†† an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
†Volume 3, May 2006, ISSN 1552-5112
Literature and the Postmodern: A Conversation with Brian McHale
Adriana Neagu: As we advance into the twenty first century there has been less and less talk of postmodernism, speculation of its death and after-life. Soon after crossing the millennial threshold it became quite clear that there was life after postmodernism after all. Could it be that indeed we are past the postmodern age altogether? In Postmodernist Fiction you describe postmodernism as emerging from modernism with Ďhistorical consequentialityí. What does postmodernism, with its radical questioning of historicity, seem to be logically and consequentially preparing the way for? Is it now possible to say with the benefit of hindsight, what postmodernism is prior to, in order to discern a foreseeable posterity in current tendencies? Or else, how different is your take on the postmodernist experience today from that formulated in Postmodernist Fiction?
McHale: The narrower question is
that of whether I do stand by my own poetics of postmodernism and I think I
do.† I think I donít have any regrets,
not important ones, about the position I stake out there. I still think itís
tenable, given that itís a limited position, i.e. its ambitions are limited to a
poetics of postmodern fiction, and given those parameters, poetics and fiction,
I think I am still able to stand by it. My position in the second book, Constructing
Postmodernism was that this after all is an entirely heuristic view of
postmodernism and it does not make strong claims about its own status. So it
organises, still pretty much to my satisfaction, a range of texts; it
establishes some family resemblances; it establishes a sort of range and some
umbrella concepts. As far as Iím concerned, as long as one accepts the
limitations of that project, I think it still works quite adequately. So, Iím
not very interested in going back and undoing that; I think thatís still
satisfactory, to me, anyway. If you wanted to challenge it at the level of its
failure to integrate postmodernist fiction in a larger whole, you might say
that it doesnít have a very strong explanatory scheme, its explanatory scheme
is entirely internal to the literary-historical dynamics and does not respond
in any systematic way to larger historical developments. As long as youíre not
looking for that larger historical sequence or history, then I think the
poetics still stands. So thatís an answer at that level of the issue. At the level
of the fate of postmodernism altogether, here I have to plead agnosticism. Iím
actually not a futurologist -- Iím not in the business of predicting the
future, Iím in the business of literary history, which is to observe what has
happened, and to think to some degree historically, in the literary-historical
sense, about the present moment.† But I
think I have too good a sense about how many variables you would have to be
thinking about, not to mention how many unexpected irruptions from elsewhere
you would have to be taking into account, to talk about the future, so I donít
pretend to have anything useful to say about where weíre going. Iím sympathetic
to the idea, as I suggested in my
AN: Of a whole plethora of reference works on postmodernism, Postmodernist Fiction and Constructing Postmodernism are among the rare few that offer an actual poetics of its forms, a systemic and periodical understanding of its articulations with Modernism. The formalist method that you then applied to the analysis of postmodernist discourse proved enormously enabling and productive, particularly in its valorisation of the Jacobsonian notion of dominant. By resorting to a similar mindset, can we distinguish a High Postmodernism, frozen, canonised, fossilised already, and is that the unavoidable condition of all literary phenomena, the fate inscribed, inevitably, as you put it in Postmodernist Fiction, in their historicity?
Do you think that the obsolescence, the exhaustion that may be profiling itself is to do with the becoming canonical of postmodernist forms in literary discourse?
BM: I can see that view of the matter and itís partly a satisfying view. Yet, I never bought into the idea, which is a sort of another apocalyptic idea, that postmodernism was a radical break, a leap into the unknown, that there was no continuity and no way back from it to where we had been before. Iím more of the view that postmodernist literary expression, and maybe postmodernism in general, behaves like earlier cultural periods and phenomena behaved, which is to say that precisely the mechanism you were talking about is working, that a canonical version of it will be or is being or has been crystallised now, which has its own life cycle, and that the dynamics of change from the inside and change from the outside are going on all along. I have no problem thinking about it in those terms, so I expect to see that being played out. On the other hand, Iím also attracted to Lyotardís view of a sort of perpetual postmodernism, which is not I think at all incompatible with the other view.† Lyotard, as you know, reserves the name Ďpostmodernismí for what cannot be accommodated by the canonical system Ė itís always what is left over for future recuperation. Therefore, we can talk apparently paradoxically, to me not paradoxically at all, about a postmodern that precedes the modern.
AN: An ingrained avant-garde nature, inbuilt in postmodernism, preventing ossification, keeping the Ďballí rolling?
BM: Exactly. Iím quite reconciled to the idea that thatís happening even as we speak, and that some excluded aspect or part or range of postmodernism will be left for future generations to make something of, to take up and shift to the centre Ė all those dynamics which derive from the Russian formalists. I donít see any incompatibility between Lyotardís model and what was essentially a formalist, in part structuralist view that I was using in Postmodernist Fiction.
AN: In retrospect, if we step back, how much about cultural postmodernism was media hype and vogue?
BM: I think a nuanced answer would be that, in the first place, the general media embrace of postmodernism comes very late in the day. Many of the things we recognise now as being postmodernist preceded the coinage of the word altogether, and date from the Ď50s-Ď60s. Even after the coinage of the word in the 1970s Ė it had been coined earlier, but its de facto coinage, its availability, dates from the seventies -- even in the course of the Ď70s there is not much media interest in postmodernism. If you go back and search mass media, the term hasnít been taken up yet. So, even though the term is already available in certain areas, to academics and architecture critics, it still circulates in fairly limited circles, and really only gets taken up as a media buzzword in the Ď80s sometime and into the Ď90s.†† So itís certainly the case that it was a media buzzword and a fashion statement, but all that comes rather late in the cycle, really after the most interesting uses of the term had occurred in the academy and art practice. In other words, of course there was exaggeration, of course there was hype and of course there was a sort of media false consciousness about the postmodern, but I donít think it interfered with the actual emergence of the term, or the actual creation of what we see as its most distinctive works, or the works likely to have the longest shelf life, literary-historically speaking, or art-historically speaking. I think those all predate the use of the term in mass media.
AN: And implicitly any meta-thinking, any form of self-representation somehow.
BM: Thatís right.
AN: Outlooks too are subject to the cycle of ideas hence bound to change. In rethinking your findings in Constructing Postmodernism and the developments and refinements to the poetics of postmodernist forms that the book contributes, is there anything that you would do differently in methodological terms? And what prompted the work on The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole?
BM: I think not radically different, certainly not conceptually different. Rhetorically the book is not entirely satisfactory now, there are ways that I could have made it a more integrated book in particular, but conceptually I think I still stand by it, and when I have had occasions to reread, especially the Introduction, I think on the whole Iím satisfied with that. You asked about what prompted me to move to the third book and it wasnít actually dissatisfaction with the conceptual position of the preceding books, but a sense that really there was a whole range of writing, which is to say mainly poetry, that I didnít accommodate and didnít address in the first two books and it was this that stimulated work on the third book.† Out of that I learnt something valuable, I think, which is that there is no reason to assume that the model holds across all genres or across all cultural practices, so that what I think makes a pretty sound argument in the context of fiction, doesnít look nearly as sound in the case of poetry.† Poetry from certain points of view had been postmodern before the postmodern, or had always already been postmodern.
AN: By definition
BM: Yes. And from other points of view, perhaps never postmodernised. Iím able to entertain both of these possibilities. What this says is that the model that allowed us to discern the transition in the history of the novel doesnít allow that kind of sharp transition in the history of poetry; that poetry rather is a kind of range, the umbrella under which you can group it is a much broader one, and on the whole, the account of poetry has to be less integrated by the nature of the object.
AN: Comparatively, how did you find the application of a formalist and structuralist method to verse or perhaps not very productive given the plurality that you are describing?
BM: Itís not so much that itís unproductive, itís just that when you do that, the results are much more various. You get a much wider variety of findings. So, I think thatís a net gain actually.† One comes away from this saying, well, after all, thereís not a single unifying postmodernism across cultural practices. Of course, thereís really no reason to imagine that there wouldíve been.† Despite Fredric Jamesonís very persuasive attempts to make all postmodernism responsive to a single cultural logic, itís hard to do, and that probably has to do with the interference between, indeed the intersection between, so to speak, exterior history and the interior histories of each of these disciplines or practices, which are being driven by their own internal dynamics, at the same time that theyíre all subject and responding to the cultural logic of late capitalism. And out of that come these different chronologies, these different sequences, and different strands of development. As I try to show in the Introduction to The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole, if you looked at the postmodernisms of different disciplines, you would immediately see that some have strong postmodernisms, in the sense that itís almost inconceivable to talk about the history of that field without the use of the term, and some have weak postmodernisms, in the sense that plenty of people get along just fine without talking in those terms. And thereís some correlation between the strength of their postmodernism and the strength of their modernism, so there is such a thing as modern dance in a very sharply defined way, and consequently postmodern dance is a relatively clear profile. Equally, modern architecture and postmodern architecture have strong profiles, whereas itís much less inevitable to talk about postmodern painting -- some people do, but itís not mandatory. You might talk about the postmodern in the field of the visual arts, but even that is not as mandatory as it is in the case of dance and architecture, and by the time you get to something like postmodern music, then really itís purely optional, and maybe useless.† So rather than assuming uniformity, that everything in lock step crossed the same threshold at the same time, we should rather assume that there are different thresholds that are crossed at different times.
AN: And this within what might be construed as a plural, eclectic, yet cohesive dynamics?
BM: Right. And possibly weakly or strongly cohesive at that.
AN: Speaking of degrees of internalisation, do you ever worry that your paradigm for understanding postmodernism may be taken too literally or appropriated in a reductionist, prescriptive even way?
BM: Sure and of course it has been. That comes with the territory, itís nothing to be worried about. And that happens despite all the disclaimers that I did or might write -- it doesnít make any difference, people will still believe what they please. You canít worry about it, but when you get the chance, you complicate it for them, saying, Ďyes, butí or Ďno, it canít be as straightforward as that, can ití, and you just keep reiterating, that this is a heuristic device, this is a construction, itís not something Iíve found out in the world, but Iíve made it in order to accommodate the things that I found out there in the world. On the one hand, itís very flattering and itís very affirming, because it means that people have found it handy, but it also means that I have to be philosophical about the applications of it that look misguided, or, as you say, reductive. I canít have those satisfactions without also having the dissatisfactions.
AN: 9-11 and the fateful validations of the millennial anxieties that it brought, became a periodical term, indeed an almost civilisational marker. Can we see its reverberations on the scene of the contemporary as a sudden relapse into an epistemological order, in identity terms and otherwise? A catch term with Postmodernism repeated like a mantra by its theorists was its politics of plurality and multiculturalism. Did 9-11 mark the foundering of the multiculturalism project?
BM: There are two things here.† First, Iíve always been suspicious of the
conflation of postmodernism and postcolonialism. In fact, Iím suspicious of the
conflation of all the Ďpostsí.† I donít
think poststructuralism, postmodernism and postcolonialism are all the same
Ďpostsí -- quite the reverse, Iím fairly confident that theyíre each responding
to different historical sequences, that they are the fruits of different
historical logics. Postcolonialism is coming out of its own logic, and even its
acknowledgement of, let alone its identity with, postmodernism, is fairly weak;
it doesnít actually need postmodernism. There would have been a poscolonialism
even if there never were a postmodernism, Iím fairly confident of that. The
conflation of postmodernism and poststructuralism I think is also a mistake --
itís a misunderstanding of intellectual history. The assumption that the
postmodernists were illustrating postructuralist theory, I think, is very
easily disproved just by virtue of the dates. Poststructuralism in
AN: As though the poem was inscribed with readings of the event?
BM: Pre-inscribed, which is very bad history in some sense, itís pure anachronism, but, at this point, impossible not to see. And so, as you now reread the twentieth century, it has all to be reread retrospectively, in the light of this event, ironically and uncannily.
AN: I find it a master-irony as well to think of an entire postmodern dystopian horizon, the notorious post-holocaust, post-apocalyptic fictions and recontextualise these in light of their premonitory value. Once charged with a defective historical consciousness, postmodern authors may in retrospect appear historically prescient, postmodern readings of the contemporary culture, almost prophetic.
AN: Or at any rate, it looks that way now. Itís exactly the dynamics of Borgesí essay on Kafkaís precursors. Without Kafka, the precursors are not related to each other, but as soon as thereís Kafka, they are. Without that shock of 9-11, there is no recognisable history that leads up to 9-11, and now there is, and hence it is impossible not to see it in a certain way.
AN: Do you then think that Ďthe fateful dayí, has inevitably triggered a sui generis radically different understanding of the postmodernismís relation with history, perhaps a Ďrehabilitationí of its ethics even?
BM: I couldnít say that. For one thing, weíre too near to the event, and this is also part of my reluctance to be a futurologist -- I donít know how thatís going to turn out. As I was indicating in my lecture at the University of Edinburgh, the other day, I do think there is a waning of some postmodernist features around 9-11, or maybe itís even more correct to say that thereís a notable silence around 9-11, with regard to matters that you would expect to be expressed. †My account of the rise and fall of the angels is partly motivated and also partly enhanced by the observable fact that around 9-11 there were relatively few manifestations of this angel imagery -- not that there were none, but that, given how angel images proliferated throughout the Ď90s, you would think that on this occasion of all occasions the angels would return in a big way.† But in fact theyíre rather sparse, which suggests that in spite of 9-11 this sign of postmodernism, the postmodern angel, is winding down of its own accord, that the life cycle of postmodernism is coming to its end, as it must out of its own internal logic, rather than having been brought to an abrupt end by 9-11. So, in the end, 9-11 is another fictitious boundary; it really is an irruption out of another order of things and it will be used maybe as the marker of the end of a development, but it hasnít been experienced that way; it will be another fiction.
AN: The vision of postmodernism articulated in your two poetics stood out also in the positive note it sounded on the phenomenon, on its discursive and plural nature. Do you subscribe to fellow theorist Ihab Hassanís thesis that in part at least, the legacy of postmodernism can be viewed as in fact Ďan aesthetic of trustí? Too easyÖÖÖDo you see that happening at all or being the case?
BM: Again, Iím reluctant to speculate, but I see at least some signs of restriction of plurality, or I suspect thatís coming into force -- a kind of retreat from the full multiculturalism to which we at least gave lip-service once.
AN: At least from its frenzied, celebrational dimension.
BM: Yes, and on the whole, I think itís a bad sign because it looks like it is in response to 9-11 and the threat of the Ďclash of civilisationsí, and that whatís being installed in its place is a new kind of dualism; at least in some quarters thatís sort of the desired outcome of all this, that people are now going to be sobered up by this shock of reality and will renounce the Ďluxuryí of indulging in pluralism, and that they will now confront the reality principle of opposition and polarity.† But thereís such a tone of relief in the quarters where youíre hearing this from that itís very suspicious. After all, theyíve been waiting for this all along, theyíve been trying to undo the plurality of the postmodern from the beginning; in North America, and I think also in Europe, Ďpluralityí is often coded in the terms of the Ď60s and the undoing of the Ď60s. The Ď60s really is only a figure of speech, itís only a synecdoche really, but the cultural warfare has been conducted in these terms.† Itís the Ď60s and a kind of policing of the Ď60s thatís at stake, and a call to order after the excesses of the Ď60s, which is then recapitulated as a call to order after the excesses of the Ď80s, again and again a call to order, which in effect is simply the recoil from pluralism and the nostalgia for the rather stable organisation of the Cold War years.† Itís really a nostalgia for the clear-cut polarities and divisions of the Cold War, and now of course you have to reorganise in order to have a different set of poles, and one can claim the ĎNew Europeí as your allies against this other threat, but the structure is the same -- the names have been changed but the structure is the same.† So I think thereís more than a trace of that going on. I donít welcome it, and I hope itís resisted. For all the kind of centrifugal aspects of those episodes of pluralism, I think thatís preferable and less dangerous in the long run. Iíve lately been teaching in a course on science fiction a novel by Samuel Delany called Trouble on Triton, which is from the midst of the Ď70s, a book written in 1976, reflecting a sort of utopian projection of that pluralisation, a world in which all kinds of identities, sexual and otherwise, plural identities and consecutive identities are made available by technological means, and life is hard because you always have to be making these choices, always continuously renegotiating the parameters of identity, and my students, looking at the text, found it actually a dystopia. It was a very unsettling project to them. They certainly were able to see that it belonged to its historical moment, not to the future but to 1975-6. But on the whole I think Delany was right, this is a sort of version of utopia, living among the multiplicity of choices and the pain of choice, rather than fleeing into the security of that Manichean world view that the Cold War had provided and that after all almost destroyed us many times over.
AN: Somehow Iíve always been suspicious of postmodern plurality, thinking that itís only a shallow form of plurality, stemming precisely from the refusal to choose, the pathological condition of liminality of the postmodern logic.
BM: Of course it can be a shallow plurality, but why not, why not have a shallow plurality rather than none?† And itís not just a shallow plurality, one that can be easily recuperated by consumer culture, that comes down to the Ďchoiceí between Classic Coke and Diet, which amounts to nothing.† But just because thatís one version of it doesnít mean that one wants to ban plurality altogether, and I think there are deeper possibilities and potentialities. I could tolerate the shallow pluralism of the marketplace if I felt confident that the other plurality was also available and secure somehow. The fear is weíll be left only with the plurality of the marketplace and in other respects weíll be locked back into the Cold War, weíll be back in what my friend Alan Nadel calls the Ďculture of containmentí.
AN: Which would be anomalous.
BM: Yes, but not unthinkable. The first time around the culture of containment was about consumer choice and containment of every other choice, and thereís no reason to think that it couldnít be revived.
AN: You have worked with a broad range of
authors whose cataloguing as postmodern comes almost automatic these days. One
of the misconceptions in circulation for sometime in the Ď90s among consumers,
critics even of postmodern literature was that writers across the ocean have
done a lot more at the level of innovation and experimentation than on this
side of the
BM: Iím not sure I believe that. There are different national chronologies, different national histories of postmodernism, and then different national traditions which inflect it in different ways.† So I think it might be arguable that the Americans are first, chronologically, for reasons which have to do with the internal dynamics of American literature, and therefore available as models for imitation, but I donít think that that means that they offer a greater range, or that they exhaust the possibilities or anything like that. I think thatís not true, and in fact thereís plenty of reasons to think that, in particular French literature had what we are now willing to call a postmodernism Ėthatís not a term that was available to them then, and to this day theyíre not very interested in the termóbut it functioned for the American readers and the American writers as a model of how to proceed in a postmodern direction. So I think, given the different national histories and the different chronological sequences, we can think of plenty of European examples that are not closely related to American models; and even when they are related, thereís always a crucial element of mutual miscomprehension which is absolutely essential to literary history.† Everyone is always, systematically getting it wrong, and without that there would be no literary history. Raymond Federman, for instance, has had an enormous career in Germany, in German translation, and he is by now almost entirely unknown in the United States, heís pretty much disappeared from sight, and the reasons for it are quite extrinsic to his reputation in the States, or to the progress, the cycle of his career in the States, and has everything to do with the German reception of a certain kind of Holocaust literature.† While it would be incorrect and naive to say the Germans have Ďmisunderstoodí Raymond Federman, itís true in a certain sense that Germans have a different appreciation of his work compared to the Americans, but this is an entirely productive misprision, and keeps happening all the time.
AN: Which brings us back to the larger cycle and the old equation: literature-reality, and the postmodernist adventure in it. What are to you the implications of the Ďwaningí of postmodernism upon the adventure of mimesis? Are we contemplating a return to realism in mutated forms, a Ďpostmodern realismí?
BM: This is the sort of question that I could evade rather than answer by saying, if you understand realism in the way in which Jacobson talks about it, which is to say as a historical dynamic, where what is regarded as realistic in one generation is subsequently regarded as purely conventionalised, stylised in the next, and the violation of those conventions then becomes a new realism Ė if that is the dynamics of realism, which I think is arguably so, then, firstly, postmodernism was never unrealistic, and secondly, the new realisms, whatever they will be, will follow the same dynamic.† They wonít be a return to some imaginary originary realism, they will be realisms produced by the dynamic of the response to the last realism, in this dialectical way. So, many of the postmodernists that Iím aware of, and especially the ones that I knew personally, always protested that they were strictly speaking realists, exactly in this Jacobsonian sense -- that the realisms that were currently available were inadequate to the experience of reality.† This is the John Barth or Ron Sukenick story; they would say, Ďwell, thatís not the way reality seems to me, thatís the kind of reality which you would only get in a conventionalised fiction. Now Iím going to show you what reality seems like to me and the only way to get there is by exploding the forms of the old realismí. From that point of view, postmodernism was never unrealistic or anti-realistic or irrealistic. It follows from this that the next moves will be, structurally, the same sort of move, though the outcomes are unforeseeable. People will say once again, as they do all the time, as they are saying now, Ďthe forms available to me donít capture the reality that I experience, therefore I must invent the new forms, violate the old ones, and the distance from the old forms is the measure of my achieving my new realismí. There is of course a historical form of realism, which, however, we can describe in terms of a set of conventions, the historical realism that finally reaches its crystallised form in the nineteenth century; we can point to that and say, yes, thatís the historical form of realism, but that surely is not what the postmodernists had in mind; they donít do historical realism, they may parody or pastiche it, but they certainly arenít faithful to it, rather they are flagrantly unfaithful to it, and itís unlikely that any future realism will merely return to that.† If it did, it would be a pastiche, an ironic rewriting of historical realism in the way that some of those postmodernist versions were ironic rewritings.
AN: And yet we seem to witness an insatiable appetite these days for various forms of life writing, autobiography, memoirs, as well as biography. The question arises to what an extent this can be viewed as an erosion of the postmodernist subversive potential?
BM: Indeed all kinds of documentary writing, all kinds of grey-zone writing between fiction and other forms, all the forms of life writing are emerging, but itís unsurprising that they should arise. I think this is not a retreat from postmodernism, but the response, in the same spirit, to the awareness that there must be some other way to capture the reality that I experience, and to complexify it. And those forms of biography and life writing donít look very much like classic autobiography, or classic biography, or classic documentary genres of any kind, they look strange, and they look strange in order to make it strange, make their experience strange.
AN: Back to Russian formalism. Professor McHale, thank you for de-familiarising the postmodern again at this particular juncture.
† an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
†Volume 3, May 2006, ISSN 1552-5112