemn postmodernism for merging with its culture in a collapse of critical distance. Instead, he urges, we must eschew a moral or aesthetic response for a more dialectical understanding that can think this latest cultural development positively and negatively all at once, that can see it as both progress and catastrophe. We must, like the Marx of the Manifesto, look at the latest workings of capitalism as both the best and the worst that has befallen humanity.

Jameson is most compelling, however, when he summarizes the stylistic features, surface attributes, and affects of postmodern works. First and foremost, he sees a flatness or depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality and an attendant waning of affect, which suggest that the "depth model"—as in phenomenology, existential hermeneutics, psychoanalysis, and historical thinking in general—has been displaced by a new textuality of the surface or intertextuality of multiple surfaces. Moreover, the anxiety and alienation typically expressive of the modernist sense of crisis have now been superseded by the emergence of new "intensities"—free-floating and impersonal feelings that are at once, in Jameson's words, "euphoric" and "hysterically sublime" (76)—a shift that he illustrates in passing from Edvard Munch's "The Scream" to Andy Warhol's "Diamond Dust Shoes." These general features—the new textual surface and the feeling-tone most often associated with it—are correlated in turn with the fragmentation and dissolution of the subject, with, in other words, the "death" of the autonomous bourgeois individual. The loss of the individual subject (as author and character, representing and represented subject, or, in philosophical terms, of Husserl's transcendental ego) marks a dramatic distance from modernism, and for Jameson nowhere is this more evident that in the eclipse of style by pastiche.

If one of the most significant traits of modernism was the emergence of a number of distinctively recognizable personal or individual styles (Conrad, Lawrence, Woolf, Hemingway, Faulkner, etc.) which, more than just being a different wording of the world, constituted a different "phenomenology," then modernism in effect plunged us into a radical Nietzschean perspectivism: each modernist masterpiece represents not a different view of the same world, as would be true for say Dickens, George Eliot, and Thackeray, but an entirely different world, for which the author's style alone holds the key to its deciphering. For Jameson this situation can only be comprehended in turn by means of a larger, more encompassing narrative, for he sees modernism's host of distinct personal styles and mannerisms as so many attempts to "recode" the recognizable norms, beliefs, and practices widely held in Victorian society. In other words, the various styles or "recodings" of modernism become historically intelligible only when seen against the background of Victorian norms. Thus Jameson refers elsewhere to modernist work as "cancelled realism."8 Now it is precisely these background norms which no longer exist in contemporary society. Even the older national language has been reduced to neutral and reified media speech, which itself becomes one more idiolect among many. The proliferation of "social codes, professional and disciplinary jargons, as well as the badges of ethnic, gender, race, religious, and class affiliation or identification," Jameson finds, only reveal the extent to which we now live in a "field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm," and mask the fact that "faceless masters continue to inflect the economic strategies which constrain our existence, but no longer need to impose their speech [on us] (or are henceforth unable to)" ("Postmodernism" 65).

In this situation, parody and satire are unable to operate; instead, such impulses give rise to pastiche, now understood as a kind of blank parody or imitation without ulterior motive and a particular object of derision. And here we might observe that others have made a similar argument for "black humor" and "unstable irony," devices which also arise in the absence of ostensible social norms, or where the "norm" only indicates a statistical generality and may even indicate a symptomatic failure to register the overwhelming newness of the historical situation. In any case, what disturbs Jameson is the way pastiche now tends to eclipse more "genuine representations of history," and the way various "historicisms" randomly cannibalize the styles of the past, which thereby becomes merely a vast storehouse of images. For Jameson this is the real meaning of contemporary nostalgia films and various "remakes" like Body Heat, in which glossy images "connote" the past while emptying it of its real historic substance, as well as the context in which to consider the novels of E. L. Doctorow ("Postmodernism" 67-68). Ragtime (1975), for example, is a

historical novel [that] can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only "represent" our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby at once becomes "pop history"). Cultural production is thereby driven back inside a mental space which is no longer that of the old monadic subject, but rather that of some degraded collective "objective spirit": it can no longer gaze directly on some putative real world, at some reconstruction of a past history which was once itself a present; rather, as in Plato's cave, it must trace our mental images of that past upon its confining walls. If there is any realism left here, therefore, it is a "realism" which is meant to derive from the shock of grasping that confinement, and of slowly becoming aware of a new and original historical situation in which we are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach. ("Postmodernism" 71).

The representation of the past in pastiche and simulacra thus entails a loss of historical perspective, which indeed may be indicative of the culture's loss of the narrative function.9 In The Political Unconscious Jameson argues for the necessary resurrection of narrative as the last horizon of meaning, but in the essay "Postmodernism" he attempts to characterize the postmodern breakdown of temporal organizations of experience by invoking Jacques Lacan's account of schizophrenia as a structural malfunction of language caused by the failure of the subject to enter fully into the symbolic order and thus to acknowledge "the Other." In Lacan's terms, this "forclusion of the Other" disrupts the subject's capacity to link signifiers together in a temporally coherent fashion. In the resulting breakdown of the signifying chain, signifiers are freed from their conceptual signifieds, thus allowing them to "float" in a present free of intentionality and praxis, where they are then experienced with a heightened intensity and even hallucinatory charge. Such, at any rate, is how Jameson would have us consider contemporary valorizations of "difference," for him emblematized in the disjunctive experiences of Nam June Paik's stacked television screens, John Cage's music, the discontinuities of collage, textuality, and the "schizophrenic" writing of Beckett, Philip Sollers, Ishmael Reed, Thomas Pynchon, John Ashbery, and others.

Yet for Jameson it is the new worldspace of contemporary global, multinational capitalism that finally poses the greatest problem to representation. What characterizes capital in this third stage is its prodigious expansion and penetration into areas—nature, the Third World, the Unconscious—never so totally commodified. And while we can know how it works, as Mandel's book attests, it cannot be directly represented in the totality of its disorienting effects. Hence what most distinguishes and makes possible our consumer society, our society of the spectacle and the mass-media image, is a new unrepresentable space that Jameson calls "postmodern hyperspace." This new space, embodied in the dizzying confusions of John Portman's Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, goes beyond the "capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world" ("Postmodernism" 83). In conclusion, therefore, Jameson calls for a new aesthetic of cognitive mapping, but one that will have to be "representational" and "dialectical" so as to enable the individual subject to locate himself meaningfully in this new cultural space.

While Jameson's idea that late capitalism has shaped a new "hyperspace" holds out the possibility (or promise) of a coherent and unifying perspective on a wide range of contemporary works and practices, his call for a representational and dialectical map suggests to me a collapse or fall back into a modernist space. In fact, the very model he proposes—Kevin Lynch's The Image of the City, with its notions of "urban totality" and traditional markers (monuments, natural boundaries, built perspectives)—has been seriously questioned recently by urbanists like Paul Virilio, who has shown that the speed of advanced technology has dissolved the spatial coordinates of the city into a complex regime of different temporalities exceeding conventional representation and which demand to be analyzed in terms of interface, flow, and dissolving or unstable frame images.10 In these terms, it is difficult to see how a form of "cognitive mapping" that remains primarily representational could resolve the theoretical problems posed by what we might call, adopting Freud's terminology, late capitalism's representability. The difficulties of such a project are well attested to by Jameson's essay as a whole. On the one hand, postmodernist works, in yielding to a new sense of schizophrenic temporality, fail to provide adequate (i.e., historically perspectived) representations of postmodern experience; on the other hand, the period itself is characterized, following Mandel's scheme, by the unrepresentability of the new "space" produced by the latest technology—nuclear power, the computer, mass media—which is geared toward reproduction rather than production, and only intensifies the tendency of modern culture toward autoreferentiality. Yet it is from within this aporia that Jameson will assert that "our faulty representations of some immense communicational and computer network are themselves but a distorted figuration of something even deeper, namely the whole world system of presentday multinational capitalism" ("Postmodernism" 79).

But suppose this overriding need for representational schemes and depth model hermeneutics is itself what produces the "distorted figurations" of which it speaks. Such indeed would be the assumption of what I am calling theoretical postmodernism, which abandons this representational framework and seeks to formulate the relationships between literature (and art) and the social context on a new conceptual basis, one that uses the fundamental concepts of modernism but at the same time attempts to go beyond them. It is in this sense that the immense theoretical work undertaken by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their two-volume study of "Capitalism et Schizophrénia" may be called "postmodern," even though they themselves never employ the term.11 Such a shift in perspective does not entail that we consider a new body of work as "postmodern," but rather that we "read" what is already all around us—including those hallowed modernist classics—in a new and completely different way.

Thus in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, Deleuze and Guattari explode the symbolist (and inevitably psychoanalytic) view, according to which Kafka's works are to be seen as so many different stagings and sublimations of Oedipal conflicts with his father, and argue to the contrary that

[t]he question posed by the father is not how to become free in relation to him (the Oedipal question), but how to find a path where he did not find one . . . [T]he father appears as the man who had to renounce his own desire and faith (if only to get out of the rural ghetto where he was born) and who calls upon his son to submit—but only because the father himself has submitted to a dominant order in a situation which appears to have no escape .. . In short it is not Oedipus that produces neurosis; it is neurosis, the desire that submits and tries to communicate its submission, that produces Oedipus.12

In this reversal of Freud, Oedipus is made into a political issue, one that allows us, as they indicate, "to see over [the] father's shoulder what was in question all along: a whole micropolitics of desire, of impasses and exits, of submissions and rectifications" (19). In Kafka's fiction, therefore, the judges, commissioners and bureaucrats are not to be seen as father substitutes; the father, rather, is their representative, "a condensation of all the forces to which he submits and invites his son to submit" (22). Rather than reducing the drama of Kafka's works to the dynamics of the familial or Oedipal triangle, Deleuze and Guattari show that this triangle is not only connected to but defined by commercial, economic, bureaucratic, and judiciary triangles which indicate force-relationships in the social field.

By specifying these forces, moreover, the possibility of evading them along a "line of flight" also emerges. In Kafka's fiction this first occurs in the stories concerned with some kind of "becoming-animal." If the father—especially the Jewish father—having been uprooted from the country, is immediately caught up in a process of "deterritorialization," he never ceases to re-orient or "reterritorialize" himself in relation to his family, business, and spiritual authorities. But acts of becoming-animal involve the exact opposite process: they constitute attempts to follow a line or movement across thresholds of intensity toward "absolute deterritorializations" where forms and signifier-signified relationships dissolve into the unformed matter of uncoded fluxes and non-signifying signs. Thus for Deleuze and Guattari

Kafka's animals never refer to mythology or to archetypes but correspond only to new gradients, zones of liberated intensities where contents free themselves from their forms as well as from their expressions, and from the signifier that formalized them. There is nothing any longer but movements, vibrations, thresholds in a deserted matter: animals, mice, dogs, apes, cockroaches are distinguished only by this or that threshold, this or that vibration, by a specific underground passage in the rhizome or burrow. For these passages are underground intensities. In the becoming-mouse, it is a whistling that pulls the music and the meaning from the words. In the becoming-ape, it is a coughing that "seems disturbing but that has no meaning" (becoming a tuberculoid ape). In the becominginsect, it is a mournful whining that carries the voice and blurs the resonance of the words. Gregor becomes a cockroach not just to flee from his father, but rather to find an escape where his father couldn't find one, to flee from the director, the businessman and the bureaucrats, to reach that realm where the voice no longer does anything but hum: "Did you hear him speak? It was an animal's voice," said the director. (24-25)

It is important to understand that a "becoming-animal" is in no way a "becoming-like-an-animal"; it is not a copying or imitation but rather a metamorphosis brought about through the conjunction of two deterritorializations: the becoming-human of the animal and the becoming-animal of the human. Nor is it to be seen as a kind of metaphor, as symbolic or allegorical figuration. In the various examples cited by Deleuze and Guattari—the becoming-whale of Melville's Ahab, Lawrence's becoming-turtle, the various becomings of dog, bear or woman in Kleist's plays, the becoming-horse of Little Hans in Freud's case study, the becoming-rat in the Hollywood film Willard, the becoming-Jewish in Joseph Losey's film Mr. Klein, the various metamorphoses like those of the were-wolf or sorcerer in mythology and folklore, as well as the more general instances of becoming-woman or becoming-child—it is always a question of a process that must be understood in non-signifying terms, as sketching a movement of escape from dominant significations and regimes of control.13

All too often in Kafka's stories, however, this movement of deterritorialization through a "becoming-animal" fails. In "The Metamorphosis" Gregor's "becoming-cockroach" is finally blocked, and the story depicts his sad re-Oedipalization. The problem, Deleuze and Guattari suggest, may be that animals are too formed, too territorialized, too significative to go all the way along a line of flight. In the novels, consequently, Kafka tries another solution, involving the proliferation of characters and a new fictional topography, in what Deleuze and Guattari call a "socio-political investigation" of the new machinic arrangements" (88-89) that fascism, Stalinism, capitalism, and twentieth-century bureaucracy will usher in.

The key concept in their analysis is the notion of agencement (somewhat feebly translated into English as "arrangement"), by which they mean a multiplicity of heterogeneous parts that somehow function together in a kind of symbiosis. More specifically, an agencement always comprises two sides or faces, one involving states of things (bodies that mix or join in various ways and pass on effects), the other involving statements, or different regimes of signs (new formulations, styles and gestures). In the novels (Amerika, The Trial, The Castle) Kafka presents these two complementary sides of the agencement by creating situations where an extreme juridical formalization of statements (questions and answers, objections, pleas, reasons for a judgment, presentation of conclusions, verdicts, etc.) operates conjointly with things and bodies as so many machines (the boatmachine, the hotel-machine, the circus-machine, the trialmachine, the castle-machine). In asserting that the novels take "machinic arrangements" as their objects, Deleuze and Guattari draw attention to the fact that in Kafka's works human beings exist only as parts of or along side various kinds of social machines. (They use the term "machinic"—in opposition to the term "mechanical"—to indicate a functioning of parts which are independent of one other yet somehow function together.) And the terminology of their critical apparatus also allows them to avoid two misinterpretations which have plagued Kafka criticism, to wit, that the desire animating the major characters of the novels is accountable either in terms of a lack (the psychoanalytic reading) or an ungraspable, transcendent law (the negative theological reading).

Instead, they read the novels as the "dismantling of all transcendental justifications" (93). In The Trial the operations of justice and the law are relocated in a field of immanence defined by desire: "where one believed there was the law, there is in fact desire and desire alone. Justice is desire and not law" (90). Because justice is only a form for the working out of desire, it operates along a continuum, but a continuum made up of contiguities, since in Kafka "the contiguity of offices, the segmentalization of power, replaces the hierarchy of instances and the eminence of the sovereign" (92). Because of the immanence of desire, everyone in the novel, including the priest and the little girls, is caught up in the process of justice—if only as "auxiliaries" (91). Thus K finally realizes, despite his Uncle's advice, that he needs no legal representative, that no one should come between himself and his own desire, that he will find justice only by moving from room to room, following his desire, a process that is virtually interminable.14

Yet desire always proves to be a mixture or blend of what are really two co-existent movements of desire, each caught up in the other, and corresponding to two different kinds of "law": "One captures desire with great diabolical arrangements, sweeping along servants and victims, chiefs and subalterns in almost the same movement, and only bringing about a massive deterritorialization of man by also reterritorializing him, whether in an office, a prison, a cemetery (the paranoic law). The other movement makes desire take flight through all the arrangements, brushing up against all the segments without being caught in any of them, and always carries further along the innocence of a power of deterritorialization indistinguishable from escape (the schizo-law)."15 Not surprisingly, then, in Kafka we also find two corresponding kinds of architecture and bureaucracy, actually opposed but often blending with and penetrating into each other: an archaic or mythic form with contemporary functions, and a "neo-formation" that is today becoming our own. Such mixtures explain Kafka's strange fictional topographies, especially evident in The Trial and The Castle, where we constantly encounter offices behind offices, long passages and corridors with separate entrances at one end and contiguous entrances at another. By analyzing this topography, together with the proliferating series of doubles and connectors, blocks of "becoming" and thresholds of intensity, Deleuze and Guattari show how Kafka's fiction maps the flows, encodings and decodings of desire as an immanent process in the social field.

Finally, every machinic arrangement of desire is, in their words, also a "collective arrangement of enunciation" (33) in the sense that the former always gives rise to certain kinds of statements. The first chapter of Amerika is filled with protestations by the stoker against his superior officer (a Rumanian) and complaints about the oppression which Germans aboard ship must undergo; and of course The Trial constitutes a complete anatomy of juridical statements, the rules of which adumbrate "the real instructions for the machine." As author of the novels, Kafka accedes to the various "collective arrangements of enunciation" through the invention of what Deleuze and Guattari call "the K-function" (157), the letter suggesting that "K" is not so much a character as a collective subject through which the individual in his solitude responds to the "diabolic powers knocking at the door," as Kafka himself described the new powers looming on the historical horizon.16 It is through this invention that Kafka makes one arrangement—the one that invented him—pass into another, his own highly political "writing machine."

Deleuze and Guattari trace the evolution of Kafka's "writing machine" from the letters he wrote to Felice (which constituted a kind of "diabolical pact") to the animal stories and finally to the novels. Its condition of possibility stems ultimately from Kafka's employment in the office of an insurance company, with its secretaries and bosses, its social, political and administrative distributions, and the various technical devices and machines both utilized there and that Kafka had to deal with in accident claims. This set-up promoted an entire "erotic distribution . . . not because desire is desire of the machine but because desire never stops making a machine in the machine and creates a new gear alongside the preceding gear indefinitely" (146). Kafka's "writing machine" operates in a similar fashion," as the off-shoot of a vast bureaucratic machine located within a field of external relationships. As a German-speaking Jew in Prague and therefore a minority figure in a double sense, he made of his own peculiarly inflected and somewhat impoverished German a new kind of expressive medium. Rather than choosing to be an author in the classical sense, like Goethe, whom he so admired, Kafka deliberately invented a form of what Deleuze and Guattari call a deterritorializing "minor literature" (29ff). That is, as a writer living in a cultural and linguistic ghetto, Kafka refused to inflate his language artificially by using symbolism, oneirism, or the Kabbala, as did Gustav Meyrink, Max Brod, and others of the Prague school. Instead, he went the other way—toward a new spareness and sobriety. Pushing further along points of deterritorialization already within his language, he created a strange form of "stuttering," a "minority" language, as Deleuze and Guattari say (41-42), within a major language that exerts a subversive pull toward regions beyond representation and signification, and that vibrates with new intensities. And contrary to a major literature of "masters," which always transforms social questions into individual problems, a "minor" literature functions outside of or exterior to hegemonic cultural formations, and always opens out onto socio-political networks. Thus Kafka's writing machine produces not only a different kind of language, but also announces a different function for literature: as Deleuze and Guattari show, in a "minor literature" there is no "subject," but a tracing of desire in the social field, a diagramming of how different machinic arrangements operate in conjunction with different "arrangements of enunciation."

At this point let us pause and take note of an emerging contrast of some consequence. First, as different as they are, both Jameson's and Waugh's versions of postmodernism derive from and maintain a transcendent perspective: in Jameson, through Marxism and the assumption of history as a dialectic process; in Waugh, through a formalism that privileges the authorial function or author as intentional subject. Secondly—and this is a major point—what troubles both critics, albeit in different ways, is precisely the fact that postmodernist works seem to throw into question this transcendent perspective, whether we call it the critical stance or the meta-dimensionality of the work, as if to suggest that there is no longer any Archimedean point "above" from which contemporary cultural production can be surveyed in a nonreductive way. Deleuze and Guattari, on the other hand, bring us to the very threshold of the postmodern, not by lamenting the loss of a transcendent or privileged point of view, but by theorizing its basis in particular social and cultural arrangements. Through their eyes, perhaps, we can envisage postmodernism as an attempt to think through as a specific positivity what modernism could only think negatively (through terms like alienation, cultural crisis, loss of God and tradition, chaos and disorder). In this perspective, at least in the theoretical formulations provided by Deleuze and Guattari, postmodernism constitutes a renewed attempt to link the philosophical problem of radical immanence or multiplicity to a theory of culture conceived as the conjoining of different "semiotic regimes" with various material arrangements, but without recourse to any transcendent unity or expressive function that would stand outside the historical field or domain as their cause or ground. A similar perspective emerges in the work of Michel Foucault, as the many parallels and exchanges between Deleuze and Foucault might suggest. In Les Mots et Les Choses Foucault tried to move beyond the modernist conceptual domain by thinking through the conditions of possibility of the sciences humaines, but it was only with his theory of power, linked with his theory of the production of statements, which thus joins non-discursive and discursive practices, with both conceived as immanent to the field of their distribution and not emanating from some transcendent instance like the subject or the State, that he advanced into a postmodern domain. In his recent book on Foucault, Deleuze demonstrates that Foucault was always centrally concerned with the historically changing forms of le visible and l'énoncable, and with how their different combinations are in turn "stratified"—given historical coherence and stability—through different arrangements of pouvoir and savoir. On the one hand the resulting "strata" (55 ff) are historical formations determinant of what can be seen and said at a given time; but on the other they are always and at the same time enveloped by a multiplicity or "becoming of forces that double history" (91) and are seen as arriving from an indeterminant "outside."17

It may seem evident that what I am calling theoretical postmodernism overlaps in many ways with the theoretical enterprise generally subsumed under the rubric of "poststructuralism." But here we must proceed case by case, and not treat "poststructuralism" as monolithic. The questioning of the unity and formation of the subject, of the expressionist and representational functions of language are, it seems to me, clearly postmodernist concerns, whereas the theorization of writing as a privileged form of textuality such as one finds in much of Roland Barthes and Paul de Man still operates within the conceptual domain of late modernism, as an often valuable refinement of modernist formalism and aestheticism. In these terms, Jacques Derrida could be seen as a kind of hinge or transitional figure, as a detailed comparison of Derrida's notion of the "scene of writing" with Deleuze and Guattari's notion of the "writing machine" (which cannot be undertaken here) would, I think, substantiate. But whatever the case, there can be no doubt that Deleuze and Guattari's conceptualization represents a theoretical advance beyond Jameson's, for the "mapping" that it makes possible is no longer tied to the modernist (or industrialist era) model of cultural production, nor constrained by the conceptual limits of dialectical and representational thinking.18

Finally, something like Deleuze and Guattari's version of theoretical postmodernism also seems urged upon us by the most ambitious recent American fiction as well. In Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and William Gaddis's JR, everything is connected to everything, yet also proliferating madly into divergent series of items, events and structures—as in what James Joyce perhaps meant by a "chaosmos." The only meta-dimension available is provided by what Pynchon calls the "metacartel"—an interlocking conglomerate of industries, technologies and institutions which seek to render every subject and substance (human and otherwise) controllable, serviceable, and exchangeable, whether as labor, raw material, or links in a communication chain: "How alphabetic is the nature of molecules . . . These are our letters, our words: they too can be modulated, broken, recoupled, redefined, co-polymerized one to the other in world wide chains that will surface now and then over long molecular silences, like the seen part of a tapestry."19 Pynchon thus describes what Deleuze and Guattari call a binary coding machine or abstract machine, which operates even at a molecular level. In the novel, this machine (generally referred to as the "They-system") is opposed by a "Counterforce," which must rely on hardly legitimized semiotic systems: "Those like Slothrop, with the greatest interest in discovering the truth, were thrown back on dreams, psychic flashes, omens, cryptographies, drug epistemologies, all dancing on a ground of terror, contradiction, absurdity" (582). And by the end of the novel, the German V-2 rocket has become a "text," Slothrop can read mandalas, trout guts, graffiti, paper scraps; Eddie Pensiero reads shivers, Saure Bummer reads reefers, Thanatz reads whip scars, and the narrator reads Tarot cards. Has the world become a text, or is it rather that all rational signifying systems can only deliver us into the hands of power? Perhaps they amount to the same thing. Gravity's Rainbow makes it clear how World War II was primarily the "site" of an immense technological transformation of the world. Everything that impeded the installation of a kind of cybernetic instrumentality—old territories, languages and social forms, ancient filiations and habits of mind—had to be dissolved so that this new form of rationality could be implemented. Cybernetics and feedback systems, Pynchon's narrator says (238-39), must be seen first as new means of control, and thus the necessary prelude to the commodification of all information by the giant "meta-cartel."20

According to Deleuze and Guattari, we have passed from a semiotics of the signifier to a semiotics of flow. Gaddis's portrayal of Wall Street and the machinations of corporate finance in JR renders the fluxes and flows of contemporary life in the medium of recorded speech, without narrative summary or connection. In this vast "acoustic collage" transcribed out of the discourses of advertising, big business, politics, and public relations, the slang of school kids and street people, the delirious ruminations of drunken intellectuals and failed artists, the bitter dialogues of breakdown and lovers' turmoils—intelligible "sounds" threaten to become barely distinguishable from the general background noise of our multi-media environment. All is flow—money, finance capital, video images, water, conversation, a radio playing, one scene or character impinging on another. As we are whirled from one epicenter of connection to another—from an old family home in Long Island to the local school, the local bank, then to a Wall Street investment firm, and finally to an impossibly crowded upper East Side apartment—it becomes clear that no overriding, stabilizing speech will be heard, indeed could be heard, no identifiable consciousness could be in control, even take it all in. Yet we cannot fail to notice that in this ceaseless break-up and movement which threaten not only production but intelligibility at least two machines appear to be functioning: the corporate finance institutions that generate gigantic "paper empires" and the novel we are reading that is their off-shoot.

If Gaddis's novel is thus a writing machine which operates by recording the breakdowns in the signifying chains of the characters' speech and in the lifelines of their movements, Deleuze and Guattari allow us to see how these breakdowns are part of the larger "deterritorializations" of contemporary capitalism, which requires new modes of individuation and yet at the same time must continue to assign and reinforce older kinds of identities and social investments. In the vocabulary of Deleuze and Guattari, Gaddis' novel may be said to articulate "a line of flight" along the borders of these two opposing movements, thereby tracing the break-up of the dominant systems of signification and meaning that will result in the characters being swept up in a "molecular becoming." Similarly, Gravity's Rainbow charts the breakdown of the main character Slothrop in relation to a vast reconfiguring of contemporary technology, politics, and big business, but in his gradual disappearance and final anonymity we can also see a molecular "devenir-imperceptible." In both cases the theoretical postmodernism of Deleuze and Guattari allows us to see how these novels push beyond the conceptual limits of modernism and make the new informational arrangements that perhaps define our present visible as part of the same movement in which the older ones are being dissolved.


1 Joseph Riddel, The Inverted Bell: Modernism and the Counter Poetics of William Carlos Williams (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1974), esecially 257 ff, where he argues that Williams "wants to strike through the Modernist deconstruction of the classical with another effort at deconstruction."

2 Derrida's often cited essay first appeared in English in The Structuralist Controversy, eds. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1972); Derrida's words, translated by the editors (264). Riddel discusses Derrida's statement (250-53 and passim).

3 J. Hillis Miller, "Deconstructing the Deconstructors," Diacritics 5 (Summer 1975):31. But see Riddel's response, "A Miller's Tale," Diacritics 5 (Fall 1975):56-65.

4 William V. Spanos, "The Detective and the Boundary: Some Notes on the Postmodern Literary Imagination," Boundary 2 1 (Fall 1972): 147-68. In a later essay, "Repetition in The Waste Land: A Phenomenological Destruction," Boundary 2 7 (Spring 1979):225-85, Spanos argues against the spatialized reading of Eliot's poem and asserts that the poem "points toward .. . the demystifying 'anti-literature' of the postmodern period" by retrieving the "historical sense" (265).

5 Patricia Waugh, Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (London: Methuen, 1984), 2.

6 Brian McHale, "Modernist Reading, Post-Modern Text: The Case of Gravity's Rainbow," Poetics Today 1 (Autumn, 1979):85-109.

7 Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," New Left Review 146 (July-August, 1985):53-92.

8 Fredric Jameson, "The Ideology of the Text," Salmagundi 31-32 (Fall 1975/Winter 1976):243.

9 Jameson also takes up the problem of narrative in relation to postmodernism in his "Foreword" to Jean Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984), trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Lyotard, who sees a dispersion of the narrative function into its different linguistic elements now taking place, defines "postmodernism" as a loss of belief in the great meta-narratives that sustain and legitimate our culture. But Jameson notes, correctly I think, that for Lytoard postmodernism is not a radically new historical stage but only heralds a new turn or cycle in the perpetual "revolution" of modernism.

10 Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1960), and Paul Virilio, L'espace critique (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1984).

11 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's L'anti-oedipe (Paris: Minuit, 1972) and Mille Plateaux (Paris: Minuit, 1980) constitute the two-volume study "Capitalism et Schizophrénie." Only Anti-Oedipus (New York: Viking Press, 1977), trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane, is currently available in English. A translation of Mille Plateaux is forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press.

12 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: pour une littérature mineure (Paris: Minuit, 1975), 19 (my translation).

13 See Mille Plateaux, chapter 10, entitled "1730-Devenir-intense, devenir-animal, devenir-imperceptible ..." for Deleuze and Guattari's most extended treatment of "becoming."

14 Deleuze and Guattari in fact argue that the novel is interminable, and contest the legitimacy of the final chapter depicting K's execution on both textual and interpretive grounds. See Kafka (80-81).

15Kafka, 110. These two kinds of "law" are explored in detail in Anti-Oedipus; see especially 273-83.

16 In a letter to Max Brod, quoted by Deleuze and Guattari in Kafka (22); no date for letter given.

17 Gilles Deleuze, Foucault (Paris: Minuit, 1986). See especially "Les Strates ou Formations Historiques: Le Visible et L'énoncable (Savoir)," 55-76, and "Les strategies ou le non-stratifié: La Pensée du dehors (Pouvoir)," 77-99.

18 Jean Baudrillard's theory of "simulation" also moves beyond "dialectics" and "representation," and thus would appear to offer another version of theoretical postmodernism. Baudrillard deserves extended treatment, but here it must suffice to point out that his theory, although worked out in semiotic and poststructural terms, is actually historicist (like Jameson's) and proposes a succession of neo-Hegelian self-contained semiotic stages or orders. See "La fin de la production" and "Les trois orders de simulacres" in L'échange symbolique et la mort (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1976), 17-77.

19 Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (New York: Viking Press, 1973), 355.

20 For a more extended treatment of this theme in relation to the new technologies of communication, see Jonathan Crary's "Eclipse of the Spectacle," in Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), 283-94.

David H. Hirsch

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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 appeared after the innovative and most creative practical criticism had been done. In effect the great essays of the first generation of New Critics remained unchallenged, and indeed remain unchallenged to this day.

In their most important work the first generation of New Critics was not bound by the theories or the slogans that later developed around their essays. For example, in what turned out to be a seminal essay on "The Ancient Mariner," Robert Penn Warren, far from limiting himself to an analysis of what he considered an autotelic poem, took as the starting point of his essay a historical-biographical bit of information: Mrs. Barbauld's comment, reported in Table Talk, to the effect that the poem had two defects—"it was improbable and it had no moral." This bit of context then becomes the seed out of which the monograph grows, for Warren goes on to state that one of the purposes of his essay is to "establish that The Ancient Mariner does embody a statement"—namely "that the statement which the poem does ultimately embody is thoroughly consistent with Coleridge's basic theological and philosophical views as given to us in sober prose, and that . ... the theme is therefore 'intended.'" Warren's statement is clear enough to stand without comment, but the misinformation about an alleged New Critical denial of context, intention, and statement has been repeated so often that Warren's explicitly stated position is worth summarizing. He allows that the poem makes a statement, that it is generated out of an authorial intention, and that this intention can be confirmed by recourse to Coleridge's other writings—that is by recourse to statements that Coleridge made outside the poem.

Neither is it precisely accurate to say, as has often been alleged, that the New Critics eliminated the reader. Consider this passage by Robert Penn Warren, who is often regarded, along with Cleanth Brooks, as the ultimate New Critic: "The perfect intuitive and immediate grasp of a poem in the totality of its meaning and structure—the thing we desire—may come late rather than early—on the fiftieth reading rather than on the first. Perhaps we must be able to look forward as well as back as we move through the poem—be able to sense the complex of relationships and implications—before we can truly have that immediate grasp." This assertion, describing interpretation as a "back-and-forth process" taking place between the reader and the poem, in this case poetry by Robert Frost, anticipates what later became one of the fundamental tenets of both hermeneutics (the "hermeneutic circle," as it was called) and reader-response theory. In 1967 a three-pronged attack was launched on the New Criticism, two prongs coming from American critics and the third from a European. In Anglo-American theory the attack came on one front from a "reader-response critic," and on the other from an "intentionalist" critic. The first claimed to restore the reader and the latter to restore the author to critical practice. My contention was, and remains, that the attacks were for the most part directed against straw men, since a careful reader of the work of the original New Critics would have perceived that neither reader nor author had actually been removed from the reading process. Nor were the New Critics unaware that reading was indeed a process. The new theories did not greatly advance our understanding of literature in particular or of the ways in which we arrive at an understanding of written utterances in general. In discussing the work of Stanley Fish, who spearheaded the effort to restore the reader, I tried to demonstrate that not only was such a restoration unnecessary, but that Fish himself had not managed to rid himself of the shackles of New Critical methods of reading, except that in his New Critical readings he adopts a slightly different rhetorical posture. That is, what Fish actually did in his criticism was to seek out image patterns, ironies, and paradoxes, just as the New Critics had instructed him, but instead of attributing "meanings" to an author or a text, he attributed meanings to the mind in the act of reading, thus institutionalizing the process described by Warren in the Frost essay. As his theory of reader response evolved, Fish eventually concluded that image patterns, irony, paradoxes, the unity of the text were all in the mind of the reader, not in the text itself, and this ultimately led him to claim that the text did not exist at all.

At the antipodes from American reader-response theory is intentionalist theory. As propounded by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., the theory developed the position that every text has a single fixed meaning, and that this fixed meaning is the "author's intention." In the course of developing his theory, Hirsch demolished the "hermeneutic" theories of Hans Georg Gadamer, a student of Martin Heidegger. He pinpointed the contradictions and inconsistencies in Gadamer's attempt to establish that the meaning of a text is the reader's interpretation of that text, and yet to affirm, at the same time, that there are limits to the possible number of readings. The debate between reader-responsists and intentionalists was intense, but when the dust had settled, it became clear that the rage for theory itself presented some serious difficulties, because the theorists were all too often inclined to paint themselves into a corner. The methods of the readerresponsists, for example, led them to the dead-end position that there was no text at all, only interpretations. Intentionalism, on the other hand, led to the position that there could be only one valid interpretation of any given text. If both these claims could be established by clever arguing, both were nevertheless counterintuitive, inconsistent with experience, and abhorrent to reason. What these extreme claims did was to raise unresolvable epistemological problems that had long been standard philosophers' dilemmas: Did meaning, if indeed there was such a thing at all, reside in the mind of the author, in the text, or in the perceiving mind? What the intentionalists wove by day, reader-responsists unraveled at night.

One other aspect of the attacks on the New Criticism was surprising. One would have expected that the restoration of either author or reader to the autotelic work of art would constitute a humanizing gesture—that is, one would have expected to see the "autonomous poem" of the New Criticism replaced with a more "human" poem. One would have thought that the two positions taken together might have represented a return to the humancentered poetics of Wordsworth, who wrote, in his preface to The Lyrical Ballads (1800): "Who is the poet? To whom does he address himself? And what language is to be expected of him?—He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, . . . who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him." But readerresponse and intentionalist theories of reading, even taken together, did not return literature to a more human dimension, to a condition in which the literary work would once again become an act of passional thinking in which one human being addresses another. If anything, the attacks on New Criticism were more inimical to what was "human" in literature than the New Criticism was accused of being. Hence, in an essay taking issue with Wimsatt and Beardsley on "the affective fallacy," Stanley Fish concluded about his own reader-oriented approach: "Becoming good at the method [of Fishian reading] means asking the question "what does that . . . do?" with more and more awareness of the probable (and hidden) complexity of the answer; that is, with a mind more and more sensitized to the workings of language. In a peculiar and unsettling (to theorists) way, it is a method which processes its own user, who is also its only instrument."

Fish replaces what he takes to be a depersonalized method of reading with a robotic reader who is conceived as an "instrument . . . processed by the method." This seems to constitute a change without gain. I have seen no evidence (nor does Fish himself attempt to provide any) that Fish or his followers have established their credentials as commentators who are "more sensitized to language" than such critics as T. S. Eliot, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Kenneth Burke, John Crowe Ransom, G. Wilson Knight—to name only some of the New Critics Fish is trying to persuade us to "erase," yet whose essays on particular literary works still set a standard of linguistic sensitivity difficult to attain. In fact one may argue that "a method which processes its own user, who is also its only instrument" is antithetical to the development of a "more . . . sensitized . . . mind."

E. D. Hirsch, presumably at the opposite end of the spectrum from Fish, presents us with a robotized author instead of a robotized reader: "The discipline of interpretation is founded, then, not on a methodology of construction but on a logic of validation. . . . In the earlier chapters of this book, I showed that only one interpretive problem can be answered with objectivity: 'What, in all probability, did the author mean to convey?' In this final chapter, I have tried to show more particularly wherein that objectivity lies. It lies in our capacity to say on firm principles, 'Yes, that answer is valid' or 'No, it is not.'" As I have argued in earlier discussions of reader-response criticism, from a practical standpoint it does not seem to matter greatly whether we put the question as "What, in all probability, did the author mean to convey? or "What, in all probability, does the text mean to convey?" As in reader-response criticism we have a change without a gain.

Though both of the American attacks on the New Criticism were regressive, neither was as regressive as the third prong of the 1967 attacks, which was more totalistic and more destructive; but to show how and why these particular attacks on the New Criticism were reactionary, I must take my narrative both forward and backward at the same time. We must go forward from 1967, when Validity in Interpretation appeared to a book published in 1980, Frank Lentricchia's After the New Criticism, that was intended to announce the passing of the New Criticism and celebrate the development and eventual ascendancy, during the fifties and sixties, of continental (i.e., French and German) thinking (or, to be more precise, of French cultural criticism, a critical mode of analysis heavily influenced by the thinking of Karl Marx and Martin Heidegger, the latter having boasted, that "when the French want to think they have to think in German"). The ascendancy of the Franco-German school was characterized by a swift series of transitions, from structuralism, to semiotics, to hermeneutics, to poststructuralism, deconstruction, and postmodernism.

The scenario envisaged by Lentricchia leaves no doubt who are the good guys and who the bad. The sophisticated continental theorists are the former, while the black hats are made up of naive Americans who do not welcome continental developments wholeheartedly, partly because they do not understand them and partly because these American critics are hopelessly opposed to progress. American academics who were not thrilled by the Modern Language Association's having awarded the James Russell Lowell Prize for 1975 to Jonathan Culler's Structuralist Poetics are characterized by Lentricchia as having uttered "repeated cries of outrage and disbelief directed at the news of the latest French barbarism," though no evidence is ever given to support such a characterization. We are advised only that the cries could not help being overheard by "anyone working in a literary department (and particularly in an English department) in the late sixties and early seventies." In my own department the event passed without notice.

As it happens, Lentricchia himself was not entirely happy with the award, because in his view, Culler's book was a betrayal of structuralism: "Culler's book has made structuralism safe for us." Furthermore, according to Lentricchia, "Culler's book . . . performs the intellectually useful act of telling English-speaking critics what they need to know about formidable Continental sources of structuralist thinking, while at the same time providing the comforting reassurance that the governing conceptual framework of structuralism may be safely ignored." Lentricchia is troubled because Culler seems to him to be helping the forces of reaction to co-opt the revolution. I am little concerned with whether or not Lentricchia is right in his description of Culler's book and its presumed effects. What I want to stress is that though Lentricchia differs with Culler on certain details of the structuralist enterprise, he is, nevertheless, committed to the notion that in poststructuralism (mainly, for Lentricchia, poststructuralism of the Foucauldian, and, to some extent, of the Barthesian, variety) lies salvation. J. G. Merquior noted, in 1985, that "the literature on structuralism and poststructuralism continues to grow, though there are signs (nowhere more visible than in France) of their decline as intellectual fashions. Yet most discussions are written in a vein of uncritical acceptance, the experts here tending to act as votaries." While it would not be accurate to say that Lentricchia writes about poststructuralist theory "in a vein of uncritical acceptance," it is nonetheless the case that he is a votary who celebrates poststructuralism and ultimately Foucauldian "genealogical" historicism for its bitter hostility to the liberal-democratic concepts of the integrity of the individual self and the inviolability of inalienable human rights.

As one of the "votaries" of poststructuralism, Lentricchia constructed a distorted version of literary and cultural history by performing what the deconstructionists themselves would call a mammoth "erasure." While devoting three hefty chapters to developments of the fifties and sixties in Europe—the triumph of structuralism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, and of Heideggerian and Marxist ideology—Lentricchia passes over the New Criticism in a single chapter devoted mainly to Northrop Frye's The Anatomy of Criticism. Perhaps he felt that the story of the eclipse of the New Criticism had already been told, but the result of the imbalance in Lentricchia's narrative is to create the impression that the New Criticism was productive only of "readings," and that the literarycultural condition in the United States in the fifties and sixties was moribund. In fact this was not at all the case. During the postwar years American literature and culture experienced an efflorescence fueled by New Critical readings of nineteenth-century writers who had initially been given a new life by F. O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance (1941). Returning GIs, who went to college and then into PhD programs on the GI Bill, participated in a rediscovery of American literature. These returning GIs brought with them a renewed sense of optimism. They believed, and not without reason, that they had contributed to saving a large part of the world not only from tyranny but from Nazism with its culture of death and genocide implemented by means of bureaucracy and advanced technology.

Let us consider some seminal American books that appeared in the mid-fifties. Some of these books, such as Richard Chase's The American Novel and its Tradition (1957) and Charles Feidelson, Jr.'s Symbolism and American Literature (1953), attempted to define the contours of the American identity as embodied in its literature. But equally important were seminal studies of such individual American writers as Emerson, Hawthorne, and Poe by Stephen E. Whicher, Hyatt H. Waggoner, and Edward Davidson. Richly informed by a knowledge of philosophy and the American cultural context, these studies, which provided brilliant close readings of particular works, have yet to be surpassed. So while New Criticism was primarily a literary-critical movement that presumably advanced the cause of. the autonomous poem, nevertheless the rediscovery of American literature through New Critical readings inspired the introduction and development of American Studies programs intended to encourage the study of American literature in a cultural and historical context.

The postwar analyses of the literary works of American writers, building on Matthiessen's enabling study, tended to reaffirm enlightenment values of freedom, human rights, and the sanctity of the individual human being embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, and in some instances sought to reconcile American optimism and the American belief in progress and human perfectibility with a postwar knowledge of darkness and of human tragedy. These studies of the fifties, though not necessarily written by New Critics, all tended to make use of New Critical methods of textual analysis to revalue American literature. Even as broadly based and as sociologically oriented a cultural critique as Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (1967) would not have been conceivable without the New Criticism, and indeed much of the book consists of close readings of the New Critical kind.

Those engaged in the study of American literature and culture responded to the limitations of the New Criticism by expanding and moving forward, rather than by retrenching, as was the case with European oriented readerresponsists and intentionalists. American criticism in the sixties rediscovered a quintessentially liberating American dual source: Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the poet Emerson seemed to be calling for in his essays, Walt Whitman. Emerson's contribution to the American experiment in democracy was to Americanize the aesthetics of the British romantics and to romanticize (or perhaps spiritualize is a better word) American political theory. As an aesthetic thinker Emerson extended the Coleridgean metaphor of the organic poem. According to Coleridge, the poem was organic because, like a living thing, its unity and wholeness were both dependent on and inseparable from the perfect cohesion of its parts. But for Emerson the organic metaphor meant that a poem was the penultimate efflorescence of a tree whose roots were the "oversoul," and whose trunk was the mind of the poet: "For it is not meters but a meter-making argument that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing." For Emerson the poet was the conduit through whom the oversoul, or incessant inspiration, flowed.

Emerson's contribution to democratic ideology, like his contribution to aesthetics, was "expansive." He transformed the more or less precise enlightenment juridical notions of human freedom expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights into the optative mode. While the Declaration stated the principles of human equality and the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," and while the Bill of Rights was intended to restrain the state's power over the individual, Emerson proclaimed "transcendental" freedom, and asserted that every individual contained within himself or herself a potential for unlimited development. For Emerson humanity was still an ongoing experiment: "Man," he declared, "is the dwarf of himself." Emerson's governing metaphor was the medieval image of God as a circle whose center was everywhere and whose circumference nowhere. He opened his essay "Circles" with the ringing annunciation: "The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. . . . Every action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under ever deep a lower deep opens."

As an academic phenomenon the revalorization of Emerson and Whitman culminated in Hyatt H. Waggoner's American Poets (1968), a rendering of the centrality of the Emerson-Whitman tradition of American poetry that was visionary in its own right. The Emerson-Whitman revival was a cultural as well as an academic phenomenon. Allen Ginsberg's Howl (1956) constituted a turn away from modernist formalism and pessimism to reassert the Whitmanian "barbaric yawp." Everywhere the old "puritanism" was under attack, nowhere more trenchantly, perhaps, than in Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (1959). Brown sought to transform a culture of death into a culture of love through an act of psychological liberation, converting the Western mind from an Apollonian into a Dionysian ego. Though Brown drew heavily on insights he found in Freud and Nietszche, his point of view was distinctly Emersonian. As the epigraph to his chapter on "The Resurrection of the Body," Brown cited a passage from Henry Miller's Sunday After the War (1944): "The cultural era is past. The new civilization, which may take centuries or a few thousand years to usher in, will not be another civilization—it will be the open stretch of realization which all the past civilizations have pointed to. The city, which was the birth-place of civilization, such as we know it to be, will exist no more. . . . The peoples of the earth will no longer be shut off from one another within states but will flow freely over the surface of the earth and intermingle. The worship, investigation and subjugation of the machine will give way to the lure of all that is truly occult. This problem is bound up with the larger one of power—and possession. Man will be forced to realize that power must be kept open, fluid and free. His aim will be not to possess power but to radiate it."

It is perhaps no accident that the diction of Miller's last sentence ("power must be kept open, fluid and free") echoes Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," where the speaker apostrophizes the consoling song of the bird: "O liquid and free and tender! / O wild and loose to my soul." Brown's argument for the dionysian ego, which had its real-world culmination in 1969, in the Woodstock "event," anticipated Michel Foucault's dionysian manifesto, Histoire de la folie a l'age classique (1961) by two years. One reason, perhaps, for the belatedness of the French in discovering dionysianism is that the United States had an indigenous dionysian tradition going back to Emerson and Whitman, whereas the French had to borrow their dionysianism from Nietzsche (who some believe took his own dionysianism from Emerson). In discussing the bizarre marriage of an apollonian structuralism with a dionysian irrationalism, J. G. Merquior notes that "the best-known instance of Foucault's Dionysian allegiance is his comment on Descartes's first Philosophical Meditation in Histoire de la Folie. Foucault strives to demonstrate that Descartes's famous 'evil genius' hypothesis actually amounts to an arbitrary expulsion of madness from thinking. . . . Foucault's discussion quickly became a locus classicus of the indictment of rationalism as sheer epistemological 'arrogance.'" Merquior then goes on to discuss Derrida's agreement/disagreement with Foucault in Writing and Difference: "Reason, according to Derrida, cannot be evaded; all we can do is deconstruct it, undermining its pretence of clear, stable meanings."

But in a twentieth-century historical context that includes the death camps and Nazi genocide, both the "apollonian" and the "dionysian" present a troubled reality, for Nazism and the Nazi genocide took place against a background which discredits both the dionysian and the apollonian. Nazi Germany itself was a culture gone mad, and we know from Hermann Rauschning's record of Hitler's table talk (The Voice of Destruction) that Hitler deliberately exploited dionysian tendencies in the German "Volk" to rouse them to subbestial violence. At the same time Reason was put to use in organizing a brilliant bureaucratic structure designed to exterminate human beings. The death camp itself is the ultimate example of Rationalism gone mad, and madness rationalized. As Foucault, who lived under the Nazi occupation, should have known, any talk of rationalism and madness that does not attempt to encompass the Nazi years can only be idle chatter.

By 1968 Theodore Roszak was publishing The Making of a Counter Culture, and in 1970 Charles A. Reich was anticipating The Greening of America. For Waggoner the centrality of Emerson and Whitman to the tradition of American poetry and culture lay in their conception of themselves as eternal soul voyagers:

Focusing on Emerson [Waggoner wrote in 1968] seemed to me originally, and still seems, to throw more light on the question of what's American about American poetry than any other approach could have... . Our poetry has been, and continues to be, more concerned with nature than with society or culture, and more concerned with the eternal than with the temporal. . . . Deprived of the security offered by place, position, class, creed, and the illusion of a stable, an unchanging society, our poets, like our religious seekers, have had to discover meaning where none is given and test its validity personally. . . . The greatest of [American poets] have turned from society toward theology and metaphysics for their answers to the question [Edward] Taylor was the first to ask, "Lord, Who am I?"

Waggoner went on in American Poets to indicate how Whitman fulfilled the model of the poet called for by Emerson: "Whitman is our greatest exponent of the individual conceived as containing the possibility of selftranscendence, or growth beyond the determined and known. Like Emerson before him, he refuses to place a limit on the self's possibilities." It is widely accepted that the flowering of the counter culture, with its mixture of religious and secular transcendences, experienced its zenith at Woodstock in 1969. Then history and human limitation started to reassert themselves.

I have outlined the dynamics of American literary and cultural criticism in the context of the fifties and sixties to give some sense of the magnitude of the "erasure" that has been enacted by recent "theorists" and historians of literary and poststructuralist theory. What is clear, I believe, is that American cultural criticism did not need Heidegger and the French antihumanist Heideggerians and Marxists to alert them to the evils and dangers of a postindustrial technological society, and to the threat against democracy and the integrity of the individual constituted by a technocratic culture. In fact, the dominance of the cluster of ideas constituted by Marxism Heideggerism-deconstruction imported from France constituted a serious step backward.

To make this point more strongly, I should like to consider some sentences written by Horace Kallen, an American of the Jewish faith, who came to this country from Germany. Kallen was a progressive humanist whose style of life was certainly very unlike that called for by the counterculturists. In 1969, at the age of eighty-seven, he published "Of Love, Death, and Walt Whitman," a tribute to Whitman as the great poet of democracy. Kallen was one of the few, at that time, perhaps the only one, who would dare connect Whitman's attitudes toward death to those of the twentieth-century existentialists. For Whitman, Kallen wrote, the years of "the modern" turned out to be the tragic years of the Civil War, but nonetheless, conscious of the fearful death toll taken by that war, "Whitman chanted .. . a paean and prophecy of human progress en masse, [of individuals] in equal liberty to form a free society of free men." Those who had lived through the twentieth century, however,

the talliers of these years of the modern, lived and suffered, still live and suffer . . . evil times. These years are years of the greatest, the bloodiest wars that mankind ever waged; years when cruelty and killing became articles of faith. . . .

Some who became existentialists bet their own lives on resisting this evil; the most celebrated is French Jean Paul Sartre; others saw in the evil the purpose of an ultimate good; the most celebrated of these is German Martin Heidegger; others rejected it and fled it; the most celebrated of these is Karl Jaspers. All became aware that death was the ultimate issue of their lives.

Kallen then continues:

For Whitman, his role in the war was as momentous as Sartre's in the war against the form of ultimate evil we call Hitlerism. The commander-in-chief of freedom's army became for Whitman, beyond anything a flag could be, the precious symbol of the American Idea, ever thrusting forward to establish as living fact the equal freedom and fellowship of all mankind. "Here," Whitman had written long before, "here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations." America is the race of races. Its poet must be the voice and oracle of their diversity: "The genius of the United States is not best or at most, save always in the common people—their deathless attachment to freedom—the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors." Elsewhere our Good Gray Poet had written, "The noble soul rejects any liberty or privilege or wealth that is not open to every other man on the face of the earth." On the battlefields and in the hospitals of the Civil War, Whitman had come face to face with this nobility; he had suffered with its champions and victims the costs of it, and he had grown into a reverent love of Abraham Lilcoln as their incarnation, their sacrificial avatar.

It is unlikely that Kallen could have read Waggoner's book before he wrote his own tribute to Whitman. Yet Waggoner the antinomian Christian and Kallen the secular Jew were primarily children of the Enlightenment, and therefore humanists. Waggoner found in Whitman the poet of self-transcendence, the ultimate promulgator of the American ideology of what we may call "possibilism" (that is, of the ideology that each human being is a separate and integral individual protected by a Bill of Rights, and yet, is, at the same time, a set of infinite and always unfulfilled possibilities). Kallen, ever mindful of the Holocaust and genocide (and as a Jew, how could he not be?) focuses on Whitman's painful discovery of human limitation. After his traumatic encounter with death in his ministering to the Civil War wounded, and in the wake of his grief on hearing of the assassination of Lincoln, Whitman could no longer recapture the pure unrestrained joy in living of "Song of Myself." After citing the "Come lovely and soothing Death" passage of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," Kallen comments that "Such now, was to Walt Whitman, the living inwardness of death. Whenever and however death happens, it is self-consummation, it is climax. It is life living itself out, using itself up, converting to joy of life all the fears, the dread and anxiety over loss, defeat, tragedy that so largely flow together in our awareness of death. . . . There is no cure for birth or death, George Santayana advises, save to enjoy the interval of existing. To enjoy it, Walt Whitman declares, is to die living and live dying, by loving."

What Waggoner and Kallen each discovered in Whitman independently, almost at the same time, was similar. The believing Christian and the secular Jew both found in Whitman a rare poet with the courage to face death and human mortality directly; both found consolation in the great bard of democracy, one in a message of love and transcendence, the other in a message of joy and love. (Let us not forget that Whitman became a consoling and enabling figure for homosexual poets. See Robert K. Martin, The Homosexual Tradition in American Poety [1979].) What bound them together as enlightened humanists (Christian or secular) surely was stronger than what separated them, and may we not imagine them, now, as Melville once imagined himself and Hawthorne: "If ever, my dear Hawthorne, in the eternal times that are to come, you and I shall sit down in Paradise, in some little shady corner by ourselves; and if we shall by any means be able to smuggle a basket of champagne there (I won't believe in a Temperance Heaven), and if we shall then cross our celestial legs in the celestial grass that is forever tropical, and strike our glasses and our heads together, till both musically ring in concert,—then O my dear fellow-mortal, how shall we pleasantly discourse of all the things manifold which now so distress us,—when all the earth shall be but a reminiscence, yea, its final dissolution an antiquity."

Whether from the viewpoint of the counterculture, or that of Christianity, or of progressive secular humanism, American thinkers of the fifties and sixties who read and loved American literature and American writers were reaffirming the integrity of the individual, and were, at the same time, moving toward greater intellectual openness, and toward an expansion of American democracy that would result in a greater tolerance for a greater diversity of persons. By ignoring the writings of American humanists in the fifties and sixties, it was possible for Frank Lentricchia to present the influx of literary theory from France during the mid sixties through the seventies as a great leap forward. To hear Lentricchia tell it, a new world came to term and was born in the period from 1966 to the early seventies: "When in late October of 1966 over one hundred humanists and social scientists from the United States and eight other countries gathered at the Johns Hopkins Humanities Center to participate in a symposium called 'The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man,' the reigning avant-garde theoretical presences for literary critics in this country were Georges Poulet, . . . and, in the distant background, in uncertain relationship to the critics of consciousness, the forbidding philosophical analyses of Heidegger (Being and Time), Sartre (Being and Nothingness), and Merleau-Ponty (The Phenomenology of Perception)." After explaining why structuralism did not establish itself in this country, Lentricchia then continued: "Sometime in the early 1970s we awoke from the dogmatic slumber of our phenomenological sleep to find that a new presence had taken absolute hold over our avant-garde critical imagination: Jacques Derrida. Somewhat startlingly, we learned that, despite a number of loose characterizations to the contrary, he brought not structuralism but something that would be called 'poststructuralism.'"

This view of poststructuralism (and deconstruction) as a leap forward, expressed by Lentricchia in 1980, was to become, if it was not already, the orthodox position among left-leaning literary historians. But was the advent of poststructuralism really a move forward or was it a step backward? Owing to recent critical studies by J. G. Merquior, and Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut (French Philosophy of the Sixties: An Essay on Antihumanism, 1990; and Heidegger and Modernity, 1990), we can now understand the thrust of French theory of the sixties from a more authentic and less partisan perspective. Both Merquior and Ferry-Renaut focus on the antihumanist bias of the French deconstructionists and of the thinkers (principally Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, and Heidegger) who stand in one way or another behind them. It is not surprising, given their common ideational origins, that in spite of superficial differences and petty family quarrels, the French deconstructionists cluster together to disseminate variations on a narrow set of ideas. Among these are the notion of "the dissolution of the self; the claim that the individual is a "fiction," or that the individual is the creation of bourgeois ideology, or that the "subject" must be deconstructed; the denial of transcendence (or of the transcendent subject); and the belief, derived from Nietzsche and filtered through Heidegger, that there are no facts, only interpretations.

In the last two years, however, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain the hegemony of poststructuralistdeconstructionist ideology. Freud's authority has been seriously undermined by a growing scientific understanding of the physiology of the brain, and Marxism as an economic system lies everywhere in ruins. At the same time the authority of Heidegger has been seriously damaged by revelations about his personal life and political activities. The meticulous detective work of Victor Farias reveals that Heidegger was a dedicated and unrepentant Nazi. As a result we can no longer dodge the issue of what the implications are of taking a thinker seriously whose thinking reveals to him no difference between mechanized agriculture and the extermination of women and children in gas chambers to achieve an ideal of racial and national purity. In a speech delivered in Bremen in 1949, Heidegger said: "Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, in essence the same as the manufacturing of corpses in the gas chambers and extermination camps, the same as the blockade and starvation of the countryside, the same as the production of the hydrogen bombs."

Deconstructionist ideology, that bizarre fusion of Heidegger's pagan spiritualism with Marx's dialectical materialism, is beginning to fall apart. As Ferry and Renaut point out in French Philosophy of the Sixties,"that the two major critiques of modern humanism have proven to be linked with totalitarian adventures is most significant." Heidegger was part of the ideational context (call it a mass psychosis if you will) that led to Auschwitz, and he was encouraged to support Hitler's National Socialism (especially the populist version espoused by Ernst Roehm) by his philosophical belief in the spirit of the German Folk and in pan-Germanic and ultranationalistic ideas of blood and soil. In To Mend the World the theologian Emil Fackenheim asserts that "What the Fuhrer Adolf Hitler did in 1934 and 1935, respectively, to Germans and Jews, was no more than what the Denker Martin Heidegger had endorsed in advance when, on November 3, 1933, as rector of Freiburg University, he addressed his students as follows: The Fuhrer himself and he alone is German reality and its law, today and henceforth.' . . . The indisputable and undisputed fact is, however, that when he endorsed in advance the Fuhrer's actions as German 'reality' and 'law,' he did so not, like countless others impelled by personal fear, opportunism, or the hysteria of the time, but rather deliberately and with the weight of his philosophy behind it. " The French intellectuals who think in Heidegger's shadow have yet to come to terms with the thinker's moral density, which did not improve after 1933, and persisted even after the fact of the death camps became widely known.

Heidegger's total obtuseness on the issue of Nazism as a culture of death, genocide, and enslavement, even after the war, is not only damaging to his reputation as a philosopher but should prevent us from accepting theories of literature and culture that are derived from his thinking. When Herbert Marcuse wrote to Heidegger, on August 28, 1947, asking him to take an unequivocal "stand against... the identification of you and your work with Nazism .. . ," Heidegger answered, in part, that "your letter just shows how difficult a dialogue is with people who have not been in Germany since 1933 and who evaluate the beginning of the National Socialist movement from the perspective of the end." To which Marcuse responded: "We knew, and I myself have seen, that the beginning already harbored the end; it was the end. Nothing has been added that was not already there in the beginning." Is it possible that in 1948 Heidegger was still unaware that, for some people, staying in Germany after 1933 meant a free ticket to Auschwitz?

The New Criticism was not without its limitations and weaknesses. Those who wrote New Critical essays worked with the world they inherited, though the essays they wrote helped to change that world and enlarge it. Perhaps it is an oversimplification to say that their greatest strength was their belief in a meritocracy of literature that was open to all, but it is nonetheless true. Though the cultural critics among the New York Intellectuals were quite distant from the New Critics not only in geography but in religion, politics, and ideology, they and the New Critics could still agree on the ideal of a meritocracy of literature. In a tribute to the retiring Supreme Court justice, William Brennan, that appeared in the New York Times for July 29, 1990, Anna Quindlen wrote: "The only thing I know about the framers [of the Constitution] is that they were general kinds of guys. They did not go on about the right to put fences around your farmland, or the right to pull your children out of school if the teacher taught sedition. They used broad terms. Life. Property. Liberty. They designed a document that wouldn't go out of fashion. Written by men whose wives couldn't vote and whose country permitted slavery, it has transcended their time." Of the New Critics, as well, it may be said that they designed a set of principles and a methodology that transcended their time. And it is ungenerous not to acknowledge their contribution to the many democratic and expansive tendencies that broke out in American literature and culture during the seventies and eighties.

In neither methodology nor ideology did deconstruction and postmodernism constitute a leap forward. Indeed the ideologies on which these European movements are based, in contrast to American New Criticism, represent a return to a very unpleasant reactionary past that has not yet been faced by the Europeans and is still essentially unknown to Americans. American literature, at its best, has been a literature of progress, speaking out for the integrity of the individual, and celebrating individual human rights. American writers and literary critics have invariably been the severest critics of American culture. Should we bury that heritage under a literary history written out of an antihumanist theory founded on two failed philosophies, one of which led to the Soviet gulag, and the other to Auschwitz?

Peter L. McLaren and Colin Lankshear

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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 initiatives throughout the world inspired by Paulo Freire's approach to literacy, showed what can be contributed to social transformation when educators revise their conceptions and practices of literacy and consciously turn reading and writing toward expansive and emancipatory ends.

Critical literacy is grounded in these insights as well as in the ethical and political commitment to democratic and emancipatory forms of education. As evident from earlier chapters, two main perspectives can be identified within the critical literacy project at present. One is a radical tradition, influenced particularly by Freirean and neo Marxist currents, with strong links to modernist social theory. The other is an emerging Anglo-American theory development drawing on a variety of contributions from continental philosophy, poststructuralist currents, social semiotics, reception theory, neopragmatism, deconstruction, critical hermeneutics, and other postmodern positions.

This chapter deals with recent theoretical advances and research approaches from this latter perspective, especially developments in poststructuralist theory, and asks how they might contribute to the ongoing theory and practice of critical literacy. Our discussion ranges over several questions: What is the postmodern turn in social theory? What are the points of strength and disputation in postmodern theoretical developments as viewed from a critical perspective? What can postmodern insights contribute to emancipatory projects, specifically critical literacy? In what ways does postmodern social theory enhance our conception of critical literacy and point to important elements of a critical literacy research agenda?

To stake out more firmly the theoretical position of research practices which lead to a poststructuralist view of critical literacy, let us describe briefly some of the most basic theoretical conceptions of critical research in its various manifestations (participatory research, critical ethnography, action research, and so on). Operating within a theoretical subterrain outside of the policing structure of sovereign research discourses, the tradition of critical research continues to make unconventional alliances between descriptions and meanings.

From a critical standpoint, knowledge is never self-authenticating, self-legitimating, or self-ratifying. Critical research is not a process which can determine its own effects or speak its own truth in a manner which transcends its relations to the sociopolitical context in which learning takes place. It is always a creature of cultural limits and theoretical borders, and as such is necessarily implicated in particular economies of truth, value, and power. Consequently, critical researchers need to remind themselves of the following: Whose interests are being served in social acts of doing research? Where is this process situated ethically and politically in matters of social justice? What principles should we choose in structuring our pedagogical efforts?

To not ask these questions is to risk being reduced to custodians of sameness and system-stabilizing functions which serve the collective interests and regimes of truth of the prevailing power elite(s). Similarly, to seek a neutral balance of perspectives by refusing to capitulate to the discourses of either left or right is to support those whose interests prevail within the status quo.

Critical research works from a view of culture that focuses on disjuncture, rupture, and contradiction. Culture is best understood as a terrain of contestation that serves as a locus of multivalent practical and discursive structures and powers. Knowledge is construed as a form of discursive production. As understood here, discourses are modalities which to a significant extent govern what can be said, by what kinds of speakers, and for what types of imagined audiences.1 The rules of discourse are normative and derive their meaning from the power relations in which they are embedded. Discourses organize a way of thinking into a way of doing. Unlike language, they have both a subject and an object, and actively shape the social practices of which they are mutually constitutive.

At the level of research, discourses are always indexical to the context of researchers and their interpretations. All research discourses are conflictual and competitive. As such they embody particular interests, "establish paradigms, set limits, and construct human subjects."2 Discourse "constitutes the guarantee and limit of our understanding of otherness."3 Moreover, discourse refers to the conditions of any social practice.4 The process of constructing knowledge takes place within an unevenly occupied terrain of struggle in which the dominative discourses of mainstream research approaches frequently parallel the discursive economies of the larger society, and are reinforced by the asymmetrical relations of power and privilege which accompany them.

A critical approach to analysis and research makes it clear that all knowledge consists of rhetorical tropes. These both reflect and shape the way that we engage and are transformed by the manner in which we consciously and unconsciously identify ourselves with our roles as researchers, and with the subjects we study. This process has been detailed in the work of Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, Linda Brodkey, Patricia Bizzell, Donaldo Macedo, Jim Berlin, Jim Gee, and others. They have advanced the notion that reality does not possess a presignifying nature but is an interactive, cultural, social, and historical process. They have also described the relationship between discourses of literacy, research practices, and the workings of power, and revealed the various ways in which power operates as a regulating force which conforms to its dominant ideologies and their institutionalized supports as well as centralizes and unifies often conflicting and competing discourses in the interests of capitalist social relations.

The idea here is that discourses are not single-minded positivities but are invariably mutable, contingent, and partial. Their authority is always provisional as distinct from transcendental. The real is not transparent to the world; the real and the concept are insurmountably asymmetrical.5 Truth has no real name other than the meanings rhetorically or discursively assigned to it. Discourses may in fact possess the power of truth, but in reality they are historically contingent rather than inscribed by natural law; they emerge out of social conventions. In this view, any discourse of conducting is bounded by historical, cultural, and political conditions and the epistemological resources available to articulate its meaning. Educators involved in critical research remind us that people do not possess power but produce it and are produced by it in their relational constitution through discourse.

Critical research is not limited to any one methodology and can incorporate both qualitative and quantitative approaches. What characterizes research as "criticar is an attempt to recognize its own status as discourse and to understand its role as a servant of power. Critical researchers try to understand how the research design and process are themselves implicated in social and institutional structures of domination. They must also recognize what conflicts might exist within their subjective formation without sacrificing or hiding the political or ethical center of gravity that guides the overall research project. Research undertaken in a critical mode requires recognizing the complexity of social relations and the researcher's own socially determined position within the reality he or she is attempting to describe. Critical research must be undertaken in such a way as to narrate its own contingency, its own situatedness in power/knowledge relations. Critical researchers attempt to become aware of the controlling cultural mode of their research and the ways, often varied and unwitting, in which their research subjects and their relationship to them become artifacts of the episteme s that shape the direction of their research by fixing the conceptual world in a particular way and by selecting particular discourses from a range of possibilities.


The term postmodernism straddles several definitional boundaries. It refers at once to a sensibility, a political perspective, a state of mind, and a mode of social analysis. Taking these as an amalgam, we may speak of the postmodern age: an era wherein democratic imperatives have become subverted, originary values simulated, and emancipatory symbols and their affective power commodified. It is an age in which the modernist quest for certainty and meaning and the liberal humanist notion of the individual as a unified and coherent essence and agency are being forcefully challenged.

Much of the discourse of postmodernism has been criticized for betraying a dry cynicism in which irony and pastiche become politics' last recourse at social change. It often reveals an uncompromising distaste for the masses, adopts a form of high-brow, antibourgeois posing, and occasionally assumes the role of a self-congratulatory vanguardism which resonates dutifully with the "high seriousness" of the academy, at times appearing as dressed-up restatements of Nietzsche and Heidegger.

In the postmodern age, breaks and disjunctures in contemporary social reality have led to the retreat of democratic forms of social life. MacCannell speaks of the "implosive reduction of all previously generative oppositions: male/female, rich/poor, black/white . . . into a single master pattern of dominance and submission . . . with . . . no semiotic or institutional way of breaking the patterns of advantaging one class, ethnic group or gender over another." The result is a proliferation of gender and racial inequality, all within the framework of apparently progressive legislation and administration which, in reality, seems to be doing the opposite.6

The turmoil of late capitalism is perhaps best displayed by the surging impulses of media images—from which the postmodern subject can hardly escape the cruel insistence of their ever-presentness—and the tragic liaison between the media industry and the viewing public, the former arrogating the right to legislate, produce, and serve up the latter's daily reality. Increasing youth alienation is evident, brought about by what Voss and Schutze refer to as "a world blanketed with signs and texts, image and media of all kinds . . . which has brought forth a culture . . . based on an overproduction of sensations that dulls our sensory faculties."7

Attendant characteristics of the postmodern condition also include the rejection of truth claims that have a grounding in a transcendent reality independent of collective human struggle, an abandonment of the teleology of science, the construction of lifestyles out of consumer products and cultural bricolage, and cultural forms of communication and social relations that have evolved from the disorganization of capitalism.8 The postmodern condition signals the undecidability, plurality, or "thrownness" of culture rather than its homogeneity or consensual nature. Indeed, some characteristics of postmodernity seem to affirm Benjamin's equation of fascism and the aestheticization of politics, which includes the demise of a public democratic sphere of rational debate "replaced by a consumerist culture of manipulation and acclamatory politics."9 From this standpoint, postmodernism represents a "'cultural' logic that correlates political-economic and social-psychological changes in late capitalism."10

As social theory, postmodernist perspectives attempt to advance an oppositional stance against the policing structures of modernist discourse. Of particular importance here are appropriations by postmodernist social theory of various currents of poststructuralist social theory. From these emerge numerous issues that have an important bearing on critical literacy and the development of critical research on literacy. Two central issues are especially noteworthy: the new social theories have radicalized the conception of the subject as social agent by relativizing the authority of the text-in-itself; and they have deterritorialized and deauthorized the task of conducting research as it is generally understood. We will try to draw out some implications of these shifts in terms of how they affect our theoretical approaches to the study of critical literacy.

Poststructuralism can be distinguished from its structuralist predecessor as follows. Structuralists typically conceive of language as an arbitrary system of differences in which meaning is guaranteed by the linguistic system itself and the values given to signifying practices within particular linguistic communities. In other words, given the signs and linguistic practices, meanings follow. For structuralists, meaning is uncovered by "cracking" the code that explains how elements of a social text function together. Often, these codes are granted a transcendental status, serving as privileged referents around which other meanings are positioned.

Poststructuralism is less deterministic. Much more emphasis is placed on meaning as a contested event, a terrain of struggle in which individuals take up often conflicting subject positions in relation to signifying practices. Poststructuralists acknowledge explicitly that meaning consists of more than signs operating and being operated in a context. Rather, there is struggle over signifying practices. This struggle is eminently political and must include the relationship among discourse, power, and difference. Poststructuralists put much more emphasis on discourse and the contradictions involved in subjective formation. They regard transcendental signifieds as discursive fictions.

In addition, poststructuralism draws attention to the significant danger of assuming that concepts can exist independently of signifying systems or language itself, or that meaning can exist as a pure idea, independently of its contextual embeddedness in the materiality of speech, gesture, writing, and so on. Poststructuralism does not locate the human subject within the structure of language, that is, within the rules of signification. Rather, the subject is an effect of the structure of language and the signifying system. Just as there exists no unified, monolithic, and homogeneous sign community which produces and interprets signs, so too there exists no self that precedes its social construction through the agency of representation. As Judith Butler explains,

The subject is a consequence of certain rulegoverned discourses that govern the intelligible invocation of identity. The subject is not determined by the rules through which it is generated because signification is not a founding act, but rather a regulated process of repetition that both conceals itself and enforces its rules precisely through the production of substantializing effects . . . There is no self that is prior to the convergence or who maintains "integrity" prior to its entrance into this conflicted cultural field. There is only a taking up of the tools where they lie, where the very "taking up" is enabled by the tool lying there.11

According to poststructuralists, we construct our future selves, our identities, through the availability and character of signs of possible fultures. The parameters of the human subject vary according to the discursive practices, economies of signs, and subjectivities (experiences) engaged by individuals and groups at any historical moment. We must abandon the outmoded and dangerous idea that we possess as social agents a timeless essence or a consciousness that places us beyond historical and political practices. Rather, we should understand our "working identities" as an effect of such practices. Our identities as subjects are not tied to or dependent upon some transcendental regime of truth beyond the territory of the profane and the mundane. Rather, they are constitutive of the literacies we have at our disposal through which we make sense of our day-to-day politics of living.

From the postmodernist position, discourses are always saturated in power. Jane Flax says, "Postmodern discourses are all 'deconstructive' in that they seek to distance us from and make us sceptical about beliefs concerning truth, knowledge, power, the self, and language that are often taken for granted within and serve as legitimation for contemporary Western culture."12 Postmodern thinking takes as its object of investigation issues such as "how to understand and (re)constitute the self, gender, knowledge, social relations, and culture without resorting to linear, teleological, hierarchical, holistic, or binary ways of thinking and being."13

A key feature of postmodern discourse has been its ability to effect a decentering of the authority of the text, and also a decentering of the reader. Readers are revealed to be restricted by the tropes and conventions of their reading practices just like, for instance, historians are constrained by the discourses available in the act of writing history.

Postmodernist social theory has much to offer the critique of colonial discourses within literacy research because it assumes the position that the age of modernism was characterized by the geopolitical construction of the center and the margins within the expansive hegemony of the conqueror. It was, in other words, marked by the construction through European conquest of the foundational "I."14 Postmodern criticism has significantly revealed how even the language of critical theory, which has its roots in European history and philosophy, carries with it a debilitating Eurocentric bias that continues to privilege the discourse of the white male colonizer. All discourses, even those of freedom and liberation, carry with them ideological traces and selective interests which must be understood and transformed in the interests of greater justice and equality.

Moreover, from a postmodernist perspective, knowledge does not constitute decoded transcriptions of "reality" separable into the grand postulates of Western thought and what is left over: the lesser, vulgar, popular, and massified knowledges of the "barbarians." Rather, all knowledge is considered to be framed by interpretation and controlled by rhetorical devices and discursive apparatuses. It is an approach to knowledge that is perturbing and unsettling, especially to those who hold "objectivist" perspectives on reality. Derrida, for example, reveals the metaphorical character of knowledge and attacks the objectivism in our understanding of social relations inherited from the tradition of sociology: the notion that society can be reduced to a "metaphysics of presence," or an objective and coherent ensemble of conceptually formulated laws. He has uncovered the discrepancy between meaning and the author's assertion by rupturing the "logocentric" logic of identity,15 and has highlighted the status of philosophy as writing which, following Nietzsche, entails a deconstruction of the history of metaphysics.

The postmodern turn in the study of English has moved beyond late modernist attempts to rupture realist narrative conventions. It now faces the chalenge of historiographic metafiction and interactive fiction. Mainstream literary theorists and English educators are witnessing serious attacks on dominant forms of literary discourse such as modernist notions of the original and originating author. They are further facing postmodernist critical practices which consist of a dethroning of totalized thought; the problemization of forms of autorepresentation; the transparency of historical referentiality; and an emphasis on the enunciative situation—text, producer, receiver, historical, and social context—and double-voicing or implied readers.16 The ideological situatedness of all literary practices is now being highlighted, with a recognition of the impossibility of the disinterestedness of any discursive claim or cultural practice.


Although our aim in this chapter is to seek the contribution of postmodern social theory for the ongoing development and practice of critical literacy, it must be conceded that poststructuralism has met with trenchant criticism on several grounds and from several directions. To appreciate the potential inherent in the postmodern turn for further progress toward developing critical literacy as a mainstream rather than a marginalized educational engagement, it is necessary to rehearse some of these criticisms, most of which have an overtly political emphasis. These critiques identify limitations within postmodern theory which need to be overcome and, at the same time, help us clarify further the criteria and requirements of critical literacy in theory and practice.

Several of the criticisms which follow pertain to two of the central advances made by postmodern theory: the decentering of the subject and the decentering of the text. These ideas will be elaborated in our account of those objections which seem to us most important.

Of course, the criticisms of poststructuralism which follow do not preclude the development of a critical project in educational research and practice that can accommodate poststructuralism. Indeed, the contemporary world is largely unintelligible without a poststructuralist perspective. Here we share Jameson's view that although poststructuralism represents "the ideology of a new multinational stage of capitalism" and therefore shares certain counterrevolutionary tendencies, it nevertheless "contains some of the elements for the beginning of a critical analysis of the present."17 Post-structuralism does, however, pose some difficult challenges for those committed to a critical emancipatory project: How can we construct narratives of cultural difference that affirm and empower and that do not undercut the efforts of other social groups to win self-definition? In what way are our own discourses as literacy researchers disguised by self-interest and defined by the exclusion of the voices of others? In what ways must we rewrite the stories which guide our research and our interpretations of these stories in relation to shifting cultural boundaries and new political configurations? How can we redefine research practices so that they no longer describe the discourses and practices of white, Western males who are charged to speak on behalf of everyone else? How do we position the "other" in the semantic field of our research so that he or she does not become a "silent predicate" that gives birth to Western patriarchal asumptions of what constitutes truth and justice?

Decentering the subject

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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 through an ever-expanding market economy which structures the shape and direction of our desire. The debate, moreover, is about the construction of our identities as raced, classed, and gendered beings which have been decentered irrevocably, thereby giving ominous weight to Brenkman's observation that "the obligation to critize and transform outer reality wanes as authentic meanings and values are granted a purely inner reality."20

Postmodernist efforts to decenter the subject have met with criticisms and cautions. Hartsock sounds a note of deep suspicion that just at a time when many groups are engaged in "nationalisms" which involve redefining them as marginalized Others, the academy begins to legitimize a critical theory of the "subject" which holds its agency in doubt and which casts a general scepticism on the possibilities of a general theory which can describe the world and institute a quest for historical progress.21 Henry Louis Gates, Jr., echoes a similar concern. He argues that in rejecting the existence of a subject, poststructuralist theorists are denying those who have been subjugated and made voiceless and invisible by the high canon of Western literature the chance to reclaim their subjectivity before they critique it.

To deny us the process of exploring and reclaiming our subjectivity before we critique it is the critical version of the grandfather clause, the double privileging of categories that happen to be preconstituted. Such a position leaves us nowhere, invisible and voiceless in the republic of Western letters. Consider the irony: precisely when we (and other third world peoples) obtain the complex wherewithal to define our black subjectivity in the republic of Western letters, our theoretical colleagues declare that there ain't no such thing as a subject, so why should we be bothered with that? In this way, those of us in feminist criticism or African-American criticism who are engaged in the necessary work of canon deformation and reformation, confront the skepticism even of those who are allies on other fronts, over the matter of the death of the subject and our own discursive subjectivity.22

Elsewhere, postmodernist discourse has met the charge that its over-determination of the subject through discourse renders the social agent as politically innocuous as the liberal humanist. The obsession of both poststructuralists and the new historicists to formulate the self as an effect of discourse rather than as its origin necessarily submits human subjects to determinations over which they have little control. Frank Lentricchia targets "a literary politics of freedom whose echoes of Nietzsche and his joyful deconstructionist progeny do not disguise its affiliation with the mainline tradition of aesthetic humanism, a politics much favored by many of our colleagues in literary study, who take not a little pleasure from describing themselves as powerless. This is a literary politics that does not . . . [answer] . . . the question: So what?"23

Decentering the text

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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 adopt. In this theoretical move, which sees the determinant text supplanted by the recipient of the text, no text can be so penetrative and pervasive in its authority as to eliminate all grounds for contestation or resistance.

Eagleton, however, urges moderation here, rejecting a swing from the all-powerful authority of the text to a total decentering of text. He satirizes the Readers' Liberation Movement and its fetishistic concern with consumer rights in reading, and describes the dominant strategy of this movement as an "all-out putsch to topple the text altogether and install the victorious reading class in its place." He argues that reader power cannot answer the question of what one has power over. For this reason he ridicules the ascendancy of reader reception theory, which transforms the act of reading into "creative enclaves, equivalent in some sense to workers' cooperatives within capitalism [in which] readers may hallucinate that they are actually writers, reshaping government handouts on the legitimacy of nuclear war into symbolist poems."25

There is much to commend this bold move to decenter the authorial discretion of the writer and the projection of the reader as a passive, actedupon object. Yet the very act of desituating and dehistoricizing the reader actually brings it into line with the humanist position. As Scully puts it, in each position "the work's specious authority will derive from the illusion that it is not value-bound, not historically conditioned, not responsible . . . its authoritativeness will depend not on the making of its particular human source but on the implicit denial that it comes from anywhere at all, or that it is class couched."26

What gets lost unavoidably in preoccupation with the construction of meaning at the point of reception is sufficient acknowledgment of the ways in which privileged forms of representing experience come to serve as regimes of truth. Reception theory permits us to disattend the various forms of competing interpellations which are at play simultaneously within a given text or social formation.

Collins reveals the self-legitimating aspects of interpellations which compete for our identification and involvement within any text or cultural form. He argues that within the fragmentary cultures of the postmodern condition, "competing discourses must differentiate themselves according to style and function."27 He points out how, for instance, literary style may serve as an aesthetic ideology which valorizes certain ideologies competing in a cultural text as a means of converting individuals into subjects. Even though we are not free to choose as independent autonomous readers which discourses we wish to identify with, we still participate in a process of selection. This is an important truth. Because of the vast array of competing discourses which offer themselves as a means of completing the subject, by giving it a temporarily fixed identity, it is necessary for the subject to hierarchize and arrange them.

The process of selecting the most politically transformative discourses in endless competition for "completing" the subject has never been more urgent, since we are presently in times when culture's unifying characteristics seem irrevocably decentered. Disparate discourses may be managed through multiple aesthetics and multiple styles: by a means of bricolage by which ideologies and representations may be selected and combined in new, transformative ways.28 This has an important implication for developing a critical literacy, since it raises the following questions: To what extent do conventional literacy practices duplicate the ideologies embedded in literary texts and the already constructed reading formations of teachers and students? If reading formations are not always already fixed, how can educators help their students develop reading formations which will enable them to resist the authority of the dominative ideologies produced within required texts?

To reduce reading to the subjective act of the reader has dangerous consequences. It can blind us to the means by which power works on and through subjects and ignores the way in which textual authority is constructed as a form of production linked to larger economies of power and privilege in the wider social order. If the meaning of a text is reduced to individual interpretation, then the act of reading itself can be reduced to a textual palliative in which the material conditions of existence, the suffering of certain select groups in our society, can be turned into a fantasy of personal resolution. Furthermore, it enables us to engage in self-recuperation in a move that smoothly sidesteps collective participation in social transformation. It produces a mode of subjectivity that can participate gleefully in troubling the hegemony of social silence while avoiding the task of reconstructing the social practices which produce such silence. It can create an optimism that is strictly personal, removed from historical context. In this way the dominant culture can achieve both the individualism and poverty of theory necessary for it to escape the threat of resistance.

Left social and political theorists within the academy vary greatly in their opinion and appropriation of postmodern strategies of critique. Jameson warns against a simplistic, reductionistic view of the political,29 and Merod regrets that much academic work falling into the category of "postmodernism" decidedly fails to move the reader "from the academic world of texts and interpretations to the vaster world of surveillance, technology, and material forces."30 Harsher antagonists claim that the deconstructive enterprise often operates as a kind of left mandarin terrorism, displacing "political activism into a textual world where anarchy can become the establishment without threatening the actual seats of political and economic power," and sublimating political radicalism "into a textual radicalism that can happily theorize its own disconnection from unpleasant realities."31

Feminist theorists have identified a range of concerns associated with extreme versions of decentering text and/or subject. Mascia-Lees, Sharpe, and Cohen, for example, pose a crucial issue for social theory:

Once one articulates an epistemology of free play in which there is no inevitable relationship between signifier and signified, how is it possible to write an ethnography that has descriptive force? . . . Once one has no metanarratives into which the experience of difference can be translated, how is it possible to write any ethnography?32

Feminists, among others, have also noted how in its assault on the classic figure of Western humanism—the rational, unified, noncontradictory, and self-determining individual—poststructuralist discourse has erased the suffering, bleeding, breathing subject of history. Poststructuralism's infatuation with the dancing signifier whose meaning is always ephemeral, elusive, disperse, and mutable, and the emphasis which it places on textualizing the reader as an intricate composition of an infinite number of codes or texts,33 can be subversive of its potentially empowering and transformative agenda. Knowledge can be depotentiated and stripped of its emancipatory possibilities if it is acknowledged only as a form of textualization. Moreover, such a facile treatment of discourse can lead to the subject's encapsulation in the membranes of his or her rationalizations, leading to a soporific escape from the pain and sensations of living, breathing, human subjects. As Alan Megill warns:

All too easy is the neglect or even the dismissal of a natural and historical reality that ought not to be neglected or dismissed . . . For if one adopts, in a cavalier and single-minded fashion, the view that everything is discourse or text or fiction, the realia are trivialized. Real people who really died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz or Treblinka become so much discourse.34

Clearly there is danger in assuming a literal interpretation of Derrida's "there is nothing outside of the text." We are faced with the postmodern "loss of affect" which occurs when language attempts to "capture the 'ineffable' experience of the Other."35 We risk textualizing gender, denying sexual specificity, or treating difference as merely a formal category with no empirical and historical existence.36

Further criticisms

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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 modernity with cognitive instrumental thought. Poststructuralist invocations of the radical other of Enlightenment reason and social modernization produce a radical other which takes the form of an expressive subjectivity—"the untamed energies of mind and body—of madness, intensity, desire." This is a subjectivity freed from the demands of utility and morality and economic and administrative rationality. In this way, says Dews, poststructuralism "curiously coincides with neo-conservatism, although the polarity of values is reversed from one position to another."39 He rejects the one-sidedness of poststructuralism's "cult of immediacy, the deflation of noble forms, anarchism of the soul," in favor of a stress on human and civil rights.


Feminist contributions

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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 denial of the continued existence of a hierarchy of discourse, the material and historical links between cultures can be ignored, with all voices becoming equal, each telling only an individualized story. The history of the colonial, for example, can be read as independent of that of the colonizer. Such readings ignore or obscure exploitation and power differentials and therefore offer no ground to fight oppression and effect change.41

By revealing how women are constituted as voiceless and powerless through dominant conceptions of the subject, feminist theorists challenge us to recuperate a non-Western, nonmale subject-agent likewise removed from modernist philosophy's essentializing search for origins and a universal sovereign consciousness. In heeding this challenge, Giroux argues that modernism, postmodernism, and feminism can be articulated in terms of the interconnections between their differences and the common ground they share for being mutually corrective. All three discourses can and should be used to mutually inform ways of advancing a new politics of literacy research.42

Subjectivity and subjects/agency and agenthood: Problems with identity politics in emancipatory research

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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 of the historical subject. Within them

the individual appears to be weightless, thrown about by the weighty fullness of cultural texts. In the end, history is guaranteed in advance. Ideology (and history) seem to hold the winning hand, determining as it were, in its own spaces and structures, the subject-ion of the individual, hailing them into places it has already identified for them within its maps of meaning. It appears to guarantee that history will constantly reproduce the same experiences over and over, constantly replaying the same psychic or social history that is always already in place.43

Such a view denies the possibility of resistance to ideological hegemony, since agency is structured into the very reproduction of history. Finding little solace in the concept of the fractured or decentered subject, Grossberg sees no solution to the paradox of subjectivity because it derives from a conceptual model that identifies individuals with both the subjects and agents of history. He attempts to escape the paradox by distinguishing subjectivity, agency, and agenthood.

By subjectivity Grossberg means "the site of experience and of the attribution of responsibility." Agency refers to "the active forces struggling within and over history." Agenthood signifies "actors operating, whether knowingly or unknowingly, on behalf of particular agencies."44 Grossberg's account of agency is large. It refers to historical agency as well as to the location of individuals in systems of discourse and difference. Historical agency has less to do with social identity than with historical effectivity, or what Gramsci called "tendential forces"—such as capitalism, industrialism, technology, democracy, nationalism, and religion. Tendential forces "map out the long-term directions and investments which have already been so deeply inscribed upon the shape of history that they seem to play themselves out in a constantly indeterminate future."45

Agency, however, calls for historical and cultural agents to accomplish specific activities. In other words, it presupposes agenthood. Agents may be individuals or nominal groups such as organizations and political parties. Although these may have their own political agendas, such agendas depend ultimately on the apparatuses of agency.

For Grossberg, the important question concerns the link connecting ideological subjects to agents. What kinds of investments of subjectivity occur in the formation of nominal groups and social organizations? Grossberg speaks here of "the domain of affective individuality." This is the individual of "affective states" rather than the individual of "identities."

The affective individual exists within its nomadic wandering through the ever-changing places and spaces, vectors and apparatuses of daily life. Its shape and force are never guaranteed; its empowerment (i.e., its possibilities for action—in this case, for investment) depends in part on where it is located, how it occupies its places within specific apparatuses, and how it moves within and between them. The affective individual always moves along different vectors, always changing its shape. But it always has an affective shape as a result of its struggles to win a temporary space for itself within the places that have been prepared for it. Such nomadic travels are not random or subjective; the nomad often carries not only its maps but its places with it, through a course determined by social, cultural and historical knowledges. The affective individual is both an articulated site and a site of ongoing articulation within its own history . . . The nomadic individual is the subject and the agent of daily life, existing within an affective economy of investment which makes daily life the link between private experiences and public struggles.46

This account of the affective or nomadic subject has important implications for political struggle. In particular, it suggests the limitation of identity politics based on gender, race, class, religion, or nationality for large-scale social transformation. Identity politics are grounded in the direct experience of particular groups. Strategies of alliance within identity politics face serious problems. Specifically, Grossberg argues that

the various strategies of alliance are all attempts to construct a "We" which can represent and speak for different individuals and groups, a collective identity which transcends differences and speaks for them as well. "We" speaks as a unity from the position which the other has already constructed for it (i.e., the essentialist view). "We" speaks from an imaginary place (the site of alliance) located in the midst of the differences (i.e., the postmodern view). The discourse of representation involves the circulation of a sign which articulates specific effects (e.g., it often activates a discourse of guilt or authenticity) in specific contexts (e.g., antiabortion ads).47

Grossberg suggests that in creating a politics of transformation it is more important to mobilize affective subjects than to create a politics of identity or discourse of representation. Grossberg calls for the strategic and provisional deployment of a "We" that does not purport to represent anyone but rather is used as a "floating sign," not of unity or identity, "but of common authority and commitment to speak and act." This involves the ability to "structure the commitments which fashion everyday life and its relations to the social formation." A transformative politics needs to mobilize individuals through their affective investments in certain issues rather than through essentialist claims around the authenticity of identity through direct experience. This is not to claim that identity struggles are not important, since people invest in what they identify with, be it race, creed, or political party. The problem is that the building of coalitions based on multiple sites of identity collapses under the weight of calls for authenticity and "linguistic selfrighteousness" and "political purity."

Grossberg's concern is distinctively postmodern. Fred Pfeil gets to the heart of it in recognizing that "the problem to be worked through and, ultimately, strategized" is that of "the disunified and de-centered subject": "a vast array of ideological apparatuses, from advertizing to education, politics to MTV . . . work as much to dis-articulate the subject as to interpellate it, [offering] not the old pleasures of 'selfunderstanding,' of knowing and accepting our place, but the new delights of ever-shifting bricolage and blur."48

Ernesto Laclau speaks to a position that affirms Grossberg's unease with the Althusserian residue in poststructuralism and the importance of subjectivity as a hegemonic-articulatory process. Laclau writes that

the Althusserian theory of interpellation . . . leaves out the fact that interpellation is the terrain for the production of discourse, and that in order to "produce" subjects successfully, the latter must identify with it. The Althusserian emphasis on interpellation as a functional mechanism in social reproduction does not leave enough space to study the construction of subjects from the point of view of the individuals receiving those interpellations.49

Laclau, like Grossberg, attempts to eliminate the dualism between agent and structure by noting that social agents are always partially internal to institutions. However, since institutions never constitute closed systems but are always riven with antagonisms, social agents are always constituted within the gaps of institutional structures. The institutionalization of the social is always partial and contingent, and only to a relative degree does this constitute the subjectivity of the agents themselves.

The prespective advanced by Grossberg has much to offer transformative research agendas, especially as it concerns the role of the literacy teacher as an agent of transformative social change. Clearly, the perspective itself requires considerable further refinement and critical appraisal. Enough has been said, however, to demonstrate the fruitfulness of further research in this area on the part of those concerned with the theory and practice of critical literacy in the postmodern age.

Pedagogy in the postmodern age

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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 attempts to integrate the oppressed into the moral imperatives of the ruling elite.51

We have inherited a legacy in which blacks, Latinos, and other groups are essentialized as either biologically or culturally deficient and treated as a species of outsiders. Yet the postmodernist perspective, while addressing the contingent, contradictory, and conflictual characteristics of subject formations, sometimes itself falls prey to a neocolonizing logic by dictating the terms by which we are to speak of the marginal and subaltern.

Although modernity has been haunted by the bourgeois historical subject which remains oblivious to its roots in oppression, the solution should not simply be to embrace the demise of the contemporary subject, reduced to "a dispersed, decentered network of libidinal attachments, emptied of ethical substance and psychical interiority, the ephemeral function of this and that act of consumption, media experience, sexual relationship, trend or fashion."52 This strips the subject of authorship of its own will, yet leaves nothing in its place but a passive subject always already determined by discourse. Here again we must acknowledge the feminist critique, which raises the issue of whether or not women "can afford a sense of decentered self and a humbleness regarding the coherence and truth of their claims."53 As Di Stefano points out, postmodernism depends on a notion of a decentered subjectivity, whereas feminism depends on a relatively unified notion of the social subject as "woman."54 We should follow Eagleton and agree that "the subject of late capitalism .. . is neither simply the self-regulating synthetic agent posited by classical humanist ideology, nor merely a decentered network of desire, but a contradictory amalgam of the two."55 This points once more to the importance of critical poststructuralist, neo-Marxist, and postmodern feminist discourses working together as selfcorrecting theoretical enterprises.56

Poststructuralist pedagogy versus political pedagogy

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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 ideology. According to Zavarzadeh, humanist and poststructuralist pedagogies are both united against what he calls "political pedagogy," which is based on theory as the critique of intelligibility.

The effect of humanist and poststructuralist pedagogy is to recover and protect the subject of patriarchal capitalism. This is achieved by privileging individual experience over theory through a "pedagogy of pleasure." Pleasure becomes an experience for containing and subverting the political, yielding a politics of liberation underwritten by "playfulness" and "fancy" which is at odds with bourgeois norms and social practices, but without really challenging the social logic of those norms. Liberation becomes a "relief from the fixity of the social rather than a form of emancipation that comes with seriously challenging existing social relations. The dominant logic is temporarily displaced in an illusion of freedom.

According to Zavarzadeh, poststructuralist pedagogy concerns itself with the "how" or "manner" of knowing, whereas humanist pedagogy generally concerns itself with the "what" of knowing (such as the canon, great books). Neither approach deals with the "why" or the "politics" of representation. At their best, poststructuralist and humanist pedagogies address how a given discourse is legitimated but avoid asking about its legitimacy and how this is embedded in the prevailing economies of power. The pedagogy of poststructuralism is about using "laughter," "parody," "pastiche," and "play" as strategies of subversion which, although they decenter bourgeois relations, do not fundamentally transform them. Such strategies serve merely as a fanciful way of recruiting students into subject positions which maintain existing social relations.

By contrast, radical pedagogy does not simply bracket reality, but radically restructures it, dismantling secured beliefs and interrogating social practices and the constituents of experience while foregrounding and rendering visible the power/knowledge relation between the teacher and the student. In the radical classroom, students are "made aware of how they are the sites through which structures of social conflict produce meanings."59 Theory becomes posited as a form of resistance, a means of understanding how cultural practices transform the actual into the real. Theory is used as a means to situate tropes socially and historically according to specific practices of intelligibility through which they can be read. The subject of knowledge in this case is always theoretically positioned in the context of class, race, and gender relations.

Zavarzadeh uncovers various ways in which the discourses of poststructuralism and humanism actually work to enforce the larger economies of power, even though they profess to assisting social emancipation. His critique of poststructuralist pedagogy shows why we seek a "critical postmodernism" or "critical poststructuralism" which appropriates the socially emancipatory potential of postmodern social theory but refuses its tendency to reproduce forms of liberal humanism.


In this section we outline some of the theoretical advantages of the critical postmodernist postition.60 Developing a critical literacy which can appropriate important insights from critical postmodernism means recognizing the limitations of this perspective while building on its strengths. We try to bring together here some summary positions on critical literacy research, while considering some of the advances that postmodern social theory might bring to this research.

(1) Research on critical literacy carries with it an important historical function: namely, to discover the various complex ways in which ideological production occurs, especially the way in which subjective formations are produced on a level which is often referred to as "common sense." Common sense, or "practical consciousness," is most commonly manufactured at the level of language production and language use, and a critical literacy must be able to account for the "mutual intelligibility of acts and of discourse, achieved in and through language."61 Furthermore, critical literacy research needs to be able to identify the characteristics of an individual's "ethnomethods"—the routine actions, unconsciousness knowledge, and cultural memory from which community members draw in order to engage in a politics of daily living. This means developing participatory field approaches that can engage, interpret, and appropriate such knowledge.

(2) Critical literacy research needs to approach the process of becoming literate as something more than simply becoming rational. It must understand literacy as the means by which reality is constructed as being morality, truth, beauty, justice, and virtue, given the social habitus of society and the means by which society is able to reproduce and manage its symbolic and emotional economies. In this way, the literacy researcher needs to disrupt unconscious routines rather than simply report them, and bring into relief the politics which inhere in the dialectics of daily life and struggle.

(3) Literacy researchers must take an oppositional stance toward privileged groups within the dominant culture who have attained a disproportionately large share of resources, who are ceaselessly driven by self-perpetuatng ideologies, and who are able to incapacitate opposition by marginalizing and defaming counterdiscourses while legitimating their own. To accomplish this means understanding the production of subjectivity as something more than simply an ensemble of sliding, shifting signifiers constructed against a hyperrealistic backdrop of simulated meanings devoid of origins. Rather, it means grappling with the complex relationship between power and knowledge and how this works to affirm the interests of certain privileged groups against others.

(4) Critical literacy researchers need to seek means toward the political empowerment of oppressed groups, while at the same time avoiding discursive practices that are compatible with dominant social, economic, and political formations or congenial to the market order. They must assist groups and individuals seeking empowerment in clarifying their historical experience of oppression and subjugationa nd connect individual narratives of specific instances of oppression to an ever larger historical framework in order to recover social memory and an awareness of the struggle of other groups. Histories of survival and resistance must be recalled and efforts made to clarify "how the structural interaction among dynamics of oppression have differently affected the lives and perceptions of our own group and others."62 A liberation ethics must be developed which includes solidarity with the marginal and oppressed and, in some instances, our cosuffering with them.63

In establishing the groundwork for a critical literacy, however, the tendency within poststructuralism to privilege the experience of the particular over the theoretical should be avoided. It must be remembered that experience is not something that speaks for itself, but is an understanding which is constructed as a particular interpretation over time of a specific concrete engagement with the world of symbols, social practices, and cultural forms. How we think and talk about our world through the particular language of theory largely shapes our understanding of experience. All our experiences are held accountable within a particular system of interpretation; they are not free of political, economic, social, and linguistic constraints.64 Individual and group experiences should be taken seriously because these constitute the voices students bring with them into the classroom. They should not, however, be celebrated unqualifiedly. Rather, it is important to understand how the voices (experiences) of both the students and the teacher have been subject to historical and cultural constraints which help to shape their identities.

We believe the primary referent for the empowerment of dispossessed groups should not be their moral, ethnic, gender, or political strangeness or displacement outside the boundaries of the dominant and familiar, but rather the location of criteria which can distinguish claims of moral, ethnic, gender, or political superiority which we exercise as outsiders. 'Others' have a hermeneutical privilege in naming the issues before them and in developing an analysis of their situation appropriate to their context. How our research subjects name experience and place labels on their sense of reality should be the primary elements which inform our research. The marginalized have the first right to name reality, to articulate how social reality functions, and to decide how the issues are to be organized and defined.65 Welch claims that "it is oppressive to free people if their own history and culture do not serve as the primary sources of the definition of their freedom." She warns that "the temptation to define others' hopes for liberation must be avoided." Furthermore, "a concept of freedom is most effective as it is rooted in the imagination of the people to be freed, if it does indeed speak to something in their experience and their history."66

Since the experiences of those with whom we study can never be regarded as self-evident—experience always being the seat of ideology and never a state of unmediated innocence—researchers need to help students understand the literalness of their reality, the context in which such a reality is articulated, and how their experiences are imbricated in contradictory, complex, and changing vectors of power.

(5) Literacy researchers need to explore seriously the idea that there is not just one way to become literate, but that there are multiple literacies. This idea comes from poststructuralism and feminist theory, as well as from certain modernist studies.67 It suggests that literacy can be articulated in more than one form, depending on the cultural, historical, and ideological ways in which it unfolds within particular social formations and settings. To be a literate Latino living in a community in eastern Los Angeles may reflect qualitatively different interactions and skills than to be a Chicano living in upscale Manhattan. In a related sense, to be a minority woman in a minority culture or a woman in the dominant culture also carries profound implications for what counts as literacy.

The notion of being literate must also take into account the poststructuralist insight that every individual consists of an ensemble of multiple, shifting positions within discourses and social practices. This means that individuals can acquire knowledge from a variety of subject positions and a number of theoretical perspectives. Many of these positions, of course, can be articulated as positions of resistance to the dominant discourse on literacy, which labels them as illiterate or semiliterate.68

All this has implications for our understanding of critical literacy. Within critical literacy the personal is always understood as social, and the social is always historicized to reveal how the subject has been produced in particular. Subjectivity is understood, therefore, as a field of relations forged within a grid of power and ethics, knowledge and power. Literacy research provides a context for research subjects to analyze their identity as a product of larger social and historical struggles.

(6) Critical literacy research must counter the essentialization of difference reflected in the liberal humanist (and some postmodernist) positions, which consist of little more than a facile celebration or tolerance of the multiplicity of voices of the marginalized. It is worth emphasizing that celebrating difference without investigating the ways in which difference becomes constituted in oppressive asymmetrical relations of power often betrays a simpleminded romanticism and "exoticization" of the Other.69

The serious issue ahead for literacy researchers struggling to work through the pluralistic implications of postmodernist social theory is to elaborate a position for the human subject which acknowledges its embeddedness and contingency in the present political and historical juncture without, however, relinquishing the struggle against domination and oppression and the fight for social justice and emancipation. In the context of postmodernism, literacy researchers must ask "how .. . the discourse of theory [may] intervene in practice without bolstering domination."70

To further avoid falling into a laissez-faire pluralism, literacy researchers must develop a more detailed account of what Fraser calls "interpretive justification" of people's needs.71 This means examing the inclusivity and exclusivity of rival interpretations and analyzing the hierarchy and egalitarianism of the relations among the rivals who are engaged in debating such needs. Fraser maintains that consequences should also be taken into consideration by comparing alternative distributive outcomes of rival interpretations. This should take the form of procedural considerations concerning the social processes by which various competing interpretations are generated. Fraser asks:

Would widespread acceptance of some given interpretation of a social need disadvantage some groups of people vis-a-vis others? Does the interpretation conform to, rather than challenge, societal patterns of dominance and subordination? Are rival chains of in-order-to relations to which competing need interpretations belong more or less respectful, as opposed to transgressive, of ideological boundaries that delimit "separate spheres" and thereby rationalize inequality?72

Two autobiographical sources help enhance our theoretical understanding of subjectivity while helping us avoid the trap of a poststructuralist or liberal relativism: the idea of expansive otherness developed by Rigoberta Menchú, and Gloria Anzaldúa's concept of borderlands.73

Menchú's struggle as a Guatemalan Indian sees her participating in the regeneration of her culture by learning Spanish, but also by identifying with poor ladinos, incorporating two ethnicities in her struggle against oppression and exploitation. This resonates with perspectives contained in Anzaldúa's work, Borderlands/La Frontera, written from a Chicana lesbian stance. Anzaldua rejects the classic "authenticity" of cultural purity in favor of the "many-stranded possibilities of the borderlands."74 She is able to transform herself into a complex persona which "incorporates Mexican, Indian, and Anglo elements at the same time that she discards the homophobia and patriarchy of Chicano culture." Anzaldúa writes that the new mestiza (person of mixed ancestry) "copes by developing a tolerance for ambiguity. She learns to be Indian in Mexican culture, to be Mexican from an Anglo point of view. She learns to juggle cultures. She has a plural personality, she operates in a pluralistic mode—nothing is thrust out, the good the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned. Not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else."75

Undertaking critical research on literacy means being able to rupture effectively the charmed circle of exchange among cultural forms, historical consciousness, and the construction of subjectivity which coincide in the authorized version of the humanistic subject. It must, moreover, be an approach to critical literacy which does more than simply celebrate the infinite play of textual inscription or discover "double readings" in literary texts.


To address the antecedents and implications of new social theory in connection with formulating new advances in critical literacy research will mean a searching reevaluation of the Western metaphysical tradition, not a spurious rejection of it. The truths which modernity struggled so hard to justify, either with an objectivist world or upon transcendental grounds, should certainly be granted a provisional status, but it is incautious and politically imprudent to abandon them outright. The development of critical analyses of literacy will mean a continuing interchange with a wide variety of contemporary currents in social theory. Theorists will have to become discursive cross-dressers, always probing their own "secret heart" that undercuts the politics they are attempting to construct.

We are arguing, then, for the development of a critical poststructuralist research. This recognizes that the space between the actual and the real, between consciousness and identity, between the word and the world, is the space of experience: the space of giving voice to one's world. It is a space for restaging the ordinary and the mundane by giving it a name. A critical literacy must recognize that this space is always already occupied: a space in which the colonizer always owns a share. This colonizer, of course, is often the conquering white male of Western history.

In its critique of mainstream research, critical post-structuralist research does not argue that empirical verifiability or evidential supports are unimportant. Rather, it stresses the contingency of the social rather than "higher" forms of objectivity, the primacy of the discursive rather than the search for epistemological foundations, the transgression of the social as distinct from its positivity, and the splintering of the self-mirroring aspects of the social mundane rather than the scrutinizing of the adequacy of evidential claims.

Literacy researchers need to rethink and extend the notion of literacy to include "forms of linguistic experience that are peculiar to the twentieth century, and in particular the structures of domination they contain."76 This means greater awareness of the development of new modes of information which "designates the way symbols are used to communicate meanings and to constitute subjects."77 Literacy educators must address the following questions raised recently by Poster:

What happens in society when the boundaries of linguistic experience are drastically transformed? How are social relations altered when language is no longer limited to face to face speech or to writing? What assumptions about the nature of society need to be revised when the already complex and ambiguous aspects of language are supplemented by electronic mediation?78

In our pursuit of a literacy that is truly critical, we need to understand that we are living in an epochal transition to an era of multiple feminisms, liberalisms, and Marxisms. These, on the one hand, hold the enabling promise of liberation from sexist subjugation and a loosening of the bonds of cultural and sociopolitical white supremacy, misogyny, and class privilege. On the other hand, they threaten to splinter the left irrevocably in a maze of often mutually antagonistic micropolitics.

This risk of splintering calls for some kind of totalizing vision—what McLaren has referred to as "an arch of social dreaming"—that spans the current divisiveness we are witnessing within the field.79 An arch of social dreaming gives shape, coherence, and protection to the unity of our collective struggles. It means attaining a vision of what the total transformation of society might mean. When we refer to a totalizing vision, however, it must be clear that we intend what Laclau80 calls "the search for the universal in the contingent" as well as the "contingency of all universality." The arch of social dreaming attempts to make "ambiguous connections" rather than foster "underlying systematicities." As Jameson remarks, "Without some notion of a total transformation of society and without the sense that the immediate project is a figure for that total transformation, so that everybody has a stake in a particular struggle, the success of any local struggle is doomed, limited to reform."81 Jameson makes clear that in our research efforts we cannot dismiss the search for totality.

We must continue to seek multiple discourses (African-American pedagogy, Marxist pedagogy, feminist pedagogy) which mutually enhance the political project of each. But such nontotalizing alternatives to liberal humanist discourse must not reject the dream of totality outright. Although there may be a number of public spheres from which to wage an oppositional politics, and although the micropolitical interests of groups that fleck the horizon of the postmodern scene may have overwhelmingly separate and distinct agendas, we should—all of us—work together toward a provisional, perhaps evanescent or even ephemeral, totality to which we can all aspire, as paradoxical as this may seem.

The real challenge of postmodernity is to steer an ethical and political course in times of shifting theoretical borders and unstable systems of meaning and representation. We must heed Hartsock's challenge to build "an account of the world as seen from the margins, an account which can expose the falseness of the view from the top and can transform the margins as well as the center." This is not a theory of power in which one can afford to retreat from all that is oppressive and inhuman. It is "an engaged vision .. . a call for change and participation in alterning power relations."82

The proper response to the challenge of postmodernism is not to wish ourselves back to the halcyon days of the male subject's quest for total control of his subjectivity, but rather to return to a renewed sense of our own obligation to the other. Before we raise the epistemological question "Who are you?" we must first raise the ethical question "Where are you?" We cannot forget our commitment to the other. For, as Kearney notes, "When a naked face cries 'Where are you?,' we do not ask for identity papers. We reply, first and foremost, 'Here I am.'"83

It is important to remember that literacies are always brittle and that through the cracks seeps the stuff of possibility. Confronting the wall of subjective determination is Derrida's "gap"—dehiscence—the gap that allows and necessitates the further construction of subjectivity through language, even in the face of an always and already disappearing present.

It is in this sense that a poststructuralist approach to literacy can help students develop narratives of identity that do not abandon the reality of human suffering and struggle in a world rife with pain and suffering. It is a process that can help them develop phronesis—the competence to choose among seemingly incompatible values in situations where no a priori standard can be invoked.84 A poststructuralist approach to literacy can assist us in answering the question: How do essentially arbitrarily organized codes, products of historical struggle among not only regimes of signs but regimes of material production, come to represent the "real" and the "natural" and the "necessary"? Part of the answer is that our "practical consciousness" masks the materiality of socially contested social relations by presenting norms to explain reality that purport to be self-referential, that appear to refer to immanent laws of signification, that are reflected away from being considered as the effects of social struggle. A critical poststructuralism recognizes that signs do not correspond to an already determined metaphysical reality, nor are they transhistorically indeterminable or undecidable. Rather, their meaning-making possibilities and their meaningfulness are legitimized through the specificity of discursive and material struggles, and the political linkages between them.

A poststructuralist perspective on literacy can help us understand the danger that arises when literacy is seen as a private or individual competency or set of competencies rather than a complex circulation of economic, political, and ideological practices that inform daily life—competencies that invite or solicit students to acquiesce in their social and gendered positions within a highly stratified society and accept the agenthood assigned to them along the axes of race, class, and gender.

Critical literacy, as we are using the term, becomes the interpretation of the social present for the purpose of transforming the cultural life of certain groups, for questioning tacit assumptions and unarticulated presuppositions of current cultural and social formations and the subjectivities and capacities for agenthood that they foster. It aims at understanding the ongoing social struggles over the signs of culture and over the definition of social reality—over what is considered legitimate and preferred meaning at any given historical moment. Of course, aesthetic concerns mediate such struggles, but their outcomes are largely ideological and economic. Through such struggles historically and ideologically contested class and social relations are naturalized. In this way, critical literacy can be described as investigating those communicational devices that reinscribe the human subject into prevailing social relations so that these relations are seen as conventional and uncontested. That is, critical literacy asks: How is cultural reality encoded within familiar grids or frames of intelligibility so that literacy practices that unwittingly affirm racism, sexism, and heterosexism, for example, are rendered natural and commonsensical?

Teachers and students engaged in the process of critical literacy recognize that dominant social arrangements are dominant not because they are the only possible arrangements but because those arrangements exist for the advantage of certain privileged groups. Critical literacy is not satisfied that students should know the 4,700 items that all Americans need to know according to E.D. Hirsch, Jr., or that they can reflect the cultural capital of an Allan Bloom or Roger Kimball. Critical literacy doesn't lament the dearth of bourgeois salons for cultivating allegiances to Western culture but rather asks: Creativity, culture, and literacy for what?

Critical literacy as a pedagogy of empowerment does not seek a universal truth, or a truth whose ideological effects permit some groups to survive at the expense of others. Critical literacy rather seeks to produce partial, contingent, but necessary historical truths that will enable the many public spheres that make up our social and institutional life to be emancipated—truths which are acknowledged for their social constructedness and historicity and the institutional and social arrangements and practices they legitimate.

For educators, this means constructing a place of hybrid pedagogical space where students do not feel that they need any longer the colonizer's permission or approval to narrate their own identities, a space where individual identities are not essentialized on the basis of race, gender, or nationality, but where these expressions of identity can find meaning in collective engagement with conditions which threaten to undermine the authority and power of individuals to speak and to live with dignity and under conditions of equality and social justice.85

Critical literacy enables us to rearticulate the role of the social agent so that he or she is able to make affective alliances with forms of agency that will provide new grounds of popular authority from which to speak the neverending narratives of human freedom. Poststructuralist educators must not abandon their rootedness in the struggles of the popular classes in favor of joining a patrician priesthood of left mandarin metropolitan intellectuals. They must never abandon Volosinov's recognition of the materiality of the sign as a product of social forces and relations of power, as a lived embodiment of both oppression and possibility, subordination and emancipation.

In the final analysis, we must reject any notion of the human subject which seals itself off from its own history, its own link to the community of multiple selves which surrounds it, its narratives of freedom. To construct a truly critical literacy, we need to make despair less salutory and economic, social, racial, and gender equality politically conceivable and pedagogically possible.


* This is a reworked and greatly expanded version of Peter McLaren, "Literacy Research and the Postmodern Turn: Cautions from the Margins," In Richard Beach et al (eds.) Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Literacy Research, Urbana, Illinois: National Conference on Research in English and the National Council of Teachers of English, 1992, pp. 319-339.

1 Weedon, C, Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory (Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell, 1987).

2 Collins, J., Uncommon Cultures (London: Routledge, 1990).

3 Frow, J. Marxism and Literary History (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1986).

4 Laclau, E., and Mouffe, C, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (London: Verso, 1985).

5 Laclau, E., "Building a New Left: Interview with Ernesto Laclau," Strategies, 1, pp. 10-28.

6 MacCannell, D., "Baltimore in the Morning .. . After: On the Forms of Post-Nuclear Leadership," Diacritics, 1984, pp. 33-46.

7 Voss, D., and Schutze, J., "Postmodernism in Context: Perspectives of a Structural Change in Society, Literature and Literacy Criticism," New German Critique, 47, 1989, pp. 119-142.

8 Lash, S., and Urry, J., The End of Organized Capitalism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987); McLaren, P., "Postmodernity and the Death of Politics: A Brazilian Reprieve," Educational Theory, 36, 4, 1986, pp. 389-401, and "Schooling the Postmodern Body: Critical Literacy and the Politics of Enfleshment," Journal of Education, 170, 3, 1988, pp. 53-83; McLaren, P., and Hammer, R., "Critical Pedagogy and the Postmodern Challenge: Towards a Critical Postmodernist Pedagogy of Liberation," Educational Foundations, 3, 3, 1989, pp. 29-62; Giroux, H., "Postmodernism and the Discourse of Educational Criticism," and "Border Pedagogy in the Age of Postmodernism," Journal of Education, 170, 3, 1988, pp. 5-30 and 162-181.

9 Berman, R., Modern Culture and Critical Theory (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), p. 41.

10 Voss and Schutze, op. cit., p. 120.

11 Butler, J., Gender Trouble (London and New York: Routledge, 1987), p. 145.

12 Flax, J., "Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist Theory," Signs, 12, 4, 1987, p. 624.

13 Flax, J., "Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist Theory," in Nicholson, L.J. (ed), Feminism/Postmodernism (New York and London: Routledge, 1990), p. 39.

14 Cf. Dussel, E., Philosophy of Liberation (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1980).

15 Cf. Sarup, M., Poststructuralism and Postmodernism (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1989), p. 57.

16 Cf. Hutcheon, L., A Poetics of Postmodernism (London and New York: Routledge, 1988).

17 See Poster, M., Critical Theory and Poststructuralism (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989), pp. 28-29.

18 Cf. Butler, J., Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth Century France (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987).

19 Connor, S., Postmodernist Culture (Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989), p. 48.

20 Brenkman, J., "Theses on Cultural Marxism," Social Text, 7, 1983, p. 27.

21 Hartsock, N., "Rethinking Modernism: Minority vs. Majority Theories," Cultural Critique 7: p. 106.

22 Gates, H. L., Jr., "The Master's Pieces: On Canon Formation and the African-American Tradition," The South Atlantic Quarterly, 89, 1, 1990, pp. 89-111.

23 Lentricchia, F., Ariel and the Police (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), p. 100.

24 Bennett, T., "Texts in History: The Determinations of Readings and Their Texts," in Attridge, D., and Bennington, G. (eds.), Post-structuralism and the Question of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

25 Eagleton, T., Against the Grain (London: Verso, 1989), p. 184.

26 Scully, J., Line Break (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988), p. 66.

27 Collins, op. cit., p. 89.


29 Jameson, F., "Interview," Diacritics, 12, 3, 1982, p. 75.

30 Merod, J., The Political Responsibility of the Critic (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1987), p. 284.

31 Scholes, R., "Deconstruction and Communication," Critical Inquiry, 14, Winter 1988, p. 284. Compare also Cornell West's position: Stephanson, A., "Interview with Cornell West" in Ross, A. (ed.), Universal Abandon? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 274.

32 Mascia-Lees, F., Sharpe, P., and Cohen, C.B., "The Postmodern Turn in Anthropology: Cautions from a Feminist Perspective," Signs, 15, 1, 1989, p. 27.

33 Barthes, R., S/Z (London: Cape, 1975).

34 Megill, A., Prophets of Extremity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), p. 345.

35 Yudice, G., "Marginality and the Ethics of Survival," in Ross, A. (ed.), Universal Abandon? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 225.

36 deLauretis, T., Technologies of Gender (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 25.

37 Christian, B., "The Race for Theory," Cultural Critique, 6, 1987, p. 55.

38 Kellner, D., "Postmodernism as Social Theory: Some Challenges and Problems," Theory, Culture and Society, 5, 2-3, 1988, p. 263.

39 Dews, P., "From Post-Structuralism to Postmodernity: Habermas' Counter-Perspective," ICA Documents, 4, published by Institute for Contemporary Arts, London, 1986, p. 15.

40 Hawkesworth, M., "Knowers, Knowing, Known: Feminist Theory and Claims of Truth," Signs, 14, 3, 1989.

41 Mascia-Lees et al., op. cit., p. 29.

42 Giroux, H., "Modernism, Postmodernism and Feminism: Rethinking the Boundaries of Educational Discourse," in his (ed.), Postmodernism, Feminism, and Cultural Politics (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991), pp. 1-59.

43 Grossberg, L., We Gotta Get Out of This Place, working manuscript, forthcoming.




47Ibid. The quotations in the following paragraph are from the same source.

48 Pfeil, F., Another Tale to Tell (London and New York: Verso, 1990), p. 256.

49 Laclau, E., New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time (London and New York: Verso, 1990), p. 210.

50 Inden, R., "America Teaches the World Order," paper delivered at the seminar "Intellectuals and Social Action," University of North Carolina, 1989.

51 McLaren, P., Life in Schools (New York: Longman, 1989); Giroux, H., and McLaren, P., "Schooling, Cultural Politics, and the Struggle for Democracy: Introduction,: in Giroux, H., and McLaren, P. (eds.), Critical Pedagogy, the State, and Cultural Struggle (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989).

52 Eagleton, T., Against the Grain (London: Verso, 1986), p. 145.

53 Nicholson, L., "Introduction," in her (ed.), Feminism/Postmodernism (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 6.

54 Di Stephano, C, "Dilemmas of Difference: Feminism, Modernity, and Postmodernism," in Nicholson, L. (ed.), ibid., pp. 63-82.

55 Eagleton (1986), op. tit, p. 145.

56 Giroux (1991), op. cit.

57 Eagleton (1986), op. cit., pp. 96-97.

58 Zavarzadeh, M., "Theory as Resistance," Rethinking Marxism, 2, 1, 1989.

59Ibid, p. 66.

60 McLaren (1987) and McLaren and Hammer (1989), both op. cit.

61 Thompson, K., Beliefs and Ideology (New York and London: Tavistock and Ellis Horwood, 1986), p. 116.

62 See Harrison, B. W., Making the Connections, ed. Carol S. Robb) (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985).

63Giroux (1988), op. cit.

64 Morton, D., and Zavarzadeh, M., "The Cultural Politics of the Fiction Workshop," Cultural Critique, 11, 1988, pp. 155-173.

65 Milhevc, J., "Interpreting the Debt Crisis," The Economist, 28, 1, 1989, pp. 5-10.

66 Welch, S., Communities of Resistance and Solidarity Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1985), p. 83.

67 See, for example, Graff, H., The Literacy Myth (New York: Academic Press, 1979); Street, B., Literacy in Theory and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984); Lankshear, C, with Lawler, M., Literacy, Schooling and Revolution (London and New York: Falmer Press, 1987).

68 Cf. Giroux (1988), both op. cit. (see note 8).


70 Poster, op. cit., p. 27.

71 Fraser, op. cit., p. 182.


73 Menchú, R. I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, ed. and Introduction by Burgos-Debray, trans. Ann Wright (London: Verso, 1984); Anzaldúa, G., Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987).

74 Rosaldo, R., Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), p. 216.

75 Anzaldúa, cited in ibid., p. 216.

76 Poster, op. cit., p. 132.

77Ibid., p. 131.

78Ibid., p. 129.

79 McLaren (1988), op. cit.

80 Laclau (1988), op. cit., p. 23.

81 Jameson, F., "Cognitive Mapping," in Nelson, C, and Grossberg, L. (eds.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), p. 360.

82 Hartsock, op. cit., p. 172.

83 Kearney, R., The Wake of Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), p. 362.

84 Fererra, A., "On Phronesis," Praxis International, 7, 3-4, 1987, pp. 246-267.

85 One of the difficulties that radical educators who work from a postmodern perspective have to face is a specious attack on their work as mere "textualism" or "aestheticism." Many of these attacks are launched by Marxist educators who seek the moral high ground by claiming that only they are really interested in the suffering and emanicipation of oppressed groups.

Many of these attacks are inadequately theorized and researched and carefully select out those works that specifically run counter to their claims. For a prime example, see London E. Beyer and Daniel P. Liston, "Discourse or Moral Action? A critique of Postmodernism." Educational Theory, Vol. 42, No. 4, pp. 371-393. Criticism such as this, which fails to adequately distinguish between ludie and resistance strands of postmodernism, cannot hope to appreciate the emancipatory possibilities of postmodern discourse. For works that not only address similar criticisms of postmodernism, but seek to establish a postmodernism of resistance—especially with respect to the development of a moral imagination—see Peter McLaren, "Multiculturalism and the Postmodern Critique: Towards a Pedagogy of Resistance and Transformation," Cultural Studies, in press; Peter McLaren and Rhonda Hammer, "Critical Pedagogy and the Postmodern Challenge: Towards a Critical Postmodernist Pedagogy of Liberation," Educational Foundations, Vol 3, No. 3 (1989), pp. 29-62; Peter McLaren, "Postmodernity, Postcolonialism and Pedagogy," Education and Society, Vol. 9, No. 2 (1991), pp. 136-158; and Henry Giroux, Border Crossings, (London and New York: Routledge, 1992). To acknowledge pedagogies informed by resistance or critical postmodernism would undercut Beyer and Liston's arguments so this strand of postmodernism remains absent in their critique.


In his recent book, Common Culture, 1 Paul Willis argues that we live in an era in which high culture or official culture has lost its dominance. Official culture—the best efforts of Allan Bloom and E.D. Hirsch, Jr., notwithstanding—cannot hope to colonize, dominate, or contain the everyday and the mundane aspects of life. Formal aesthetics have been replaced by a grounded aesthetics. The main seeds of cultural development are to be found in the commercial provision of cultural commodities.

Indeed, as Scott Lash points out,2 postmodern culture permits us to see the economy itself as a kind of culture, a regime of signification. On the "demand side" of a post-Fordist economy we have specialist consumption and "sign value" rather than "use value"—and there are, seemingly, virtually no limits to sign value. We have an era of mass advertising with an oversupply of cultural significations in what is basically a self-service economy. The shift from producer capitalism to consumer capitalism, and the privileging of distributing over production, has created new restrictions and possibilities alike for identity formation and social change. Willis says,

We must start from unpalatable truths or no truths at all. The time for lies is gone. We need worse truths, not better lies. The "arts" are a dead letter for the majority of young people. Politics bore them. Institutions are too often associated with coercion or exclusion and seem, by and large, irrelevant to what really energizes them. "Official culture" has hardly recognized informal everyday culture, still less has it provided usable materials for its dialectical development. Worse, the "holiness" of "art" has made the rest of life profane.3

According to Willis, one way to work for the "best side" of this trend is to give everyday culture "back to its owners" and letting them develop it. "Let them control the conditions, production, and consumption of their own symbolic resources."4 This, however, is no easy task, and there are no guarantees, especially since symbolic resources "are lodged in their own historical patterns of power and logics of production." But if the grounded aesthetics of everyday cultural life for youth are concretely embedded in the sensuous human activities of meaning making, there are implications for a critical approach to literacy. Literacy must help students "to increase the range, complexity, elegance, self-consciousness and purposefulness of this involvement" in symbolic work.5 It must provide them with the symbolic resources for creative self and social formation so that they can more critically reenter the broader plains of common culture.

Symbolic work within informal culture is unlike the symbolic work of school in fundamental ways.

Where everyday symbolic work differs from what is normally thought of as "education" is that it "culturally produces" from its own chosen cultural resources. Psychologically, at least, the informal symbolic workers of common cultures feel they really "own" and can therefore manipulate their resources as materials and tools—unlike the books at school which are "owned" by the teachers.6

For these reasons, creative symbolic work within informal culture offers important possibilities for "oppositional, independent or alternative symbolizations of the self." Moreover, human beings must not be regarded merely as human capital or labor power, but as "creative citizens, full of their own sensuous symbolic capacities and activities and taking a hand in the construction of their own identities." The pursuit of emancipation and equality, therefore, requires more than being made equal as workers. It calls for all to be fully developed as cultural producers.7

Critical literacy is essential to this struggle in several ways. We need to be literate enough to deny the injunctions by which identities are constructed through official culture, in whatever form it appears. This presupposes that we create what Judith Butler calls "alternative domains of cultural intelligibility . . . new possibilities . . . that contest the rigid codes of hierarchical binarisms."8 Within such hybrid pedagogical spaces educators can give greater attention to the everyday artifacts of popular culture and forms of knowledge that avoid the elitist tyranny of the center. Critical literacy enables us to rearticulate the role of the social agent so that she or he can make affective alliances with forms of agency that provide new grounds of popular authority, ground to stand on from which to give voice to narratives of human freedom.

What educators like Hirsch and Bloom seemingly fail to understand is that schools are failing large numbers of minority and otherwise marginalized students precisely because too much emphasis is already placed on trading in the status of one's cultural capital. Ironically, students who populate urban settings in places like New York's Howard Beach, Ozone Park, and El Barrio are likely to learn more about the culture of Eastern Europe in settings designed by metropolitan intellectuals than they are about the Harlem Renaissance, Mexico, Africa, the Caribbean, or Aztec or Zulu culture. The sad irony is that test scores based on information decanted from the vessel of Western values and bourgeois cultural capital are used to justify school district and state funding initiatives.

Critical literacy helps us identify and answer the question: How do essentially arbitrarily organized cultural codes, products of historical struggle among not only regimes of signs but regimes of material production, also come to represent the "real," the "natural," and the "necessary"? A critical literacy reveals that signs do not correspond to an already determined metaphysical reality, nor are they transhistorically indeterminable or undecidable. Rather, their meaning-making possibilities and their meaningfulness are legitimized through the specificity of discursive and material struggles, and the political linkages between them. A critical perspective on reading and writing also enables teachers and students to understand the dangers in considering literacy to be a private or individual competency—or set of competencies—rather than a complex circulation of economic, political, and ideological practices that inform daily life, that invite or solicit students to acquiesce in their social and gendered positions within a highly stratified society and accept the agenthood assigned to them along the axes of race, class, and gender.

To this extent critical literacy becomes the interpretation of the social present for the purpose of transforming the cultural life of particular groups, for questioning the tacit assumptions and unarticulated presuppositions of our current cultural and social formations and the subjectivities and capacities for agenthood that they foster. Critical literacy is directed at understanding the ongoing social struggles over the signs of culture and over the definition of social reality, over what is considered legitimate and preferred meaning at any given historical moment.

The critical literacy we envisage does not suggest that diversity in and of itself is necessarily progressive; but it does suggest that curricula should be organized in ways that encourage and enable students to make judgments about how society is historically and socially constructed, both within and outside of a politics of diversity, how existing social practices are implicated in relations of equality and justice as well as how they structure inequalities around racism, sexism, economic exploitation, and other forms of oppression.

Students need to be able to cross over into different zones of cultural diversity for rethinking the relationship of self and society, self and other, and for deepening the moral vision of society. Moreover, the question arises: How are the categories of race, class, and gender shaped within the margins and center of society, and how can students engage history as a way of reclaiming power and identity?

Trinh T. Min-ha talks about constructing hybrid and hyphen-ated identities, identities which simultaneously affirm difference and unsettle every definition of otherness.

The moment the insider steps out from the inside she's no longer a mere insider. She necessarily looks in from the outside while she's looking out from the inside. Not quite the same, not quite the other, she stands in that undermined threshold place where she constantly drifts in and out. Undercutting the inside/outside opposition, her intervention is necessarily that of both not-quite an insider and not-quite an outsider. She is, in other words, this inappropriate other or same who moves about with always at least two gestures: that of affirming "I am like you" while persisting in her difference and that of reminding "I am different" while unsettling every definition of otherness arrived at.9

Critical literacy is built on the notion of border identities and a politics of location as border crossers10. It is also grounded in the ethical imperative of examining the contradictions in society between the meaning of freedom, the demands of social justice, and the obligations of citizenship, on the one hand, and the structured silence that permeates incidences of suffering in everyday life. The politics of difference that undergirds critical literacy is one in which differences rearticulate and reshape identity so that identities are transformed and in some instances broken down, but never lost. That is, they are identities immersed not in the effete objections of a centrist politics which leaves individuals to function as obeisant servants of the power brokers, but identities which affirm them as reshapers of their own histories.


1 Willis, P., Common Culture (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1990).

2 Lash, S. Sociology of Postmodernism (London and New York: Routledge, 1990).

3 Willis, op. cit., p. 129.


5Ibid., pp. 130-131.

6Ibid., p. 136.

7Ibid., p. 150.

8 Butler, J. Gender Trouble (New York and London: Routledge, 1990), p. 145.

9 Min-ha, Trinh T., "Not You/Like You: Post-Colonial Women and the Interlocking Questions of Identity and Difference," Inscriptions, 3-4, 1988, p. 76.

10 Giroux, H. Border Crossings. (New York and London, 1992).


Charles Russell

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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 critical response to culture, but there is clearly less faith in one's assumptions of self-knowledge and mastery, in one's perception and knowledge of the external world, and even more importantly, in the writer's very means of expression.

Gone are the modernist and avant-garde premises of the privileged nature of the writer's perspective and language. No longer does the feeling of alienation suggest a compensating critical and totalizing vantage point from which the writer can declare his independence from his culture. Instead, the essential dynamics of postmodernism indicate a major re-evaluation of the individual's response to his society, and in particular to society's semiotic codes of behavior, value and discourse. The postmodern individual, the writer, and the text now experience and articulate themselves self-consciously from within the social context—from which, nevertheless, they may still feel alienated and of which they may still be critical. Postmodern literature recognizes that all perception, cognition, action and articulation are shaped, if not determined, by the social domain. There can be no simple opposition to culture, no privileged perspective or language, no secure singular self-definition, for all find their meaning only within the social context.

This problematic situation is, of course, only one manifestation of a more general change in the social life of contemporary culture. Most sociological discussions of postmodern culture locate the origin of the confusion between personal and social domains in the dissolution of bourgeois hegemony and the development of mass culture, in which class lines are blurred and class antagonisms are unresolved but submerged in a late capitalist, state modulated economic system of consumption.1 Inherent in this stage of capitalism is the increasing totalization of culture, the movement toward an internally consistent and all-encompassing social structure in which all institutions and patterns of human behavior are mutually regulated. But this culture also exhibits a series of internal oppositions and contradictions which become evident in post-modern literature. For example, with the growth of mass, pluralistic culture, we both encounter a heightened sense of individual freedom, even anarchic tendencies, and at the same time observe signs of a pervasive totalizing social uniformity and control. Individual innovation, style and desire are accented, but lose their distinctiveness and multi-dimensionality in a homogenizing pluralism that obscures originality. Constant change, either the product of personal effort or corporate plan, is experienced, but the society as a whole seems oppressively static. A central focus of postmodern literature is consequently the merging of personal and collective domains. Postmodern writing explores the patterns of mediation, control and opposition among individuals and mass culture, a culture experienced primarily through society's codes of discourse and behavior, its collective structures of order and articulation.

These concerns are especially evident in contemporary American fiction—in the works of writers such as Pynchon, Coover, Burroughs, Kosinski, Sukenick, Barthelme, Reed, Barth, Federman, Gass, Major, Vonnegut, Brautigan, Katz, Demby, and Sorrentino. All develop self-reflexive innovative literary strategies to illuminate the conflicts and paradoxes inherent in the individual's discovery of the nature and limits of identity and expression. The subject matter of these works is at once the complex interactions of individual and culture, of personal speech and collective discourse, of specific text and literary tradition, and of literature and society's semiotic codes. Each pairing reveals the ambiguous status of individual creator or creation in a society which seems alternately to control or prefigure individual expression and yet to allow substantial personal freedom.

At the heart of this ambiguity, then, on both the formal and thematic levels, is the problematic nature of subjective presence—whether conceived in terms of character, writer or the speaking voice of the text—a subjectivity which rarely achieves clear definition or stable identity. Personal presence discovers itself as fundamentally in flux, as a process or transitory locus of shifting, disparate and incompletely known events, forces, concepts and systems, over which it has little control and which it can at most investigate and strive to pattern by a constant self-reflexive critique and creation.

Thematically, the most frequent expression of the ambiguity between personal and collective domains is paranoia. It is both a primary psychological state and literary motif. Both writer and character realize that successful selfdefinition depends on developing techniques of constant testing and interpreting of self and the encroaching world. They devise strategies of retreat or antagonism, of formalism or disruption. But since the integrity of personal identity is ever in doubt and the nature of the threatening environment is rarely revealed, these figures are never sure whether such disruption and creation prove to be adequate responses. Self-reflexive creative freedom may be but an expression of social encapsulation; disruption of the environment or text may result in a debilitating fragmentation of self or voice; and instead of providing an understanding of the social context, individual liberation may only unveil the visionary dreams and destructive reality of anarchism.

For example, William Burroughs' novels provide the most graphic and extreme expression of anarchic idealism and rage in contemporary literature. His characters are incessantly beset by forces of exploitation which push them into lives of addiction, self-destruction and progressive dehumanization. Rarely do they perceive either what is happening to them or their own participation in their degredation. Most accept uncritically the propaganda broadcast by the media, the institutions of social control, the "Time, Life, Fortune Monopoly," the "reality studios," or the political groups of Naked Lunch—the Liquifactionists, Divisionists and Senders, all of whom are intent on replicating themselves through their victims or dominating people's thoughts by instilling a single pattern of cognition and expression in society.

But Burroughs also suggests that to struggle against social control means to battle against one's prior identification with it—and, even more distressing, that to actively oppose the enemy insures that one remains defined by them; for as long as one is obsessed with fighting the opposition, one is not free of it. In Burroughs' novels, the greatest danger is thus to allow oneself to become rigidly defined by something external to oneself, for then one's identity is restricted and vulnerable. Consequently, the individual must not only disrupt the reality studios, but continuously disorient himself and his language to prevent his life from being controlled by anything except immediate, personal will. Against the institutions of control, Burroughs sends his anarchists, terrorists and the "Nova Police" who expose what is taken for reality for the grotesque horror it is. Against the three political parties of Naked Lunch, he pits a fourth, the Factualists, whose job it is to reveal in the most brutal—and often pornographic—terms the truth of our normal lives. The Factualists, however, cannot substitute an alternative vision, for Burroughs trusts no codified message or program, which might then be co-opted or become an authoritarian voice in others' lives. All the Factualists can do is disrupt and expose reality to force people to recognize themselves for what they are both before and after they accept a version of the "reality film"—"dying animals on a doomed planet."2 Paradoxically then, precisely what sends people into addiction—their fear of chaos and pain, their sense of personal fragmentation and insignificance—becomes the means and the basis of their cure. Disruption, chaos, violence and exposure are what one must learn to live in. Only those strong enough to exist without external support, without a rigid identity, will survive.

In many ways, the world of Jerzy Kosinski's novels is similarly exploitative, and correspondingly, his characters' responses are as willful and antagonistic as are Burroughs'. Social and personal relationships in his novels are barely disguised forms of aggression. Political and collective social systems attempt to mold individuals' behavior. In turn, individuals depend on the exploitation of others for their own self-assurance and protection, since each person represents a threat to every other person. Kosinski's protagonists construct series of masks, offensive and defensive disguises, which enable them to manipulate others before they themselves are manipulated. But behind these masks the individual has no identity as such. He is only a predilection for control or self-defense. We never know a character except as fictive masks attempting to act upon others, or as he realizes he is the product of external forces acting upon him, or occasionally as he ponders the insubstantiality of his subjective presence. Furthermore, Kosinski's characters' lives have no apparent continuity. We perceive them only in series of discrete events, tests of self, and theaters of combat.

In Ronald Sukenick's novels, again, neither the social environment nor the characters' identities are stable, though they are not nearly as violent as are Burroughs' and Kosinski's. Everything in Sukenick's books is in a state of flux and fission. The half-lives of characters or their surroundings often last no longer than a few pages, at times a few sentences. Both reality and identity are perceived to be fictions, subject to revision as the shifting situation warrants. As in so many postmodern novels, the causes of these revisions are unclear. At times, changes in the characters' identities seem to be unconscious effects of alterations in the environment; at others, they appear to be creative or defensive responses to environmental changes; and at still others, their surroundings modulate in tune with the characters' willed mutations; and finally, at times all these possibilities seem to occur at once. The result is a vision of complex and ill-defined connections between individuals and their world, leading alternately to conditions of extreme paranoia and exhilarating creative freedom. Characters are able to synthesize alternate versions of themselves out of their dreams, memories, subconscious, social roles and fantasies, while at the same time remaining almost totally dependent upon the vagaries of experience. The only adequate response, Sukenick suggests, is to accept identity as only a transitory locus of consciousness and experience. One must embrace and live within the flow of events, creating one's identity and insuring one's freedom from external control by improvising with the fragments of self and the stimuli thrust at one from the environment.

By counseling improvisation, the creation of personal reality in the absence of acceptable social totalities, Sukenick identifies one of the main aesthetic principles of postmodern literature, as well as of the visual arts, dance, music, theater and performance art. A character named Cloud in Sukenick's novel 98.6 refers to the improvisatory mode as Psychosynthesis: "Psychosynthesis is the opposite of psychoanalysis but apart from that Cloud refuses to define it. Cloud feels that life is a lot like a novel you have to make it up. That's the point of psychosynthesis in his opinion to pick up the pieces and make something of them. Psychosynthesis is based on the Mosaic Law. The Mosaic Law is the law of mosaics a way of dealing with parts in the absence of wholes."3 However, even though the characters of Burroughs and Kosinski also participate in the synthesis of temporary identities, their authors recognize, as do many contemporary writers, that the "whole" may not be absent; it may just be obscure. In fact, the main justification of literary fragmentation and improvisation, they would argue, is to free oneself from a threatening external totality, whether it be literary or social, evident or hidden. Demystification of one's entanglement in the forces of totalization is thus the first stage of creation.

Significantly, the environment that postmodern characters confront is described as a fictive construct, as systems of social discourse. These characters, positioned self-consciously within the social framework, encounter no natural world, but rather a cultural reality, a reality structured by the patterns of social desire, discourse and ideology which manifest themselves throughout the environment and the characters' lives. Specifically, in the works of Pynchon, Coover, Barthelme, Brautigan, Gass, Reed, Wurlitzer, Vonnegut, Federman and those already mentioned, the environment the characters struggle with is often only a series of patent fictions, sign systems, hidden messages, obscure codes, familiar myths, pop images, and most frequently what Barthelme calls dreck, the detritus of popular culture, deracinated images of mass media in a pluralistic society. Barthelme's ironic and witty collages of high and popular culture rituals, Reed's adaptation of folk and popular narratives, Coover's grand orchestration of myths, cartoon images and historical facts, Brautigan's and Vonnegut's wry explorations of American myths and popular and minor literary genres all testify to the individual writer's and character's entanglement in the web of meaning systems that make up mass culture.

But the meaning of these meaning systems is rarely very clear; the environment is never neutral, and is frequently threatening. Interpretation of the environment—even before its demystification—is thus the initial step of selfdefinition. But in a chaotic, ambiguous and perhaps antagonistic environment, the problematic interpreter—the vulnerable, fragmented, paranoid character—can rarely achieve a coherent interpretation. The interpreter is never detached enough from his subject to master either himself or his surroundings.

The characters of Pynchon's novels, especially Stencil and Profane of V., Oedipa Maas of The Crying of Lot 49, and Slothrop, Enzian and Tchitcherine of Gravity's Rainbow are emblematic of this dilemma. They continuously find themselves caught between the apparent chaos of a world of "so much replication, so much waste,"4 and suggestions of an omnipresent malevolent order, hidden behind but determining the chaos and their lives. Most end as do Stencil and Oedipa, at the point of realizing that no answer is forthcoming, no coherent interpretation possible, and that their only hope is the small space of personal freedom and vitality found in sustaining their private searches, quests which will keep them from falling back into the rigid and ultimately self-destructive lifestyles so endemic to their culture. But even this search may become a mystifying system, another version of entropy. Similarly, the Counterforce in Gravity's Rainbow, though it adopts a politically aggressive posture against the totalizing System, quickly reveals its limitations. Their self-consciously alogical, disorganized anarchism turns willed fragmentation against the established order in an effort to disrupt and demystify it. But as Roger Mexico realizes, to define themselves as a "Wesystem" against the "They-system" the Counterforce must play "Their" game and remain a subsidiary system within the larger one, a subversive ideology living under the hegemony of a dominant, exploitative ideology. And even though they sing "It isn't resistance, it's a war," Mexico foresees that they have no hope of dismantling the System. At most, they will only be able to carve out relatively small areas of personal satisfaction, and, being no significant threat, will be condemned to "living on as their pet."5

This judgment can apply equally well to most contemporary literary characters, and is a succinct expression of the paradoxes confronting the self-conscious individual in mass culture. Of particular importance to postmodern fiction, however, is that this problem of subjective integrity is not limited to the characters created by writers, but is also manifested in the self-reflexive text's relationship to the established codes of literary and social language. Burroughs once wrote: "To speak is to lie—To live is to collaborate,"6 and while he later qualified the extremism of this statement, such a sentiment ultimately indicates the limits of contemporary innovative writing. The postmodern literary sensibility must confront, as does the Counterforce, the ambiguous placement of the writer and text in society and its discourse. Indeed, the characteristic strategies of postmodern innovative fiction—the aggressive disruption of language and of the literary text through fragmentation, aleatory structures, strained metaphors, collage, "cut-ups," self-reflexively arbitrary formal structuration—adopt avant-garde techniques to alter both the reader's literary expectations and his habitual acceptance of social discourse. The constant linguistic and stylistic innovation of recent writing displays a critical response not only to society, but to the very medium of literature which is a product of society. But just as the fragmentation of the literary characters suggests both a diminishment of individual possibility and an anarchic freedom, the obverse side of the aggressive demystification of language and its concurrent search for a more personal and vital expression is a disheartening or resigned sense of linguistic restriction and individual creative inconsequence.

The self-reflexive text's focus on language reflects the analysis of the individual's relationship to society's semiotic codes that is the subject of contemporary semiological criticism. Both the literature and criticism conclude that: 1) there are no privileged codes of discourse, that literature is not qualitatively different from other modes of signification; 2) no particular code exists independently of all other linguistic formulations in its culture; 3) the terms of the individual work, no matter how innovative, are always determined by the conventions of the established literary tradition; 4) the writer, working inevitably from within a specific tradition—and its parent culture—cannot be considered the sole author or origin of the particular text.

The latter two lessons dominate self-reflexive literary investigations because they refer most directly to the possibilities inherent in literary innovation. For if, as the semioticians inform us, meaning is the product of the interactions among linguistic elements of a specific discourse and, consequently, any statement or work has meaning only in reference to the particular linguistic framework, in which it is placed, then any innovative text, though struggling to transform that framework, is necessarily dependent upon it, and at the same time legitimizes it. The literary work can never claim complete originality, but utilizes, or plagiarizes ("playgiarizes," in Federman's words), prior discourse, thus receiving life and meaning from that which it defines itself against. Like the fictional character who realizes that personality is only the locus of individual and social determinants, the author and text discover that they are spoken by the language which they give speech to. And even though the writer gives speech its reality by speaking, he, in turn, only exists as a speaker because of the patterns of existent discourse.

The two other lessons of postmodern criticism—the loss of the privileged status of literature, and its relation to other social codes of discourse—are important foci of those writers who most represent the avant-garde spirit in postmodern American fiction: Pynchon, Burroughs, Reed, Sukenick, Brautigan, Federman, Major, Katz and Barthelme. Their vanguard sensibility is displayed by an insistence on literary innovation, which both points to the deadening and generally oppressive workings of the social organization, here described in terms of its semiotic codes—functionalism, bureaucratic cant, cybernetics, political jargon, sexual and racial innuendo, ideological formulations—and offers by its self-reflexive formal disruption a paradigm for the analysis and demystification of, and a potential liberation from, those codes. These postmodern writers, rather than being obsessed with silence and an apparently meaningless world which troubled the modernists, recognize that the world they inhabit is surfeited with meaning systems from which they must wrest their own language. For just as their characters sense the mutually supportive operation of the various systems which shape their lives, the writers realize that literature is embraced by other social languages and has a role in legitimizing the ways people perceive, think and speak in this culture. If, furthermore, the characters never achieve a precise delineation of identity or external phenomena, and if the writer is never totally responsible for the discourse used, then neither is the writer ever sure of the ideological components and extensions of the work. Consequently, many contemporary avant-garde writers devise strategies of distrust and disruption, not only of society's semiotic codes, but of literature and their own texts.

Exemplifying the writer's paranoia, Burroughs states: "The writer sees himself reading to the mirror as always. .. . He must check now and again to reassure himself that The Crime Of Separate Action has not, is not, cannot occur. . . . Anyone who has ever looked into a mirror knows what this crime is and what it means in terms of lost control when the reflection no longer obeys."7 His response, however, reveals one of the paradoxes confronting the postmodern writer, for ultimately, he must accept the necessity of this "crime." Burroughs radically disrupts the text's continuity and constructs collage novels made up of fragmentary moments of original creation and of cut-up and rearranged pieces of works by other writers and himself, in order to force the writer and reader to experience language and the literary text in a new manner, to be concerned not with narrative unity or with conventional grammatical sequence, hence predictable meaning, but rather to think in "association blocks," groups of random images which by their juxtaposition to each other suggest meanings beyond the writer's and traditional language's control. But here, Burroughs, distrustful of language, realizes there is no escaping it, so he allows himself to be governed by the random images and unpredictable workings of the idiosyncratic discourse he set in motion, since unavoidably, to speak is to lie and to live is to collaborate. The writer must willfully immerse himself in the collective language in order to speak, for it is a greater delusion to assume that his ego is integral or that it is in absolute control of its articulation. The only option is to admit the ambiguity of subjective placement in language and to highlight the struggle between individual expression and cultural meaning system, thus testifying to one's dependence on established discourse, yet hoping to purify it nonetheless by stressing the moment of surprise at the new creation.

The valuing of the surprising and the new is, of course, one of the primary tenets of the avant-garde, for the experience of the new thrusts one free of the fetters of the past and presages an unknown but anticipated future. However, in postmodernism there is no strong invocation of the future, but instead a preference for immediacy, for the intensity of experience found in the flow of constantly changing present moments. The focus of postmodern fiction is thus on the self-reflexive process of meaningmaking which highlights the continuous deconstruction of established meaning and the projection of the new. Sukenick's character, who in Out says, "I want to write a book like a cloud that changes as it goes,"8 is exemplary. And though few writers follow this desire to the extent he does, the sense of the mutability of meaning, of the writer's freedom to create new images through literary disruption and innovation, is the basis of many postmodern texts.

Pynchon's response to the interactions of individual voice in collective discourse is not to dismantle his own text, as does Burroughs, but to excessively parody the rage for order in society to the point that his metaphors become grossly exggerated and strained. Making ridiculous and grotesque the complex of social, political, sexual, cinematic, technological and popcultural meaning systems that envelop us, Pynchon's metaphors proliferate freely to reveal both how meaning systems do interpenetrate and tend toward aggressive totalization, and yet how no system can bear too much input before it starts to fall apart under its own weight. His novels, especially Gravity's Rainbow, work by a principle of comic and surreal overdetermination, themselves nearly falling apart as their many narrative lines dissipate or their characters are either left in a state of unresolvable inertia or disappear into the complex of conflicting subplots. Like the surreal antics of the Counterforce, they limn the process of meaning-making and its demystification without privileging any particular hierarchy of meaning. His works recall a statement from Out: "Connection develops meaning falls away."9

Such a pattern of the absence or ambiguity of meaning in the midst of surreal connections of images is common to the work of many postmodernists, such as Reed, Barthelme, Wurlitzer, Katz, Coover, Sorrentino, Charles Wright, Brautigan and Vonnegut. But this neo-surrealism does not represent a search for a primal super-reality which resolves contradictions; rather, it adapts the surrealists' love of absurd juxtaposition and the free play of the imagination. This new surrealism suggests both the fragmenting madness of the System and at the same time the liberating imaginative vision one may find within the System by increasing the fragmentation. But here, again, we encounter the paradox of disruption which both describes a problematic situation for the individual and the text and is itself a means of achieving a degree of anarchic freedom. Such a freedom, as Pynchon has shown, is both attractive and perhaps delusive. For the improvisation of personal identity and meaning within the strictures of collective discourse can be seen as both an antagonistic response to an oppressive collectivity and an expression of it. Personal strategies of deconstruction are dependent on a semiological perspective which itself needs to be cast in doubt as a subordinate ideology of the culture in question. In particular, we need to inquire into four related tendencies of postmodern criticism and literature: the confusing multiplicity of meaning systems and the apparent devaluation of any specific meaning; the focusing on the structure of discourse as opposed to its operative function; the loss of subjective definition in culture and discourse; and the denial of historicity in social and linguistic change.

The totalization of meaning systems is described by many postmodern writers, but primarily as a confusing growth of competing and entwining sign systems in which no clear hierarchy is discernible, no infrastructure suggested, nor any undisputed meaning achieved. Literature recognizes its involvement in this web of meaning, but beyond its epistemological questioning is unsure of its social function and meaning.

The reduction of all experience and phenomena to elements of sign systems which can be "demystified" as arbitrary, fictive constructs, implies a political response to culture; but the strategies of demystification, disruption and improvisation are techniques played out solely within the formal dynamics of the semiotic system, and are consequently of questionable efficacy. The essential formalism—or idealism—of postmodern thought, its belief that meaning is primarily a function of the diacritical workings of discourse, not that the structure of the code is a response to material conditions, gives more significance to the mechanics of the semiotic system than to its function, as if the latter were entirely a product of the former. Furthermore, the presumed personal ability to play with and alter the system formally suggests that significant changes are not the result of alterations in the world to which it attempts to give meaning.

The goal of individual action on the code from within is twofold: to find those areas of free play that suggest selfcreation and freedom, and to disrupt if not change the totalizing impetus of the system. But, as we have seen, the very notion of individual freedom is problematic precisely because each action within collective discourse reveals the unsure status of individuality. Defined in terms of the system of discourse, the individual can find freedom only by submitting to it, even as he tries to disrupt it, and consequently himself too.

The resulting changes of self and system may, therefore, be no more than formal dislocations of the system in which nothing substantial is altered. If the agent of change, self-reflexive innovation, is seen only as one element in a set of possible operations inherent in the discourse, what is the nature of the change that is desired? And can postmodern innovation be an avant-garde expression of historical development? To be in advance of change would merely place one in a state of premature semiological shift. And finally, can an historical perspective be easily sustained in a society which seems both to inspire constant formal change yet remains singularly static?

The literary innovation that characterizes postmodern American fiction provides no easy answer to these concerns for it is the expression of a troubled exploration of the relation of ill-defined individuals to an ambiguous social framework. The postmodern focus on the mediation of self and others through literary language and society's semiotic systems reveals a constant doubt about the nature of the collectivity of which the writer is a member. Writing self-consciously from within the social context and the "social text," the contemporary writer can offer no modernist or avant-garde privileged or idealist perspective. He can only ask himself and his audience whether social discourse, behavior and ideology are manifestations of a growing collective consciousness, or are they, as so many postmodernist novelists seem to fear, signs of the increasing corporate bureaucratic and cybernetic control of collective experience and thought?

The innovative sensibility in postmodern fiction suggests a guarded but avant-garde response nonetheless. It sustains the avant-garde's activist faith that discourse, become self-conscious and self-reflexive, can raise the writer's and reader's awareness of the properties and operations of language and social discourse and of their own problematic placement within them. But unable to locate within this society signs of imminent and significant change not compromised by the culture in general, innovative writing remains primarily personal and idealistic, as are the immediate, if limited and perhaps compromised, rewards—free play, improvisation and temporary self-creation. Perhaps more cannot be expected, at least not until the material conditions of the culture postmodern fiction responds to and is an expression of change. As much as postmodern avant-gardism is antagonistic to the given terms of social reality, it is implicated in the society it rebels against. Instead of being in advance of its time, it is a direct expression of this era.


1 See the discussions of postmodernism by Matei Calinescu, Faces of Modernity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), pp. 132-148; Henri Lefebvre, La Vie quotidienne dans le monde moderne (Paris: Gallimard, Collection Idées, 1968), pp. 55-207; Lucien Goldmann, Pour une sociologie du roman (Paris: Gallimard, Collection Idées, 1964), pp. 21-57, 284-302; Donald D. Egbert, Social Radicalism and the Arts (New York: Knopf, 1970), pp. 741-745; and Herbert Marcuse, Counter-revolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon, 1972).

2 William Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded (New York: Grove Press, 1967), p. 151.

3 Ronald Sukenick, 98.6 (New York: Fiction Collective, 1975), p. 122.

4 Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (New York: Viking, 1973), p. 590.

5Ibid., pp. 712-713.

6 William Burroughs, Nova Express (New York: Grove Press, 1964), p. 15.

7 William Burroughs, Naked Lunch (New York: Grove Press, 1959), p. 223.

8 Ronald Sukenick, Out (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1973), p. 136.

9Ibid., p. 128.

Mark Parker

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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, perhaps the reader can say "postmodern" with the success that Eco's post-Cartland lovers can say "I love you."

To accept this "challenge of the past, of the already said, which cannot be eliminated" (67), one must, of course, know something about it. The term postmodern itself has a short but significant history; to see how Eco has inserted himself into the critical discussion of this movement or period or Kunstwollen, it is first necessary to take a short tour through some of the better-known discussions of it.

The term gets off to an inauspicious start in two early articles, Irving Howe's "Mass Society and Postmodern Fiction" and Alfred Kazin's "Psychoanalysis and Literary Criticism Today." Both articles fix upon a consistent problem for postmodern fiction: the lack of an authoritative system of values or tradition to criticize or rebel against. Kazin sees desperation in the attempts of Britain's "angry young men" to find suitable objects for their emotions and in Norman Mailer's celebration of the murderous assaults of two eighteen-year-olds on a candy-store keeper as a daring, revolutionary act. Howe sees "a world increasingly shapeless and an experience increasingly fluid," a world and an experience that resist the attempts of novelists to embody through them values and moral judgments.3 Criticism of bourgeois values and society forms the backbone of modernist writing. Even the less analytic of modernists could easily snatch up and successfully employ the systematic, radical criticisms of nineteenth-century society provided by Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, and others. Novelists could count on this stable core of assumptions to provide them with "symbolic economies and dramatic conveniences."4 There was a live consensus to which modernists had access, which they exploited by employing characters in conscious rebellion against society (perhaps given clearest expression in the youthful protagonists of Joyce and Lawrence). The postmoderns, however, lacking this coherent value system or authoritative moral tradition to rebel against, face a problem of self-definition. One can hardly criticize a social order so chaotic and elusive; it is necessary instead to project a moral order. According to Alfred Kazin, what is required "is no longer the rebel" but "the stranger—who seeks not to destroy the moral order, but to create one that will give back to him the idea of humanity."5 Howe—and, by implication, Kazin—blame this sad situation on "mass society." Howe registers his objections in the form of a jeremiad:

By the mass society we mean a relatively comfortable, half welfare and half-garrison society in which the population grows passive, indifferent, and atomized; in which traditional loyalties, ties, and associations become lax or dissolve entirely; in which coherent publics based on definite interests and opinions gradually fall apart; and in which man becomes a consumer, himself mass-produced like the products, diversions, and values he absorbs.

For Kazin and Howe, postmodern fiction is full of "distinctive failures" and should be accorded "patience and charity."6

These early assessments of the postmodern, made before the bulk of the novels deemed postmodern were written, seem cannily prophetic when considered in the light of Gerald Graff's later investigation of contemporary fiction, "Babbitt at the Abyss." Graff, through an extensive survey of recent fiction, reaffirms and extends their conclusions. To his mind, postmodernist fiction "has often been weakened by its inability or refusal to retain any moorings in social reality."7 The modernist attack on bourgeois values has become an empty gesture in the hands of many postmoderns; since this culture no longer exists, "such demolition is needless."8 It is as though the moderns had sunk all the ships, leaving to the postmoderns the barren joy of shelling the wreckage. Like Howe and Kazin, Graff attributes the failures of postmodern fiction to mass society:

If this deficiency exists, then one reason for it may be that in the kind of mass society which has grown up in the last three decades, our personal relationships, public values, and the connections between the two have become so disoriented, scrambled, and confused that writers, as well as everyone else, have found it peculiarly difficult to arrive at clear, coherent, and convincing generalizations.9

Such pessimism features strongly in this strain of postmodern criticism, a strain that Graff, in another article, brands as "apocalyptic."10

Against this gloomy assessment stands a strain of postmodern criticism far more optimistic, at times even celebratory, one practiced by a determined Susan Sontag, by a puckish Leslie Fiedler, and in a "visionary" (Graff's term) mode by Ihab Hassan.11 This strain tends to embrace mass culture, or at least portions of it, as a kind of revolutionary gesture toward liberation. According to Sontag, faced with a technique of interpretation and a corresponding set of interpretations so encrusted, so deadening, and so repressive, "What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more."12 Fiedler, noting that an element of science fiction has passed into postmodern fiction, welcomes "the prospect of radical transformation" of man into "something else" and hails the coming of "the new mutants" who will disengage utterly from the humanist, bourgeois, Marxist, "cult of reason" traditions.13 Hassan sees postmodernism as a reaction to "the unimaginable . . . extermination and totalitarianism," as a response that has "tended toward artistic Anarchy in deeper complicity with things falling apart—or has tended toward Pop," and as an open embracement of radical transformation: "Who knows but that our only alternative may be to our 'human' consciousness."14 In their discussions of critical values and strategies, these critics lean toward a more popular aesthetic and an embrace of the mass society Kazin, Howe, and Graff by turns find so disturbing and depressing.

Eco inserts himself deftly into this critical debate in his 1964 analysis of mass culture, Apocalittici e integrati (Apocalyptic and Integrated Intellectuals).15 Building on Dwight MacDonald's categories of mass-cult and mid-cult and on Clement Greenberg's insistence on the economic and political bases for mass culture, Eco locates part of the problem of defining and describing mass culture in the critics themselves. According to Eco, they tend to ask the wrong question. Implicitly or explicitly, these critics ask, "Is mass culture good or bad?" when the real question is somewhat different. As Eco himself puts it, "When the present situation of an industrial society makes mass communication a fact, what can be done to render these means of communication capable of transmitting cultural values?"16 In other words, mass culture is controlled by economics. It moves to the logic of profit, and it is prepared without the benefit of intellectuals, Intellectuals, in fact, tend to adopt an attitude of protest and reservation toward mass culture. To withdraw, however, is to say that this system is so extensive and pervasive an order that no isolated act of modification would be able to affect it, in fact, that such acts are futile gestures. Although reform in politics or economics often suggests complicity between opposed groups (wages are raised, strikers appeased; but the fundamental relation between the two groups is unchanged, and basic inequalities are not addressed), in culture it has no such ramifications. (Put another way, culture is part of the superstructure of society, not the socioeconomic base. The same caution does not apply in this realm.) Slight reforms in these other spheres may attenuate contradictions and avoid violent change for a long time, ultimately becoming complicity, but this never happens in the realm of ideas. Ideas never become an unequivocal point of reference that brings about pacification; the level of discourse is always raised. If you raise the pay of striking workers, you may keep the same system; nothing changes. If you teach illiterates to read—even if only to stuff them with propaganda—you have changed things fundamentally: they may read other books tomorrow. Thus, the proper attitude for the intellectual toward mass culture is one of acceptance and intervention. Mass culture is a fact, a certainty; its ramifications require that the intellectual steer between the disgust and withdrawal displayed by those Eco calls "the apocalyptic" and the flaccid, unqualified acceptance of those he calls "the integrated." Mass culture deserves serious attention because of its apparent dangers and its often forgotten benefits. We need forget neither its atrocities of taste nor its facilitation of cultural access. According to Eco, the intellectual must analyze carefully the nature of these means of communication, their effects on people as well as the reciprocal effects of people on mass culture. To do this, a thoroughgoing investigation must be directed at such phenomena as comic strips, popular songs, and television programs. What Eco, after doing some exemplary investigations in the book, suggests is that these media all have the tendency to promote complacency in the spectator. Their messages tend to be consoling ones, promoting the sense that the world present to the spectator is a good one, or at least the best one possible, even that it is justified and permanent. Media often provide this consolation by omission; Superman comic strips exclude politics by concentrating on the righting of private wrongs. The virtues promulgated and issues examined by the comics are civic, not political; they never suggest that the system itself is capable of improvement, much less that it may be culpable. The great defect of mass culture is "to convey a standardized, oversimplified, static and complacent vision that masks the real complexity of things and implicitly denies the possibility of change." Eco suggests that what mass culture needs is instructions for use. According to him, nothing is wrong with the distraction and diversion it affords. The difficulty lies in the fact that, for most people, such offerings alone constitute culture and exert a strongly reactionary force in society. Eco is not, however, like those liberals whom Dwight MacDonald criticizes; he does not suggest that mass culture be raised wholesale to High Culture. Instead, Eco argues for what he calls "honest" works, works that do not belie the complexity of society, that admit to the historical circumstances in which we find ourselves, that promote thought instead of predigested opinion, that do not have artistic pretensions like those of kitsch.17

This kind of analysis emphasizes the instrumental nature of mass media and mass culture. By shifting the discussion from the dead-end dichotomy of "Is mass culture good or bad?" Eco has managed to avoid both the pointless jeremiads against and the mindless celebrations of mass culture, which only muddy the issue. Eco suggests that we examine mass media and mass culture as we would any other system, focusing on the way it functions. We might do well to think of it as if it were a perceptual tool, a way of knowing the world. Mass culture, according to Eco, is a fact; it can neither be eradicated nor ignored; it is necessary to engage it.

At the end of his theoretical treatment of mass culture, Eco makes what in retrospect is a wryly proleptic comment: "I believe that there can be a novel intended at once as a work of entertainment, a consumer item, and an aesthetically valid work capable of providing original, not kitsch, values."18 This double intention fits well The Name of the Rose. Couched as a mystery in a fourteenth-century monastery replete with grisly (or witty) murders, sprinkled with a generous dose of latinate obscurity, offering historical accuracy for the plausibility-hounds in the audience, hinting at less than celestial relations among the monks, and providing a steamy sexual encounter for the narrator—the novel features many of the tricks of the potboiler trade. Alongside these devices, however, Eco places William of Baskerville, whose views, though carefully attuned to the historical moment in the novel, are much akin to Eco's own. William offers us the spectacle of the intellectual in confrontation with the mass culture of his own day. William's remarks on the people, whom he calls with a wonderfully bifurcated attitude "the simple," serve to remind us of the importance of this confrontation and the difficulties involved in it.

The gist of Eco's attitude is clearly seen in a conversation William has with Adso, his young naive assistant, who plays a kind of medieval, youthful Watson to William's Holmes. Adso, confused about the distinctions among heretical sects, asks William to clarify them. William responds by offering up several analogies—first, a comparison of the body of the church to a river which, over the centuries, has begun to meander and form a crisscrossing delta because of its sheer size. Characteristically, as he pursues this analogy, William becomes dissatisfied with it, finally urging Adso: "Forget this story of the river."19 For William, analogizing is simply one intellectual tool among others; when its efficacy becomes questionable, he discards it. William then serves up another analogy, which, to Adso's bewilderment, he subsequently discards as well. Then he begins to analyze the situation of the masses (the simple). It is at this point that we can see Eco's own appraisal of mass culture and mass media, for he moves from doctrinal matters, which tend to change according to the desires of those in power, to social theory. The simple have "no subtlety of doctrine" (234). They "cannot choose their personal heresy" (235); they are caught up in current movements which happen to include some of what they recall from other movements already abandoned. William then begins to speculate on the meaning of the simple; he concludes that the condition of being simple, of being in the masses, is of greater moment than the particular heresy—that, in fact, the heresy is (in Aristotle's terms) accidental rather than essential. What creates social unrest is the tendency on the part of those in power to leave part of the flock outside, to push some people to the margins of society—without land, guild, or corporation. The sign of this exclusion is leprosy, not on the physical but on the semiotic level. As William says, "All heresies are the banner of a reality, an exclusion. Scratch the heresy and you will find the leper. Every battle against heresy wants only this: to keep the leper as he is" (239). Adso, confused by William's refusal to assign blame to the heretics, the lepers, or the overseers, presses him to take a stand: "But who was right, who is right, who was wrong?" (240). William answers in Eco's own instrumental terms; what his explanation provides is not truth but a closer look at the situation. It is like looking at a tool closely and then more closely. What comes of the two examinations is not some ultimate, final certainty but skill in manipulating the conceptual tools one employs. This, despite William's insistence that he is saying more than Adso is willing to recognize, isn't enough for Adso. William then looks more closely at the concept and category of the simple. He proposes, in an axiomatic way, that the simple, both in themselves and as a sign, have something to tell the intellectual. Their message goes beyond the traditional belief that God often chooses to speak through them. According to William,

The simple have something more than do learned doctors, who often become lost in their search for broad, general laws. The simple have a sense of the individual, but this sense, by itself, is not enough. The simple grasp a truth of their own, perhaps truer than that of the doctors of the church, but then they destroy it in unthinking actions. What must be done? Give learning to the simple? Too easy, or too difficult. The Franciscan teachers considered this problem. The great Bonaventure said that the wise must enhance conceptual clarity with the truth implicit in the action of the simple. . . . (241)

Eco's own theory of mass culture is sufficiently evident in this passage. In Apocalittici e integrati, Eco calls for a dialectic between the intellectuals who insert themselves into the machinery of mass media and the consumers of mass culture. He insists that the situation change from the present one, in which the technicians of mass culture situate themselves in and exploit a paternalistic, self-serving relation to the masses. There must be a dialectical relation between the engaged intellectual—who has the benefits of the compression provided by broad, general laws and conceptual categories—and the masses, with their sense of the individual. William continues in this vein: "How are we to remain close to the experience of the simple, maintaining, so to speak, their operative virtue, the capacity [for] working toward the transformation and betterment of their world?" (242). Eco's picture of William confronting the new world of mass culture dramatizes the predicament of the intellectual, consciously hindered by the exasperating limits to the tools of his investigation, the broad, general laws and conceptual categories which by their very nature, their own truth, obscure the truth of the experience of the simple. For Eco, the simple have a less mediated—perhaps, in some cases, relatively unmediated—view of the world which the intellectual, because of the conceptual apparatus that makes him an intellectual, cannot see. The only possibility of bridging this gap lies in cultivating a dialectical relation between the two groups, for each is, fundamentally and possibly irrevocably, outside the other's truth.

The Postscript reaffirms this activist stance toward mass society in its division of novels into two kinds: "the text that seeks to produce a new reader and the text that tries to fulfill the wishes of the readers already to be found in the street."20 Clearly, Eco prefers the former, describing the kind of novelist who "wants to reveal to his public what it should want, even if it does not know it" and even going so far as to suggest that the "text is meant to be an experience of transformation for its reader."21 Despite the withdrawal from social action described by the fictive transcriber of Adso's manuscript, who, in the preface to The Name of the Rose, claims to write "out of pure love of writing" and "for sheer narrative pleasure," the Post-script takes on a limited "commitment to the present, in order to change the world."22

As vexed as the question of mass society in postmodern critical discussion may be, it pales by comparison with the question of the relation of postmodernism to modernism. Periodization is a dubious activity under the best of circumstances, and these are, critically speaking, most unpropitious times. In an article written in 1971, Michael Holquist proposes a view of postmodernism as a response to a vivid split between high and low in modernism itself. What myth and depth psychology are to the modern period, the detective story—"radically anti-mythical" and "militantly anti-psychological"—is to postmodernism.23 Holquist provides a picture of modernism's caste of professional exegetes devoted to unraveling the unsettling complexities of Joyce, Pound, and Woolf by day and soothing their troubled minds with a bit of reassuring detective fiction by night. The two realms of modernism are linked by intellectuals who not only read both high and low but in many cases (Michael Innes, C. Day Lewis, Dorothy Sayers) wrote detective novels. In postmodernism, high modernism's world, one in which "dangerous questions are raised .. . a threatening, unfamiliar place, inimical more often than not to reason" is expressed through the medium of detective fiction, producing variants of the old form which, instead of reassuring the reader, give "a strangeness which is more often than not the result of jumbling the well-known patterns of classical detective stories." Postmodern narratives defeat the "syllogistic order" of their detective progenitors and in doing so, "dramatize the void."24

Eco's participation in this aspect of the postmodern venture is clear; his remarks in the Postscript, if anything, abruptly deflate any argument celebrating the reassuring nature of the use of the detective story in his novel: "this is a mystery in which very little is discovered and the detective is defeated."25 Yet he differs from Holquist in describing the aims of this technique. Rather than discussing the novel as yet another performance of the abyss-story, Eco stresses the fundamental element of conjecture, of structuring, in the detective genre and its consequent connection to many other stories. Holquist's interpretation of the postmodern use of the detective story, which implies many routes to the sight of the void, ultimately is reductive; Eco's displays a centrifugal tendency.

Hassan, in his essay "POST modernISM," views the relation between modern and postmodern somewhat differently. He cites such critics as Richard Poirier who, perhaps unwittingly, "revalue Modernism in terms of Postmodernism"; that is, they tend not simply to revise modernism but to read it through a postmodern aesthetic.26 Although Hassan's gnomic, "paracritical" style omits specific instances, they are not difficult to find. For instance, in a review of a collection of articles on Eliot, Richard Poirier stresses Eliot's tendency "to devalue literature in the interests of the preeminent values of language," a position that echoes Barthes' insistence in Writing Degree Zero that "the whole of literature" since Flaubert has become "the problematics of language."27 For Poirier, Eliot is at his most impressive when he is "decreative," when he de-authorizes part of his past, "when his language challenges the conceptual and poetic schemas on which he seems to depend."28 At his best, Eliot refuses to "pacify" experience. He stubbornly refuses to give final significance to or to totalize what is given. Poirier's critical practice is Hassan's point: "Modernism does not suddenly cease so that Postmodernism may begin: they now coexist."30

In his "Myth of the Postmodernist Breakthrough," Gerald Graff arrives at a similar conclusion to that of Hassan and Poirier but adopts a decidedly more pessimistic attitude.31 Graff, in response to celebrations of a postmodern "break-through," argues that the movement is, rather, "the logical culmination of the premises of these earlier movements," namely, romantic and modernist.32 He defines postmodernism as "that movement within contemporary literature and criticism which calls into question the claims of literature and art to truth and human value," then argues that this is precisely what earlier authors did: Wordsworth's doubts about whether the "significant external reality" of nature was perceived or created are carried over in modernism's obsession with ritual, myth, provisional order, and frames of reference. Romanticism included a strong component of doubt of the authority of their productions, and the moderns have continued this ambiguous attitude. The New Critics, according to Graff, have a part in this sequence of doubt; they were "masters of interpretation who had a profound skepticism of interpretation," and their postmodern successors simply turn their own skepticism upon them.33 Like Hassan, Graff suggests a certain coexistence between modernism and postmodernism; but his coexistence is far less benign. In a sharp critique of social and critical pluralism, Graff provides a picture of postmodernism as a "reactionary" ideology, one that "is the reigning philosophy of the establishment."34 Far from being a breakthrough, postmodernism offers an avant-garde that is merely a weak copy of the status quo: "Advanced industrial society has outstripped the avant-garde by incorporating in its own form the avant-garde's main values—the worship of change, dynamic energy, and autonomous process, the contempt for tradition and critical norms."35 He advocates a careful reassessment of humanist values, one that recognizes their foundation in a particular social class but that does not banish them simply for that reason.

Eco's solution to the nature of the modern-postmodern relationship is to leave out history altogether, at least for the time being. Characteristically, he defines postmodernism in terms of a "way of operating," a position that allows him to posit a relation between the two based on function, not some elusive essence: "We could say that every period has its own postmodernism, just as every period would have its own mannerism." This scheme helps explain the puzzling heterogeneity of the literary scene: "in the same artist the modern moment and the postmodern moment can coexist, or alternate, or follow each other closely."36 By choosing the term coexist ("convivere," in the original), Eco shows affinities for the assessments worked out by Hassan and Graff; but Eco wears his term with a difference.37

Much closer to Eco's remarks in the Postscript are the ideas of postmodern novelist and critic William Gass, in his essay "Tropes of the Text."38 Gass traces the tendency of English novelists to think of their work in terms of some trope. The early choices were made based on an innocent pragmatism, a desire to relax the reader's (and perhaps even the author's) strictures against the frivolity of novel-reading. Richardson, for example, chose the letter as a trope for his novels not because he had some deep interest in the letter as a form but because "it offered itself as the only way his tale could be told."39 Postmodern novelists show a far deeper commitment to their tropes, even to difficult burdensome ones. Such tropes are fundamental to the moment, despite the fact that they bring "nothing but confusion, nothing but postmodernism, nothing but grief."40

Stripped of its agon, this version of postmodernism as a deepening, even self-conscious, commitment to the trope of the text has vivid parallels in the Postscript. Eco's discussion of labyrinths reveals how deeply this trope structures The Name of the Rose. The novel seems to be controlled not by the genre of detective fiction (an example of "conjecture") but the trope of the labyrinth, "an abstract model of conjecturality."41 Both the genre and the trope have a built-in metaphysical dimension, but the trope offers added possibilities. Eco goes into some detail on these, positing three types of labyrinths: the Greek or classical, the mannerist, and the rhizome. It is through the possibilities of the trope that Eco can describe William's world, "a rhizome structure" that "can be structured but is never structured definitively."42 This goes far beyond the idea of postmodernism as a failed detective metaphysic, or what Holquist suggested was a dramatization of the void. In this discussion of labyrinths, Eco hints at another view of the postmodern phenomenon. Later in the Postscript, Eco suggests that "we could say that every period has its own postmodernism, just as every period has its own mannerism (and, in fact, I wonder if postmodernism is not the modern name for mannerism as a metahistorical category)."43 If we apply this bit of conjecture to the three types of labyrinths Eco posits, we find a slight bit of slippage between definitions. The labyrinths are presented so as to invite interpretation along the lines of literary movements. First, there is the Thesean or Greek version, with a definite center and no possibility for losing oneself. The mannerist maze follows, with its blind alleys which provide for losing oneself. Last comes the rhizome, with its decentered space. Given that Eco comments explicitly on the parallel between mannerism and postmodernism as metahistorical categories, it is not hard to see the Greek labyrinth as figuring modernism, that movement so intensely given to the search for authoritative centers in the deep structures of myth or psychology. Where, then, does that leave William—not lost, since being lost implies at least the possibility of finding one's way—but simply existing in his decentered rhizome space?

All of these aspects of the Postscript—its stand on the issue of mass society, its participation in the critical debate on the relation of postmodern to modern, and its self-conscious discussion of tropes—mark The Name of the Rose as postmodern. It is in the debts that Eco consciously pays, in those tips of the hat to Borges and, perhaps even more obviously, to John Barth that the postmodern quality of revisiting the past "with irony, not innocently" is most visible.44 In the Postscript, Eco sends the reader to two of Barth's articles on postmodern fiction, mentioning the titles of both and quoting a long passage from one of them.

A quick look at the earlier of these two articles shows the nature and depth of Eco's obligation. Barth's "The Literature of Exhaustion" contains two foci that are relevant here. It introduces Borges as an exemplary contemporary writer, and it explores what Barth terms "the literature of exhausted possibility."45 Not surprisingly, the two are related. Exhaustion, in Barth's sense, has to do not with "physical, moral or intellectual decadence" but "with the used-upness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities."46 This burden of the past—more specifically, the past successes of writers—poses great difficulty for writers of the present. Rather than bewail the impossibility of the situation, however, Barth, much as Eco does in the Postscript and in Apocalittici e integrati, rephrases the question along functional lines: "What it comes to is that an artist doesn't merely exemplify an ultimacy; he employs it."47 The "technically up-to-date artist" can use exhausted forms without embarassment "if done with ironic intent by a composer quite aware of where we've been and where we are." As far as form is concerned, a writer can't put his foot in the same form twice, because, as time goes by, the same form isn't the same form—the context changes. As with Eco's post-Cartland lovers, recognition of "used-upness" provides an unexpected, almost paradoxical range of possibilities. Barth then introduces a definition of the Baroque by Borges: "that style which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) its possibilities and borders on its own caricature."48 He then discusses images favored by Borges, ending with his most favored image, that of the labyrinth. For Barth, this "is a place in which, ideally, all the possibilities of choice (of direction, in this case) are embodied, and—barring special dispensation like Theseus'—must be exhausted before one reaches the heart."49 Waiting at the heart is the Minotaur, representing "defeat and death, or victory and freedom." Barth, however, is not content to simply serve up Borges, no matter how apt or, in 1967 terms, new. He rejects the labyrinth, at least the Theseus version of it, as "non-Baroque," because here the hero has access to the "shortcut" of Ariadne's thread, and he offers the image of Menelaus holding fast to Proteus on the beach at Pharos as "genuinely Baroque in the Borgesian spirit."50 Barth visits the past of Borges, with irony, and puts it to his own use, teasing out from this visit an allegory of "the positive artistic morality in the literature of exhaustion." Menelaus is truly in the labyrinth, for he

is lost, in the larger labyrinth of the world, and has got to hold fast while the Old Man of the Sea exhausts reality's frightening guises so that he may extort direction from him when Proteus returns to his "true" self.51

From Borges' success, Barth plucks his own victory, turning the burden of Borges' achievement to an opportunity of his own. He closes by celebrating the heroic nature of this move, how it requires virtuosity, not simply competence, and how it requires "the aid of very special gifts." Barth structures the encounter with the strong writer by his successor as a quest, including all the basic Proppian elements of hero, donor, villain, and agon.

The presence of Barth, even of his terminology, throughout the pages of the Postscript is unmistakable. The question is, of course, an obvious one: With what ironic intent has Eco echoed Barth echoing Borges? Truly, as Eco notes at the end of his remarks, "there exist obsessive ideas, they are never personal; books talk among themselves, and any detection should prove that we are the guilty party."52 Criticism, as Eco's own story ramifies into other stories, ramifies into other criticism.


1 David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 393.

2 Umberto Eco, Postscript to "The Name of the Rose, "trans. William Weaver (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), 66. Future references are followed by page numbers in parentheses.

3 Howe, "Mass Society and Postmodern Fiction," in Decline of the New (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1970), p. 198.

4 Howe, "Mass Society," 196.

5 Kazin, "Psychoanalysis and Literary Culture Today," in Contemporaries (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1962), 373.

6 Howe, "Mass Society," 196, 192.

7 Graff, "Babbitt at the Abyss: The Social Context of Postmodern American Fiction," Tri-Quarterly 33 (1975): 307.

8 Graff, "Babbitt," 308.

9 Graff, "Babbitt," 307.

10 Gerald Graff, "The Myth of the Postmodern Break-through," Tri-Quarterly 26 (1975): 384. Graff's terms for the two strains of postmodernism he perceives are almost identical to those Eco chooses in his 1964 Apocalittici e integrati, which translate roughly as "apocalyptic" and "integrated" (that is, happily ensconced in the mass culture) intellectuals.

11 Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1966). Leslie Fiedler, "The New Mutants," Partisan Review 32 (1965): 502-25. Ihab Hassan, "POSTmodernISM: A Paracritical Bibliography," in Paracriticisms (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975).

12 Sontag, Against Interpretation, 14.

13 Fiedler, "New Mutants," 508.

14 Hassan, "POSTmodernISM," 59.

15 Umberto Eco, Apocalittici e integrati (Milano: Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri-Bompiani, 1985). To my knowledge, there is no English translation; the translations here are my own.

16 Eco, Apocalittici, 47.

17 David Robey, "Umberto Eco," in Writers and Society in Contemporary Italy, ed. Michael Caesar and Peter Hainsworth (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984), 71.

18 Eco, Apocalittici, 53-54.

19 Eco, The Name of the Rose, trans. William Weaver (New York: Warner Books, 1983). Further references are followed by page numbers in parentheses.

20 Eco, Postscript, 48-49.

21 Eco, Postscript, 49, 53.

22 Eco, Postscript, xviii.

23 Holquist, "Whodunit and Other Questions: Metaphysical Detective Stories in Post-War Fiction," New Literary History 3 (1971): 135-56.

24 Holquist, "Whodunit," 147, 155.

25 Eco, Postscript, 54.

26 Hassan, POSTmodernISM," 47.

27 Poirier, "T. S. Eliot and the Literature of Waste," New Republic 156 (1967): 20. Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (London: Jonathan Cape, 1967), 9.

28 Poirier, "T. S. Eliot," 20.

29 Poirier, "T. S. Eliot," 25.

30 Hassan, "POSTmodernISM," 47.

31 Graff, "Myth."

32 Graff, "Myth," 385.

33 Graff, "Myth," 400.

34 Graff, "Myth," 410.

35 Graff, "Myth," 415.

36 Eco, Postscript, 66, 68.

37 Umberto Eco, "Postillo a Il nome della rosa, in appendice a Il nome della rosa" (Milano: Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri, Bomiani, Sonzogno, 1986), 530.

38 Gass, "Tropes of the Text," in Habitations of the Word (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985).

39 Gass, "Tropes," 145.

40 Gass, "Tropes," 159.

41 Eco, Postscript, 57.

42 Eco, Postscript, 58.

43 Eco, Postscript, 66.

44 Eco, Postscript, 67.

45 John Barth, "The Literature of Exhaustion," Atlantic Monthly 220 (1967): 29.

46 Barth, "Literature of Exhaustion," 29.

47 Barth, "Literature of Exhaustion," 31.

48 Barth, "Literature of Exhaustion," 34.

49 Barth, "Literature of Exhaustion," 34.

50 Barth, "Literature of Exhaustion," 34.

51 Barth, "Literature of Exhaustion," 34.

52 Eco, Postscript, p. 81.

Richard Bradbury

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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.

John Barth's position within this set-up is ambiguous in several ways. Whilst he is a long-term success in the field of producing postmodernist fiction of all kinds, he also teaches within one of the more prestigious US universities, and one of his most regular classes is in creative writing. He is also a regular contributor to the scholarly and intellectual debate which has revolved around postmodernist fiction since the late sixties. Indeed, in 1967 he gave one of the definitions of the subject in the essay, The Literature of Exhaustion', and then refined that definition and estimate some fifteen years later with the self-directed reply The Literature of Replenishment'.

I have argued elsewhere that Barth's version of postmodernism is not the jagged, fragmented and montage philosophical form lauded and employed by the likes of Ihab Hassan, but rather a kind of postmodernism which is fundamentally synthetic in its approach. It demonstrates its eclecticism and absence of tradition by gathering up disparate elements from the past and present and then displays them alongside each other in an often disturbing but equally frequently satisfying mosaic. It is not part of the self-styled radical wing of postmodernism but rather stands four-square within the traditions of American liberalism and its commitment to synthesise and absorb conflict within the greater good—I pluribus unum could easily be the motto for this school of fiction!

Within the narrative structures this creates a tension between the desire to eliminate the omniscient narrator as a symptom of a unitary voice and the reinstatement of that omniscient narrator as the only presence capable of achieving the synthesis towards which the text is geared.

The structure of the rest of this essay will be an analysis of the narrative effects of LETTERS, Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales, and a discussion of how well the techniques of postmodernism carry the burden of political debate. I am well aware that this is hardly a new topic of discussion, but by confining myself to three specific examples I hope to develop a more precise and detailed version of the debate.


Since the late sixties Barth's work has involved the recurrent strategy of reworking and thus redefining thematic and narratological structures. In the earlier work this appeared as a conscious adoption, and exuberant parody, of older (or even 'obsolete') forms into which distinctively twentieth-century content was poured. Hence the eighteenth-century novel form became the vehicle for the content of The Sot-Weed Factor and the hero-myths became the structural device of Giles Goat-Boy. But after the examination of the possibilities of contemporary forms of communication in Lost in the Funhouse and the questioning of the accepted relationships between form and content which took place in Chimera, there was a shift towards the integration of thematic content into the surface of the plot and story. Explication of the 'deeper levels' of the text took place overtly and at the surface of the fiction in a writing which developed into a characteristically auto-critical mode. Perhaps the best example of this is the inclusion of Freitag's diagram of the rising curve of action towards dramatic climax at the dramatic climax of Lost in the Funhouse. The general autocritica!, self-deconstructive qualities of postmodern fiction became interwoven with Barth's particular concern with narrative and the difficulties of finding a mechanism of expression.

The reasons for the particular form this development took in Lost in the Funhouse and Chimera becoming a cul-desac need not concern us here. Suffice to say that the recognition of this block led to a turn in a new direction; to the writing of LETTERS. Here, Barth returned to the idea that the way forward in narrative was to go backwards in search of an 'old' form which could be rejuvenated. Thus, the epistolary novel becomes the means by which a group of interconnecting stories set at the end of the 1960s are told. But it is not the 'simple' epistolary form of the eighteenth century, for Barth has synthesised this 'pre-realist' manner with a decidedly modernist sense of design. The letters which make up the text are not in chronological order but appear according to a pattern derived from writing the subtitle of the novel—An old time epistolary novel by seven fictitious drolls & dreamers, each of which imagines himself actual—onto the calendar for 1969; this also eliminates from the text certain letters which must logically exist. The effect produced by this pattern is the combination of the textual polyphonic qualities of the epistolary novel with the indeterminacies of the modernist temperament, not least of which is the destruction of temporal casuality. This synthesis, Barth argues, opens new possibilities for written narrative fiction in a period when the continuing 'felt ultimacies' are apocalyptic as far as the continuation of the written word (at the very least) is concerned.

This 'going backwards in order to go forwards' also includes re-introducing characters from earlier works into this new fiction and then adding to that ensemble a new character who draws the threads of the plot together. Indeed, this was the source of some of the most negative reviews of the book at the time of its publication and led to complaints from reviewers that, in order to understand this work, one had to have read the rest of Barth's oeuvre—a charge both untrue and revealing of many reviewers' reading habits and attitudes towards those for whom they think they are writing.

The most productive aspect of the text, as far as Barth's development is concerned, is the polyphonic quality which the epistolary form lends to the text. Always a good parodist, Barth here writes in a fashion designed to demonstrate his stylistic virtuosity. At the same time, the design of the novel permits an interrogation of the ontological premises upon which realist (post-epistolary?) fiction stands; most particularly, the place of the author as a structuring mechanism within the text. For here the 'author' is displaced from omniscience to the position of one of the correspondents, he is deprived of his place on the first page. When he does appear, on page 42, he writes:

Gentles all: LETTERS is now begun, its correspondents introduced and their stories commencing to entwine. Like those films whose credits appear after the action has started, it will now pause.

But this self-confident opening is undermined by a long speculation on the meaning of the word 'now' and concludes with an uncertainty as to the existence of an audience, which casts an ironic glance towards one of the fears of many of the nineteenth-century writers. This is followed by a letter addressed to 'Whom it may concern' in which he describes the course of his work so far and the structure of the present text through the distorting lens of a concentric dream. His third letter, written as a character in the fiction, replies to the opening letter of the work. His fourth is a counter-invitation to Germaine Pitt to become a character in the fiction he is at present writing and involves him in another speculation, this time on 'a muddling of the distinction between Art and Life'. As the text continues, the author continues to make requests to the correspondents to appear as characters in his ongoing fiction and also fulfils his role as a corresponding character in the novel. At the end of the work it falls to him to write the last letter, entitled 'LETTERS is "now" ended. Envoi', which replays the doubts about the word 'now' from the perspective of the completed novel. But according to the chronological order of the letters this is not the last letter—that honour rests with Todd Andrews's draft codicil to his last will and testament which concludes (presumably) with the explosive destruction of the Tower of Truth. In these ways the author's position as omniscient presence within the text is called into question; an interrogation which allows the voices of the text to speak.

This development of a technique of productive synthesis gave rise to the various forms of the two novels which follow LETTERS. In Sabbatical, the combination produced a complex form in which chronological clarity is sacrificed in order to produce a polyphonic text in which the two central characters and the author speak/write in a complex of voices and styles designed to displace authority from any single position within the text. At the same time, a battery of footnotes, and references to both real and spurious texts, are employed to extend the text beyond the 'normal' textual boundaries. Indeed, this constant employment of footnotes in order to clarify words, names and sources, and to provide the interested reader with further reading on the subjects under discussion within the text itself is the most foregrounded element of the narrative construction because of its constant visual intrusion upon the reading eye. That these footnotes are a mixture of the accurate and the specious is completely in accord with one of the keynotes in Barth's postmodernism: the ontological blurring of the boundary between fiction and reality, in which reality often only becomes a meaningful reality when it is constructed by the authorial imagination out of the mass of inchoate events.

The issue presented, then, by this structure and by numerous of the discussions within the text itself is precisely this issue of the gap between fiction and reality, between the actual existence of a plot (in all senses of the word) and its generation by overactive paranoid imaginations. The machinations of the CIA provide the ideal version of this, with its information and disinformation, its agents and double-agents, its codes and super-codes, which tangle together until the possibility of an 'innocent' event recedes under the ballast of interpretation.

This situation will be familiar to all readers of Pynchon's work, with one proviso. Namely, that whilst Pynchon consciously avoids adopting a 'political' stance by his blurring together of both left and right—exemplified by his two versions of the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency and Conjuracion de los Insurgentes Anarquistas)—Barth has by this point in his career taken up a consistently liberal stance and has no doubts about the identity of those behind the initials. Both however are characteristic of the postmodernist novelist's response to the collapse of previously-existing systems of order.

The internal design of Sabbatical is contained within an overall form rooted in the traditions of the romance and the heroic sea journey, and this is, of course, made clear by constant references within the text to precisely this material. However, the key to the thematic, narratological, chronological and geographical movements of the two central characters is the idea of going backwards in order to go forward. The text moves forward chronologically in leaps, only to return to an earlier point in order to tell what has happened so far. The two central characters, Fenwick and Susan revisit the geographical sites of earlier moments in their relationship and the history of their entangled families in an attempt to discover the way forward from the impasse in which they find themselves—in the end, however, their decision is to stay put at the point of decision, at the island at the mouth of the two channels. The Y which appears as a graphical epigraph to the novel acquires a new meaning when Fenwick sees the fourth possibility it contains. That this has a metalaptical connection to their/Susan's decision not to reproduce is clear. For narrative technique, the metalaptic and metaphorical connections of this choice are a continuation of Barth's synthetic approach now ironically recast as an inability to make a definite decision. The crucial difference between this and his earlier version of the same crisis, presented as cosmopsis in the first three novels, is that here the choice is productive; it leads to fiction and not silence.

The narrative time of Sabbatical begins on Tuesday, 27 May 1980 and concludes on Sunday, 15 June, containing in itself a movement from the Big Bang to the present with several extended flashbacks to explain the groundsituation of the novel. Within this structure, an almost encyclopaedic demonstration of narrative techniques takes place, from explicatory reported dialogues, to extracts from newspaper articles, to revelatory dream-visitations to leading figures in the tale.

In The Tidewater Tales Barth reworks this ground again, by writing a second novel which has the same geographical area (the Chesapeake Bay) as the site of its action and begins at the temporal point at which its predecessor concluded. Indeed, scenes from the previous novel are revisited from another perspective, characters from the previous novel reappear (only this time under their 'real' names: Fenwick Scott Key Turner becomes Franklin Key Talbott and his book KUDOVE becomes his book KUBARK, Susan Rachel Allen Seckler becomes Leah Talbott, Carmen B. Seckler becomes Carla B. Silver, etc.) and several of the same narrative questions are played over again. One in particular: the question of reproduction. If the earlier novel ended with the decision not to physically reproduce, this work revolves around the characters' coming to terms with the prospect of parenthood. This novel goes over the same literal and thematic ground as its predecessor, only this time it works towards a fundamentally different conclusion. It follows the same geographical circuit—the favoured ground of the Chesapeake Bay—but works in a different narratological key. Whilst retaining the same tripartite authorial voice of two central characters—this time Peter and Katherine—and the author, this fiction has the familiarity of a novel with interpolated stories which spill over into the main narrative. It replays events from its immediate predecessor from different points of view; Doug/Dugald's memorial service is but one of these. It goes back to previous ground in order to go forward into new thematic fields. The textual key to this is the way in which it both overlaps with its predecessor's narrative time and then advances beyond it.

This is clearest in the recurrent appearance of the phrase Blam! Blooey! close to the start of both texts. In the first, it is several versions of the Big Bang and also the marker of the recognition that staying in place, maintaining the present state of (childless) affairs, is the solution to the problems of the way forward. In the latter, it is a double catalyst which precedes the birth of, first, the novel The Tidewater Tales, and, secondly, the twins. In Sabbatical, Blam! Blooey! is one occasion, albeit that happens twice, whereas in The Tidewater Tales, Blam! Blooey! is two separate events which parenthesise the action of the novel. This is but one example of the way in which The Tidewater Tales re-interrogates narratological and thematic positions established in Sabbatical.

One other significant way this process takes place is the shift from an overtly liberal political examination of the machinations of the CIA as pollutant of American idealism to the more generally 'political' question of environmental pollution by corrupt businessmen. This is a clear sign of shifts in the terms of the content of liberal concern in the USA between 1982 and 1987 and is, thus, an indication of the ways in which the specific moment of production affects the contours of the narrative of a text.

The final aspect of The Tidewater Tales I wish to comment on is the nature of its self-reflexivity. The text is, after all, the account and product of Peter Sagamore's move from acute and limiting consciousness of his position as a writer's writer (the paradigmatic postmodernist?) to the rediscovery of the delights of narrative, as demonstrated both by the stories he tells within the text of The Tidewater Tales and by the text itself. In that sense the novel is also autobiographical of its author's trajectory over the previous twenty years. It goes back over the course of the previous years in order to demonstrate what has happened to the manner of his writing and also stands as an indication of what that development has meant in terms of his writing. It is, in relation to Barth's earlier work, the autocritical work. Which is in no sense an argument suggesting that this will be the last statement he makes on the subject!


All these three recent works have retained Barth's affection for tumbling self-reflexivity and return to previous terrains in order to play variations of the song, 'what is happening to American society and culture, and do I like those developments I see?'.

LETTERS, with its central image and metaphor of the Tower of Truth rising over a university campus but inexorably sinking into the marshland even as it was built, was an extended and general discussion of the state and status of American culture and literature which, of necessity, concluded inconclusively. Even its one (apparently) definite death, that of Todd Andrews as he stood atop the tower at the moment of its explosive destruction, has been withdrawn and he is to be found sailing through the pages of The Tidewater Tales.

Sabbatical, taking its start from the final page of LETTERS, is a study of a retired CIA operative writing his memoirs as a revenge on the Company's more heinous deeds. Along the way, the Vietnam war, abortion, the role of the US secret service in South America, the pollution of the James river, the state of contemporary fiction and criticism are all discussed within the frame of a perambulatory narrative. All these discussions contribute obliquely to the central question of the book: whether, in the face of the present direction the world is taking, the two central characters of the novel should reproduce themselves biologically as well as literarily.

The Tidewater Tales replays and reworks that ground situation, with numerous references and sub-references to Barth's earlier works and concerns—many of his previous characters appear, some of them now under their 'real' names—and works towards the opposite conclusion of its predecessor. Along the way, again, this work addresses questions of environmental and sexual politics via a sub-plot about a character who pollutes the Chesapeake with toxic waste and numerous women with venereal disease of one form or another, and pays homage to the fictional character whom Barth sees as the goddess of the art of narrative by introducing her into the text as a player in the game.

Whilst it is easy to level the charge of over-self-reflexivity at Barth's more recent work, relying as it does for a great deal of its savour on a working knowledge of his previous fiction, it is an accusation which too quickly condemns his work. After writing Chimera he was accused of being incapable of writing about the world around him and had therefore opted to write about ways of writing about the world. These more recent works reject that position on both counts. First, he does write about the world—as is most obviously shown by the discussion of the doomsday factor and Peter's politicisation of the apocalyptic state of fiction in the four chapters of The Tidewater Tales entitled The Doomsday Factor'. Secondly, he refuses to be drawn into writing about those issues in a style and manner which he would regard as simplistic.

For example, we need only look at the way in which the story of J. Arthur Paisley's death threads its way through three of his novels to see the ways in which the relations between fiction and reality are investigated as different perspectives are opened on the incident. On the final page of LETTERS there is the first reference:

Sloop Brillig found abandoned in Chesapeake Bay off mouth of Patuxent River, all sails set, C.I.A. documents in attaché case aboard. Body of owner, former C.I.A. agent, recovered from Bay one week later, 40 pounds of scuba-diving weights attached, bullet hole in head. C.I.A. and F.B.I. monitoring investigation by local authorities. Nature of documents not disclosed.

(p. 772)

Paisley's body floats, as it were, in the background throughout Sabbatical as the tale of the Agency's dirty tricks unfolds and focuses on the incidents surrounding the discovery of his body, but he at no time becomes an integral part of the thematic devices and concerns of the text. In The Tidewater Tales, the discovery of Paisley's body by Peter Sagamore is the visceral moment which focuses his general disquiet at the state of the world onto his relationship with the CIA which has come via a course on fiction-writing. The result of this is the 'final reason for Peter Sagamore's late increasing silence'. The incident moves from being one of the catalogue of events at the end of LETTERS, to part of the plot of Sabbatical, to a thematic metaphor and device in The Tidewater Tales. As it becomes more 'real' by virtue of the revelation of more detail about the incident, it becomes less 'real' because it acquires a resonance in a debate about the techniques of producing fiction.

Of course, in order to see how this development takes place it is necessary to have knowledge of all three works and that, of course, lays Barth open to the weary old charge of self-indulgence. And yet, at the same time, lacking knowledge of the previous texts in no way defuses the reader's engagement with any one of the texts, because the reader is as much producer of sense and meaning in these texts as the author, and this is another of the ways in which Barth's work adheres to a set of general tenets about the techniques of postmodernism. Whilst this is generally true of all fiction, it is encoded into the structures of postmodernism as part of its programme for the future of writing.


The difficulty of critical engagement with the work of a living writer is that s/he continues to produce novels which seem to defy any neatly established conclusions about their fictional strategies. So, too, with John Barth. Since the final chapter of his career appeared to have been written out in LETTERS, he has produced two new works which have continued and extended the trajectory of both his narrative techniques and his American liberalism.

The particular shape of that liberalism has changed from a detached intellectual disenchantment with the conformities of Eisenhower's fifties to a flight from any sense of engagement with the world of the late sixties, through the silence of the seventies to the discovery of a 'sociopolitical' engagement in the eighties. The fate of this liberalism has been always to find itself at odds: at one moment finding itself to the left and the next to the right of dominating attitudes. Thus, Barth satirises fifties American attitudes towards extra-marital sex, the Communist party and other bugbears of the Eisenhower years in his first two novels but makes no contemporary (or even near-contemporary) reference to the Vietnam war. Indeed, at precisely the point at which a considerable number of American writers were dusting off (or inventing) their liberal credentials, Barth was concealing his beneath the argument that he remained true only to his artistic responsibilities. Equally, as the liberals of the late sixties now rediscover their conservative commitments, Barth is hard at work presenting his outrage at the activities of the darker side of US domestic and foreign policy.

In Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales, Barth takes on in particular two questions which have plagued American liberalism since, at the very least, the mid-seventies. First, the role of the CIA as a force for (what Barth would describe as) evil. Secondly, the growing awareness of the impact of pollution on the environment. Not only this, but he has also developed a wider social awareness and sensitivity in his more recent works, which I found, as an eighties reader of his fiction, strangely absent or disguised by layers of parody in the earlier novels and collections for which he is, even now I suspect, remembered.

In these two novels then, and in their large predecessor LETTERS, Barth has confirmed himself as one of the voices in literary resistance to the tide of conservative know-nothingness which characterised the mainstream of cultural production during the Reagan years.


This is most clearly marked in his portrayal of women and sexuality, in the shift from the almost entirely passive female figures of the earlier fiction to a developing awareness of what can be called 'women's issues'. From Rennie, the site upon which Jake and Joe play out their philosophical contest and which ends in her physical death, and Anastasia, whom George pursues and 'looks through' in a moment which now seems almost written to demonstrate Rosalind Coward's argument about voyeurism as the male possession of the female body, to Germaine (not an idle choice of name surely!), who speaks for herself, and Susan, who makes decisions about her life and thereby acquires a feature missing from so many of his earlier female characters—a private life. From 'Night Sea Journey', a short story in which the active component in procreation is the sperm searching for She (who compounds the inherent sexism of this piece by becoming the maw which swallows our brave male swimmer at the end of the story), to Sex Education, in which the active speaking voices are, first, the ova who are then joined by atypical, 'unmacho', sperms and the act of procreation becomes seen as fusion rather than conquest. This shift of ground is clearly the product of the more generalised changes produced by the Women's Liberation Movement and then the Women's Movement, but they are kept firmly within the realm of the liberal consciousness by a consistent substitution of narratology for politics. The political questions raised by the women's movement and feminist scholarship about the construction of literature become, in Barth's novels, issues of technique. Indeed, the crucial question of abortion rights becomes the occasion for a bad joke in Sabbatical and is then evaded as the two sisters, Susan and Mimi, are reunited by their sorority despite the fact that one is an anti-abortion activist whilst the other has just had an abortion. The issue has been stripped of its social significance and reduced to a narrative device.


'I write this as George Bush's candidacy for President is threatened by revelations about his involvement with the "dirty tricks brigade", as the after-effects of Iran/Contragate still reverberate at the end of a year which has seen the appearance of but the latest in a series of exposés of the behaviour and performance of CIA operatives both at home and abroad.' This sentence now appears as wishful thinking because, as we all now know, George Bush romped home in the 1988 presidential election despite (or perhaps because of) these revelations. He is, we should remind ourselves the first ex-director of the CIA to be elected president since the Agency was set up by Truman's administration in 1947.

In many ways, the CIA represents for the liberal not only all that is wrong with the conservative bastions of the American establishment but also a convenient scapegoat for those ills. All we need do, the argument appears to go, is excise the cancerous tissue from the essentially healthy body and all will be well. It is an argument which rests upon belief in the finally benevolent nature of the American state and as such has among its many antecedents Whitman's support of the US intervention in Mexico in 1856 and Steinbeck's decision to turn government propagandist during the Second World War.

Barth's version of it appears in Sabbatical as Fenn and Susan sail under the Chesapeake Bay bridge and greet America with mixed feelings, but feelings in which the drift is that the present operations of the state are some sort of deviation from the norm even as they recognise from their mutual sense of history that this is not the case and that the American state has operated since its inception upon a basis of secret servitude. Susan's outburst pulls these threads together as it expresses the confusion generated by the collision between an awareness of the activities of the American secret state and her beloved's relationship therewith. In this case, the state's activities are in some sense ameliorated by the personal connection. Dugald Taylor is a pleasant and sophisticated friend, and it is the excesses of the Agency which have driven Fenn to write his exposure rather than its existence. The liberal's dilemma is the inability to imagine anything other than the prevailing situation; it may be complained about, campaigned against, but it cannot be changed in a fundamental fashion.


The development of 'eco-fiction' from the 1970s on has been away from the Utopian novel containing elements of ecological, of 'green' thought—works such as Callenbach's Ecotopia and Piercy's Woman on the edge of time—towards a fiction which has confronted the prospect of ecological disaster in a contemporary context. The increase in popularity of this latter form is in part due to the rising number of publicised disasters and the development of an indigenous movement of protest against a wide range of abuses. In part it is also, it seems to me, a product of narrowing imaginative horizons in the years of crisis. A move away from imagining possibilities to a defence of a bad existing situation against a potentially worse future in the world of social activity has filtered through into the fiction of the eighties.

Barth approached this topic in an initially oblique fashion in LETTERS, where he initiated a discussion about the 'ecology' of the novel and of written literature in general; a discussion in which the continued existence of the endangered species of written fiction is defended as a cultural necessity. Indeed, in truly ecological fashion, the prospect of its disappearance is registered in its impact on the whole cultural field and the effect is seen as productive of cultural imbecility. In the next two novels the subject is moved towards the surface of the fiction, first with characters in Sabbatical prepared to voice the opinion that industrial pollution was disturbing the balance of nature in the Chesapeake Bay and then, in The Tidewater Tales, as the material is built into the narrative of the work. The movement, then, is from metaphor, via exposition, to integration. Of these, the move from exposition to integration is the more crucial because it indicates the absorption of the material into the texture of the work.

Even so, for Barth—never a committed 'social' novelist—the question has always also been employed metaphorically and narratologically. Metaphorically, it is another aspect of the apocalyptic climate Barth long ago identified as existing in the realm of narrative fiction. Narratologically, it is part of a series of images and incidents of pollutive behaviour which create the situation against which his most recent central characters assert themselves. The CIA pollute the democratic traditions of the USA, the USAF pollute the peace of the Chesapeake Bay, while Poonie sexually pollutes women and is involved in the Kepone pollution of the Bay.


Plots spin outwards in the 'real world' and in the world of postmodernist fiction, describing the mechanisms by which both operate. In that sense postmodernism can be seen as the realism of the contemporary period, because its formal techniques correspond to a perception of the social reality of state capitalism as an international phenomenon. The bureaucratic organisation of an increasingly crisis-ridden world system has generated apparent irrationalities, the explanation of which all too easily rests in a theory of conspiracy and plot.

Both senses of the word apply, because the elision of fiction and reality, the incapacity of the imagination to produce tales more unlikely than that which actually happens, the unsettling of previous systems of explanation by ever-faster dance of fashion, and the continuous employment of parodie self-reference is a description both of the resources of postmodernism and of the means by which information is conveyed in the 'realistic' forms of the dominant cultural modes.

Grasping the parody and reference becomes a way of situating oneself in this whirl of images because it provides a handle by which one can hold onto a sense of understanding. What disappears is a sense of history, by which I mean a sense of the temporal space between the various cultural patterns to which reference is being made. It is, perhaps, satisfying to recognise that an aria from Catalani's La Wally is used in a vacuum cleaner advertisement but it is also, in the strict sense of the word, meaningless because it has been stripped of its context. The same could be said of postmodernism generally, that in being all too familiar with the procedures of contemporary 'information technology', it has nothing critical to say of those procedures. It lives within them, unable to find a way into a different and thoroughly critical mode of expression.

John A. McClure

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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, the nature of their appeal. But in the end he insists, against the manifest fact of his own fascination, that the deepest rewards of romance are not to be found in the roles and regions where the white male culture of America now locates them: in espionage and conspiracy. And he gestures, albeit tentatively, beyond these realms into regions where romance might yet find the resources it needs to be reborn in something like adequate form.

DeLillo portrays romance as a rich and protean mode that constantly adapts itself to changing historical conditions, returning again and again to the drama of the historical moment for the "raw materials"—the human models and settings and ideologies—it requires to construct its stories of quest and contest, radical alterity, divine or demonic otherness. One requirement of romance is a world plausibly permeated with mysterious forces, with magical or sacred or occult powers. But as Western society became increasingly secularized and rationalized, romance tended increasingly to locate this world on the great imperial frontiers: Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the American West. These "marginal" zones were imaginatively exploited both by writers of popular adventure fiction and by writers of high romance, novelists like Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, Malcolm Lowry, and Graham Greene. They were represented as places where the conditions of romance still obtained, where one could enjoy adventures unavailable in a world of law and order, achieve goals out of reach in a class-bound society, experience emotional and sensual intensities prohibited in a world of carefully regulated responses, and enjoy experiences of the sacred, the demonic, and the sublime unavailable in a utilitarian, scientific, and secular world.

The search for raw materials that preoccupies DeLillo is made necessary by the global elimination of such premodern places, the penetration of capitalism into all the enclaves once available for imaginative exploitation in romance. The moderns anticipated this moment with dread, and their relation to the imperialism that made its coming inevitable was a vexed one. On the one hand, they drew on the records and experiences of actual imperial adventurers to create their tales of exotic adventure, lend plausibility to their representations of magical and miraculous events; on the other, they recognized that the existence of these reports and reporters spelled doom for the exotic lives and exotic places they depicted. Even as they exploited the materials of romance made available by imperial penetration of premodern cultures, they projected a Weberian future in which the rationalizing spirit of the West would produce a universal disenchantment of the world. Conrad's Marlow reminisces wistfully, at the beginning of Heart of Darkness, over the time not so long ago when the map of Africa, now filled in, was "a blank space of delightful mystery—a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over." In a similar vein, a character in Virginia Woolf s The Voyage Out condemns British imperialism, not for exploiting and impoverishing the peoples of Latin America, but for "robbing a whole continent of mystery." And in Conan Doyle's The Lost World, a character declares regretfully that "the big blank spaces in the map are being filled in, and there's no room for romance anywhere."

A passage deleted from the final version of Heart of Darkness provides a somewhat more detailed version of this narrative of disenchantment. At the beginning of the novel, as Marlow and his friends sit on their sailboat waiting for the tide to turn, a "big steamer," undeterred by such natural forces, comes down the channel. She is, we are told,

bound to the uttermost ends of the earth and timed to the day, to the very hour with nothing unknown in her path [,] no mystery on her way, nothing but a few coaling stations. She went full-speed, noisily . . . timed from port to port, to the very hour. And the earth suddenly seemed shrunk to the size of a pea spinning in the heart of an immense darkness.

The steamboat, a symbol of triumphant technology, shrinks the world, displacing a terrestrial darkness which is at once threatening and satisfying, and rendering experience all too predictable. Its disenchanting passage might even be said to sponsor, emblematically anyway, Marlow's countervoyage up the Congo, a voyage which seems designed to reconstitute the world, put the darkness back where it belongs, at its heart. And Marlow's journey is but one of many by which modernists typically orchestrate a temporary escape from disenchantment into the so-called "dark places of the world."

The postmodern period begins, according to Fredric Jameson, at the moment when these places are abolished: The "prodigious expansion of capital into hitherto uncommodified areas," Jameson writes in New Left Review (1984), "eliminates the enclaves of precapitalist organization it had hitherto tolerated and exploited in a tributary way." The result is the "purer capitalism of our own times" and the eradication of those cultures and professions from which the modernists extracted romance. To hear a modernist's response to this act of foreclosure, we need only turn to John Berger, who declares, in The Look of Things, that the eradication of the precapitalist sanctuaries of the Western imagination has made the world uninhabitable. "The intolerability of the world," he writes, "is, in a certain sense, an historical achievement. The world was not intolerable so long as God existed, so long as there was the ghost of a pre-existent order, so long as large tracts of the world were unknown."

DeLillo refuses to make this modernist judgment his point of departure. Instead, while modernists such as Berger continue to seek out remnants of the premodern among vestigial communities, DeLillo focuses his attention on sites within capitalism, and discovers there the materials of new forms of romance. It's true, he suggests, that capitalism has penetrated everywhere, but its globalization has not resulted in global rationalization and Weber's iron cage. It seems instead to have sponsored a profound reversal: the emergence of zones and forces like those that imperial expansion has erased: jungle-like techno-tangles; dangerous, unknown "tribes"; secret cults with their own codes and ceremonies, vast conspiracies. "This is the age of conspiracy," says a character in Running Dog, with the mixture of wonder and revulsion that is everywhere in DeLillo's work. This is "the age of connections, links, secret relationships." These zones and forces—the various computer circuits, multinational business networks, espionage agencies, private armies, and unconventional political players—make a mockery of collective desires for democracy and social justice. But at the same time they assuage collective fears of a totally domesticated and transparent world, and become substitutes, in the popular imagination, for earlier sources of mystery, adventure, and empowerment. Thus the espionage thriller, with its vision of a world riven by clashes between vast conspiratorial forces, replaces the imperial adventure story and its American subform, the western, as the most popular mode of (masculine) romance. And conspiracy theory, on which the thriller is based, replaces religion as a means of mapping the world without disenchanting it, robbing it of its mystery. For conspiracy theory explains the world, as religion does, without elucidating it, by positing the existence of hidden forces which permeate and transcend the realm of ordinary life. It offers us satisfactions similar to those offered by religions and religiously inflected romance: both the satisfaction of living among secrets, in a mysterious world, and the satisfaction of gaining access to secrets, being "in the know," a member of some esoteric order of magicians or warriors.

In Players, DeLillo's early venture in the conspiracy thriller, espionage networks provide certain satisfactions which used to be found only in the non-Western world. Now, it's "everywhere, isn't it?"

Mazes. . . . Intricate techniques. Our big problem in the past, as a nation, was that we didn't give our government credit for being the totally entangling force that it was. They were even more evil than we'd imagined. More evil and much more interesting. Assassination, blackmail, torture, enormous improbable intrigues. All these convolutions and relationships. . . . Behind every stark fact we encounter layers of ambiguity . . . multiple interpretations.

The secret government has replaced Conrad's labyrinthine Congo and satanic Congolese, who taught Marlow "the fascination of the abomination," as the site of evil and interest, the darkly enchanted Elsewhere of our dreams. Indeed, DeLillo suggests, it is now "the secret dream of the white collar" to escape into that world,

to place a call from a public booth in the middle of the night. Calling some government bureau, some official department, right, of the government. "I have information about so-and-so." Or, even better, to be visited, to have them come to you. "You might be able to deliver a microdot letter, sir, on your visit to wherever," if that's how they do things. "You might be willing to provide a recruiter with cover on your payroll, sir." Imagine how sexy that can be for the true-blue businessman or professor. What an incredible nighttime thrill. The appeal of mazes and intricate techniques. The suggestion of a double life. "Fantastic, sign me up, I'll do it."

The familiar has become fantastic, the public institutions of a rationalizing age have metastasized into sinister but alluring webs of mystery.

In another novel about Americans drawn into the secret world of espionage, Running Dog, DeLillo shows even more explictly that in spite of modernist fears, the social world has not been rendered totally "readable" by science and technology. Max Weber equated rationalization not with "an increased and general knowledge of the condition under which one lives," but with the "belief that if one but wished one could learn [about] it at any time," that "there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play." But in DeLillo's America this process has been suspended, even reversed: "it's the presence alone, the very fact, the superabundance of technology. . . . Just the fact that these things exist at this widespread level. The process machines, the scanners, the sorters. . . . What enormous weight. What complex programs. And there's no one to explain it to us." We have been cast back into mystery by the very forces—scientific, rationalizing—that threatened or promised enlightenment.

DeLillo relates this reversal to the history of romance in The Names, his novel about an American based in Athens who does "risk analysis" of Asian and African nations for an American corporation. James Axton and his friends like to see themselves as playing out roles in an oldfashioned colonial romance: "It is like the Empire," says one character. "Opportunity, adventure, sunsets, dusty death." But their self-consciousness betrays an awareness that the roles they imagine themselves playing are no longer available in a world divided into nations and crisscrossed with air routes, telecommunications networks, and shipping lanes. Has the world become the "withered pea" of Conrad's nightmare? This view of things is emphatically denied:

"They keep telling us it's getting smaller all the time. But it's not, is it? Whatever we learn about it makes it bigger. Whatever we do to complicate things makes it bigger. It's all a complication. It's one big tangled thing. . . . Modern communications don't shrink the world, they make it bigger. Faster planes make it bigger. They give us more, they connect more things. . . . The world is so big and complicated."

In other words, the instruments that many modernists saw as adversaries of sublimity and enchantment turn out to be producing them: the great steamer which threatens to rob Conard's world of its satisfying strangeness is in effect celebrated by DeLillo—and not just in The Names but throughout his work—as the unwitting agent of a fascinating new intricacy.

In The Names, James Axton goes looking for mystery where the modernists found it, in the exotic countries he studies as a risk analyst for his employer, and in the mysterious cult of assassins he studies as a sideline. He likes to see himself as a colonial adventurer. But in the end he discovers that the most dramatic mysteries are behind him, in the corporate world he takes for granted, and in Athens, the seat of Western civilization. He has been working all along, it seems, not for a private company but for the CIA; he has been pursued not by exotic cultists but by Greek nationalists. Caught up in his nostalgia for outmoded forms of romance, he has failed to recognize that he is playing a leading part in a contemporary adventure story, a tale of conspiracy and terrorism. The drama of rationalization ends—or at least can be seen as ending—with a literal deus ex machina in which a zone of enchantment emerges out of the machinery of the modern. "Elsewhere," which was mapped geographically in the popular imagination of the modernist era, is now mapped geologically, as the subterranean segment of a global political and economic circuitry, the world of conspiracy. And romance, which once had to depend on distant premodern places for its raw materials, now finds them at the heart of the postmodern metropolis.

The age of conspiracy offers us, by way of satisfactions, new forms of intricacy, entanglement, and complication, a new jungle with its own "fibrous beauty." It offers us the opportunity to be thrilled by the power, the impenetrability, and the almost demonic malevolence of new systems. It even offers, to the lover of sacred and esoteric language, a new "poetry," the "technical idiom" of new systems of communication and control, "number-words and coinages [that] had the inviolate grace of a strict meter of chant." To the more daring, it offers the possibility of actual participation in the new cults and combat units, the "nighttime thrill" of a double life. To the rest of us, the readers of the fictitious Running Dog magazine or the real Running Dog, it offers the pleasure of vicarious participation in these adventures, momentary escape from our all-too-predictable lives. It rescues us, in other words, from the modernist nightmare of an entire world reduced to quotidian compromises and routines, an utterly disenchanted world.

So much for what is offered. But DeLillo's novels are no simple celebrations of the new Elsewhere. Indeed they seem designed, like the works of modernists such as Conrad, both to reproduce the excitements of popular romance and to reject them as unworthy: unfounded in reality and inferior to the effects produced by truer mysteries, more realistic romances. When we romanticize conspiracy, DeLillo suggests, we misrepresent it, invest it with powers and possibilities it does not possess. The great romance narratives posit a world alive with demonic and divine forces, and an inner world similarly profound and intense. They posit institutions—the faith, the court, the community—capable of satisfying individual and collective needs for transcendence: for testing, tempering, and triumph (courtly romance) or renunciation, purification, and illumination (spiritual romance). And they imply that human beings are up to these challenges. But the new intricacies are ultimately soulless, the new institutions debased. Even our capacity for trial is sadly diminished. The jungle of technical and human systems possesses only a spurious and superficial sublimity: it's the stuff of perverse fascinations and cheap thrills rather than awe and wonder. And the new orders of quest and contest, the secret agencies dedicated ostensibly to the protection of sacred cultural values, are actually no more than subsystems of a vast criminal enterprise that encompasses capitalist corporations, criminal entrepreneurs, and corrupt governments. As a character in Running Dog puts it, "[l]oyalties are so interwoven, the thing's a game. The Senator and PAC/ORD [a maverick intelligence unit] aren't nearly the antagonists the public believes them to be. They talk all the time. They make deals, they buy people, they sell favors. . . . That's the nature of the times." To be entangled in these systems is to be diminished—we all are. To be actively engaged is to be morally destroyed.

Within the world of conspiracy, one simply does not find the great ethical confrontations between good and evil that are at the heart of romance, nor the institutions—the secular or religious orders, legions of angels and demons, good guys and bad—that gave specific form to the struggle. Under such conditions, potential adepts drawn to conspiracy by the will to romance and by illusions fostered by popular romance find themselves "warriors without masters," their only roundtable an intelligence agency that operates by the corrupt codes of the very culture they would escape: "They didn't call it the Company for nothing. It was set up to obscure the deeper responsibilities, the calls of blood trust that have to be answered." We may mock the idea of such "calls," and see them as little more than the effects of an ideology that has long used the fictions of romance to enlist shock troops for the sordid business of conquest. But we continue to look for institutions that can satisfy such needs, and, when such institutions are absent, to settle for substitutes.

Running Dog is DeLillo's most sustained study of a single "warrior without a master." Fast-paced, scary, exciting, and grimly funny, it traces the attempts of one would-be knight, Glen Selvy, to find a channel for his aspirations. The novel invites us to be "suspicious of quests," to find "some vital deficiency on the part of the individual in pursuit, a meagerness of spirit." But it also reminds us that we are, as a culture, addicted to fantasies of quest, conspiracy, and illumination. And it appeals to us in these very terms, offering itself, at the outset anyway, as a supersophisticated version of the familiar story. Selvy, like so many recent adventure heroes—Rambo; the Robert De Niro character in The Deer Hunter; Hicks, the Vietnam vet of Stone's Dog Soldiers—wants to be a kind of knight: to practice ascetic disciplines, purify and perfect his body, join an order, serve a cause. His girlfriend casts him repeatedly as a hero of romance, "an English lancer on the eve of Balaclava," an adept trained by "some master of the wilderness." And the novel seems ready to confirm him in a contemporary version of that role: he is given a position in a secret security force, a boss named Percival, and a quest. But these possibilities are advanced only to be dashed. Both Selvy and the reader learn that in this America, in these times, there is no way to play out such dreams. The secret community Selvy joins (PAC/ORD) turns out to be every bit as corrupt and manipulative as the terror organizations it is ostensibly dedicated to destroying. Percival turns out to be a collector of pornography, and the quest that preoccupies all the major players—the Senator, the secret service, the Mafia, and Richie Armbrister, America's king of smut—is for a pornographic film shot in Hitler's bunker: "the century's ultimate piece of decadence."

Selvy, who is drawn to the ascetic life without any sense of concrete mission, at first doesn't feel "tainted by the dirt of his profession." He simply enjoys "the empty meditations, the routine, the tradecraft, the fine edge to be maintained in preparation for—he didn't know what." But ultimately, embittered and betrayed, he comes to see himself not as a modern knight, but as just another lackey of an utterly corrupt capitalist order, a servant of the god of our times, "The God of Body. The God of Lipstick and Silk. The God of Nylon, Scent and Shadow." "What's your real name?" his girlfriend asks. "Running Dog," he replies.

With this recognition, Selvy's second quest begins, and Running Dog turns into something of a metaromance, a quest narrative in which the aim of the quest is to find a viable romance form, a script that will enable Selvy, and perhaps the reader, to begin pursuing redemption. No longer looking for the pornographic grail of a perverse society, fleeing assassins set on him by his own employers, Selvy breaks out of the Northeastern Corridor world of the espionage thriller and out of the genre itself: "This is turning into a Western," remarks his girlfriend. But there's no longer room in the West into which Selvy flees to stage the old western romance, and besides, the players have been scrambled beyond recognition. Thus Selvy, the WASP, is pursued by two Vietnamese in cowboy hats and sunglasses through a Texas town slowly filling up with tourists, "mostly older people and eight or nine Japanese." When he retreats even further, back to the abandoned desert training camp where he once studied covert warfare, his flight takes him across yet another generic boundary, into the world of sixties shamanistic romance, the Don Juan stories. Levi Blackwater, a "gringo mystic" whose name evokes both the priestly tribe of his forebears and the Indian tribes of the land he wanders, appears at this point to warn Selvy that his final stab at living by the rules of romance, an attempt to orchestrate a spiritually meaningful death, will also fail. "There's no way out," says Blackwater.

"No clear light for you in this direction. You can't
find release from experience so simply."
"Dying is an art in the East."
"Yes, heroic, a spiritual victory."
"You set me on to that, Levi."
"But this is part, only part, of a longer, longer,
process. We were just beginning to understand."

Selvy's attempt to write himself into Eastern rituals is hopelessly oversimplified, and he dies, ironically, thinking not about spiritual victory but about spirits—"What he needed right now was a drink." Levi's plans for Selvy—he wants to enact a burial ritual passed along to him by the "masters of the snowy range"—are similarly shipwrecked. The ceremony requires taking a few locks of the deceased's hair, but Selvy's Vietnamese assassin, who is also versed in the lore of the spirits, has decapitated his victim and carried the head away.

There are no adequate patterns for romance in the American culture to which Selvy belongs and from which he gets his bearings. The West of the western no longer exists; the new Orientalisms of the sixties celebrate disciplines Westerners cannot master; and espionage, the freshest region of romance, is a realm of all-too-familiar corruptions. Its secrets are sordid, its quests salacious, its contests little more than internecine battles between competitors who share the same mean aims. DeLillo suggests, in other words, that we have avoided rationalization without rescuing enchantment, have entered an era of aimless intensities, pornographic passions, cheap thrills, and warriors without wisdom.

DeLillo has continued to be fascinated with conspiracy, even as he warns against its fascinations. The Names and Libra, two of the three novels he has published since Running Dog, focus on conspiracies. They succeed, like Running Dog, both in conveying the excitements associated with conspiracy and in making these excitements seem spurious, disabling. They do this, in part, by working with and against the conventions of the espionage thriller, offering some of the satisfactions of the genre, denying others. They catch us up in sensational stories of conspiracy and assassination, but deny us the pleasures of compression and pacing we associate with such stories. The Names is a tangle of loosely integrated plot lines, unresolved conflicts, and suspended actions. And in Libra, DeLillo refuses to shape his subject, the first Kennedy assassination, to the forms of the conventional thriller. "If we are on the outside,"

we assume a conspiracy is the perfect working of a scheme. Silent nameless men with unadorned hearts. A conspiracy is everything that ordinary life is not. It's the inside game, cold, sure, undistracted, forever closed off to us. We are the flawed ones, the innocents, trying to make some rough sense of the daily jostle. Conspirators have a logic and a daring beyond our reach. All conspiracies are the same taut story of men who find coherence in some criminal act.

But maybe not.

Certainly not in Libra, which challenges the conventional "taut story" about conspiracy not only by what it depicts—a rambling, confused, and incoherent series of events, but also by its method of depiction, through a capacious and frequently meditative narrative which is anything but "taut." DeLillo structures both works in a way that challenges the romance of conspiracy, the "stories" we tell ourselves about the way things work in that mysterious domain. But he is not content, in The Names and Libra, merely to challenge the romantic representation of conspiracy. He is also searching, as Selvy does in Running Dog, for alternatives to conspiracy, social sites and ideologies that provide more adequate raw materials of romance. The Names explores "the world of corporate transients," expatriate employees of the great multinational business and government interests James Axton at first finds romantic: "I don't mind working for Rowser at all," he says, speaking of his superior in the risk analysis firm.

This is where I want to be. History. . . . We're important suddenly. . . . We're right in the middle. We're the handlers of huge sums of delicate money. Recyclers of petrodollars. Builders of refineries. Analysts of risk. . . . The world is here. Don't you feel that? In some of these places, things have enormous power. They have impact, they're mysterious.

Axton is especially fascinated with the speech of his corporate knights-errant. He likes their habit of turning places into "one-sentence stories," a manner of speaking which suggests at once the speakers' amazing mobility (they've been everywhere), their worldliness, and their power to define and dismiss. He likes, too, their command of specialized jargons, "the technical cant" of security specialists, bankers, businessmen, and spies, which resonates with the power of the institutions that employ them. And he likes, finally, the protocols of conspiratorial exchange:

He asked a few questions about my trips to countries in the region. He approached the subject of the Northeast Group several times but never mentioned the name itself, never asked a direct question. I let the vague references go by, volunteered nothing, paused often. . . . It was a strange conversation, full of hedged remarks and obscure undercurrents, perfect in its way.

By the end of the novel, though, Axton has had more than enough of conspiracy and, it would seem, its idioms. Before he leaves Athens, he makes a long-postponed visit to the Acropolis, and finds there examples of a strikingly different politics of discourse, resources for a different kind of romance. Axton's Acropolis is a place of congregation, free exchange, and "open expression," a language community antithetical in its purposes and principles of exchange to the conspiratorial community he is fleeing. "Everyone is talking," and the impression conveyed is one of rich heteroglossia, constructive dialogue, and catharsis. Even the stones seem to speak, and to instruct those who come to them in the purposes and powers of speech:

I hadn't expected a human feeling to emerge from the stones but this is what I found, deeper than the art and mathematics embodied in the structure, the optical exactitudes. I found a cry for pity . . . this open cry, this voice we know as our own.

Here are the resources for a very different kind of romance, one in which people come together to share knowledge, pain, and longing on a site resonate with history and with absence. This terrain—the half-empty temple, denuded of its divinities but still filled with suppliants, still ringing, albeit silently, with a "cry for pity" addressed to absent redeemers—resembles the space that Jameson designated in The Political Unconscious as the terrain of authentic romance in our time. It is one of the "abandoned clearings across which higher and lower worlds once passed," and which we still visit to remember older dreams of fulfillment and to confront our impoverishment. The Names, like Running Dog, depicts a kind of transgeneric quest, but one that ends more promisingly than Selvy's. And it repudiates, as Running Dog does, that version of history which would offer the intricate systems and conspiracies of postmodernity as adequate sources of wonder and transcendence. If romance has a home in the present, it is not within the machinery of capitalism, but in archaic and marginal places, like the Acropolis, where memory and desire bring people together to speak openly about what they have lost and what they want.

But the episode at the Acropolis is not the end of The Names. It is followed by a brief fragment from a novel, being written by James Axton's son, in which the young protagonist is attending a Pentecostal revival meeting somewhere on the American plains. Here again there is a play of voices: the boy's parents and other worshipers are speaking in tongues, recreating that moment from biblical history when the spirit descended on the disciples and they began miraculously to speak in the different languages of the ancient world. But for the boy at least, this cacophony of voices is terrifying: he cannot understand, and, even worse, he cannot join them: "The gift was not his, the whole language of the spirit which was greater than Latin or French was not to be seized in his pityfull mouth." Fleeing the church, he finds himself in a bleak world without "familiar signs and safe places," but not without wonder. The last words of the fragment, and of The Names, describe the boy's reaction to this world: "This was worse than a retched nightmare. It was the nightmare of real things, the fallen wonder of the world."

I read this fragment as a second parabolic retort to the postmodern narrative that discovers romance in conspiracy, a counterhistory in which wonder survives the crisis of desacralization not by investing the mechanisms of multinational capitalism with all the power and mystery once ascribed to the forces of magicians and gods, but by facing the fact of our disinheritance, the emptiness of a world without God. And I imagine, even if DeLillo does not, the youngster fleeing toward the Acropolis, on his way to an encounter that will provide him with company and prepare him for the longer struggle, that of casting, in merely human speech, an image of the future as rich or richer than that which died with the gods.

Libra, DeLillo's most recent novel of conspiracy, ends on a similar note, with an extended cry for pity, and call for justice, from Marguerite, Lee Oswald's mother. Marguerite's monologue is addressed, like Job's, to an invisible judge. Of course she lacks the rich man's eloquence: she speaks in the only languages she knows, the debased languages of popular culture, the world of women's magazines and television: "Judge, I have lived in many places but never filthy dirty, never not neat, never without the personal loving touch, the decorator item. We have moved to be a family. This is the theme of my research." In her desperation she remakes and recombines the clichés she uses, fusing the fragments borrowed from so many debased utterances into an utterance which is not debasing but profoundly moving. Her voice, unlike the voices of the conspirators, is raw with emotion, resonant with memory and disappointment and confusion. "I have suffered," she proclaims, and suddenly we are back in the realm of the "open cry," the homeland of romance. "I stand here on this brokenhearted earth," she declares, and we recall that, in the genre of romance, passions are not contained in individual characters but seem to circulate through them and the world they inhabit. "You have to wonder," she says, and her words have the force of a command. Listening to her cries as she mourns her son under a wild and urgent sky, we are reminded of the young boy imagined by another young boy at the end of The Names, in that other country of romance where wonder is not a matter of human secrets, human institutions, machinery, but of tragic vision and open expression.

The unfashionably passionate and awkward language of the "open cry" exposes the emptiness of all the carefully closed and polished language that has preceded it, reminds us that the language of DeLillo's tough guys, so strikingly frank and transgressive in some respects, has its own decorums, effects its own suppressions. What it renders unspeakable are precisely those protests and prayers (for a Day of Judgment, a Day of Reconciliation, a salvational future) on which the great traditions of romance, sacred and secular, are founded. In giving voice to these protests and prayers, the visitors to the Acropolis, the prairie Pentecostals, the boy who flees their chapel, and Marguerite Oswald invite us to get in touch with them as well, to remember the historic vocation of romance, and to reject all romance formulas that do not reflect that vocation.

But Marguerite's monologues are not the only passages in Libra which point the reader toward alternatives to popular postmodern romance. Character after character in the novel comments on the role played by coincidence in the unfolding of the plot against Kennedy. "We were all linked," thinks one, "in a vast and rhythmic coincidence, a daisy chain of rumor, suspicion and secret wish." Nicholas Branch, the CIA employee assigned to write the secret history of the assassination, resists the temptation to look beyond the amazing play of coincidence for some "grand and masterful scheme," although he does come to think that "someone is trying to sway him toward superstition" by feeding him instance after instance "of cheap coincidence." But David Ferrie, the unofficial "spiritual adviser" to the conspiracy, is bolder. He insists that "there's a pattern in things. Something in us has an effect on independent events. We make things happen. The conscious mind gives one side only. We're deeper than that. We extend into time." Finally, then, "There's no such thing as coincidence. We don't know what to call it, so we say coincidence."

Ferrie's speculations gain credibility from their context: events in this novel (which takes its title from Feme's favorite science, astrology) are shaped in remarkable ways by what most characters think of as coincidence. Someone, it would seem, is trying to sway us toward superstition, trying to get us to see something like a grand psychic conspiracy at work in what we call coincidence. DeLillo presses us toward that familiar and academically unsavory resource of romance, the discourse of the occult. While the romance of conspiracy is rejected in Libra, the whole trope of conspiracy undergoes what might be called a respiritualization: we are asked to envision a world in which dark, unnameable psychic forces are in play, forces which, like those of magic and divinity, are not subject to the physical laws we think we are bound to obey.

DeLillo repudiates the romance of conspiracy and promotes certain alternatives. But while each of the novels I've discussed ends by dismissing conspiracy—the activity, the mode of speech it sponsors, the genre—in each novel DeLillo also returns to the topic. It might be argued that he has been unable to extricate himself from the spell of conspiracy, to write for long in the very different registers of romance he arrives at in the final moments of The Names and Libra. Is he trapped, then, like so many of his protagonists, outside that world of "deep wondering" and "ordinary mysteries" toward which he gestures at the end of these works? And is he driven, like many of his main characters, by a desire for the chilly disciplines, intricacies, and entanglements of the new multinational order? These are, of course, unanswerable questions. But they lead to other questions, which may be answerable. What about us—the avid readers of DeLillo's work? Does our readiness to return with him, again and again, to his chosen terrain, suggest that, like it or not, we too are enthralled by those networks of power and manipulation which we also—most of us—claim to abhor? Writing from within the enchantments of the new Elsewhere, but also against them, DeLillo helps us place ourselves, recognize our own unsavory enthrallments, acknowledge, even if we cannot embrace, some of the alternatives to this particular, historically determined enchantment.

John M. Unsworth

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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 opportunity for such an inquiry, for several reasons. Discovered by Albert Guerard in 1947 and vigorously promoted by him in the years that followed, Hawkes was the first American "post-modern" author to gain notoriety.1 Writers of Hawkes's generation were, in turn, the first in this country to spend their entire creative lives in the academy: they have used that position with unprecedented success to shape and control critical reception, especially through the mechanism of the interview. At the same time, as Guerard's influence on Hawkes demonstrates, criticism can shape a writer's understanding of what is important in his or her creative work.

There are two places to look for evidence of the kind of influence I am discussing: in the author's work and in representations of that work, either by the author or by the critics. In what follows, I will look at a short story by Hawkes which encodes a drama of authorial influence on critical reading, and along with it I will consider a critical essay on the story which enacts the part scripted for the reader in that drama. Thereafter, I will take a broader sampling of Hawkes's critical fortunes, with an eye not only to the migration of descriptive language from author to critic, via the interview,2 but also to the genesis of that language in the writing of Hawkes's earliest and most influential critic, Albert Guerard.

The story and the critical reading I start with were both published in a 1988 anthology called Facing Texts: Encounters Between Contemporary Writers and Critics, edited by Heide Ziegler. This volume deserves comment in its own right, as an emblem of post-modern literary practice. The title of the anthology refers to the fact that it pairs creative texts by prominent first-generation postmodern authors with critical essays on those texts; what makes the volume emblematic is that the critics were in most cases hand-picked by the authors themselves. In fact, as her preface informs us, Ziegler herself was picked by one of those authors: Facing Texts originated in a suggestion made by William Gass to an editor at Duke University Press, that Ziegler should edit a collection of contemporary American fiction. Ziegler says that, when the project was proposed to her,

I immediately recognized that in effect I was being offered the opportunity to realize one of my pet ideas: to bring together . . . unpublished pieces by authors as well as critics that would, in a sense, defy the chronological secondariness of critical interpretation. Such a book would make the relationship between author and critic an unmediated encounter, with authors and critics becoming one another's ideal readers.

.. . if possible, the pieces offered by the authors should indeed be hitherto unpublished so as to give the critics a sense of the exclusiveness, even privacy of their work and thus convey to them the impression of a close encounter with the respective author. . . . [and] the authors should choose their own critics in order to ensure that the close encounter I had in mind would not, unintentionally, be hostile, and thus destroy the possibility of mutual ideal readership. (ix)3

In Hawkes's case, Ziegler's solicitude is unnecessary: his contribution to this volume was designed to foster the kind of reading that she desired for it.

"The Equestrienne" is a portion of Hawkes's 1985 novella Innocence in Extremis, which is, in turn, an outtake from a novel, Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade. A large part of the novel is devoted to relating the misadventures of "Uncle Jake," as recalled by his daughter; relative to that story, Innocence in Extremis is an extended flashback, to a time when Uncle Jake, as a boy, visited his ancestral home in France with his father and family. "The Equestrienne" is one of the three set pieces that make up the novella, but it has been published here without introduction or reference to the context in which it was developed, and it can be read as a free-standing, very short story.4

In "The Equestrienne," Uncle Jake's French grandfather (referred to exclusively as "the Old Gentleman") stages an exhibition of dressage, on what we are told is one of several "occasions deemed by the Old Gentleman to be specially enjoyable to his assembly of delighted guests" (216). In this, the first of those (three) occasions and the only one presented here, a young cousin of Uncle Jake's performs for an audience consisting of the visitors (including Uncle Jake), members of the household, and some neighbors, all seated in rows of plush Empire chairs arranged in a courtyard of the family chateau. The girl and her horse are the center of attention, but the performance itself is the medium for an interaction between the audience and the Old Gentleman.

In this case, the audience in the tale clearly stands for the audience of the tale, and almost from its opening lines the text signals the effect it wants to achieve—most notably in the modifiers that cluster around descriptions of the represented audience. As an example, take the passage just quoted: "the days of harmony and pleasure were further enhanced by certain occasions deemed by the Old Gentleman to be specially enjoyable to his assembly of delighted guests." It is the narrator who tells us that days already harmonious and pleasurable were "enhanced" by what is about to be related; and while we might be privy to some delusion in the Old Gentleman when we are told that he "deemed" his entertainment "to be specially enjoyable" to his guests, any distance between his objective and their reaction is collapsed in the very same sentence, when we learn that they are in fact "delighted." Each detail of the performance is similarly described and received. "The gilded frames and red plush cushions of the chairs shone in the agreeable light and . . . moved everyone to exclamations of surprise and keen anticipation." In the world of the text as we are given it, the light is "agreeable," and the audience is unanimous in its expression of "surprise and keen anticipation." Throughout the tale, the reactions of the audience consistently confirm what the narration announces. "Through the gateway rode a young girl on a small and shapely dappled gray horse. Here was a sight to win them all and audibly they sighed and visibly they leaned forward. . . . [an] already grateful audience" (216).

There is no point in piling up further examples; suffice it to say that this high pitch of appreciation is insistently sustained, the only two discordant notes resolving into it almost immediately. In the first of these, contemplating his cousin, Uncle Jake thinks "with shame .. . of himself and his shaggy and dumpy pony" (218). In the second, shortly thereafter, his mother whispers to him: "mark my words, dear boy. That child is dangerous." These are important moments, but their importance lies not so much in any pall they cast over the performance as in the evidence they give of its irresistible charm. Uncle Jake's insecurity and his mother's mistrust soon give way to the universal sentiment: Uncle Jake realizes that "he wanted to become [his cousin] and take her splendid place on the gray horse," and even his mother admits, "'she is a beautiful little rider, Jake. You might try to ride as well as she does. It would please your father'" (219).

In her essay on the story, Christine Laniel remarks that "The Equestrienne" "focuses on one of the most pervasive metaphors in Hawkes's works, which he analyzes as essential to his fiction writing when he refers to 'horsemanship as an art'" (221-22). Specifically, Laniel is suggesting that Hawkes offers dressage as a metaphor for the artistic use of language. That much can easily be read between the lines from which she quotes, but taken in full these lines also suggest that the same metaphor might be extended to include an association of other kinds of horsemanship with other ways of using language—after all, the audience is composed of equestrians:

Nearly everyone in that audience rode horseback. Most of them were fox hunters. Their lives depended on horses. . . . Yet for all of them their mares and geldings and fillies and stallions were a matter of course like stones in a brook or birds in the boughs. Most of the horses they bred and rode were large, rugged, unruly, brutish beasts of great stamina. The horses raced and hunted, pulled their carriages, carried them ambling through sylvan woods and took them cantering great distances. But little more. So here in the Old Gentleman's courtyard the spectacle of the young equestrienne and her gray horse schooled only in dressage appealed directly to what they knew and to their own relationships to horse and stable yet gave them all a taste of equestrian refinement that stirred them to surprise and pleasure. They had never thought of horsemanship as an art, but here indeed in the dancing horse they could see full well the refinement of an artist's mind. (218)

The thrust of this passage, it seems to me, is first to suggest horsemanship as a figure for the use of language in general, and then to distinguish between the nonutilitarian "refinement" of its use in fiction and the practicality of more quotidian language used with an end in mind, as for example to convey information (in "rugged, unruly, brutish" words "of great stamina" but no elegance). In this scene "artist" and audience share what might be called a professional interest in horses, not unlike the professional interest in language Hawkes shares with his readers; and while it may be the general reader and not the critical one who takes language as "a matter of course," even the most perspicacious fox hunters among us are obviously supposed to be "stirred" to "surprise and pleasure" at Hawkes's demonstration of verbal dressage.

In fact, at the conclusion of the performance the story explicitly announces the lesson we are to draw from it: "the audience rose to its feet, still clapping. They exclaimed aloud to each other, while clapping, and smiles vied with smiles and no one had praise enough for the exhibition which had taught them all that artificiality not only enhances natural life but defines it" (220). Hawkes's instruction of the reader is too deliberate to be unintended and too obvious to ignore, so it must be explained. In Laniel's analysis, the author at these moments is "forestalling interpretation by anticipating it. As a consequence, the critic is thwarted in efforts to unveil supposedly hidden significations, which are obtrusively exposed by the writer himself (222). She regards this aspect of the story as a problem only for a criticism which needs "to unveil supposedly hidden significations"; as we have seen, though, "The Equestrienne" does more than interpret itself: it so relentlessly superintends response that it is likely to frustrate any reader, and not merely a certain sort of critic.

But for Laniel at least, the "alluring fascination" (222) of "The Equestrienne" survives in its strategy of "seduction, which implies the obliteration of reality and its transfiguration into pure appearance" (226). That is, although she acknowledges that the story reads its own moral, she still finds Hawkes's presentation of "the artificial" fascinating, because it undertakes "the willful deterioration of language as the vehicle of meaning."

This deterioration is said to take place in a series of puns and paradoxes (sister-sinister, mastery-fragility, innocence-corruption, and so forth) and in sentences like the following (which explains the effect of the Old Gentleman's having positioned the girl sidesaddle on her horse, with her legs away from the audience): "The fact that she appeared to have no legs was to the entire ensemble as was the white ribbon affixed to her hat: the incongruity without which the congruous whole could not have achieved such perfection" (217). In this sentence, Laniel says,

we are made to experience both frustration and supreme satisfaction, since the expected word is missing and yet is virtually present, enhanced by the strange, incongruous connections that implicitly suggest it. By establishing the curious relationship of the logically unrelated, by uniting the like with the unlike in sudden and unexpected juxtapositions, the poetic text produces a jarring effect, so that we are left with the notion of a fundamental vacancy, of a basic lack that is the very essence of aesthetic pleasure. (228)

Yet the sentence Laniel has chosen not only contains the "missing" word—"perfection"—but emphasizes it by placing it in the ultimate position. And in any case, Hawkes's notion of an "incongruity without which the congruous whole could not have achieved such perfection" is more plausible as a model than as an occasion for Laniel's observation that the "jarring effect" brought about by "the curious relationship of the logically unrelated" results in "a fundamental vacancy . . . that is the very essence of aesthetic pleasure."

Laniel also tries to restore some ambiguity to the story by arguing that Hawkes's "rhetoric of seduction" is always "reversed into derision, as an insidious vein of selfparody gradually penetrates the text" (222). As she sees it,

Hawkes's writing cannot function without initiating its own ironical debunking. The "morality of excess" [Innocence in Extremis 55] that guides the artist in his work also guides Hawkes in his writing, as exemplified by the profusion of superlatives and comparatives in the novella and in all his fiction. But this very excessiveness entails a crescendo, an escalation into more and more incongruous associations, so that his texts are relentlessly undermined by their own grotesque redoubling. (235)

Self-parody is indeed an abiding characteristic of Hawkes's writing—and often its saving grace—but though the language we have already quoted from "The Equestrienne" does suggest an excessiveness that might easily escalate into self-parody, Laniel herself admits that "during the performance of the equestrienne the burlesque element is extremely slight" (233). Consequently, when she makes the argument that this text undermines itself she is forced to rely entirely on evidence collected from other, later sections of the novella and from the originary novel. Still, even if there is no parody in "The Equestrienne," its absence makes it worth discussing.

In general, the significant gap in Hawkes's work is not between appearance and reality but between the serious and the parodic elements that constitute his fiction: the uneasiness of his texts is that while his self-parody seems deliberate, it doesn't ground or control the seriousness with which he presents his primary material. Since the critic is bound to make statements about the text, and since making those statements usually involves taking a position relative to the text by offering a reading, critics have often resolved this conflict in the text by going too far in one direction or the other—either affirming the response offered by the text (the more common tactic) or overstating the control exercised by the parodie element. Laniel's piece is unusual in that it does the latter, but in order to make this case she has to read beyond the immediate text. By so doing, she is in effect submitting "The Equestrienne" to the control of a selfparody which develops across other, broader contexts. This move begs the question of whether the parodie strain controls the larger contexts from which she abstracts it. In fact, I would argue, it does not—the uneasiness simply reasserts itself when we look at Innocence in Extremis or Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade as texts in their own right.

The significance of Hawkes's unstable self-parody, both with regard to its presence in his other fiction and its absence in the present case, is bound up with the problem of the audience and its response. In order to avoid the problem Laniel has with contextualization, let us look briefly at a discrete work, Travesty, written by Hawkes in the early 1970s.

Travesty is the monologue of a man who intends to crash the car in which he, his daughter, and an existentialist poet (the lover of both his wife and daughter) are traveling. Papa, the driver, denies being jealous or having any murderous motive; instead, he tells Henri (the poet) that his plan is to create an "accident" so inexplicable that their deaths will have to be understood as the deliberate execution of an abstract design. Henri is apparently nonplused, since Papa reproaches him for his failure to appreciate the beauty of the thing: "Tonight of all nights why can't you give me one moment of genuine response? Without it, as I have said, our expedition is as wasteful as everything else" (82). The response Papa wants from Henri is specifically an aesthetic one, and he sees it as a mark of Henri's artistic insincerity that he is not able to provide it. But, as the reader well understands, the detachment from self-interest which such a response would require is too much to expect, even from an existentialist.

As a monologist, Papa necessarily speaks for Henri, and in a similar way Hawkes, as a writer, speaks for the reader. His conceit is auto-destructive, but self-parody—a preemptive mode of discourse—is by definition both exclusive of and also highly attentive to the audience. The element of self-parody in Travesty asserts itself as the difference between the supposed reality of death within the fiction and the reality of death supposed which is the fiction—Hawkes, in other words, is Henri if he is anyone in this story. But as this equation suggests, the parody does not extend to Papa, and much of what he says is seriously intended, not least his confessed need for a response:

Let me admit that it was precisely the fear of committing a final and irrevocable act that plagued my childhood, my youth, my early manhood. . . . And in those years and as a corollary to my preoccupation with the cut string I could not repair, the step I could not retrieve, I was also plagued by what I defined as the fear of no response. .. . If the world did not respond to me totally, immediately, in leaf, street sign, the expression of strangers, then I did not exist. . . . But to be recognized in any way was to be given your selfhood on a plate and to be loved, loved, which is what I most demanded. (84-85)

Self-parody, this suggests, is more than an attempt to forestall a feared lack of response (or an undesirable response); it may also become a way to avoid "committing a final and irrevocable [speech] act." On one level, Hawkes is deadly serious about everything that Papa says; on another, he implicitly denies responsibility for the ideas Papa expresses. At both levels, he precludes response—within the narrative through the technique of monologue, without it through the technique of selfparody. The effect on the reader is, as Laniel says, often baffling: the proffered position is clearly untenable, and yet the parody does not enable an alternate response because it equally clearly does not control the text.

The instability I have been describing might also be regarded as a side effect of characterization. Hawkes is fond of creating figures of the artist, but these figures never completely fill the role in which they are cast; most often they are people who have the sensibility of the artist but who do not actually create art. Cyril in The Blood Oranges, Papa in Travesty, Uncle Jake in Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade are all men whose medium is action, not language, and who do not pretend to present the fiction in which their artistry is conveyed to the reader. In Travesty, the distinction would seem to be mooted when narration is placed entirely in the hands of "the man who disciplines the child, carves the roast" (44)—but in fact it persists, since Papa's "creation," the actual crash, cannot be presented within the narrative structure Hawkes has set up and so is not presented at all. In other words, although Hawkes's novella develops in the space between the disclosure and the enactment of Papa's intentions, the aesthetic Hawkes has embodied in those intentions can be expressed only in words, never in action—hence the equation of Hawkes with Henri. Seeking to evade both the irrevocable commitment of unfeigned statement and the fear of no response, Hawkes has adopted a narrative perspective that results in a fiction which implies but does not constitute the realization of an aesthetic.

If the conflict between a desire to present this aesthetic and the fear that it will be rejected is settled in Travesty by giving the narrative over entirely to statement, in "The Equestrienne" Hawkes experiments with the opposite solution, usurping the response of his audience. Rather than seducing the reader, this makes her superfluous: hence Laniel's frustration at trying to present a reading of the story as given—something that her recourse to other texts demonstrates she is ultimately unable to do. And like response, the absence of a controlling intelligence is dislocated in "The Equestrienne" from a metatextual position to a thematic one: "All at once and above the dainty clatter of the hooves, they heard the loud and charming tinkling of a music box. Heads turned, a new and livelier surprise possessed the audience, the fact that they could not discover the source of the music, which was the essence of artificiality, added greatly to the effect" (219). But even within the story, this absence proves to be more apparent than real: at the end of the girl's exhibition,

the Old Gentleman appeared and as one the audience realized that though they had all seen him act the impresario and with his raised hand start the performance, still he had not taken one of the red plush chairs for himself, had not remained with them in the courtyard, had not been a passive witness to his granddaughter's exhibition. He was smiling broadly; he was perspiring; clearly he expected thanks. In all this the truth was evident: that not only had he himself orchestrated the day, but that it was he who had taught the girl dressage, and he who had from a little balcony conducted her performance and determined her every move, and he who had turned the handle of the music box. Never had the old patrician looked younger or more pleased with himself. (220)

The Old Gentleman is not "a passive witness" to the presentation; he is its conductor, and his curtain call might be compared to Hawkes's persistent assertion of the authorial self in his interviews: in both cases, the creator remains behind the scenes during the actual performance but reappears afterward to make sure that its significance is properly understood.

The nature of Hawkes's dilemma and the variety of his attempts to resolve it are characteristically post-modern, in that they demonstrate a very real need to assert critical control over the text, combined with a desire that the reader should be persuaded to a particular aesthetic position. Such desires are not peculiar to post-modern authors, of course: Henry James once admitted to dreaming, "in wanton moods, .. . of some Paradise (for art) where the direct appeal to the intelligence might be legalised" (296). Late in his life, James made that appeal to future readers in his prefaces to the New York edition of his works, but he might well have envied the post-modern author, who can address the contemporary reader through the mechanism of the interview.

Hawkes's inclination to avail himself of opportunities to discuss his work has resulted in quite a substantial body of interviews.5 In these interviews, Hawkes propounds his aesthetic program, characterizes his fiction, and explains his intentions in specific novels; the images and analogies he uses migrate visibly from the interviews to the criticism and reappear in the questions posed by subsequent interviewers. In this way, the language of Hawkes's self-descriptions comes to dominate the critical reception of his work, functioning—to borrow an idea from Kenneth Burke—as a "terministic screen."6 Hawkes's career also demonstrates, however, the influence of critics on authors: although the authority of this particular terministic screen is derived from Hawkes via the interview, Hawkes himself seems to have derived many of its component terms from Albert Guerard's early analyses of his work.

Hawkes has often acknowledged his debt to Guerard, but to fully understand the nature of that debt we need to know something about the history of the relationship between these two men. Hawkes was not much of a student when he came to Harvard: the semester before he left for the war, he had flunked out.7 His career as a writer started in Guerard's fiction writing class at Harvard, which he took after returning from service in the Ambulance Corps during World War II. At that time, he had just started working on his first piece of fiction, the novella Charivari, and though manifestly talented, he lacked experience both as a writer and as a reader of modern fiction. Prior to 1947, he had written only some juvenile verse, which he submitted to qualify for Guerard's class; during that class (for which he wrote The Cannibal), Hawkes's "reading of modern experimental literature was largely confined to poetry," according to Guerard (Introduction xn). In a recent interview, Hawkes recalled that when they first met, "Guerard . . . was probably in his early thirties, but to me he was an awesome figure. He was quite formidable, quite authoritarian, extremely knowledgeable, a novelist himself, and he had so suddenly and abruptly praised my fiction at the outset in such a way as to give me real confidence" ("Life" 112). Obviously, in the course of this long friendship Hawkes has had many occasions to express his ideas about fiction, and it is likely that Guerard's published criticism of Hawkes reflects those ideas to some extent. We may even grant that, as Guerard has faded from the forefront of contemporary criticism, and as Hawkes has become firmly established as one of the major talents of his generation, the balance of power in the relationship may have shifted somewhat in recent years. But it is nonetheless clear that Guerard played an influential role in molding Hawkes's understanding of the value of his own fiction. The nature and extent of that influence is clear if we compare a few passages from Guerard's early criticism to Hawkes's subsequent self-evaluations.

It was Guerard who brought Hawkes and James Laughlin together, and when, in 1949, New Directions published Hawkes's first novel (The Cannibal), Guerard provided the introduction. This introduction is the earliest critical analysis of Hawkes's work, and its influence on later Hawkes criticism, including the author's own, is inestimable. In it, Guerard says that "Terror . . . can create its own geography" (xiii) and announces, in terms that persist to this day, that "John Hawkes clearly belongs . . . with the cold immoralists and pure creators who enter sympathetically into all their characters, the saved and the damned alike. . . . even the most contaminate have their dreams of purity which shockingly resemble our own" (xii). Not long thereafter, the Radcliffe News published Hawkes's first interview, entitled "John Hawkes, Author, Calls Guerard's Preface Most Helpful Criticism" (March 17, 1950)—and so it would seem to have been. Guerard's remarks about sympathy for "the saved and the damned alike" are reflected in Hawkes's earliest published critical writing (1960), in which he talks about the experimental novel as displaying "an attitude that rejects sympathy for the ruined members of our lot, revealing thus the deepest sympathy of all" ("Notes on Violence").8 As late as 1979, Hawkes still describes himself as being "interested in the truest kind of fictive sympathy, as Albert Guerard, my former teacher and lifelong friend, has put it. To him the purpose of imaginative fiction is to generate sympathy for the saved and damned alike" ("Novelist" 27).9

In his 1949 introduction, Guerard confidently compares Hawkes to William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, and Djuna Barnes (although he predicts that Hawkes "will move . . . toward realism"), and he concludes—on a disciplinary note—that "How far John Hawkes will go as a writer must obviously depend on how far he consents to impose some page-by-page and chapter-by-chapter consecutive understanding on his astonishing creative energy; on how richly he exploits his ability to achieve truth through distortion; on how well he continues to uncover and use childhood images and fears" (xv). In an addendum to the introduction, written for The Cannibal's reissue in 1962, Guerard notes that "the predicted movement toward realism has occurred" but reiterates the importance of nightmare and "vivifying distortion" in Hawkes's fiction (xviii). The concepts of distortion and terror, and the paradoxical linkage of purity and contamination, have since become staples in the discussion of Hawkes's work: the Hryciw-Wing bibliography lists at least twenty-one essays with the words "nightmare" or "terror" in the title (beginning with a review by Guerard in 1961), and countless others have incorporated the same idea into their arguments.10

Guerard's addendum also praises Hawkes for being able "to summon pre-conscious anxieties and longings, to symbolize oral fantasies and castration fears—to shadow forth, in a word, our underground selves" (xviii). In his first essay in self-explanation, presented at a symposium on fiction at Wesleyan University in 1962 and published in Massachusetts Review, Hawkes himself states:

The constructed vision, the excitement of the undersea life of the inner man, a language appropriate to the delicate malicious knowledge of us all as poor, forked, corruptible, the feeling of pleasure and pain that comes when something pure and contemptible lodges in the imagination—I believe in the "singular and terrible attraction" of all this.

For me the writer should always serve as his own angleworm—and the sharper the barb with which he fishes himself out of the blackness, the better. ("Notes on The Wild Goose Chase" 788)11

The image of the fishhook is a more memorable formulation of Guerard's claim that Hawkes's fiction has the ability to "shadow forth our underground selves"; certainly it seems, in keeping with the metaphor of which it is a part, to have set itself deep in Hawkes's vision of his own work.

In a 1964 interview, one which has remained among the most often cited, Hawkes told John Enck: "my aim has always been . . . never to let the reader (or myself) off the hook, so to speak, never to let him think that the picture is any less black than it is or that there is any easy way out of the nightmare of human existence" ("John Hawkes" 145). In 1971, the piece in which the metaphor originally appeared was reprinted along with Enck's interview in John Graham's Studies in Second Skin (the dedication to which reads: "For Albert Guerard, who led the way"—Graham is another of Guerard's former students), and in 1975 the image returns in the following exchange with John Kuehl:

Kuehl: You once referred to fishing for yourself.

Hawkes: I said that "the author is his own best angleworm and the sharper the barb with which he fishes himself out of the darkness the better." .. . I mean that the writer who exploits his own psychic life reveals the inner lives of us all, the inner chaos, the negative aspects of the personality in general . . . our deepest inner lives are largely organized around such impulses, which need to be exposed and understood and used. (Kuehl 164-65)

It is perhaps significant that a few pages later, Hawkes remarks: "For me evil was once a power. Now it's a powerful metaphor" (166).12

The "powerful metaphor" of authorship as auto-piscation was also used by Hawkes the year before to open an influential essay called "Notes on Writing a Novel," which was first printed in 1973 in the Brown Alumni Monthly, reprinted the next year in TriQuarterly, and finally revised and collected in a 1983 volume fittingly entitled In Praise of What Persists. In that piece, Hawkes relates the following anecdote:

A scholarly, gifted, deeply good-natured friend once remarked that "Notes on Writing a Novel" is a deplorably condescending title. . . . At that moment .. . I thought of a metaphor with which I'd ended a talk on fiction ten years ago at Boston College, when I said that "for me, the writer of fiction should always serve as his own angleworm, and the sharper the barb with which he fishes himself out of the darkness, the better." But when I proposed "The Writer as Angleworm" as an alternative, my friend pointed out that preciousness is worse than condescension. (109)