Performatism Blog

All posts may be downloaded and used if author (Raoul Eshelman) and website (performatism.de) are noted.


 

Index of Blog Entries (with PDF)

 

Post 1: The Misery of Posthistoricism

Post 2: The Prison-house of Postmodernism 

Post 3: The Performatist Challenge (More Fun than Dumping                      a Bucket of Ice Water over Your Head)

Post 4: Theory Smackdown:  Performatism Tussles with Five                  Approaches to Literary Post-postmodernism

Theory Smackdown.pdf [ 471.7 KB ]

Post 5: David Foster Wallace and Performatism: On                                  Subjectivity, Separation, and the Public


 Post 6: A Note to the Editors of Supplanting the Postmodern


 Post 7: On Authenticity and Post-Postmodernism (Wolfgang                    Funk's The Literature of Reconstruction)

On Authenticity.pdf [ 172.9 KB ]


 

 

 

Post 7: On Authenticity and Post-Postmodernism (Wolfgang Funk’s The Literature of Reconstruction)

6 January 2016

One of the many posthistorical strategies used to make post-postmodernism manageable for poststructuralist theory is to key in on the supposed “return” of modernist elements in contemporary literature. For if post-postmodernism (or what I call performatism) is really only modernism warmed over, poststructuralism will have no trouble treating it as a filiation, citation, or iteration of some already well-known pattern and subject it to its tried-and-true epistemological critiques.  This attitude, incidentally, isn’t confined to diehard postmodernists—there are also genuine theories of post-postmodernism that hedge on this issue. Metamodernism, for example, is said to be something new but at the same time “oscillates” between modernism and postmodernism (both of which are old). And, Irmtraud Huber’s term for the new paradigm is “literature of reconstruction,” which means something is being constructed that was already there before. 

     One modernist concept that pops up frequently is “authenticity,” which is supposedly making a comeback in American literature. This notion is advanced most explicitly in The Pathos of Authenticity: American Passions of the Real (Heidelberg 2010), whose editors and authors treat the trend towards authenticity as a “revision of postmodernism” (p. 19).  Authenticity, which was a key element in both modernist philosophy and literature, suggests that reality can be experienced directly in some special way by an autonomous self. The two examples that inevitably come to mind are Heidegger with his notion of an Eigentlichkeit (literally “actualness”) that is achieved by keying in on the time of one’s own death and Hemingway with his unwritten macho code of honor that shows itself most fully in perilous borderline situations. Both assume that authentic experience is possible without explicit reflection and without being dependent on outside, conventional norms of behavior, and both favor a certain kind of self-contained, staunchly independent subject.  Heidegger’s dark phenomenological vision was however soured forever by his intellectual and personal proximity to Nazism, and Hemingway’s macho persona and rhythmic short-sentence style are appreciated today mainly in parodic form. In postmodernism this kind of authentic persona became the target of relentless irony and skepticism and was replaced by a notion of self as endlessly contingent (dependent on the false signs and discourses around it). In the best of cases such a subject can be either acutely or playfully aware of its own weakness, dependency on false signs, and diffuseness—its inauthenticity—but not really be able to do too much about it except generate more critical irony or play.

      Given this background it is noteworthy that a German scholar, Wolfgang Funk, has resolved to make authenticity the cornerstone of a new approach to post-postmodernism in his book The Literature of Reconstruction. Authentic Fiction in the New Millennium (London 2015).  This involves a major overhaul of the concept of authenticity, which Funk says is now an “effect” that is “enacted in and through metareferential literature” (p. 2) in a process that he calls “reconstruction.” This serves as an interesting counterpoint to performatism, which also assumes that a binding combination of devices in the narrative and in the story (“double framing”) produces a variety of positive, intensely felt effects (love, beauty, transcendence etc.)—the difference being that I do not consider them authentic (at least in not the way that the word was understood in modernism). Obviously, Funk is going to have to engage in a lot of fancy footwork to show that authenticity is operative in literature that works in metareferential ways—which is to say is mediated by highly manipulative and artificial narrative constructs that were utterly unthinkable in modernist philosophy or in the modernist literature of authenticity.

     Funk begins by giving a brief, and not very generous, account of concepts of post-postmodernism, which are not exactly hard to keep track of (for more on this, see Blog Post Nr. 4). As readers of this website are aware, there are at the present time exactly four substantial books devoted to (American) literature by Huber, Timmer, Holland, and Moraru; my Performatism, which covers narrative genres, theory, and the visual arts; van den Akker and Vermeulen’s wide-ranging metamodernist website; Bourriaud’s sketchy manifesto on altermodernist art; Kirby’s book on digitization and culture; a speculative sociological study (Lipovetsky), and two socio-cultural treatises (Nealon and Samuels) that ramble on about all manner of topics without treating actual works of literature or art. Funk comments favorably on several of these concepts (most notably digimodernism and metamodernism) while giving a wide berth to performatism, which is not even mentioned by name. The reason seems to be that performatism is a bit too close for comfort: although rejecting authenticity as a criteria, performatism directly preempts Funk’s concepts of metareferentiality, authorial authority, performativity, and transcendence. Since Funk—perhaps understandably—isn’t very interested in engaging directly with a theory that resembles his own in numerous basic points, I thought I’d fill in the gap by vetting his notion of authenticity from my own peculiar point of view.   

    Funk, who is naturally aware of modernist authenticity’s dodgy reputation, begins by giving the concept a thorough going-over in a chapter entitled “Eight Theses on Authenticity.”  Since authenticity is notoriously hard to define and has a long, convoluted philosophical and literary history, this is no easy task. Funk’s approach (which is probably the only correct way to go about it) is not to take the many competing claims made about authenticity at face value. Instead, he undertakes a stringent epistemological review of their premises and arrives at a distinctly critical, belated perspective regarding the murky, semi-mystical claims that often accompany the term. I can’t list all his conclusions here or treat individual ones in any great detail, but some of the most important are as follows:

 

  •  Authenticity implies transcendence:  “In so far as it exceeds conventional frames of reference, authenticity comes with an inbuilt promise of transcendence” (p. 15).
  • Authenticity is an effect created by formal means: “the only way to approach it is to address the formal procedures and methods by which the effects of authenticity are created” (p.17).
  • Authenticity implies performativity:  “authenticity could be considered a performative concept, a simulation in so far as it postulates essence while eluding definition” (p. 17).
  • “Authenticity presupposes and generates a notion of self” (p. 29).
  • Authenticity is a “black box” which dissolves binary opposites in a higher order of things (“sublates discursive dichotomies” p. 55).
  •  Metareference (signals coming from the work that direct our attention back to how the work is constructed) is formally important in creating the effect of authenticity  (p. 64).

     Attentive readers will note that most of these criteria could be transferred almost verbatim to performatism.  Here I’m not suggesting that Funk is unoriginal or a plagiarist. Rather, he arrives at very similar conclusions to mine in a different, conceptually exacting way—in a certain sense “proving” the same theorem regarding the nature of post-postmodernism using a different core concept and methodology. If we accept Funk’s massive redefinition of “authenticity” it would certainly be possible—and perhaps also quite productive—to think of literature after postmodernism in these terms.

     Funk’s argument also involves an exhaustive new definition of “metareference,” which corresponds roughly to what I would call the outer frame. “Metareference” as Funk uses it means that narratives focus attention back on themselves in such a way that we experience what he calls “metareferential moments,” which are “imagined locations” within the work in which “the effect of metareference makes itself felt” (p. 87) (I would call these “inner frames”or “scenes”). In the case of the post-postmodern “literature of reconstruction” these “metareferential moments” convey a feeling of authenticity, which is necessarily dependent on inauthentic (metareferential) means to be experienced at all in the first place.  The result is that authenticity and metareference work hand in hand: the reader exposed to them oscillates between “authority and participation,” “absence and presence,” “representation and a ‘secret beyond representation” (p. 106). I might add that I’m in complete agreement with this description (after all, I’ve said something similar using a different set of terms). Funk, however, goes one step further and supplies a typology of metareferential elements that consists of four points (display, location/direction, focus and effect) which break down into two further sublevels containing neologisms like “endo-,“ “exo-,” “allo-reflective” and  “alethiology” (p. 88). Readers willing to slash their way through this three-tiered jungle of jargon will probably find something of value, but it’s not easy going. Funk’s tangled typology in any event confirms my intuitive feeling that it was better to describe double framing as a general strategy and flesh out the details in individual interpretations—the whole thing gets incredibly complicated very quickly.          

      The crux of the matter is this: it’s no longer possible to experience “authenticity” in the way it was done in the 1920s or ’30s because postmodernist critical irony is in the way. (Try taking Hemingway’s macho heroes or Heidegger’s gloomy Eigentlichkeit seriously—you simply can’t anymore.) The only way to revive authenticity is, paradoxically, by creating an artificial—and I would add inauthentic—metareference or outer narrative frame that makes us experience “authentic” things like love, beauty, unity, trust etc. in a more or less involuntary way. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with using this kind of paradox to define a major concept like authenticity. However, the use of a term that is peculiar to modernism to mark the cultural development after postmodernism makes that development seem much more backwards directed than it really is, and it encourages the posthistorical conceit that everything is just a continuation or intensification or “reconstruction” of something else that came before it. Also, “authenticity” (now understood as engaged in a paradoxical pas de deux with inauthentic metareferentiality) becomes inflated to the point where it almost doesn’t mean anything anymore. This is why I prefer a mildly provocative neologism (“double framing”) to the older concepts of authenticity, sincerity, and metareferentiality with all their excess conceptual  baggage.    

     My own position is that performatism still interacts with postmodernism (whose norms are very much alive, though in decline) but that modernism as an aesthetic or philosophical source of value is dead as a doornail. Nobody—except maybe a few academic specialists—takes modernist truth claims, norms, or values seriously. To make modernist concepts “work,” they have to be subjected to the sort of intense critical scrutiny provided by poststructuralism or postmodernism. Funk’s project does exactly that: he can “revive” modernist authenticity only by transforming it from an essentialist concept into a metareferential, constructed one that would be unrecognizable (and unacceptable) to a 1920s- or ’30s-type modernist. While I’m in basic agreement with Funk on how he defines post-postmodernism—he comes to individual conclusions similar to mine, Huber’s, Timmer’s, and the metamodernists’—I don’t see any pressing need to fall back on a concept that has to be redefined from top to bottom to be of any use and that denies historical change in favor of “reconstruction” (it’s not clear to me what exactly is being reconstructed—it’s certainly not authenticity as modernism understood it). However, there’s no doubt that the basic problem marked by authenticity—how a more or less autonomous self can experience reality as directly and intensely as possible under certain given conditions—is also central to post-postmodernism.

     How do we get out of the “return-to-modernism-trap” suggested by authenticity? One way is to conceive of authenticity within the framework of post-postmodernism is to turn to the old historicism, which is to say the study of history that makes categorical distinctions between epochs. In the old historicism, you were encouraged to make typological comparisons between non-adjacent epochs sharing similar essential qualities. Primary epochs like realism, modernism, and post-postmodernism make us experience reality as directly as possible and play down the mediating role of signs; secondary epochs like romanticism, symbolism, and postmodernism assume that reality can be experienced only through signs. The old historicism also suggests that this relation is dynamic and hierarchical. One such attitude doesn’t completely eliminate the other, but dominates it, pushes it into the background. These categorical distinctions would allow us to compare post-postmodernism to modernism and oppose it to postmodernism without suggesting a literal, ghost-like “return” of modernism and its practices or without turning “history” into the endless iteration of one constantly valid principle (such as authenticity).  These kinds of historical opposition are however only possible if one allows categorical oppositions in the first place—something that is taboo in poststructuralism and that is rendered very fuzzy by phrases like “literature of reconstruction.”  In the long run, the question won’t be what post-postmodernism in literature is (there is already a solid consensus about it among the half-dozen or so scholars who have bothered to treat it in any detail) but whether we are going to open up to new methodology, names, and concepts or remain fixated on “reconstructing” old ones and “oscillating”between them.  

 

 


 

Post 6

25 November 2015

A Note to the Editors of Supplanting the Postmodern

Recently there appeared the first-ever anthology of theories of post-postmodernism, entitled Supplanting the Postmodern and edited by David Rudrum and Nicholas Stavris (London: Bloomsbury, 2015). The editors, who kindly included the first chapter of my Performatism book in the collection, accurately summarized its main points in a brief introduction and also made some critical remarks that I’d like to respond to here.

    The first critical objections relate to the theoretical sources I use, namely Erving Goffman’s frame theory and Eric Gans’s Generative Anthropology, which they say are “problematic.” Let’s start out with Goffman. The editors write:

 

Methodologically, there is no reason why Goffman’s work—basically, a schematic approach to communication and behavior influential in the social sciences—could not be applied just as easily to postmodernist texts or artworks as to performatist ones.

 

Methodologically speaking, of course, you can apply anything to anything else, so it’s not quite clear what is “problematic” about this. For example, I can (and do) also apply deconstruction to works of art and literature  that many people consider post-postmodern. This in itself doesn’t make deconstruction “problematic.” What makes deconstruction problematic is that it simply doesn’t work anymore (or rather works too well)—you can deconstruct the main premise of a novel like Life of Pi in about two seconds without gaining any insight into what makes the novel tick.

     Regarding Goffman specifically, his frame theory isn’t absolutely essential to my argument. The point was to show that there is a theoretical tradition outside of poststructuralism that treats belief and framing as positive social factors instead of as starting points for an endless epistemological critique. This positive assessment of belief goes back to the sociology of Emile Durkheim and is also important for Gans and Girard. The reference to Goffman helps show that performatism is not some oddball idea floating around without a coherent intellectual tradition. However, it’s difficult to operationalize Goffman’s concepts—convert them into tools that can be used directly in literary analysis—and I didn’t try too hard to do so.

     Things are different with Gans. Generative Anthropology is crucial to performatism and the editors correctly wonder why a “transhistorical theory of language rooted […] in the evolutionary prehistory of human beings should have taken on a sudden relevance at the close of the twentieth century.” A closer reading of the summary of my first chapter reveals the answer, which I’ll repeat here:

 

The originary ostensive scene, in which the human, language, and aesthetics are all made present, is hypothetical. My own, specifically historical interpretation of the ostensive is that it embodies the semiotic mechanism generating the new aesthetic better than any other competing monist concept. The ostensive, in other words, marks the becoming-conscious of the new epoch (p. 36).

 

Put in a less technical way, this means that I’m interpreting Gans’s theory as an expression of a larger turn away from postmodernism and poststructuralism and I’m not very much interested in proving or disproving his paleo-anthropological assertions (I say this directly on p. 6, namely that “[neither] paleo-anthropological nor ethnological evidence [regarding Gans’s hypothesis] is crucial to my argument”). Gans’s main innovation, as far as I am concerned, is to ground Derrida’s notion of différance in Girard’s notion of mimesis, which marks a specific (and I think very important) historical development in literary theory. If it seems odd that I am unconcerned about the absolute truth value of a theory that I otherwise find useful, one should not forget that I am concerned here with historical truths, which are by definition relative and subject to change. The truth of Gans’s theory (if it is indeed true) is that its concept of sign neatly embodies  the switch from the postmodern to the post-postmodern.

     The last objection made by the editors is typical of the resistance that I encounter from colleagues who have become so comfortable with poststructuralist methodology that they can’t really conceive of any alternative to it (except as some kind of oddball attempt to diverge from established theory).The editors write that

 

it might be worth entertaining the possibility that performatism names neither a historical epoch nor a new style of art or literature, but rather a method of interpretation. Just as it makes sense to differentiate between postmodernist novels and postmodernist readings of novels, so too what Eshelman seems to offer is a series of performatist readings of works that could, in principle, be read through a postmodernist lens just as easily.

 

This objection arises because the editors appear to view postmodernism as an endlessly self-renewing form of culture and my challenge to it as mere “method of interpretation” that arbitrarily posits something new. The suggestion is that I'm setting forth a new way of reading just to be different, and that this perspective can easily be neutralized by reading the works my theory treats using good old postmodernist methods (and arriving at good old postmodernist conclusions). In this regard I'm also not sure how the editors are able to differentiate between "postmodernist novels" (which seem to exist entirely on their own outside of interpretation) and "postmodernist readings," which  presumably do not. Claiming that a novel is "postmodernist" or "performatist" necessarily involves an act of interpretation, and the question is whether that act produces useful results.  

     Seen this way, performatism is no more or no less a “method of interpretation” than is any other approach to literature. Performatism is however more than just a "method." It is also a theory of literary history that provides concrete criteria allowing us to distinguish between postmodernism and post-postmodernism—something that postmodernist or poststructuralist theories can’t do because they literally can't conceive of anything new that would not always already have been postmodern. Fortunately for the study of literary history, there are already four or five conceptual alternatives to postmodernism that share a set of similar core assumptions and can’t simply be written off as randomly generated “methods of interpretation" (for more on this see Post 4). The editors' critique says less about performatism than about the posthistorical mindset of contemporary criticism, which is aware of massive shifts in the literary landscape but is unwilling to part with poststructuralist (postmodernist) methodology to describe them.

 

Post 5

10 October 2015

David Foster Wallace and Performatism: On Subjectivity, Separation, and the Public

 

[Emendated version of a much shorter presentation held at the Association for the Study of Arts of the Present Conference 2015 in Greenville, South Carolina, Sept. 26th]

In my talk, I would like to discuss how the relations between public and private are negotiated in performatism. As an example I’m going to use the work of David Foster Wallace. There are three reasons for this. First, almost everyone here is familiar with his work; secondly, Wallace himself was programmatically involved in trying to overcome postmodernism; and, thirdly, a number of commentators see him as actually having done so.[1] 

     My point in using Wallace here is not so much to uncover original aspects of his work, but to show that his writing fits into a more general historical pattern of post-postmodernism.  I believe that Wallace can best be understood when placed in an epochal context that focuses on the immanent logic of literary innovation and not on socio-economic, cultural, or political developments tangential to literature.  In short, I am arguing that in order to get any coherent understanding of post-postmodernism, we first have to focus on literary history itself. 

   I'd like to start by briefly outlining how performatism treats the public/private dichotomy and how this differs from postmodernism.

      I think we can agree that postmodern subjects are determined almost entirely by public discourse that is exterior to them.  Moreover, postmodernism reacts with ironic skepticism to the modernist notion of a private sphere that allows us to experience reality in some special, authentic way.  Hence one of the main problems facing any author who wants to get away from postmodernism is how he or she can cut off the endless irony of postmodernism without reverting to the modernist model of authenticity outlined above—something that would simply confirm the postmodern conviction that history is nothing more than a slightly skewed iteration of some previous cultural development.

    Within the discussion on post-postmodernism there are popular and critical voices suggesting that the answer to this problem is provided by something called the “new sincerity.” Unfortunately, neither the old sincerity nor the new one is very helpful in describing how post-postmodernism works. While I can’t go into too much detail here, it will perhaps suffice to comment briefly on Allard den Dulk’s recent attempt to reintroduce Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of sincerity/ authenticity[2] into the discussion on post-postmodernism in David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Dave Eggers. Den Dulk says that he “regards sincerity as the attitude or virtue of wanting to form a stable self in the world” (2015, 170) and that “sincerity is the desire to show yourself in the public domain ‘as yourself’” (2015, 170). According to den Dulk, whether this sincerity succeeds or not depends on whether the subject interacts successfully with that public domain. There are two obvious problems here that I can only touch on in passing. First, den Dulk’s definition of sincerity is still tied very closely to reflexivity, which always already contains the structure of deceit within itself. Showing yourself ‘as yourself’ has to appear in quotes because it’s a secondary representation of something that is hidden inside you and that only you know. But how do we know that what you are showing us is “sincere”?  As long as a subject can reflect consciously on its own inner, privately accessible state, it can always dissemble. Secondly, the subject’s ability to achieve sincerity depends on a context that is itself not intrinsically sincere; the potential for corruption is virtually unlimited.  All in all, this kind of “new sincerity” is no less open to the irony of a radical deconstruction than the old sincerity was. Also, in popular usage it tends to quickly become attached to the trivial notion of whether authors are themselves upright or honest.

     For these reasons, I don’t use the concept of sincerity at all in my performatist approach.  The crucial concept in performatism is instead that of separation or, more precisely, double separation, which I’ll explain shortly.

     The notion of separation is itself not new. It can be traced back to Descartes, and Levinas introduces it explicitly as a philosophical term in his Totality and Infinity. Levinas’s separated self may be described as positive in the sense that it is a “way of being, a resistance to totality” (Totality and Infinity, Pittsburgh 1969, 54) and as negative in the sense that Levinas ascribes it atheistic, hedonistic, and self-centered qualities. In Levinas, this self-centeredness is eventually disrupted through confrontation with an other who cannot be assimilated to the separated subject’s narcissistic sense of self. As a consequence, the separated, but now unsettled subject redirects its desire towards outside discourse to recover this transcendent otherness, albeit in a fragmentary and incomplete way.  In postmodern or poststructuralist interpretations of Levinas’s influential thought very few commentators pay much attention to either transcendence or separation, which tend to dissolve anyway as soon as the subject is exposed to others through the endless immanence of discourse.

     In performatism separation returns as a literary or narrative device, but in a different way than Levinas conceived it.[3]The performatist subject is doubly separated, in the sense that it is not only closed off from the public domain as such but also from the discourse that allows the Levinasian subject to break out of its egoistic interiority. The main distinguishing feature of the performatist separated subject is in fact that it is opaque or inaccessible to us through discourse. As in Levinas, it is a way of being that is formally separated from totality. However, unlike Levinas's notion of self, it does not have any negative transcendental attributes like hedonism or atheism.  On the contrary, the attributes ascribed to it tend as a rule to be positive or worthy of imitation (they serve as a focal point for identification with a character), and they tend to be blocked off from discursive communication or interpretation. In short, we are presented with subjects that appear to others as they are, as bio-social unities outside of discourse that present themselves to the outside world directly.  By definition, we cannot judge such subjects as sincere or insincere simply because the narrative texts in which they are embedded radically block our access to the workings of their interior life.  In any event, the tables are now turned: instead of outside discourse drawing the separated subject outside of itself into the public domain, it is now the separated self that challenges the public context to focus on its own interiority.[4]  

     This kind of doubly separated subjectivity is not an end in itself. This is because radically separated subjects are usually subject to a severe quid pro quo resulting from their special, separate status.  While they do indeed enjoy a privileged kind of privacy and interiority they are usually unable to function effectively in the public domain precisely because of that separation.  Hence the seemingly impossible task of bridging the gap between public and private without corrupting the positive interior qualities that these characters usually possess. The bridging of this gap, which requires an event or an act of transcendence, takes place nonetheless in performatist narratives and is crucial to separating post-postmodernism from the postmodern.  Here are the main narrative strategies involved:

 

  • The double separated subject acts as an example for others to imitate. In this case there is no need for an intermediary, since communication takes place directly through mimesis, which is to say through imitation. Mimesis itself takes place in the intuition (in the Kantian sense, as a sensory apprehension of reality) and does not require discourse or reflexive subjectivity. It also dissolves the difference between public and private by allowing for someone else’s interiority to be put to social use.
  • The doubly separated subject performs something out of the ordinary that changes either itself, those around it, or the situation that it is in.  The root concept of performatism is based on this notion. In narrative terms, we would call this an event.  The event creates a basic shift in a situation that allows or even requires a new alignment to its truth. Alain Badiou’s philosophy provides a good starting point for discussing this sort of narrative shift. In thematic terms, the event is frequently tied to questions of transcendence, of radically overcoming some sort of basic situational quandary or impasse.
  • Doubly separated subjects enter into a dyadic relationship with less radically separated subjects, i.e. subjects that are capable of some sort of reflection and/or participation in the public domain.The result is a relationship that transcends the gap between private and public, between interiority and exteriority.[5]  
  • Finally, the interior space supplied by the doubly separated subject is infused with specifically authorial ideas or positions; the privileged interiority of the character is invariably backed up on a higher, authorial level.  This asserts itself in narrative structure in what I call double framing: the highest narrative level tends to confirm the values and positions expressed in the inner space of the separated subject.

     In the following remarks I’d like to briefly apply these criteria to David Foster Wallace’s fiction and essays.  I wish to emphasize that I did not abstract these criteria solely from Wallace’s text, but rather developed them independently over about a fifteen-year period using a wide variety of East European, West European and Anglo-American narrative sources. Seen this way, Wallace exemplifies a larger epochal development that is not limited to himself or to a specifically American experience.

     The most radically separated type of being in Wallace is obviously the lobster, which he treats in his well-known essay “Consider the Lobster” (in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, London: Abacus, 2005; henceforth CtL).  On the one hand, Wallace shows how the lobster, as a separated but sentient being, experiences pain, even if it can’t express it in speech. On the other, Wallace describes in great detail how lobsters are devoured en masse in public at the aggressively schlocky Maine Lobster Festival.  The (obvious) ethical point Wallace is making is that we have to make an individual choice, and that in doing so we may well decide in favor of sentient beings that are radically separated from us by nature.  Our duty is to reflect ethically on what gives us pleasure, which is something that neither the lobsters can do nor the lobster-eating public wants to do. The ethical subject, by definition, acts as a mediator between the separated, edible being and the hedonistic, unreflecting public. The “anchor” of this ethics is however a radically separated, ontologically defined given, namely the lobster.

     The closest human being to the lobster in Wallace’s prose is undoubtedly Mario Incandenza, who Wallace repeatedly describes as resembling a spider (another biologically separated being encased in a shell-like pod). Unlike lobsters, Mario cannot feel pain, but he is radically separated from the world around him in other ways (the narrator writes “he doesn’t seem to resemble much of anyone [the Incandenza brothers] know” Infinite Jest, 101).  Mario is also not subject to the criteria of being sincere or insincere in the usual sense of the word.[6] He is, like the lobster, simply the way he is: he forms a bio-social unity that is presented to both the characters around him and to us as an unchanging given. He can obviously think (he is not retarded) and has a highly spiritual interior life (he prays at length every night), but our access to this interior life is blocked almost completely by the narration (we know what he thinks, but we don’t know why).  As Timothy Jacobs and other critics have pointed out, Mario combines the charismatic persona of Dostoevsky’s Alyosha Karamazov with ideal attributes that Wallace highlights in his essays and fiction: Mario believes very strongly in God, he is a very good listener, and he is interested in “real stuff,” even if it may be sentimental.  Wallace invests a good deal of energy in describing the happy rigidity of Mario’s separation: for example, he smiles and laughs involuntarily, and he can’t feel pain.  Mario doesn’t perform anything suggestive of transcendence (he walks around a lot and, like Sisyphus, he likes to walk uphill), but he does have something charismatic about him that rubs off on almost everyone he meets. Finally, Mario is able in spite of his separation to form dyadic bonds with his brothers as well as with people like Barry Loach or Gerhard Schtitt, whose tennis-playing philosophy is essentially one of separating oneself from the outer part of the game and concentrating on the inner self.[7] 

   This brings me to the next type of separated being, and that is the professional tennis player. “Divinely gifted” (CtL,155) tennis players like Michael Joyce, Roger Federer, or Tracy Austin are for Wallace bearers of a kind of performative transcendence (he states this directly in the title of his piece on Federer).These athletes function by shutting out “the Iago-like voice of the self” (CtL,154) and by concentrating on the game in what seems to be a superhuman way.  At the same time, as the pieces on Austin and Joyce make clear, these athletes are severely restricted in intellectual and social terms—to the point where we can’t tell at all what is going on inside of them (they are in other words entirely opaque). Wallace says that the real mystery for him is whether such a person is “an idiot or a mystic or both and/or neither” (CtL 155). These gifted athletes are necessarily blind and dumb about their own genius, but not because of any quid pro quo between intelligence and athletic skill, but because, as he says, “blindness and dumbness are [not] the price of the gift, but […] are its essence” (CtL, 155). This is an almost perfect instantiation of what I have called double separation:  the separation allows these athletes to perform transcendent acts but cuts them off from engaging in meaningful discourse about those acts.

     The public, by contrast, doesn’t have these divinely given athletic skills, but is unlike the athlete able to “see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift” (CtL 155) that they don’t have. In this way a kind of complementary unity is formed between individual athletes and the public. This unity is centered around the “divine gift,” which transcends discursive oppositions: it is opaque in terms of its source and inner workings but visible to everyone in public performances. 

     This fusion of the public and the private is also possible in an amatory, individual way. In Infinite Jest, when Orin is courting the “transhumanly beautiful” cheerleader Joelle van Dyne (Infinite Jest, 290) this takes place on a purely mimetic, performative level:


 

"…the only real cardiac-grade romantic relationship of Orin’s life took bilateral root at a distance, during games,without one exchanged personal phoneme, a love communicated—across grassy expanses, against stadiums’ monovocal roar—entirely through stylized repetitive motions—his functional, hers celebratory—their respective little dances of devotion to the spectacle they were both trying […] to make as entertaining as possible"  (Infinite Jest, 294).

 

Like the tennis players, Orin is a kind of separated athlete (he’s plays on a team but as a punter has one sole function). Here another description of the venue in which he performs:

 

"[…] a lot of it seemed emotional and/or even, if there was such a thing anymore, spiritual: a denial of silence: here were upwards of 30,000 voices, souls, voicing approval as One Soul. […] Audience exhortations and approvals so total they ceased to be numerically distinct and melded into a sort of single coital moan, one big vowel, the sound of the womb, the roar gathering, tidal, amniotic, the voice of what might as well be God" (Infinite Jest, 295).

 

The point is not that Wallace himself or his characters are infused by any sort of “sincere” spirituality, but that a transcendent performance enables these characters to achieve unity and spirituality in spite of their participating in public discourse.[8] This fusion of public and private, of exterior and interior, applies no less to the author-reader relationship. Separated positive heroes like Mario, who enjoy almost complete authorial sanction, force readers to either accept or reject them and their values. Readers accepting these figures (and one has little choice but to do so in narrative terms) form a public unity that is simultaneously a unity with the author’s intent.

     This transcendent fusion of the public and the private is expressed most radically in Alcoholics Anonymous as depicted in Infinite Jest. AA is both public and private, open and closed—anyone can come to the meetings and no one can be excluded from the organization no matter how bad their behavior. At the same time, everyone is marked as an individual member—everyone says their first name—and is also expected to engage in dyadic bonding with a sponsor and do good works within the organization.  AA also works through an extreme reduction of self and uses a clichéd, banal language that is performative in nature; it is language that if followed, works (“one day at a time,” “fake it until you make it” etc.). As with Mario, this kenosis or reduction of self is accompanied by belief in a Higher Power (who can be defined according to individual wishes rather than in accordance with a dogmatic source). At the same time, all AA members are unified by their addiction; reflection on that addiction is depicted as being detrimental to recovery because of its one-sided focus on the self.  Since Wallace considers addiction to be a universal American problem, AA can also be seen as kind of a universal antidote to America’s obsession with pleasure.  Here, typically Dostoevskian suffering (as exemplified by Don Gately) makes AA into a positive ethical force; it acts as a catalyst for creating individual ethical sensibility and a feeling of community that has distinctly sacral features. As a Slavist, I wonder if Wallace, who was familiar with Russian intellectual history through Joseph Frank’s monumental biography of Dostoevsky, was deliberately  aiming for what in Russian is called sobornost’, an intuitively achieved kind of spiritual communality that was important to Dostoevsky and to Russian thinking in general.  

     Wallace leaves no doubt in his work that the private, interior space can also be abused. Evil arises when the “Higher Power” of AA is denied in private, as when the cat and dog killer Randy Lenz cuts out the pages of William James’s Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion to hide his stash of cocaine.  Also, the veils worn by the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed quite evidently create a false kind of aesthetic privacy based on Kierkegaard’s concept of hiddenness (this has been pointed out by Marshall Boswell, 140). Finally, any mass public enjoyment not tempered by an apprehension of suffering is necessarily suspect, as the ocean cruise on the Zenith, the Illinois State Fair, or the Maine Lobster Festival depicted in his essays demonstrate (the same also applies, obviously, to the movie Infinite Jest, which entertains its viewers to death).  However, this false sincerity does not vitiate the goodness of Mario, who remains untouched by it because he is an ontological figure and not a psychological one: he operates through the intuition provided by the author and not through self-reflection in which we vicariously participate.

     In purely narrative terms, Infinite Jest employs both the endless irony of high American postmodernism and the distinctly non-ironic mode of performatism that creates sacralized, ontologically separate forms of interiority that have the power to form higher unities. While it’s possible to debate just how open or closed the novel is and to what extent it still participates in postmodern irony,[9] it seems to me that there can be little doubt about the authorial intent of the novel. By embedding interior, ontologically privileged spaces into his novel and essays and by infusing these spaces with his own privately held, but publicly visible ethical values, Wallace is engaging in what Lee Konstantinou calls postirony and what I would call double framing. It’s possible to read against the grain of this sort of postirony, but it can only be done by ignoring the formal givens of his work, which the author continually tries to impose on us in the narrative.    

     To sum up, I would say that Wallace’s work is made up of an eclectic jumble of ideas that can’t be reduced to one philosophical approach, be it that of Wittgenstein, Sartre, Dostoevsky, or pragmatism. What is most striking about Wallace is that, in both Infinite Jest and in his essays, he uses a variety of strategies that sacralize an opaque, interior realm and at the same time create a publicly accessible, communal unity among subjects who intuitively identify with or imitate that realm.  I’ve highlighted these strategies to show two things: first, that they are incompatible with both postmodern practices of ironically undermining interiority and with modernist concepts of sincerity and authenticity, and, secondly, that they are not some sort of singular, randomly occurring development, but follow a performatist pattern that has been played out many times over in narrative works appearing over the last fifteen years or so. I don’t have the time or space to go into these works here, but I would refer interested readers to the bibliography and other blog entries on this website.


 

Notes

[1] Most notably Marshall Boswell in his Understanding David Foster Wallace, Columbia SC 2003, Adam Kelly in "David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction," in David Hering (ed.), Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays, Los Angeles 2010, 131-146, and Lee Konstantinou "No Bull: David Foster Wallace and Postironical Belief," in Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou (eds.), The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, Iowa City 2012, 83-122.

[2] See his Existentialist Engagement in Wallace, Eggers, and Foer: a Philosophical Analysis of Contemporary American Literature, NY 2015. Sartre actually calls this concept “authenticity”; den Dulk, following recent scholarship, redefines it as “sincerity” (170-174). The (confusing) switch of terms suggests that the concepts they stand for are situated very closely together to begin with.

[3] Separated heroes can also be found in a whole array of texts from the 1950s and early ‘60s. Camus’s Mersault in The Stranger, J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, Heinrich Böll’s Lenz in the story “Christmas Every Day,” Chief Bromden in Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Oskar Matzerath in Günter Grass’s Tin Drum are all separated characters, and they are all authentic or sincere in the sense that they are removed from society in some way and retain a certain degree of autonomy, authenticity, and selfness because of it. Unfortunately, all these characters are close to insanity; their separation makes them into misfits unable to connect to the public domain around them.

[4] Something similar has also been noted by Elizabeth Freudenthal in her "Anti-Interiority: Compulsiveness, Objectification, and Identity in Infinite Jest," New Literary History 1 (2010), though I find the concept of separation both more elegant and better grounded in philosophical tradition.

[5] I borrow this distinction from Zarifa Mamedova's Narren als Vorbilder: Die Überwindung der Postmoderne in der russischen Literatur der 1990er und 200er-Jahre, Munich 2015, in which she proposes a typological distinction between "separated" and "split" subjects, the latter acting as a bridge between separated subjects and conventional discursive rationality.  

[6] Because the author/narrator blocks access to Mario’s interiority, commentators like den Dulk are forced to project their philosophical ideas back onto his opaque, separated existence, which operates through intuition and not through reflection. Den Dulk says as much himself (182): “Mario displays this [sincere] behavior intuitively.” 
 [7] Separation incidentally doesn't mean that separated characters don't interact with other characters; it simply means that the interaction tends to be a one-way street, with the separated character remaining largely unaffected by that interaction (e.g., Mario's inability to feel pain).

[8] See Maria Bustillos, “Philosophy, Self-Help, and the Death of David Foster Wallace,” in Roger Bolger and Scott Korb (eds.), Gesturing Toward Reality: David Foster Wallace and Philosophy, NY 2014, 121-139. According to Bustillos, who had access to Wallace’s personal library, Wallace was a careful reader of Christian literature of all kinds. She thinks he was religious; his biographer T.J. Max does not. From the performatist point of view it is irrelevant whether Wallace was personally "sincere" in his religious conviction; what is crucial is his instantiation of religious conviction in Mario, AA, and other points in the novel.
[9] Marshall Boswell, for example, argues that Infinite Jest achieves a kind of closure (Understanding DFW, p. 176). Lee Konstantinou has shown how double framing works in the story “Good Old Neon,” (see "No Bull," 96-98) and suggests the term “postirony” to apply to Wallace.  Iannis Goerlandt in his "'Put Down the Book and Slowly Walk Away': Irony and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest,Critique 3 (2006), 309-328 suggests that the book provides a metalevel above the narration causing readers to "acknowledge that the novel's ambiguity [...] cannot be resolved on the level of narration" (325). 

 


 


 

Post 4

27 April 2015

Theory Smackdown: Performatism Tussles with Five Approaches to Literary Post-postmodernism  


 

As I’ve noted in my Annotated Bibliography of works on post-postmodernism, there are an awful lot of books with “after postmodernism” or “beyond postmodernism” in their titles, but very few that swallow the notion that there really is an “after.” Regarding literature, which is traditionally the place where academics begin writing cultural history, you can literally count the approaches to post-postmodernism on the fingers of one hand (if you don’t include performatism or if you have six fingers). As of this writing, we have my Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism (2000/2008), Nicoline Timmer’s Do You Feel It, Too? (2010), Robin van den Akker and Tim Vermeulen’s manifesto/website Notes on Metamodernism (2010), Christian Moraru’s Cosmodernism (2011), Mary K. Holland’s Succeeding Postmodernism (2013), and Irmtraud Huber’s Literature after Postmodernism (2014). (Alan Kirby’s Digimodernism [2009] is more about the effect of media on culture than about literature in the usual sense of the word and, in order to simplify things, won’t be treated here).

     In this post I’d like to compare these approaches directly. Obviously, I can’t discuss all the points that the other authors make or go into too much detail, but I think I can give the reader a rough idea of where the main areas of agreement and disagreement lie. As a kind of litmus test I'll use the notion of historicity to show how the different approaches position themselves in regard to the "after" in after postmodernism. Although I obviously favor you-know-what, I’ll try to present the other positions as fairly as possible (although I can’t resist a jibe or two here and there).

 

     Performatism is explicitly historical, in the sense that it treats the transition from postmodernism to post-postmodernism as an epochal change, as from Baroque to Classicism or from Romanticism to Realism.  Although starting with clear-cut oppositions, the epochal approach recognizes that there is also a great deal of transitional overlap. Sometimes elements of both systems coexist uneasily in new works, and the new system usually begins by reworking elements of the old one. 

     For example, as in postmodernism, the performatist double frame assumes that experience is constructed and not authentic or direct. Unlike postmodernism, however, performatism uses that constructedness to achieve unified forms of experience that are absolutely alien to postmod-ernism (the most important involve experiences of love, belief, beauty, and transcendence). In other words, performatist works start off with a certain norm of postmodernism (that all experience is constructed) and use it for an entirely different end and in a way that is taboo in postmodernism. You could say, I suppose, that performatism is still “dependent” on postmodernism or "filiated" with it, but this is formal hairsplitting: the values it conveys and the effects it produces are the opposite of the ones in postmodernism. 

     Also, performatism is not a return to or a repetition of modernism, which is fixated on unmediated experience, innovation, and authenticity. The driving cause behind the rise of performatism is boredom with postmodernism and not any particular political, economic, social, or media-driven source. Performatism starts, roughly speaking, in the mid 1990s.

 

     Christian Moraru speaks of a “weak epochality” regarding his cosmodernism (p. 314). Cosmodernism still “rel[ies] copiously on postmodern techniques” and doesn’t have its own stylistic paradigm (p. 316). In his view, cosmodernism starts in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.  Hence its cause is geopolitical rather than aesthetic. For this reason the beginning of cosmodernism overlaps with the end of postmodernism in the 1990s. In fact, Moraru tends to oppose cosmodernism more to modernism than to postmodernism (see p. 32), and some of his exemplary writers, like Dom Delillo and Raymond Federman, are usually regarded as classic representatives of postmod-ernism. 

     The key term in cosmodernism is “relationality,” which is also central to postmodern ethics. Relationality is the “lynchpin” of cosmodernism (p. 3) and means 

 

“the worlds ‘parts’ such as people, nation-states, ‘spheres’ (and hemispheres), ‘regions,’ ‘civilizations,’ and racial-ethnic communities coming together and being by being with each other" (p. 3). 

 

The main difference to postmodern relationality, which emphasizes the unbridgeable gap between the subject and others, is that Moraru places equal emphasis on “being-with” or “across” and “gap” (p. 23). Moraru, in other words, is hedging on difference and alterity. They are still there, but cosmodern American prose would 

 

“relate to those others and their otherness as such, to the different-as-different, along the cosmodern lines of concern and responsibility and so ‘give back,’ respond to the ‘gift’ ethically (p. 24). 

 

Moraru would also not “do away with otherness altogether” (p. 53), as, for example, Alain Badiou does. Instead, he occupies a position close to the conciliatory late poststructuralism of Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy (pp. 53-54). This may sound like philosophical nit-picking, but it is an important difference. There are positions on otherness that are no longer poststructuralist/postmodernist, and Badiou’s is definitely one of them—those interested should take a look at his short and very blunt critique of poststructuralist, Levinas-based ethics in Ethics. An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (Chapter 2, pp. 18-29). 

     Performatism itself is also no longer oriented towards difference or alterity as the starting point of ethics. Difference can be bridged (at least temporarily and performatively) through mimesis and intuition, i.e. by spontaneously imitating something positive in someone else who may be very different from you in all possible regards. The focus is on these positive points of human interaction and not on how language always manages to sandbag them before and after the fact. The performatist take on globalization is also much narrower than Moraru's and is motivated by an aesthetic, rather than a geopolitical turn. (For more on this see my article "Archetypologies of the Human" that Moraru and Amy Elias kindly included in their 2015 essay collection The Planetary Turn; for the full source see the Bibliography of Performatism). 

     All in all, Moraru’s assessment of cosmodernism as a “weak epochality” that is "not unlike" postmodernism (p. 316) also applies to this own theoretical position, which I would describe as a kind of a "soft" attitude towards cultural difference that is not unlike late poststructuralism.  Difference for him is still a problem, but it can be dealt with ethically and responsibly in the "cultural imaginary" of cosmodernist prose. Also, cosmodernism "is not postmodernism's only successor" (p. 316) and postmodernism is not "'over'" (p. 316).  The impression Moraru leaves is one of a hedgy historicism; cosmodernism is different than postmodernism but still overlaps with it and hasn't quite managed to displace it. 

 

     In her Succeeding Postmodernism (2013) Mary K. Holland seems somewhat conflicted about whether or not to declare for post-postmodernism as a historical period. First, she states that 21-st century literature is no longer postmodern:

 

“American fiction in the twenty-first century looks, reads, and feels profoundly different from twentieth-century postmodern literature […]. It displays a new faith in language and a certainty about the novel’s ability to engage in humanist pursuits that have not been seen since postmodernism shattered both in the middle of the last century” (pp. 1-2).

 

This sounds pretty up-front. However, if you read a little further you run into a whole bunch of caveats suggesting that the new trend is actually still postmodernism and that postmodernism is actually a big success because it has managed to take the its own deeply anti-humanistic understanding and use of language (which effectively subvert mediation, reconciliation, and empathy between human beings) and couple that with a humanist or Enlightenment attitude that suddenly makes all that stuff possible that postmodernism was always against:  

 

"[...] novels of the first decade of the twenty-first-century move from struggle to success, retaining the conviction that we are born into a linguistically determined world, while constructing new avenues towards meaning and meaningful human connection through signification and mediation themselves" (p. 2).

 

Towards the end of the book, Holland positively twists herself into a pretzel to avoid saying that she's actually been talking about something genuinely new:

 

"The primary goal of this book has not been to declare the end of postmodernism, or necessarily to refute that claim, or even to postulate the nature of the movement that will dethrone postmodernism, as inevitably something must, or to name that movement" (p. 199). 

 

Instead, she wants to 

 

"[...] engage with these territories of inquiry without offering an eclipsable decisiveness that would only wrest attention from readers who know better than to put their faith in it: now is not the time to do hastily and with too little information what will surely be done with more evidence and staying power many years hence" (p. 199).

 

In short, she is kicking the can on down the road. 

      The main problem with Holland, as far as I can tell, is that she has super-glued herself to the poststructural concept of language that has been academic dogma for the last forty years and can't conceive of any type of signification that is not based on a split, problematical sign (i.e., a sign that can never, ever achieve unity of meaning, affect, or perception and in fact actively undercuts all three).   

     Holland's way out of postmodernism is, depending on how you look at it, either deeply paradoxical or just plain doesn't make any sense. Postmodernism à la Hollandaise reintroduces humanism through the use of split, critical, anti-humanistic language; like Baron von Münchhausen, it grabs itself by its own shock of hair and pulls itself out of the swamp of irony and cynicism that its anti-humanistic language created in the first place. In all fairness to Holland, though, she shares this conflictedness with a lot of writers out there, the most notable being David Foster Wallace, who was undoubtedly trying to get away from postmodernism but whose language and narrative style were still steeped in it. This, however, is a topic for another blog entry. 

     Since the new (and at the same time old) trend assumes a “linguistically determined world”  based on poststructural language, Holland also doesn't have much use for performatism:

 

"Eshelman's commitment to a repaired sign-thing gap makes his vision of post-postmodernism least useful in my opinion, since it is central to my reading of twenty-first-century literature's recuperation of affect and meaning that such literature can only successfully overcome the problems of language by using a language that is inherently problematic, rather than casting back to an early idealization of organic meaning" (FN 34, p. 20).

 

Performatism, of course, doesn’t have much use for Holland, because it assumes that language use is shifting towards monist forms of signification like ostensivity and mimesis that allow for unified or unmediated communication and shut out the endless regress of hypercritical, language-based navel-gazing that constitutes poststructuralism and postmodernism. And, unlike Holland, performatism does not suggest that we are returning to humanism. The notion of the double frame assumes that texts (and other people) impose themselves on us by force. This refers to a fairly brutal, originary, anthropological state or scene (a tip of the hat here to Eric Gans's Generative Anthropology) and is not a misty-eyed "idealization of organic meaning."  

     Somewhat weirdly, Holland winds up her monograph by naming the triumphant, basically-still-postmodern-period-that- she-doesn't-want-to-name “metamodernism.” Unfortunately she does so without acknowledging the existence of Vermeulen and van den Akker’s rather similar concept of metamodernism that had been floating around the internet for three years (something unprofessional enough that Vermeulen complained about it in his review article in the American Book Review, pp. 8-9; see the Bibliography of Post-postmodernism). 

     Holland's position is probably best described as heavily conflicted posthistoricism: she sees a lot of things that don't jibe with poststructuralism and postmodernism, but she still can't tear herself away from the poststructuralist theory of language. The result is a believe-it-or-not type narrative in which postmodernist language triumphantly saves itself by reintroducing the humanist set of values that it originally set out to subvert or destroy

 

     In her Do You Feel It Too? (2010) Nicoline Timmer doesn't reflect very much (if at all) on competing notions of post-postmodernism or on the more general problem of historicity. Perhaps because of this, her argumentation (unlike Holland's) is very straightforward and to the point. She uses the phrase “post-postmodernist syndrome” to characterize David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves, and leaves it pretty much at that. For Timmer, postmodernism has been relegated to a "background" or "cultural setting" in the works of these and other writers of this generation (p. 13). The distinguishing feature of post-postmodernism is the "rehumanization" of the subject (p. 23), which she describes using a "narrative psychological approach" (p. 51 ff.). 

     To understand Timmer's arguments better, it's best to skip her lengthy justification of this approach in Chapter 2 and move on over to her Appendix (pp. 359-361), in which she provides a grab-bag list of 19 features of the post-postmodern novel that she has culled from her study. These features, which at first appear somewhat off the cuff, pack a hard historicizing punch: they all offer the clear distinctions between postmodern and post-postmodern that you need to re-start history.  Here is a paraphrase of some of the most important points:

  • post-postmodern novels have a different narrative structure than postmodern ones; this structure is needed to remedy the "existential crisis" of the self (p. 359); these novels also construct "shared frameworks of reality" (p. 361) rather than devolve into endless metacritiques of existing discourse;
  • post-postmodern novels desire some form of community and have a "structural need for a we" (p. 359); this also takes place on the level of reader reception, i.e. these novels appeal to the reader to empathize, experience a feeling of community etc.;
  • post-postmodern novels stress sameness instead of difference (p. 359);
  • human figures in these novels "long for some form of containment" (p. 359);
  • post-postmodern novels are characterized by a "willingness to belief," a "suspension of disbelief," and "taking a leap of faith" (p. 359);
  • language use in post-postmodern novels is "a function of relationships between persons" (p. 360) and not deterministic, as in postmodernism; here Timmer cites DFW who is citing Wittgenstein;
  • the "default state in the post-postmodern novel is the solipsistic experience world"; the main problem is to communicate inner feelings when one feels "empty inside" (p. 360);
  • "postmodern techniques are still used in the post-postmodern novel, but they have a different function" (p. 360);
  • post-postmodern novels still have irony, but it's not the "default mode" anymore (p. 360).

I won't go through these criteria point for point, but taken together they are more than enough to make a hard historical cut. From my own peculiar point of view, most of these statements are also compatible with performatism, though I would phrase them somewhat differently and organize them more stringently. The one major difference is the approach to language (I prefer Gans's ostensive semiotics to Wittgenstein's play with language). All in all, however, Timmer's criteria offer a reliable guide to identifying post-postmodern narrative, and, taken together, they are definitely enough to get literary history rolling again. 

 

     As of this writing, Literature after Postmodernism (2014) by Irmtraud Huber is the newest addition to the "after" genre. Apart from treating four major novelists (Mark Danielewski, Jonathan Safran Foer, Michael Chabon, and David Mitchell), Huber provides a very even-handed survey of theories of post-postmodernism in Chapter 1 (pp. 21-50), so that if you don't trust my version of things here you can always double-check with her.

     Huber has only one serious misunderstanding of my own position. This is where she suggests that my gender politics are "dubious" because I identify postmodernism with "deistic feminine formlessness" and want to reinstate a kind of theism based on the authority of the father (p. 258 FN 7). In fact, my performatist theism is an equal-opportunity enterprise allowing for both male and female deification (a good example being the movie Dogma featuring Alanis Morissette as God, which I cite on p. 232 of my book). Also, one of my former pupils, Yuan Xue, has written an entire (German-language) book using performatism to show how post-postmodern narratives construct semi-divine transgender hero-heroines (see the Performatism Bibliography), so per-formatism can't be all that male chauvinistic to begin with. 

     Huber is very cautious regarding the question of historicity She notes that "a move beyond postmodernist paradigms can be discerned" but that the change "does not seem to fit comfortably into the logic of succession" described by Pierre Bourdieu (p. 223), i.e. that the new epoch actively and dramatically negates the old one or breaks with it.  Here she quite correctly speaks of a "pervasive lack of antagonistic attitudes" (p. 224), and suggests that "[post-postmodern] reconstruction is post-Oedipal" (p. 224) and that it entails "absence, yearning and construction, instead of struggle and succession" (p. 228). 

     This is all true, but it doesn't mean that there's no epochal change where there is no dramatic rupture. Postmodernism doesn't have to be negated because it has gone flat; it's like drinking stale beer (you liked it when it was all bubbly, but you just don't want it anymore when all the spark has gone out of it). Negating postmodernism would be like beating a dead horse (or a dead shark, if you happen to think of Damien Hirst). Huber's own solution to this is to describe the development of post-postmodernism as a kind of coming-of-age story or Bildungsroman; interested readers can find her full account of this on pp. 241-254. 

     Be that as it may, Huber doesn't seem to have any practical problem with the existence of post-postmodern literature. She proposes a four-point program of her own that contains the following features, which I'll summarize briefly:

 

1) A "return to the real, though not [...] to realism" (p. 216). By this Huber means that post-postmodern literature is based on "construction" and turn towards the fictive (p. 218); post-postmodern narratives "focus on the constructive role of fictions and ask for their contribution to and responsibility towards the world we live in" (p. 218).

 

2) "Stylistic continuity with postmodernism." Postmodern aesthetic strategies are used, but in a different way than in postmodernism (p. 219). This refunctionalization of postmodern metafictional style is pragmatic and not ontological and epistemological (i.e. not concerned with showing that all discourse is a lie or doomed to failure from the start):  

"Metafiction no longer seeks to expose and deconstruct fiction's underlying premises. Instead it reconstructs fiction as precarious communication and focuses on the ways in which we draw on fictions to make sense of ourselves, our past, our present and our future" (p. 221). 

3) "A focus on communication as an intersubjective connection" (p. 216) and a "pragmatic focus on communicative bonding" (p. 221). Huber also says that post-postmodernism rejects the "arbitrary rupture at the core of the sign" (p. 221) that is crucial to postmodernism. Huber's own theoretical orientation is toward Wolfgang Iser's anthropo-logical notion of the fictive; because Iser himself was well outside the pale of poststructuralism she has no problems with alternatives to poststructural language. In any case, Huber's literary examples  

"[...] exploit the paradigmatic fictionality of the fantastic mode to explore the fictive as a communication which is successful not necessarily in the sense that it conveys a single intended meaning, but in the sense that it triggers meaning construction, that it gives rise to processes of interpretation in a creative intersubjective connection between sender and recipient" (p. 221). 

Note here that post-postmodern fiction doesn't so much create positive meaning as "processes of interpretation" based on what are essentially fictive or constructed premises. 

4) Post-postmodern texts are marked by "doubtful optimism" (p. 222); the "optimism underlying such constructions is tentative" or "remains precarious" (p. 222). Huber also suggests that such texts "posit the need for representation in order to develop meaningful relations" (p. 223), which is to say that they break with the postmodern ethics based on Levinas which assumes that human subjects are intrinsically alien and unrepresentable to one another. 

 

All these positions are basically compatible with performatism. Conversely, Huber also seems quite comfortable with the performatist double frame (see her remarks on pp. 38-39). With her "coming-of-age" story of post-postmodernism Huber proposes a gradualist version of literary history, which remains a history nonetheless. 

 

     The last approach, metamodernism, was suggested by two young Dutch cultural theorists, Tim Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, in 2010. Metamodernism is a little different in substance from the other theories listed here because up to now, it has been confined pretty much to the web. It started originally as a programmatic statement (Notes on Metamodernism) in a blog that caught on so much that it became a regular internet journal (also called Notes on Metamodernism). Tim Vermeulen tells me that a book is going to be published shortly, but since I haven't seen it, I'm basing my account on the original manifesto and the website.

     Part of metamodernism's popularity is that it is based on a fairly simple formula that goes like this:

 

"[...] metamodernism oscillates between the modern and the postmodern. It oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naiveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity." 

(pp. 5-6 of the manifesto, which says that its page numbers are "not for citation purposes." Since I'm not sure what page numbers are there for if not for citing, I'm using them anyway.)

 

And:

 

"The metamodern is constituted by the tension, no, the double-bind, of a modern desire for sens and a postmodern doubt about the sense of it all" (p. 6). 

 

This oscillation is "not a balance" (p. 6); rather

 

"it is a pendulum swinging between 2, 3, 5, 10, innumerable poles. Each time the metamodern enthusiasm swings toward fanaticism, gravity pulls it back toward irony; the moment its irony sways toward apathy, gravity pulls it back toward enthusiasm" (p. 6)

 

Essentially, you can plug whatever contrary feelings or effects are generated by a text or work of art into this formula and analyze them according to these pendulum swings or the "double bind." For example, if you take the film Birdman that I discuss in Post 3, you could say that Riggan Thomson's wildly dysfunctional stage production of a Raymond Carver story leads into postmodern apathy, whereas the transcendent ending where he turns into Birdman swings back towards metamodern enthusiasm. Because there are "innumerable poles" this kind of analysis can be made more complex, and its back-and-forth movement allows for a lot of free play between what might be called late or "soft" postmodernism and post-postmodernism. (Metamodernism is incidentally programmatically historical: "History, it seems, is moving rapidly beyond its all too hastily proclaimed end" {p. 2}).

     Metamodernism also has an epistemological dimension. This means, essentially, that it can be thought of  "as-if thinking" (p. 5) or as a construct:

 

"Metamodernism moves for the sake of moving, attempts in spite of its inevitable failure; it seeks forever a truth that it never expects to find" (p. 5)

 

This epistemology sounds suspiciously like postmodernism, which from the get-go is set towards dysfunctionality and failure and searches vainly for a constantly receding truth. 

     On the other hand, metamodernism is also said to have a historical horizon that reaches beyond postmodernism. Vermeulen and van den Akker use the term metaxis to describe this (p. 12), which they define as "impossibly, at once a place that is not a place, a territory without boundaries, a position without parameters" and as being "here, there, and nowhere" (p. 12). If this sounds confusing, it is, but I interpret it to mean that metamodernism also opens a horizon of transcendence ("a future presence that is futureless" p. 12) that exceeds the merely epistemological focus of postmodernism on truth-seeking.

     Vermeulen and van den Akker also ascribe metamodernism a neoromantic character (pp. 8-12) because of its oscillation between "enthusiasm and failure" (a quote from the early German romantic Friedrich Schlegel, p. 8) and its interest in turning the "finite into the infinite" (p. 8). I won't go into this line of argumentation any more in further detail, but a great deal depends here on how ordered you think the new epoch or "structure of feeling" is. Performatism opts for order and hierarchy (and hence gives the new epoch a neoclassical spin), whereas metamodernism "oscillates" freely like a Romanticism (for more on the neoclassical interpretation of post-postmodernism see my German-language article "Ordnungsästhetik nach der Postmoderne" listed in the Performatism Bibliography).

 

 Summary: The Consensus on Post-postmodernism

 

The above discussion has led me to two conclusions:

 

1. Cogent theories of post-postmodernism are based directly on a clean break with poststructuralist theory. Of the six approaches discussed, Mary K. Holland's metamodernism is the most tightly bonded to poststructuralist language theory and hence also the one least willing to acknowledge the end of postmodernism. Because of this, she winds up in the paradoxical (or, more properly, implausible) position of arguing that postmodernism magically renews itself by doing the opposite of what it was always all about. Christian Moraru's cosmodernism, which is oriented towards a conciliatory interpretation of Levinas and the "softened-up" late poststructuralism of Derrida and Nancy, is also correspondingly fuzzy when it comes to making sharp distinctions between postmodernism and its aftermath. Also, his focus on globalization and a geopolitical "cause" of cosmodernism blurs specific differences in literary strategy that the other, specifically literary theories key in on. 

     Of the other approaches, all have basically stopped using poststructuralist theory (although they're still acutely aware of it). Performatism uses Gans's concepts of the ostensive and recurs to philosophers like Alain Badiou and Jean-Luc Marion; Irmtraud Huber uses Wolfgang Iser's anthropological concept of the fictive; Nicoline Timmer draws on narrative psychology, and Tim Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker use their own metalanguage that is demonstrably not poststructuralist (they are careful to distinguish their notion of "oscillation" from the way the word is sometimes used in poststructuralism). None of these theories agonize any more at length about whether postmodernism is "really" over with,  and all of them actively restart the historical narrative regarding literature (although some more cautiously than others).   

 

2. There is a basic consensus on post-postmodernism.  The four approaches that break cleanly with poststructuralism--my performatism, Timmer's "post-postmodern syndrome," Huber's post-postmodernism and Vermeulen and van den Akker's metamodernism--all share certain common features that taken together will almost certainly form the basis for future discussions of post-postmodernism. These features are as follows:

  •  Post-postmodern literature is constructed, but in a way that is functionally different from postmodern literature. I refer to the device of the double frame, which I believe is specific to post-postmodernism, Timmer speaks of "shared frameworks of reality," Huber literally says "construction" and a "turn towards the fictive," and Vermeulen and van den Akker have their Kantian mode of the "as-if," which means "construct" in philosophical parlance. Post-postmodern constructs are functionally different because they are aimed at achieving the goals listed in the following points:
  • Post-postmodern literature no longer focuses on an endless critique of language, discourse and ideology, but instead seeks to create positive dyadic relations between human subjects. I speak of the positive imitation of others (mimesis), Timmer of a "structural need for a we," and Huber of "communicative bonding." Vermeulen and van den Akker don't have a specific notion of intersubjectivity, but their neoromantic mode presumably allows for it. Moraru hesitates between a "being-with" and a "gap" between humans, but I think that his concept of cos-modernism is slightly weighted towards the possibility of positive intercultural constructs. 
  • Post-postmodern literature has a basically optimistic "set" or dynamic to it, even if the end results are not always blissfully happy. This means that it focuses on sameness rather than difference (Timmer), on successful rather than unsuccessful communication (Eshelman), or has a "precarious" or "doubtful" optimism to it (Huber); I also speak of "metaphysical optimism," which is similar. Vermeulen and van den Akker see post-postmodernism as part of an oscillation between (negative) postmodern aspects and (positive) metamodern ones, whereby the metamodern ones tend to hold sway. This basic optimism chokes off, mutes, or suppresses postmodern irony, which is relegated to a secondary, kibitzing role. 
  • Post-postmodern literature opens up a horizon of potential transcendence. I speak of a distinct tendency towards theism (belief in a Higher Force of some kind) and, in narrative terms, of overcoming the double frame (creating distinct events). Timmer stresses that post-postmodernism is characterized by a "willingness to belief" and "leaps of faith," and van den Akker and Vermeulen speak of metamodern metataxis as an impossible "place without a place" (such a place is not conceivable without an experience of transcendence). Huber focuses more on the fictive and the fantastic, but I think she means essentially the same thing in a more secular guise: both fantastic fiction and theism encourage us to believe in things that are implausible. Theist stories always have a strong fantastic strain to them, and we may continue, even as believers, to entertain strong doubts about them.    

Let me state my final point as bluntly as possible. Post-postmodernism can be described in specifically historical terms that no longer depend on poststructuralist discourse. Post-postmodernism is neither a total break with postmodernism nor its miraculous extension, but rather refunctionalizes the postmodern strategy of constructing reality by aiming it at (at least) three specific goals which are unthinkable in postmodernism: 1) creating positive dyadic relations between humans, 2) suppressing endless postmodern irony through a skeptical, but basically optimistic mindset, and 3) opening up a window of transcendence that holds forth some form of hope (or, if we want to be theologically more cautious, of creating fictive, imaginary horizons that renew us ethically and psychologically).  We now have four--count 'em--four separate approaches that have reached the same or similar conclusions, and I have no doubt that the future discourse on post-postmodernism will follow the paths they have set down.  

  

 

 


 

Post 3

13 April 2015

The Performatist Challenge (More Fun than Dumping a Bucket of Ice Water over Your Head)

One of the fun things about performatism is that you can use it to actually predict what will be in new works of literature, film, or art. In my last two posts, I took a look at posthistorical criticism. This sort of criticism suggests we focus on abstractly connected “singularities” (Jameson) or “uneven, tentative local shifts” (Hoberek) in literary and cultural development. Critics of this kind usually use the modern and postmodern past as the main source of orientation, and they like to explain works of literature, film, and art by referring to the vast field of historical, economic, social and political influences outside of them. Confronted by significant aberrations from postmodern norms, posthistorical critics will either: a) reject these as trite or reactionary; b) try to reconcile them at all costs with existing poststructuralist concepts; c) explain them by referring to sociological, economic, or political causes outside of the arts or d) simply ignore them.  Because posthistorical criticism is in a constant state of denial, it isn’t able to develop a positive outlook on cultural change.

     Performatism, by contrast, offers a clear-cut categorical opposition between old and new and a positive perspective on how contemporary arts and letters are developing. And, it doesn’t try to offer armchair explanations of art, film, or literature by tapping into social science disciplines that the critic knows something (but not a whole lot) about.  

     Obviously, just offering up a clear-cut opposition isn’t proof that the distinction between postmodernism and performatism really exists. That’s where the Performatist Challenge comes in. It asks you to take the criteria I’ve developed for performatism and apply them to any artistically ambitious movie, book, or drama that you’ve recently seen or read.  These criteria (juxtaposed with their postmodern opposites) are as follows: 

 

Performatism
Postmodernism
1. Monism. Performatist works offer signs, situations, and characters that project unity. Signs tend to be simple and instantly understandable, situations are static or closed, and characters tend to have a single strong character trait that makes it easy for us to identify with them. Often, a single reconciliatory theme may dominate. The reader/viewer is encouraged to identify intuitively with these unified fields.
1. Pluralism. Postmodernism offer signs, situations, and characters that break up unity. Signs proliferate and deceive, situations dissolve and fluctuate, and we often find it difficult or impossible to identify with characters because they, too, dissolve and fluctuate. The savvy reader/viewer reacts to this by developing an ironic awareness of how unstable signs, meanings, and subjectivity really are.
2. Double Framing (narrative closure). Performatist narratives use strategies that reinforce the unified impressions and identifi-cations found in the story line. I can’t list all these strategies here, but in their strongest form they force water-tight plot resolutions upon us and close the text for the reader/viewer, who is made to identify not only with unified characters or situations, but also with the unified gesture of the work as a whole.
2. Opening the narrative Postmodern narratives use a great variety of strategies (which I can’t even begin to list here) to undermine any feeling of closure in a work. Closure is absolutely taboo because it leads to “totalization” and, by implication, to totalitarianism, oppression, phallogocentrism, victimization etc. Postmodern narratives strongly reinforce the feelings of irony and irreducible plurality developed in the story line.
3. Authoriality. In performatist works we get a strong feeling that an author is imposing his- or herself upon the reader/viewer to reinforce the monist devices and narrative double framing noted above.
3. Anti-authoriality
Postmodernism (famously) tries to kill off the author by creating ironic conundrums that make it more or less impossible to establish a fast-and-firm authorial position. 

4. Theism. In theological terms, performatist works tend to have a theist cast. This means that they tend to broach the question of whether some single Higher Force is behind things. The world is structured in such a way that this Higher Force provides some kind of hope. As a rule, though, performatist works are secular in character and not a return to old-time religion. 
4. Deism. Postmodern works tend to be structured like gnostic or cabbalistic texts. God is thought of as an infinitely receding First Cause that emits signs which can be endlessly interpreted but ultimately never be traced back to their origin. The First Cause is usually conceived of as being indifferent or downright evil, and the world appears as a gigantic trap from which there is no escape.
5. Mimesis and Intuition. Performatist works disdain dis-course, which breaks up closure and dissolves narrative and thematic unity.  Communication takes place instead through mimesis (imitation of others or providing a model for others to imitate) and through intuition, which works spontaneously and has a strong visual and sensual element. 
5. Discourse. Postmodernist texts emphasize discourse, which is to say language with a social purpose. Since these social purposes are always outside of the text (in a context), discourse works to break open or undermine any form of unity or closure as well as any direct, sensual experience of reality or a direct imitation of someone else.    
6. Ethics of Perpetration. Because performatist works empower characters and enable them to act, this means they tend to step on other people’s toes or worse. This leads to ethical problems resulting from other-wise positive acts of perpetration. Performatist ethics are also a counter-reaction to the postmodern emphasis on passive resistance and the endless, intellectualized critique of power relations. 
6. Victimary Ethics. Postmodern ethics are a reaction to modern disasters like World War II, the Holocaust, the Gulag, Hiroshima, and colonialism. This type of ethics favors passive,voiceless, peripheral victims over active, dominant, centralized perpetrators. Resistance to these other-wise all-powerful perpetrators is made possible through irony, skepticism, performative play-acting, intellectual critique, and similar strategies.
7. Belief. Performatism works by causing us to believe using formal, aesthetic means (per formam, through form). Hence the term performatism. If you finish a performatist work you will have the feeling that you have been forced to believe in something that you are deeply skeptical about. 
7. Irony and Skepticism. Postmodernism works by creating ironic skepticism towards pretty much everything. If you finish a postmodern work you will have the feeling of being disillusioned about things that you may previously have deeply believed in. 

 

Carrying out the performatist challenge means you have to accept these basic binary oppositions. If you have a higher degree in literature or cultural studies you may have a lot of trouble doing this, since everything you have learned in the course of your studies has told you that the items listed on the left side of the column are either a) bad; b) illusory; c) trivial or d) immediately reducible to the positions on the right side of the column.  If you can manage to overcome this postmodern or poststructuralist mindset, you’ll have a chance to grasp what is going on in contemporary culture in a positive way. And the odds of you finding the traits on the left column as opposed to the ones on the right are pretty good. Most novels and the overwhelming majority of films made in the last ten years will fall firmly on the left-hand side.

     I can give an idea of how the performatist challenge works by applying it myself in a quick-and-dirty way to the last film I saw in a movie theater.  The film in question is Alejandro Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning Birdman. Since I’ve only seen the movie once (and in German at that) this is not exactly a definitive scholarly analysis. However, it should help to make the basic point about what we can expect today in ambitious mainstream cultural productions. Also, it’s a good opportunity to provide a more nuanced take on the relatively rigid oppositions outlined above.

     In terms of genre, Birdman operates on several levels. First, it is a satirical film about a theater production which is in turn a dramatization of the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk about when We Talk about Love.” This takes place against the background of human conflicts among the actors and their friends and relatives. These “real” conflicts tend to get mixed up with the staged, artificial conflicts, although it is ultimately always possible to keep them apart. Secondly, the movie belongs to the sub-genre of what are sometimes called mind-f@k films. Mind-f@k films (Fight Club, Donny Darko, Close Your Eyes,Vanilla Sky, Shutter Island etc.) cause us to identify strongly with a character who either seems normal and turns out insane or who seems insane and turns out normal. What is what in these films is always revealed at the very last moment and causes us to completely revise our interpretation of the film up to then.

     The basic plot of the movie concerns an aging actor, Riggan Thomson, who is best known for his role as a schlocky superhero named Birdman.  To revive his career and achieve artistic prestige, Riggan wants to put on a serious Broadway production dramatizing the “dirty realism” of Raymond Carver, the American short-story writer who is sometimes identified with a turn away from high American postmodernism of the Kurt-Vonnegut/ Donald-Barthelme variety.  Everything keeps going wrong with the production, and Riggan, who thinks he has supernatural powers, is barely able to ward off catastrophe during the rehearsals. On top of this there are personal conflicts with a girlfriend faking pregnancy, a daughter just out of rehab, an aggressive fellow actor, and a skeptical ex-wife.

     The denouement of the film is surprising (and gimmicky). Riggan, who may or may not have attempted to commit suicide during the premiere and is in the hospital, climbs out the window of the high-rise hospital and presumably falls to his death. His daughter, who discovers the open window, first looks down in dismay but then looks upward and smiles. Riggan has become Birdman.

     First of all, there is plenty in the movie that seems postmodern.  Within the film, reality and staged reality mix freely, as do filmic reality and real-world reality (Riggan is played by Michael Keaton, an aging actor famous for his 1990s portrayal of Batman, and Edward Norton, as Mike Shiner, has played The Hulk). Also, the film satirizes theatre, social media, film, and critics.  The movie parodies digital action-film sequences, portrays actors as obsessive egomaniacs,  and ironically undermines the cheesy realism  of Carver’s dramatized story through real breaks in the frame of the play (Riggan gets locked out of the rehearsal, the Edward Norton character gets an erection while on stage, Riggan shoots his nose off in the suicide scene etc.). All this is compatible with postmodern irony and metalepsis (mixing different levels of narration to break up the feeling of narrative unity).  If we throw in all of Riggan’s dysfunctional personal relationships with girlfriends, ex-wives, daughters, and colleagues, we have a typical postmodern mess, a world in which nothing can ever go right even if we do our best.

    So isn’t the movie really postmodern? There is one major reason that it is not, and that is because of the device that I call double framing. Let’s look more closely at how it works.

Riggan, first of all, has a split personality: he appears to converse with Birdman and thinks he has Birdman’s supernatural powers. At this point, as a schizophrenic unable to tell inside from out, he is a typical postmodern character. The film, by the way, undercuts Riggan’s claim to having magical powers by showing his “supernatural” feats only when he is alone—as soon as another character enters the scene, the magical feats like levitation and psychokinesis disappear abruptly.

     Iñárritu also sets up a formal cinematographic unity around Riggan by using digitized tricks to make the film look as if it were shot in one take (something done before by Alfred Hitchcock in Rope with clever manual editing and by Aleksandr Sokurov in The Russian Ark using lots of post-production touch-ups). The effect is closer to Sokurov than to Hitchcock: we have the feeling of following Riggan around constantly from day till night, mainly in the narrow corridors of the theater where the play is being produced. 

     As numerous reviewers have pointed out, this leads to feeling that the film was shot in one take and that we are watching an incredible, indeed almost superhuman job of acting. In any case, we are made to identify with Riggan in a formally very intense, cinematographically unified way.  We could call this way of presenting Riggan the inner frame of the film. This formally unified frame (as noted above) is thematically ambivalent. Riggan is probably crazy, and though he’s well-meaning, he’s not very good at relationships. Our identification with him is, correspondingly, split: we may feel for him a little because he’s nuts, or because we secretly identify with his superman fantasies, or because his private life is so screwed up, but until the last minute of the movie he’s not anything really all that special. 

     The last scene in the movie, however, changes everything. In this scene, the narration flip-flops, and the person entering the hospital room (Riggan’s daughter) confirms with her smile that he has flown away. This “trick” or “gimmick” is what I call the outer frame:  it reverses the whole logic of the movie up until then and forces us to accept the fact that Riggan has magical powers. Rationally, of course, we know he doesn’t have magical powers, but there is no way we can “disprove” that he does—the outer narrative frame doesn’t allow for any doubt.  You may not like the gimmicky ending—Salon magazine’s Andrew O’Hehir called it a “dopey magic-realist escape valve”—but it is a unified gesture that changes the entire spin of the film. Instead of the story of a screwed-up, half-crazy loser, we have the story of a messed-up artist who not only endures, but who becomes one with the figure he embodies (and in the process also manages to transcend the boundaries of three artistic media—film, literature, and theatre).

     The real “hero” of the film is of course not Riggan, but performative art itself. The movie shows how a talented individual transcends not only the crap in his everyday life but also the critical discourses and media influences that are weighing in on him from outside.  Most reviewers seem to have understood this, even though several found the ending hokey: Birdman has a 93% positive rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website. And, of course, the film worked perfectly on a very real performative level: it raked in four Oscars and got Keaton the Golden Globe for his undoubtedly stellar acting performance.  

     How does the movie line up if we apply the criteria from the Performatist Challenge?

 

Point 1 (monism vs. pluralism in the story line) at first seems pretty postmodern. The hero doesn’t seem to have all his marbles, he’s not the world’s most likable or stable guy, and he’s constantly buffeted by outside influences beyond his control. 

Point 2 (double frame vs. narrative openness) goes one-sidedly to the performatist column. The double frame is a game-changer that causes us to completely reevaluate the inner frame and turn Riggan from a loser into an artistic superhero.

Point 3 (authoriality vs. killing off the author) is also one-sidedly performatist. Only a very willful author could set you up for that gimmicky ending. The “author,” of course, is the unified organizing force behind the film and not Iñárritu personally, although if you do look at his other movies you’ll find that he does something very similar in each one. (Those interested in a performatist analysis of his movie Babel should take a look at my article that’s coming out soon in a collection of essays called The Planetary Turn edited by Christian Moraru and Amy Elias; for the exact source see the Performatism Bibliography).

Point 4 (theism vs. deism) doesn’t play much of a role in the movie, as far as I can tell (I’d have to watch it again though on DVD or read the script to look for God-talk; I saw the movie about a month ago and don’t have all the dialogue in my head). Implicit in the movie's ending is however the possibility of some form of artistically mediated transcendence.

Point 5 (mimesis and intuition vs. discourse) tends toward the performatist side because of the way it ascribes acting (i.e., imitating the behavior of others artistically) magical or transcendent powers.  Discourse, on the other hand, doesn’t come off too well: there’s an incredibly nasty theatre critic who writes her reviews without seeing the pieces, and the film makes fun of social media and its primitive voyeurism (as in that by now iconic scene with Michael Keaton running in his underwear through Times Square).

Point 6 (ethics of perpetration vs. ethics of victimization) doesn’t appear as a big issue in the film, which is more about aesthetics than ethics. Riggan may (or may not) let a stage light fall on a lousy actor’s head, and his daughter spits on a passerby during a game of “truth or dare,” but as a rule this is a film about performing well rather than doing good or bad. In any case there are mild acts of violence against others by two of the central characters, and Riggan turns out to be a (super)hero rather than a victim.

Point 7 (belief vs. skepticism) goes easily to performatism. The film is in fact nothing more than a giant trap set up to make us believe in its hero. If you are super-critical about this trap, then you can’t take the film seriously because you can’t accept its main formal premise. Like many other performatist works, this one gives you a clear choice: take it or leave it.

 

If we tally up the results, we see that performatist devices, themes, and strategies dominate one-sidedly over post-modern ones. Of course, postmodern patterns are always clearly visible in the background. However, the reason they are there is not because Iñárritu is pining away with nostalgia for postmodernism, but because he needs its clichés to set up the performatist punchline (until the very end we think that Riggan is just another sad-sack postmodernist hero).

     The skeptical reader may still be inclined to ask “so what if a film turns the tables on postmodernism with a cheap trick?” The problem is that this sort of “cheap trick” isn’t a singular event (as Jameson might imagine) or a “tentative local shift” as Hoberek would have it. It’s a device that is singular only in the sense that it surprises us when we watch the movie for the first time. Otherwise, it is everything other than singular: it’s part of a much larger performatist pattern that I—with total confidence—predict will repeat itself in some way in whatever contemporary movie you watch or whatever book you read in the near future. Try it out for yourself and see!  

 


 


 

Post 2 

1 April 2015

The Prison-house of Postmodernism.

On Fredric Jameson’s “The Aesthetics of Singularity”

 

In my first post, I pointed out that almost all academics today subscribe to the notion of posthistoricism, meaning simply that they see the present (and also the future) as slightly modified extensions of the past. Accordingly, they explain current developments that seem to deviate sharply from postmodernism by either tweaking existing poststructuralist theories or “rethinking” them in a way that lets them keep on using them without any substantial changes. The result is an attitude that, if translated into regular English, sounds like “things in culture are changing, kind of—but not enough for us to really have to worry about them all that much.”

     When I saw on several Facebook posts that Fredric Jameson, the most eminent theoretician of postmodernism, had come out with a reassessment of the postmodernism theory that he had helped found, I was naturally intrigued. Would he actually address the problem of post-postmodernism? Would he break the posthistorical mold? 

     Some hope was offered by Jameson’s theory of postmodern-ism itself. Because Jameson is a Marxist, he retains an interest in History, and because his methodology retains elements of good old structuralism, he is quite capable of making binary distinctions between old and new. In fact, the major advantage of his seminal essay “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” from 1984 is quite simply that it makes a clear distinction between modernism and postmodernism that the competition doesn’t.  Francois Lyotard’s definition in The Postmodern Condition actually applies best to late modernism and not the Andy-Warhol-style postmodernism that Jameson explains so well, and Brian McHale’s otherwise useful structuralist definition of literature (in Postmodernist Fiction) hopelessly mixes up the categories of epistemology and ontology. Because of this, I’m a big fan of Jameson’s. If I have students who are clueless about postmodernism, the first thing I do is e-mail them a PDF of his famous article and tell them to work their way through it (Jameson is a notoriously difficult writer).

     So what does Jameson actually say in “The Aesthetics of Singularity” (New Left Review, March 2015)? As my title suggests, Jameson (unfortunately) remains in same posthistorical rut as almost everyone else. However, it’s a good opportunity to show the problems involved even with very sophisticated posthistorical thinking and also to highlight the alternative offered by performatism.

     Jameson begins his analysis of the "ontology of the present" by acknowledging that postmodernism as a stylistic system is for all purposes pretty much over with. As he admits, “insofar as the word post­modernism designated an artistic style as such, it has certainly become outmoded in the thirty years since I first used the term” (p. 104). You might think this would be a really good time to take a closer look at what has replaced that style (just like Jameson did in his original 1984 article). Jameson, though, is interested in something bigger, what he calls “postmodernity.” In fact, he says he would have been better off calling “postmodernism” “postmodernity” from the very start: “for I had in mind not a style but a historical period, one in which all kinds of things, from economics to politics, from the arts to technology, from daily life to international rela­tions, had changed for good” (p. 104).  

     But what does this new “historical period” look like? What makes it different from other historical periods? Part of this answer is Marxist (but also just common knowledge, the kind you get from reading the papers if you still do). Jameson says that one of the main differences between now and back then (the 70s and 80s) is globalization and certain exaggerated kinds of financial speculation, most notably with derivatives. Most people (including myself) could subscribe to that without too much difficulty. The argument becomes weird, though, when Jameson turns back to culture. This is because the “new” culture which he describes is almost exactly the same as the “old” culture of postmodernism he outlined so vividly in the 1980s. In particular, Jameson offers up his notion of “pastiche” as an explanation of “postmodernity,” pastiche meaning “the simulation of the past and its dead styles, a little like Borges’s Pierre Menard copying Don Quixote word for word three centuries later” (p. 106). So what Jameson is in effect saying is that pastiche (as a specifically postmodern stylistic strategy that appropriates older stuff in a deadpan, ironic way) lives on in his more encompassing category of “postmodernity.” The “new” part of this familiar argument is the focus on singularity, which is to say on things, events, or strategies that resist universalization and that seem to be unrepeatable in their being, a “pure present without a past or future” (p. 113).

     Jameson then turns to the problem of aesthetics and beauty per se. I don’t follow the art world systematically, but based on Jameson’s remarks on beauty and art I get the impression that he either hasn’t left the house for the last twenty years or, more likely, has internalized the unwritten code of posthistoricism, which means that you can pretty much ignore anything that doesn’t fit into your postmodern mindset. First, he says that “the beautiful […] has […] in the age of images, lost all power either as an effect or an ideal” (p. 107). This will come as a big surprise to anyone who has followed the booming academic discussion on beauty that started with Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just (1999) and similar works. It will also come as a surprise to anyone who has noticed the resurgence of non-conceptual, non-ironic art that many people think produces beauty in the good old Kantian way (without concepts, without norms, and intuitively—these works grab you by the heart when you look at them). To top it off, Jameson uses as examples Damien Hirst and his dead shark (p. 108) and the concept artist Jenny Holzer, both of whom are about as postmodern and ironic as you can get. So in terms of art history, we’re pretty much back where we started.

     I’ll skip a detailed discussion of the second part of Jameson’s article, which is on economics and, in particular, on derivatives, those shady bundles of “fictitious securities” (p. 117) that resulted in the financial crash of 2008. In his mind, they represent a kind of financial analogy to postmodern texts and works of art (which as pastiche or simulacra also don’t have any particular substance to them). Jameson’s take on derivatives sounds pretty good, but as a guy with a degree in Slavic Literature I don’t feel especially competent to judge just how important they are for the capitalist economy as a whole, or whether proper regulation (Elizabeth Warren, where are you?) is enough to keep them in check. This is the point in expansive “cultural critiques” where I always think it might be nice to consult someone who has some sort of specialized knowledge about how these things work.

     In the third part of his discussion, Jameson turns to ideas, and, more specifically, to an explicit defense of posthistoricism. Jameson suggests that part of the third stage of capitalist development (i.e. postmodernity) is marked by singularity, which he defines as

 

“[…] something unique which resists the general and the universalizing (let alone the totalizing); in that sense, the concept of singularity is itself a singular one, for it can have no general content, and is merely a designation for what resists all subsumption under abstract or universal categories.” (p. 126)

 

Subsumption, for its part (which is bad),

 

“[…] means turning heterogeneities into homogeneities, subsuming them under abstractions (which are by definition idealisms), standardizing the multiplicity of the world and making it into that terrible thing that was to have been avoided at all costs, namely the One as such.” (p. 119)

 

The focus on singularity (which is analogous to the singularity of art objects like Hirst’s dead shark and financial objects like derivatives) and on resisting totalization is a standard feature of postmodern philosophy. As a good Marxist, Jameson adds that it has contradictions that “cannot be solved philosophically” (p. 126), but my general impression is that he can live with this kind of thinking pretty well (he’s certainly not interested in locking dialectical horns with any philosophy outside of it). Whatever the case, both “aesthetics” and “ideas” turn out to be postmodern. There is nary a hint of any counter-trend or different path of development. And indeed it's hard to imagine how there can be. For if there really is a post-postmodern (performatist) "style" that runs counter to the materialist base of "postmodernity" Jameson's whole construct would fly apart at the seams.  

     If you have the feeling by now that Jameson has painted himself solidly into a posthistorical corner, you are right, and Jameson even seems to have this feeling himself. Thus he notes that there is even a danger that we might abolish temporality itself (p. 120):

 

“It is obvious that the deconstruction of postmodernity in terms of a dominant of space over time cannot ever, for the temporal beings we are, mean the utter abolition of temporal­ity, however melodramatically I may have staged our current temporal situation in the essay referred to above. We have here rather to do with an inquiry into the status of time in a regime of spatiality; and this will mean, not Bergson’s reified or spatialized temporality, but rather some­thing closer to the abolition, or at least the repression, of historicity.” (p. 120)

 

Non-academics may need a crowbar and a dictionary of philosophy to get through this passage. What Jameson is saying, though, is that we are pretty much in a posthistorical situation where very little will change in an across-the-board, “historical” or epochally defined way. The only thing that keeps what is left of history going are violent or destructive shifts in spatiality (Jameson cites the various “square” movements like Tianmen, Tahrir, Occupy etc.) and singularity, which is by nature not totally predictable. (I’m simplifying his arguments here, but not a whole lot.) 

     Jameson ends with what might be called a Marxist version of the spatialization argument used frequently in cultural studies:

 

“This is why, as our system becomes ever more abstract, it is appropriate to substitute a more abstract diagnosis, namely the displacement of time by space as a systemic dominant, and the effacement of traditional tem­porality by those multiple forms of spatiality we call globalization. This is the framework in which we can now review the fortunes of singularity as a cultural and psychological experience, before passing on to its ultimate realization in politics today.” (p. 128)

 

Jameson’s strategy and his basic attitude are fairly typical of present-day academic thinking. First, he’s not interested in a discrete analysis of “style” or “form” above and beyond what he did around thirty years ago.  Secondly, he ties everything together in a very large package (“postmodernity”) and connects its various realms (art, food, philosophy, economics, politics) by way of analogy. Thirdly, he is pretty sure that we can explain any changes in that system through spatial analysis, i.e. charting individual, singular shifts in its make-up. The result is a self-fulfilling posthistorical prophecy: postmodernity will continue on indefinitely because from the very beginning it’s impossible to create any historical or temporal alternative to it. 

     Performatism is, if anything, about finding this alternative. This would involve, as a direct counter-program:

  • writing the discrete history of (post-postmodern) style or form that Jameson isn't interested in;
  • avoiding argument by analogy and focusing on functional relations within discrete spheres of cultural activity; we can still talk about their political implications without trying to ground them in a vast, vaguely defined socio-economic category ("postmodernity," or whatever);
  • start analyzing the massive deviations from postmodern art, theory, literature and finding new concepts and theories to do so, even if these deviate from postmodern orthodoxy.

 


 

 Post 1. The Misery of Posthistoricism, 23 March 2015

 

If you start talking to any literary scholar today about what he or she thinks about post-postmodernism, you’ll almost always get the same type of answer. First, they won’t have any trouble agreeing that there have been pretty significant changes in literature and the arts in the last twenty years or so. In fact, they’ll probably freely admit that postmodernism has become predictable, and that something new is in the works. However, if you suggest that these pretty significant changes might be part of a consistent pattern that can actually be named, they’ll quickly switch to an argument that sounds something like this: “Well, yes, hmmm, of course, but the situation is really hard to get a handle on, there’s a lot going on out there.” And, if you try to narrow the conversation down to a single author who you are quite sure isn’t postmodern anymore (because you’ve just spent six months writing a 10,000-word article on her), you’ll get the reply “Oh no, she’s totally postmodern—there’s no doubt about it!” Further conversation reveals that your interlocutor, while keenly interested in new developments in literature and theory, doesn’t have the slightest interest in parting with his or her poststructuralist methodology, which is in turn tightly intertwined with the postmodernism aesthetics that you're trying to overcome.

     I’ve had this conversation with colleagues so many times that it’s practically archetypal. The reason for this attitude isn’t based on lack of knowledge or indifference (it’s not that my colleagues don’t know anything or don’t care about contemporary trends in literature). The reason is that almost everyone in present-day academia has bought into a broadly defined, methodologically very comfortable position called posthistoricism. What is posthistoricism, then, and why has it become such a problem except to its countless practitioners? 

     When I started studying Slavic literature in the early 1980s, it was still common practice to talk about epochs or “epochal thresholds,” especially in regard to (fairly) recent developments like the modernist avant-garde. The basic idea was that epochs are complex norm and value systems that have certain invariant, core aspects as well as many shifting, variant ones. We were aware that it was difficult to draw clear boundaries, but that wasn’t really the point. The point was that understanding core aspects of specifically literary norm and value systems made it easier to talk about individual authors or developments that had no direct connection with one another, and it made it easier to make distinctions between writers at different stages of literary development. Nobody would “confuse” the way Pushkin writes with the way that Dostoevsky writes. However it’s important to understand that Pushkin and Dostoevsky (with all their idiosyncrasies) were neither lonely geniuses nor mere functions of discursive fields but were also shaped strongly by two very different literary norm and value systems called, respectively, romanticism and realism. Most of my posthistorical colleagues (even if they don’t like the idea of epochs) wouldn’t have any trouble agreeing with this, and in fact most scholars still use these notions when talking about literary developments before 1900 or so.

     The problems start when poststructuralist (posthistorical) methodology gets tangled up with the period (postmodernism) that it is being used to describe. The conundrum goes something like this. Posthistorical thinking (which is itself of course has a history of its own—it started with Foucault in the late 1960s) denies that there are categorical slices of normative time called “epochs” relating to discrete systems like literature or art. Instead, it says that literary production is an effect of power relations governed by discourse, and that literary production is in fact intertwined with an awful lot of discourses (political, economic, medical, legal, whatever). Instead of being divided into temporal chunks (epochs) literature is spatialized, which is to say spread out among the many overlapping discourses that make up our social life. Discourse analysis of this kind dissolves literature as an autonomous system but at the same time shows how it interacts dynamically with all kinds of other things going on around it.  There’s nothing wrong with this kind of approach as such, and in fact it’s enriched literary criticism and greatly broadened the scope of literary studies. (I’ve also used it myself, so I have absolutely nothing against it as a matter of principle.)

 

A Brief Excursus on the Term “Episteme” and Why We Should Stop Using It

What I’ve just described is the discursive approach to literature pioneered by Foucault. In his early phase, Foucault also proposed another, much more grandiose idea called the episteme (which he incidentally later dropped, for very good reasons). The episteme refers to a way of knowing that supposedly encompassed all forms of discourse in a certain segment of cultural development. At first this may sound something like the notion of an epoch. The catch here is that one episteme can’t have anything to do with another—for Foucault there was absolutely no continuity between them.  Also, the episteme is all-encompassing: it is supposed to apply not just to the arts but also to all forms of science, such as economics, biology, physics etc. Foucault made a very impressive case in The Order of Things (1969) for this kind of anti-historical thinking (it’s a brilliant book).  However this case crumbles quickly at second glance. First, Foucault had to sweep a great many continuous chains of thought under the rug (Seán Burke has demonstrated this nicely in his The Death and Return of the Author, Edinburgh 1992, pp. 63-115). Secondly, beginning with the 20th century, it became increasingly difficult to know enough about hard science to place it within a “way of knowing” that would also encompass things like art and literature (Foucault  was smart enough not to even try it).

     Foucault also made one very important stipulation: you can’t describe an episteme while you’re in it yourself. In other words, you can’t know your own way of knowing (to do so you would have to be in another episteme outside your own).  If you take all this into consideration, the episteme is pretty much worthless for describing post-postmodernism. For one, we can’t describe the new episteme in full empirical terms (you would have to show how today’s economics, physics, and biology operate with the same tacit ways of organizing reality that art and literature do). For another, we can’t describe our own way of knowing (we would have to be both in it and beyond it at the same time).

     In spite of this, the term “episteme” is still used a great deal by academics and has in fact entirely displaced the good old “epoch.” “Episteme” is, unfortunately, nothing more than a giant weasel word. It suggests that its user has an all-encompassing knowledge of knowledge (usually she just knows a lot about literature and maybe something about sociology or art or psychoanalysis or whatever). And, it suggests that its user is able to describe the way she is knowing from an outside position (which in the case of post-postmodernism doesn’t yet exist). The episteme also has other drawbacks if you take its original definition seriously. If you follow its logic, post-postmodernism would have to be an absolute break with postmodernism; it would represent a massive shift in discursive practice that stands postmodern-ism entirely on its head and is entirely unconnected with it.  For all these reasons I’ve stopped using the word “episteme” entirely and returned to using “epoch” (and would advise everyone else to do the same). “Epoch” may not sound very fancy, but it has four big advantages:

  • it focuses on literature (or other arts) as a more or less discrete system of norms and values;
  • it doesn’t imply that you know everything about everything when you don’t;
  • it allows you to make functional distinctions between old and new epochs. New epochs don’t have to be complete breaks with old ones; they can take formal aspects of old epochs and use them in new and different ways;
  • you can apply the term “epoch” right away because you don’t have to have a complete overview of a “way of knowing” that encompasses all discourse.   

But back to the problem of posthistoricism.

     Posthistorical thought isn’t just confined to Foucault. It includes such things as Baudrillard’s notion of history wildly spiraling out of control or Derrida’s definition of the event. As Derrida points out, any presumably “new” thing must necessarily always have been anticipated  by the discourse of which it was always already a part (everything “new” must necessarily also involve a repositioning of something old). Then there is Lacanian psychoanalysis, which is ahistorical to begin with, or Deleuze’s notion of virtuality, according to which different “sheets” of time overlap and actualize virtual images, or Hayden White’s critique of historiography that reduces historical narratives to four alternating tropes; the list goes on and on. While these various versions of posthistory are not always compatible and sometimes mutually contradictory, they nonetheless form a vast, authoritative field of reference for most scholars today. Indeed, one great advantage of posthistorical thought is that you don't have to "worry" about epochs any more—they simply dissolve in the interplay of various discourses and previously existing chains of signs.        

     The problem with posthistoricism is not so much whether it is right or wrong. Rather, at some point it becomes part of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If history is either governed by overlapping sets of discourse, or if newness is always already anticipated, or if history is made up of wildly proliferating chains of virtual signs, then why bother trying to describe anything new in a systematic way when it can be readily assimilated to what already exists? This is, in fact, the position still taken by the majority of academics, and it explains the massive resistance to the idea of a new historical epoch that would be categorically opposed to postmodernism.   

     Posthistorical analysis would have gone on happily forever if it hadn't bumped into a real historical problem—the end of postmodernism.   Around the year 2000 it had become clear to almost everyone that  a) postmodernist irony was becoming predictable, annoying, and boring b) that there were a lot of new works coming out that didn’t “feel” postmodern. 

     My reaction to this was to work out a set of concepts that would go beyond “feeling” and try to describe what these innovations were and explain them in functional terms, i.e. as literary devices. For example, the new kind of narrative was very often marked by closure, which is an absolute no-no in postmodernism (postmodernists think it sets us out on a totalitarian road to perdition). I tried to explain closure as one of several literary devices being used in a new way, not to promote totalizing authority, but to squelch postmodern irony and create an artificial frame in which things like love, belief, and transcendence could be experienced anew. The result was a historical theory called performatism which presented a clear conceptual alternative to postmodernism and poststructuralism (and which, as far as I can tell, has not set us off on the Highway to Hell).

     Posthistorical thinking works in exactly the opposite way. Since it assumes that anything new has always already been anticipated by something old and that literary systems are governed by a wide variety of different discourses that spatialize and diffuse them, there was no great rush to address the problem of literary or cultural innovation. In fact, between the year 2000 (when my first article appeared) and the year 2008 (when my book on performatism came out), only two collections of essays on post-postmodernism appeared. In the first collection, edited by Klaus Stierstorfer, about half the contributors didn’t even bother to address the question of post-postmodernism (they simply kept on talking about postmodernism as if it were still alive and kicking; Peter V. Zima, for example, wrote a prematurely optimistic essay entitled "Why the Postmodern Age Will Last").  A few of the contributors (Ihab Hassan, Vera Nünning) did actually allow for a possibility of post-postmodernism but remained vague about what it would look like.

     In the second collection, which was edited by Andrew Hoberek and appeared in the journal Twentieth Century Literature in 2008, seven fairly young (as far as I can tell) scholars managed to completely avoid committing themselves to statements any more binding than “there’s a lot of different stuff going on out there.” In several cases, when it came down to brass tacks, it turned out some of them didn’t really like the innovations connected with post-postmodernism at all (see Samuel Cohen’s put-down of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex for using—God-forbid—narrative closure). And, all the authors spent a great deal of their time and energy trying to reconcile the new developments as best they could with existing poststructuralist theory.  What could have been a milestone in literary history turned out to be a gigantic posthistorical dud. 

     To give a concrete idea of how this works in practice, let’s take a look at Andrew Hoberek’s “Introduction” to the collection of essays entitled “After Postmodernism” that appeared in the above-mentioned Twentieth Century Literature special edition in 2008. The crux of Hoberek’s posthistorical argument can be found in this paragraph:

 

"First, if contemporary fiction is indeed post-postmodern, this does not exemplify some singular, dramatic, readily visible cultural transformation—the search for which in fact constitutes a postmodern preoccupation—but grows out of a range of uneven, tentative, local shifts that in some cases reach back into the postmodern period and can now be understood in hindsight as intimations of a new order. And as a corollary, these shifts can be apprehended neither in wholly aesthetic nor wholly historical terms but only in the intersections of specific stylistic and historical phenomena." (241)

 

Hoberek uses two concepts I noted above. The first is the postmodern, Foucauldian idea of the episteme (“a singular, dramatic, readily visible cultural transformation” that is a "postmodern preoccupation"). The second is a discursive concept of literature (“a range of uneven, tentative, local shifts” that “can be apprehended neither in wholly aesthetic nor wholly historical terms”). Hoberek quite rightly rejects the episteme (which requires a sudden, wholesale shift in ways of knowing that not even Foucault believed in anymore) and opts for the discursive model, which suggests a plurality of small, uneven, discursively governed shifts that can only be interpreted retroactively. Typically, he separates “aesthetics” or “style” (i.e., the study of literature per se) from “history,” which refers to the various discursive forces acting upon literature. Note that he does not think that “style” or “aesthetics” has a history of its own. Instead, “stylistic” and “historical” phenomena intersect in so many ways that they pretty much make any systematic or categorical description impossible from the start. The result is a posthistorical jumble of individual changes in literary practice unconnected by any sort of overarching pattern:

 

"If, as I have already suggested, American fiction has entered a phase of as-yet uncategorized diversity similar to the one that prevailed following World War II, then the proper response to this shift consists neither of assertions of postmodernism's continued relevance nor of sweeping declarations of a potential successor but rather of concrete analyses of literary form and the historical conditions that shape it." (240) 

 

On the one hand, Hoberek doesn't believe that postmodernism is “relevant,” but on the other, his posthistorical position keeps him from looking for something that might replace it. Instead, he would prefer to muddle through the literary present using “concrete analyses of literary form and the historical conditions that shape it.” (Note that “literary form” is  dependent on non-literary, diffuse “historical conditions,” thus making it impossible to make any coherent statements about literary or epochal history to begin with.) The result is a more sophisticated formulation of the attitudes I cited at the beginning:“there’s a lot of stuff going on out there that’s hard to get a handle on” and “poststructuralist theory says we don't have to worry about epochal change anymore, so why bother!” 

     As long as this type of posthistorical thinking prevails there we won’t make much headway in defining post-postmodernism. Fortunately, there are signs that things are slowly changing. Several younger authors have recently come out with books that acknowledge and describe functional differences between postmodernism and a “something after.” But that’s a topic for another day.