It is now twenty years ago that a SUNY-Binghamton professor named William Spanos, a Heideggerian student of poetics, who was bent on opposing everything the New Criticism, in which he had been trained, stood for, founded a journal called boundary 2, subtitled An International Journal of Postmodern Literature. The title is emblematic of the period: the lower-case boundary 2 points to the desire and need for new parameters, new margins-- a "second" way to define literature. "International" means, in sixties or seventies-speak, European as well as American; the first issue of boundary 2 features an essay on Foucault by Edward Said and another on the Nouveau Roman by Bruce Morrisette, side by side with Warren Tallman's piece on William Carlos Williams's short stories, Joseph Riddel's deconstructionist essay on Wallace Stevens, and James Curtis's essay on Marshall McLuhan and French structuralism. The poetry published in the issue may also be considered "international" since there is a 35-page portfolio of work by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos.
But it is the word literature in the title that I find especially interesting. For, although post-structuralist theory is already much in evidence (witness Edward Said on Foucault, Riddel on Stevens via Paul de Man, and Spanos himself on the postmodern imagination via Heidegger), the journal's focus is very much on literature, it still being a given, in 1972, that "literary" journals, published as they were by English or Comparative Literature departments, would concentrate, from however radical a point of view, on literary texts. Consider, for example, David Antin's seminal essay "Modernism and Postmodernism: Approaching the Present in American Poetry," published in the first issue.
Antin writes from the perspective of the practicing poet, who was also beginning to make a name for himself as a performance artist and art critic, having recently been appointed chair of the newly formed Visual Arts department of the University of California-San Diego. His boundary 2 essay brilliantly dismantles what he calls the "closed verse tradition" of late mdernist poetry from Delmore Schwartz to W. D. Snodgrass. "What we have called the 'modern' for so long," Antin declares, is thoroughly over"; accordingly, the recycling of the symbolist lyric (Antin dismisses W. D. Snodgrass's After Experience as "an updated version of A Shropshire Lad"), as well as the recycling of collage (e.g., Robert Lowell's "attenuated history collage" in "Concord" or "For the Union Dead"), can only be retrograde (1). Over against Snodgrass and Lowell, Antin sets Charles Olson, the then hero of the poetic counterculture; Olson's "disregard for metrical organization and for a poetical frame that wraps things up" (DA 117) is considered exemplary. Indeed, following the scenario first made prominent by Donald Allen in The New American Poetry (1960), Antin describes the "great explosion of American poetry" in the sixties as the final rejection of the "closed-verse" tradition of neo-modernist, late New Critical poetry, in favor of a more direct and spontaneous poetry based on natural utterance, on the breath. The "opening of the field" by the Black Mountain and Beat poets, by the New York school and the San Francisco Renaissance, so the argument goes, was animated by "the underlying conviction that poetry was made by a man [sic ] on his feet talking" (DA 131). As such, the poetic text was to be understood less as an object than as a "score" or "notation" to be actualized in performance, the implication of such "scoring" being that "phenomenological reality is 'discovered' and 'constructed' by poets" (DA 132-33). And further: postmodernist poetics meant the turn from Pound and Eliot to the neglected work of Gertrude Stein and John Cage, the poetry of Dada and Surrealism, and "the poetry of nonliterate and partially literate cultures" (133) : in the case of the latter, Antin is of course thinking of the ethnopoetics movement spearheaded by his friend and fellow-poet Jerome Rothenberg. Indeed, one of the early issues (Spring 1975) of boundary 2 was a special issue on "The Oral Impulse in Contemporary American Poetry," featuring the work of Rothenberg and again Antin.
To reread Antin's 1972 essay in 1992 is to become aware of how much our assumptions about postmodernism have changed. The essay's frame of reference is, to begin with, resolutely literary, the issue being who has inherited and who should inherit the poetic mantle of the great modernists: such neo-modernists as Robert Lowell, who carry on, in attenuated form, the symbolist collage tradition of The Waste Land and the Cantos, or such "phenomenological" poets as Olson and Creeley? Closed verse versus open form, the metrical line versus the "breath," poetry as product versus poetry as process, symbolism versus immanence (as Charles Altieri put it in another important essay published in boundary 2 in 1973) (2), and so on. But although the poem as autonomous artifact is rejected, Poetry itself remains an autonomous realm, contaminated neither by culture nor by theory nor by any of the discourses that surround it. It is also the case that just about all of Antin's poets, whether Good Guys or Bad Guys are white men. Indeed, the "field" which is supposedly "opening" is, at the practical level, the setting of a polite athletic contest (hockey? soccer?), where the Harvard team captained by Robert Lowell plays the Harvard team captained by Charles Olson. To put it another way: Antin, who is obviously a member of the Olson team, is theorizing his own practice, telling us what kind of poetry he wants to produce (the utterance of "a man on his feet talking") and why.
But there is another assumption Antin makes (as does Altieri in "From Symbolism to Immanence," and the book that revised this essay, Enlarging the Temple, as does James E. B. Breslin's From Modern to Contemporary, even though Breslin is careful not to use the P word, and as does my own Poetics of Indeterminacy), namely the assumption that poetry matters (3). Poetic discourse, in early formulations of postmodernism, is not just a site to be contested and intersected by other discourses; for-- and this is the corollary assumption--there is such a thing as poetic value. Not only is Olson "better" than a member of the other team like Snodgrass; Ginsberg is judged to be better than Ferlinghetti, Denise Levertov (one of the few women poets regularly cited in the 70s) is better than May Swenson, Frank O'Hara better than Ted Berrigan.
These twin assumptions--the value of poetry and the ability to discriminate specific poetic value-- are just as central to discussions of the other arts. In 1972 art with a capital A still mattered and it mattered that Jasper Johns was "better" than a second-generation abstract expressionist like Norman Bluhm. Merce Cunningham was judged to be more "interesting" than Murray Feldman. And so on. Indeed, theorizing postmodernism, during the first decades of its usage, was animated by the belief--and here boundary 2 was quite typical-- that postmodernism represents everything that is radical, innovative, forward-looking--beyond , if not contra, mere modernism, and is thus distinguished from the mass of writing or painting or architecture, which, far from challenging modernism, merely carries on its traditions.
It is interesting to reread Ihab Hassan in this regard. Hassan's first book, after all, was called The Literature of Silence (1967), and made the case for a "new literature" written in the wake of Dachau and Hiroshima, a literature whose "total rejection of Western history and civilization" leads either to the apocalyptic violence and obscenity of a Henry Miller or a Norman Mailer or the silence, randomness, and indeterminacy of Samuel Beckett or John Cage. By 1971, Hassan referred to this "change in Modernism" as Postmodernism and drew up the first of his famous lists or tables, a table made up of binary oppositions (4):
|1. Urbanism||1. The Global Village (McLuhan), Spaceship Earth (Fuller), the City as Cosmos--Science Fiction. Anarchy and fragmentation.|
|2. Technologism||2. Runaway technology. New media, art forms. Boundless dispersal by media. The computer as substitute consciousness or extension of consciousness.|
|3. Elitism||3. Antielitism, antiauthoritarianism. Diffusion of the ego. Participation. Community. Anarchy.|
|4. Irony||4. Radical play. Entropy of meaning. Comedy of the absurd. Black Humor. Camp.|
|5. Abstraction||5. New Concreteness. Found Object. Conceptual Art.|
|6. Primitivism||6. Beat and Hip. Rock Culture. Dionysian Ego.|
|7. Eroticism||7. The New Sexuality. Homosexuality , Feminism, Lesbianism. Comic pornography. Repeal of Censorship|
|8. Antinomianism||8. Antinomianism. 8. Counterculture. Beyond alienation. Counter. Beyond Law. Non Serviam. Western "ways." Zen, Buddhism, Hinduism the occult, apocalypticism.|
|9. Experimentalism||9. Open form, discontinuity, improvisation, Formal innovation. New language. Antiformalism. Indeterminacy. Aleatory Structure. Minimalism. Intermedia.|
Hassan's frame of reference is, on the face of it, much broader than Antin's: he draws upon fiction as well as poetry, on philosophy, the visual arts, and certain well known critical texts like Lionel Trilling's Beyond Culture. Urbanism, for example, is exemplified by Baudelaire, Proust, Rilke, Eliot, and Dos Passos; Technologism, by Cubism, Futurism, and Dada, with a reference to Wylie Sypher's Literature and Technology, and the entry on Modernist Antinomianism alludes to Nathan A. Scott's The Broken Center. The Postmodern column is similarly eclectic, trans-urbanism (the Global Village) being represented by Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, science fiction, and so on.
But like Antin, and like almost everyone who wrote on the subject in the seventies, postmodernism was where it was happening, where the excitement was. Not because the individual writers of modernism (Pound, Eliot, Rilke, Mann) were not perhaps greater than those of postmodernism, but because PoMo was presented as being open, anti-elitist, anti-authoritarian, participatory, anarchic, playful, improvisational, rebellious, discontinuous--and even, in Hassan's words, ecologically active, otherwise known as Green. To write from a postmodernist perspective, in these years, thus involved a romantic faith in the open-endedness of literary and artistic discourse, in the ability of these discourses to transform themselves, to go beyond existing models and improve on them. As such, this Utopian phase of postmodernism was very much an inside view, a witnessing on the part of the poets themselves (and Hassan used all manner of typographical devices and fragmentary forms so as to ally himself with the poets) that there was still a cutting edge.
Within a decade, a curious reversal had set in. By 1978, Hassan, always something of a barometer, published an essay called "Culture, Indeterminacy, and Value," that contained more references to Foucault and de Man than to McLuhan or Cage or Burroughs. The essay is written under the sign of Nietzsche and makes much of the "disappearance" of man as a "concrete figuration of history" (IHPT 52-53). And the 1982 "Towards a Concept of Postmodernism" begins with a catalogue of names that "may serve to adumbrate postmodernism, a catalogue that opens with the following names: Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Hayden White, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, R. D. Laing, Norman O. Brown, Herbert Marcuse, Jean Baudrillard, Jurgen Habermas, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Wolfgang Iser, the Yale critics." The list then turns to dancers, composers, artists, architects, and "various authors" from Beckett and Borges to John Ashbery and Robert Wilson (IHPT 85). But theory , specifically French theory, is clearly at the center of the enterprise. The open form or process model celebrated by David Antin now gives way to the "semantic instability" of Derrida, and since the construction of the text as trace structure, as a tissue of differences, can be applied to writings of any period, the examples begin to come from established writers, primarily of the nineteenth century--Rousseau and Shelley, Marx and Mallarmé, Nerval and Nietzsche. Not reading the New, but re-reading the familiar in the light of the New Theory-- this becomes the order of the day.
The widespread acceptance of Jean-Francois Lyotard's paradigm of la condition postmoderne (1979, English translation 1984) marks this shift from what we might call David Antin's pragmatics of postmodernism (the inside view of the practicing poet) to the broader cultural definition of the term as it used today. When Lyotard defines the postmodern as "incredulity toward metanarratives," when he describes the "two major versions of such narratives of legitimation," as that of the liberation of humanity (justice) and the speculative unity of all knowledge (truth), the term modernism points, not as in Antin or Hassan's case, to the particular literary and art movements of the early twentieth century, but to the larger modernity of Enlightenment discourse, specifically to the various progress models of the nineteenth century, which are central to Lyotard's discussion (5). But when Lyotard declares that in postindustrial society the "grand narrative has lost its credibility" (PC 37), that "Modernist" statements of legitimation , whether regarding truth (e.g., "The earth revolves around the sun") or regarding justice (e.g., "The minimum wage must be set at x dollars') no longer hold, one wonders if Lyotard's own metanarrative of delegitimation can really account for the specific changes that have occurred in Western societies over the last few decades.
Why, to begin with the not a "postmodern condition" and why the singular form of the noun? Perhaps because The Postmodern Condition is itself a metanarrative, the story of how, in the face of post-World War II scientific knowledge, technology, and information theory, the delegitimation of the "grand" metanarratives has set in. Interestingly, the Lyotard paradigm continues to make the case for difference, for openness (the "essay," he says, is postmodern; the fragment, stll modern), and, in a famous formulation, for the unpresentable, perceptible in "presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms" (PC 81). But in practice, respect for difference has now hardened into a set of norms and prescriptions that leave very little room for the free play, the anarchy, the indeterminacy, and disjunctive form that used to be considered characteristic of postmodernism.
Consider the position of Fredric Jameson, whose Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism is surely the best-known and most widely respected discussion of the subject. It is worth remembering that Jameson wrote the Foreword to the English translation of Lyotard's La Condition postmoderne and that, although he subjects Lyotard's argument to a more orthodox Marxist spin, he too believes that we have come to an end of the "great master narratives." The title chapter of The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, first published in 1984 in the New Left Review, designates "one fundamental feature of all the postmodernisms," "the effacement in them of the older (essentially high-modernist) frontier between high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture.... The postmodernisms have, in fact, been fascinated precisely by this whole "degraded" landscape of schlock and kitsch, of TV series and Reader's Digest culture, of advertising and motels, of the late show and the grade-B Hollywood film." (6) And since postmodern culture (also known as media culture, consumer society, or information society) is thus "degraded" by its capitalist economic base, its products no longer shock or offend , as did the oppositional art of the Modernist avant-garde. The "constitutive features" (note the assurance of that term) of the postmodern are now described as follows:
... a new depthlessness, which finds its prolongation both in contemporary "theory" and in a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum; a consequent weakening of historicity, both in our relationship to public History and in the new forms of our private temporality, whose "schizophrenic" structure (following Lacan) will determine new types of syntax or syntagmatic relationships in the more temporal arts; a whole new type of emotional ground tone ... [and] the deep constitutive relationships of all this to a whole new technology, which is itself a figure for a whole new economic world system (FJ 6).
The "new type of emotional ground tone," also called the "waning of affect in postmodern culture" (FJ 10), refers, of course, to the dissolution of the subject, with the consequent dissolution of "unique style" and the replacement of parody by pastiche ("blank parody").
I don't think I need spell out here the influence this analysis of postmodernism has had on the theorizing of the eighties. From Andreas Huyssen's After the Great Divide (1986), which similarly defines postmodernism, although less pessimistically than Jameson, as the breakdown of the modernist "frontier" between high art and mass culture, to Rosalind Krauss's scornful rejection, in her Introduction to the special "High /Low" issue of October (Spring 1991) of what she calls the "sublimation model" ("According to this model, the function of art is to sublimate or transform experience, raising it from ordinary to extraordinary, from commonplace to unique , from low to high; with the special genius of the artist being that he or she has the gifts to perform this function") (7), the discourse of postmodernism has referred, as if to a set of incontrovertible facts, to postmodern "depthlessness," the simulacrum, the death of the subject, the non-differentiation of "art" and popular culture, and so on.
Whether or not we adhere to these particular paradigms of the postmodern, it is interesting to note how the terminology of the early seventies, when discussions of postmodernism still had a quasi-Utopian cast, has subtly shifted. What David Antin and Ihab Hassan characterized as the openness associated with the postmodern ("Open, discontinuous, improvisational, indeterminate, or aleatory structures") imperceptibly turns into "depthlessness," with all its negative associations of mere surface, shallowness, superficiality. The erasure of boundaries between the traditional genres and media becomes the "contamination" of all art works by the "'degraded' landscape of schlock and kitsch," playfulness hardens into simulacrum, "decreation" into the death of the subject ("there is no longer," says Jameson, "a self present to do the feeling," FJ 51), and Derridean differance as deferral is gradually replaced by the very specific difference of identity politics, difference as marker or label. Indeed, despite all the talk of rupture, transgression, antiformalism, the breaking of the vessels-- in Lyotardian terms, the delegitimation of the great metanarratives-- there seem to be more rules and prescriptions around than ever, such familiar modernist / postmodernist pairs as "hierarchy " / "anarchy" and "Master Code" /"idiolect" (see IH 91) now being called into question, ironically enough, by the establishment of new hierarchies and master codes--the return, we might say, of the Law of the Father.
An important essay by Craig Owens, called "The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism," which appears in the Hal Foster collection The Anti-Aesthetic (1983), may serve to dramatize this subtle shift. In a section subtitled "A Remarkable Oversight," Owens apologizes for the "gross critical negligence" of an earlier reading he had performed on Laurie Anderson's well-known image, in her multimedia performance piece United States, of a nude man and woman (a cartoon version of Adam and Eve), in which the man's right is raised at a ninety-degree angle while the woman, shorter than the man and hands at her sides, faces toward him. In the performance, Anderson's voiceover (amplified to sound like a male voice) tells us, "In our country, we send pictures of our sign language into Outer Space. We are speaking our sign language in these pictures. Do you think that They will think his arm is permanently attached in this position? Or do you think They will read our signs? In our country, Goodbye looks just like Hello" (figures 1 and 2). (8)
Here is Owens's original commentary on this captioned image:
Two alternatives: either the extraterrestrial recipient of the message will assume that it is simply a picture, that is, an analogical likeness of the human figure, in which case he might logically conclude that male inhabitants of Earth walk around with their right arms permanently raised. Or he will somehow divine that this gesture is addressed to him and attempt to read it, in which case he will be stymied, since a single gesture signifies both greeting and farewell, and any reading of it must oscillate between these two extremes. The same gesture could also mean "Halt!" or represent the taking of an oath, but if Anderson's text does not consider these two alternatives that is because it is not concerned with ambiguity, with multiple meanings engendered by a single sign; rather two clearly defined but mutually incompatible readings are engaged in blind confrontation in such way that it is impossible to choose between them. (AA 60, my italics on "he").
This passage represents Owens as quintessential Derridean: his source seems to be Of Grammatology or possibly Writing and Difference, and French feminist constructions, based on Lacan, still seem far away: witness the use of the masculine pronoun throughout. As he himself now confesses:
In my eagerness to rewrite Anderson's text in terms of the debate over determinate versus indeterminate meaning, I had overlooked something.... For this is, of course, an image of sexual difference, or rather, of sexual differentiation according to the distribution of the phallus-- as it is marked and then re-marked by the man's right arm, which appears less to have been raised than erected in greeting..... Like all representations of sexual difference that our culture produces, this is an image not simply of anatomical difference, but of the values assigned to it. Here the phallus is ... the signifier of privilege, of the power and prestige that accrue to the male in our society..... For in this (Lacanian) image, chosen to represent the inhabitants of Earth for the extraterrestial Other, it is the man who speaks,who represents mankind. The woman is only represented; she is (as always) already spoken for (AA 61).
Here is Owens speaking in his role as New Feminist. The sexual differentiation he now notes is certainly central to Anderson's cartoon (one wonders how Owens could have missed it the first go-round), but I am not sure its identification cancels out his earlier reading, with its focus on the American equation of "Goodbye" with "Hello," an equation that parodies more than the obvious inequity of gender roles in our culture. "Anderson's blunt question ['Do you think that They will think his arm is permanently attached in this position?']," writes Herman Rappaport in a discussion of United States, "is expressionless, exposing the fatuousness of 'big science,' the silly presupposition that aliens are going to be able to read our 'signs.' She suggests that in a postmodern culture scientists are so overspecialized that when it comes to basic questions they are enormously obtuse. No one has noticed that saying 'hello' is exactly the same as saying 'good-bye,' that even if aliens could read our signs, they would be confused." (9) It is difficult to see how this aspect of Anderson's witty parody can be ignored, but Owens does ignore it in his zeal to demonstrate that his second reading "corrects" the first: difference as signifying gap ("two clearly defined but mutually incompatible readings") thus gives way to clear-cut gender difference: it is the man who speaks, the woman who is always already spoken for.
Is this then the New Enlightenment of third-stage (the first is exemplified by Antin's poetics, the second by Derridean deconstruction) postmodernism? And if so, what has happened to postmodernism's fabled openness and decenteredness? For not only is Owens telling us how to read Anderson's image, telling uswhat it means, as unequivocally as Brooks and Warren once told us what the word "design" means in Robert Frost's poem by that name, but this assertive statement ("it is the man who speaks") is embedded in a larger discourse which is not without its own coercions. Owens' essay begins as follows:
Decentered, allegorical, schizophrenic...-- however we choose to diagnose its symptoms, postmodernism is usually treated, by its protagonists and antagonists alike, as a crisis of cultural authority, specifically of the authority vested in Western European culture and its institutions. That the hegemony of European civilization is drawing to a close is hardly a new perception; since the mid-1950s, at least, we have recognized the necessity of encountering different cultures by means other than the shock of domination and conquest (AA 57).
But even as he makes this declaration, Owens cites the following: Levi-Strauss, Derrida, Ricoeur, Baudrillard, Foucault, Kristeva, and Barthes. Seven French theorists named within the space of two pages. And on the third page (AA 59), the combined authority of Lacan and Foucault advances the following hypothesis:
The "modernist avant-garde ... sought to transcend representation in favor of presence and immediacy; it proclaimed the autonomy of the signifier, its liberation from the "tyranny of the signified"; "postmodernists instead expose the tyranny of the signifier, the violence of its law.... It is precisely at the legislative frontier between what can be represented and what cannot that the postmodern operation is being staged-- not in order to transcend representation, but in order to expose that system of power that authorizes certain representations while blocking, prohibiting or invalidating others.
Here is the move we have already observed from what is, so to speak, a seventies Derridean paradigm to an eighties Foucaultian-Lacanian one. Aside from Anderson, Owens's exempla of "prohibited" represen-tations include Martha Rosler's The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems, Dara Birnbaum's Technology / Transformation: Wonder Woman, and assorted photos and film stills by Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman, and Barbara Kruger. But however interesting such exempla of "gender-specific" artworks may be, it is important to note that the works of Anderson and Rosler, Birnbaum and Levine, Sherman and Kruger remain just that: exempla , demonstrating how valid Lacan's discussion of the Law of the Father, Lyotard's notion of the postmodern "unrepresentable," and Foucault's analysis of the power system are. Ironically, then, the women artists in question continue to be victimized--if not by the patriarchy of modernist critique and the art market, then by the French theoretical model which their work so nicely illustrates (10). The real power, in other words, belongs not to the postmodern artist (Anderson, Sherman) but to the poststructuralist theorist whose principles validate the work.
No wonder, then, that recent handbooks on postmodernism--and they are now legion-- reduce what was once the excitement of the Cutting Edge to a list of rules and prescriptions that make one almost long for the days of Understanding Poetry. Take Brenda K. Marshall's Teaching the Postmodern, published by Routledge in 1992. (11) The Introduction opens with a page of what are evidently intended to be parole in liberta, as Marinetti dubbed them (see figure 3). Notice that the very first word in this "visual poem" is our old friend différance, but there is precious little difference in this list of the Big Names, whether of theorists (Kristeva, Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Althusser, and such American variants as Hutcheon [Linda] and de Lauretis [Teresa]), or fiction writers (Morrison, Carter, Rushdie, Wolf, Coetzee), or Big Theory Terms (genealogy, historiography, deconstruction, structuralism, ideology, intertextuality, subject position, Marxism, etc.). What is, so to speak, the poem's refrain is the word language, which appears four times! Language, it seems, is centrally important. But how?
Marshall begins with the Piety of the Day: "Crucial to an understanding of the postmodern moment is the recognition that there is no 'outside' from which to 'objectively' name the present." Of course not: no hors texte, no transcendental signified, no metanarrative, no essentialist norms by which to judge production: "The postmodern moment is an awareness of being within, first, a language, and second, a particular historical, social, cultural framework.... There can be no such thing as objectivity.... That does not mean that we are paralyzed or helpless; rather, it means that we give up the luxury of absolute Truths, choosing instead to put to work local and provisional truths." (BM 3). Having made this obligatory gesture to some kind of Uncertainty Principle, Marshall now proceeds briskly to tell us what postmodernism is all about:
Postmodernism is about language. About how it controls, how it determines meaning, and how we try to exert control through language. About how language restricts, closes down, insists that it stands for some thing. Postmodernism is about how 'we' are defined within that language, and within specific historical, social, cultural matrices. It's about race, class, gender, erotic identity and practice, nationality, age, ethnicity. It's about difference. It's about power and powerlessness, about empowerment, and about all the stages in between and beyond and unthought of.... It's about those threads that we trace, and trace, and trace. But not to a conclusion. To increased knowledge, yes. But never to innocent knowledge. To better understanding, yes. But never to pure insight. Postmodernism is about history. But not the kind of 'History' that lets us think we can know the past.... It's about chance. It's about power. It's about information. And more information. And more. And. And that's just a little bit of what postmodernism [is].(BM 4)
Thus it is that postmodernism enters the classroom. "The word postmodernism," adds the author, "does not refer to a period or a 'movement'. It isn't really an 'ism'; it isn't really a thing. It's a moment but more a moment in logic than in time. Temporally, it's a space." (BM5). If this sounds more likeThe Cat in the Hat ("It isn't really an 'ism'; it isn't really a thing") than like a serious attempt to understand what is happening in late twentieth-century culture, it is unfortunately not atypical. Nor are the exercises that follow this Introduction-- e.g., "Critique of Representation and J. M. Coetzee's Foe;" "Critique of Subjectivity and Michel Tournier's Friday," --which dutifully go through the motions of reading selected contemporary novels through the prisms provided, once again, by Derrida and Foucault.
How did we ever get ourselves into this mode of critical thinking? And should we therefore abandon the P word as useless, a word subject to the closure that everywhere threatens the demand for difference? If we do give up the term, moreover, can we designate our period --excuse me, moment-- vis-à-vis earlier moments in any meaningful way? Here are some tentative suggestions.
The gradual but wholesale reversal of PoMo terminology between the late sixties and the early nineties suggests that the fin de siècle may well be as different from the sixties and early seventies as those decades are from the twenties and thirties. Yet the standard opposition between Modernism and Postmodernism does not take this continuing evolution into account. Theorists either push Modernism further and further backward into the past, as do Lyotard and Habermas; this gives us three centuries of Modernist (Enlightenment) discourse against which to measure what is happening in the delegitimating present. Or we do the opposite: we push Modernism further and further toward the present, so as to include postwar figures like Beckett and Pinter, Georges Perec and film noir, Jackson Pollock and Philip Johnson, thus setting aside postmodernism as referring to German neo-Expressionism or cyberpunk or the performance art of the eighties.
We cannot, in short, come to terms with postmodernism until we decide what modernism was. "From the modernism that you want," David Antin has quipped, "you get the postmodernism you deserve." If, for example, modernism is equated with Enlightenment discourse from the Encyclopedia to World War II, then Lyotard may well be right to insist that postmodernism means incredulity to the grands récits of progress and scientific advancement. If, on the other hand, modernism is taken to refer to the first three decades or so of the twentieth-century, then it is hard not to infer that any number of great modernists--Kafka, Brecht, Musil, Krauss, Leiris, Celine, Bataille, Pound, Stevens, Williams-- had already lost faith in those metanarratives of knowledge and social justice. Again, if modernism is equated with Anglo-American modernism, then the attribution of order and hierarchy, organic form and autonomy, centering and aesthetic distance may well be applicable; if, on the other hand, we focus on Continental Europe, on, say, Italian Futurism and Dada, on Apollinaire and Cendrars, or on Klee and Tatlin, the picture is quite different.
It is, I think, the drive toward totalization and hence toward closure that bedevils current discussions of postmodernism. Consider what we might call the Synecdochic Fallacy. In Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, we recall, Jameson makes an extended comparison between Van Gogh's well-known painting of peasant shoes (figure 4), which he calls "one of the canonical works of high modernism," and Andy Warhol's Diamond Dust Shoes (figure 5). "Whether we interpret the Van Gogh as an "act of compensation," a "willed and violent transformation of a drab peasant object world into the most glorious materialization of pure color in oil paint," or, in Heideggerian terms, as a recreation of "the whole missing object world which was once [the shoes'] lived context," the "disclosure of what the equipment, the pair of peasant shoes is in truth" and hence "the unconcealment of [their] being," reading the painting, Jameson posits, is "hermeneutical, in the sense in which the work in its inert, objectal form is taken as a clue or a symptom for some vaster reality which replaces it as its ultimate truth" (FJ 8).
Warhol's Diamond Dust Shoes, by contrast, doesn't speak to anything beyond itself; rather, this "random collection of dead objects hanging together on the canvas like so many turnips," functions as a set of commodity fetishes. In an "inversion of Van Gogh's Utopian gesture," Jameson argues, "the external and colored surface of things-- debased and contaminated in advance by their assimilation to glossy advertising images-- has been stripped away to reveal the deathly black-and-white substratum of the photographic negative which subtends them" (FJ 9). As such, Warhol's work exemplifies the "new depthlessness" and the "waning of affect" which Jameson, as I noted above, takes to be the distinguishing features of the postmodernist "culture of the simulacrum" (FJ 6, 10)
What interests me here is less the specific characterization of the respective paintings than the claim that the part ipso facto stands for the whole. Van Gogh's is "one of the canonical works of high modernism"; Warhol is "the central figure in contemporary visual art" (FJ 8). And so a late nineteenth century painter who was one of the least appreciated and most cruelly marginalized artists of his own day is compared to an American artist who has become the icon of self-promotion, publicity, and commercial success. Is Warhol really Van Gogh's postmodernist counterpart or should we more accurately compare the former to a salon painter like Bougereau, who similarly knew how to manipulate the public and become a star? Or, to take the other side of the parallel, suppose we compare Van Gogh, not to Warhol but to Jasper Johns. The "modernist" "disclosure of what the equipment, the pair of peasant shoes, is in truth," the emergence of the painted "entity ... into the unconcealment of its being, by way of the mediation of the work of art," has a perfect counterpart in Johns' paintings of coat hangers and light bulbs, beer cans and paint brushes, the various Alphabets and number series.
A Warhol silkscreen cannot, in any case, "represent" the postmodern any more than John Portman's Bonaventure Hotel (another Exhibit A in Jameson's lexicon of postmodernism; see 38-44) can represent the "new depthlessness" of architecture over against the International Style of Le Corbusier and Gropius. Common sense suggests that whatever the "hyperspace" of the Bonaventure is or isn't, its modernist counterpart is not a Bauhaus monument but, say, New York's ArtDeco Waldorf Astoria, the grand commercial hotel of the thirties and forties, even as the Bonaventure, with its revolving skytop cocktail lounge and "reflective glass skin [that] repels the city outside" (FJ 42), is a popular building of our own day.
Van Gogh / Warhol; Le Corbusier/ John Portman: these would-be synecdoches, representing the modern and postmodern respectively also display a curious way of relating the European to the American. If modernism is regularly considered a European phenomenon; post-modernism is almost be definition "born in the U. S. A." This means that although Van Gogh's most logical postmodernist successor might well be the Belgian Marcel Broodthaers, now recognized as a seminal figure in the development of post-conceptual art, pride of place must nevertheless be given to the quintessential American product of late capitalism, Andy Warhol. Note that neither in his discussion of pastiche nor in his differentiation of postmodern from modern architecture, does Jameson feel obliged to justify the U.S.-centrism of his position. Indeed, despite the lipservice currently paid to multiculturalism, one often has the sense that the only thing that matters in U.S. culture ... is U.S. culture. True, that culture is divided up into dozens of marginalized, disempowered, and minority subsets: the African-American, Chicano, Native-American, Asian-American, gay and lesbian, and so on. But the requisite for all these groups turns out to be U.S. citizenship: at Stanford, for example, we now have a course on the books in the Asian-American short story and a seminar on Toni Morrison is offered almost every year, but we have not had, in recent memory, so much as a single course in twentieth-century Italian poetry or the contemporary German novel or, for that matter, a course in the extraordinarily rich and varied literatures of Eastern Europe.
"What postmodernism taught us," writes David Harvey, "was that difference and heterogeneity matter, and that the language in which we represent the world, the manner of discourse, ought to be the subject of careful reflection. But it did not teach us how to negotiate differences in fruitful ways, nor did it tell us how to go about the business of communicating with each other after we had carefully deconstructed each others' language." (12) We could take this a step further and argue that the concept of difference, as liberating as it seemed in the seventies, has now been replaced by a bland diversity that, as the poet Charles Bernstein observes in his new A Poetics, harks back "to New Critical and liberal-deomcrtic concepts of a common readership that often ... have the effect of transforming unresolved ideological divisions and antagonisms into packaged tours of the local color of gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, region, nation, class, even historical period: where each group or community or period is expected to come up with--or have appointed for them-- representative figures we all can know about." (13)
Unlike difference, Bernstein argues, diversity "presupposes a common standard of aesthetic judgment or implicitly aims to erect a new common standard. In this context, diversity can be a way of restoring a highly idealized concept of a unified American culture that effectively quiets dissent" (CB 4-5). And he adds:
Too often the works selected to represent cultural diversity are those that accept the model of representation assumed by the dominant culture in the first place. "I see grandpa on the hill / next to the memories I can never recapture" is the base line against which other versions play: "I see my yiddishe mama on hester street / next to the pushcarts I can no longer peddle" or "I see my grandmother on the hill / next to all the mothers whose lives can never be recaptured" or "I can't touch my Iron Father / who never canoed with me / on the prairies of my masculine epiphany." Works that challenge these models of representation run the risk of becoming more inaudible than ever within mainstream culture. (CB 6)
A similar point is made by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in a recent essay for American Literary History. "If black authors are primarily entrusted with producing the proverbial 'text of blackness'," he writes, "they become vulnerable to the charge of betrayal if they shirk their duty.... Representational democracy [here Gates is citing the black British filmaker Isaac Julian and the media theorist Kobena Mercer], like the classic realist text, is premised on an implicitly mimetic theory of representation as correspondence with the 'real.'" (14)
Which is to say that essentialism has by no means been put to rest and that metanarrative, far from having been abandoned, has reappeared in the new guise of an elaborate plot of ethnic amelioration. Consider the following poem published by a young Chicano poet in 1991:
Las Cruces, New Mexico
I loved a tree in my boyhood, a tree
In my grandfather's garden, a weeping
willow whose ancient limbs longed
upwards, then arched downwards, perfect
bows which reached so low, so low
the leaves brushed the grass as if to
sweep it clean. I played alone among
the arches of leaves, pulling the green
limbs around myself as if they were the
great arms of God. They held me tight.
I was so loved in that embrace of leaves.
And then sickness came
to the garden one spring, the old willow
wrapped in a shroud of bugs. I could only
watch, could not touch it. I shouted
at the tree, and told it to live, and
though it fought to breathe without
leaves, neither my voice nor the rain
could heal it. So the tree was chopped,
stripped limb by limb until there was
only a stump. And the stump, too
was pulled from the ground-- pulled
so harshly that even the roots came up
shaking the whole garden. (15)
Ironically, nothing in the poem except its designated locale, Las Cruces, New Mexico, identifies the poet's ethnicity or class. Its author, Benjamin Alire Sáenz has taken on the most familiar of Romantic models: the nature poem in which a particular speaker remembers a particular incident that taught him a lesson--in this case, the lesson that suffering and death are inevitable. The beloved tree, significantly a weeping willow, predictably stands in "my grandfather's garden; the boy predictably plays under its "arches of leaves," and feels loved and protected by God. But since there is always a serpent in paradise, one spring "sickness came"; a blight struck the tree and it had to be chopped down. Its dismemberment, moreover, became the occasion for excessive human force: "so harshly" was the tree stump "pulled from the ground" that "even the roots came up / shaking the whole garden." The boy who has witnessed this surgery will never be the same.
Even the quatrain form of "The Willow" places it in the Romantic tradition, as it comes down to us from Wordsworth to Houseman, and as it no doubt came down to Benjamin Sáenz in the writing workshop. Yet--in what we might take as a kind of postmodern give-away, the poem seems ill at ease with the formal constraint of the quatrain, the syntax being that of straightforward prose: "I shouted at the tree, and told it to live, and though it fought to breathe without leaves, neither my voice nor the rain could heal it." And further: the omission of rhyme and inclusion of one-line units--"And then sickness came," and "shaking the whole garden"-- identify "The Willow" as a contemporary poem, a poem that cannot quite reproduce the paradigm it has so earnestly chosen to follow.
To encourage this kind of writing in the name of ethnic diversity is to assume that the "marginalized" have the right (perhaps even the duty) to use what would otherwise be considered well-worn clichés because these groups have hitherto been denied all access to poetic speech, because their voices have been suppressed by the dominant culture. But such validation is based on the further assumption that a poem like "The Willow"represents Chicano poetics as such, an assumption that is again an instance of what I have called the synecdochic fallacy. Indeed, the irony is that the refusal to submit the poems of the marginalized to any kind of serious critique accomplishes nothing so much as the marginalization of poetry itself. For even as publishers are dutifully bringing out anthologies of Native American or Chicano or Asian-American poetry, we all know that the action has passed elsewhere. For every poetry review in the major papers and journals, there are fifty reviews of biographies, of political books, of media studies and self-help manuals. As for intellectuals, poetry as discourse cannot begin to matter in the ways that theory matters. And theory has, as my example from Craig Owens suggests, remained resolutely Eurocentric, indeed almost exclusively French and (increasingly) German. A seminar on Bourdieu or Habermas or on Luhmann's systems theory will draw a lot more students than any seminar on contemporary poetry, however oppressed the constituency in question. And, incidentally, Bourdieu and Habermas and Luhmann are all white men.
And yet...to tap for a moment into a more genuine Romanticism than the version we find in poems like "The Willow," "Without Contraries is no progression." And again: "Improvement makes strait roads; but the crooked roads without Improvement are roads of Genius." The opposition to the bland call for "diversity" on the one hand, and to the gloomy emphasis on th "new depthlessness" on the other, is coming, once again, not from the professional critics but from poets, with the difference that the new poets are themselves working theorists, like Susan Howe, whose My Emily Dickinson and The Birthmark weave together poetic, historical, and critical discourse, or like Steve McCaffery, whose North of Intention and Rational Geomancy : The Collected Research Reports of the Toronto Research Group 1973-82 (the latter with bpNichol) take the theorems of Derrida and Lacan, Kristeva and Althusser for a playful spin that produces fanciful and fictive verbal/visual configurations as "creative" as they are "critical." In a recent issue of Raddle Moon (#11, 1992), a section called "Women / Writing / Theory" features work by Johanna Drucker, Norma Cole, Laura Moriarty, and others that cannot be categorized as "theory" or "poetry," the texts in question always already being "both / and."
As such, poetry is once again opening up the possibility that "art" is not, after all, equivalent to popular culture. The current wisdom, of course, is that postmodernism spells the end of the opposition between High and Low, both participating as they do in late Capitalist commodity production. But the notion of the breakdown of the "great divide" (Huyssen's term) has its own aporias. In A Poetics, Charles Bernstein reminds us that "[Mass] movements must be considered within their specific geographic and sociopolitical contexts, or else neofascist Italians fetishizing machines will be equated with French leftists fascinated by the unconscious. Worse, German artists' attitudes about the mass culture of Weimar end up being equated with the aspirations of Russian artists for a new socialist culture, which are then equated with pop's fascination with American popular culture--as if mass culture were a unitary phenomenon. (CB 104).
Unitary is the key word here. Some wonderful poems have been written in recent years that once again defy the unitary, along with its offspring, the binary, as in High / Low. Lyn Hejinian's long poem Oxota: A Short Russian Novel (1991), with its 270 chapters written in mock-Pushkin stanzas, chronicles the strangeness of Russian daily life, as seen by an American woman visitor, who speaks some Russian, knows Russian literature, and is staying with Russian poet friends, but might as well be from Mars. Here is Chapter 120: "One Spring Morning":
Divination by clouds must be renounced under a colorless sky.
Ostap produced a small cardboard device for divining mood
The proportions of temperaments and moods
Zina ran a rag over the table
I turned on the gas for tea
It's a blind day, Zina said
Such a sky produces vast absent-mindedness
Arkadii and then I produced gloom
I too, she said
The device had turned a foreboding greenish black
Papa, it's just a human revelation, said Ostap-- such colors
grow from temperatures and salt
You see?--heliotrope means passion. (16)
One understands the words alright ("I too, she said") but what do they mean? The "proportions of temperaments and moods" undergo split-second shifts that Hejinian tries to capture in her subtle linguistic formations. (17) A related development may be found in a short prose text called "Staged Dialogue with Failed Transit Actiant Opposition" by the English-turned-Canadian poet Steve McCaffery. (18) Here, as in Hejinian's Oxota, the emphasis is on defamiliarizing the look and sound of everyday life in the late postmodern 1990s.
Hello and also. Why do you live? I live because there is a house upon a street somewhere, a house I was born in. It's made of bricks. Is correct. Yes, many things are made of bricks. Bridges and walls and special cups are made of bricks. Excellent. So why do you like sport? Yes, sport is often my favourite, especially the sport of chess. That's played on boards and sometimes ice. Is ice also your favourite? My favourite is books if there's lots of them. My name is Sidney Lanier. I was once a writer. I have many books with names and sometimes thicker ones on the front porch of a house. Sometimes my house is sunny that way and once a week it will always be tuesday. Do you also like the name of Sidney Lanier? Not as a book but as a day yes. Wonderful. Now what hobbies have you got? I have the noun cooking which is my favourite. Especially some lamb and stew of lamb and chickens too that cannot fly. How do you like jetplanes?
If they are eggs I like to fry them in a pan as fat as possible. Fat or flat? Yes. Either will do. The kitchen also is a place to sing. Moths sing with mouths and also beards. Precisely. I too like music especially when sometimes the songs are old. Oaktrees are old. Me too. Many days pass in which I wish to write a complete history of forests. When I say that I smile. Alders are best. Terrific. Me too. Are skies not the best? The ones that seem to be yesterday's clouds. No. We say these sounds are like a twittering pond. Ponds describe fish because today I am hungry. I know this because angles cut across my entire interior appetite. The word stomach is worse. I know a word to lead to stars and the decription of a moon as thick but wide. Excellent. Me too. What else can be known? That soup can be cooked but mud thrown is ground lost. Does each work invoke a simile? On mountains yes. Is there a fire? Perhaps. Not especially. That too is the case. Terrific. What is your name? My name is Herbert Kinsella but Abigail is best. Such difference is value. Why do they rise? Because horses are discontented by the hair. Me too. I reach a room and recognize that anything is placed to soften forms. Which forms do you like? Perhaps motion or charm or eyes soaked in wine. Yes. Tall glasses are best. The ones that have knees. Would you still like a chair? Speech yes, and a quiet bath before the ark. When true is I do not.
In one sense, the speaker of this monologue is, as in David Antin's prescription with which I began, "a man on his feet talking," a successor, we might say, of Wordsworth's "man speaking to men." Antin's own talk poems, for that matter, resemble McCaffery's in their fusion of "poetic" and "theoretical" discourses. But the syntax and structure of McCaffery's text, its refusal to privilege speech over writing, and its defiantly anti-poetic frames of reference, are so different from, say, the poetic of Charles Olson's "Kingfishers" (Antin's exhibit in the boundary 2 essay), (19) that criticism must try to account for the difference. Can the term postmodernism then apply both to the 60s and the 90s? Can we simply invert that big 6? Or do the post-post days we are now witnessing prefigure a phase for which we don't yet have a name and whose postpeople we can't quite conceptualize? In the words of Laurie Anderson, "do you think They will read our signs?"