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A Poetics of Postmodernism
A Poetics of Postmodernism
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A Poetics of Postmodernism

History, Theory, Fiction

Linda Hutcheon

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📖 eBook - ePub

A Poetics of Postmodernism

History, Theory, Fiction

Linda Hutcheon

About This Book

First published in 1988. Routledge is an imprint of Taylor & Francis, an informa company.






Clearly, then, the time has come to theorize the term [postmodernism], if not to define it, before it fades from awkward neologism to derelict cliché without ever attaining to the dignity of a cultural concept. Ihab Hassan
Of all the terms bandied about in both current cultural theory and contemporary writing on the arts, postmodernism must be the most overand under-defined. It is usually accompanied by a grand flourish of negativized rhetoric: we hear of discontinuity, disruption, dislocation, decentring, indeterminacy, and antitotalization. What all of these words literally do (precisely by their disavowing prefixes—dis, de, in, anti) is incorporate that which they aim to contest—as does, I suppose, the term postmodernism itself. I point to this simple verbal fact in order to begin “theorizing” the cultural enterprise to which we seem to have given such a provocative label. Given all the confusion and vagueness associated with the term itself (see Paterson 1986), I would like to begin by arguing that, for me, postmodernism is a contradictory phenomenon, one that uses and abuses, installs and then subverts, the very concepts it challenges—be it in architecture, literature, painting, sculpture, film, video, dance, TV, music, philosophy, aesthetic theory, psychoanalysis, linguistics, or historiography. These are some of the realms from which my “theorizing” will proceed, and my examples will always be specific, because what I want to avoid are those polemical generalizations—often by those inimical to postmodernism: Jameson (1984a), Eagleton (1985), Newman (1985)—that leave us guessing about just what it is that is being called postmodernist, though never in doubt as to its undesirability. Some assume a generally accepted “tacit definition” (Caramello 1983); others locate the beast by temporal (after 1945? 1968? 1970? 1980?) or economic signposting (late capitalism). But in as pluralist and fragmented a culture as that of the western world today, such designations are not terribly useful if they intend to generalize about all the vagaries of our culture. After all, what does television’s “Dallas” have in common with the architecture of Ricardo Bofill? What does John Cage’s music share with a play (or film) like Amadeus?
In other words, postmodernism cannot simply be used as a synonym for the contemporary (cf. Kroker and Cook 1986). And it does not really describe an international cultural phenomenon, for it is primarily European and American (North and South). Although the concept of modernism is largely an Anglo-American one (Suleiman 1986), this should not limit the poetics of postmodernism to that culture, especially since those who would argue that very stand are usually the ones to find room to sneak in the French nouveau roman (A.Wilde 1981; Brooke-Rose 1981; Lodge 1977). And almost everyone (e.g. Barth 1980) wants to be sure to include what Severo Sarduy (1974) has labelled—not postmodern—but “neo-baroque” in a Spanish culture where “modernism” has a rather different meaning.
I offer instead, then, a specific, if polemical, start from which to operate: as a cultural activity that can be discerned in most art forms and many currents of thought today, what I want to call postmodernism is fundamentally contradictory, resolutely historical, and inescapably political. Its contradictions may well be those of late capitalist society, but whatever the cause, these contradictions are certainly manifest in the important postmodern concept of “the presence of the past.” This was the title given to the 1980 Venice Biennale which marked the institutional recognition of postmodernism in architecture. Italian architect Paolo Portoghesi’s (1983) analysis of the twenty facades of the “Strada Novissima”—whose very newness lay paradoxically in its historical parody—shows how architecture has been rethinking modernism’s purist break with history. This is not a nostalgic return; it is a critical revisiting, an ironic dialogue with the past of both art and society, a recalling of a critically shared vocabulary of architectural forms. “The past whose presence we claim is not a golden age to be recuperated,” argues Portoghesi (1983, 26). Its aesthetic forms and its social formations are problematized by critical reflection. The same is true of the postmodernist rethinking of figurative painting in art and historical narrative in fiction and poetry (see Perloff 1985, 155–71): it is always a critical reworking, never a nostalgic “return.” Herein lies the governing role of irony in postmodernism. Stanley Tigerman’s dialogue with history in his projects for family houses modelled on Raphael’s palatial Villa Madama is an ironic one: his miniaturization of the monumental forces a rethinking of the social function of architecture—both then and now (see Chapter 2).
Because it is contradictory and works within the very systems it attempts to subvert, postmodernism can probably not be considered a new paradigm (even in some extension of the Kuhnian sense of the term). It has not replaced liberal humanism, even if it has seriously challenged it. It may mark, however, the site of the struggle of the emergence of something new. The manifestations in art of this struggle may be those almost undefinable and certainly bizarre works like Terry Gilliam’s film, Brazil. The postmodern ironic rethinking of history is here textualized in the many general parodic references to other movies: A Clockwork Orange, 1984, Gilliam’s own Time Bandits and Monty Python sketches, and Japanese epics, to name but a few. The more specific parodic recalls range from Star Wars’ Darth Vadar to the Odessa Steps sequence of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. In Brazil, however, the famous shot of the baby carriage on the steps is replaced by one of a floor cleaner, and the result is to reduce epic tragedy to the bathos of the mechanical and debased. Along with this ironic reworking of the history of film comes a temporal historical warp: the movie is set, we are told, at 8:49 am, sometime in the twentieth century. The decor does not help us identify the time more precisely. The fashions mix the absurdly futuristic with 1930s styling; an oddly old-fashioned and dingy setting belies the omnipresence of computers—though even they are not the sleekly designed creatures of today. Among the other typically postmodern contradictions in this movie is the co-existence of heterogenous filmic genres: fantasy Utopia and grim dystopia; absurd slapstick comedy and tragedy (the Tuttle/Buttle mix-up); the romantic adventure tale and the political documentary.
While all forms of contemporary art and thought offer examples of this kind of postmodernist contradiction, this book (like most others on the subject) will be privileging the novel genre, and one form in particular, a form that I want to call “historiographic metafiction.” By this I mean those well-known and popular novels which are both intensely self-reflexive and yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personages: The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Midnight’s Children, Ragtime, Legs, G., Famous Last Words. In most of the critical work on postmodernism, it is narrative—be it in literature, history, or theory—that has usually been the major focus of attention. Historiographic metafiction incorporates all three of these domains: that is, its theoretical self-awareness of history and fiction as human constructs (historiographic metafiction) is made the grounds for its rethinking and reworking of the forms and contents of the past. This kind of fiction has often been noticed by critics, but its paradigmatic quality has been passed by: it is commonly labelled in terms of something else—for example as “midfiction” (A.Wilde 1981) or “paramodernist” (Malmgren 1985). Such labeling is another mark of the inherent contradictoriness of historiographic metafiction, for it always works within conventions in order to subvert them. It is not just metafictional; nor is it just another version of the historical novel or the non-fictional novel. Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude has often been discussed in exactly the contradictory terms that I think define postmodernism. For example Larry McCaffery sees it as both metafictionally self-reflexive and yet speaking to us powerfully about real political and historical realities: “It has thus become a kind of model for the contemporary writer, being self-conscious about its literary heritage and about the limits of mimesis
but yet managing to reconnect its readers to the world outside the page” (1982, 264). What McCaffery here adds as almost an afterthought at the end of his book, The Metafictional Muse, is in many ways my starting point.
Most theorists of postmodernism who see it as a “cultural dominant” (Jameson 1984a, 56) agree that it is characterized by the results of late capitalist dissolution of bourgeois hegemony and the development of mass culture (see Jameson 1984a [via Lefebvre 1968]; Russell 1980a; Egbert 1970; Calinescu 1977). I would agree and, in fact, argue that the increasing uniformization of mass culture is one of the totalizing forces that postmodernism exists to challenge. Challenge, but not deny. But it does seek to assert difference, not homogeneous identity. Of course, the very concept of difference could be said to entail a typically postmodern contradiction: “difference,” unlike “otherness,” has no exact opposite against which to define itself. Thomas Pynchon allegorizes otherness in Gravity’s Rainbow through the single, if anarchic, “we-system” that exists as the counterforce of the totalizing “They-system” (though also implicated in it). Postmodern difference or rather differences, in the plural, are always multiple and provisional.
Postmodern culture, then, has a contradictory relationship to what we usually label our dominant, liberal humanist culture. It does not deny it, as some have asserted (Newman 1985, 42; Palmer 1977, 364). Instead, it contests it from within its own assumptions. Modernists like Eliot and Joyce have usually been seen as profoundly humanistic (e.g. Stern 1971, 26) in their paradoxical desire for stable aesthetic and moral values, even in the face of their realization of the inevitable absence of such universals. Postmodernism differs from this, not in its humanistic contradictions, but in the provisionality of its response to them: it refuses to posit any structure or, what Lyotard (1984a) calls, master narrative—such as art or myth— which, for such modernists, would have been consolatory. It argues that such systems are indeed attractive, perhaps even necessary; but this does not make them any the less illusory. For Lyotard, postmodernism is characterized by exactly this kind of incredulity toward master or metanarratives: those who lament the “loss of meaning” in the world or in art are really mourning the fact that knowledge is no longer primarily narrative knowledge of this kind (1984a, 26). This does not mean that knowledge somehow disappears. There is no radically new paradigm here, even if there is change.
It is no longer big news that the master narratives of bourgeois liberalism are under attack. There is a long history of many such skeptical sieges to positivism and humanism, and today’s footsoldiers of theory—Foucault, Derrida, Habermas, Vattimo, Baudrillard—follow in the footsteps of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Marx, and Freud, to name but a few, in their attempts to challenge the empiricist, rationalist, humanist assumptions of our cultural systems, including those of science (Graham, 1982, 148; Toulmin 1972). Foucault’s early rethinking of the history of ideas in terms of an “archaeology” (in The Order of Things, 1970; The Archaeology of Knowledge, 1972) that might stand outside the universalizing assumptions of humanism is one such attempt, whatever its obvious weaknesses. So is Derrida’s more radical contesting of Cartesian and Platonic views of the mind as a system of closed meanings (see B.Harrison 1985, 6). Like Gianni Vattimo’s pensiero debole (weak thought) (1983; 1985), these challenges characteristically operate in clearly paradoxical terms, knowing that to claim epistemological authority is to be caught up in what they seek to displace. The same applies to Habermas’s work, though it often appears somewhat less radical in its determined desire to work from within the system of “Enlightenment” rationality and yet manage to critique it at the same time. This is what Lyotard has attacked as just another totalizing narrative (1984b). And Jameson (1984b) has argued that both Lyotard and Habermas are resting their arguments on different but equally strong legitimizing “narrative archetypes.”
This game of meta-narrative one-upmanship could go on and on, since arguably Jameson’s Marxism leaves him vulnerable too (see Chapter 12). But this is not the point. What is important in all these internalized challenges to humanism is the interrogating of the notion of consensus. Whatever narratives or systems that once allowed us to think we could unproblematically and universally define public agreement have now been questioned by the acknowledgement of differences—in theory and in artistic practice. In its most extreme formulation, the result is that consensus becomes the illusion of consensus, whether it be defined in terms of minority (educated, sensitive, Ă©litist) or mass (commercial, popular, conventional) culture, for both are manifestations of late capitalist, bourgeois, informational, postindustrial society, a society in which social reality is structured by discourses (in the plural)—or so postmodernism endeavors to teach.
What this means is that the familiar humanist separation of art and life (or human imagination and order versus chaos and disorder) no longer holds. Postmodernist contradictory art still installs that order, but it then uses it to demystify our everyday processes of structuring chaos, of imparting or assigning meaning (D’Haen 1986, 225). For example, within a positivistic frame of reference, photographs could be accepted as neutral representations, as technological windows on the world. In the postmodern photos of Heribert Berkert or Ger Dekkers, they still represent (for they cannot avoid reference) but what they represent is self-consciously shown to be highly filtered by the discursive and aesthetic assumptions of the cameraholder (D.Davis 1977). While not wanting to go as far as Morse Peckham (1965) and argue that the arts are somehow “biologically” necessary for social change, I would like to suggest that, in its very contradictions, postmodernist art (like Brecht’s epic theater) might be able to dramatize and even provoke change from within. It is not that the modernist world was “a world in need of mending” and the postmodernist one “beyond repair” (A. Wilde 1981, 131). Postmodernism works to show that all repairs are human constructs, but that, from that very fact, they derive their value as well as their limitation. All repairs are both comforting and illusory. Postmodernist interrogations of humanist certainties live within this kind of contradiction.
Perhaps it is another inheritance from the 1960s to believe that challenging and questioning are positive values (even if solutions to problems are not offered), for the knowledge derived from such inquiry may be the only possible condition of change. In the late 1950s in Mythologies (1973), Roland Barthes had prefigured this kind of thinking in his Brechtian challenges to all that is “natural” or “goes without saying” in our culture—that is, all that is considered universal and eternal, and therefore unchangeable. He suggested the need to question and demystify first, and then work for change. The 1960s were the time of ideological formation for many of the postmodernist thinkers and artists of the 1980s and it is now that we can see the results of that formation (see Chapter 12).
Perhaps, as some have argued, the 1960s themselves (that is, at the time) produced no enduring innovation in aesthetics, but I would argue that they did provide the background, though not the definition, of the postmodern (cf. Bertens 1986, 17), for they were crucial in developing a different concept of the possible function of art, one that would contest the “Arnoldian” or humanist moral view with its potentially Ă©litist class bias (see R.Williams 1960, xiii). One of the functions of art in mass culture, argued Susan Sontag, would be to “modify consciousness” (1967, 304). And many cultural commentators since have argued that the energies of the 1960s have changed the framework and structure of how we consider art (e.g. Wasson 1974). The conservatism of the late 1970s and 1980s may have their impact when the thinkers and artists being formed now begin to produce their work (cf. McCaffery 1982), but to call Foucault or Lyotard a neoconservative—as did Habermas (1983, 14)—is historically and ideologically inaccurate (see too Calinescu 1986, 246; Giddens 1981, 17).
The political, social, and intellectual experience of the 1960s helped make it possible for postmodernism to be seen as what Kristeva calls “writing-asexperience-of-limits” (1980a, 137): limits of language, of subjectivity, of sexual identity, and we might also add: of systematization and uniformization. This interrogating (and even pushing) of limits has contributed to the “crisis in legitimation” that Lyotard and Habermas see (differently) as part of the postmodern condition. It has certainly meant a rethinking and putting into question of the bases of our western modes of thinking that we usually label, perhaps rather too generally, as liberal humanism.


What is the postmodern scene? Baudrillard’s excremental culture? Or a final homecoming to a technoscape where a “body without organs” (Artaud), a “negative space” (Rosalind Krauss), a “pure implosion” (Lyotard), a “looking away” (Barthes) or an “aleatory mechanism” (Serres) is now first nature and thus the terrain of a new political refusal? Arthur Kroker and David Cook
What precisely, though, is being challenged by postmodernism? First of all, institutions have come under scrutiny: from the media to the university, from museums to theaters. Much postmodern dance, for instance, contests theatrical space by moving out into the street. Sometimes it is overtly measured by the clock, thereby foregrounding the unspoken conventions of theatrical time (see Pops 1984, 59). Make-believe or illusionist conventions of art are often bared in order to challenge the institutions in which they find a home—and a meaning. Similarly Michael Asher sandblasted a wall of the Toselli Gallery in Milan in 1973 to reveal the plaster beneath. This was his “work of art,” one that collapsed together the “work” and the gallery so as to reveal at once their collusion and the strong but usually unacknowledged power of the gallery’s invisibility as a dominant (and dominating) cultural institution (see Kibbins 1983).
The important contemporary debate about the margins and the boundaries of social and artistic conventions (see Culler 1983, 1984) is also the result of a typically postmodern transgressing of previously accepted limits: those of particular arts, of genres, of art itself. Rauschenberg’s narrative (or discursive) work, Rebus, or Cy Twombly’s series on Spenserian texts, or Shosaku Arakawa’s poster-like pages of The Mechanism of Meaning are indicative of the fruitful straddling of the borderline between the literary and visual arts. As early as 1969, Theodore Ziolkowski had noted that the
new arts are so closely related that we cannot hide complacently behind the arbitrary walls of self-contained disciplines: poetics inevitably gives way to general aesthetics, considerations of the novel move easily to the film, while the new poetry often has more in common with contemporary music and art than with the poetry of the past.
(1969, 113)
The years since have only verified and intensified this perception. The borders between literary genres have become fluid: who can tell anymore what the limits are between the novel and the short story collection (Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women), the novel and the long poem (Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter), the novel and autobiography (Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men), the novel and history (Salman Rushdie’s Shame), the novel and biography (John Banville’s Kepler)? But, in any of these examples, the conventions of the two genres are played off against each other; there is no simple, unproblematic merging.
In Carlos Fuentes’s The Death of Artemio Cruz, the title already points to the ironic inversion of biographical conventions: it is the death, not the life, that will be the focus. The subsequent narrative complications of three voices (first-, second-, and third-person) and three tenses (present, future, past) disseminate but also reassert (in a typically postmodernist way) the enunciative situation or discursive context of the work (see Chapter 5). The traditional verifying third-person past tense voice of history and realism is both installed and undercut by the others. In other works, like Italian writer Giorgio Manganelli’s Amore, the genres of theoretical treatise, literary dialogue, and novel are played off against one another (see Lucente 1986, 317). Eco’s The Name of the Rose contains at least three major registers of discourse: the literary-historical, the theological-philosophical, and the popular-cultural (de Lauretis 1985, 16), thereby paralleling Eco’s own three areas of critical activity.
The most radical boundaries crossed, however, have been those between fiction and non-fiction and—by extension—between art and life. In the March 1986 issue of Esquire magazine, Jerzy Kosinski published a piece in the “Documentary” section called “Death in Cannes,” a narrative of the last days and subsequent death of French biologist, Jacques Monod. Typically postmodern, the text refuses the omniscience and omnipresence of the third person and engages instead in a dialogue between a narrative voice (which both is and is not Kosinski’s) and a projected reader. Its viewpoint is avowedly limited, provisional, person...

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APA 6 Citation
Hutcheon, L. (2003). A Poetics of Postmodernism (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2003)
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Hutcheon, Linda. (2003) 2003. A Poetics of Postmodernism. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
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Hutcheon, L. (2003) A Poetics of Postmodernism. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2003. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.