The Death of the Author

FROM Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History Theory, Fiction (London: Routledge, 1988)

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FROM Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History Theory, Fiction (London: Routledge, 1988)

"Clearly, then, the time has come to theorize the term [postmodernisrnl, if not to define it, before it fades from awkward neologism to derelict e(iche without ever attaining to the dignity of a cultural concept."

Ihab Hassan


Of all the terrns bandied about in both current cultural theory and contemporary writing on the arts, postmodernism must be the most over- and underdefined. It is usually accompanied by a grand flourish of negativized rhetoric: we hear of discontinuity, disruption, dislocation, decentring, indeterminacy, and antitotalization. What all of these words literally do (precisely by their disavowing prefixes - dis, de, in, anti) is incorporate that which they aim to contest- as does, I suppose, the term postmodernism itself. I point to this simple verbal fact in order to begin `theorizing' the cultural enterprise to which we seem to have given such a provorative label. Given all the confusion and vagueness associated with the term itself (see Paterson 1986), I would like to begin by arguing that, for me, postmodernism is a contradictory phenomenon, one that uses and abuses, installs and then subverts, the very concepts it challenges - be it in architecture, literature, painting, sculpture, film, video, dance, TV, music, philosophy, aesthetic theory, psychoanalysis, linguistics, or historiography. These are some of the realms from which rny `theorizing' will


proceed, and my examples will always be specific, because what I want ot avoid are those polemical generalizations - often by those inimical to postmodernism: Jameson (1984a), Eagleton (1985), Newman (1985) - that leave us guessing about just what it is that is being called postmodernist, though never in doubt as to its undesirability. Some assume a generally accepted `tacit definition' (Caramello 1983); others locate the beast by temporal (after 1945? 1968? 1970? 1980?) or economic signposting (late capitalism). But in as pluralist and fragmented a culture as that of the western world today, such designations are not terribly useful if they intend to generalize about all the vagaries of our culture. After all, what does television's `Dallas' have in common with the architecture of Ricardo Bofill? What does John Cage's music share with a play (or film) like Amadeus?

In other words, postmodernism cannot simply be used as a synonym for the contemporary (cf. Kroker and Cook 1986). And it does not really describe an international cultural phenomenon, for it is primarily European and American (North and South). Although the concept of modernism is largely an Anglo-American one (Suleiman 1986), this should not limit the poetics of postmodernism to that culture, especially since those who would argue that very stand are usually the ones to find room to sneak in the French nouveau roman (A. Wilde 1981; Brooke-Rose 1981; Lodge 1977). And almost everyone (e.g. Barth 1980) wants to be sure to include what Severo Sarduy (1974) 6as labelled - not postmodern - but `neo-baroque' in a Spanish culture where `modernism' has a rather different meaning.

I offer instead, then, a specific, if polemical, start from which to operate: as a cultural activity that can be discerned in most art forms and many currents of thought today, what I want to call postmodernism is fundamentally contradictory, resolutely historical, and inescapably political. Its contradictions may well be those of late capitalist society, but whatever the cause, these contradictions are certainly manifest in the important postmodern concept of `the presence of the past.' This was the title given to the 1980 Venice Biennale which marked the institutional recognition of postmodernism in architecture. Italian architect Paolo Portoghesi's (1983) analysis of the twenty facades of the `Strada Novissima' - whose very newness lay paradoxically in its historical parody - shows how architecture has been rethinking modernism's purist break with history. This is not a nostalgic return; it is a critical revisiting, an ironic dialogue with the past of both art and society, a recalling of a critically shared vocabulary of architectural forms. `The past whose presence we claim is not a golden age to be recuperated,' argues Portoghesi (1983, 26). Its aesthetic forms and its social formations are problematized by critical reflection. The same is true of the postmodernist rethinking of figurative painting in art and historical narrative in fiction and poetry (see Perloff 1985, 155-71): it is always a critical reworking, never a nostalgic `return.' Herein lies the governing role of irony in postmodernism. Stanley Tigerman's dialogue with history in his projects for family houses modelled on Raphael's palatial Villa Madama is an ironic one: his

miniaturization of the monumental forces a rethinking of the social function of architecture - both then and now [ ... ].

Because it is contradictory and works within the very systems it attempts to subvert, postmodernism can probably not be considered a new paradigm (even in some extension of the Kuhnian sense of the term). It has not replaced liberal humanism, even if it has seriously challenged it. It may mark, however, the site of the struggle of the emergence of something new. The manifestations in art of this struggle may be those almost undefinable and certainly bizarre works like Terry Gilliam's film, Brazil. The postmodern ironic rethinking of history is here textualized in the many general parodic references to other movies: A Clockwork Orange, 1984, Gilliam's own Time Bandits an(-] Monty Python sketches, and Japanese epics, to name but a few. The more specific parodic recalls range from Star Wars' Darth Vadar to the Odessa Steps sequence of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. In Brazil, however, the famous shot of the baby carriage on the steps is replaced by one of a floor cleaner, and the result is to reduce epic tragedy to the bathos of the mechanical and debased. Along with this ironic reworking of the history of film comes a temporal historical warp: the movie is set, we are told, at 8:49 am, sometime in the twentieth century. The decor does not help us identify the time more precisely. The fashions mix the absurdly futuristic with 1930s styling; an oddly old-fashioned and dingy setting belies the omnipresence of computers - though even they are not the sleekly designed creatures of today. Among the other typically postmodern contradictions in this movie is the co-existence of heterogenous filmic genres: fantasy Utopia and grim dystopia; absurd slapstick comedy and tragedy (the Tuttle/Buttle mix-up); the romantic adventure tale and the political documentary.

While all forms of contemporary art and thought offer examples of this kind of postmodernist contradiction, this book (like most others on the subject) will be privileging the novel genre, and one form in particular, a form that I want to cal) `historiographic metafiction.' By this I mean those well-known and popular novels which are both intensely self-reflexive and yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personages: The French Lieutenant's Woman, Midnight's Children, Ragtime, Legs, G., Famous Last Words. In most of the critical work on postmodernism, it is narrative - be it in literature, history, or theory - that has usually been the major focus of attention. Historiographic metafiction incorporates all three of these domains: that is, its theoretical selfawareness of history and fiction as human constructs (historiographic metafiction) is made the grounds for its rethinking and reworking of the forrns and contents of the past. This kind of fiction has often been noticed by critics, but its paradigmatic quality has been passed by: it is commonly labelled in terms of something else - for example as `midfiction' (Wilde 1981) or `paramodernist' (Malmgren 1985). Such labeling is another mark of the inherent contradictoriness of historiographic metafiction, for it always works within conventions in order to subvert them. It is not just metafictional; nor is it just another version of


the historical novel or the non-fictional novel. Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years o f Solitude has often been discussed in exactly the contradictory terms that I think define postmodernism. For example Larry McCaffery Sees it as both metafictionally self-reflexive and yet speaking to us powerfully about real political and historical realities: 'It has thus become a kind of model for the contemporary writer, being self-conscious about its literary heritage and about the limits of mimesis ... but yet managing to reconnect its readers to the world outside the page' (1982, 264). What McCaffery here adds as almost an afterthought at the end of his book, The Metafictional Muse, is in many ways my starting point.

Most theorists of postmodernism who sec it as a `cultural dominant' (Jameson 1984a, 56) agree that it is characterized by the results of late capitalist dissolution of bourgeois hegemony and the development of mass culture (sec Jameson 1984a [via Lefebvre 1968]; Russell 1980; Egbert 1970; Calinescu 1977). I would agree and, in fact, argue that the increasing uniformization of mass culture is one of the totalizing forces that postmodernism exists to challenge. Challenge, but not deny. But it does seek to assert difference, not homogeneous identity. Of course, the very concept of difference could be said to entail a typically postmodern contradiction: `difference,' unlike `otherness,' has no exact opposite against which to define itself. Thomas Pynchon allegorizes otherness in Gravity's Rainhow through the single, if anarchic, `we-system' that exists as the counterforce of the totalizing `They-system' (though also implicated in it). Postmodern difference or rather differences, in the plural, are a(ways multiple and provisional.

Postmodern culture, then, has a contradictory relationship to what we usually label our dominant, liberal humanist culture. It does not deny it, as some have asserted (Newman 1985, 42; Paltner 1977, 364). Instead, it contests it from within its own assumptions. Modernists like Eliot and Joyce have usually been seen as profoundly humanistic (e.g. Stern 1971, 26) in their paradoxical desire for stable aesthetic and moral values, even in the face of their realization of the inevitable absence of such universals. Postmodernism differs from this, not in its humanistic contradictions, but in the provisionality of its response to them. it refuses to posit any structure or, what Lyotard (1984) calls, master narrative-such as art or myth-which, for such modernists, would have been consolatory. It argues that such systems are indeed attractive, perhaps even necessary; but this does not make them any the less illusory. For Lyotard, postmodernism is characterized by exactly this kind of incredulity toward master or metanarratives: those who lament the `loss of meaning' in the world or in art are really mourning the fact that knowledge is no longer primarily narrative knowledge of this kind (1984, 26). This does not mean that knowledge somehow disappears. There is no radically new paradigm here, even if there is change.


"Unfortunately, `postmodern' is a term bon à tout faire. I have the impression that it is applied today to auything the user happens to like. Further, there seeins to be an attempt to make it increasingly retroactive: first it was apparently, applied to certain writers or artists active in the last twenty years, then gradually it reached the beginning of the century, then still further back. And this reverse procedure - continues; soon the postmodern category will include Homer."

Umberto Eco
When Charles Newman attempts to denigrate the `essence' of the postmodern strategy by characterizing it as one of assimilating `voraciously (though rarely systematically) while simultaneously repudiating assimilation' (1985, 28), he has, in fact, put his finger on precisely what characterizes postmodernism: contradiction and a move toward antitotalization. The same is true when Charles Russell calls postmodernism `an art of criticism, with no message other than the need for continuous questioning. It is an art of unrest, with no clearly defined audience other than those predisposed to doubt and to search' (in Russell 1981, 58). Russell intends this as a criticism of the postmodern, for (at this early stage in his theorizing) he would prefer to see in it a new romantic individualism and originality as mediated through modernist transcendence, a move `beyond doubt and distrust toward inspired vision' (5). But this kind of move is not part of the postmodernist enterprise, as he saw later. As the very label of `historiographic metafiction' is intended to suggest, postmodernism remains fundamentally contradictory, offering only questions, never final answers. In fiction, it combines what Malcolm Bradbury (1973, 15) has called `argument by poetics' (metafiction) with `argument by historicisrn' (historiographic) in such a way as to inscribe a mutual interrogation within the texts themselves.

We have seen that the contradictions that characterize postmodernism reject any neat binary opposition that might conceal a secret hierarchy of values. The elements of these contradictions are usually multiple; the focus is on differences, not single otherness; and their roots are most likely to be found in the very modernism from which postmodernism derives its name (or rather, from the `ideal type notion' of modernism that has resulted from successive canonizations - Huyssen 1986, 53). Many critics have pointed out the glaring contradictions of modernism: its elitist, classical need for order and its revolutionary formal innovations (Kermode 1971, 91); its `Janus-faced' anarchistic urge to destroy existing Systems combined with a reactionary political vision of ideal order (Daiches 1971, 197); its compulsion to write mixed with a realization of the meaninglessness of writing (in the work of Beckett or Kafka); its melancholy regret for the loss of presence and its experimental energy and power of conception (Lyotard 1986, 30-1). In fact, Terry Eagleton sees as a positive characteristic of modernism the fact that it retains its contradictions:


`between a still ineluctable bourgeois humanism and the pressures of a quite different rationality, which, still newly emergent, is not even able to name itself' (1985, 70). Postmodernism challenges some aspects of modernist dogma: its view of the autonomy of art and its deliberate separation from life; its expression of individual subjectivity; its adversarial status vis-à-vis mass culture and bourgeois life (Huyssen 1986, 53). But, on the other hand, the postmodern clearly also developed out of other modernist strategies: its selfreflexive experimentation, its ironic ambiguities, and its contestations of classic realist representation.

However, I would argue not only that postmodernism, like modernism, also retains its own contradictions, but also that it foregrounds them to such an extent that they become the very defining characteristics of the entire cultural phenomenon we label with that name. The postmodern is in no way absolutist; it does not say that 'lt is both impossible and useless to try and establish some hierarchical order, some system of priorities in life' (Fokkema 1986, 82). What it does say is that there are all kinds of orders and systems in our world - and that we create them all. That is their justification and their limitation. They do not exist `out there', fixed, given, universal, eternal; they are human constructs in history. This does not make them any the less necessary or desirable. It does, however, as we have seen, condition their `truth' value. The local, the limited, the temporary, the provisional are what define postmodern `truth' in novels like John Banville's Kepler or Christa Wolf's Cassandra. The point is not exactly that the world is meaningless (Wilde 1981, 148), but that any meaning that exists is of our own creation.

In fiction, it is self-reflexivity that works to make the paradoxes of postmodernism overt and even defining. Many have argued that all art possesses some of these devices of self-reference and that they function in much the same wav:

"Even the most `realistic' of works use such conventions because, rather than trying to `take us in' ('that is, to delude us), they prefer to show us how close they have come to doing so, how marvellously verisimilar their Illusion is: one cannot appreciate the verisimilar without being aware that it is not the thing itself." (Krieger 1982, 101; see too 1976, 182-3).

No language, in other words, is really `self-effacing'; all is to some degree `selfapparent,' to use Jerome Klinkowitz's terms (1984, 14). Postmodernism, in this perspective, would just be a more self-conscious and overt manifestation of the basic paradox of aesthetic form.

But there are other postmodern contradictions that are less generalizable. Whi1e much art uses irony and parody to inscribe and yet critique the discourses of its past, of the `already-said,' postmodernism is almost alwa,ys double-voiced in its attempts to historicize and contextualize the enunciative situation of its art. Black American culture has been defined as one of `double consciousness'


(W. E. B. DuBois 1973, 3) in which black and white, slave and master cultures are never reconciled, but held in a doubled suspension. Some types of feminism have argued much the same sort of relationship between female and male culture. The next chapter [in A Poetics of Postmodernism] will investigate how both of these social forces have had their impact on postmodernism, and how its contradictory double- or multiple-voicing is one of the manifestations of this impact.

There are many forms that this paradoxical identity of the postmodern can take. One of the most interesting involves the actual reception of postmodernism. Douwe Fokkema has argued that it is `sociologically limited to mostly academic readers interested in complicated texts' (1986, 81). (For a similar argument re modernism, see Todd 1986, 79.) But if that is true, how do we account for the fact that The Name of the Rose, The French Lieutenant's Woman, Ragtime, Midnight's Children, Flaubert's Parrot, and so many other historiographic metafictions have been prominent on the best-sellers' lists in both Europe and North America? One of the contradictions of postmodernism, I would argue, is that it does indeed `close the gap' that Leslie Fiedler (1975) saw between high and low art forms, and it does so through the ironizing of both. Think of the ironic mixtures of religious history and the detective story in The Name of the Rose or of war documentary and science fiction in Slaughterhouse-Five. Woody Allen's films (see D'Haen 1986; 226) also close this gap by paradoxically using both familiar movie staples (love, anxiety, sex) and also sophisticated parodic and metafictional forms (for example in Play it Again, Sam or The Purple Rose of Cairo). Postmodernism is both academic and popular, elitist and accessible.

One of the ways in which it achieves this paradoxical popular-academic identity is through its technique of installing and then subverting familiar conventions of both kinds of art. E. L. Doctorow has claimed that he had to give up trying to write The Book of Daniel with the usual realist narrative concern for transition that is characteristic of the nineteenth-century novel (and popular fiction) (in Trenner 1983, 40), yet he self-consciously has his narrating character both exploit and undercut that very structural concern for continuity. In its contradictions, postmodernist fiction tries to offer what Stanley Fish (1972, xiii) once called a `dialectical' literary presentation, one that disturbs readers, forcing them to scrutinize their own values and beliefs, rather than pandering to or satisfying them. But as Umberto Eco has reminded us, postmodern fiction may seem more open in form, but constraint is always needed in order to feel free (in Rosso 1983, 6). This kind of novel self-consciously uses the trappings of what Fish calls `rhetorical' literary presentation (omniscient narrators, coherent characterization, plot closure) in order to point to the humanly constructed character of these trappings - their arbitrariness and conventionality. This is what I mean by the typically contradictory postmodern exploitation and subversion of the familiar staples of both realist and modernist fiction.


We have seen that when postmodern architects showed the world their wares at that Venice Biennale in 1980, they chose as their banner the motto: `the presence of the past.' This obvious paradox offers a conjoining of performance in the present and recording of the past. In fiction, this contradiction is played out in terms of parody and metafiction versus the conventions of realism. The metafictionally present modern narrator of Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman jars with and parodies the conventions of the nineteenth-century novelistic tale of Charles, Sarah, and Ernestina. The various Chinese boxes of narrators and fiction-makers (Fowles, the narrator, his persona, Charles, and finally Sarah) enact the novel's themes of freedom and power, of creation and control. The multiple parodies of specific Victorian novels (by Thackeray, George Eliot, Dickens, Froude, Hardy) are matched by more generic ironic play on nineteenth-century authoritative narrating voices, reader address, and narrative closure.

This complex and extended parody is not, however, just a game for the academic reader. It is overtly intended to prevent any reader from ignoring both the modern and the specifically Victorian social, as well as aesthetic, contexts. We are not allowed to say either that this is `only a story' or that it is `only about the Victorian period.' The past is always placed critically-and not nostalgically - in relation with the present. The questions of sexuality, of social inequality and responsibility, of science and religion, and of the relation of art to the world are all raised and directed both at the modern reader and the social and literary conventions of the last century. The plot structure of The French Lieutenant's Woman enacts the dialectic of freedom and power that is the modern existentialist and even Marxist answer to Victorian or Darwinian determinism. But it requires that historical context in order to interrogate the present (as well as the past) through its critical irony. Parodic self-reflexiveness paradoxically leads here to the possibility of a literature which, while asserting its modernist autonomy as art, also manages simultaneously to investigate its intricate and intimate relations with the social world in which it is written and read.

This kind of contradiction is what characterizes postmodern art, which works to subvert dominant discourses, but is dependent upon those same discourses for its very physical existence: the `already-said.' Yet, I think it is wrong to sec postmodernism as defined in an,y way by an `either/or' structure. As we shall sec in more detail in Chapter 12, it is not a case of its being either nostalgically neoconservative or radically antihumanist in its politics (Foster 1985, 121). It is, actually, both and neither. Certainly it is marked by a return to history, and it does indeed problematize the entire notion of historical knowledge. But the reinstalling of memory is not uncritical or reactionary, and the problematization of humanist certainties does not mean their denial or death. Postmodernism does not so much erode out `sense of history' and reference (Foster 1985, 132), as erode out old sure sense of what both history and reference meant. It asks us to rethink and critique out notions of both.


Both theorists and artists have recognized that paradox can often reek of compromise. Witness video artist Douglas Davis's view:

If I want to address my art to the world, I must address it through the System, as must everyone else. It this sounds suspiciously like liberalism and compromise, so be it: liberalism and compromise is the only way any true revolutionary has ever worked, save through the sword.

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