First published in Canadian Literature 120 (Spring 1989): 225-27.
Review of John Fekete, ed., Life After Postmodernism: Essays on Value and Culture (New World Perspectives, 1987); Stanley Fogel, The Postmodern University: Essays on the Deconstruction of the Humanities (ECW Press, 1988); and Arthur Kroker and David Cook, The Postmodern Scene: Excremental Culture and Hyper-Aesthetics (New World Perspectives, 1986)
The notion of postmodernity, though current in literary discourse since the 1960's, has during the past decade become the subject of vigorous theoretical debates involving Jean-François Lyotard, Jürgen Habermas, Richard Rorty and Terry Eagleton, among others. Any attempt to define postmodernism is thus likely to seem contentious—not least because, as Linda Hutcheon has remarked in A Poetics of Postmodernism, the term shares with the “grand flourish of negativized rhetoric” that habitually accompanies it (words like 'discontinuity,' 'indeterminacy' and 'antitotalization') the paradoxical property of incorporating that which it disavows.
But whatever their evaluations of this tendency, most interpreters would accept Lyotard's description of the postmodern stance as one of incredulity towards metanarratives—in particular those of the liberation of humanity and of the speculative unity of human knowledge, which have separately legitimized the institutions of humanistic and of scientific research, and which come together in the grand récit of Marxism. The cultural politics of postmodernism, while incorporating deconstructive hermeneutics and a corresponding suspicion of institutional forms of knowledge and power, thus also involve resistance to any kind of totalizing impulse, whether Hegelian, Marxist or neoconservative. The result, not surprisingly, is paradoxical: an insistence (to paraphrase Lyotard's bleakly playful formulation) on presenting the unpresentable, and on refusing both the solace of good forms and any nostalgia for the unattainable.
The books under review offer several very different Canadian perspectives upon this deliberately amorphous tendency. Stanley Fogel's book (to start at the shallow end of the pool) will disappoint any reader expecting a sustained analysis of, for example, the university's role in legitimizing and reproducing the present social order. Its central section consists of a grab-bag of literary pieces—two review essays (lively, but perishable), articles on Pynchon and on freeplay in postmodern fiction, and an essay on John Barth which, being written to him as well, displays some of the rhetorical peculiarities of prayer, among them that of telling the addressee things which he might be supposed already to know. These are followed by some short, cheerfully iconoclastic texts written in the manner of Roland Barthes' Mythologies, but lacking the semiological and political acuity which made that book compelling. Only in the two theoretical essays which constitute its first section, then, does The Postmodern University do much to earn its title. Self-regarding, stylistically clumsy and too often based upon secondary responses to theoretical texts, these essays manage nonetheless to make some forceful, if scarcely novel, points—about, for example, the parallel decomposition of narrative forms and of institutional metanarratives at the hands of postmodern fabulists and theorists, about the fatal ease with which a merely content-oriented postmodernism can be neutralized within the universities, and about the manner in which “the controllers of those subjects with the shakiest claims to grounding, with perhaps the most anarchic materials, resist most mightily any kind of structural tinkering.” But while challenging the “authoritarian tilt” of the humanities, Fogel himself allows name-calling and appeals to authority to take the place of argument, as when he writes off representational mimesis by quoting a sentence of Derrida, or attacks the “CanLit critics” as propagandists engaged in literary “empire building”—at the same time failing to see that his own canon of mostly white male, and American writers might expose him, if one wanted to talk about empires, to more damaging charges.
The essays assembled by John Fekete in Life After Postmodernism throw the reader at once into deeper water—which is sometimes also muddy, as in Charles Levin's wearisome attempt to stir motifs from psychoanalysis and art criticism together into a discourse on value; sometimes fast-moving, as in Susan Stewart's sparkling essay on graffiti as crime and art; and more often clear and still, as in Jay Bernstein's finely written essay on aesthetic alienation, Arkady Plotnitsky's post-Derridean recovery of a Nietzschean concern with questions of value, György Márkus's questioning of the totalizing impulse in Gadamer's hermeneutics, and Barbara Herrnstein Smith's meditation on “Value without Truth-Value.” Fekete's reasons for bringing these essays together are explained in his own strenuously lucid contributions to the book. Remarking that the familiar modernist and positivist antinomies of object and representation, of unvalidated fact and subjective value, have been suspended by a postmodern paradigm in which all interpretive activities are seen as conditioned by prior experience and prejudices—in short, by values, he sees an opening for a renewed discourse on issues of value. Fekete's strategy is to represent value as underlying and subsuming the terms of poststructuralist and postmodernist discourse. Value is a circulating medium, he proposes, of which both the subject and the object terms of discourse are effects—though active and productive ones. He would thus reverse the structuralists' exclusion of value judgments from literary criticism (an exclusion which quietly ratified established literary canons and evaluative authorities), and at the same time would challenge the poststructuralist emptying of the human subject, and in particular of the author.
This may all seem rather austere. And indeed, one problem with Fekete's attempt to give priority to an emergent postmodern discourse on value is that he never shows concretely how it would alter the ways in which we currently produce and receive texts. Another obstacle to his project can be summed up in the name of Jean Baudrillard, a key postmodern theorist whose recent work happens to be unreservedly nihilist. Baudrillard's theorizing of what Fekete calls a culture of “vampire value,” in which “dematerialized, dead value” and “disseminated, dead power” feed upon and deform human desires is uneasily absorbed in Fekete's own contributions, but re-emerges in the ecstatic nihilism of the essay by Arthur Kroker with which the book concludes.
It is Baudrillard, again, who has pulled the plug in The Postmodern Scene. By his analysis, social relations are being emptied and symbolically destroyed less through the ownership of the means of production than through control of the signifying codes by which human exchange-relations are regulated. Rather than seeking to challenge this control, however, Baudrillard advocates a perverse acquiescence in consumerism: a passive consent to every conceivable form of excess will, he supposes, abolish the system by forcing it into “hyperlogic.”
One might want to argue on behalf of Arthur Kroker and David Cook that their maelstrom rhetoric is as much a parody as an imitation of Baudrillard's recent texts—for they seem both to acquiesce in and attempt to exceed his analyses ('hyper' is their favourite prefix). But the result, all too often, is something we can identify, with a bow to Hunter S. Thompson, as Gonzo theory. Although The Postmodern Scene includes perceptive essays on such figures as Barthes, Foucault, and Serres, much of the book is marked by a deliberate hysteria, a persistent de-materializing of causality, a frequent recourse to such universals as 'the will' and 'the body' (ironic, given the concern of poststructuralism to deconstruct universals), and by the substitution of an oracular and universalizing 'we' for sustained argument. Kroker is at his silliest when, in an oddly pompous essay, he acclaims St. Augustine as “the first, and most eloquent, of modern structuralists,” and finds in his writings (of which, by the way, he shows few signs of direct knowledge) the dividing line “between classicism, the discourse of modernism, and its postmodern fate.” His and Cook's readings of visual images are sometimes equally unreliable. (In Mark Gertler's painting Merry-go-round —the beginning, by their account, of postmodern politics—they see only soldiers, sailors and businessmen.” Yet at least six of the fifteen figures in this painting are female.)
How should one respond to this collection of essays? Perhaps by quoting—as a counter to the authors' lapses into nihilism—the words of John Fekete in the introduction to his book: “We need to believe and enact the belief that there are better and worse ways to live the pluralism of value. To see all cows as the same colour would truly amount to being lost in the night.”