The Postmodern Split:Poetry, Theory, and the Metaphysics That Would Not Die
Postmodernism, in spite of its exaggerations and myopias, has left us with many gifts, including two strains of the critical tradition that struggle to reconcile with each other. Those strains grow from two undeniable truths: that the self can never occupy the space of the other, nor can the self extricate the other from its nature. Given the conflict between these truths, the postmodern resistance to metaphysics can never be quite as rigorous as it imagines, since the self, as inextricable from what it can never be, must be an object of faith, its origin and agency rooted in an eclipsed otherness beyond our capacity to witness or understand. A sense of this eclipse, acknowledged or not, haunts the contradictions of recent critical and literary culture, a postmodern approach that, in rejecting metaphysical models of meaning for more politically exigent and skeptical forms of rigor, has adopted a faith in the limits of our language as the limits of our world. In spite of this shift, metaphysical assumptions, embedded in that language, stubbornly persist. We are what we are not, which is to say we embody vast reaches of reverie, memory, and incommunicable nightmare, the mysteries of both free will and all that circumscribes it. In us and before us, an otherness persists, intuited by way of its effects, by the ghosts of missing presences among our most immediate objects of experience: our bodies, our psyches, our silences, and the words we speak.
Since to say the word “I” is to invoke both a self and an other, the word has a little of poetry’s penchant for paradox in it. As a yoking of opposites, it is mythic. It does what the poetic imagination does constantly in our daily discourse: it creates a language for something we [End Page 558] intuit as beyond our language. It goes where reason cannot. It speaks the unspeakable, clarifies our felt relation to it, our sense of ontological wonder, hunger, and awe. If we accept that poetry is by definition a metaphysical activity, speculative in ways that summon faith, then the phrase “postmodern poetry” seems a bit of an oxymoron. Admittedly, the word “postmodern” blurs from abuse and overuse, though in poetry criticism it has come to describe poets who follow in the theoretical footsteps of Jacques Derrida, who, in rejecting naive notions of meaning as a stable essence buried in words, would in general resist affirmations of the real as something buried and, so, beyond appearance. This spirit of disciplined resistance is not new with Derrida and continental philosophy of the postwar years. Rather it is an intensification of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological method that prides itself on rigorous adherence to immanent data; to being as appearance, as embodied in the near at hand. Husserl, in defiance of Kantian speculations about “the thing in itself” as something apart from the mind’s categories of space and time, would “bracket off” from consideration all that lies beyond the realm of immediate experience. So too a postmodern sensibility would bracket off or discredit notions of the buried self as a center or ground, out of which grows consciousness as we know it.
A creative and critical culture devoted to skeptical rigor has engendered the poetic sensibility that Marjorie Perloff describes in defense of “language” poetry, a movement self-identified with a postmodernism that “no longer recognizes such ‘depth models’ as inside/outside, essence/ appearance, latent/manifest, authenticity/inauthenticity, signifier/signified, or depth/surface.”1 The political resonance of this defiance is in turn a demythologizing of the “self-made” man, defined apart from his social context, affirmed within a capitalist system that views individual freedom as exaggerated and success as consistent with character. Unfortunately, postmodernist rhetoric, granted license as polemic, often falls victim to a reductio ad absurdum akin to the essentialist exaggerations that it would critique. To eliminate depth models, for instance, is to eliminate the conscious/unconscious duality, and so the metaphysical contributions of the psychoanalytic tradition must go—and with them our intimations of hidden desires, histories, and fears. The postmodern rejection of depth models implies a rejection of our sense of the unseen mind in the felt mysteries of its emergence.
It is one thing to say that the self cannot be autonomous or an impervious monad, something other than fundamentally relational; it is another thing to say that the self does not exist or that we have succeeded, [End Page 559] by way of skeptical rigor, in dismantling the concept as meaningful. That is a bit like saying that because our behavior is to a large degree determined by our culture, we have no will at all. The experience of freedom is relevant here, since it lies at the core of our intuitive experience of selfhood. Naturally we can conclude that the self, as an object of metaphysics, does not exist, or that we have no way of knowing that it exists, though our language and behavior continue to assert precisely the opposite. The experience of self-agency as a felt phenomenon has become impossible to extricate from the process and production of meaning. Those who would “transcend the self” have already conceded that there is something to transcend. To transcend a self is to be led to the limits of language, to see a world beyond it, and so, from a postmodern point of view, to embrace an illusion. Poems risk just such an embrace constantly, but with the felt sense that fictions articulate what is genuine in our relation to something beyond our fictive structures.
“Yet the absence of the imagination,” writes Wallace Stevens, “had/ itself to be imagined.”2 That said, he continues, in the face of a contradictory aestheticism, to try to get outside the imagination that he so celebrates, obsessively hungering for the greater context. Stevens realizes that the imagination loves a problem. It loves a state of irresolution wherein desire for being continues to animate poetry as both homage and testament to that desire. True, Stevens is in the Romantic tradition, such that he sees the poet as a “metaphysician in the dark,” looking to the unseen in the seen.3 Many poets conceive of their calling differently. But I would argue that even poets who profess postmodernism cannot avoid what is endemic to metaphors that would subvert or dismantle the notion of subjectivity. Even such poets sign their names to their works. The postmodern denial of depth models, including those that make meaningful the concept of self, has led to a host of epistemological problems, the most extreme of which being the conception of language as one vast self-referring system that constitutes the entirety of our experience. Given the instability of signs, the totalizing of experience as semiotic leads to the greatest absurdities, which bear little relation to the sense of the real and the authentic as they continue to inform our sense of what is at stake in and outside of language.
Even as the spell of unreality conjured by much postmodern hyperbole subsides—as it becomes increasingly obvious that the real, as merely socially constructed, ceases to fulfill the definition of the real—the antimetaphysical strain of postmodern thought carries forward a phenomenological ideal of tough-mindedness, of paying close attention to [End Page 560] the near at hand. But the near at hand, viewed as inextricable from the way we view it, tends to suggest something metaphysical, namely that what appears closest to us, one’s own body for instance, eludes reliable representation or understanding. To talk this way is to call upon a metaphysical intuition of something outside of representation. In this sense, the immanent bears characteristics of the transcendent, and much of the speculative poetry since the Romantics increasingly registers the confusion, paradox, and wonder of the immanent as distant, the familiar, seen through the clarifying lens of the poem, as strange.
Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistic theory is extremely helpful in focusing the divergent trends of influence that have given rise to a postmodern and paradoxical view of language and its relation to subjectivity. In particular, his notion that all meaning in language appears by virtue of context and the relational production of difference suggests two fundamental principles: (1) All meaning has a private dimension since no two contexts are the same, and (2) all meaning is unstable since contexts shift and evolve. One can see in these simple insights the seeds of current critical thought. Language is both an individual and a collective medium. It is where the private and the public find their most heated and meaningful tension. To reiterate, the self cannot occupy the space of the other, nor can it extricate otherness from its nature.
These two notions have given birth to a divide in critical culture, a postmodern split. Whereas a reader-response critic might emphasize the former, a more ideological critic might emphasize the latter, such that ideological associations in language need to be clear and stable enough to suggest political consequence and significance. When both interpretive play and collective connectivity appear to permeate the totality of consciousness, we see more sharply the postmodern split: all poems become political, and yet the political resonance and efficacy become diffuse, thanks to language’s fundamental instability and openness to interpretation. Taken together, the two points of emphasis can become useful if each perspective is not radicalized into absurdity but rather tempered by the other.
The postmodern split has led many to reconcile the divergent points of emphasis by politicizing semiotic closure itself and, via a close association of form and meaning, formal closure. We see such strategies in Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, where a sense of narrative closure correlates to the forces of imperialist hegemony one finds in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Likewise an ironically limited reading of form appears in Ron Silliman’s essay “The New Sentence,” [End Page 561] where syntactical models of coherence suggest hegemonic centering. Such arguments give support to the attack on lyric form where formal closure provides a language for semiotic closure, and a tighter and more obviously structured musicality figures as both a metaphor for and embodiment of exclusionary control.
The irony of the sometimes strict association of formal closure with semiotic closure is that the interpretive play available to a poem’s meaning becomes less available to form as metaphor, so that recursiveness in lyric and narrative form narrows its connotations to that of hegemony, ego, essentialism, and control. Lyric practice thus rather strongly implies ideology, which it can do, but not without a residue of irony due to the exclusive interpretive practice that interprets the lyric in that way. The sentence can likewise suggest hegemony, but it might also signify psychic integration, for that matter, where the parts of the mind are now talking to one another. It could model sanity as a genuinely healthy dynamic of psychic connectivity.
When one adds to Saussure’s insights Wittgenstein’s sense that the limits of our language are the limits of our world, then nothing in consciousness remains immune to the destabilizing contextual nature of semiotics. The self, as semiotically constructed, suffers the same fate and enjoys the same freedoms as all sign systems. As an added complication, the collectivity critical to self-construction is a product of both culture and the individual, for each self bears a slightly different collectivity, or rather a different mess of competing collectivities. Sameness cannot exist, only similitude. The insidious pursuit of sameness is a familiar postmodern theme, symptomatic of not only a naïveté but also a hegemonic intolerance of difference, the kind critiqued by Foucault in his account of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, the eighteenth-century architectural structure wherein one can oversee and regulate all the inmates in an institution.
What the postmodern split suggests is that each individual within an institution is something of a cultural construct and yet, in spite of institutional oversight, invisible to that culture. Each subjectivity is a monad, insofar as it cannot be dismantled, passed on, or fully understood by others, but no subjectivity is autonomous. The epistemology regarding the “self” gets caught up in a debate between, on the one hand, a desire to liberate the individual and, on the other, a need to call into question the very concept of the individual.
In literary studies, the strain on the word “self” finds its correlative in the strain on the word “text.” Take for example Stanley Fish’s famous [End Page 562] monograph Is There a Text in This Class? where the author examines the tenuous nature of the category “text” as something with an essentialized and objectified nature.4 He then points to the role of interpretive communities as sanctioning strategies whereby the senses of textual authority and identity are constructed. Fish’s work provides a useful illustration of how the postmodern split would attempt to reconcile the divergent tendencies in contemporary thought that spring from the insight into meaning’s contextual basis. Like many critics of our time, Fish seeks to bring reader-response theory, with its more introverted individualism, into greater recognition of textual authority as a social construct. He represents an attempt to reconcile some of the more useful insights of reader-response theory with a more ideological and community-based criticism that increasingly supersedes it. He recognizes the sense of selfhood as embedded in collective otherness, but that otherness remains as vague, as inextricably other, as the concepts in reader-response theory that he would attack.
While the self cannot occupy the other nor extricate itself from otherness in part because the “self” is too blurry to constitute a bounded phenomenon, the same can be said for the concept of community. Nevertheless Fish’s theory must deploy the concepts of “individual” and “communal” to give any shape to his argument. In Fish we see evidence of how the culture wars of the Reagan era aroused in the academic world a greater hunger for political conviction at the expense of a more rigorously philosophical scrutiny of the contradictory discourse and slackened attentions that such conviction would engender. Ethics, or more precisely, politics, increasingly trumped aesthetics and epistemology in ways that moved the mainstream of literary studies away from expertise in the values most salient in poetry, a mode of writing conceived not simply as a formal discipline but as a mode of imaginative investigation where the dense, polysemous conflation of subjects and objects make political analysis problematic.
This is not to say that Fish is unconcerned with epistemology, but his epistemology is not terribly subtle, in ways that become more obvious with the passage of time. Since the focus in Fish’s monograph is on pedagogy and the politics of the classroom, Fish concerns himself especially with the role that power plays in rendering certain readings of texts “acceptable.” In so doing, he exposes the epistemological shakiness of certain categories recycled by those less savvy to the contextual nature of meaning. His point of view thus carries forward something of the insights of previous reader-response criticism in moving toward [End Page 563] a greater scrutiny of the untenable essentialism implicit in such categories as “text,” but likewise his work has a decidedly political resonance that argues for less centralization of authority, particularly in matters of pedagogy and critical reception. Thus reader-response’s emphasis on the relative nature of the individual finds its correlative in the relative nature of interpretive community. On the other hand, Fish cannot make his argument without deploying the very categories that he chooses to dismantle, and a similar irony pervades the work of numerous theorists who would set aside the very metaphysics that they cannot escape.
A more inclusive phenomenology of reading would need to take into consideration the centrality of the urgent sense of the real, what Wallace Stevens calls the “pressure of the real.” While the imagination cannot fully accommodate the real, according to Stevens, the imagination loses vitality without it:
By pressure of reality, I mean the pressure of an external event or events on the consciousness to the exclusion of any power of contemplation. . . . We are confronting . . . a set of events, not only beyond our power to tranquillize them in the mind, beyond our power to reduce them and metamorphose them, but events that stir the emotions to violence that engage us in what is direct and immediate and real . . . a pressure real enough and prolonged enough to bring about the end of one era in the history of the imagination and, if so, then great enough to bring about the beginning of an era.5
The pressure of the real might likewise be dubbed the pressure of necessity, and via this pressure ethics, as a mode of receptivity to otherness, forges its close relationship with epistemology. We might feel the pressure of the real most acutely when, for example, we read a newspaper in times of crisis, times that undermine the luxury of some radical relativism that rushes to defend the decentering of meaning as a form of liberation.
Tragedy asserts hierarchy. The sentence “The Holocaust happened” registers a sense of the real with a greater pressure of necessity than the sentence “Textual meaning is simply the product of interpretive communities.” A horrifying look at the interpretive community that refuses to believe the first sentence might suggest as much. To be fair, Fish’s concern is with literary texts, which by definition are open to interpretation, but his statements appear more categorical, as evidenced by the repeated lack of qualification to the word “text.” If the argument is that [End Page 564] our reading of literary texts (by definition interpretively open) is relativized by community, the statement is nearly circular and not much of a claim. He has simply added the social contingency of the self. Fish’s rhetoric depends upon a grandeur of hyperbole characteristic of the performative theatricality of much French theory.
More important, Fish’s essay famously attacking Wolfgang Iser demonstrates some of the recalcitrant metaphysical gesturing that cannot be extricated from our experience of language.6 This essay, though from 1981, has once again become the subject of greater scrutiny thanks in part to a more recent paper by Michael Bérubé, who sees in Fish’s attack a critical crossroads in terms of the weakening of reader-response theory in favor of a greater emphasis on the social construction of meaning.7 The implication is that Fish’s critique was hugely influential in ways that beg a closer reevaluation. The reexamination relevant to the question of the metaphysics might focus not so much on the difference between Fish and Iser as their similarity.
The notion that Fish deploys categories that he would dismantle is ironic, since this resembles the very strategy that he accuses Wolfgang Iser of deploying. First Fish must call into question Iser’s essentialized notion of text. As Fish states:
[Iser declares] “the text itself . . . offers ‘schematized aspects’ through which the actual subject matter of the work can be produced.” . . . Iser is able to maintain this position because he regards the text as a part of the world (even though the process it sets in motion is not).
The phrase “the text itself” has a decidedly New Critical ring to it and hardly characterizes the main thrust of Iser’s emphasis on the key interpretive agency of the reader. Fish exercises just such an agency as he later offers a reading of Fielding’s Tom Jones contrary to Iser’s and concludes:
If gaps are not built into the text, but appear (or do not appear) as a consequence of particular interpretive strategies, then there is no distinction between what the text gives and what the reader supplies. . . . I am not saying that it is impossible to give an account of Tom Jones which depends on a distinction between what is in the text and what the reader is moved, by gaps in the text, to supply; it is just that the distinction itself is an assumption which, when it informs an act of literary description, will produce the phenomena it purports to describe. [End Page 565]
Once again, Fish’s initial claim is barely a claim. Of course it is possible to give an account of Tom Jones in any number of ways. The larger claim is that the assumption of distinctions produces the phenomena of distinctions. If one does not recognize the critical metaphysics in language charged with necessity and the pressure of the real, then the problem Fish notes becomes the problem of all distinctions as products of interpretation. No distinction can be cleansed of the ghost of subjectivity engaged in the elusive process we intuit in the dialogically perceived nature of “relations.” Distinctions are only perceived as “produced” by some interpretation relative to some alterity that is the thing we would interpret. Fish does not explore a basis for distinctions among distinctions. This explains the rhetorical strategies of claims such as the sentence “I am not saying that it is impossible to give an account.” This claim risks and says very little. Fish wishes to back off from a privileging of distinctions here, though he focuses on Iser’s distinctions and, by virtue of selective dismantling, implicates Iser’s hierarchy in what those distinctions promote.
In the debate between reader-response criticism and community-based literary theory, it is not simply textual objectivity that comes under extreme pressure as untenable but the related category, associated with Iser, of a text being “in the world.” We may easily attack the blurriness of some imagined objective status that lies outside the act of reading, but we could say the same thing about the agreed-upon nature of readers and communities. Where are these if not “in the world” and thus accessible to Fish’s categorical statements about them? Fish’s very argument routinely employs both the category of “text” and “reader,” as if he might displace the unreliable epistemological status of the former with the equally unreliable status of the latter.
One might additionally ask the question, is there a reader in this class? Or: Is there a community? Where exactly? Is not community a bit phantasmal, something no eye can see in its identifying boundaries? Are we not asked to exercise faith by intuiting a large structure such as a community from its inevitably dissimilar effects? Is not the identifiable dynamic of any community subject to individual interpretation, and are not individuals in turn deeply conflicted and provisional in their constructions? Because cultural constructions are subject to the imaginations of individuals, a liberal discourse on collective identity finds itself deploying categories its sensitivities to individual difference would dismantle. [End Page 566]
A criticism disciplined, like a poem, to the felt nature of experience requires a taste for nuance, for matters of degree, and for self-awareness about the limits of its approach. Differences of degree are messy and thus do not lend themselves readily to theory as a systematic practice or to political polemics. As we see in the ironies of radical relativism, a “systemless system” is still a system, which a poem cannot credibly be.
The irony is that, so long as critical theory pursues a tack that radicalizes its sense of language as characterizing the whole of consciousness, its pursuit of rigor will exacerbate its lack thereof—that is, it will prefer a seemingly tough-minded, theoretical skepticism to the more elusive discipline of ontological description, a technique closer in spirit to that of poetry. Theory in denial of its metaphysics misses the subtlety necessary to register the crucial summons to the faith that makes language possible. It fails to fully complicate the epistemological status of “communal and individual agencies” as both problematic, contingent on unknown alterities, and yet oddly indispensable to our sense of purpose. It turns away from the dark, intuitive heart of both epistemology and its ethical bearing, away from the role that the pressure of necessity plays in the production of critical discourse and our sense of why it matters. Theory fails to fully appreciate, as Heidegger did, that at the growing tip of thought, of new meaning, coming into being is an encounter with and manifestation of a mindfulness, less theoretical or systematic than it is creatively ontological and therefore, in some measure, poetic.
1. Marjorie Perloff, “Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject,” Critical Inquiry 23 (1999): 406.
2. Wallace Stevens, “The Plain Sense of Things,” Collected Poetry and Prose, ed. Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson (New York: Library of America, 1997), p. 428.
3. Wallace Stevens, “Of Modern Poetry,” Collected Poetry and Prose, p. 218.
4. Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).
5. Wallace Stevens, “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” The Necessary Angel (New York: Random House, 1951), pp. 20, 22. [End Page 567]
6. Stanley Fish, “Why No One’s Afraid of Wolfgang Iser,” Diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism 11, no. 1 (1981): 2–13. scribd.com/document/188278948/Fish-Stanley-Why-No-One-s-Afraid-of-Wolfgang-Iser.
7. Michael Bérubé, “There is Nothing Inside the Text, or, Why No One’s Heard of Wolfgang Iser,” in Postmodern Sophistry: Stanley Fish and the Critical Enterprise, ed. Gary A. Olson and Lynn Worsham (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004), pp. 11–26. [End Page 568]