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Divergences: modernism,
postmodernism, Jameson
and Lyotard
Is the postmodernism debate finally grindmg to a halt? My question is
prompted specifically by the appearance of Frednc Jameson's new volume
Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late CApitalism. I The terms Jameson
uses here to distinguish modernism from postmodernism are certainly
familiar ones. While postmodernism is identified with 'capitalism itself'
(p. 343), modernism is seen as responding to the incomplete process of
modernisation (p. 310), a set of conditions which allowed it to maintain a
measure of critical distance from a developing consumer culture. With the
loss of that distance goes hermeneutic 'depth' and a certain affect; a
postmodem culture sustained by the globalising tendencies of late
capitalism is, Jameson argues once more, a predominantly 'spatial' one
and no longer has room for the thematics of time and memory which were
so important to modernism.
The 'retreat' of language
These ideas are familiar from the 1984 essay with which Jameson opens
this collection, 2 and in the remainder of the volume he uses them to stage a
fuller characterisation of some of the dominant modes of the postmodem.
His attention here to new technologies of reproduction (notably video, but
film and television are also considered) gives the whole account of post-
modernism a stronger developmental thrust than it had before. Now the
argument for a fundamental structural continuity between modem and
postmodem capitalism (the link is made, as before, via the work of Ernest
Mandel) is complicated by a powerful sense of the deliquescence of hitherto
privileged artistic forms. With the exception of a long essay on Oaude
Simon's Les Corps conducteurs (a novel published back in 1971), the new
book gives very little space to literary questions, mainly because the post-
modem is now seen as the price paid by 'language and the linguistic arts,
which retreat before the democracy of the visual and the aural' (p. 318). As
video becomes 'the most likely candidate of cultural hegemony today'
2 Critiad Qullrtnly, vol. 33, no. 3
(p. 69), so, says Jameson, 'the written text loses its privileged exemplary
status' (p. 68).
As the rather McLuh.anite ring of that last sentence suggests, Jameson's
account of postmodem culture cannot quite detach itself from what he calls
'the modernist developmental or historical paradigm' (p. 324), with the
result that the only other contemporary writer to elicit enthusiasm is
William Gibson, whose 'cyberpunk' fiction Jameson celebrates as 'an
exceptional literary realization within a predominantly visual and aural
postmodem production' (p. 38).3 While such unelaborated statements
have become characteristic of Jameson's prose, this one can also be
explained in terms of his preoccupation with spatiality as the feature which
most effectively differentiates the postmodem from the modem. Gibson's
ideas of 'cyberspace' and virtual reality in fact provide an analogue to
Jameson's own version of Baudrillardian concepts of 'hyperspace' and
When it comes to Anglo-American fiction considered more generally,
though, Jameson concludes that, in the postmodem period, 'the architec-
ture is generally a great improvement; the novels are much worse' (p. 299).
In his lengthy conclusion, some grounds are offered for this summary
view. Here he distinguishes between two main tendencies, leaving the
reader for the most part to supply the names of relevant writers: first we
have 'postmodem fantastic historiography', 'Pynchonesque fantasies'
where 'a semblance of historical verisimilitude is vibrated into multiple
alternate patterns'.
This 'making up of unreal history is a substitute for the
making of the real kind', and Jameson concludes that 'The new free play
with the past . . . is obviously equally allergic to the priorities and commit-
ments, let alone the responsibilities, of the various tediously committed
kinds of partisan history' (p. 369).
If this seems a slightly odd reading of Pynchon, whose exploration of
some of Jameson's favourite concepts, such as 'globalism', might have
earned him a better place in the ranking, all becomes clearer when we
reach the second category, that of 'spatial historiography'. The privileged
exhibit is (as before) E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, where the priorities of
'fantastic historiography' are apparently reversed: 'Here', says Jameson,
'the purely fictional intent is underscored and reaffirmed in the production
of imaginary people and events among whom from time to time real-life
ones unexpectedly appear and disappear' (p. 369). That description might
apply as well to G1llf1ity's Rainbow, but the force of Jameson's distinction
lies in the apparent proximity of this type of writing to a spatial disposition
of events comparable to 'switching channels on a cable television set'
(p. 373). Ragtime gets a better rating because it is apparently all about
Divergences: modernism, postmodernism, Jameson and Lyotard 3
bringing its mix of characters into the same fictional space, and it therefore
seems to Jameson distinctively postmodem in its downplaying of tempor-
ality and the processes of (narrative) memory.
This provocatively brief sketch of postmodem fiction derives some of its
magisterial assurance from Jameson's rigid line of demarcation between
modernism and postmodernism. Nowhere is this clearer than in his insist-
ence on the disappearance of memory in the postmodern. In the chapter
on video, for example, we learn that 'memory seems to play no role in
television, commercial or otherwise (or, I am tempted to say, in post-
modernism generally) .. .' (p. 71). By the time we reach the book's con-
clusion, Jameson is a good deal less tentative about this 'structural exclusion
of memory', arguing that 'In the postmodern . . . the past itself has
disappeared (along with the well-known "sense of the past" or historicity
and collective memory)' (p. 309).
Perhaps it's just the phrasing here which is problematic- the apocalyptic
'has disappeared', which recalls Baudrillard's habitual announcement of
the 'end' of just about everything- or else it's a matter of what is desig-
nated as postmodern and what is not. Either way, it's difficult not to
conclude that, for Jameson, postmodem fiction really amounts to not much
more than 'the tedious autoreferential tabulations of the short-lived Anglo-
American "new novel"' (p. 367). How otherwise to account for what we
might regard as the main strand of recent American fiction - work by Toni
Morrison, Robert Coover, Ishmael Reed, Jayne Anne Phillips, Bobbie Ann
Mason, Don DeLillo (the list could be much longer) - which is distinguished
above all by precisely its preoccupation with questions of narrative and
memory (the poetics of 'rememory', to use Morrison's word)?
With that in mind, we might also want to turn back to modernism to
see how Jameson's categories work there. Once again, the model seems
restricted in application on at least two grounds: while we know that the
modernists were much preoccupied with questions of memory and dur-
ation, many of them (particularly those of the prewar continental avant-
garde) were also concerned with analogies between writing and painting
and with concepts of simultaneity and visual space. Equally awkward for
the general outlines of Jameson's historiography is the very 'postmodem'
enthusiasm with which some of these avant-garde writers and artists - not
only the Italian Futurists, but French writers like Apollinaire and Blaise
Cendrars - celebrated the global implications of an expanding consumer
economy (Jameson follows Perry Anderson in claiming that all forms of
modernism, regardless of their views of technology, were ultimately
'hostile to the market itself', pp. 304-305). s
4 Cntiall Qwzrterly, vol. 33, no. 3
Opposition or continuity?
The difficulties with these arguments derive in large measure from
Jameson's developmental view, which is founded on a rigorous, unpass-
able opposition between modern and postmodern ('the way back to the
modern is sealed for good', p. 156). What then happens if we allow the two
forms to play into each other (after all, one recurring complaint about the
notion of postmodernism is that almost all its principal features already
exist in one form of modernism or another6)? It's here that Lyotard's con-
ception of the postmodern might offer a valuable alternative or supplement
to Jameson's, allowing us to think continuities between early and late parts
of the century and at the same time to recognise divergences within the
otherwise abstractly epochal 'moments' of modernism and postmodern-
ism. From a literary point of view, Lyotard's proposals have the additional
advantage that they do not suppose any 'retreat' of language in the post-
modern but rather conceive of the postmodern as a disruption of the dis-
cursive systems on which modernity depends. Lyotard's way of signalling
this disruption as the opening of an alterity or
other' within language
provides, then, a sense of the postmodern- a mode not an epoch
- as
something beyond
simulation', thereby releasing us, perhaps, from the
closed circuits of a Baudrillardian
America' in which the social has been
thoroughly transmuted into the semiotic.
Lyotard's rather stylish reversal of the postmodern problematic is well
known: I A work can become modern only if it is first postmodern. Post-
modernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent
state, and this state is constant.'8 In shifting ground from Jameson to
Lyotard we should note a change in terminology. For Lyotard, 'modern-
ism' tends to be synonymous with the 'modern', and can be defined as
'the discourse of a subJect who achteves autonomy by understanding itself
as the narrator of history'.
The postmodern is that moment which registers
the instability of such a discourse (and such a subject)- an instability which
modernism 'forgets' in order to constitute itself. So we arrive at the famous
The postmodem would be that which, in the modem, puts forward the
unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies Itself the solace of
good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share
collectively the nostalgta for the unattainable; that which searches for new
presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger
sense of the unpresentable.
The postmodern therefore occurs as a singular event in a moment before
the rules of its repetition can be articulated; as such it is marked by a certain
Divergences: modernism, postmodernism, Jameson and Lyotard 5
'formlessness' because, as Lyotard continues, 'The artist and writer are
working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been
done.' In contrast, 'good forms', which open the text to the adjudications of
consensual 'taste', permit, as Lyotard explains in an earlier book, 'the
return of the same', and he aligns them there with the formal elements
which allow recognition and a sense of compositional unity (the resolution
of dissonance in music, plastic 'rhymes' in pamting, and so on).ll
For some reason, Jameson seems consistently to misinterpret Lyotard's
proposal, which he sees as simply invoking 'a return to the older critical
high modernism' .
In fact since Lyotard has no sense of an epochal
modernism or postmodernism, he would attribute any desire for 'return'
or repetition to the legitimating drive of modem narratives. As he puts it,
'the "post-" of postmodem does not signify a movement ... of repetition
but a process of the order of ana-, of analysis, of anamnesis, of anagogy, of
anamorphosis, which works through an "initial forgetting".'13 The prefix
ana- takes us to the Greek which the OED defines as 'up, in place or time,
back, again, anew', and for Lyotard it signals not a dialectical move toward
synthesis but rather an internal displacement - spatial and temporal -
against a system of meanings. Such displacement Lyotard then associates
with Freud's concept of 'working through' (Durcharbeitung), which
Laplanche and Pontalis describe as 'a sort of psychical work which allows
the subject to accept certain repressed elements and to free himself from
the grip of mechanisms of repetition.'1
In Lyotard's view, the artists of the
avant-garde (a category which can equally embrace Manet and Barnett
Newman) constantly 'work through' the meaning of the modem, disrupt-
ing its dosed forms of temporal and linguistic order. Lyotard therefore
jettisons the avant-garde myth of 'rupture', observing that this amounts to
a forgetting or repression of the past which necessitates its unconscious
repetition; instead, he envisages something of the order of Freud's anamnesis
by which an analysand 'tries to work through his present trouble by freely
associating incompatible elements with past situations' .ts
I will return to the idea of temporality contained in these remarks. We
should note first, though, that Lyotard is proposing a fundamental dis-
tinction between the modem discourse of knowledge and the domain of
the aesthetic. Where, in his view, 'knowledge presupposes precisely the
neat separation of its own discourse from its object of knowledge',
the art
of the avant-garde is marked by internal displacements which reveal the
limits of discursive systems by disclosing the interdependence of meaning
6 Critiad Qrulrterly, vol. 33, no. 3
and its 'other', those objects and events which lie beyond the edge of the
closed systems of language and the perspectival grid. In a critique of
Saussure's theoretically closed linguistic system, predicated on a network
of equivalences and oppositions, Lyotard observes that 'all discourse is
projected in the direction of something which it tries to seize, and that it
is incomplete and open, rather as the visual field is partial, limited and
extended by a horizon. '
The 'openness' of discourse is procured by the
existence of what Lyotard calls the 'figural' as an element within it. By this
term he means what Bill Readings succinctly defines as 'the resistant or
irreconcilable trace of a space or time that is radically incommensurable
with that of discursive meaning'.
Perhaps the clearest example of such
elements within language are shifters, or deictics, words like 'I' and 'here',
whose meanings are produced in the 'event' of language-use rather than
from the internal oppositions of discourse. But the figural appears in
various guises across Lyotard's work and can also be constituted by the
visual and spatial nature of a text, by a desire which operates within the
play of meanings, by the nondiscursive engagement of the body's experi-
ence, and, in his later writings especially, by the incommensurability of
time frames by which an order of narration is disrupted by the present in
which the narration takes place. Lyotard's various essays on painting and
cinema constantly seek to disclose this 'materiality that cannot be reduced
to a meaning or truth' .19
I have outlined Lyotard's theory in some detail for two reasons: first,
because his account of 'discourse' and 'figure' offers a way of talking about
divergent strands in what we conventionally call modernism; and second,
because his conception of a postmodern temporality might help to locate
that body of recent writing about which Jameson has said so little. There is
the possibility, too, that Lyotard's anti-linguisticism might free us from the
now tedious cliche of the postmodern as the pure condition of self-
referring signs.
It is necessary to emphasise here that discourse and figure are not
opposites: Lyotard warns that 'language and its other are inseparable',20
that the figural inhllbits the discursive, so it would be pointless to argue that
modernism is discursive and postmodernism figural,21 or, indeed, that
some forms of modernism are simply discursive and others simply figural.
What I want to suggest is that some forms of modernism exploit internal
resistances to signification while others found their project on an assump-
tion of the capacity of literary language to subordinate the sensible to the
discursive. (It is this second form of modernism which has become the foil
of the postmodern in many recent discussions.) Perhaps it will come as no
surprise to find that this divergence between the various forms of modern-
Divergences: modernism, postmodemism, Jameson and Lyotard 7
ism over the question of (un)presentability articulates itself around the
concept of sexual difference, with the figural strongly marked by the
historical ambiguities of the 'feminine'.
Irony and discourse
There is an early poem by Baudelaire (probably composed between 1845
and 1846) called 'To a Red-haired Beggar Girl' which may be read as a sort
of inaugural moment of that second strand of modernism - a strand often
marked by a taint of cruelty and unpleasantness exercised at the expense of
the feminine. Baudelaire's choice of theme isn't especially original since
the poem's way of adjudicating the claims of natural and artificial beauty
connects it with a minor sub-genre of writing about attractive beggar
girJs.22 What is particularly interesting, though, is the ambiguity of tone.
For some critics, the level of identification between the girl and the poet -
they share in a 'reduced' state which is characteristic of the fate of beauty
in the modem world - testifies to a 'humanitarian' impulse beneath the
deliberately playful surface of the poem.
The poet cannot afford to give
the girl the finery she craves, and his own poverty parallels the loss of a
'courtly' culture associated with Ronsard and Belleau. The last lines of the
poem then seem to reassure us that finery and artifice are superfluous in
view of the girl's natural (semi-naked) beauty. But of course the whole
voyeuristic fantasy which is projected here says precisely the opposite, for
without it the girl would be powerless and inarticulate. The focus is, in
fact, on the expert gaze of the poet, which gives only to take away, abolish-
ing one social distance between himself and the girl only to replace it with
another which is primarily aesthetic.
If the title of the poem leads us to anticipate an expression of the poet's
desire, Baudelaire actually goes to some lengths to attribute that desire to
others, stressing that the girl is admired and coveted by many men, of
whom the poet is only one. Or perhaps even that is to say too much, for
the fantasy of the girl as a wealthy courtesan is one in which he himself
does not figure as a lover. This may explain our sense of manipulation
here, for the poet's way of clothing and unclothing the girl- testimony,
perhaps, to the power of Lyotard's 'good forms'- is clearly done for the
enjoyment of others. The tone of the poem is actually not so much humani-
tarian as pimpish, and its detachment recalls the cool deliberations of the
'great' seducers for whom the physical pleasures of sex are as nothing
compared to the discourse of sexuality, to that tantalising narrative to which
sex would provide a somewhat unwelcome termination.
The weaving of this discourse is coterminous with an ironic distancing
8 Critiad Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 3
which here as elsewhere Baudelaire sees as fundamental to the 'cold'
detachment of the poet-as-dandy. 24 And this irony is also the mark of an
overcoming of a certain materiality- the feminine 'naturalness' of the girl
which prevents her from conceiving of herself as something Qther than she
is (the vital prerequisite of romantic irony). The girl may be sexy, but she is
self-presence incarnate; and while her body certainly exerts an 'appeal' for
Baudelaire's poet, that is primarily because it prompts him to create that
ironic distance which is alone capable of producing his literary style. In
submitting his desire to the discipline of irony, the poet thus achieves a
kind of disembodiment (he is absent from his words and the text says the
opposite of what it seems to say).
The voyeurism of the poem is, then, a product of that superiority of view
which irony gives (in his essay on laughter, Baudelaire speaks of ways 'to
instil in the spectator, or rather in the reader, the feeling of joy at his own
superiority and the joy of man's superiority over nature'25). The interesting
question, though, is what constitutes the ground of that superiority. In
part, of course, it is the privileged duplicity of the romantic ironist, his
capacity to cast himself as observer and observed, and to make that division
the ground of a judgmental authority located somewhere outside the
poem. But we can add to this that the poem is also exemplary in its way of
establishing the ironic posture, with its objectivity and cool manipulation,
as not part of a masterful style simply chosen by the poet, but one which is
forced upon him by the 'challenge' of the feminine/natural.26
Jean Baudrillard has detected precisely this logic in Kierkegaard' s Diary of
a Seducer (1843), where, he says, 'The seducer by himself is nothing; the
seduction originates entirely with the girl. This is why Johannes can claim
to have learned everything from Cordelia. He is not being hypocritical. The
calculated seduction mirrors the natural seduction, drawing from the latter
as its source, but all the better to ehm.inate it. ''Zl This is rather more compli-
cated than the commonplace claim that 'she made me do it', for the cruelty
of seduction collapses ethical values into aesthetic ones, making the 'elim-
ination' of the feminine the very mark of that triumph of form over 'bodily'
content on which one major strand of modernism rests. All of which may
remind us that, in Lyotard's terms this type of irony takes place 'after the
event' (it is, as Barthes says, a classic language for this reason, since there
is always one master code which closes the play of competing ones28). The
work of 'elimination', the exercise of irony against the feminine, produces
a reversal of Lyotard's future anterior (tense of the postmodern), insisting
that the natural can be known only from the vantage-point of the non-
natural, that the sensible has to be 'won' from the side of discourse.
Divergences: modernism, postmodernism, Jameson and Lyotard 9
Bodily writing
When we look at nineteenth-century writing after Baudelaire, though, it is
clear that this ironic position is not the only one to emerge. In the work of
Mallarme in particular, the rhetoric of irony, with its dependence on forms
of authorial mastery and duplicity, is displaced into something very dif-
ferent. 'The pure work', claims Mallarme, 'implies the disappearance of
the poet as speaker, who hands over to the words',29 a 'handing over'
which now translates irony into an arbitrariness and multiplicity of
meaning which is rooted in language itself. The ironic distance which
Baudelaire's poet must place between himself and feminine materiality is
now discovered in the structure of language - and here 'materiality'
denotes not a body to be artistically overcome through representation, but
the inseparable 'other' of the poet's medium, the figural elements which
haunt discourse and gesture toward its outer limits. Lyotard's discussion
in Discours, figure of this aspect of Mallarme focuses a little predictably on
Un Coup de des, but the following passage, from the essay on Ballets, in fact
gives an equally complex form of the figural, providing, too, another
perspective on the feminine as intractable to language:
... the ballenna is not a girl dllnang; considering the juxtaposition of those
group motifs, she rs not a grrl, but rather a metaphor wtuch symbolizes some
elemental aspect of earthly form: sword, cup, flower, etc., and she does not
dance but rather, wtth nuraculous lunges and abbreviations, with a bodily
writing [ une icnture corporelle ), she suggests things which the written work
could express only in several paragraphs of dJalogue or descriptive prose. Her
poem is written Without the writer's tools.
While Baudelaire's beggar girl is an object to be gazed at from a distance,
Mallarme' s dancer seems to trace a figure which is somehow within
language ('writing with her body'). In fact there is a kind of double articu-
lation at work here: first the dancer is disembodied as metaphor, with her
gestures coded as signs; then we find that the 'bodily writing' (ecriture
corporelle) which her movement traces is actually exterior to language. On
one level, this dance is emblematic of the power of Mallarmean syntax (its
'musicality'), but the real force of the example derives from the insistence
that the 'figure' of the dance suggests a space which is within but not
reducible to the regulated spacing of language.3
Divergences: modernism
The examples discussed above are not intended to imply a general view
10 Critical Qtulrterly, vol. 33, no. 3
of either poet's work, though we might conclude that Baudelaire's
poem points toward writing as proceeding from a position of knowledge,
writing for which the external must be interiorised as a value within dis-
course (the body subjugated to the rule of 'good forms'). I think it can be
argued that this version of 'pre-modernism', with its assumption of some
kind of psychological unity within the ironic mode, was the one which
came to govern the procedures of much of Anglo-American modernism
(though the acknowledged predecessor tended to be Laforgue rather than
Baudelaire). Again, it is not that the figural is absent from this writing- in-
deed it is characteristic of imagism and its derivatives (like the Hemingway
style) to seek to make the reader 'feel' something which eludes under-
But the agonistics of this particular avant-garde, and the stress it
places on technique as mastery, testify to an assumption that non-signifying
effects must be seen to be won from the effort of signification (from the
'combat of arrangement', in Pound's phrase33). This agonistics encodes
what Lyotard would think of as a distinctively 'modern' temporality of the
new as re-transcription (Pound's 'Make it New', for example). Even
Pound's 'In a Station of the Metro', one of the few imagist poems to efface
the temporal frame of its original perception, was, as he is careful to explain
in an account of the poem's genesis, the product of numerous rewritings
and exercises in reduction after the event (pp. 86-87).
With Lyotard's argument in mind, much could be said here of modern-
ism's varying use of the visual arts to provide an analogy with literary
form. In Pound's case, for example, modernist painting and sculpture
offered a way of conceiving of new dynamic structures, where associative
and juxta positional contexts seemed analogous to the 'organisation of
forms' in a visual art moving toward abstraction (p. 92). Pound's emphasis
is on form, as the 'composition and symmetry and balance' of structures
(p. 98) which might function to order the flux and chaos of modem
phenomenal life. Much of Pound's writing on the subject is, like that of
Wyndham Lewis, directed against the 'accelerated impressionism' of the
Italian Futurists, and his characteristic way of adapting the visual analogy
thus hinges on what he calls (after Kandinsky) 'a language of form and
colour', producing 'new units of design and new manners of organisation'
(p. 93). Pound's use of Kandinsky's Ueber das Geistige in der Kunst is,
however, highly selective, and he seizes on the notion of 'form as the
outward expression of inner meaning' but uses it to very different ends. 34
For him, form and 'pattern' yield a 'motif', and that 'motif', as Pound
discovers it operating in Wyndham Lewis's work, is characteristically, he
says, that of 'the fury of intelligence' working against the 'circumjacent
stupidity' of a formless modernity.
Divergences: modernism, postmodernism, Jameson and Lyotard 11
When we look at developments in continental modernism, the appeal to
the visual analogy works very differently and seems to approach more
nearly the disruptive effect of Lyotard's 'figure'. An example might be
drawn from German Expressionism, whose divergence from some of the
main criteria of Anglo-American modernism can be gauged in terms of
Eliot's critique of Hilmlet. The play, Eliot famously argues, fails to ensure
'the complete adequacy of the external to the emotion'. As Jacqueline Rose
has shown, Eliot's idea that the play is 'like the sonnets, full of some stuff
that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art'
is closely bound up with an anxiety about the feminine as fundamentally
intractable to signification.
Eliot's commitment to 'objectification' points
up the dissociation between inner and outer, subjective and objective,
which is central to his conception of art's power to transmute the primitive
'stuff' of emotion. In producing a 'formula' or 'correlative' for the
emotion, art is able to constrain that 'bodily' affect which Eliot tends to
associate with a kind of pathology.
In the early works of Expressionist drama - Oskar Kokoschka' s Murderer,
Hope of Women (1907) and Kandinsky's The Yelluw Sound (1909), for example
- the emphasis seems quite at odds with that which governs Eliot's reading
of Hllmlet. In this theatre we find that narrative indeterminacy and the
hyperbolic pitch of emotion conspire to unsettle and exceed representation.
These works are in a sense anti-discursive, pledged to thoroughly dis-
ruptive and unpredictable effects of sound, colour and gesture - effects
which are deliberately in excess of the 'facts'. And where, for Eliot,
sexuality seems to threaten a moment of pure self-presence which blocks
Oedipal resolution and escapes formulation in discourse, in these plays a
certain negativity attaches to sexuality not because it is intractable to the
'chain' of representation but because it is almuly bound by it. To put it
another way, sexuality here always exists within a structure, whether it be
one of violent opposition (the perennial 'battle of the sexes') or the Oedipal
triangle itself. The 'chain of events' which constitutes a correlative for Eliot
is precisely what the 'excessive' modes of these plays strive to disrupt, for
to be bound by it is to be bound by the law of secondarily - a law which
requires obedience to an absent 'text' and which this new theatre con-
stantly works to violate in its struggle to establish itself as 'event' rather
than narrative, as 'scream' rather than speech. So, in The Yelluw Sound, for
example, Kandinsky required the voice to be used 'pure, i.e., without
being obscured by words, or by the meaning of words'. 36
Now in one sense these early plays might be said to constitute a
'modern' aesthetic as Lyotard describes it, 'an aesthetic of the sublime,
though a nostalgic one', since their struggle against text and narrative is
U Critical Qullrterly, vol. 33, no. 3
partly motivated by a desire for some pre-discursive order of experience.
On the other hand, though, these plays seem also to register Lyotard's
postmodem moment (and well before Artaud- whom Lyotard, inciden-
tally, calls 'European' in his desire to reduce Balinese theatre to a system of
signs37). We might add to this that Lyotard's idea of the modem as a
retranscription of the postmodem also seems implicit in the evolution of
Expressionist theatre which very quickly came to be dominated by the
imperatives of narrative and, specifically, by the binding forms of the
Oedipal plot. Yet even in the more 'modem' phase, plays like Kaiser's
From Morn to Midnight are marked by a sort of internal tension, with the
closed circuit of the Oedipal text constantly threatened by the irruption of
the figural, as the 'excessive' devices of staging and acting threaten the
spatial and temporal limits of the narrative. Here 'good form' seems
always about to mutate into its opposite, to yield something which the
structure cannot contain or speak. 38
Expressionism, then, might provide some support for Lyobtrd's par-
ticular notion of the postmodem. And we should note too how important
the idea of space is here. For some of these continental modernists, the
example of painting provides not 'a language of colour and form' so much
as a non-semiotic dimension which subverts the order of discourse. This
will have to suffice as my example of an 'alternative' model of modernism,
though a fuller account might indicate parallels in French literary Cubism
and Russian Futurism.
Divergences: postmodernism
Can we find within contemporary postmodemism any structural parallels
to the kind of divergences I have indicated within the earlier forms of
modernism? We have it, of course, from Jameson that irony no longer
exists in the postmodem, and it is probably true, as Candace Lang has
argued in a more considered discussion of this question, that irony as
predicated on an intentional subject and a master code has been displaced
by the ironic condition of textuality itself (a matter of 'surfaces' involving
an unresolved plurality of codes and the non-coincidence of signifier and
). What I want to suggest here is that in our postmodem we have
irony when the possibility of figural disruption seems to recede - or, to put
it another way, that irony becomes a necessary product of that view of the
contemporary world which sees it as thoroughly assimilated to a model of
discourse. For writers like Donald Barthelme and Jean Baudrillard, who
will provide my examples here, the 'real' is conceived of as pervasively
'textual' or semiotic- a perspective that remains within Lyotard's sense of
Divergences: modernism, postmodemism, Jameson and Lyotard 13
the 'modem' as dosed narrative, but which Jameson can also construe as
'spatial' because a sense of motivating historical development appears to
have been lost. 40
There is a short story by Barthelme which is very apposite here. Called
'Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel', it deploys, like much of Barthelme's
work, a variety of styles and formal disjunctions. In the central section the
narrator is trying to decide whether Kierkegaard in his book on The Concept
of Irony was fair to Schlegel, whose novel Lucinde Kierkegaard took as an
example of the dangerous effects of irony. One of the key contentions the
narrator discovers in Kierkegaard' s text is this: 'Irony deprives the object of
its reality when the ironist says something about the object that is not what
it means'; 'Irony becomes an infinite absolute negativity.'41 Schlegel's
novel is described as 'poetic' by Kierkegaard because, in the narrator's
words, 'By negating the historical actuality poetry quote opens up a higher
actuality, expands and transfigures the imperfect into the perfect, and
thereby softens and mitigates that deep pain which would darken and
obscure all things unquote page 312' (p. 165). What Kierkegaard wants,
though, is 'not a victory over the world but a reconciliation with the
world'. He is, from the narrator's point of view, unfair to Schlegel insofar
as such a 'reconciliation' offers no way of defamiliarising the world for
perception. 42 Barthelme seems to be saying that the ironic perspective
offers the only way of seeing the world afresh - that is, of subordinating
the exterior to discourse. This rather imperial claim for fiction may remind
us of Baudelaire's treatment of the beggar girl, especially as another strand
of the story indulges in a manipulative voyeuristic fantasy about a girl on a
train (she too is 'made over' in the story, with the narrator changing his
account of her clothing at various points in the narrative).
For a more self-consciously postmodem development of this theme we
might turn to Jean Baudrillard's America. Here the ironic observer experi-
ences America as 'the marvellously affectless succession of signs'.
If the
desert seems to supply an experience of the sublime it is because it offers a
supreme instance of the 'non-referential' (p. 10). Here, speculates
Baudrillard, it might be fitting to offer a woman to the desert as sacrificial
victim ('If something has to disappear,' he says, 'something matching the
desert for beauty, why not a woman?', p. 66). And why not, since woman
has already been sacrificed to the 'worldly semiology' of 'empty signs'
(p. 10) which is America - a society in which sexuality has apparently
yielded to 'gender', a sign-system of appearances rather than a pattern of
drives and desires. 'Pushed to its logical conclusions,' muses Baudrillard,
'this would leave neither masculine nor feminine, but a dissemination of
individual sexes referring only to themselves, each one managed as an
14 CritiaU Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 3
independent enterprise. The end of seduction, the end of difference . . . '
(p. 47).
This thoroughly 'textual' projection is now probably the dominant way
of conceiving of the postmodem and it seems to have some connection to
the earlier 'discursive' moments of modernism which I have already
sketched. Might Lyotard's theory of the postmodern offer an alternative, a
way of thinking the relation of discourse and its other which avoids the
circularity and empty 'indifference' of Baudrillard's view? There is,
indeed, a body of recent American fiction for which the world and its
histories are not reducible to signification. This is not to argue for some
naive realism against Baudrillard's scepticism, but rather to suggest that
the spatial model used by Baudrillard and Jameson is closely tied to the
synchronic order of signification, to sign-systems. In contrast, another form
of postmodernism has turned its attention very deliberately to questions of
temporality and narrative, and specifically to what Lyotard has called the
'event', the singular moment which can be spoken about only after it is
over, and which is composed of 'simultaneous and heterogeneous tempor-
The event is, in this sense, a kind of temporal figure which can't
be incorporated into a dialectic or reduced to a 'meaning' within a historical
narrative of equivalent other meanings (the time of the history narrated is
not that of the narration itself). Lyotard's most powerful example is, of
course, Auschwitz, an event which can't be remembered (as a simple
historical 'fact') but which can't be forgotten either.
Now if the postmodem is that which registers an 'event', then we cer-
tainly do have a postmodem literature whose subject-matter is obsessively
concerned with such cataclysmic 'disruptions', from slavery, through the
Second World War and Vietnam and, no doubt, beyond. And even on a
less obviously momentous scale, it often seems that a recognisable world
can now be explored only by the kind of 'working through' or tmllmnesis
which Lyotard connects with the postmodern. A passage in Georges
Perec's Lift: A User's MllnUill might seem to signal this:
. . . he began to think of the tranquil life of things, of crockery chests full of
wood shavings, of cartons of books, of the harsh light of bare bulbs swinging
on their wires, of the slow installation of furniture- and objects, of the slow
adaptation of the body to space, that whole sum of minute, nonexistent,
untellable events . . . all those infinitesimal gestures in which the life of a flat
is always most faithfully encapsulated, and which will be upset from time to
time by the sudden - unforeseen or ineluctable, ~ or benign. ephemeral
or definitive - fractures of an ahistorical daily grind.
What Perec evokes here is something very different from the more familiar
textualised sense of postmodern reality, locked in a perpetual present of
Divergences: modernism, postmodernism, Jameson and Lyotard 15
empty signification. The past has its undecidability - the events which
comprise it are largely 'untellable' -but that does not mean that it is closed
to us. Recent American novels like Toni Morrison's Beloved, Jayne Anne
Phillips' Mllchine and (yes, even) the works of E. L. Doctorow
testify to this, and to the need constantly to 'work through' the meaning of
the modern in order to disrupt it by multiple, conflicting narratives.
This is a dimension for which Jameson's techno-space makes no pro-
vision, one where narrative becomes the medium in which a number of
histories can be thought simultaneously. Here a lost history is literally
unpresentable and can be worked through only in the jarring moment
when discourse, confronted by what Phillips calls 'some lost place still
existing alongside this one',
is unable to give a full account. Thus, for
example, Morrison's ghostly Beloved exists as a kind of figural disruption
within the historical narrative of slavery (she is at once Sethe's dead child
and an African lost at sea).47
It is perhaps not fanciful to connect this kind of fiction back to the more
'figural' moments of modernism, for in their various ways these very dif-
ferent forms of writing all seek to disrupt from within the discourse of the
modern, as Lyotard defines it. And if the dominant mode of that disruption
has changed - from a spatial to a temporal one - that might offer us not
only a possible reversal of Jameson's developmental schema, but, more
importantly, a way of conceiving of postmodernism as something other
than 'capitalism itself in its latest systemic mutation' (p. 343)- as some-
thing whose yoking together of incommensurable times and spaces offers
an alternative to Jameson's finally too 'modern' postmodern, where 'the
Utopia of a renewal of perception has no place to go' (p. 122).
A version of this paper was given at the University of Glasgow in February 1991
Speaal thanks to Sandra Kemp for arrangmg that session and to all who took part in
the discussion which followed. ) am also grateful to Richard Godden, Alan Sinfield
and David Trotter for their comments. Unless otherwise mdicated, all translations
are my own.
1 Fredric Jameson, Postmodemism, or, The Culturrzl Logic of Late Olprtlll!Sm
(London and New York: Verso, 1991), pp. 343, 310. Further references will be
given in the text.
2 'Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism', New Left Revrew, 146
Ouly-August 1984), pp. 53-92. The essay has been slightly revised for
inclusion in the new volume.
3 In a footnote (p. 419), Jameson seems to hedge on this categorisabon, arguing
that 'cyberpunk' may be 'the supreme literary expression if not of post-
16 CritictJl Qwzrterly, vol. 33, no. 3
modernism, then of late capitalism itself'. Since Jameson has already equated
postmodenusm with 'capitalism itself' (p. 343) it is cbfficult to gauge the force of
this distinction. See alsop. 321 for a further commendation of Gibson's work.
4 Jameson's terminology here draws on that of Linda Hutcheon see the dis-
cussion of 'historiographic metafiction' in her The Polztics of Postmodemzsm
(London and New York: Routledge, 1989).
5 The reference is to Perry Anderson, 'Modernity and Revolution', New Left
Review, 144 (March-April 1984), p. 105. For an opposite view, see my
'Futurism, gender and theones of postmodemity', TextUII.l Practu:e, 3, 2
(Summer 1989), pp. 202-21 and 'Consumer Poetics: a French Episode', New
Fomllltions, 13 (Spring 1991), pp. 75-90.
6 See, for example, Susan Rubin Suleiman, 'Naming and Difference: Reflections
on "Modernism versus Postmodernism" in Ltterature', m Douwe Fokkema
and Hans Bertens (eds.), Approachrng Postmodemzsm (Amsterdam and
Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1986), pp. 255-70.
7 Lyotard, Le Postmodeme explique aux enfants: Comspondance
1982-1985 (Paris: Editions 1986), p. 46.
8 Lyotard, The Postmodem Condttwn: A Report on Knowledge, trans.
Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumt (Manchester: Manchester University
Press, 1984), p. 79.
9 Bill Readings, Introduang Lyotard Art and Polthcs (London and New York:
Routledge, 1991), p. xxxii.
10 The Postmodem Condition, p. 81.
11 Lyotard, Des disposttifs pulsionnels (1973; Paris: Christian
Bourgeois, 1980), pp. 55-6.
12 Foreword to Lyotard, The Postmodem Condztwn, pp. xvi-xvri. Cf. Postmod-
ernism, p. 60 for a similar sense of Lyotard's desu-e for 'the triumphant
reappearance of some new high modernism'.
13 Le Postmoderne explUful aux enfants, p 126.
14 J. Laplanche and J.-B Pontalis, The lAnguage of Psychoanalyszs, trans. Donald
Nicholson-Smith (London: I<arnac Books), p. 488. Freud's main essay on the
topic is 'Remembering, Repeatmg and Working-Through', Standard Editwn,
24 vols (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74), Xll, 147-56.
15 Le Postmodeme explUful aux enfants, p. 125.
16 Geoff Bennington, Lyotard: Wrihng the Event (Manchester: Manchester
University Press, 1988), p. 69.
17 Lyotard, Drscours, figure (1971; Paris: Editions Klincksieck,
1985), p. 32.
18 Introduang Lyotard, p. xxxi.
19 Readings, Introducing Lyotard, p. 151. As Readings also notes (p. 21), 'the
materiality of the signifier is its otherness to signification . . . a resistance to
conceptual representation'. Hence Lyotard's critique of Hegel's project for
aiming to show that 'extenority, that of the sensible, is interior, is a discourse,
a dialectic, interior to language' (Discours, figure, p. 49).
20 Discours, figure, p. 64.
21 But see Scott Lash, 'Discourse or Figure? Postmodernism as a "Regime of
Signification"', Theory, Culture and Socrety, 5, 2-3 (1988); p. 313; ' ... I shall
argue that modernist culture signifies in a largely "discursive" way, while
postmodernist signification is importantly "figural".'
Divergences: modernism, postmodernism, Jameson and Lyotard 17
22 See Valery Larbaud, 'TrolS Belles MendJantes', m Robert Mallet and G. Jean-
Aubry (eds.), Oeuvres completes de Valery Llzrbaud (Pans: Gallimard, 1953), t.8,
pp. 323-40. For the text of' A une mendtante rousse', see CJaude Pichois (ed. ),
Charles Baudela1re: Oeuvres completes, 2 vols (Pans: Gallimard, 1975) I, 83-85.
23 See, for example, Charles Dedeyan, Le Nouvetlu mal de srecle (Paris: Societe
d'enseJ.gitement superieur, 1968), p. 117. For the 1roruc view, see Candace D.
Lang, Irony/Humor: CntlCill Paradrgms (Baltimore and London: Johm Hopkins,
1988), pp. 126-7.
24 Baudelaire: Selected Wntmgs on Art and Artists, trafl5. P. E. Charvet (Harmonds-
worth: Penguin Books, 1972), p. 421.
25 Baudl!la1re: Selected Wnhngs on Art and ArtiSts, p. 161.
26 See also Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, 'L'impresentable', Poetique, 21 (1975),
pp. 53-95.
27 Jean Baudrillard, Sedudton, trafl5. Brian Smger (London: Macmillan, 1990),
p. 99.
28 Roland Barthes, SIZ: An Essay, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and
Wang, 1974), pp. 44-5.
29 Variations sur un su]et, m Henri Mondor and G. Jean-Aubry (eds.), Mllllarme;
Oeuvres completes (Pans: Gallimard, 1979), p. 366.
30 Mllllarmt:Oeuvres completes, p. 304; Bradford Cook (tram.), Mllllarme: Selected
Prose Poems, Essays, and Letters (Baltimore: Johm Hopkins, 1956), p. 62
(trar1Slation modified). See also Jean Starobmskt, Portm1t de !'artiSte en
saltimbanque (Geneva: Skira, 1970), p. 64, and Jacques Demda, Dl5Semrnation,
trafl5. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: Universtty of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 223.
31 a. Bennington, Lyotard Wnting the Event, p. 67. See also Gilles Deleuze, The
Logu: of Sense, trafl5 Mark Lester and Charles Stivale (1969; London: Athlone
Press, 1990), p. 136: 'The event lS the tdenhty of form and votd. It is not the
obJect as denoted, but the obJect as expressed or expressible, never present,
but always already m the past and yet to come. As in Mallarme' s works, it has
the value of its own absence or abolihon, since this abohhon (abdu:atw) is
precisely its pos1tton in the vend as the pure Event (dediaztio).' Italics in the
32 Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast (1964, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books,
1973), p. 58.
33 Ezra Pound, Gaudter-Brzeska. A Memoir (1916; Hessle: The Marvell Press,
1960), p. 121. Further references will be given m the text.
34 For the different focus of Kandinsky's aesthebc, see below, p. 11.
35 Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality m the Freid of VISton (London: Verso, 1986),
pp. 123-40.
36 The Blaue Retter Almanac, ed. Klaus Lankheit (New York: Da Capo Press,
1974), p. 206
37 Des drsposihfs pulstonnels, p. 93
38 For a detailed account of these aspects of ExpressioniSm, see my 'Sexuality
and Structure: Temiom in Early Expressionist Drama', New Thetztre Quarterly,
26 (May 1991), pp. 160-70.
39 This notion of 'surfaces', whtch derives from Gilles Deleuze's discussion of
irony in The Logic of Sense (especially pp. 134-41), lS developed in Candace D.
Lang, Irony/Humor. See also Gary J. Handwerk, Irony and Ethics in Narmtwe:
From Schlegel to Laam (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985).
18 Critiazl Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 3
40 Jameson describes postmodemity as 'a wholly textual world' in 'Baudelaire as
Modernist and Postmodemist', in C. Hosek and P. Parker (eds.), Lyric Poetry:
Beyond the New Cnticism (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985),
p. 255.
41 Donald Barthelme, 'Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel', Sixty Stcnies (New York:
E. P. Dutton, 1982), p. 164. Further references will be given in the text.
42 See Maurice Couturier and R ~ Durand, Dcmllld &rthelme (London and
New York: Methuen, 1982), pp. 24-32, and the account of Barthelme' s fiction
in Alan Wilde, Honz.cms of Assent: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Ironrc
lmJJgination (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins, 1981).
43 Jean Baudrillard, America, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso Books, 1988),
p. 5. Further references will be given in the text.
44 Readings, Introducing Lyotard, p. 24.
45 Georges Perec, Ltfe. A User's MJmual, trans. DaVId Bellos (1978; London:
Collins Harvill, 1990), p. 128.
46 Jayne Anne Phillips, Msrchine Dmuns (1984; Faber &t Faber, 1985), p. 101.
47 Compare Heidegger and 'the Jews', trans Andreas Michel and Mark Roberts
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), p. 11 for Lyotard's
evocation of 'A past that is not past, that does not haunt the present, in the
sense that its absence is felt, would signal itself even in the present as a
specter, an absence, wluch does not inhabtt it in the name of full reality,
which is not an object of memory like something that might have been
forgotten and must be remembered (with a view to a "good end", to correct
knowledge). It is thus not even there as a "blank space," as absence, as terra
rncognrta, but it IS there nevertheless.'
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