Cognitive Mapping, Then and Now: Postmodernism, Indecision, and American Literary Globalism

Article excerpt

  Mere belief is hostile to the whole idea of thinking.   To wear credulity as one's badge of intellect is not   to be a thinker as such    --n+1, "A Regressive Avant-Garde" (2004)    And yet, the best of Jameson's work has felt mind-blowing   in the way of LSD or mushrooms: here before you is the world   you'd always known you were living in, but apprehended as if   for the first time in the freshness of its beauty and horror.    --Benjamin Kunkel, "Into the Tent" (2009) 

Toward the middle of Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision (2005), Dwight B. Wilmerding tells his sister Alice, "I feel like I'm evens proof: That's one idea for a major problem I must have" (141) Reflecting on the end of the Cold War, Dwight explains that, "The Wall came down, whole world changed, now we're not going to die in a nuclear holocaust anymore. But it really didn't feel like anything was happening--not to me. I feel like I have a certain resistance to events. (140). What Kunkel's narrator means when he describes himself as "event proof" would seem to be an inability to "feel" history, and this is confirmed later, when, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, he recalls being "amazed ... that I continued living my life, doing everything I did, despite the confusion involved, like it was somehow regular and automatic" (183). Thus, if Dwight feels as if "events don't always seem to happen, even when they do" (149), then his "major problem" is that this "resistance to events" prevents him not from knowing history but from experiencing it. In indecision, then, the fact that Dwight cannot experience history is also conceived as the source of his abulia, a condition that not only leaves him with a chronic inability to make any decision, no matter how trivial, but also incapable of conceptualizing historical change: "I couldn't think of the future," Dwight says, "until I arrived there" (3). But while this unique condition animates an almost exaggerated form of self-consciousness that contributes to what a number of critics have described as the novel's equally unique narrative voice, it is this same "resistance to events" that will lead his Argentine-Belgian love interest, Brigid, to complain, "Nothing can happen to you. You are that type" (175). (1) indecision nonetheless is, as Dwight affirms in its opening pages, a "narrative of life-changing events" (3), in which a fruit conjured up in the jungles of Ecuador comes to embody the solution to his "major problem": "When you eat from this fruit," Brigid tells Dwight, "then whenever you put your hand on a product, a commodity, an article, then, at the moment of your touch, how this commodity came into your hands becomes plainly evident to you" (216). This solution, then, will not only allow Dwight to "feel" history in a strangely literal sense, but also alerts ' us to the novels marked interest in a distinctly postmodern predicament.

For what Indecision evokes here is nothing other than the possibility of overcoming what Fredric Jameson first described in 1984 as the "waning of our historicity, of our lived possibility of experiencing history in some active way" ("Postmodernism" 68). Indeed, one cannot help but think of the subject Jameson identifies as having "lost its capacity to organize its past and future into coherent experience" (71), when, for example, Dwight recounts living "from day to day as if ... on a bridge saying in the wind while both sides of the canyon ... past and future ... disappeared in foggy weather" (19). Which is to say that if Dwight is, in Brigid's words, a "type," he is one that will recall Jameson's subject of postmodernism in rather explicit ways. And if Kunkel's novel can be best understood as an attempt to dramatize what Jameson calls a "weakening of historicity" ("Postmodernism" 58), it is perhaps not surprising that the possibility of overcoming what Dwight recognizes as an inability to experience history is also imagined in the novel as having decisively political consequences; consequences which, in taking the form of a political awakening, will speak directly to both our understanding of postmodernism then, and the possibility of imagining something like an after-postmodernism now. …