Posts Tagged ‘The Postmodern’
So far this?semester, our class?has covered:
- John Barth’s short story, “Lost in the Fun House”
- Jeannette Winterson’s novel, Written on the Body
- and Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Fight Club.?
To help define what postmodern means we have explored excerpts from:
- Simon Malpas’ book, The Postmodern (2005)
- H?l?ne Cixous? critique “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays” (1975)
- Jean-Fran?ois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1979)
- Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991).
- and Linda Hutcheon’s Poetics of Postmodernism (1988)
How?do I cohesively make sense of all this????Having drank fully from the fire hose for weeks on end, I wonder… Will I digest or?blow??This post?is where?I just vomit in my mouth a little.
As Malpas explains, “at the heart of identity there is a ?thinking I? that experiences, conceptualizes and interacts with the world” (Malpas, 57). Consequently, running rampant throughout postmodern fiction is the question of this subject’s reliability as an authority?representing truth.
- Barth’s narrator, Ambrose,?is at once a child and an adult, interweaving the blind?experience of?”living in the moment”?with 20/20 hindsight?and calling attention, through various narrative devices, to the limitations of the narrating subject both as child and adult, in other words, as narrator looking in at the main character and main character being himself.
- Winterson complicates her narrator by creating a nongender-specific bisexual who objectifies?the beloved, Louise, pitting the power of subject?vs. object, one against the other, both creating and destroying the linguistic barrier to?fully realizing true love.
- Palahniuk splits?his narrator’s identity into two dueling?subjects within the same body who both objectify not only Marla, but each other, creating a power triangle rather than a single identifiable?power source.
By complicating?the subject, these authors use fiction?to turn?the subject?in on itself and reveal it’s limitations. The point for the reader is that perspective and?representation are not natural ways of reaching some sort of truth, but are cultural devices?that, until postmodernism hit the stage, were accepted?as natural. The most we can hope for, as Stephen Colbert often points out, is mere “truthiness” (or “falsiness” as the following parody explains), which is called into question each time subjectivity becomes decentered by an alternate?version of the?traditional subject. (Hello, Derrida!)
Sexuality is also addressed in each piece, not just in terms of masculinity or femininity, but where the two overlap. According to theorist H?l?ne Cixous:
Traditionally, the question of sexual difference is treated by coupling it with the opposition ? a culture?s values are premised on an organisation of thought in which descriptions of the feminine are determined by masculine categories of order, opposition and hierarchy. (Malpas, 72)
Lyotard says that metanarratives order the world for a particular culture and not all cultures order the world in the same way. Because of this he believes reality is not real, that it is rather ?simplicity, communicability? (75) in the name of the ?unity of experience? (72) and that the postmodern ?puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself? (81).
- Barth calls masculinity into question by addressing the subservience of women in the ’50s and how that defines the angered narrator’s role as he matures socially in contrast with what he feels differently internally.?
- Winterson’s non-specifically gendered and bisexual narrator?draws attention to the?dysfunction of defining through opposition, creating a world of confusion for the reader while, at the same time, pointing out the problem.
- Palahniuk’s split identity, one masculinized and one feminized, are?embodied within one male person which shows that neither masculinity nor femininity encompass fully what comprises the essence of a human being.
These narrators struggle with the idea?that identity is formed through the constriction of language and social mapping?according to opposing?genders. Each illustrates that society provides no useful language or ordering of our world to address these grey areas. Postmodern work obviously strives to draw attention to the gap between the grand narrative and what actually exists.
And, although there are many more threads to follow, the HUGE question of history (revered by Jameson as fact of lived experience) versus historicity (truthiness and the closest we can get to truth) is the last item I have time to duscuss. Jameson argues that the democratization of art subjects it?to the corruption of marketing and capitalism. They are inseparable?to the detriment of?world cultures and history through?depthless representation and pastiche unless we map how the depthless came to be, “in which we may again begin to grasp our new positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spacial as well as our social confusion” (54). SOOO, the question of historical validity appears repeatedly in our fiction selections.
- Barth criticizes history by describing the role of generations of copulation in constructing social understanding of sexuality.
- Winterson explores the narrator’s serial monogamy and only in breaking the tradition does he/she find love.
- Palahniuk creates Tyler Durden who desperately wants to break free from history to redefine it from his point of view.
According to Malpas, Hutcheon?argues that parody is not dead, it is now focused to use form?to reveal a failure of form. She also finds great value studying?the unrepresentable in fiction, as?much as that?which has been represented as “history,” because both employ the same narrative devices (Malpas, 25-26). In the fiction we have read, we can see this parody in action, where our authors provide recognition of the power forms hold, and turn around to employ these forms to point out the flaws within them. We’ll talk more about this next week when we read more of Hutcheon.
Other pan drippings, grey in color, that deserve to make it into the gravy bowl are
- body/soul connections
- bodily parts in gender definition,
- disease: death in life and life in death
- and many, many more.
Sadly, the repair man is here and I have to supervise the fixing of shit.
In The Postmodern, Malpas says:
at the heart of identity there is a ‘thinking I’ that experiences, conceptualises and interacts with the world … This ‘I’ has been questioned, challanged and problematised by more recent modern and postmodern theorists. (57)
This ‘thinking I’ is certainly problematised by Jeannette Winterson in Written on the Body. By withholding the gender of the narrator and writing that narrator into numerous sexual experiences, the reader is left to his or her own devices in decoding the mystery. Faced with two choices, the reader can insert the association of his or her choice and move on or allow shifting assumptions to wash over the conscious mind.
As Malpas explains, according to theorist H?l?ne Cixous’ in her critique of modern subjectivity “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays”:
Traditionally, the question of sexual difference is treated by coupling it with the opposition … a culture’s values are premised on an organisation of thought in which descriptions of the feminine are determined by masculine categories of order, opposition and heirarchy. (72)
To consider Winterson’s audience, reader reactions within our class seem fraught with desire to code the narrator’s gender. Some folks are downright frustrated and?combing sentences?for any?give-away. Obviously to reveal the strength of this?desire is important, but why? Without a gender definition,?is it?impossible to contextualize the significance of the novel’s events?
Having read the?book’s back cover, I knew that the narrator’s gender would never be revealed. This could be why I never grew frustrated. Certainly it was an odd experience seeing my perceptions slip from one gender to another. I became increasingly aware that situations and characteristics attributed to the same character conjured different results. By no means did I “get” what was happening?to me, but the following passage by Malpas outlines that experience rather well:
One is not simply a woman or man, with all of the cultural coding that goes along with this. Instead, Cixous argues that a feminist criticism must explore the ways in which differences within a subject can be continually opened up to new forms of exploration and challenge. To this end she presents the idea of a feminist writing, an ?criture f?minine, that is able to affirm these differences, resist the closure of a male-oriented logic, and present subjectivity as a structure of continual renegotiations that transform the categories of patriarchy. (73)
Allowing myself to ride the gender wave with fluidity, I found what Winterson hasn’t written is most important. Where power?exists and determines what is “acceptable,? or at least “attributable,” lies in our perception of how?the masculine and feminine are defined by language. (Hello Saussure, my old friend.)?Winterson’s brilliance?demonstrates the subversive by using that very device.?The notion of the free-’thinking I’?is exposed for?all its cultural baggage. The reader? is offered an opportunity to see?how their own assumptions?are based on linguistic code, the power of Western culture’s structure of ordering.?Within the story, while the narrator is?able to?convert Russian to English as a professional translator, he or she is also ?betrayed by the failings of language as it applies to the?properties of love.?The resulting?awareness of linguistic confines illuminates the more naturally occurring bisexuality or grey areas within?the gender dichotomy, i.e. recognizing in masculinity the presence of sensitivity, or within?feminity an ambitious determination. (73)
The questions now is, what do we do with our new awareness??Do we get all radical and create?an entirely new?language, or do we collectively assign new meaning to old words? Before answering, maybe we should read “Is There Anything Good About Men?” by Roy F. Baumeister, Professor of Psychology & Head of Social Psychology Area, Florida State University. As he argues, if men are perceived to occupy?positions of power, it must also be recognized that they?occupy the majority of prison cells, make up the greater portion of the homeless population, and are often portrayed by the media as buffoons. Culture is a?tool employed by all for daily understanding. It is not necessarily bad in its limitation, if only we take the time to study what it reveals about our thoughts and motivations.
As our fearless leader said, once our class struggled through the conflicting definitions of?post and modern isms, “We’re drinking from?the fire hose here.”
No doubt. I can’t digest it all without drowning in confusion. So, in order to?quell the full rush of information down to a?slow trickle, I turn my focus toward the differences between modern and postmodern?text. (After all, this is an English class.)
In Malpas? The Postmodern, according to literary critic Brian McHale:
Modern fiction asks about how a world can be interpreted and changed and is interested in questions of truth and knowledge, i.e. in epistemology ?
Postmodern fiction confronts the reader with questions about what sort of world is being created at each moment in the text, and who or what in a text they can believe or rely on, i.e. questions of ontology. (24)
[Insert brilliant analysis?here one day.]?
Of?the postmodern/ontology connection, I find the argument between Jameson and Hutcheon (25-26) most interesting. They fully disagree with?what value?exists in the different ways?we interrogate our human condition.
- Jameson?is?ticked?that the PoMo world refers to a history that never happened
- ?Hutcheon is all for exploring concepts while illustrating that there is no?gaurantee of Truth in the history that Jameson cherishes.
AND, I love them both. I?experienced?each side?while watching The Last King of Scotland.?(Great movie, by the way.) The mix of history and fiction deeply disturbed me, only after I saw the movie, because I believed the entire story to be true. I explain in more detail?on Misty?s blog.
Has anyone else seen this movie? Did you?know?that the Scottish doctor is a fictional device used to explore the myths surrounding?the?very real Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin??Until I watched the DVD special features, I thought he was a real guy. Like many Ugandans themselves, I am in the?historical?dark when it comes to African history.
So,?how does this play into postmodern democratization??It doesn’t necessarily bring “history” to the people. Instead, doesn’t this illustrate that postmodern interplay requires a?complex education in which techniques of storytelling are at work prior to understanding what is being told? I’m feeling the elitist vibe of “T.S. Eliot and Company” knocking?at the door and can’t decide if I should open it. At the same time, I feel like the terrorizing essence of Idi Amin was better captured via the close relationship with the fictitious doctor and many?Ugandans will learn?about that man. In that case,?are the exact details of such importance? Probably not.
Up for debate: Would?I characterize myself as a modernist or postmodernist? Why?
At this risk of sounding like a politician, this question leads me only to more?non-committal questions. For instance, must?I have produced art, designed architecture, or written literature that falls into?one of these?categories? If I have, and considering that each category’s definition seems at odds with the other two, would my position change depending on the product I produce? Or, must one merely have an appreciation?for one “ism”?over another??If there is no rock-solid?set of criteria?or temporal limit to either term, how do I plunk myself firmly in the center of something wholly indefinable?
Having taken Modern Poetry last semester, many of the terms listed as “postmodern” by American literary critic Ihab Hassan have come to mean “modern”?for me. That said, from my perspective, this list is rendered useless. So,?for the sake of starting somewhere, I’ll use my opinion?based on?our first postmodern literary assignment, Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse.”
As Malpas says in The Postmodern, “postmodernism confronts the reader or viewer with a work that is challenging in terms of both form and content” (30).? Although Barth’s subject matter had very disturbing elements dealing with sexuality and the roles?assumed automatically?throughout the?generations, I enjoyed being able to interrogate?the?seemingly complex construction of?form and content (which, with more practice won’t seem so complex and thus?will become?modern) to reach this conclusion.
For [French philosopher] Lyotard, the role of postmodernism is thus to perform an eminent critique of the day-to-day structures of realism. What this means is that it operates within the realist context of a given culture to shatter its norms and challenge its assumptions, not with a new criteria set drawn from outside of that culture, but rather by showing the contradictions the culture contains, what it represses, refuses to recognize or makes unpresentable. (30)
This?is a perfect description of (and why I enjoyed reading) “Lost in the Funhouse.” Ambrose is trapped within and influenced by his culture, one that makes him excited and sick all at once.?From the perspective of?this 13 year old boy, I could see?the message that?culture impresses upon us through the workings of gender construction and?that to be unaware of its workings is supposed to?allow for enjoyment within the social?apparatus. This piece?reveals that going along for the ride is not always enjoyable for?either prescribed?gender, and that understanding the social mechanisms in place?doesn’t provide for a good time either. At the same time, traditional presentation of fiction and reality is?distorted via Barth’s mechanics of writing, amplifying the theme of being lost. Would I want to read this for fun on my vacation at the Jersey Shore? Not so much… and not just because the story?takes place there.?But I do enjoy the critical thinking it requires to reach my own understanding of how our culture operates.
On a global level, I turn to?Malpas’ introduction where postmodernism displays opposition within its own definition:
Some critics celebrate the postmodern as a period?of playful freedom and consumer choice, some see it as a culture that has gone off the rails as communities around the globe have their communities obliterated by the spread of capitalism, and for others its complex theories and outlandish cultural productions mark an abdication from any engagement with the real world at all.?(4)
I cannot subscribe to?just one critical stance listed above. All seem pertinent. (An example of these mechanisms in motion?comes to mind?within?the corporate practices of?Coca-Cola.) Playful freedom of consumer choice is exactly what causes the obliteration of cultures and communities, and really,?no playful freedom of consumerism?is necessary for the general survival and well being of human beings. Because I find myself aligned snuggly with all three aspects of postmodernism, I would say that’s “what I am is what I am is what you are… or what?”
But don’t hold me to it.