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  • Foucault, Pynchon, Hybridity, Ethics
  • Frank Palmeri

In what might be understood as tracing a paradigm shift in postmodern culture (Kuhn), practicing an archaeology of the contemporary (Foucault), or reporting on the conditions of current knowledge (Lyotard), this essay suggests that a moment of high postmodernism dominant in the sixties, seventies, and eighties has been succeeded by two forms of cultural expression that have continuities with, yet depart from, this cultural mode and stand in contrast to each other. A new structure of thought and expression that I call other than postmodern remains the less prominent and popular mode, by contrast with a late postmodernism that has been the dominant form of production in the nineties and the first years of the new century.1 To define what is other than postmodern, the argument here focuses on the careers and works of Michel Foucault and Thomas Pynchon, noting briefly the works of others as well; by contrast, The X-Files will serve as an instance of the late postmodern, along with other works in the genre of conspiratorial science fiction.

As I understand it, postmodernism—like modernism or romanticism—combines elements of both a period and a mode. If it is defined solely as a mode of cultural expression or a set of formal features, the result is an unmooring from historical circumstances. Conversely, if it is defined solely as a period, the result is a reifying of a zeitgeist that may have little or no empirical content, and whose boundaries may be arbitrary and debatable. Thus, postmodernism encompasses a set of concerns and formal operations—including a frequent use of irony, satire, and pastiche, an interest in the layering of historical interpretations, and a strong paranoid strand—while also signifying the period from the mid-sixties until perhaps the present when most, but not necessarily all, of these features have been prominent. For the purposes of the argument here, I will focus on the significant role played in many postmodern works by paranoid visions of history as controlled by powerful but nameless forces or conspirators. As Leo Braudy has pointed out, such visions inform the novels of Pynchon, Mailer, and Heller, and we might add films such as The Conversation (1974), and television series such as The Prisoner (1968). To such a list, Patrick O’Donnell and Timothy Melley have added works by Kathy Acker, Margaret Atwood, Don DeLillo, Philip K. Dick, Joseph McElroy, and Ishmael Reed.

Despite the emphasis on paranoia in this essay, I do not define postmodernism solely by reference to the strength or prominence of a single element. Rather, a whole configuration of features and operations—including its relation to the cultural and political moment—is crucial in determining the cultural paradigm in which a work participates, whether modern, postmodern, or late postmodern. For example, Freud formulated an influential theory of paranoia, but his thought on the subject does not therefore become postmodern. The Freudian concept of paranoia designates a form of mental illness that has a personal, sexual etiology and meaning; by contrast, paranoia carries a central, social, and political import in the postmodern works of Pynchon, DeLillo, and others. The content of the concept differs in such cases, and so do the cultural configurations in which it plays a part. Similarly, I would not define the modern solely by reference to its reliance on the liberal humanist subject. When, for instance, works such as The X-Files and The Matrix attempt to recuperate an autonomous individual subject that has been dissolved in many ways by earlier versions of postmodernism, they do not therefore return to a modernist cultural moment; their attempted restoration takes place in the context of global conspiracy theories more powerful and ominous than the ordering structures envisioned in the narratives of Joyce, Woolf, or Faulkner.

Jean-François Lyotard has focused on the postmodern skepticism about master narratives and totalizing ideologies; Linda Hutcheon has stressed the parodic and ironic element that pervades postmodernism, as well as its interest in history as opposed to myth. Although the focus here on paranoia in postmodernism might appear to be at odds with Lyotard’s and Hutcheon’s understandings of the postmodern, I believe it...

Additional Information

ISSN
1053-1920
Launched on MUSE
2001-10-27
Open Access
No
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