The Politics of Postmodernism (Linda Hutcheon 1989)

Linda Hutcheon. The Politics of PostModernism. London and New York: Routledge: 2001 [1989]

1 Representing the postmodern

What is postmodernism?

Postmodernism is a phenomenon whose mode is resolutely contradictory as well as unavoidably political.Postmodernism manifests itself in many fields of cultural endeavor – architecture, literature, photography, film, painting, video, dance, music, and elsewhere. In general terms it takes the form of self-conscious, self- contradictory, self-undermining. Its roots lie in the sphere in which the term ‘postmodern’ first found general usage: architecture. statement.the postmodern’s initial concern is to de-naturalize some of the dominant features of our way of life; to point out that those entities that we unthinkingly experience as ‘natural’ (they might even include capitalism, patriarchy, liberal humanism) are in fact ‘cultural’; made by us, not given to us. (12-13)

Representation and its politics

The debates on the definition and evaluation of the postmodern have been conducted largely in political – and negative – terms: primarily neoconservative (Newman 1985; Kramer 1982) and neoMarxist (Eagleton 1985; Jameson 1983, 1984a). Others on the left (Caute 1972; Russell 1985) have seen, instead, its radical political potential, if not actuality, while feminist artists and theorists have resisted the incorporation of their work into postmodernism for fear of recuperation and the attendant de-fusing of their own political agendas. While these debates will not be the main focus of this study, they do form its unavoidable background. (13-14)

The self-reflexive, parodic art of the postmodern comes in, underlining in its ironic way the realization that all cultural forms of representation – literary, visual, aural – in high art or the mass media are ideologically grounded, that they cannot avoid involvement with social and political relations and apparatuses (Burgin 1986b: 55). In saying this, I realize that I am going against a dominant trend in contemporary criticism that asserts that the postmodern is disqualified from political involvement because of its narcissistic and ironic appropriation of existing images and stories and its seemingly limited accessibility. Postmodern art cannot but be political, at least in the sense that its representations – its images and stories – are anything but neutral, however ‘aestheticized’ they may appear to be in their parodic self- reflexivity. Postmodernism works to ‘de- doxify’ our cultural representations and their undeniable political import.‘Postmodern aesthetic experimentation should be viewed as having an irreducible political dimension. It is inextricably bound up with a critique of domination’ (Wellbery 1985: 235).

Yet, it must be admitted from the start that this is a strange kind of critique, one bound up, too, with its own complicity with power and domination, one that acknowledges that it cannot escape implication in that which it nevertheless still wants to analyze and maybe even undermine. The ambiguities of this kind of position are translated into both the content and the form of postmodern art, which thus at once purveys and challenges ideology – but always self-consciously.

While it may indeed be the case that criticism in the literary and visual arts has traditionally been based on foundations that are expressive (artist-oriented), mimetic (world-imitative), or formalist (art as object), the impact of feminist, gay, Marxist, black, postcolonial, and poststructuralist theory has meant the addition of something else to these historical foundations and has effected a kind of merger of their concerns, but now with a new focus: the investigation of the social and ideological production of meaning. From this perspective what we call ‘culture’ is seen as the effect of representations, not their source. Yet, from another point of view, western capitalist culture has also shown an amazing power to normalize (or ‘doxify’) signs and images, however disparate (or contesting) they may be. The work of Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard has zeroed in on the socio-economics of our production and reproduction of signs. These studies have been influential in our understanding of postmodern culture. But it is specifically the politics of postmodern representation – the ideological values and interests that inform any representation – that will be the main focus of this book. (17-18)

Underlying this notion of a postmodern process of cultural ‘de- doxification’ is a theoretical position that seems to assert that we can only know the world through ‘a network of socially established meaning systems, the discourses of our culture’ (Russell 1980: 183). And indeed I have chosen to concentrate here on two art forms which most self-consciously foreground precisely this awareness of the discursive and signifying nature of cultural knowledge and they do so by raising the question of the supposed transparency of representation. These are fiction and photography, the two forms whose histories are firmly rooted in realist representation but which, since their reinterpretation in modernist formalist terms, are now in a position to confront both their documentary and formal impulses. This is the confrontation that I shall be calling postmodernist: where documentary historical actuality meets formalist self-reflexivity and parody. At this conjuncture, a study of representation becomes, not a study of mimetic mirroring or subjective projecting, but an exploration of the way in which narratives and images structure how we see ourselves and how we construct our notions of self, in the present and in the past. (18)

The postmodern appears to coincide with a general cultural awareness of the existence and power of systems of representation which do not reflect society so much as grant meaning and value within a particular society.

However, if we believe current social scientific theory, there is a paradox involved in this awareness. On the one hand, there is a sense that we can never get out from under the weight of a long tradition of visual and narrative representations and, on the other hand, we also seem to be losing faith in both the inexhaustibility and the power of those existing representations. And parody is often the postmodern form this particular paradox takes.(19)

Whose postmodernism?

Brian McHale’s postmodernism, with its ontological ‘dominant’ in reaction to the epistemological ‘dominant’ of modernism claims that all are ‘finally fictions.’(Postmodernist Fiction). But we should also include Fredric Jameson’s postmodernism, the cultural logic of late capitalism; Jean Baudrillard’s postmodernism, in which the simulacrum gloats over the body of the deceased referent; Kroker and Cook’s (related) hyperreal dark side of postmodernism; Sloterdijk’s postmodernism of cynicism or ‘enlightened false consciousness’; and Alan Wilde’s literary ‘middle grounds’ of the postmodern. (22)

Our culture may eventually come to evaluate postmodern architecture, it certainly began and has continued to be seen by many as politically inspired. The only disagreement is over the direction of its politics: is it neoconservatively nostalgic or is it radically revolutionary?Postmodernism aims to be accessible through its overt and self-conscious parodic, historical, and reflexive forms and thus to be an effective force in our culture. Its complicitous critique, then, situates the postmodern squarely within both economic capitalism and cultural humanism – two of the major dominants of much of the western world.W hat these two dominants have in common, as many have pointed out, are their patriarchal underpinnings. They also share a view of the relation of the individual to the social whole which is rather contradictory, to say the least. In the context of humanism, the individual is unique and autonomous, yet also partakes of that general human essence, human nature. In a capitalist context, as Adorno argued, the pretence of individualism (and thus, of choice) is in fact proportional to the ‘liquidation of the individual’ (Adorno1978: 280) in mass manipulation, carried out, of course, in the name of democratic ideals – the masks of conformity. If, as is frequently the case, postmodernism is identified with a ‘decentering’ of this particular notion of the individual, then both humanist and capitalist notions of selfhood or subjectivity will necessarily be called into question. But I have been arguing that the postmodern involves a paradoxical installing as well as subverting of conventions – including conventions of the representation of the subject. (24-25)

Many commentators have noticed an uneasy mix of parody and history, metafiction and politics. This particular combination is probably historically determined by postmodernism’s conflictual response to literary modernism. On the one hand, the postmodern obviously was made possible by the self-referentiality, irony, ambiguity, and parody that characterize much of the art of modernism, as well as by its explorations of language and its challenges to the classic realist system of representation; on the other hand, postmodern fiction has come to contest the modernist ideology of artistic autonomy, individual expression, and the deliberate separation of art from mass culture and everyday life (Huyssen 1986: 53–4). (26)

Postmodernism paradoxically manages to legitimize culture (high and mass) even as it subverts it. It is this doubleness that avoids the danger Jameson (1985: 52) sees in the subverting or deconstructing impulse operating alone: that is, the danger (for the critic) of the illusion of critical distance. It is the function of irony in postmodern discourse to posit that critical distance and then undo it. It is also this doubleness that prevents any possible critical urge to ignore or trivialize historical-political questions. As producers or receivers of postmodern art, we are all implicated in the legitimization of our culture. Postmodern art openly investigates the critical possibilities open to art, without denying that its critique is inevitably in the name of its own contradictory ideology. (26)

Instead this study offers an investigation of one particular definition of postmodernism from the point of view of its politicized challenges to the conventions of representation. there are two clearly opposed ‘camps’ in the postmodern wars: the objections seem to be consistently to what are perceived as, on the one hand, the ahistoricism and pastiched depthlessness of the postmodern and, on the other, its crossing of boundaries of genre and discourse once considered discrete and firm.To Alan Wilde, irony is a positive and defining characteristic of the postmodern; to Terry Eagleton, irony is what condemns postmodernism to triviality and kitsch. To some, postmodernism’s inevitable implication in the high art/mass culture debate is significant; to others, it is lamentable. To M.H. Abrams (1981: 110), the ‘irresolvable indeterminacies’ by which he defines the postmodern are implicitly related to meaninglessness and the undermining of cultural foundations, whereas to Ihab Hassan those same indeterminacies are part of ‘a vast, revisionary will in the Western world, unsettling/ resettling codes, canons, procedures, beliefs’ (1987: xvi). (29)

Few have noted the even more important impact of various forms of feminism on the need to investigate the complexity of aesthetic/political interactions on the level of representation (see, however, Owens 1983 and Creed 1987). There has been an understandable suspicion of the deconstructing and undermining impulse of postmodernism at a historic moment when construction and support seem more important agendas for women. Yet, as the work of Christa Wolf, Angela Carter, Susan Daitch, Audrey Thomas, and Maxine Hong Kingston shows, ‘de- doxification’ is as inherently a part of feminist as it is of postmodernist discourse. This is not to deny the gender blindness of much postmodern writing.

The many feminist social agendas demand a theory of agency, but such a theory is visibly lacking in postmodernism, caught as it in a certain negativity that may be inherent in any critique of cultural dominants. It has no theory of positive action on a social level; all feminist positions do. This relation between the feminist and the postmodern is the topic of the final chapter of this study, but it is important to note from the start both the impact of the feminist on the postmodern and their shared deconstructing impulses.

it is also not accidental that feminist theory’s recent self-positioning both inside and outside dominant ideologies, using representation both to reveal misrepresentation and to offer new possibilities, coincides with the (admittedly more) complicitous critique of postmodernism. Both try to avoid the bad faith of believing they can stand outside ideology, but both want to reclaim their right to contest the power of a dominant one, even if from a compromised position. Victor Burgin has claimed that he wants his art and theory to show the meaning of sexual difference (for others, it is difference of class, race, ethnicity, or sexual preference) as a process of production, as ‘something mutable, something historical, and therefore something we can do something about’ (Burgin 1986a: 108). Postmodernism may not do that something, but it may at least show what needs undoing first. (34)

Postmodernity, postmodernism, and modernism

Postmodernity as the designation of a social and philosophical period or ‘condition.’ It has been variously defined in terms of the relationship between intellectual and state discourses; as a condition determined by universal, diffuse cynicism, by a panic sense of the hyperreal and the simulacrum. Nevertheless many do see postmodernity as involving a critique of humanism and positivism, and an investigation of the relation of both to our notions of subjectivity.In the broadest of terms, these all share a view of discourse as problematic and of ordering systems as suspect (and as humanly constructed). The debate about postmodernity – and the confusion with postmodernism – seems to have begun with the exchange on the topic of modernity between Jürgen Habermas and Jean- François Lyotard. Both agreed that modernity could not be separated from notions of unity and universality or what Lyotard dubbed ‘metanarratives.’ Habermas argued that the project of modernity, rooted in the context of Enlightenment rationality, was still unfinished and required completion; Lyotard countered with the view that modernity has actually been liquidated by history, a history whose tragic paradigm was the Nazi concentration camp and whose ultimate delegitimizing force was that of capitalist ‘technoscience’ which has changed for ever our concepts of knowledge. Therefore, for Lyotard, postmodernity is characterized by no grand totalizing narrative, but by smaller and multiple narratives which seek no universalizing stabilization or legitimation. Fredric Jameson has pointed out that both Lyotard and Habermas are clearly working from different, though equally strong, legitimating ‘narrative archetypes’ – one French and (1789) Revolutionary in inspiration, the other Germanic and Hegelian; one valuing commitment, the other consensus. Richard Rorty has offered a trenchant critique of both positions, ironically noting that what they share is an almost overblown sense of the role of philosophy today. (36)

The slippage from postmodernity to postmodernism is constant and deliberate in Jameson’s work: for him postmodernism is the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism.’ It replicates, reinforces, and intensifies the ‘deplorable and reprehensible’ (85) socio-economic effects of postmodernity. Perhaps. But I want to argue that it also critiques those effects, while never pretending to be able to operate outside them. Yet what is confusing is that Jameson retains the word postmodernism for both the socio-economic periodization and the cultural designation.

There is a strong sense that postmodernism somehow represents a lowering of standards or that it is the lamentable consequence of the institutionalization and acculturation of the radical potential of modernism. In other words, it would seem to be difficult to discuss postmodernism without somehow engaging in a debate about the value and even identity of modernism. Opposition between those who believe postmodernism represents a break from modernism, and those who see it in a relation of continuity. (38)

2 Postmodernist representation

De-naturalizing the natural

Postmodern representation is self-consciously all of these – image, narrative, product of (and producer of) ideology. It is a truism of sociology and cultural studies today to say that life in the postmodern world is utterly mediated through representations and that our age of satellites and computers has gone well beyond Benjamin’s ‘Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ and its particular philosophical and artistic consequences and moved into a state of crisis in representation. Nevertheless, in literary and art critical circles there is still a tendency to see postmodern theory and practice either as simply replacing representation with the idea of textuality or as denying our intricate involvement with representation, even though much postmodern thought has disputed this tendency: think of Derrida’s statements about the inescapability of the logic of representation, and Foucault’s problematization, though never repudiation, of our traditional modes of representation in our discourses of knowledge.

The real is ‘enabled to mean through systems of signs organized into discourses on the world’ (Tickner 1984: 19). This is obviously where the politics of representation enters for, according to the Althusserian view, ideology is a production of representations. Our common-sense presuppositions about the ‘real’ depend upon how that ‘real’ is described, how it is put into discourse and interpreted. There is nothing natural about the ‘real’ and there never was – even before the existence of mass media. (44)

Many postmodern strategies are openly premised on a challenge to the realist notion of representation that presumes the transparency of the medium and thus the direct and natural link between sign and referent or between word and world. Of course, modernist art, in all its forms, challenged this notion as well, but it deliberately did so to the detriment of the referent, that is, by emphasizing the opacity of the medium and the self-sufficiency of the signifying system. What postmodernism does is to denaturalize both realism’s transparency and modernism’s reflexive response, while retaining (in its typically complicitously critical way) the historically attested power of both. This is the ambivalent politics of postmodern representation. (46)

In other words, the history of representation itself can become a valid subject of art, and not just its history in high art. The borders between high art and mass or popular culture and those between the discourses of art and the discourses of the world (especially history) are regularly crossed in postmodern theory and practice. But it must be admitted that this crossing is rarely done without considerable border tension. a self-reflexive text suggests that perhaps narrative does not derive its authority from any reality it represents, but from ‘the cultural conventions that define both narrative and the construct we call “reality”.

If this is so, the mixing of the reflexively fictional with the verifiably historical might well be doubly upsetting for some critics. Historiographic metafiction represents not just a world of fiction, however self-consciously presented as a constructed one, but also a world of public experience. The difference between this and the realist logic of reference is that here that public world is rendered specifically as discourse. How do we know the past today? Through its discourses, through its texts – that is, through the traces of its historical events: the archival materials, the documents, the narratives of witnesses . . . and historians. On one level, then, postmodern fiction merely makes overt the processes of narrative representation – of the real or the fictive and of their interrelations. (47)

Postmodern representational practices that refuse to stay neatly within accepted conventions and traditions and that deploy hybrid forms and seemingly mutually contradictory strategies frustrate critical attempts (including this one) to systematize them, to order them with an eye to control and mastery – that is, to totalize. Roland Barthes once asked: ‘Is it not the characteristic of reality to be unmasterable? And is it not the characteristic of system to master it? What then, confronting reality, can one do who rejects mastery?’ (1977b: 172). Postmodern representation itself contests mastery and totalization, often by unmasking both their powers and their limitations. (48)

On the level of representation, this postmodern questioning overlaps with similarly pointed challenges by those working in, for example, postcolonial and feminist contexts. How is the ‘other’ represented in, say, imperialist or patriarchal discourses? But a caveat is in order. It may be true that postmodern thought ‘refuses to turn the Other into the Same’ (During 1987: 33), but there is also a very real sense in which the postmodernist notions of difference and a positively valorized marginality often reveal the same familiar totalizing strategies of domination, though usually masked by the liberating rhetoric of First World critics who appropriate Third World cultures to their own ends (Chow 1986– 7: 91). Postmodernist critique is always compromised.

‘To the postmodernist mind, everything is empty at the center. Our vision is not integrated – and it lacks form and definition’ (Gablik 1984: 17). Actually, that center is not so much empty as called into question, interrogated as to its power and its politics.

Postmodern historiographic metafiction asks us to question how we represent – how we construct – our view of reality and of our selves. Along with the photographic practices of Martha Rosler, Hans Haacke, and Silvia Kolbowski, as we shall see, these novels ask us to acknowledge that representation has a politics. (52-53)

Photographic discourse

As a visual medium, photography has a long history of being both politically useful and politically suspect. Photography today is one of the major forms of discourse through which we are seen and see ourselves. Frequently what I want to call postmodern photography foregrounds the notion of ideology as representation by appropriating recognizable images from that omnipresent visual discourse, almost as an act of retaliation for its (unacknowledged) political nature or its (unacknowledged) constructing of those images of ourselves and our world.But postmodern photography also addresses the medium’s history and it does so in a way that goes beyond obvious journalistic instrumentality and capitalist seduction: for instance, modernism’s formalist art-photography and the documentary ‘victim’ photography of the 1930s are made rather politically problematic in the work of Sherrie Levine and Martha Rosler, respectively.

What is common to all these postmodern challenges to convention is their simultaneous exploitation of the power of that convention and their reliance on the viewers’ knowledge of its particulars. In most cases, this reliance does not necessarily lead to elitist exclusion, because the convention being evoked hasusuallybecomepartofthecommonrepresentationalvocabulary of newspapers, magazines, and advertising – even if its history is more extensive. Many video and performance artists have used similar methods to address social and political issues from within the discourse of that larger field of cultural representations that includes television, Hollywood movies, and commercial advertising. Reappropriating existing representations that are effective precisely because they are loaded with pre-existing meaning and putting them into new and ironic contexts is a typical form of postmodern photographic complicitous critique: while exploiting the power of familiar images, it also de-naturalizes them, makes visible the concealed mechanisms which work to make them seem transparent, and brings to the fore their politics, that is to say, the interests in which they operate and the power they wield (Folland 1988: 60).(55)

What these artists share with the postmodern photographers I have mentioned is a focus on the ways in which art overlaps and interacts with the social system of the present and the past. All representations have a politics; they also have a history. The conjunction of these two concerns in what has been called the New Art History has meant that issues like gender, class, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation are now part of the discourse of the visual arts, as they are of the literary ones. Social history cannot be separated from the history of art; there is no value-neutral, much less value-free, place from which to represent in any art form. And there never was. (57-58)

Telling stories: fiction and history

The politics of narrative representation can apparently sometimes be of limited efficacy when it comes to the representation of politics.

We may no longer have recourse to the grand narratives that once made sense of life for us, but we still have recourse to narrative representations of some kind in most of our verbal discourses, and one of the reasons may be political. this is precisely what postmodern novels like Peter Ackroyd’s Chatterton or Roa Bastos’s I the Supreme or Graham Swift’s Waterland are about. And in none of these cases is there ever what Jameson associates with the postmodern: ‘a repudiation of representation, a “revolutionary” break with the (repressive) ideology of storytelling generally’ (Jameson 1984c: 54). This misconception shows the danger of defining the postmodern in terms of (French or American) anti- representational late modernism, as so many do. In these novels, there is no dissolution or repudiation of representation; but there is a problematizing of it. Historiographic metafiction is written today in the context of a serious contemporary interrogating of the nature of representation in historiography. (61)

The issue of representation in both fiction and history has usually been dealt with in epistemological terms, in terms of how we know the past. The past is not something to be escaped, avoided, or controlled – as various forms of modernist art suggest through their implicit view of the ‘nightmare’ of history. The past is something with which we must come to terms and such a confrontation involves an acknowledgement of limitation as well as power. We only have access to the past today through its traces – its documents, the testimony of witnesses, and other archival materials. In other words, we only have representations of the past from which to construct our narratives or explanations. In a very real sense, postmodernism reveals a desire to understand present culture as the product of previous representations. The representation of history becomes the history of representation. What this means is that postmodern art acknowledges and accepts the challenge of tradition: the history of representation cannot be escaped but it can be both exploited and commented on critically through irony and parody, as we shall see in more detail in chapter 4. (69)

3 Re-presenting the past

‘Total history’ de-totalized

Witness Annales historian Fernand Braudel’s stated aim: ‘Everything must be recaptured and relocated in the general framework of history, so that despite the difficulties, the fundamental paradoxes and contradictions, we may respect the unity of history which is also the unity of life’ (Braudel 1980: 16). Totalizing narrative representation has also, of course, been considered by some critics as the defining characteristic of the novel as a genre, ever since its beginnings in the overt controlling and ordering (and fictionalizing) of Cervantes and Sterne.(74)

To challenge the impulse to totalize is to contest the entire notion of continuity in history and its writing. In Foucault’s terms discontinuity, once the ‘stigma of temporal dislocation’ that it was the historian’s professional job to remove from history, has become a new instrument of historical analysis and simultaneously a result of that analysis. Instead of seeking common denominators and homogeneous networks of causality and analogy, historians have been freed, Foucault argues, to note the dispersing interplay of different, heterogeneous discourses that acknowledge the undecidable in both the past and our knowledge of the past. These are among the issues raised by postmodern fiction in its paradoxical confrontation of self-consciously fictive and resolutely historical representation. (77)

The particularizing and contextualizing that characterize the postmodern focus are, of course, direct responses to those strong (and very common) totalizing and universalizing impulses. But the resulting postmodern relativity and provisionality are not causes for despair; they are to be acknowledged as perhaps the very conditions of historical knowledge. Historical meaning may thus be seen today as unstable, contextual, relational, and provisional, but postmodernism argues that, in fact, it has always been so. (78)

Postmodern fiction like this exploits and yet simultaneously calls into question notions of closure, totalization, and universality that are part of those challenged grand narratives. Rather than seeing this paradoxical use and abuse as a sign of decadence or as a cause for despair, it might be possible to postulate a less negative interpretation that would allow for at least the potential for radical critical possibilities. Perhaps we need a rethinking of the social and political (as well as the literary and historical) representations by which we understand our world. Maybe we need to stop trying to find totalizing narratives which dissolve difference and contradiction (into, for instance, either humanist eternal Truth or Marxist dialectic). (81)

Knowing the past in the present

For the most part historiographic metafiction, like much contemporary theory of history, does not fall into either ‘presentism’ or nostalgia in its relation to the past it represents. What it does is de-naturalize that temporal relationship. In both historiographic theory and postmodern fiction, there is an intense self-consciousness (both theoretical and textual) about the act of narrating in the present the events of the past, about the conjunction of present action and the past absent object of that agency. In both historical and literary postmodern representation, the doubleness remains; there is no sense of either historian or novelist reducing the strange past to verisimilar present. (82)

It is at this level that these epistemological questions of postmodern narrative representation are posed. How can the present know the past it tells? We constantly narrate the past, but what are the conditions of the knowledge implied by that totalizing act of narration? Must a historical account acknowledge where it does not know for sure or is it allowed to guess? Do we know the past only through the present? Or is it a matter of only being able to understand the present through the past? (83)

The issue of representation and its epistemological claims leads directly to the problem introduced in the last chapter regarding the nature and status of the ‘fact’ in both history-writing and fiction-writing. All past ‘events’ are potential historical ‘facts,’ but the ones that become facts are those that are chosen to be narrated. We have seen that this distinction between brute event and meaning-granted fact is one with which postmodern fiction seems obsessed. (86)

Historiographic metafiction like this is self-conscious about the paradox of the totalizing yet inevitably partial act of narrative representation. It overtly ‘de-doxifies’ received notions about the process of representing the actual in narrative – be it fictional or historical. It traces the processing of events into facts, exploiting and then undermining the conventions of both novelistic realism and historiographic reference. It implies that, like fiction, history constructs its object, that events named become facts and thus both do and do not retain their status outside language. This is the paradox of postmodernism. The past really did exist, but we can only know it today through its textual traces, its often complex and indirect representations in the present: documents, archives, but also photographs, paintings, architecture, films, and literature. (89)

The archive as text

If the past is only known to us today through its textualized traces (which, like all texts, are always open to interpretation), then the writing of both history and historiographic metafiction becomes a form of complex intertextual cross-referencing that operates within (and does not deny) its unavoidably discursive context. There can be little doubt of the impact of poststructuralist theories of textuality on this kind of writing, for this is writing that raises basic questions about the possibilities and limits of meaning in the representation of the past. The focus on textuality, in LaCapra’s words, ‘serves to render less dogmatic the concept of reality by pointing to the fact that one is “always already” implicated in problems of language use’ (1983: 26) and discourse. (92)

Postmodern paratextual insertions of these different kinds of historical traces of events, what historians call documents – be they newspaper clippings, legal statements, or photographic illustrations – de-naturalize the archive, foregrounding above all the textuality of its representations. These documentary texts appear in footnotes, epigraphs, prefaces, and epilogues; sometimes they are parachuted directly into the fictive discourse, as if in a collage. What they all do, however, is pose once again that important postmodern question: how exactly is it that we come to know the past? In these novels, we literally see the paratextual traces of history, the discourses or texts of the past, its documents and its narrativized representations. But the final result of all this self-consciousness is not to offer us any answers to that question, but only to suggest even more problematizing queries. How can historiography (much less fiction) begin to deal with what Coover’s Uncle Sam calls ‘the fatal slantindicular futility of Fact?’ (103)

4 The politics of parody

Parodic postmodern representation

Parodic reprise of the past of art is not nostalgic; it is always critical. It is also not ahistorical or de-historicizing; it does not wrest past art from its original historical context and reassemble it into some sort of presentist spectacle. Instead, through a double process of installing and ironizing, parody signals how present representations come from past ones and what ideological consequences derive from both continuity and difference. Parody also contests our humanist assumptions about artistic originality and uniqueness and our capitalist notions of ownership and property. With parody – as with any form of reproduction – the notion of the original as rare, single, and valuable (in aesthetic or commercial terms) is called into question. This does not mean that art has lost its meaning and purpose, but that it will inevitably have a new and different significance. In other words, parody works to foreground the politics of representation. Needless to say, this is not the accepted view of postmodernist parody. The prevailing interpretation is that postmodernism offers a value-free, decorative, de- historicized quotation of past forms and that this is a most apt mode for a culture like our own that is oversaturated with images. Instead, I would want to argue that postmodernist parody is a value-problematizing, de- naturalizing form of acknowledging the history (and through irony, the politics) of representations.(104-105)

Contrary to the prevailing view of parody as a kind of ahistorical and apolitical pastiche, postmodern art like this uses parody and irony to engage the history of art and the memory of the viewer in a re-evaluation of aesthetic forms and contents through a reconsideration of their usually unacknowledged politics of representation. As Dominick LaCapra has so forcefully put it: “irony and parody are themselves not unequivocal signs of disengagement on the part of an apolitical, transcendental ego that floats above historical reality or founders in the abysmal pull of aporia. Rather a certain use of irony and parody may play a role both in the critique of ideology and in the anticipation of a polity wherein commitment does not exclude but accompanies an ability to achieve critical distance on one’s deepest commitments and desires”(LaCapra 1987: 128) Postmodernism offers precisely that ‘certain use of irony and parody.’

Double-coded politics

As form of ironic representation, parody is doubly coded in political terms: it both legitimizes and subverts that which it parodies. This kind of authorized transgression is what makes it a ready vehicle for the political contradictions of postmodernism at large. Parody can be used as a self- reflexive technique that points to art as art, but also to art as inescapably bound to its aesthetic and even social past. Its ironic reprise also offers an internalized sign of a certain self-consciousness about our culture’s means of ideological legitimation. How do some representations get legitimized and authorized? (112)

Postmodern parodic strategies are often used by feminist artists to point to the history and historical power of those cultural representations, while ironically contextualizing both in such a way as to deconstruct them. (113)

Is there a problem of accessibility here, however? What if we do not recognize the represented figures or the parodied composition? The title, I suppose, does alert us to the place to look for a means of access – Sandler’s textbook. This functions much as do the acknowledgement pages of postmodern parodic fiction (such as Berger’s G., Thomas’s The White Hotel, Banville’s Doctor Copernicus). These may not provide all the parodic allusions, but they teach us the rules of the game and make us alert to other possibilities. This is not to deny, however, that there exists a very real threat of elitism or lack of access in the use of parody in any art. This question of accessibility is undeniably part of the politics of postmodern representation. (116)

Parody in postmodern art is more than just a sign of the attention artists pay to each others’ work and to the art of the past. It may indeed be complicitous with the values it inscribes as well as subverts, but the subversion is still there: the politics of postmodern parodic representation is not the same as that of most rock videos’ use of allusions to standard film genres or texts. This is what should be called pastiche, according to Jameson’s definition. In postmodern parody, the doubleness of the politics of authorized transgression remains intact: there is no dialectic resolution or recuperative evasion of contradiction in narrative fiction, painting, photography, or film.(117)

Postmodern film?

I have argued that the question of ideology’s relation to subjectivity is central to postmodernism. The challenges to the humanist concept of a coherent, continuous, autonomous individual (who paradoxically also shares in some generalized universal human essence) have come from all sides today: from poststructuralist philosophical and literary theory, Marxist political philosophy, Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalysis, sociology, and many other domains. We have also seen that photography and fiction – two art forms with a certain relevance for film – have shared in this questioning of the nature and formation of subjectivity. Where modernism investigated the grounding of experience in the self, its focus was on the self seeking integration amid fragmentation. In other words, its (for many, defining) focus on subjectivity was still within the dominant humanist framework, though the obsessive search for wholeness itself suggests the beginnings of what would be a more radical postmodern questioning, a challenging brought about by the doubleness of postmodern discourse. In other words, postmodernism works both to underline and to undermine the notion of the coherent, self-sufficient subject as the source of meaning or action. (119)

Writing as I do in an Anglo-American context, I think that Jameson’s blanket condemnation of Hollywood for its wholesale implication in capitalism (made from within an academy that is just as implicated) is what is behind his distrust of irony and ambiguity, a distrust that blinds him to the possibilities of the potentially positive oppositional and contestatory nature of parody. Postmodern film does not deny that it is implicated in capitalist modes of production, because it knows it cannot. Instead it exploits its ‘insider’ position in order to begin a subversion from within, to talk to consumers in a capitalist society in a way that will get us where we live, so to speak. The difference between postmodern parody and nostalgia – which once again I do not deny is part of our culture today – lies in the role of this double-voiced irony. (125)

Postmodern film, as I see it, would be more compromised than this. Its tensions would be more deliberately left unresolved, its contradictions more deliberately left manifest. This constant double encoding – inscribing and subverting prevailing conventions – is what causes some critics to reject such films utterly, while others acclaim them enthusiastically. This discrepancy may be caused by the fact that if only one side – either – of the postmodern contradiction is seen (or valued), then the ambivalent doubleness of the parodic encoding can easily be resolved into a single decoding. Postmodern film is that which paradoxically wants to challenge the outer borders of cinema and wants to ask questions (though rarely offer answers) about ideology’s role in subject-formation and in historical knowledge. Perhaps parody is a particularly apt representational strategy for postmodernism, a strategy once described (Said 1983: 135) as the use of parallel script rather than original inscription. Were we to heed the implications of such a model, we might have to reconsider the operations by which we both create and give meaning to our culture through representation. And that is not bad for a so-called nostalgic escapist tendency. (128)

5 Text/image border tensions

The paradoxes of photography

Since I have been defining postmodernism from a model based on architecture, I have argued that postmodern art in other forms is art that is fundamentally paradoxical in its relation to history: it is both critical of and complicitous with that which precedes it. Its relationship with the aesthetic and social past out of which it openly acknowledges it has come is one characterized by irony, though not necessarily disrespect. Basic contradictions mark its contact with artistic conventions of both production and reception: it seeks accessibility, without surrendering its right to criticize the consequences of that access. Postmodernism’s relation to late capitalism, patriarchy, and the other forms of those (now suspect) master narratives is paradoxical: the postmodern does not deny its inevitable implication in them, but it also wants to use that ‘insider’ position to ‘de-doxify’ the ‘givens’ that ‘go without saying’ in those grand systems. Thus, it is neither neoconservatively nostalgic nor radically revolutionary; it is unavoidably compromised – and it knows it.

These postmodern text/image combinations consciously work to point to the coded nature of all cultural messages. They do so by overtly being re- visions: they offer a second seeing, through double vision, wearing the spectacles of irony. Thus, they can be subtly critical of received notions of art and artistic production: there is nothing eternal or universal or natural about representation here. The conjunction of text and image raises new questions, but these are also questions that what is called the New Photography has been asking since the 1960. (134)

Postmodern photographic art uses this arena, uses its viewers’ cultural knowledge (and expectations), and then turns it all against itself – and against the viewers as well. Barbara Kruger, for instance, disrupts notions of proper high-art codes by presenting the same text/image combinations in forms that vary in size and mode from billboards to postcards, from huge enlargements (often 6 feet by 10 feet) hanging on gallery walls to much smaller scale reproductions in art books or on T-shirts. In appropriating images from both high art and clichéd mass media and then ‘violating’ them by severe cropping and by the superimposition of verbal one-liners, she uses ‘fringe interference’ to new and openly political ends.

I should add that my interest here is not in magazine ‘photo texts’ or in books which bring texts and photographic images together. Postmodern photographic art is also different from the photo-essays of photojournalism. Each work (or series of works) is in itself both photo and graphic; any critical approach to it must therefore be literally iconological: it must concern itself with both the art’s icon and its logos, as well as with their interactions. This is literally photo-graphic art. (135)

The ideological arena of photo-graphy

The addition of a verbal text to the visual in photo-graphy, then, might be seen as a possible tactic used to secure visual meaning. In this kind of postmodern art, however, while the relation of the text to the image is never one of pure redundancy, emphasis, or repetition, the text also never guarantees any one single, already apparent meaning. (135-136)

If photography is, as a visual medium, inherently paradoxical, it is also semiotically hybrid. In Peirce’s terms, it is both indexical (its representation is based on some physical connection) and iconic (it is a representation of likeness) in its relation to the real. This complex hybrid nature is another reason why photography has become particularly important in a time of challenge to modes of representation. (141)

Postmodernism’s mutually effective interferences on the ‘fringes’ of both the linguistic and the pictorial cannot be separated from the theoretical – and also political – contexts that they inevitably evoke in photo-graphy. (145)

The politics of address

What could be called the rhetoric of postmodern apostrophe or, better perhaps, its semiotics of address cannot but be of importance in postmodern art and theory which self-consciously work to ‘situate’ their production and reception and to contextualize the acts of perception and interpretation. The addition of verbal texts to photographic images in photo-graphy makes explicit what is usually left implicit in the visual: the implication of an addressed viewer. (145-146)

Postmodern photo-graphy is for me one of the art forms that best exemplifies the heritage of the politicized 1960s and 1970s, of Vietnam protest and feminism, of civil rights and gay activism. It is not disconnected from the social and the political. The ‘fringe interferences’ of photo-graphy are multiple; they play with the border tensions of theory, politics, and art as well as those of high art and mass media, and they do so while de-naturalizing the borders between text and image. The conventions of the discourses of both the verbal and the visual, however, are at once inscribed and challenged, used and abused. This is the art of complicity as well as critique, even in its most radically polemical political forms. This does not invalidate its critique; rather, it can be seen as both an important means of access and an avoidance of the kind of bad faith that believes art (or criticism) can ever be outside ideology. In Barbara Kruger’s postmodern terms: ‘I don’t think there’s a blameless place where work can function. One has to work within the confines of a system’ (in Schreiber 1987: 268). (151)

6 Postmodernism and feminisms

As a verbal sign of difference and plurality, ‘feminisms’ would appear to be the best term to use to designate, not a consensus, but a multiplicity of points of view which nevertheless do possess at least some common denominators when it comes to the notion of the politics of representation.) (152)

Politicizing desire

If, in the postmodern age, we do live in what has been called a recessionary erotic economy brought about by fear of disease and a fetishization of fitness, the erotic cannot but be part of that general problematizing of the body and its sexuality.I would want to argue for the powerful impact of feminist practices on postmodernism – though not for the conflation of the two. (153)

Feminisms have also refocused attention on the politics of representation and knowledge – and therefore also on power. They have made postmodernism think, not just about the body, but about the female body; not just about the female body, but about its desires – and about both as socially and historically constructed through representation. (154)

Even the more generally accepted articulations of specifically female and feminist contestation, such as Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document, could be seen as an implicitly parodic challenge to the patriarchal madonna and child tradition of western high art: as I suggested earlier, it politicizes and de- naturalizes what has been seen as the most ‘natural’ of relationships by articulating it through the everyday discourse of the actual female experience of mothering. But it is this change of discourse that makes Kelly’s work less problematic as a feminist work than that of some others. (162)

Feminist postmodernist parody

When Ann Kaplan asks of cinema ‘Is the gaze male?’ (1983), she problematizes to some extent what feminisms have accepted (at least since Laura Mulvey’s important article on ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’) as the maleness of the camera eye that makes women into exhibitionists to be observed and displayed, ‘coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness’ (Mulvey 1975: 11). This leaves the female as spectator in the position of either narcissistic identification or some kind of psychic cross-dressing. (162)

Many commentators have recently pointed to the maleness of the modernist tradition, and therefore to the implied maleness of any postmodernism that is either in reaction to or even a conscious break from that modernism. Feminisms have resisted incorporation into the postmodern camp, and with good reason: their political agendas would be endangered, or at least obscured by the double coding of postmodernism’s complicitous critique; their historical particularities and relative positionalities would risk being subsumed. (163)

Male desire, while supposedly discredited, is in fact inscribed without even the contestation that postmodern complicitous critique would offer. I really do not know what to do with this. At times I wonder if, in order to represent herself, woman must assume a masculine position; yet, Kruger and others have shown that this positioning can be done parodically, through postmodern strategies that still allow for serious contestation. I suppose this leaves a final question: what would the full rejection of that male position look like? Feminist film provides the most obvious and important examples and Nancy Spero’s ‘peinture féminine,’ while still implicitly deconstructing the male sexuality underlying the erotic conventions of female representations, offers a female gaze in which women are protagonists and subjects, not the traditional erotic objects of desire. Her refigurations of the female body may be one answer, suggesting a move beyond that potential impasse of the (perhaps inevitable) maleness of the gaze. However, I also think postmodernist parody would be among the ‘practical strategies’ that have become ‘strategic practices’ (Parker and Pollock 1987b) in feminist art’s attempt to present new kinds of female pleasure, new articulations of female desire, by offering tactics for deconstruction – for inscribing in order to subvert the patriarchal visual traditions. But I also think feminisms have pushed postmodern theory and art in directions they might not otherwise have headed. One of these directions involves a return to a topic treated in some detail earlier in this study: that of history. (171)

The private and the public

In granting new and emphatic value to the notion of ‘experience,’ feminisms have also raised an issue of great importance to postmodern representation: what constitutes a valid historical narrative? And who decides? This has led to the re-evaluation of personal or life narratives – journals, letters, confessions, biographies, autobiographies, self-portraits. In Catherine Stimpson’s terms: ‘Experience generated more than art; it was a source of political engagement as well’ (1988: 226). If the personal is the political, then the traditional separation between private and public history must be rethought. This feminist rethinking has coincided with a general renegotiation of the separation of high art from the culture of everyday life – popular and mass culture – and the combined result has been a reconsideration of both the context of historical narrative and the politics of representation and self-representation. (171- 172)

Besides the postmodern self-consciousness here about the paradoxes and problems of historical representation (and self-representation), there is also a very feminist awareness of the value of experience and the importance of its representation in the form of ‘life-writing’ – however difficult or even falsifying that process might turn out to be. It may be the case that we can ‘no longer tell exactly what we have experienced’ (362) and that the attempt to represent some version of that is inevitably a process of ‘[e]rasing, selecting, stressing’ (359), but the constraints must be faced and not used as an excuse for not making the attempt. (178)

There is, then, a two-way involvement of the postmodern with the feminist: on the one hand, feminisms have successfully urged postmodernism to reconsider – in terms of gender – its challenges to that humanist universal called ‘Man’ and have supported and reinforced its de- naturalization of the separation between the private and the public, the personal and the political; on the other hand, postmodern parodic representational strategies have offered feminist artists an effective way of working within and yet challenging dominant patriarchal discourses. That said, there is still no way in which the feminist and the postmodern – as cultural enterprises – can be conflated. The differences are clear, and none so clear as the political one. (178)

Feminisms will continue to resist incorporation into postmodernism, largely because of their revolutionary force as political movements working for real social change. They go beyond making ideology explicit and deconstructing it to argue a need to change that ideology, to effect a real transformation of art that can only come with a transformation of patriarchal social practices. Postmodernism has not theorized agency; it has no strategies of resistance that would correspond to the feminist ones. Postmodernism manipulates, but does not transform signification; it disperses but does not (re)construct the structures of subjectivity (Foster 1985; 6). Feminisms must. Feminist artists may use postmodern strategies of parodic inscription and subversion in order to initiate the deconstructive first step but they do not stop there. While useful (especially in the visual arts where the insistence of the male gaze seems hard to avoid), such internalized subversion does not automatically lead to the production of the new, not even new representations of female desire. As one critic asks: ‘is it possible to create new erotic codes – and I assume that is what feminism is striving for – without in some ways reusing the old?’ (Winship 1987: 127). Perhaps postmodern strategies do, however, offer ways for women artists at least to contest the old – the representations of both their bodies and their desires – without denying them the right to re-colonize, to reclaim both as sites of meaning and value. Such practices also remind us all that every representation always has its politics. (179)

Concluding notes


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