Showing posts sorted by relevance for query post modernism. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query post modernism. Sort by date Show all posts

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

notes on postmodernism and Fiction

Post modern fiction at best is by writers who have a faith beyond their own understanding that the novel will work to their creative convictions--DeLillo, Gaddis, Pynchon, Erikson, Vollmann, Didion and many, many others who've tweaked and commented upon the form their using in the execution of their work, have books that are red hot because they work as novels, first and foremost. The experiments end up in areas that are outside the middle class expectations of its audiences, the prose demonstrates a mastery of language that creates room for human response even as the writer--dead or alive--tries to imagine it's inability to step outside itself, out of it's prison house.

The term is central to many liberal arts and humanities programs, but its propagation results in bad criticism, the sort of pseudo-science that makes equivocation seem respectable. As theory, post modern thought is unsatisfying because it finally reveals cowardice in trying to uncover meaning in experience, or to try to enter into a debate what it is that makes the human experience worth thinking about.

It is this absenteeism on the political front that has enabled the Right to gain a high road in the area of values: our Republican opposition insist on talking about how we ought to live, while the Left, such as it is in the University departments, snort and insist that it's a more subtle, pervasive, insidious set of conditions that effect that The World. The Big Picture , Lyotard's "grand narrative", has a virtue as argument only if it has imagination to burn its concerns into the consciousness of the Culture it’s trying to enlighten. The blindered relativism and rudderless , entropy-grasping adherents of post-modern theory are producing an unreadable nonsense that no one who's worried about their schools, or their sewer systems , can respond to.

But post modernism, as style expressed in books, films, and theatre, will have a lasting mark on the landscape. If nothing else, the novels of Don DeLillo and Pynchon will stand for decades to come--their greatness is Faulknerian, Proustian-- as masterpieces of their time, as will others, no doubt. The judgment of History will separate out who will ultimately be with us, in some form, at the end of this century. Fred Jamieson has maintained that pomo is actually an extension of modernism's style: Eliot's style and concern with how cadences go together are hardly less radical than what the Beats, or the Language Poets have devised under their separate extreme energies, and Gertrude Stein, the mistress of Modernism if their was one, wrote in ways that are post-modern by the current lexicon.

But it has less to do with precursors foreshadowing a creative habit that would become coherent much later in the century: rather, it has more to do with a kind of continuity that postmodernists are loathe to admit, that the efforts of recent and younger artists are extensions of ideas that have found full expression in an earlier, perhaps more exiting time.

Much of post moderns' flashiest writers seem as they are trying to berserk themselves into genius: Harold Bloom is on point with his idea of the anxiety of influence.

Much of the sex and sizzle of recent work seems willfully, unnaturally expanded and encyclopedic: there's a worrisome dread under DF Wallace's work that refuses to stop trying top it's last page, an awareness that every sentence he writes is in competition with the history of Literature, in total. This insistence on being brilliance makes the work impossible to relish, savor. It bores with its marching bands and fireworks.

In his book City of Words, the late critic Tony Tanner maintained that reality in the 20th century had simply become too fantastic for fiction to simply be a slightly "exaggerated" replication of it: that realist project was indeed used up. Rather, the current novelist should cease trying to render a facsimile of actual experience, coded, as such, with a convenient moral and metaphysical argument behind it, and simply become more fantastic, fabulist, genre-leaping.

It was his notion that the novel, to really be anything at all, need to become 'word' structures, the titled city of words, and re introduce some things such as wonder and paradox, simply fantastic things, and to skillfully play with the archive of literary conventions to infuse their fantastic tales with a verve that he saw as lacking in the then current state of the novel. An interesting, ground breaking book on the rise of what's become known as the post-modern novel, and a succinct argument for the need.

One of the long standing praises sung in behalf of The Modern Age was the speed with which the affairs of the world were suddenly conducted, with the advent of air travel, the telegraph, radio, and eventually television. It was believed, as McLuhan did in his Musings in Understanding Media and, inevitably, The Medium is the Message, that this acceleration of real time and the shrinking of the world would produced comprehension and clarity of a reality that formerly with held it's secrets.

That is finally a large hope for what's considered to be one of Modernism's great aims--to produce art, literature, and technologies that transforms the way the world is experienced. Your experience with this obscure composer fulfils that promise, somewhat: you, and the thousands you speak of, shared the experience, did their research with the technology at their disposal, and finally wrote about it in the same few hours. A little more of the world's culture was known and shared at the same time, little different than the first live television broadcast , coast to coast, where thousands of Americans viewed the same scene at the same time. An quintessentially modern event.

The criticism that pushes forth post-modernism as a movement distinct from modernism certainly isn't lacking in moral force. It is the claim of the academic left that writes these tracts that the skeptical rigor they're applying to literature will aid, somehow, in the liberation of oppressed cultures, over turn falsifying ideologies, make absent cruel and crushing economic systems that extort, exfoliate, and waste, and enable us to experience a freedom that our current , binarily limited conceptions prevent us from achieving. There is certain righteousness to this cloudy, fence-sitting prose that reminds one of old catechisms. Scary.

For the force of post-modern writers, I'd say it's not the job of the writer to offer moral instruction to a reader, but rather to deal with the subject of being human in whatever contexts and conflicts that offers a narrative worth following. If morality is the author's intent, I say fine--Saul Bellow still brings me the uniform joy of writing superbly with his smug , Harold Bloomian classicism--but randomness, playfulness, and even amorality are welcome. What matters is whether the writer assumes his tasks with an idea of what he wants his art to accomplish at the end of it, of what sort of tone they want to leave resonating with the reader. De Lillo does this. So does Pynchon.

Friday, July 10, 2020

LITERATURE AND "TRUTHINESS" and some various notes on two many subjects

The generation of  New Journalist  who emerged during the 60s and 70s were indeed post modern in their coverage of events-- whether the writers themselves were modernists in sensibility is irrelevant to work they did. Post modernism is defined, in the usual quarters, as the eclectic jumbling of categories and styles, the blurring of distinctions of generic distinctions, and transgressive of boundaries that were formerly considered sacrosanct, immutable, unyielding.  Now that post modernism is as old hat and near useless as anything other than an historical place holder for a series of shallow ideas, we find that the what was called the postmodern gesture in the work of the hungry journalists, that of treating their subjects and their contexts as though they were part of an explicitly literary, i.e., fictional framework, is important chiefly because it availed the writers a means to write a compelling prose. Less important than compelling readers to few the world differently—Ezra Pound’s assignment for all the Modernists—the importance of the books the style produced lies in their adherence to some rather conventional ideas of what constituted a higher quality of writing.
The work evident in Armies of the Night, The White Album, In Cold Blood, The Electric Cool Aid Acid Test, Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas, and other sublime and less-sublime examples of the approach fulfill what's come to be the givens, and even clichés of post-modern writing. It's not unreasonable to think that writers normally considered Modernists would take what's thought to be a post modern strategy in order to achieve perspective that normally form would make more difficult. Carrying about the matters involved in a story hardly disqualifies a work, or a writer, from being post modernists. The cool, ironic stance that is supposed to problematize and “make strange” the conditions of narrative formation seems more as a pose critics who have a curious aversion for writing that is meant to illicit a galvanizing reader response: it sounds more like a good rap than good reasoning.
I do not have a problem of with the conflation of the emotional with the rational, since that is the point of writing and making an argument in the first place. One may use whatever the current wisdom insists are formal means, or one may engage the current species of avant-garde slash and burn in order to make their case, but the point is coming to an end that somehow makes a point, or has created an enlarged and vivid sense of the studied particulars.
In any event, New Journalists never as a group never referred to themselves as "post modernists", and the style, now faded somewhat, has been absorbed by the culture as an accepted style for very mainstream consumption. The news story-literary-narrative scarcely raises an eyebrow today. But the judgment of history has these writers, nominal modernists perhaps, performing the post modern gesture, interrogating the margins of genre definitions, and making impossible to regard news reporting quite the same again. The conflation of reason and reason is exactly the kind of writing literature ought to be engaged in, whatever slippery pronoun you desire to append it with. Being neither philosophy, nor science of any stripe, fiction is perfectly suited for writers to mix and match their tones, their attitudes, their angles of attack on a narrative schema in order to pursue as broad, or as narrow, as maximal or minimal a story they think needs to be accomplished.
The attack on modernisms' arrogance that it was the light to the "real" beneath the fabrications that compose our cosmology, is grossly over stated, it seems, vastly over regarded: Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and Stein, arguably literary modernism's Gang-Of-Four, did not, I think, tell us in any specified terms exactly what that true reality was, or what it was supposed to be, but only that the by dicing up, challenging, making it strange and making it new could we challenge ourselves, as artists, and as readers that new perceptions, and new ideas about the nature of the world could be had.
Individually , each writer had a different idea of heaven that they wanted the world to become--Pound was ultimately a befuddled, albeit fascist sympathizer, and Eliot became a conservative Royalist (and their anti-Semitism is problematic for anyone looking for real-time heroes)-- but so far as the principle thrust of their work, which was away from the straight jacket of accumulated literary history and toward something new and different that renewed the possibility of art to engage the times in an aesthetically relevant manner, is scarcely diminished in power merely because it came before.
I agree with Fred Jamieson on the point that Post Modernism , in effect, is a restating of the modernist project. Writing is an argument so far that the central impulse to write at all is to make a series of statements about oneself and one's experiences in the world , and reach a satisfying conclusion, some "meaning" at the end of the discourse.  Barthes notes that  the effort to achieve fixed meaning is doomed, as experience is not an static event, but a fluid movement through time that a writer's perception of changes moment to moment, text to text. The argument is thus not one sided, but multi-vocal, complex, interwoven within perceptions that argue amongst themselves within in the writer and onto their pages, in the extension of characters, plot, instances, local, active bits of imagining where the goal, is finally to attempt to resolve contradiction, arrive at something absolute in a universe that seems to permanently with hold its Absolute Meanings during this lifetime, and to achieve, somehow, some peace, some satisfaction. But no: the argument persists, the imagination soars, the old certainties cannot contain either the unset of new perceptions, nor can sooth a writer's restlessness. In literature, the conflation continues, reason and emotion color each other, the eyes shut, hoping for vision, a clear path, but the writing continues, the sorting through of experience continues, the unease continues, the world changes radically and not at all. That post modernism's over all mission is to notify us of the limitations of our tropes, our schemes, and our rhetoricized absolutes seems redundant to what literature already does.
Lew Welch said that you don’t write unless you can’t do anything else; writers are powerless to write in ways other than the urge dictates, regardless of what crit


More than ever, I believe The Fountainhead, to be a dangerous book. This may worry a point already mulled over here, but one cannot just pass-off this book's implicit assertion that mass destruction is justified in the name of "higher values" whose substance supposedly overrides the need to respect and protect human life. It is only irrational romanticism and literary convenience that Rand softens Roark's destruction with an empty structure.  Roark is the hero of all those ruggedly individualist libertarians whose opinions sound as oddly uniform as Communist Party USA position paper, but shed of the that odious veil, he's pretty much the prototype of the perplexed goons and gangsters whose lives are committed to making the world notice them by the most miserable means available. 

I've little problem with "enlightened self interest", a general concept where one pursues their own agenda with it in mind that their goal is not just to fulfil their own wants and needs but also benefit others in doing so. One "does well by doing good" when they realize that their rights are coherent and effectively applicable in larger social and cultural contexts. 

Rand lops off the "enlightened" part and effectively tries to make an intellectual defense for adults, males for the most part, to act like three years olds and essentially demand that the world bow to their self-defined genius and all the pulverizing engineering it takes for said genius to be foisted on the community. It's a childish view, the mewling of King Baby, and it is, frankly, solipsistic to a degree that approaches a species of mental illness. 
The existence of God can neither be proven nor proven in absolute terms, and is that belief in either proposition requires an act of faith, faith being a firm belief in something for which there is no proof . The acts of faith, in William James' estimation in his writing in Varieties of Religious Experience, is the relevant quality to watch; if the belief and the dictates the faith espouse result in helping its membership adjust, adapt and find purpose in a world that subjects them to all sorts of catastrophes and seeming cruelties, then that is reason enough . The existence or non-existence of God comes out of the equation: we look at the results of the faith, and see how it's contributed to the General Good; the description and standard can apply to believer and atheist alike.

Noted pop musicians in twelve step meetings often seem bursting at the seams to tell other members what it is they do and what their latest projects are. It's a testimony to most of them that they contain the impulse to brag and speak in a general way. Bill Wilson had the same dilemma, in terms of keeping his vanity in check, and wrote about in in both the book Alcoholics Anonymous and The Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions. It was a fitting thing for me to read that the man who warned against being the AA big shot had to live up to his own advice.

Eric Clapton's celebrity doubtlessly shields him from any blow back concerning his well publicized battles with booze and the needle , mostly because the public is quick to forgive those who've gone astray but who have gone to well-publicized lengths to clean up their side of the street. We see the same thing happening with Robert Downey, a repeat screw up and jailbird who a few years ago just made it a point to work as much as he could, prove himself reliable, bondable, professional. It paid off, as he more or less owned last summer's box office. In their cases, celebrity might work as a sufficient substitute for the lack of anonymity, but it comes down, again, to whether the famed addict or alkie has willingness to change their lives. Talent figures into it as well; fans just want Clapton to play blues guitar and prefer to see Downey peform well in good roles, and are willing to suspend their misgivings over their bad habits provided the entertainers do just that, entertain.