The Death of the Author

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(1977, 22)

Certainly The French Lieutenant's Woman would corroborate such a view of contradiction as compromise, but not compromise in the sense of avoidance of questioning or of creating a new and alternate unifying interpretative totality. Postmodernism exploits, but also undermines, such staples of our humanist tradition as the coherent subject and the accessible historical referent, and this may well be what is so irritating about it for Eagleton and Jameson. The contested concepts of artistic originality and `authenticity' and of any stable historical entity (such as `the worker') would appear to be central to their Marxist master narrative. The postmodern blurring of firm distinctions is probably, by definition, anathema to Marxist dialectical reasoning, as it is to any Habermasian position of Enlightenment rationality. Both of these influential positions of opposition to postmodernism are founded on the kind of totalizing meta-narratives (Lyotard 1984) that postmodernism challenges -that is, at once uses and abuses. I would argue, along with Nannie Doyle and others, that what is positive, not negative, about postmodernism is that it does not attempt to hide its relationship to consumer society, but rather exploits it to new critical and politicized ends, acknowledging openly the `indissoluble relation between cultural production and its political and social affiliations' (Doyle 1985, 169).

Postmodern discourses assert both autonomy and worldliness. Likewise, they participate in both theory and praxis. They offer a collective, historicized context for individual action. In other words, they do not deny the individual, but they do `situate' her/him. And they do not deny that collectivity can be perceived as manipulation as well as activism: witness Pynchon's and Rushdie's novels of paranoia. The postmodern is not quite an avant-garde. It is not as radical or as adversarial. In Charles Russell's view (1985), the avant-garde is ,elf-consciously modern and subject to socio-cultural change. The same is true of the postmodern, but this valuing (fetishizing?) of innovation is conditioned by a re-evaluation of the past which puts newness and novelty into perspective. The avant-garde is also seen as critical of the dominant culture and alienated from it in a way that the postmodern is not, largely because of its acknowledgement of its unavoidable implication in that dominant culture. At the same time, of course, it both exploits and critically undermines that dominance. In short, the postmodern is not as negating (of the past) or as Utopic (about the future) as is, at least, the historical or modernist avant-garde. It incorporates its past within its very name and parodically seeks to inscribe its criticism of that past.


These contradictions of postmodernism are not really meant to be resolved, but rather are to be held in an ironic tension. For example in John Fowles's A Maggot, there are an amazing number of such unresolved and unresolvable paradoxes. On a formal level, the novel holds in tension the conventions of history and fiction (specifically, of romance and science fiction). One of its main narrative structures is that of question and answer (a lawyer's questioning of witnesses), a structure that foregrounds the conflicts between truth and lies, differing perceptions of truth, facts and beliefs, and truth and illusion. The transcribing clerk believes there are two truths: `One that a person believes is truth; and one that is truth incontestable' (1985, 345), but the entire novel works to problematize such binary certainty. The contradictory tensions recur in the twentieth-century narrator/historian's emphasizing of his distance from the 1736 action of his plot. The two major antagonists, the male lawyer Ayscough and the prostitute-turned-Dissenter Rebecca Lee are established as e ach other's opposite: in gender, class, education, religion. They come to represent reason versus instinct, male versus female, even left versus right hemispheres of the brain.

In this novel there are still other unresolved thematic contradictions: the absent `hero,' known as His Lordship, is both a scientist and a believer in theories of the physical world that are `more phantasies than probable or experimental truths' (188). Christianity and paganism are also played off against each other constantly in the novel, and the narrator's interest in Dissenters, especially the Shakers, comes from the fact that they too have been perceived in contradictory ways: `Orthodox theologians have always despised the sect's doctrinal naivety; orthodox priests, its fanaticism; orthodox capitalists, its communism; orthodox communists, its superstition; orthodox sensualists, its abhorrence of the carnal; and orthodox males, its striking feminism' (4SO). The different and the paradoxical fascinate the postmodern.

So too do the multiple and the provisional. In the course of the novel, the titular `maggot' is defined as `the larval stage of a winged creature; as is the written text, at least in the writer's hope' (unpaginated prologue, signed by Fowles). We are also told from the starr that the word signifies a whim or quirk. Within the plot, maggots are associated with death (260) and with fancy (277). The title's full contradictory force comes from Rebecca' description of the large white object in the cave as a `great swollen maggot ... tho' not' (3SS). The challenging of certainty, the asking of questions, the revealing of fiction-making where we might have once accepted the existence of some absolute `truth' - this is the project of postmodernism.

Ihab Hassan sees the oppositional paradox of postmodernism as lying in `its fanatic will to unmaking,' on the one hand, and, on the other, `the need to discover a `unitary' sensibility' (1982, 26S). I see this paradox as less oppositional than provisional; I see it, instead, as an inscribing and undercutting of both any unitary sensibility and any disruptive will to unmake, for these are equally absolutist and totalizing concepts. Postmodernism is characterized by


energy derived from the rethinking of the value of multiplicity and provisionality; in actual practice, it does not seem to he defined by any potentially paralyzing opposition between making and unmaking. This is the energy (if also logical inconsistency) we get from those cohesive challenges to coherence in the work of Foucault or Lyotard (sec Roth 1985, 107). Postmodernist discourses - both theoretical and practical - need the very myths and conventions they, contest and reduce (Watkins 1978, 222); they do not necessarily come to terms with either order of disorder (cf. Wilde 1981, 10), but question both in terms of each other. The myths and conventions exist for a reason, and postmodernism investigates that reason. The postmodern impulse is not to seek any total vision. It merely questions. If it finds such a vision, it questions how, in fact it made it.


The great modern achievements were wagers which made gestures, invented methods, but laid no foundations for a future literature. They led in the direction of an immensity frorn which there was bound to be a turning back because to go further would lead to a new and completer fragmentation, utter obscurity, formlessness without end.

Stephen Spender

History has proved Spender wrong, for in postmodernism we sec the results of those wagers and they have not taken the form he imagined. The debate over the definition of both modernism and postmodernism has now been going on for years (sec Fokkema 1984, 12-36). There is little firm agreement on their limiting dates, their defining characteristics, even the players in this game. Instead of trying to delimit either, I would like to look at the configuration of concerns in each that could help us define a poetics of postmodernism in its relation to modernism. In other words, I do not want to enter into the arguments of evaluation; nor do 1 want to set the one enterprise against the other. The entire issue of binary oppositions like this one needs rethinking. What inevitably happens is that one - either modernism or postmodernism - gets privileged over the other.

One of the most influential of postmodern theorists, Ihab Hassan, is fond of creating parallel columns that place characteristics of the one next to their opposite characteristics in the other, usually making clear his preference for the postmodern. But this `either/or' thinking suggests a resolution of what I sec as the unresolvable contradictions within postmodernism. For example I would sec it less as a case of postmodern play versus modernist purpose, as Hassan claims (1982, 267-8), than as a case of play with purpose. The same is true of all his oppositions: postmodernism is the process of making the product; it is absence within presence, it is dispersal that needs centering in order to be dispersal; it is the ideolect that wants to be, but knows it cannot be, the master code; it is immanence denying yet yearning for transcendence. In other words, the postmodern partakes of a logic of `both/and,' not one of either/or.' And, not


surprisingly, those who privilege the modernist over the postmodernist also work in similar oppositional binary terms (Graff 1979; Eagleton 1985; Newman 1985).

As I have already mentioned, the major danger in setting up this kind of structure is that of creating `straw men' in order to make one's point more clearly. For instance when we read that modernism's concept of time is inescapably linear' and `idea(ly controllable' (Calinescu 1983, 284), we wonder what happened to those experimental works of Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, and others we think of as modernists. Did modernism really abandon intracultural dialogue' (Calinescu 1983, 275, his italics)? What about Tbc Waste Land or Finnegans Wake? No matter which `ism' is preferred, both it and its Antagonist run the risk of this kind of reduction. And no two critics seem to agree on which reductions to make. Jameson (1984b) sees modernism as oppositional and marginal- what 1 take as important defining characteristics of the postmodern. He offers no proof why modernism is somehow exempt from implication in mass culture. (Andreas Huyssen - 1986, viii - suggests that it is because of its elitism that attempted to transcend that mass culture.) Not does he offer any reason why he sees postmodernism in particular as the dominant aesthetic of consumer society Jameson 1984b, 197). In this book, I will be arguing that such reasons must be given and that, in defining postmodernism, it is necessary to be as specific and explanatory as possible.

lt is all too easy to reject, as does John Barth, all notions of postmodernism based on its being an extension, intensification, subversion, or repudiation postmodernism (1980, 69). But modernism literally and physically haunts postmodernism, and their interrelations should not be ignored. Indeed there appear to he two dominant schools of thought about the nature of the interaction of the two enterprises: the first sees postmodernism as a total break from modernism and the language of this school is the radical rhetoric of rupture; the second sees the postmodern as an extension and intensification of certain characteristics of modernism.

The radical break theory depends upon firm binary oppositions that operate on the formal, philosophical, and ideological levels. On the formal level postmodern surface is opposed to modernist depth (Wilde 1981, 43; Sontag 1967), and the ironic and parodic tone of postmodernism contrasts with the seriousness of modernism (Graff 1979, 55; Zurbrugg 1986, 78). It is easy to sec which half is being privileged here, though it usually is not quite as clear when the oppositions are between chaos and order or contingency and coherence (Bradbury 1983, 160; 185). This last point is often made in terms of the difference between the modernist use of myth as a structuring device in the work of, for instance, Mann, Pavese, or Joyce (sec Begnal 1973; Beebe 1972, 175; 1974, 1,076) and the postmodern ironic contesting of myth as master narrative in the novels of Barth, Reed, or Morrison, where there is no consolation of form or consensual belief (Lyotard 1986, 32-3). Modernism has been seen as creating its own form of aesthetic authority in the face of a center that


was not holding (Hassan 1985, 59; Josipovici 1977, 109), but if that point is made, it usually entails claiming that postmodernism is to be defined as anarchic, in complicity with chaos, accepting of uncertainty and confusion (Wilde 1981, 44). Postmodern skepticism is presented as the refutation and rejection of modernism's heroism (Wilde 1981, 132-3). Instead of this kind of opposition, I would argue that what postmodernism does is use and abuse these characteristics of modernism in order to install a questioning of both of the listed extremes.

Related to these formal and tonal distinctions between the two are differences in philosophical intent. But even here there is little agreement. One group (McHale 1987; Wilde 1981) sees modernism as epistemological in its focus, while postmodernism is ontological. The other group just reverses the adjectives (Krysinski 1981; McCaffery 1982; Russell 1974). Again, I would argue that the contradictions of postmodernism cannot be described in `either/or' terms (especially if they are going to be reversible!). Historiographic metafiction asks both epistemological and ontological questions. How do we know the past (or the present)? What is the ontological status of that past? Of its documents? Of our narratives?

For some critics, this philosophical issue is also an ideological one. The postmodern's epistemological break from modernism is seen by some as linked to an important new role it is to play in `worldly practices' (Radhakrishnan 1983, 34). This is precisely what Jameson accuses postmodernism of in a negative sense: he sees it as too involved in the economic system of late capitalism, too institutionalized (1984a, 56). It does not share, he says, modernism's repudiation of the Victorian bourgeoisie. But perhaps it questions any such easy repudiation, and does so in the light of its acknowledgements of its own inescapable ideological implication in precisely the contemporary situation of late capitalism.

It is worth recalling that this same modernism has also been accused of cultural elitism and hermeticism, political conservatism, alienating theories of the autonomy of art, and a search for transcendent, ahistorical dimensions of human experience (Russell 1981, 8). lt would not be difficult to figure out what postmodernism challenges and what attempts at change it offers in the stead of such a list: cultural democratizing of high/low art distinctions and a new didacticism, potentially radical political questioning, contextualizing theories of the discursive complexity of art, and a contesting of all ahistorical and totalizing visions. In fact Charles Russell argues precisely this:

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 transcendent perspective or language, no secure singular self-definition, for all find their meaning only within a social framework. (1985, 246)


Clearly it all depends on who is valorizing what in this kind of theory of an epistemic break between the modern and the postmodern.

The other school of thought argues a relationship of continuity or extension between the two. For David Lodge, they share a commitment to innovation and to a critique of tradition, even if the manifestations of these shared values differ (1977, 220-4.5). On a formal level, modernism lud postmodernism are said to share self-reflexivity (Fokkema 1984, '17), fragmentation (Newman 1985, 113), and a concern for history (literary and social) (Thiher 1984, 216-19). Certainly postmodern works have turned to modernist texts - often in different media - in their parodic play with convention and history. Peter Maxwell Davies has used Joyce's Cyclops episode in Ulysses as the model for his Missa super L'Homme Armé and Gordon Crosse's Second Violin Concerto uses Nabokov's Pale Fire for structural inspiration. Saura's flamenco film of Carmen invokes and comments upon both Bizet's opera and Merimee's story.

On a more theoretical level, some critics sec postmodernism as raising the same kinds of issues as modernism: investigating the cultural assumptions underlying our models of history (Josipovici 1977, 145) or challenging the entire western humanistic tradition (Spanos 1972, 147). Others argue that thc ironic distance that modernism sets up between art and audience is, in fact, intensified in postmodernism's `double-distancing' (Hayman 1978, 34-6). For others, postmodern fiction completes modernism's break with traditional realism and bourgeois rationalism (Graff 1975), just as postmodern poetry is seen as continuing the modernist challenge to romantic self-transcendence, though its stress on the local and topical does contest modernist impersonality (Altieri 1973, 629).

As this last example suggests, the continuity model is not without its necessary alterations and exceptions. My own response is probably typically postmodernist in its acceptance of both models, for I sec as one of the many contradictions of postmodernism that it can both self-consciously incorporate an d equally selfconsciously challenge that modernism from which it derives and to which it owes even its verbal existence. There has been a certain move in criticism (sec Pütz 1973, 228; Butler 1980, 138; Bertens 1986, 47-8; Todd 1986, 105-6) to distinguish between two types of postmodernism: one that is non-mimetic, ultra-autonomous, anti-referential, and another that is historically engage, problematically referential. I would argue that only the latter properly defines postmodernism, according to the model developed here (based on postmodern architecture). The former presents many difficulties, not the least of which are logical ones. Can language and literature ever be totally non-mimetic, nonreferential, and still remain understandable as literature? This is a theoretical problem that the radical rhetoric of antirepresentation usually ignores. Can there ever really be a total `loss of meaning' in art (Graff 1973, 391)? Would we still call it art? ls there anything to which we cannot grant meaning?

The attempt to make the label `postmodernist' describe these extremes of modernist aestheticism is, I believe, a mistaken one. Much contemporary


metafiction is indeed almost solely concerned with its own artifice, its own aesthetic workings. But self-reflexivity has a long history in art, and, in fact, the label of `self-begetting novel' has been used to describe both modernist fiction and the New Novel (Kellman 1980). The postmodernist art I have been and will be describing in this book is historical and political in a way that much metafiction is not. It cannot be described as removing representation and replacing it with textual materiality (Klinkowitz 1985, 192). Not does it unquestioningly accept the act of fiction-making as a humanist stay against chaos (Alter 1975; Hutcheon 1980; Christensen 1981).

It is the French New and also the New New Novel, along with American surfiction, that are most often cited by critics as examples of postmodernist fiction. But by my model, they would, instead, be examples of late modernist extremism. Others have taken this stand as well: Spanos (1972, 16S); Mellard (1980); Wilde (1981, 144); Butler (1980, 132). Modernist hermeticism and autotelic reflexivity characterize much surfiction and its theorizing. Raymond Federman (as both surfictionist and theorist) claims that his extreme metafiction represents an effort to reinstate things and the world in their proper places, but somehow in a purer state. The way he speaks of surfiction betrays his modernist and almost romantic blas: it is `the kind of fiction that constantly renews our faith in man's imagination and not in man's distorted vision of reality' (1981, 7). Fiction is `an autonomous art form in its own right' (9). No contradictory and interrogating postmodernist discourse could speak with such authority and certainty.

Postmodern fiction challenges both structuralist/modernist formalism and any simple mimeticist/realist notions of referentiality. It took the modernist novel a long time to win back its artistic autonomy from the dogma of realist theories of representation; it has taken the postmodernist novel just as long to win back its historicizing and contextualizing from the dogma of modernist aestheticisrn (which would include the hermeticism and ultra-formalism of the `textes' of Tel Quet, for example). What I want to call postmodernism in fiction paradoxically uses and abuses the conventions of both realism and modernism, and does so in order to challenge their transparency, in order to prevent glossing over the contradictions that make the postmodern what it is: historical and metafictional, contextual and self-reflective, ever aware of its status as discourse, as a human construct.

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