Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Is Postmodernism Over?

No, this isn't what you think. Like most of you, I just read Zadie Smith's lovely Times piece, Two Paths For The Novel. And while I haven't read Netherland, and probably won't, I think Remainder is a brilliant, extraordinary book, and I recommend it to everyone I can. Nevertheless, I have to ask if postmodernism is done for. The origin of this question lies, oddly, in John Lanchester's critic-at-large piece in this week's New Yorker, about the collapse of the financial markets. At one point, he's talking about derivatives, monetary abstractions which bear little relation to the assets they are supposed to represent, and the trade of which has contributed hugely to our recent drop over the edge of the earth. Here is the money quote, or rather the poverty quote:

With derivatives, we seem to enter a modernist world in which risk no longer means what it means in plain English, and in which there is a profound break between the language of finance and that of common sense...If the invention of derivatives was the financial world's modernist dawn, the current crisis is unsettlingly like the birth of postmodernism.

The recent crash is entirely self-referential, reminding us that most of the money we've been earning and spending over the past fifteen years has been imaginary. The consequences of the crash, of course, are horribly real.

This phenomenon, coupled with the death of David Wallace, got me thinking that maybe this whole idea is dead. Perhaps we have had quite enough of pretending. And reading Smith's review doesn't do much to change my mind. For one thing, I think that her argument is based upon a false dichotomy. "The two novels are antipodal," she writes, "indeed one is the strong refusal of the other." And yes, these books appear very different. But they are not responses to one another, and they are not opposites. They're two very different personal reactions to a cultural moment, and there is room in the world for both of them, along with the thousands of other books that have been written about that same moment. There are not two paths for the novel. The paths for the novel are infinite.

I don't mean to take Smith to task; in fact, her review is superb, when it hews to the works themselves, their strengths and failings. What I am suggesting is dead (not, I assure you, declaring) is the notion of postmodernism as a discrete area of artistic endeavor. I'm suggesting that maybe it's time to stop betting the house on postmodernism, and admit to ourselves once and for all that it is merely a quality inherent to narrative--indeed, to artistic expression. Hamlet is about writing, Bach's Inventions are about music. And painting has always been about painting. What's perhaps over is not self-referentiality, but our torrid affair with self-regard. Maybe our cultural preoccupation with cultural preoccupation is what made us consider it reasonable to invest all our money in the idea of investing our money. The distinction is semantic, but I think important.

The ideas that make Remainder a great book are real. They are part of how we see ourselves, rather than abstract concepts about seeing. I'm not proposing that Remainder is postmodern, and thus Remainder is dead; I'm proposing that Remainder is realism, and the real encompasses the imaginary, and not the other way around.

12 comments:

AC said...

Postmodernism was a big factor in my decision to leave school (as an English Lit major, at least). It never seemed real to me. In fact, I was crushed when they told me there was really nothing after modernism but mind games.

I would be very happy to forget all about postmodernism and move on to something that deserves a name of it's own. And if I hear that MC Lars song on the radio once more I'm going to puke.

Jon said...

Perhaps the new thing could be called The Former Postmodernism, or The Modernism Formerly Known as Post.

Mark said...

Smith made a pretty convincing case for the exhaustion of "lyrical realism," though. I think you're right that there are infinite paths for the novel, but there's certainly a type of novel I'd like to see a lot less of, and Netherland sounds like the apotheosis of that type of novel. It's hard to describe what binds together the novels I'm tired of--"lyrical realism" sounds too vague--but I think Smith and McCarthy are onto something with the idea of engineered authenticity. Maybe self-consciousness is so woven into our lives by now that it's banal to focus on it ad nauseam at the same time that it's objectionable to try and do an end-run around it by creating seemingly "authentic" characters like the cricket guy in Netherland.

rmellis said...

Every time I opened Netherland, the page seemed to be about cricket. Suddenly I was in my grandparents' cigar-smoke-filled lounge in suburban Cardiff, slightly drunk on sherry and shrimp puffs. Eeek!

I honestly don't understand the Realism vs. Not-Realism war. It might be a British thing, because I haven't read much from American critics on the topic. Could it be something as silly as class? Could Realism be code for Oxford, Cambridge, leather bindings, fox hunting, etc?

American literature doesn't distinguish between realism and non, so much. In the US, gender divides us (women's lit vs Serious Writing) to a greater degree...

jrlennon said...

Right, these divisions are just not useful to me...the older I get, the less interested I become in movements, stylistic pigeonholes, and manifestos in general. It's all about personality for me, about voice. A story might well be cobbled together out of found texts, or arranged weirdly on the page, or be obsessed with its own creation, and maybe some people would call that postmodernism, but honestly, I just don't give a crap. If it's done well, it's a good story, and if it's done poorly, it isn't.

Preoccupation with labels like "lyrical realism" doesn't help anyone, I don't think. And the moment you think you're part of a school of writing is the moment your sucking has begun.

That said, let me reiterate, I love Zadie Smith. But the analytical framework of that review left me cold.

AC said...

"If it's done well, it's a good story, and if it's done poorly, it isn't."

Exactly. What bothered me so much about postmodernism when it was first presented to me in the 90s was not the authors or novels themselves which were being called "postmodern", but the approach being taken in literary criticism of all writing. It wasn't enough to talk about the story that was there. You had to build some kind of meta-narrative framework to superimpose over it.

Alicia said...

To me, James Woods had a better argument for realism, which just could be because he wrote it in more plain language and haven't read much literary theory, nor ever will. I had always thought Aqua Team Hunger Force on the Cartoon Network was postmodern.

I am very interested in what will be the newest style. Besides, it'll all be the same; it'll all be writing. Yah, I see voice becoming extraordinarily important in the future, less so because of any need to feel the authenticity of a narrative self, but rather the need to listen to the story this guy at work is telling though you know he's full of it and it's all probably partially true, but it's a good story. It captures you.

On Rhian's point, this point is why multiculturalism is a labeler in the States (a well-written point by Smith)- "For though these novels seem far apart, their authors are curiously similar. Similar age, similar class, one went to Oxford, the other Cambridge, both are by now a part of the publishing mainstream, share a fondness for cricket, and are subject to a typically British class/race anxiety that has left its residue. A flashback-inclined Freudian might conjure up the image of two brilliant young men, straight out of college, both eager to write the Novel of the Future, who discover, to their great dismay, that the authenticity baton (which is, of course, entirely phony) has been passed on. Passed to women, to those of color, to people of different sexualities, to people from far-off, war-torn places. The frustrated sense of having come to the authenticity party exactly a century late!"

Does Zadie Smith write for the NYRB, because she's like "I want to write a developed, analytical, exploratory book review of length?" The NYRB and Bookforum really offer in depth reviews that aren't found in the dailies.

jrlennon said...

Yeah, alicia, I think you're right, the good thing about the NYRB is that it offers a forum to the kind of analytical geekiness Smith is fond of. And I'm glad for its existence. But, as a writer, it's the last way I want to see writing. It kinda sucks the mystery out of the process, for me.

I do think there are signs that multiculturalism, as a saleable label, is on its way out. It is now, quite rightfully, an entrenched part of the cultural establishment, and has been the norm in academia for a long time, and so is no longer new. And postmodernism is ubiquitous and pretty well understood, conceptually, even by people who aren't, and never were, graduate students. And of course "lyrical realism" has always been the main vehicle for literary mediocrity. So if there is a good change coming, it's that the labels themselves are becoming passe. I hope so, because I think the strength of American literature has always been its preoccupation with individual suffering and enterprise, in the face of groups and institutions.

Hell, a black guy was just elected president. I mean, this is certainly not the end of racism, but it does suggest that, for the first time in forever, Americans can say that individual excellence is officially more important than group identity, be it ethnic, stylistic, or regional. Hooray for that!

rmellis said...

I just heard Howard Dean say on the radio that Obama's going to show that the old labels "liberal" and "conservative" are not useful anymore. I'm okay with that. There comes a point when a certain structure for looking at ideas becomes a hindrance to ideas, rather than a help.

Though I will always be a pinko.

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