- Editor’s Preface
With its suspicion of structure, closure, and narrative form, with its endorsement of the liminal, “minor literature,” and the petit récit, “postmodernism” appears to be a conflicted and problematic site for the reinvestigation of how narrative represents (even as non-representable) such configurations as “identity,” “history,” the “aesthetic,” or “nation.” Indeed, as Robert Siegle suggests in the closing essay of this special issue of MFS on “Postmodern Narratives,” the indefinability of “postmodernism” as site-its proclamation of its own non-location-can be seen as one of its primary selling points. Whenever the term comes up, a bevy of questions arise: what is postmodernism? is it a period, an epoch, a style, a paradigm, or an assemblage of strategies? is it political or apolitical? is it “real” (in the sense that “modernism,” or the “the Renaissance” are real as critical/ cultural constructs that we have naturalized as historical/aesthetic epochs) or a critical invention that complicates and subverts the very concepts of periodicity, epoch, the relation between writing and the “real”? And then there is the much-advertised death of the postmodern (which is to say, the death of the form of modernism that postmodernism always was) and the contrivance of something beyond the modern-postmodern nexus or rupture-the “avant-pop” in one camp avatar, though there are a multitude of others currently available. 1
Assembling a group of essays under the heading of “Postmodern Narratives,” then, may seem both anachronistic and contradictory, save that the tense of many manifestations of postmodernity has been that of the outdated proleptic (that is, in the mode of “back to the future”), and the issue of narrativity at the center of many debates about postmodernism. To negotiate the relation between postmodernism and narrative, or [End Page 1] rather, to conceive of the possibility of a postmodern narrative, is to attempt a comprehension of how a representation (narrative) frames the “real” under circumstances where objects and events are part of an infinite network of manifestations arbitrarily attached to their significances which interact both at random and in the perceptible patterns we term “story,” “history,” “narrative.” Discussing Antonioni’s Blow-Up, perhaps “the last great modernist film,” Slavoj Zizek recalls the scene in which the protagonist, searching for clues to the identity of a murderer, happens upon a tennis court where people are playing tennis, but without a tennis ball: the audience sees the players swinging their racquets and hears the sound of the ball striking them, but there is no ball to be seen. Zizek suggests that this modernist moment, in which “the game works without an object,” is the reversal of postmodernism, which
consists not in demonstrating that the game works without an object, that the play is set in motion by a central absence, but rather in displaying the object directly, allowing it to make visible its own indifferent and arbitrary character. The same object can function successively as a disgusting reject and as a sublime, charismatic apparition: the difference, strictly structural, does not pertain to the “effective properties” of the object, but only to its place in the symbolic order. 2
Conceived under these conditions, postmodern narrative becomes a process through which objects, events, and identities are represented as assemblages of “effects” (significances, consequences, circumstances) within the symbolic order of the narrative itself. One of the crucial issues of postmodern narrative becomes, then, how these representations are formed, and upon what sets of assumptions about identity and history, or connection and difference, they depend as the symptomatic relation between their elements and the frames that dubiously “contain” them is forged. This is “limit-work” of a serious kind, and the essays gathered here, in various ways, test the limits (and limitations) of the postmodern by attempting to come to terms with what can be narrated within the postmodern condition, and how narration can take place.
We begin, appropriately, at the end with Thomas B. Byers’ “Terminating the Postmodern”; here, Byers argues that the rearticulation of masculinity observable in such Reagan-Bush era films as Terminator 2 comes [End Page 2] about as the result of anxieties about the performative fluidity of postmodern identity which...