- History, Community, Spirituality:Keywords for Rethinking Postmodernism?
What could be less controversial than defining the postmodern as an epoch characterized by problems of historicity and community, or as the endstage of the history of secularization? In Fredric Jameson's massively influential characterization, the postmodern is marked by its historical depthlessness: it is an age unable to think the present historically. And the "paranoid" novelists at the center of one version of the postmodern literary canon proposed that free will is an illusion, and that forces both vast and mysterious control our actions. As early as 1971, Tony Tanner had identified a fear of institutional control as the defining feature of post-1950 American fiction.1 God(s) had left not only the building, but the universe; to the extent that these novels imagined an invisible dimension surrounding daily life, it was largely in their analysis of secular conspiracy rather than in spiritual transcendence. [End Page 398]
But recent years have seen an outpouring of criticism complicating these grand narratives of an age and a literature axiomatically skeptical of grand narratives, and the two books under review here are welcome additions to a body of new work aiming to rethink conventional ways of classifying contemporary literature and the idea of the postmodern. As my title suggests, these books take on one or more of the established claims about the period, and although both begin by examining authors central to most literary histories of the period, they go on to argue for and delineate sometimes unexpected links among authors usually considered part of separate traditions. Timothy Parrish's From the Civil War to the Apocalypse: Postmodern History and American Fiction suggests that it isn't simply that postmodern fiction has historiographic interests, as critics such as Linda Hutcheon have suggested, but that it should be read as a form of history, while John A. McClure's Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison reveals the profound spiritual questions animating a number of post-1945 novels.
We might broadly characterize recent revisionist attempts to historicize the post-1945 period in two ways. First, Wendy Steiner and Amy Hungerford have each suggested that the most pernicious division of the twentieth-century canon is the separation of experimental, "postmodern" narrative from the work of women and minorities, a division that—unsurprisingly—often valorizes aesthetic innovation yet ignores, say, the narrative experimentation of an Ishmael Reed, a Toni Morrison, or a Samuel Delany, as if there were no links between the postwar African American novel and the postmodern reinvention of narrative form.2 Second, critics have recovered the social vision of writers such as Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, finding that theories of the postmodern—however useful they may have been—have left us with an impoverished sense of these authors' works: Ursula K. Heise, for instance, in her provocative introduction of [End Page 399] risk theory into literary studies, has suggested that two "postmodern" authors—DeLillo and Richard Powers—are actually exploring questions of real cultural urgency through their interrogations of contemporary accidents and environmental toxicity; their narratives should be seen, in Heise's account, as an attempt to develop literary forms adequate to new understandings of global risk and connectivity.3
In a nod to that most "postmodern" of artists, Prince, Hungerford writes of "the period formerly known as contemporary" that future critics will continue to call into question the categories we have used to classify the literature of the last half century by recognizing the substantive affinities between supposedly separate strains of twentieth-century writing. She cites Mark McGurl's pathbreaking work on the role of the writing program, for instance, which argues that the technical "expertise" of experimentation is just another form of identity construction and should be understood in ways largely contiguous with the demands of multicultural representation...