>-->Defending Postmodern Fiction as a Legitimate Literary Genre
(Editors' note: Eric Rasmussen's November 30, 2000 riPOSTe was written in response to an editorial by Michael Bérubé in the Chronicle of Higher Education.)
The term postmodernism first entered our critical vernacular a half-century ago. So why are academics still debating whether or not postmodern fiction is a legitimate field of study? Should we be concerned whether postmodern literary studies have a future in the 21st-century academy?
If you're curious about what prompted these musings, take a look at Michael Bérubé's essay "Teaching Postmodern Fiction Without Being Sure the Genre Exists" in the May 19th, 2000 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. In his editorial, Bérubé calls for a rethinking "of the categories into which we separate 20th-century literature in English." Bérubé's suggestion, I fear, could unwittingly help to undermine the already precarious status of postmodern literary studies in United States universities.
Addressing the Chronicle's general audience of professional academics, both professors and administrators, Bérubé "confess[es]" that after a decade of teaching a course called "Postmodernism and American Fiction," he's not convinced that postmodern, i.e., pomo, fiction actually exists. Such a claim, coming from one of the United States' most prominent left-leaning English professors, could easily provide fuel for the neoconservatives who, throughout the so-called culture wars, have fought to keep pomo texts out of the highly contested literary canon and out of classrooms.
For this reason alone, it is worth clarifying Bérubé's thoughts about postmodernism and literature, which, to this reader, have remained fairly consistent over the past decade. During the 1990s, Bérubé authored, or co-edited, no fewer than five books, an impressive feat that has made him a recognizable name, if not an academic star, in English departments across the country.
Noting that his provocative book Public Access was largely ignored by the most respected academic journals and his salary was still a modest $37K a year, Bérubé argued (in his 1996 riPOSTe "Selling out in a Buyer's Market") that his alleged star status was largely a myth. Today, however, Bérubé's claim to be a marginalized academic no longer holds.
As ebr's book review editor, my professional contact with academics suggests that many younger professors and graduate students regard Bérubé as a leading scholar in the humanities and even a role model. Moreover, Bérubé recently accepted the Paterno Family Professorship of English and American Literature at Penn State University. If his regular essays in the Chronicle didn't already confirm that Bérubé is a major player in the realm of literary academia, this prominent appointment certainly establishes Bérubé's status.
Perhaps academia's neocons still will resist Bérubé's critiques of the profession's reactionary antipathy to the ascendancy of "cultural studies" throughout English and literature departments, but they certainly can't ignore his scholarship any longer. Bérubé is now part of the academic literary establishment, which - considering that only a precious few professors are willing to risk their careers by speaking out against the corporatization of college campuses and exploitative labor practices in academia - is a very good thing.
Given Bérubé's status and reputation, I can't help feeling nervous about his suggesting to Chronicle readers that postmodern fiction is a suspect genre that cannot be clearly defined. My concern is that Bérubé's call for abandoning postmodern studies per se will feed into the larger backlash against theory and only serve to delegitimize the study of more adventurous and experimental contemporary literatures, particularly multimedia-disseminated performance poetry and interactive hypertexts.
Bérubé's latest take on postmodernism will be familiar to anyone with more than a passing interest in debates on postmodernism and contemporary literature. In short, Bérubé suggests that contemporary fiction has not kept up with the formal, aesthetic definitions of postmodernism advanced by various pomo theorists such as Jean Baudrillard and Jean Francois Lyotard: "[E]very attempt to define postmodern fiction in stylistic terms - as a form of writing that defeats readers' expectations of coherence, as fiction that dwells on ambiguity and uncertainty - winds up being a definition of modernist fiction as well."
Bérubé's argument about the impossibility of definitively identifying a stylistic technique or feature as pomo is nothing new. The 1990s saw the publication of countless studies that discerned pomo elements in texts from virtually every historical era, at least as far back as the presocratic philosophers in early Greece. In 1992's Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon and the Politics of the Canon, Bérubé struggled - by his own admission largely in vain - to distinguish between the styles and techniques of a pomo Pynchon and a modern Kafka. So, I figured Bérubé had long abandoned his efforts to conclusively identify the features of pomo literature(s).
After all, in Public Access Bérubé declared that "a unified field theory of 'postmodernism' is neither possible nor desirable" and "postmodernism remains a cultural field distinguished by internal dissensus."
At that time, the gist of Bérubé's argument was that pinpointing the traits and features of pomo literature is a paradoxical and ultimately pointless quest, because so many pomo texts actively work to undermine our faith in fixed taxonomies. Instead of expending their precious critical energies arguing about impossible ontological problems, e.g., imagining an ideal über modern or postmodern novel with which to definitively classify other texts, scholars should concern themselves with more pragmatic issues, e.g., how textual representations and ideas are replicated and transmitted and how various mediating factors affect a literary work's reception and status as a legitimate source of knowledge.
Currently, it seems that Bérubé's concern with correlating the production and transmission of literary (and other) texts with larger social, political, and economic phenomena has led him to conclude, much like Fredric Jameson, that postmodernism is best understood as one aspect of our current historical condition in which "free-market" capitalism and its attendant consumer culture have spread virus-like around the globe.
For Bérubé, the field of contemporary fiction is best conceptualized not by aesthetic definitions, but by the geopolitical conditions in which it is created; i.e., a world in which the English language is rapidly becoming the global lingua franca, at least in the domain of economics and business. Curiously, Bérubé's Chronicle essay doesn't mention postcolonial studies, but his key argument - that the distinguishing characteristic between modern and postmodern fiction is the fact that, today, so much quality literature in English is being written in places besides the U.K., Ireland, and the U.S. - sounds like he's equating postmodern literature and literary studies with postcolonial literature and literary studies.
While there is certainly much intra-disciplinary overlap between the study of postmodern & postcolonial fiction (imagine, say, a critical essay exploring the importance of rock music and media celebrity in Salman Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet) I'm uncomfortable with the implication that the two descriptors, postmodernism and postcolonialism, are synonymous, or that postcolonial literary studies should supplant postmodern literary studies.
In my opinion, one can best conceptualize the domain of postmodern fiction by analyzing writings that somehow transcribe or embody the effects of multimedia environments within the literary text. See, for example, John Johnston's excellent study of pomo fiction, Information Multiplicity: American Fiction in the Age of Media Saturation, which surveys novels by authors including Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Joseph McElroy, Pat Cadigan, William Gaddis and William Gibson. Postcolonial fiction, in contrast, details life in locales once belonging to the European empires that now are (ostensibly anyway) independent nations struggling for autonomy in a world where multinational corporations wield more power than many sovereign states.
The distinction I'm making between postmodern and postcolonial fiction may seem like academic hairsplitting (and I don't even want to get into the debate about which countries and populations in the Americas can be descried as postcolonial) but the difference is significant for a simple bureaucratic reason. Because resources always seem to be limited in humanities departments, it's important (particularly during curricula meetings) for English faculty specializing in 20th century or contemporary literature to remind their colleagues of the differences between postmodern and postcolonial fiction. Otherwise, English departments, particularly those with limited resources, e.g., liberal arts colleges and smaller universities, may decide that they can't afford to offer classes in both postcolonial and postmodern fiction. This would be a shame, because courses in postcolonial fiction cannot satisfy the needs of students who want to study postmodern fiction, and vice versa.
In the best-case scenario, of course, English departments will offer courses in both postmodern and postcolonial fiction and encourage students to distinguish between the two sub-fields, while noting their relevant similarities. Classes in postmodern fiction will address topics such as the literary responses to our ever more technologically-mediated environments, while postcolonial fiction classes will analyze the political content of fictional texts written in India, Africa, the Caribbean, etc.
Bérubé, Michael. Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.
___. Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics. New York: Verso, 1996.
___. "Teaching Postmodern Fiction Without Being Sure That the Genre Exists." The Chronicle of Higher Education. 19 May 2000 [http://chronicle.com/free/v46/i37/37b00401.htm].
Johnston, John. Information Multiplicity: American Fiction in the Age of Media Saturation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
(Further discussion of the state of postmodern fiction can be sent to ebr.)