The Poetics of Postmodernism: A History, Theory and Fiction
By Linda Hutchinson, 1988
The term Postmodernism is either under defined or over defined.. Word like discontinuity, disruption, dislocation, decentering, intermittentcy. These terms all seem negative though. Post-modernism installs and then subverts things. It does this in architecture, literature, painting, sculpture, film, video, dance, TV, music, philosophy, aesthetic theory, psychoanalysis, linguistics and history.
In Postmodernism we worry about things that are different or people that are the “other.” Thomas Pynchon called it the “we system” versus the “they system.” Kristeva calls it “writing as experience of limits.” What limits? The limits of languages, of subjectivity, of sexual identity. It is also a systematization and uniformitation of society and the self.
Some of the forms Postmodernism blend genres—like the blending of poetry in prose in Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through the Slaughter. Sometimes we see three tenses and three voices in the blending of past, present and future. They call it Presence of the Past or Present-ification. It does not deny the existence of the past; it does, however, question whether we can ever know that past other than through its textualized remains.”
Charles Russel says that Postmodernism is when we encounter a text and are challenged by it as, “an art of shifting perspective, of double self-consciousness, of local and extended meaning.”
Rorty explains, “What he [Derrida] did was to think up ways of speaking, which made old was of speaking optional and thus less dubious.”
The Postmodern impulse is not to seek any total visions. It merely questions. It finds such a vision, it questions how, in fact, the vision made the text.
Fiction can also look like biography. Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family is just one such book.
Hutchinson discusses Decentering, which means moving out of the center. Postmodernist discourses—either those women, African Americans, Native Americans, etc—try to avoid the trap of revering or valorizing the other, of making the margin into a center, a move that many have seen as a danger for deconstruction’s privileging of writing and absence over speech and presence or for some feminism gyno-centralizing of a monolithic concept of woman as something other than man. Postmodernism is always plural and provisional.
Language is the transmission of information. Language operates as communications between two agents. It is a network of signs.
A Self does not amount to much, but no Self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before. Young or old, man or woman, rich or poor—a person is always located at “nodal points” of specific communication circuits, however tiny those may be.
Novels ask who is speaking. Who is accorded the right to use language in a particular way? From what institutional site do we construct our discourses? From what does discourse derive its legitimating authority? From what position do we speak—as producers or consumers?
Christa Wolfe wrote the book Cassandra, which retells Homer’s Historical Epic of Men and their politics and war in terms of the untold story of women and everyday life. Cassandra is a fictionalized and yet historical narrator. Wolfe uses both 1st Person Point of View and 3rd Person Point of View. She made her character aware of her future observer and makes Cassandra a contemporary person who sees yesterday, today and tomorrow. Additionally, race, gender, ethnicity and sexual preference all become the domain of the political, as various manifestations of centralizing and centralized authority are challenged.
The ideal thing to do is to produce a concept of history and not to try and make it realistic or say, “this is how it really happened.” George Lukacs thought that the historical novel could present a microcosm which generalizes and concentrates the events.
Historiographic Metafiction, of course, paradoxically fits both definitions. It installs totalizing order, only to contest it by its radical provisionality, intertextuality and, often, fragmentation. The facts of history do not exist for any historian until he creates them. There is no ordinary reality—only a world of text and subtext.
Postmodernism clearly attempts to combat what has come be seen as modernism’s potential for hermetic, elitist isolationism that separated art from the world and literature from history. But often it does so by using the very techniques of modern aestheticism against themselves.
What we accept as “real” and “true” in histography, as in fiction, is that which, “wears the mask of meaning, the completeness and fullness of which we can only imagine, but never experience.” The text never refer to the outside world, only another text.
Modernists refer to existence in their texts. Postmodernists refer to the inaccessibility to reality and how subjective it is.
The important things, we learn, are beyond words, but are still intensely real—indeed more real because they are not articulated or named. Yet, paradoxically, the narrating writer has lonely language to work with and knows that s/he is “a prisoner of the nominal, believing that things are what I name them.”
Ours is a fin-de-millennium consciousness, which is existing at the end of history in the twilight time of ultra-modernism (of technology) and hyper-primitivism. The public mood uncovers a great arc of disintegration and decay against the background or radiation of parody, kitsch and burnout.
In reading Postmodern works, we may find that we can’t come up with any answers, but the questions we come up with will make any answering process possible. Starting to ask questions is the most important thing we can do.