- Becoming Postmodern?
Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth’s Sequel to History: Postmodernism and the Crisis of Representational Time addresses a problem that has been all too long neglected in studies of contemporary avant-garde art and thought: the concept of temporality. Although postmodernism’s relationship to and construction of space, time, and historicity has been discussed with some frequency in more general accounts, there has not so far been any book-length study focused in particular on postmodernism and temporality. In its attempt to fill this theoretical gap, Ermarth’s book must be welcome to any reader interested in postmodern theories and practices.
Ermarth analyzes the problem of temporality within the general framework of poststructuralist theory as well as the more specific one of narrative structure. The three theoretical chapters that constitute the bulk of her book explore the ramifications of her central thesis: postmodern theory and postmodern art replace the %historical temporality% which has dominated Western thought since the Renaissance with the concept of %rhythmic time%. Chapter One, “Time Off the Track,” defines historical temporality as a convention that emerged in the Renaissance and came to inform all the most important forms of Western knowledge. As a “realistic” or “representational” device,
historical time [is] a convention that belongs to a major, generally unexamined article of cultural faith . . . : the belief in a temporal medium that is neutral and homogeneous and that, consequently, makes possible those mutually informative measurements between one historical moment and another that support most forms of knowledge current in the West and that we customarily call “science.” History has become a commanding metanarrative, perhaps %the% metanarrative in Western discourse.(20)
Postmodernism radically subverts this convention by relying on a “rhythmic time” which is no longer a transcendent and neutral medium “in” or “on” which events take place as in a container or on a road stretching to infinity. Rather, rhythmic time is coextensive with the event and does not allow the subject to distance itself from it, but collapses the two and binds both of them in language. It is a “time of experiment, improvisation, adventure”:
Because rhythmic time is an exploratory repetition, because it is over when it’s over and exists for its duration only and then disappears into some other rhythm, any “I” or ego or %cogito% exists only for the same duration and then disappears with that sea change or undergoes transformation into some new state of being. What used to be called the individual consciousness has attained a more multivocal and systemic identity.(53)
This new type of identity, the topic of Ermarth’s second chapter entitled “Multilevel Thinking,” renders humanist and Cartesian notions of individuality obsolete, since the subject now exists in an irreducible multiplicity of perspectives and moments of awareness and becomes indistinguishable from the object. Ultimately, it turns out to be a construct of language, as Ermarth details in her third chapter, “Time and Language”:
If time is no longer a neutral medium, a place of exchange between self-identical objects and subjects and “in” which language functions, then the language sequence—especially in the expanded theoretical sense of discourse—becomes the only site where temporality can be located and where consciousness can be said to exist.(140)
In one of her most interesting theoretical moves, Ermarth describes this innovative linguistic constellation in terms of the medieval notion of %figura%, in opposition to the modern concept of %image%. In contrast to the image, the term %figura% for Ermarth emphasizes an understanding of the linguistic sign as reflexive rather than as representational, as a value within a system rather than as an indicator of some external reality. In the medieval as in the postmodern figura, the sign attains an “absolute” status insofar as it is not separate from the reality it is linked to, but coextensive with it. “[In postmodernism] [t]ime and subject %are% the figure,” Ermarth concludes, “and there is no ‘other side’ to it, except in some other figure” (181).
Each of the three theoretical chapters is followed by a “rhythm section” which illustrates the theory through an...