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The Politics of Postmodernism


London and New York

First published 1989

by Routledge

ii New Fetter Line, London EC11P 4EE sç West ~th Street, New rork, NY tSYJOI

Reprinted 1990, 1991, 1993

© 1989 Linda Hutcheon

Photoset by Rowland Phototypesetting Ltd,

Bury St Edmundc, Suffolk

Printed in England by

Clays Ltd, St Ives plc

All nghts reserved. No part of this book may be repnntedor reproduced or utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.


British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

Hutcheon, Linda

The politics of postmodetni.sm. - (New accents)

:. Culture. Postmodernis,n

1. Title Ii. Series


Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data Hutcheon, Linda

The politics ofpostmodernism.

(New accents)

Bibliography: p.

Includes index.

s. Fiction 20th century History and criticism.

2. Postmodenzism. 3. Photography and literature.

I. Title. II. Series: New accents (Routledge (Firm))

P513503.1184 1989 809 .3’04 89-~o4

ISBN 0 ~ 039~l 6

ISBN 0 415039924 (pbk.)

General editor’s preface Acknowledgements

i Representing the postmodern

What is postmodernism?

Representation and its politics

Whose postmodernism?

Postmodernity, postmodernism, and modernism

2 Postmodernist representation

Dc-naturalizing the natural

Photographic discourse

Telling stories: fiction and history

3 Re-presenting the past

‘Total history’ de-totalized




II 23







vi The Politics of Postmodernjsm

Knowing the past in the present The archive as text

4 The politics of parody

Parodic postmodern representation

Double-coded politics

Postmodern film?

5 Text/image border tensions

The paradoxes of photography

The ideological arena of photo-graphy

The politics of address

6 Postmodernism and feminisms

Politicizing desire

Feminist postmodernist parody

The private and the public

Concluding note: some directed reading







General editor’s preface














How can we recognise or deal with the new? Any equip­ment we bring to the task will have been designed to engage with the old: it will look for and identify extensions and developments of what we already know. To some degree the unprecedented will always be unthinkable.

The New Accents series has made its own wary negotiation around that paradox, turning it, over the years, into the central concern of a continuing project. We are obliged, of course, to be bold. Change is our proclaimed business, in­novation our announced quarry, the accents of the future the language in which we deal. So we have sought, and still seek, to confront and respond to those developments in liter­ary studies that seem crucial aspects of the tidal waves of transformation that continue to sweep across our culture. Areas such as structuralism, post-structuralism, feminism, marxism, semiotics, subculture, deconstruction, dialogism, postmodernism, and the new attention to the nature and modes of language, politics and way of life that these bring, have already been the primary concern of a large number of our volumes. Their ‘nuts and bolts’ exposition of the issues at stake in new ways of writing texts and new ways of read­ing them has proved an effective stratagem against perplexity.

viii The Politics of Postmodernism

But the question of what ‘texts’ are or may be has also become more and more complex. It is not just the impact of the electronic modes of communication, such as computer networks and data banks, that has forced us to revise our sense of the sort of material to which the process called ‘reading’ may apply. Satellite television and supersonic travel have eroded the traditional capacities of time and space to confirm prejudice, reinforce ignorance, and conceal significant difference. Ways of life and cultural practices of which we had barely heard can now be set compellingly beside — can even confront — our own. The effect is to make us ponder the culture we have inherited; to see it, perhaps for the first time, as an intricate, continuing construction. And that means that we can also begin to see, and to ques­tion, those arrangements of foregrounding and background­ing, of stressing and repressing, of placing at the centre and of restricting to the periphery, that give our own way of life its distinctive character.

Small wonder if, nowadays, we frequently find ourselves at the boundaries of the precedented and at the limit of the thinkable: peering into an abyss out of which there begin to lurch awkwardly-formed monsters with unaccountable —yet unavoidable — demands on our attention. These may involve unnerving styles of narrative, unsettling notions of ‘history’, unphilosophical ideas about ‘philosophy’, even un-childish views of ‘comics’, to say nothing of a host of barely respectable activities for which we have no reassur­ing names.

In this situation, straightforward elucidation, careful un­picking, informative bibliographies, can offer positive help, and each New Accents volume will continue to include these. But if the project of closely scrutinising the new remains nonetheless a disconcerting one, there are still overwhelm­ing reasons for giving it all the consideration we can muster. The unthinkable, after all, is that which covertly shapes our thoughts.



This book should probably be entitled Re-presenting Postmodern­ism, for it literally presents once again certain core notions about the postmodern that I first developed in different contexts and with a different focus in two earlier studies — A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (1988) and The Canadian

Postmodern: A Study of Contemporary English—Canadian Fiction

(1988). But what was missing from both these books is the subject of this one: that is, a general introductory overview of

both postmodernism and its politics and an investigation of their challenges to the notion of representation in the verbal and visual arts.

In the other books, I always thanked my spouse, Michael Hutcheon, last, but this time my debt to him must be acknowl­edged from the start, for he is in a very real sense responsible for this work: his talent as a photographer and his abiding interest in photography as an art form and a semiotic practice provide the background for this entire book. In addition, his continued support and enthusiasm, his critical acumen and his fine sense of humor and his aequinimitas have never been more welcome. To him therefore go my deepest gratitude and affection.

Because of the cumulative nature of this study, I feel I ought also to thank once again all those I have already mentioned by name in the first two books — all those colleagues, students, and

x The Politics of Postmodernism

friends, all those artists, critics, and theorists who have contrib­uted to my understanding of postmodernism and to the sheer enjoyment I have experienced working on these projects. I hope they will accept one more time my thanks, this time collectively.

A special debt is owed to Terry Hawkes whose idea this book was and whose wit, warmth, and wisdom make him the fine editor and critic he is. To Janice Price, as always, my sincerest thanks for her unfailing confidence and friendship. Finally I must express my gratitude to the Isaac Walton Killam Foun­dation of the Canada Council whose Research Fellowship (ig86—8) enabled this and the other books to be written: the generosity and faith the foundation shows toward its fellows makes scholarly work particularly rewarding.

Some of the ideas in this book have appeared elsewhere in print, though usually with a very different focus, depending on the occasion and the state of development of the ideas at the time of writing. I would like to thank the editors and publishers of the following journals and collections of essays for their sup­port of work in progress: Texte; Signature: A Journal of Theory and Canadian Literature; Style (special issue editor: Mieke Bal); Can­adian Review of Comparative Literature (special issue editor: Alain Goldschlager); Quarterly Review of Film and Video (ed. Ronald Gottesman); Bulletin of the Humanities Institute at Stony Brook (ed.

E. Ann Kaplan); Postmodemism (ed. Hans Bertens, London:

Macmillan); Intertextuality (ed. Heinrich F. Plett, Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter).

Special thanks go to the early audiences who helped me refine these ideas through their acute and discerning responses and to those who invited me to speak at their conferences or universities: SUNY-Stony Brook (E. Ann Kaplan); University of Western Ontario (Martin Kreiswirth); Queen’s University (Clive Thomson); Toronto Semiotic Circle (Ian Lancashire); Victoria College (Barbara Havercroft) and University College (Hans de Groot), University ofToronto; International Summer Institute for Semiotic and Structural Studies (Paul Bouissac); McMaster University (Nina Kolesnikoff); American Comparative Literature Association (Daniel Javitch).


Representing the postmodern

What is postmodernism?

Few words are more used and abused in discussions of contem­porary culture than the word ‘postmodernism.’ As a result, any attempt to define the word will necessarily and simultaneously have both positive and negative dimensions. It will aim to say what postmodernism is but at the same time it will have to say what it is not. Perhaps this is an appropriate condition, for postmodernism is a phenomenon whose mode is resolutely contradictory as well as unavoidably political.

Postmodernism manifests itself in many fields of cultural endeavor — architecture, literature, photography, film, paint­ing, video, dance, music, and elsewhere. In general terms it takes the form of ~Jf-conscious, ~g1f-contradictory, self­Id&.rjnhl3ing statement. It is rather like saying iomething whilst at the same time putting inverted commas around what is being said. The effect is to highlight, or ‘highlight,’ and to subvert, or ‘subvert,’ and the mode is therefore a ‘knowing’ and an ironic — or even ironic — one. Postmodernism’s distinctive character lies in this kind of wholesale ‘nudging’ commitment to doubleness, or duplicity. In many ways it is an even-handed process because postmodernism ultimately manages to install and reinforce as much as undermine and subvert the conven­

2 The Politics of Postmodernism Representing the postmodern 3

tions and presuppositions it appears to challenge. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to say that the postmodern’s initial concern is to de-naturalize some of the dominant features of our way of life; to point out that those entities that we unthinkingly experi­ence as ‘natural’ (they might even include capitalism, patri­archy, liberal humanism) are in fact ‘cultural’; made by us, not given to us. Even nature, postmodernism might point out, doesn’t grow on trees.

This kind of definition may seem to run counter to the majority of those discussed in the opening chapter of this book. But its roots lie in the sphere in which the term ‘postmodern’ first found general usage: architecture. And there we find a further contradiction. It is one whichjuxtaposes and gives equal value to the self-reflexive and the historically grounded: to that which is inward-directed and belongs to the world of art (such as parody) and that which is outward-directed and belongs to ‘real life’ (such as history). The tension between these apparent opposites finally defines the paradoxically worldly texts of postmodernism. And it sparks, just as powerfully, their no less real, if ultimately compromised politics. Indeed it is their compromised stance which makes those politics recognizable and familiar to us. After all, their mode — that of complicitous critique — is for the most part our own.

Representation and its politics

A decade or so ago a German writer stated: ‘I cannot keep politics out of the question of post-modernism’ (Muller 1979:

~8). Nor should he. The intervening years have shown that politics and postmodernism havc made curious, if inevitable, bedfellows. For one thing, the debates on the definition and evaluation of the postmodern have been conducted largely in political — and negative — terms: primarily neoconservative (Newman 1985; Kramer 1982) and neoMarxist (Eagleton 1985; Jameson 1983, 1984a). Others on the left (Caute 1972; Russell 1985) have seen, instead, its radical political potential, if not actuality, while feminist artists and theorists have resisted the incorporation of their work into postmodernism for fear of recuperation and the attendant dc-fusing of their own political agendas.

While these debates will not be the main focus of this study, they do form its unavoidable background. This is not so much a book about the representation of politics as an investigation of what postmodern theorist and photographer Victor Burgin calls the ‘politics of representation’ (Burgin i986b: 8~). Roland Barthes once claimed that it is impossible to represent the political~ for it resists all mimetic copying. Rather, he said, ‘where politics begins is where imitation ceases’ (Barthes 1977b: 154). And this is where the self-reflexive, parodic art of the postmodern comes in, underlining in its ironic way the realization that all cultural forms of representation — literary, visual, aural — in high art or the mass media are ideologically grounded, that they cannot avoid involvement with social and pe~litical relations and apparatuses (Burgin t986b: ~

In saying this, I realize that I am going against a dominant trend in contemporary criticism that asserts that the postmod­em is disqualified from political involvement because of its narcissistic and ironic appropriation of existing images and stories and its seemingly limited accessibility — to those who recognize the sources of parddic appropriation and understand the theory that motivates it. But, what this study of the forms and politics of postmodern representation aims to show is that such a stand is probably politically naive and, in fact, quite impossible to take in the light of the actual art of postmodern­ism. Postmodern art cannot but be political, at least in the sense that its representations — its images and stories — are anything but neutral, however ‘aestheticized’ they may appear to be in their parodic self-reflexivity. While the postmodern has no effective theory of agency that enables a move into political action, it does work to turn its inevitable ideological grounding into a site of dc-naturalizing critique. To adapt Barthes’s general notion of the ‘doxa’ as public opinion or the ‘Voice of Nature’ and consensus (Barthes I977b: 47), postmodernism works to ‘de-doxify’ our cultural representations and their undeniable political import.

Umberto Eco has written that he considers postmodern ‘the orientation of anyone who has learned the lesson of Foucault, i.e., that power is not something unitary that exists outside us’ (in Rosso 1983: ~). He might well have added to this, as others have, the lessons learned from Derrida about textuality and


4 The Politics of Postmodernism

deferral, or from Vattimo and Lyotard about intellectual mas­tery and its limits. In other words, it is difficult to separate the ‘de-doxifying’ impulse of postmodern art and culture from the deconstructing impulse of what we have labelled poststructur­alist theory. A symptom of this inseparability can be seen in the way in which postmodern artists and critics speak about their ‘discourses~ — by which they mean to signal the inescapably political contexts in which they speak and work. When dis­course is defined as the ‘system of relations between parties engaged in communicative activity’ (Sekula 1982: 84), it points to politically un-innocent things — like the expectation of shared meaning — and it does so within a dynamic social context that acknowledges the inevitability of the existence of power rela­tions in any social relations. As one postmodern theorist has put it: ‘Postmodern aesthetic experimentation should be viewed as having an irreducible political dimension. It is inextricably bound up with a critique of domination’ (Wellbery 1985: 235).

Yet, it must be admitted from the start that this is a strange kind of critique, one bound up, too, with its own complicity with power and domination, one that acknowledges that it cannot escape implication in that which it nevertheless still wants to analyze and maybe even undermine. The ambiguities of this kind of position are translated into both the content and the form of postmodern art, which thus at once purveys and challenges ideology — but always self-consciously. The un­traditional ‘political’ novels of Gunter Grass, E.L. Doctorow, or any number of Latin American writers today are good examples. So too is Nigel Williams’s Star Turn in which we find a simultaneous inscription and ‘de-doxification’ of both bourgeois and Marxist notions of class. The working-class narrator, Amos Barking, likes to hide his class origins: he goes by the name of Henry Swansea at work (in the wartime Ministry of Information). The novel takes place in 1945, however, a year in which, as Amos ironically notes, ‘all working-class people are alleged to be heroes (perhaps because they are being killed in extremely large numbers)’ (Williams 1985: 15).

This novel never lets its readers forget the issue of class; it never lets us avoid the (often unacknowledged) class assump­tions we might possess. While a number of historical personages

—Marcel Proust, Douglas Haig, Sigmund Freud — are presented

Representing the postmodern ~,

as (acceptably) mad (thanks to their protective class identities), Amos announces:

Difficult as it may seem to you, dear reader, there are probably still people out there in the East End of London quite unaware that, when worn down by the problems of the world, a quick and simple solution is often to lie on a couch and talk about one’s mother to a highly qualified stranger. In 1927 lfl the Whitechapel area, if you allowed the world to get you down, you tended to go and jump under a bus — still a popular option for members of the working class foolish enough to opt for neurosis.

(Williams 1985: 203)

But what is most obviously postmodern about the politics of this noVel’s mode of representation is that it does not stop at an aij~lysis of class difference: race is shown to enter into com­pftdty with class on both the formal and the thematic levels of the novel. The plot action revolves around Isaac Rabinowitz, the Jewish boy who wants to be known as Tom Shadbolt, all~English lad, and who ends up (ironically and tragically) as a stand-in look-alike for the fascist and racist Oswald Mosley. Not only are fiction and history mixed here in what I will argue tO be a typically postmodern way, but class and race and nationality as well. Difference and ex-centricity replace homogeneity and centrality as the foci of postmodern social analysis. But even this focus on the ‘marginal’ gets called into question in this self-undercutting novel.

Amos calls England a ‘complacent, marginal little kingdom’ (Williams 1985: I 7) and its marginality and complacency mirror his own: he witnesses the First World War from the sidelines; he meets D.H. Lawrence, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Freud, Churchill, Goebbels, Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce), but somehow always remains peripheral to history. Fittingly, he spends the Second World War at home cynically writing propaganda. When he is forced to witness the firebomb­ing of Dresden, his first reaction, not surprisingly, is evasion:

Don’t think just because I’m British, Anglo-Saxon and the rest of it that I am party to all that. I’m not responsible for English history, thank you very much. I don’t actually like

6 The Politics of Postmodernism

very much in this rotten little island, including, as it happens,

the present war.

(Williams 1985: 304—5)

It is his German Jewish boss, however, who refuses to let him avoid public responsibility, attacking him for feeling he has the liberty (and luxury) in a democracy to decide what is true and what is not (such as the concentration camps). He derides Amos’s contempt of history and tries to show him the real pain and atrocity ofwar: ‘You’re a typical Englishman. . . . You’ve a marvellous talent for hypocrisy. You have a way with language that spells away your true feelings’ (Williams 1985: 306). The overt self-consciousness about language and (hi)story-writing in the novel is tied directly to the political, as Amos is taught that ‘[y]ou can’t hide behind your country and abuse it at the same time, any more than you can dodge history’ (307). And not dodging history would mean taking into account class, race, gender, and nationality. It would mean de-naturalizing English social assumptions about each.

This is the kind of novel — both historical and self-reflexive —that enacts yet another of the ambiguities of the postmodern position. This paradoxical mixing of seeming opposites often results in its representations — be they fictive or historical —being offered as overtly politicized, as inevitably ideological. The conceptual grounding of such a postmodern view of the politics of representation can be found in many theories today. In fact there exists a journal, boundary 2, which clearly sees theory, postmodernism, and politics as being at the very heart of its agenda. However, the single most influential theoretical statement on the topic might well be Louis Althusser’s much cited notion of ideology both as a system of representation and as a necessary and unavoidable part of every social totality (Althusser 1969: 231—2). Both points are important to any discussion of postmodernism and, indeed, inform the theoretical orientation of this book.

While it may indeed be the case that criticism in the literary and visual arts has traditionally been based on foundations that are expressive (artist-oriented), mimetic (world-imitative), or formalist (art as object), the impact of feminist, gay, Marxist, black, postcolonial, and poststructuralist theory has meant the

Representing the postmodern 7

addition of something else to these historical foundations and has effected a kind of merger of their concerns, but now with a ~ew focus: the investigation of the social and ideological pro­duction of meaning. From this perspective what we call ‘cul­ture’ is seen as the effect of representations, not their source. Yet, from another point of view, western capitalist culture has also shown an amazing power to normalize (or ‘doxify’) signs and images, however disparate (or contesting) they may be. The work ofJeanFrancois Lyotard andJean Baudrillard has zeroed in on the socio-economics ofour production and reproduction of signs. These studies have been influential in our understanding of postmodem culture. But it is specifically the politics of postrnodern representation — the ideological values and in­terests that inform any representation — that will be the main focus of this book.

Underlying this notion of a postmodern process of cultural ‘de-doxification’ is a theoretical position that seems to assert that we can only know the world through ‘a network of socially established meaning systems, the discourses of our culture’ (Russell I980 183). And indeed I have chosen to concentrate here on two art forms which most self-consciously foreground precisely this awareness of the discursive and signifying nature of cultural knowledge and they do so by raising the question of the supposed transparency of representation. These are fiction and photography, the two forms whose histories are firmly rooted in realist representation but which, since their reinter­pretation in modernist formalist terms, are now in a position to confront both their documentary and formal impulses. This is the confrontation that I shall be calling postmodernist: where documentary historical actuality meets formalist self-reflexivity and parody. At this conjuncture, a study of representation becomes, not a study ofmimetic mirroring or subjective project­ing, but an exploration of the way in which narratives and images structure how we see ourselves and how we construct our notions of self, in the present and in the past.

Of course, the postmodern return both to figuration in paint­ing and to narrative in avant-garde film has had an important impact on the question of representation in photography and fiction in recent years. Feminist theory and practice have also problematized the same issue, pointing to the construction of

8 The Politics of Postmodernism Representing the postmodern 9

gender as both the effect and the ‘excess’ of representation (de Lauretis 1987: 3). Less obvious, perhaps, butjust as signifi­cant to postmodernism have been the current debates about the nature and politics of representation in history-writing (LaCapra 1985, 1987; White 1973, i978b, 1987). Of course many other factors must be taken into account, but generally speaking, the postmodern appears to coincide with a general cultural awareness of the existence and power of systems of representation which do not reflect society so much as grant meaning and value within a particular society.

However, ifwe believe current social scientific theory, there is a paradox involved in this awareness. On the one hand, there is a sense that we can never get out from under the weight of a long tradition of visual and narrative representations and, on the other hand, we also seem to be losing faith in both the inexhaus­tibility and the power of those existing representations. And parody is often the postmodern form this particular paradox takes. By both using and ironically abusing general conventions and specific forms of representation, postmodern art works to dc-naturalize them, giving what Rosahind Krauss has called the strange sense of ‘loosening the glue by which labels used to adhere to the products of convention’ (Krauss 1979: 121). I am not referring here to the kind of ahistorical kitsch seen in some New York or Toronto restaurants or at Disneyland; rather, the postmodern parody in the work of Salman Rushdie or Angela Carter or Manuel Puig has become one of the means by which culture deals with both its social concerns and its aesthetic needs — and the two are not unrelated.

A slight detour is in order before proceeding, because I do not want to give the impression that representation is not problem­atized by other forms ofpostmodern art. As the next section will show, I want to model postmodernism in general on the exam­ple of postmodern architecture, where it is not just the repre­sentation of the historical past of architectural styles that gets de-naturalized, but also, e.g. in the work of Lars Lerup, even the representational notions of ‘house’ and the (North American) economic and social structures that engender them. Those social concerns and aesthetic needs once again come together in an interrogation of the ideology of the stable family unit and of the ‘built as the vehicle of referentiality’ (Lerup 1987: 99).

Much has been written about postmodernism in architecture (~e bibliography entries on Jencks and Portoghesi) and of course the term ‘postmodern’ itself has been extended to cover most other art forms, as shown best by Stanley Trachtenberg’s useful anthology of studies, The Postmodern Moment: A Handbook qf contemporary Innovation in the Arts. In some art forms, such as film, the word postmodern is often restricted to avant-garde production. But, given the relative inaccessibility of such films for general viewing, perhaps we should not ignore those

tnercial films that are nevertheless quite deconstructive, quite parodic yet historically grounded — films like Zelig, The Mozart Brothers, or Marlene — for they could be said to illustrate just as well the paradox of postmodern complicitous critique. This is not to deny that feminist avant-garde film, in particular, is not equally (or more) parodically contesting. We need only think of the miming ofKleist’s play in Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey’s Pmsthesilea or Sally Potter’s retelling of La Bohème in her Thriller. This is simply a plea to widen the scope of the term postmodern­ism in film studies, in order to include, for instance, the sorts of things which (under the influence, perhaps, of performance art) are considered postmodern in dance: ‘irony, playfulness, his­torical reference, the use of vernacular materials, the continuity of cultures, an interest in process over product, breakdowns of boundaries between art forms and between art and life, and new relationships between artist and audience’ (Banes 1985: 82). (See chapter 4.)

‘Postmodern’ is a term that is not used very often in music criticism, yet there are analogies between postmodern archi­tecture or dance and contemporary music: in music too we find a stress on communication with the audience through simple repetitive harmonies (offered in complex rhythmic forms) in the work of Phil Glass or through a parodic return to tonality and to the past of music, not as a source of embarrassment or inspiration, but with ironic distance, as in the work of Lukas Foss or Luciano Berio. What I shall argue to be typically Postmodern genre-boundary crossings can also be found in music: Phil Glass’s The Photographer is a dramatic musical piece on the life and work of photographer Eadweard Muybridge. And, going in another direction, his ‘cross-over’ Songs from Liquid Days is both a song cycle and a pop album. Much of what


io The Politics of Postmodernism

might be called postmodern music requires of its listeners a certain theoretical sophistication and historical memory. So too does the postmodern poetry ofJohn Ashbery and others. There are other art forms that operate more directly (if equally self-consciously) on the representations of mass culture which surround us daily, such as the plays of Sam Shepard.

The one medium that is consistently referred to as post-modern, however, is television. Jean Baudrillard calls it the paradigmatic form of postmodern signification because its transparent sign seemingly offers direct access to a signified reality. While there is some truth in this description, its relation to postmodernism as I see it is tangential. Most television, in its unproblematized reliance on realist narrative and transparent representational conventions, is pure commodified complicity, without the critique needed to define the postmodern paradox. That critique, I will argue, is crucial to the definition of the postmodern, whatever its acknowledged complicity; it is part of what some see as the unfinished project of the 196os, for, at the very least, those years left in their wake a specific and histori­cally determined distrust of ideologies of power and a more general suspicion of the power of ideology.

The word ‘postmodernism’ has been bandied about in ar­tistic circles since the 196os, of course, most often used too generally and vaguely to be very useful, encompassing things as diverse as Susan Sontag’s camp, Leslie Fiedler’s pop, and Ihab Hassan’s literature of silence. Gerald Graff has distinguished two strains in the 1960S’ version of ‘postmodernism’ — one of apocalyptic despair and another of visionary celebration. But the postmodernism of the 19705 and 1980s offers little cause for either despair or celebration; it does leave a lot of room for questioning. Deriving its ideological grounding from a general 1960s’ challenging of authority and its historical consciousness (and conscience) from the inscription into history ofwomen and ethnic/racial minorities during those years, today’s postmod­ernism is both interrogative in mode and ‘de-doxifying’ in intent. But, less oppositional and less idealistic than the culture of the (formative) I960s, the postmodern we know has to acknowledge its own complicity with the very values upon which it seeks to comment.

But what exactly is this ‘postmodern we know?’

Representing the postmodern ii Wbos~ postmodernism?

In his book, Postmodernist Fiction, Brian McHale points out that every critic ‘constructs’ postmodernism in his or her own way from different perspectives, none more right or wrong than the otherS. The point is that all are ‘finally fictions.’ He goes on to say

Thus, there is John Barth’s postmodernism, the literature of replenishment; Charles Newman’s postmodernism, the lit­erature of an inflationary economy; Jean-Francois Lyotard’s postmodernism~ a general condition of knowledge in the contemporary informational régime; Ihab Hassan’s post-modernism, a stage on the road to the spiritual unification of humankind; and so on. There is even Kermode’s construc­tion of postmodernism, which in effect constructs it right out of existence.

(McHale 1987: 4)

To. this, we could add McHale’s postmodernism, with its ontological ‘dominant’ in reaction to the epistemological ‘dominant’ of modernism. But we should also include Fredric Jameson’s postmodernism, the cultural logic of late capitalism; Jean Baudrillard’s postmodernism, in which the simulacrum gloats over the body of the deceased referent; Kroker and Cook’s (related) hyperreal dark side of postmodernism; Sloterdijk’s postmodernism of cynicism or ‘enlightened false consciousness’; and Alan Wilde’s literary ‘middle grounds’ of the postmodern.

As you will no doubt have noticed, since the prefatory note there is another fiction or construct operating here too: my own paradoxical postmodernism of complicity and critique, of reflexivity and historicity, that at once inscribes and subverts the conventions and ideologies of the dominant cultural and social forces of the twentieth-century western world. My model for this definition is always that ofpostmodern architecture and its response to the ahistorical purism of the modernism of the International Style. Modernism may have begun as an ideo­logical rejection of the historical city because of the dominant class view of territoriality and of history as hierarchical, but its

12 The Politics of Postmodernism Representing the postmodern 13

deliberate break with history meant a destruction of the connec­tion to the way human society had come to relate to space over time. Along with this came a rupture of the relations between public street and private space. All this was intentional, but it also proved to be politically naive and even socially destructive:

Le Corbusier’s great radiant city became Jane Jacobs’s great dead city. Postmodernism has called into question the mes­sianic faith of modernism, the faith that technical innovation and purity of form can assure social order, even if that faith disregards the social and aesthetic values of those who must inhabit those modernist buildings. Postmodern architecture is plural and historical, not pluralist and historicist; it neither ignores nor condemns the long heritage of its built culture —including the modern. It uses the reappropriated forms of the past to speak to a society from within the values and history of that society, while still questioning it. It is in this way that its historical representations, however parodic, get politicized.

To make this claim is not to deny the all too evident, trendy commercial exploitation of these postmodern parodic strategies in contemporary design: hardly a shopping plaza or office building gets constructed today that does not have a classical keystone or column. These usually vague and unfocused refer­ences to the past should be distinguished from the motivated historical echoes found, for example, in Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia, intended as a center for the Italian community of New Orleans: to signal ‘Itahianness’ Moore respectfully parodied the Trevi Fountain, Roman classical arches, even the geographical shape of the country itseW transcoding their historical forms into contemporary materials (neon, stainless steel) as befits a symbolic representation of modern Italian—American society. No doubt Douglas Davis (1987) ~5 right to deplore the existence of those kitschy shopping plazas or even the gratuitous (or unconsciously ironic?) architectural citations of the Acropolis and the Vatican in a (Kohn Pedersen Fox) Madison Avenue office complex. But we should not forget that this commodifica­tion (and demotivating) of postmodern strategies was preceded by the same watering-down of heroic modern ideals by what could be called ‘corporate modernism.’ Such is life in advanced capitalist culture. But the inevitability of commercial co-option should still not invalidate the aims and successes of either

modernism or postmodernism. Nor should it excuse their failingS.

However our culture may eventually come to evaluate post-modern architecture, it certainly began and has continued to be seen by many as politically inspired. The only disagreement is over the direction of its politics: is it neoconservatively nostalgic or is it radically revolutionary? Modeling postmodernism as a general cultural enterprise from postmodern architecture, I would have to argue that it is both and neither: it sits on the fence between a need (often ironic) to recall the past of our lived cultural environment and a desire (often ironized too) to change iti present. In Anne Friedberg’s parodic terms, there is here a paradox worthy of Dickens: ‘it was conservative politics, it was subversive politics, it was the return of tradition, it was the final revolt of tradition, it was the unmooring of patriarchy, it was the repssertion of patriarchy’ (Friedberg 1988: 12). This is the p~adox of art forms that want to (or feel they have to) speak to a cu~kure from inside it, that believe this to be the only way to reach that culture and make it question its values and its sdf-constructing representations. Postmodernism aims to be accessible through its overt and self-conscious parodic, histori­calf and reflexive forms and thus to be an effective force in our culture. Its complicitous critique, then, situates the postmodern squarely within both economic capitalism and cultural human­ism— two of the major dominants of much of the western world.

What these two dominants have in common, as many have pointed out, are their patriarchal underpinnings. They also share a view of the relation of the individual to the social whole which is rather contradictory, to say the least. In the context of humanism, the individual is unique and autonomous, yet also partakes of that general human essence, human nature. In a capitalist context, as Adorno argued, the pretence of individualism (and thus, of choice) is in fact proportional to the ‘liquidation of the individual’ (Adorno 1978: 280) in mass manipulation, carried out, of course, in the name of democratic ideals — the masks of conformity. If, as is frequently the case, Postmodernism is identified with a ‘decentering’ of this particu­lar notion of the individual, then both humanist and capitalist notions of selffiood or subjectivity will necessarily be called into question. But I have been arguing that the postmodern involves

14 The Politics of Postmodernism

a paradoxical installing as well as subverting of conventions —including conventions of the representation of the subject. The comphicitous inscribing is as evident as the subverting challenge in, for example, Cindy Sherman’s early self-posed self-portraits modeled on Hollywood film stills. They are considerably less complicitous than Madonna’s appropriation of the same (masculine-coded) images in her self-construction, in that Sherman~ s images foreground femininity as construction and even masquerade (Friedberg 1988), but they are hardly inno­cent or uncompromised.

Recently the same kind ofquestions about the conijAicityihiat goes hand in hand with the challenges of postmodern art have been asked of postmodern theory. Is the theorizing of Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Foucault, and others not, in a very real sense, entangled in its own de-doxifying logic? Is there not a center to even the most decentered of these theories? What is power to Foucault, writing to Derrida, or class to Marxism? Each of these theoretical perspectives can be argued to be deeply — and knowingly — implicated in that notion of center they attempt to subvert. It is this paradox that makes them postmodern. Teresa de Lauretis has put the case of the feminist version of this paradox in terms of the ‘subject of feminism,’ as it is being constructed in feminist discourse today, being both inside and outside the ideology of gender— and aware of the double pull (de Lauretis 1987:1 o). But complicity is not full affirmation or strict adherence; the awareness of difference and contradiction, of being inside and outside, is never lost in the feminist, as in the postmodern.

A few examples of the form this paradox can take might be helpful. Sherrie Levine challenges the romantic/modernist no­tions of self-expression, authenticity, and originality (as well as the capitalist belief in proprietorship) in her re-photographing of famous art photos by male artists. However, as her critics never tire of saying, in her representations she still remains complicitous with the idea of ‘photography-as-art,’ even while undermining both this and those attendant ideological presup­positions. Narrative representation — fictive and historical —comes under similar subversive scrutiny in the paradoxical postmodern form I would like to call ‘historiographic metafic­tion.’ Perhaps, as Lennard Davis (1987: 225) has convincingly

Representing the postmodern 15

argued, the novel has been inherently ambivalent since its inception: it has always been both fictional and worldly. If this is so, then postmodern historiographic metafiction merely fore­grounds ~ inherent paradox by having its historical and socio-political grounding sit uneasily alongside its self-reflexivity. Recently, many commentators have noticed an uneasy mix ofparody and history, metafiction and politics. This p.rticular combination is probably historically determined by postmodernism’s conflictual response to literary modernism. On the one hand, the postmodern obviously was made possible 14 the self-referentiality, irony, ambiguity, and parody that characterize much of the art of modernism, as well as by its explorations of language and its challenges to the classic realist $~s~em ofrepresentation; on the other hand, postmodern fiction

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