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BUFFALO/BALTIMORE, ATHENS/DALLAS: JOHN BARTH,DON DELILLOAND THE CITIESOF POSTMODERNISM Thomas Cannichae/ In his reflections upon the spirit of place in recent fiction, John Barth remarks that the setting as metaphor is a function of the discourse within which it is situated. Perhaps predictably, Barth insists that the proper function of the trope of place in contemporary fiction is to be found in a postmodern reconciliation of competing claims: "realism and antirealism, linearity and nonlinearity, continuity and discontinuity"; however, as the narrator of Poe's "The Man of the Crowd," reminds us, to decipher the figural truth in an urban landscape might well mean the pursuit of a text that will "not permit itself to be read." 1 Nevertheless, Barth's reflections suggest the ways in which, in both his own fiction and in the work of Don DeLillo, the site of the narrative's unfolding is always the sign and context of a particular postmodern attitude. As the scene of the dead repetitions of history and of the dispersal of the self, the city in the fiction of both authors is an exemplary sign of the anxieties of the postmodern condition, one which surely echoes the panicky amnesia of the culture of the simulacrum and the "[postmodern] fascination with a degraded landscape." 2 But this is only one side of the postmodern rewriting of the city; in postmodern fiction we also confront the ironic encoding of the city as a positive site of resistance to the master tropes of cultural authority, and particularly those of the modernist tradition. Both these attitudes can be found in postmodern fiction, and often they are found together in the same text as signs of the ambivalence that resides at the heart of postmodern culture. Mark Davis has suggested that what is presented here as a postmodern ambivalence is no more than a reflection of a slippage that leads to a confusion of "the experience of (post)modernity" with "the vision of postmodernism." 3 However, this confusion might be precisely the point: to consider the city in postmodern fiction is to recognize that at the level of the 242 Thomas Carmichael significant trope of place the city is the uneasy and often simultaneous projection of both the vision and the experience of postmodernity, and these competing impulses are perhaps our best guides to the ways in which the city might be understood within the metaphoric economy of postmodern narrative. Attempts to theorize the field of postmodern culture inevitably have been led to confront the full play of postmodern parody and the double movement characteristic of postmodern irony. One of the earliest and best known of these formulations belongs to Ihab Hassan, through his assertion of a postmodern "ambilectic" or the "double tendency" of postmodernism to celebrate indeterminacy on the one hand and immanence on the other, though the latter, as Hassan himself notes, is often an ultimately despairing chase through the empty signs of a hyper-real and thoroughly commodified culture. 4 More recently, Linda Hutcheon has theorized this double movement within postmodern culture as a critique "fundamentally contradictory, resolutely historical, and inescapably political," a cultural discourse which belongs to no party but which "uses and abuses, installs and then subverts, the very concepts it challenges."5 But if there is a privilege to be claimed for a specificallypostmodern critique, that privilege rests upon an assumption of a postmodern form of what Edward Said describes as the typical strategies of secular interpretation, or the interrogation of authority and the uncovering of "the absence of divine originality," simultaneously with an insistance upon "the complex presence of historical actuality." As Said points out, "there is no center, no inertly given and accepted authority, no fixed barriers ordering human history, even though authority, order and distinction exist."6 And while many would insist upon the complicity of postmodern culture in critiquing the legacy of modernism in its institutionalized forms, the typically postmodern claim to provisionality, so central to Said's secular interpretation, sets postmodernism apart from the rhetoric of authority in modernist culture. This same claim is ineluctably bound up with the contemporary ambivalence toward the claims and aspirations of all forms of representation, and it...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 241-249
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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