The problem of time in postmodernity has not often enough been pursued capably, so it is good to see the kind of effort reflected in Ursula Heise’s Chronoschisms. The book has three chapters: “Chronoschisms” summarizes prior critical treatments of the problem; “Time Forks and Time Loops” considers literary texts by Cortazar, Robbe-Grillet, and Beckett; and “Post-histories” considers how works by Pynchon and Brooke-Rose reflect new, postmodern experiences of time.
The project is worth undertaking, and Heise writes well, dealing primarily with literature from the 1960s to the 1970s, and with a “cultural scenario” reaching from the 1960s until today. A central concern is to compare the “mainstream” texts of “high modernist” and “postmodernist” fiction. For example, she offers valuable comparisons with Woolf and other precursors in her discussion of Christine Brooke-Rose’s novel Out. The strengths of the book lie in her summary discussions of individual texts, where she links them through a vocabulary that has been developed by others (one wishes, though, that she had been more thorough in her indication of sources), and which thus contributes to a common conversation. Because of her interdisciplinary competence, Heise’s extended descriptions of individual novels provide interesting intersections between authors; she is an imaginative reader.
The weaknesses of this book stem partly from the narrowness of Heise’s cultural and historical focus on “postmodernism,” and partly from her failures both to respect and to acknowledge her sources and to attain the modesty of claim (though not of hypothesis) that are characteristic of mature work; these are not easy to achieve but they are essential to the very conversation in which the book aspires to participate.
Heise’s comparative agenda, which is most welcome and which she undertakes confidently, is compromised by the choice to limit her cultural analysis to the period from the 1960s to the present, a relatively short period for considering any cultural change, and perhaps especially the change indicated by the term “postmodernism.” Partly because of this chosen limitation, the book falters on unresolved and sometimes unrecognized problems of definition. The word “postmodernism” can [End Page 1105] indicate the fairly local twentieth-century squabble between modernism and later work—and this is the horizon in which Heise uses the term—or it can indicate a much larger cultural shift involving, say, five hundred years of “modernity.” Treatments like Heise’s, in failing to consider that narrower horizons determine narrower results, are in danger of begging the central questions they raise. Without this context, it is hard to tell what is radical and what is not, and too easy to develop incomplete comparisons.
For example, a novel that situates the action “in the future” (a phrase frequently used by Heise to describe alternate temporalities) still deals with history, however exotic its technological “sci-fi” trappings. The “future” of ordinary usage does not exist at all in the time of postmodernity, because that time is always a dimension of events and has no way to become the historical medium of humanism. Alternate tracks of “evolution” are nothing new; they can be found in the works of H. G. Wells and Darwin.
The limitation of the argument to a 40-year period accounts at least partly for other unwitting distortions that fan out into the discussions of particular texts. Heise speculates in her introduction, for instance, that in postmodernism “the time of the individual mind no longer functions as an alternative to social time.” When did it ever? Depending on what is meant by the “individual mind,” one could and probably should say that it was born along with the idea of “society” in post-enlightenment Europe; it is Foucault’s “founding subject.” What preceded it was something quite different from this “individual”: something more like a “cogito” or, in Anglo-American tradition, something trailing even more clouds of glory but still the same cosmic concept belonging to an era when “society” in our sense did not exist; it, too, was invented in the nineteenth century.
Although the larger frame is not strictly necessary, without it...