Postmodernism - The Rise of Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

The Rise of Literary Theory

The term Postmodernism designates a number of theories dealing with a broad array of themes across disciplinary and theoretical lines. In architecture, where the Postmodern movement is prominent, the term refers to a critique of the dominant Modernist trend of Le Corbusier and Ludwig Meis van der Rohe as well as to a playful, pastiche style. To some degree, art and art history use Postmodernism in a similarly dual fashion. In history, philosophy, and political science, Postmodernism is regarded, when it is given credence at all, as a new epoch or episteme in which knowledge, language, and texts function in new and highly diversified ways. In literary and cultural studies, many of these ideas would find a firm following among scholars interested in the challenge that modernity poses to art and aesthetics in the late twentieth century.

As with Postcolonialism and Poststructuralism, the “post-” in Postmodernism is problematic. Postmodernism, from one perspective, is a critical reaction to the Enlightenment project of MODERNITY and the Modernist movements in art and literature. in this sense, the prefix “post-" signifies an epistemological shift in how we see and know the world. it implies the end of modernity and the beginning of something new. This historical conception suggests that the Postmodern comes after the modern, and to a certain extent this is the case. But, as with other usages, the “post-” in Postmodernism denotes something other than historical sequence; it denotes a general condition of innovation in technologies, especially the technologies of art and writing, and a general transformation (in some cases, Nietzschean transvaluation) of social, cultural, and aesthetic values. There is still another sense in which the “post-” signals a counter-movement within the modern itself. This is the view of Jean-Frangois Lyotard, one of the leading proponents of Postmodernism: “The postmodern world would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself, that which denies itself the solace of good forms” (Postmodern Condition 81). Though some early theorists, preeminently Ihab Hassan, attempted to identify positive characteristics of Postmodernism, the tendency in many theorists is to define by NEGATION, to make statements about what Postmodernism is not or to describe the Postmodern as lack, negativity, and the unpresentable.

in literary theory, Postmodernism typically embraces a set of practices, strategies, and techniques that either repudiate Modernist tendencies (i.e., expressive form, mythic structures, stream of consciousness) or develop those tendencies in extreme forms. Postmodernist thought is characterized by a principled skepticism about language, truth, causality, history, and SUBJECTIVITY. This skepticism extends to method as well, which means that Postmodernism rejects the kind of methodological coherence that we find in the New Criticism, Deconstruction, Critical Theory, and Psychoanalysis - fields in which a common terminology and shared strategies of analysis and interpretation link otherwise disparate critical practices. in some ways, Postmodernism resembles Cultural Studies in the sense that it lacks disciplinary and methodological coherence, yet has acquired a distinct profile within the broader context of literary and cultural theory. In some form or another, the major Postmodernists maintain a stance of incredulity with respect to MASTER NARRATIVES, the unifying and TOTALIZING discourses (narratives of liberty and knowledge, Hegelian and Marxian TELEOLOGICAL narratives, Christian Providence, and so on) that organize knowledge (into systems, laws, beliefs, institutions) and account for all aspects of human experience. Postmodernism rejects the notions of authenticity and origin, regarding them as little more than romanticized myths that disguise interminable conditions of repetition, deferral, and self-reference. The Postmodern world is indeterminate and contingent; there can be no stable foundations for truth, law, ethics, language, consciousness, even perception. Postmodernism rejects UNIVERSALS and embraces the unpredictable and ever-changing reality of particulars. Pragmatics and what Lyotard calls “paralogy” triumph over idealism and TOTALIZATION. Binary functions, which lie at the heart of structuralism and are the starting point of so many poststructuralist critiques, have little or no relevance for Postmodernism. Though many Postmodernists are in agreement with poststructuralist theories of language and sign systems, they tend to bypass the solutions of linguistics, semiotics, and discourse analysis in favor of language games, chaos theory, and information theory. That is to say, Postmodernism seeks to discover entirely new ways of thinking about communication and expression, in many cases drawing on the resources of the internet and other electronic media.

With respect to literary texts, Postmodernism shares with Poststructuralism a strong aversion to traditional notions of authors, texts, and

canons and an equally strong attraction to INTERTEXTUALITY and PLAY. in some respects, Postmodernism appears to depart significantly from what Fredric Jameson calls “aesthetic Modernism.” Hassan, in Dismemberment of Orpheus (1971), defined Postmodernism as a rejection of the commitment to realism behind Modernist experimentation in favor of a literature of ludic self-reference, a METADISCOURSE that eschews old-fashioned plot lines and character development in favor of what Hutcheon calls “narcissistic narrative” and Robert Scholes FABULATION. Both concepts refer to a self-conscious attitude towards literary structure and writing that often serves as the central theme of the work itself. This is in part an effect of the rejection of realistic or MIMETIC representation, for if there is no intrinsic relation between language and the “real” world, then language becomes the only thing that literary works can effectively “re-present.” But this tells only part of the story, for, as Lyotard suggests, the Postmodern movement is caught up in the presentation of the unpresentable, that which has been ignored, occluded, or repressed. METAFICTIONAL strategies, therefore, are more than simply narcissistic, or at least they should be, for presenting the unpresentable is an act of liberation. For Hutcheon, metafiction aims to revolutionize literature as well as the society that produces it by forcing readers to look at language and texts in new ways: “the narcissistic novel as incitement to revolutionary activity would be the ultimate defence of self-conscious fiction against claims of self-preening introversion” (155). However, from the materialist perspective of someone like Jameson, the self-referentiality and lack of affect that characterizes the “narcissistic novel” would appear far from revolutionary.

Many of the characteristic features of Postmodernism suggest a retreat from material social existence. The pervasive use of irony, parody, and other modes of citation announce Postmodernism's radical skepticism with respect to mimetic representation and reference. Citation conventionally signifies a relation of authority within a discourse, one in which certain statements serve a regulatory or evidentiary function: one cites an authority in order to advance an argument. Postmodern citation is a strategy of repetition and appropriation; texts cite each other not with the intent of invoking an authority or showing indebtedness but with the desire to create new expressive connections, new opportunities for enunciation and articulation, new models of cultural production and social action. Jameson describes a related practice, pastiche:

Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody's ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists. Pastiche is thus blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs. (17)

Pastiche, like other forms of INTERTEXTUALITY, sustains a linguistic universe in which reference to the external world is neither necessary nor desirable. Disenchanted with material existence, living in a world of simulated reality, the Postmodern subject experiences a “waning of affect,” in which psychological and cultural depth is replaced by SIMULACRA. Cultural products still produce “feelings” (which Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call “intensities”) but they are “free-floating and impersonal,” no longer anchored to a stable, AUTONOMOUS subjectivity (Jameson 15-16).

The anti-foundationalism of Postmodernism, its aversion to absolutes, universals, and general truths is rooted in Nietzsche's critique of idealist metaphysics and Christian morality. Nietzsche's importance in this regard is easy to underestimate without a fairly extensive knowledge of his work, in which an aphoristic style, a gift for translating ideas into literary figures and episodes, and a background in philology combined to produce a searching critique of the ontology of concepts and ideas. Nietzsche pioneered new ways of knowing such things as the past, moral and ethical systems, languages and what they actually do, our belief in God and our propensity to go on believing even after we have, so it would seem, killed Him. In one of his earliest essays, Nietzsche celebrates the artist's “good deception,” which is the use of metaphors to “smash” existing frameworks or throw them into confusion. it is only when we have forgotten that we are “artistically creating subjects,” when we begin to believe that Truth can be uncontaminated by any trace of human construction, that we fall into error (“Truth and Lies” 90, 86). In The Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche challenged the transcendent origin and unchanging nature (the “truth value”) of moral concepts and beliefs. Opposed to the Truth, located in the depths or in the core of things, is an “olympus of appearance”:

Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for that is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearance! Those Greeks were superficial - out of profundity! … Are we not, precisely in this respect, Greeks? Adorers of forms, of tones, of words? And therefore - artists? (Gay Science 38)

Many Postmodernist theorists take this aspect of Neitzsche's work, together with poststructuralist theories of language (themselves often indebted to Nietzsche), as the starting point for an interrogation of Modernism and modernity. Lyotard is one of the more important of these figures. Drawing on Edmund Burke and Kant, he developed a conception of the Postmodern sublime that designates an excess (or NEGATION) of representation in the form of a gap between reality and its presentation, between “presentation” and the “unpresentable.” in part, Lyotard is combining two paradoxical elements of Nietzsche's thought (and of Postmodernist thought as well): the attention to linguistic and artistic surfaces and the capacity to plunge to great and even terrible depths. Nietzsche's work on language and philosophy points to a firm belief in the infinite depth of surfaces; the interminable and vertiginous qualities of language and TEXTUALITY, the sheer existence of what Lyotard calls “heterogeneous genres of discourse,” open the surface of discourse to the sublime. In The Differend, he writes that “the despair of never being able to present something within reality on the scale of the Idea […] overrides the joy of being nonetheless called upon to do so. We are more depressed by the abyss that separates heterogeneous genres of discourse than excited by the indication of a possible passage from one to the other” (179). Unlike the Romantic sublime, which was typically located in nature, the Postmodern sublime has no object, there is no reference point in nature that can trigger a sublime reaction. it is a function of language and discourse, specifically of the despair of ever finding language or a genre adequate to experience. The Postmodern sublime is caught up in the currents of nostalgia for something that can never be re-possessed or re-presented; indeed, it underscores the fact that this “something” has never been possessed or presented, has always been a matter of deferral and displacement. “A sorrow felt before the inconsistency of every object, [the sublime] is also the exultation of thought passing beyond the bounds of

what may be presented. The ’presence’ of the absolute is the utter contrary of presentation” (Postmodern Fables 29).

In The Postmodern Condition (1979), his most famous work, Lyotard critiques the problem of delegitimation and “the contemporary decline of narratives of legitimation,” traditional or modern. This process “is tied to the abandonment of the belief” that science or anything else can provide “metaprescriptions” to unify all language games (Postmodern Condition 64, 66). Over against the MASTER NARRATIVES of emancipation and speculation that had, in modernity, served as the “quintessential form of customary knowledge,” Lyotard proffers the concept of paralogy, a language game “played in the pragmatics of knowledge” (Postmodern Condition 60-61). Joining Lyotard in his critique of knowledge and representation was Jean Baudrillard, whose theory of SIMULATION suggests that the Postmodern world is one in which the real has been replaced by simulations of reality. “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself, that is, an operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes.” Whereas dissimulation involves “feign[ing] not to have what one has,” simulation involves “feign[ing] to have what one hasn’t” (4-5). In the “hyperreal” space of simulation, there is no truth, causality, temporality, law - even nature and the human body are irrelevant in a world in which “signs of the real” replace the real and “God, Man, Progress, and History itself die to profit the code” (111).

Lyotard’s Postmodern vision provoked a debate with Jurgen Habermas, who wrote in response that the “project of modernity has not yet been fulfilled” (12). He was committed to a reintegration of social spheres based on “communicative action” and consensus, on the essentially humanist notion of an organic and meaningful social TOTALITY. Though Habermas’s humanist political project did not require a “correspondence” model of truth, it did presuppose, as part of a meaningful social totality, the possibility of social and political consensus. Like Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and other poststructuralists, Lyotard and Baudrillard critique the ESSENTIALIST foundations of humanism and offer new paradigms for understanding the nature of SUBJECTIVITY and the relations between subjects in social formations.

Also like them, they reject the idea of the unified SUBJECT with its indivisible and essential core of being.

Perhaps the most devastating Postmodern critique of humanism comes from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, whose Anti-Oedipus and Thousand Plateaus challenge the main achievements of the Enlightenment: capitalism, philosophy, Psychoanalysis (Freudian and Lacanian), medical science, even physics. Deleuze and Guattari believe that desire does not function according Freud's Oedipal theory, in which desire for the mother inaugurates the oedipus complex and the mechanisms of repression; nor do they agree with Lacan's emphasis on lack as the primary motivation of desire. Against the dyadic or binary structure of Freudian and Lacanian subjectivity, Deleuze and Guattari advance the notion of schizophrenia, which more aptly describes the heterogeneous and discontinuous experience of postmodernity. Their model of schizo- analysis replaces Psychoanalysis and counters the oedipal scene of repressed desire and lack with the flows of desiring machines - individuals, collectivities, social institutions - that are capable of creating new forms of solidarity as well as new forms of social control. No longer a singular and unified producer of desire - a subject - the human being and body become “machinic.” The “major enemy” of Deleuze and Guattari's experiment in Psychoanalysis and Marxism is fascism. As Foucault puts it in his preface to Anti-Oedipus, “the strategic adversary is fascism… . And not only historical fascism, the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini - which was able to mobilize and use the desire of the masses so effectively - but also the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior” (xiii).

This fight against fascism is waged by “desiring machines” that generate and direct the flows and intensities of a “libidinal economy” throughout the entire social structure. The specific structure of this economy is determined by processes of DETERRITORIALIZATION and RETERRITORIAL- IZATION that traverse the social body, inscribing and reinscribing psychological, geographical, political, or social boundaries. TERRITORIALIZED space is not governed by a “schizo” logic but rather by the logic of the Law, the Lacanian Symbolic. Deterritorialization refers to the process of breaking down these boundaries and mapping “demographic flows” of intensities that emanate from different points of the social matrix. Reter- ritorialization occurs once new boundaries are inscribed on this matrixin-process. All of this plays out on a social landscape that resembles a

“rhizome,” which Deleuze and Guattari describe as “a subterranean stem” that is “absolutely different from roots and radicles. Bulbs and tubers are rhizomes. Plants with roots or radicles may be rhizomorphic in other respects altogether… . Burrows are too, in all their functions of shelter, supply, movement, evasion, and breakout” (Thousand Plateaus 6-7). Following Antonin Artaud and Spinoza, Deleuze and Guattari develop a theory of social space as a “body without organs,” the “full egg” prior to the organization of the organs. A body without organs designates a node through which intensities or flows of forces pass and create interconnections, openings, passages, assemblages : “the Bwo [body without organs] is not a scene, a place, or even a support upon which something comes to pass. it has nothing to do with phantasy, there is nothing to interpret” (Thousand Plateaus 153). Desire is the operation of the body without organs. Even when that body is threatened with annihilation, “it is still desire. Desire stretches that far: desiring one's own annihilation, or desiring the power to annihilate. Money, army, police, and state desire, fascist desire, even fascism is desire. There is desire whenever there is the constitution of a Bwo under one relation or another” (Thousand Plateaus 165).

Postmodernism does not reject the political sphere or political action. Deleuze and Guattari are committed to revolutionary social change and their work has been extremely useful to those who reflect on radical new forms of social organization and political activism. The same can be said of other Postmodernists, especially those who turn their attention to legal and ethical matters. In Contingency, Hegemony, Universality (2000), Judith Butler, Slavoj Zizek, and Ernesto Laclau revisit Kant and Hegel in order to fashion new theoretical foundations, no matter how contingent, while Lyotard's late work is dedicated to analyzing and reflecting on the problem of ethics in a Postmodern frame of reference. Lyotard's The Differend is a good example of Postmodern ethical reflection. The term diffirend refers to an aporia or contradiction that occurs when the parties in a legal dispute occupy incommensurate positions; they are unable to “phrase” their case because there is no common language or universal ground on which to base an appeal. The alternative to this impasse is to arrive at a “practice of justice that is not linked to that of consensus” (Postmodern 66).

Feminism has developed its own critique of the legal and ethical implications of postmodernity. Judith Butler, Jennifer Wicke, and Mary

Joe Frug have used Postmodernist theory in a feminist critique of the legal conception of the SUBJECT. Lyotard and Baudrillard, who celebrate “the liberating potential of local, interlocking language games, which replace the overall structures,” leave little room for reflection on “collective identities” and the “historical terrain of struggle” (Wicke 17-18). Greater awareness is needed of the distinction between identity politics, which is tethered to traditional notions of the AUTONOMOUS, legal subject, and relational politics, which denotes “a multiple political dynamic that can see itself at work in the world in the back and forth of actual political engagement” (Wicke 33). Donna Haraway takes the critique of the gendered subject beyond ethics and law and challenges the foundations of science and the limits of nature. Her aim, in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (1991), is to deconstruct binomial models of human experience - mind/body, subject/object, nature/arti- fice, art/science, body/machine - and to posit an alternative model, the cyborg, which links biological nature structurally to the “interface” opportunities made possible by computer generated and mediated environments. Especially for women, the cyborg model is better adapted to a relational politics and can help bridge the gap between Postmodernism and a Feminist theory that still presupposes, for political purposes, the existence and necessity of an autonomous subject. (on Butler, see pp. 104-5.)

As Lyotard has famously argued, Postmodernism is a condition. The precise nature of that condition has been the object of much debate. Lyotard's own position - Postmodernism entails lost faith and skepticism, an attitude of incredulity towards traditional modes of legitimation - has been quite influential. By envisioning a world that can no longer be comprehended by dialectics and totalities, unities and “nations,” subjects and laws, Deleuze and Guattari, like many Postmodern feminists, offer a vision of the Postmodern that avoids the Kantian and Hegelian concepts that lie at the foundation of Lyotard's view. others, like Laclau and Zizek, see social and political implications in textualist theories that seem to foreground language and representation at the expense of social action. To some degree the quarrel is over the political function of representation, but a more fundamental issue is at stake: the status of representation in a world that exists only as representation. The desire for stable categories of social subjectivity is in part a recognition that there is more than representation at stake, but it is also a sign that

the subject - along with the nation, history, the text, the author, and even time and space themselves - is a thing of the past.


Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. Trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitch- man. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. 1977. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

---- . A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. London: Athlone, 1988.

Hutcheon, Linda. Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1980.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. 1983. Trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

---- . The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

---- . Postmodern Fables. Trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage-Random, 1974.

---- . “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.” In Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche's Notebooks of the Early 1870s. Ed. and trans. Daniel Breazeale. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1979. 79-97.

Wicke, Jennifer. “Postmodern Identities and the Politics of the (Legal) Subject.” in Feminism and Postmodernism. Eds. Margaret Ferguson and Jennifer Wicke. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994. 10-33.