When they asserted that our postmodern society has reached the "end of history," theorists Fredric Jameson, Jean Baudrillard, and Francis Fukuyama launched a compelling debate that has persisted for over a decade. They argue that we no longer believe in teleological metanarratives, that our concept of history has become spatial or flattened out, and that we inhabit a perpetual present in which images of the past are merely recycled with no understanding of their original context. In short, they think that postmodern culture has lost a sense of historical consciousness, of cause and effect. Jameson, in particular, sees literary postmodernism as a by-product of this new worldview. Such a controversial stance has, of course, provoked numerous antagonists to speak out. Linda Hutcheon, for example, has written two studies of "historiographic metafiction," suggesting that much of postmodern fiction is still strongly invested in history, but more importantly in revising our sense of what history means and can accomplish. My project is to examine how Toni Morrison's acclaimed historical novel Beloved (1987) enacts a hybrid vision of history and time that sheds new light on issues addressed by Jameson and Hutcheon in their theories of the postmodern - topics such as the "fictionality" of history, the blurring of past and present, and the questioning of grand historical metanarratives. I argue that while the novel exhibits a postmodern skepticism of sweeping historical narratives, of "Truth," and of Marxist teleological notions of time as diachronic, it also retains an African American and modernist political commitment to the crucial importance of deep cultural memory, of keeping the past alive in order to construct a better future. Morrison's mediations between these two theoretical and political camps - between postmodernism and African American social protest - enable her to draw the best from both and make us question the more extremist voices asserting that our postmodern world is bereft of history.
Since the term postmodern has been at the center of many highly charged cultural debates, I am aware that describing Beloved as such, even as a "hybrid" postmodern novel, is a gesture that might draw criticism. Clearly, the novel's status as part of the African American tradition of social protest, and Morrison's investments in agency, presence, and the resurrection of authentic history, seem to make the novel incompatible with poststructuralist ideas at the root of postmodernism. Morrison herself has spoken out against a postmodernism that she associates with Jameson's terms. In my view, however, Morrison's treatment of history bears some similarity to Hutcheon's postmodern "historiographic metafiction," but her relationship to this discourse is affected by her aim to write "black-topic" texts. Morrison acknowledges that history is always fictional, always a representation, yet she is also committed to the project of recording African American history in order to heal her readers. Instead of a playful exercise in deconstructing history, Morrison's Beloved attempts to affect the contemporary world of the "real." While the novel should not simply be assimilated into the canon of postmodernism, Morrison's work should be recognized as contributing a fresh voice to the debates about postmodern history, a voice that challenges the centrism and elitism of much of postmodern theory. Beloved reminds us that history is not "over" for African Americans, who are still struggling to write the genealogies of their people and to keep a historical consciousness alive.
The relationship of African American writers and their work to the discourse of postmodernism has been hotly contested, and there has unfortunately emerged a dichotomy that I would like to question. This relationship has become even more vexed since the Nobel Prize committee bypassed postmodern guru Thomas Pynchon to select Toni Morrison as their 1993 literature winner. Morrison claimed her prize as a victory particularly for African Americans.(1) Black critics such as Barbara Christian continue to argue that Morrison's work must be understood as an expression of African American forms and traditions, and are concerned that "the power of this novel as a specifically African American text is being blunted" as it is being appropriated by white academic discourse (Christian 6). I too share her suspicion of the increasingly popular move to read Morrison's fiction through the lens of postmodernism, poststructuralism, or "white" academic theory, a tactic that underestimates the crucial importance of Toni Morrison's black cultural heritage to any interpretation of her works. While we must question the tactics of critics like Elliott Butler-Evans, who simply and somewhat blindly plot poststructuralist and postmodernist theory onto Morrison's "black-topic texts," we should be equally wary of concluding that postmodernism is a "white" phenomenon. Any claim that the lives of black people have nothing to do with postmodernism ignores the complex historical interrelationship of black protest and liberal academic discourse. As Andreas Huyssen, Kobena Mercer, and Linda Hutcheon have noted, racial liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s (as well as the feminist movement) contributed to the loosening of cultural boundaries that is seen as characteristically postmodern.(2) White liberal theorists of postmodernism and African American critics often share an oppositional relationship to the bourgeois state or to the universalizing "objectivity" of some humanist intellectuals. A rigid demarcation between postmodern texts and African American texts merely perpetuates a false dichotomy of academic theory and social protest, ignoring that they emerged in response to a similar set of lived conditions.
I do not seek simply to join the fray of critics who unequivocally claim Toni Morrison's novel Beloved for one side or the other (postmodernist or "antipostmodernist" social protest) while leaving the text's ambiguities and ambivalences unexplored. Deborah McDowell argues that the theory/practice hierarchy equates theory with men and marginalizes black women to the realm of social protest, and she calls for a "counterhistory . . . [that] would bring theory and practice into a productive tension that would force a reevaluation of each side" (256). I am attempting here to enact that counterhistory, to investigate how Morrison's fiction speaks to postmodern theory and, more importantly, allows us to reevaluate this discourse. I do not aim to measure Beloved against the authority of postmodern theorists, but rather to examine how each has represented the spectre of history differently, and to suggest the difference that race can make.
In her novels, interviews, and essays, Toni Morrison has expressed opinions and agendas that resound with the concerns of both critical camps - both postmodernist theorists and African American and feminist critics seeking social agency. Feminist and African American critics have often dismissed postmodernism's philosophical questioning of foundationalism and essentialism as being incompatible with their sociopolitical criticism (Fraser 20-21). Morrison herself acknowledges and occasionally reifies this rift by defining herself in interviews as an antipostmodernist author of black-topic texts, written to pass on agency to her black readers ("Living Memory" 11). Certainly, Morrison's works seem to be defined by the prefixes "pre" or "re" rather than "post"; in Beloved, she is more concerned with origins, cycles, and reconstructing agency than with decadence and self-parody. Both Beloved and her novel Jazz are set in time periods of birth and regeneration - the age of Reconstruction after the Civil War and the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.(3)
Despite her reluctance to associate her work with postmodernism, I believe that Morrison has produced the kind of hybrid cultural work that socialist feminist Donna Haraway calls for. In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, Haraway writes: