- Inszenierungen des Widerstreits. Die Heterotopie als postmodernistisches Subgenre der Utopie by Judith Leiß
Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 2010. 297 pp. Paper, $43.58, isbn 978-3-89528-768-8.
Postmodernism declared the end of all outlines of entity and unity in favor of a play of differences, of otherness and plurality. The end of grands récits, the end of ideology and history, was proclaimed, as well as the death of utopia. But despite all claims to the contrary, utopia today is all but dead. It has only changed its literary shape, dressing up in a different poetological garment now. The dystopian turn in the literary tradition of utopia manifests itself as a genre-paradigmatic transformation but not at all as the end of utopia. The emergence of the critical dystopia in the last decades has revitalized the genre, along with the appearance of the phenomenon of the young adult dystopia and the boom of dystopias on-screen, in popular music, and in video games.
In her literary study Inszenierungen des Widerstreits Judith Leiß, however, doesn't focus on this genre-specific development, on dystopia's obvious shift toward other media or the plethora of contemporary utopian and dystopian voices from the so-called margins that negate the negation of utopia. Her book—based on her dissertation, written in German and published in 2010—takes the various proclamations of the end of utopia as a starting point to examine the "tension between utopian-universalistic and postmodernist-particularistic thought" (110; all translations are mine). Leiß's epistemological interest is to question the ostensible incommensurability of utopian tradition and postmodernist thought, asking whether their [End Page 268] interaction possibly produces a specific variant of the literary utopia: a postmodernist utopia, so to speak, that Leiß labels as heterotopia, showing significant deviations from the utopian genre conventions without negating the literary utopia as a whole. The aim of this study, therefore, is to show "the construction of heterotopia as postmodernist subgenre of utopia" (16) and to explore its potential generic concept.
For this purpose, Leiß examines eight novels in a comparative approach, whereby she contrasts a detailed analysis of four literary examples corroborating her heuristic generic model with a short discussion of four additional texts that only prima facie correspond with the alleged genre characteristics. Whereas these exemplary literary analyses form the second part of this monograph, the first half consists of an extensive theoretical section introducing central terms, discussions, and developments regarding utopia and postmodernism. Although it is obviously well intentioned to clarify any potential misconceptions, there is a tendency of sometimes rather irritating redundancy throughout the book, which clearly would have benefited from tightening up some passages. Moreover, instead of the concatenation of small subchapters in the first thirty pages concerning terms, theorists, and tendencies, a taut glossary at the end of the book might have been more convenient for the reader.
In the preliminary theoretical chapters Leiß draws a strict distinction between postmodern as a term applied to an epoch and postmodernist as a term implying a specific "way of writing" (118) as well as a certain "mode of thinking" (33). Her corresponding explanations and definitions are mainly concentrated on the theoretical works of Jean-François Lyotard and Wolfgang Welsch. Lyotard's concept of "confliction" (différend) thereby emerges as a pivotal point of argumentation and analysis of the book. Within this understanding of postmodernism Leiß views literature as a potential topos for irreconcilable situations of confliction and focuses on the alleged antagonism between postmodernist pluralism and the putative definiteness of utopia's alternative societal outline, which has often been misread as a totalizing tendency. Correspondingly, the common characteristic of literary utopias is defined here as the structural "principle of two worlds" (46), the first inner-fictional world (W1) thereby resembling the outer-fictional society of the contemporary reader (W0) and the second inner-textual world (W2) serving as its ideal alternative based on its fictional negation as well as on isolation and stability. Although this two-world model proves to be a functional construct for the literary analysis, it slightly tends to promote [End...