Academic journal article International Fiction Review

The Quest for Community in American Postmodern Fiction

Academic journal article International Fiction Review

The Quest for Community in American Postmodern Fiction

Article excerpt

The good intentions, and good deeds, of liberalism and the contemporary liberal state notwithstanding, there have been myriad countervailing pressures working against the formation of communities in postmodern America, and it is on two of these that I wish to focus here: first, assaults on community formation by governmental and corporate entities; and, second, assaults on community formation by the ever-accelerating embourgeoisement of American culture. The novels of Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, Norman Mailer, John Edgar Wideman, Don DeLillo, Kathy Acker, and Richard Ford, among a number of others, provide rich illustrations of the entropy of community in contemporary America, and the analyses offered here will draw from this important body of literature as well as from contemporary political theory.

In The End of History (1992), Francis Fukuyama advances the view that history is "directional," and that its directional bias in the late twentieth century leads inexorably to political liberalism. (1) Fukuyama claims that liberalism has proven more adept than any other political system at satisfying "the whole man simultaneously, his mason, his desire, and thymos." (2) A term drawn from Plato's Republic, "thymos" refers to people's self-esteem, to their "innate sense of justice." Thymos creates in people a "desire for recognition." (3)

Even if Fukuyama is correct and liberalism can be said to have vanquished its ideological antagonists--notably communitarianism, in both its right- and left-wing modalities, and libertarianism--those countries that unambiguously embrace this political form are hardly utopias, and the United States is clearly not one. Indeed, no less a student of contemporary American society than William Jefferson Clinton has called attention to the fragmentation of the national soul. Addressing party delegates at the 1996 Democratic National Convention in his nomination acceptance speech, Clinton issued a challenge to himself and all Americans: "We must make the basic bargain of responsibility and opportunity real for all Americans and we must build a strong and united American community." (4)

One might be tempted to see this call for a refurbished notion of American community or, better, "alliance of communities," as Peter Simpson calls the liberal state, as nothing more than hollow, self-promotional political oratory. (5) Taken in isolation, and cynically, Clinton's hortatory sentiments might well be summarily dismissed on these grounds alone. Yet, in these early years of the twenty-first century, the United States is indeed preoccupied with community, with its loss, with the need for its conceptual and social renovation, and Clinton's concern is also the nation's. Certainly, in postmodern America, the thymos of many social theorists, philosophers, and novelists is affronted by historical circumstance. As Fukuyama himself is well aware, the "end of history" has not been marked by the end of human suffering. Consequently, several questions come immediately to the fore here. How can what is arguably the best "actually existent" political system that humankind has ever conjured up be so demonstrably imperfect, even dystopian in the minds of some? Is a system that has, again arguably, won the endgame of a complex and protracted ideological match capable of metacritical reflection, of self-correctional gesture? Is justice itself an inherently contestable concept under liberalism and hence not subject to any definitive codification? Finally, and crucially, what vision of futurity does American liberalism embrace?

Robert Bellah and his colleagues provide us with what seems a serviceable definition of community in Habits of the Heart, their influential study of individualism and social morality in America: "a community is a group of people who are socially interdependent, who participate together in discussion and decision making, and who share certain practices ... that both define the community and are nurtured by it. …

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