Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Notes on Strange Fiction: Postmodern(ism)

In response to my last post on pataphysics, Matt asks, what would I consider "an explicitly postmodern text using pataphysics, as opposed to a modernist like Davenport?"

A short answer would be BUFFET FROID; I think this does read as a postmodern text in most respects. The long answer is a bit more complicated, because the idea of explicitness raises an interesting point here, I think, a flake of paint that I want to peel away -- scratch at the implications to see what's revealed underneath. A self-evidently or even apparently postmodern text is one thing; an explicitly postmodern text is another -- one, surely, which asserts a singular nature for itself as "postmodern". To me that means it's not just postmodern but postmodernist. What I mean is that, articulable in either that modifier "explicitly" or in the suffix "-ism", there's an important distinction to be made in terms of mode and agenda.

To try and clarify this a little, the idea that a text's philosophy is explicit in that text for me implies that when we read the narrative what we find is that the author's intent is stated, that a particular reading is invited. An explicitly postmodern text, I mean, would be one which articulates its nature, says, "I am a postmodern text: I was written as a postmodern text; I am to be read as a postmodern text." Read in a certain way, knowing that they come from a certain context, exhibit certain features, we could happily label many texts postmodern. If we buy into the idea of postmodernity as a condition we're living in (versus modernity), then we have texts born of this era, texts which exemplify it, texts which are postmodern in the same way that earlier texts were modern. If we're treating postmodernism as an aesthetic project, that's a different story; we're looking for texts which are part of that project, texts which are postmodernist in the same way Joyce's ULYSSES is modernist.

Hang on though. What do I mean by postmodern(ism) anyway?


Postmodernism, in the wikipedia definition, is "a cultural, intellectual, or artistic state lacking a clear central hierarchy or organizing principle and embodying extreme complexity, contradiction, ambiguity, diversity, interconnectedness or interreferentiality, in a way that is often indistinguishable from a parody of itself." Clearly the pataphysical quirks I was talking about in the previous entry -- which I hereby dub suturae, btw -- are a key literary technique in any text which is articulating that state; they create that sense of heterodoxy and disjunction, an aesthetics of anarchy. If you buy into the idea of postmodernity as an era, you might well argue that the conflation of pataphysics and postmodernism is only natural: those sutura are signs of the times; texts adopt them because they're addressing this postmodern era; it's only sensible to see these sutured texts as essentially postmodern. But postmodernism is more than this, I'd say; defined in opposition to modernism (as negation, inversion, successor,) it's not just a state -- that state is (or would be) postmodernity -- but a project.

To understand precisely what that project entails requires putting it in the context of modernism.


For me, modernism is pataphysics applied as a method for generating coherence out of confusion, a stitching-of-songs into a grand rhapsodic tapestry. (The Greek term, rhapsody, literally translates as "stitching-of-songs"; I would argue that the modernist project is, in fact, the project of literature from the get-go, evidenced in the stitched-together narrative structures of everything from GILGAMESH up, through Apuleius's THE GOLDEN ASS, through Cervantes' DON QUIXOTE, to Joyce's ULYSSES. But that's another argument...) Stitching together variant forms -- comedic, tragic, satiric, mythic, mimetic, literary, paraliterary -- it seeks to create a Big Picture from the juxtapositions, in the contrasts and congruities born of the seamed structure. (On the crudest, most literal level, the story-arcs that emerge in the seasons of series such as BUFFY or ANGEL can be understood as Big Pictures; in ANGEL particularly, the entire series has a key moment when that Big Picture resolves into clarity, when Angel demands to meet the ultimate Big Bad, whoever is in charge of Hell, and is presented with the streets of LA, the human race, as the ultimate Powers-That-Be.)

Postmodernism, then, emerges out of a sense that such a Big Picture is neither palatable nor, in truth, possible, where it pretends to truth as an objective assertion about the nature of things, a grand statement of the human condition. These are Lyotard's "meta-narratives", theories of history that project an underlying universalist organisation upon an inherently meaningless jumble of events and experiences. Such meta-narratives are considered suspect because they provide authoritative readings of reality. Postmodernism rejects that authority. The author is dead, according to Barthes; there is no unifying objective "truth" to be found; the multiplicity of conflicting subjective readings must be recognised.

Where BUFFET FROID hints -- in an exceedingly liminal manner -- at one reading in which the narrative is the Depardieu character's dream, but equally at an alternative reading in which the narrative is the Depardieu character's Hell, it does not resolve into either. Each reading is equally valid, and authorial intent is irrelevant. The point is not for the reader to decipher, from the clues, a latent but more legitimate "reality". In this respect the film is clearly open to reading as a postmodern(ist) text, one which embodies that state of contradiction and, crucially, accepts it, one which recognises the multiplicity of interpretations.

We can take this idea of postmodernity a little deeper though, overlay Baudrillard's notion of "simulacra", his post-structuralist position that language itself simply doesn't sustain such authoritative readings. The thing is, we relate to the world indirectly, through the dynamic matrix of signifiers, our understanding of actual objects (dogs and cats, say) mediated by our ideation/signification of them (as "dogs" or "cats"); and with the meaning of each sign determined by its relationships to others, the whole system of language is too fluid to allow for the total understanding(s) we desire. The attempt to artifice a Big Picture, in fact, seduces us into simulacra of reality. Where Baudrillard develops this to relate to society as a whole, I don't want to offer a crude reduction of ideas I might be misunderstanding, but a postmodernist position rooted in that view might be that, to all intents and purposes, reality has been usurped, that we live now in a realm of symbols rather than objects. If the meta-narratives are false, the reality they claim to refer to is lost to us; all we have left is an incoherent collage of conflicting stories.

Again, we might well relate this to BUFFET FROID where the narrative offers semiosis rather than mimesis -- the symbols of characters, places and actions working through relationships to each other that are ultimately divorced from the objective reality we would expect them to be related to, gaining their meanings not from referential connections with real-world objects but from their interactions with each other. The "dream" and "afterlife" interpretations, in fact, might be traced to this dislocation of narrative into the symbolic realm, our reading of the setting as dreamscape or netherworld understood as attempts to rationalise the symbolic realm/system, integrate it into our idea of reality as a metaphoric/metaphysical inner or outer sphere of action with connecting bridges across which meaning can be imported. Rejecting the autotelic meaning offered in the narrative in and of itself, these readings become attempts to bind it to an "objective reality" which, in a postmodernist view, does not exist.

Blowing up those bridges then, considering the film as a purely autotelic artwork, it is quite possible, I'd argue, to read the work as dealing wholly with symbols and the relationships between them: a deserted Metro station; a flick-knife; a murder; a deserted tower-block; a wife; a police commissioner; a strangler; and so on. We can read it as a performance in the Theatre of the Absurd, more mockery than mimicry. The indifference of its characters to the cruelty of their own actions and those of others, the general lack of any emotionally sensible reaction in the face of strangeness after strangeness -- much of the film can be seen as indicative of postmodernism's rejection of any pretence that we can know reality. The symbols dance and, in that dance, adopt postures and positions toward each other; we read meaning into the pattern of narrative built up in this way; but ultimately what we are confronted with is a simulacra.

From this, in turn, the postmodernist notion of "play" emerges. The autotelic text is a game of symbols, an artifice of ironic detachment, ludic or cynical, embodying an intellectual delight in the game for its own sake or an emotional disaffection in the absence of certainty. Viewed as a "black comedy", BUFFET FROID embodies both: it functions as a farce, offering the fun of the game, in its comical narrative of confusions and complications; it is also bleakly existentialist/nihilist in its brutalist excision of any sense of empathic relationships between in its characters.

This is where a niggling problem with the whole idea of postmodernism kicks in for me though. As much as I'm sympathetic to many of the concerns that postmodernism is rooted in -- the interrogation of meta-narrative's universalism, the model of meaning as dynamic system of shifting relationships rather than mechanical structure of concrete connections, the focus on semiotic systems as simulacra that have long since achieved independence from any objective reality -- and as much as I have a sometimes ludic and sometimes cynical outlook myself, this is where I find myself suspicious of postmodernism as a project within art and as a philosophy in its own right, not least of all in its assertion of postmodernity as the era we are now living in.

Partly this suspicion rests in a critique of postmodernism as ultimately a nihilist/existentialist flavour of modernism, one in which the destruction of meta-narrative, the death of the author, the democratisation of reading, the recognition of heterodoxy, the extirpation of absolutism from systems of language and thought, can all be viewed as modernism that takes, as its universal meta-narrative, only the illegitimacy of essentialism. Rather than a successor to modernism, this is only one (central and crucial) subtype at the heart of it, evidenced in the work of Nietszche and Sartre.

For me, as a nihilist/existentialist of sorts, this is not perhaps an invalidation of postmodernism in and of itself, simply a rearticulation that brings into question the idea of modernity and postmodernity as distinct historic states; for me the recognition of the vacuum at the heart of absolutist/essentialist systems is a core feature of modernity wherever it is to be found. That so characteristically postmodern response to that vacuum, however, the response of ironic detachment, is one that I have less sympathy for, in so far as it consitutes, I think, an admission of defeat. What I mean is, if we take that ludic/cynical irony as an articulation of the postmodernist worldview, the text becomes a statement-by-negation about the potentialities of narrative and about reality as a dead zone for meaning, an assertion that narrative can be no more than a game, to be played for its own sake, that sincerity is untenable in this postmodern era of simulacra.

This brings us back to the question of postmodernism as an explicit project of a text, a position adopted by the narrative. If we read BUFFET FROID as a postmodern text, we have three (or more) possible readings: it takes place in a dream; it takes place in Hell; it takes place in the realm of symbols. If we read it simply as a pataphysical narrative, a fourth reading is possible, a reading that is not metaphysical but not entirely autotelic -- one in which, regardless of the context we project onto the events, it is understood as having something relevant to say as regards actual human relationships, about empathy and the lack thereof, about alienation and our capacity for cruelty. If our postmodernism is consistent in its rejection of authority, in fact, it should hardly refuse the validity of such a reading, a reading in which the patterning of the simulacra is stubbornly taken as a commentary upon objective reality. Whether the characters are dead, in a dream of death, or stuck in a simulacra of death... well... there's a fairly consistent theme here; there's little that's more objectively real, I'd say, more universally relevant, than death.

People die. Is that a meta-narrative? What can I say? I'm a modernist. I'm an existentialist modernist, holding to the idea that existence precedes essence; but I don't think it's a contradiction-in-terms to also hold to the idea that existence ends.

From a nihilist/existentialist position then, reading BUFFET FROID as a comment on the objective reality of death -- if only as a comment on a (post)modern state of confusion where we're pretty much divorced from that objective reality -- is valid, I'd say. Any narrative can be seen as a purely strategic creative action, a crafting of symbolic commentary which entails an adoption of the rhetorical tricks of essentialism, but does so on the understanding that any "statement" made is just that -- the existential act of an existential agent. A rejection of the idea that life has any inherent meaning doesn't preclude us from trying to make sense of it. The conscious fabrication of meaning in this way is not "bad faith", the expectation being that the reader will create their own meaning from the articulation on offer. It's fiction, after all, not religion; you're not meant to believe it.

Reading BUFFET FROID as an explicitly postmodern text however, I think, risks projecting onto that ironic detachment an an intentional impetus that is at odds with the very philosophy we're taking it to espouse. In this philosophy where the author is dead we are, paradoxically, fabricating an authoritative reading in which the meaning of the narrative is sourced back to Bertrand Blier's agenda. Depardieu is not dreaming. Depardieu is not dead. Nor are we to read this as a symbolic critique of the human condition; this is postmodernism, and in the postmodernist view the realm of symbols is mere simulacra, irresolvably divorced from an "objective reality" that "no longer exists". By reading BUFFET FROID as part of the postmodernist project, it seems to me, we close off these "totalising" interpretations and leave only one valid reading of the text: as an autotelic artefact of darkly comic absurdity, the ironic distance of its vision the only tenable response in a postmodern era.

That explicitly postmodernist texts do exist and function in exactly this way is, I think, a problem for the philosophy of postmodernism -- or for me at least. This may be a failure of imagination on my part, I admit, but in the idea of an explicitly postmodernist narrative with irony as a necessary trait I sense that particular form of bad faith which is endemic enough to nihilism and existentialism to give them both bad reps as philosophies of fatalism and angst. What manifests in failed nihilism or existentialism as an essentialist projection of meaning onto the void, a pathetic fallacy that the value-neutral disinterest of the universe is a value-negative hostility, manifests in postmodernism as an essentialising (and totalising) negative valuation that treats the absence of authenticity with the disaffection of the cynic. I'm not convinced, in fact, that the disengagement inherent in the more playful irony of postmodernism which treats the text as game isn't equally dubious, a defensive distancing.

It is nice and safe, after all, to read BUFFET FROID as ironic. And it is a black comedy, after all. The events are farcical even at their darkest, artificed to an utter irrealism. Is it an explicitly postmodern text? Well, if the shoe fits, as they say... But at the same time, I can't help but relate its title to Burroughs' THE NAKED LUNCH, and parse it as an image of confrontation with reality, an image of that moment of recognition that the "simulacra" of a meal is actually the "objective reality" of a dead animal.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this Hal,

I think your critique of postmodernism as literature really makes explicit many people's unease about the project. (Including my own discomforts.) Its great to see these issues chased out into the open.

Regards, Mark H

12:59 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home