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Afterword: Reconstructing Postmodernism

From: Narrative
Volume 21, Number 3, October 2013
pp. 357-364 | 10.1353/nar.2013.0020

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reconstructing Postmodernism

As one of the first epigraphs in my epigraph-heavy book on Postmodernist Fiction (1987), I quoted the irrepressible American experimentalist, Steve Katz, from an interview he gave to Larry McCaffery around 1980:

I don’t think the ideas were “in the air” . . . rather, all of us found ourselves at the same stoplights in different cities at the same time. When the lights changed, we all crossed the streets.

Opportunistically, I seized on Katz’s wittily unpretentious figure of speech as a convenient metaphor for the literary-historical mechanism that I thought was responsible for the emergence of postmodernism in fiction. Resisting the model of Zeitgeist that McCaffery had offered him, Katz suggests that a number of American writers, independently of each other, had all arrived at the same aesthetic threshold at about the same time, not because they were implementing some theoretical project—ideas “in the air”—or because they were in communication with each other (which would not happen until sometime later, after the fact), but as a consequence of the shared literary-historical situation in which they all found themselves. According to this account, the breakthrough to postmodernism in fiction—or Katz’s breakthrough, anyway—is [End Page 357] not theory-driven, nor is it facilitated by membership in some avant-garde circle or coterie or movement (which would only come into being later); rather, it is a consequence of the internal logic of genre.

Katz’s metaphor proposed what seemed to me confirmation—all the more valuable because it came from an insider and eyewitness—of the model of literary dynamics that I adapted from the Russian Formalists. According to this model, when a genre has exhausted its possibilities, it renovates or replenishes itself by shuffling the hierarchy of its features, subordinating the features that had formerly been dominant, and promoting formerly subordinate features to positions of dominance. The language of exhaustion and replenishment is of course John Barth’s, but the model of change of dominant is ultimately Roman Jakobson’s. In my view, the modernist novel’s radical exploration of epistemology was in the process of exhausting itself in the middle decades of the twentieth century, in such texts as William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée (1938), Samuel Beckett’s Murphy (1938), Vladimir Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1947), and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie (1957), among many others. What emerged from modernism’s midcentury impasse was a different set of priorities for fiction. Already anticipated in the last chapters of Absalom, Absalom!, this new mode privileged questions of world-making and modes of being over questions of perception and knowing: it was ontological in its orientation, where modernism had been epistemological.

In many respects, this account accords perfectly with one of the least contentious definitions of postmodernism: “a main international current of literature and art after the waning of modernism, both continuous and discontinuous with modernism,” as Wang Ning restates it in his essay in this issue. However, my account differs in one important respect from this consensus definition: it decisively locates the mechanism of change from modernism to postmodernism inside literary history, inside the logic of genre. Other theorists in the 1980s placed the mechanism outside: J.-F. Lyotard, in the crisis of confidence in the master-narratives that had formerly underwritten Western culture; Fredric Jameson and David Harvey, in the mutation of capitalism itself into a form whose cultural consequences could be traced in the artistic products of post-modernity; and so on. Nevertheless, I was confident that I had identified part of the explanation for the change, if not the whole of it. Postmodernism was a phenomenon complex enough to be multiply over-determined, externally as well as internally.

My confidence about having identified the internal logic of postmodernism’s emergence in fiction—a mechanism, if not the mechanism of change—led to over-confidence about that mechanism’s scope, indeed its universality. Glossing Steve Katz’s metaphor, I wrote this:

The logic of literary history brought writers in various cities...