Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Postmodernism and Modernization

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Postmodernism and Modernization

Article excerpt

In my book The Twilight of the Middle Class I argue that we should "read postmodernism dialectically, as the worldview not only of middle-class privilege but of the hollowness of this privilege: of the bitter discovery of one's lack of agency and inability to navigate the world" (129). More specifically, I contend that the shift to postmodernism occurs when authors respond to the proletarianization of white-collar work (including authorship) not through the effort--shared by writers as diverse as Flannery O'Connor, Vladimir Nabokov, and Jack Kerouac--to craft an incor-ruptibly personal style, but rather by elaborating formal concomitants of the systemic forces seen to threaten middle-class individuality. We might thus see the postmodern deemphasis of character--the dispersal and disappearance of Thomas Pynchon's nominal protagonist Tyrone Slothrop in Grapity's Rainbow (1973), for instance--as paralleling the putative depersonalization of organization men. The postmodern incorporation of genre elements, I further suggest, construes genre as a form of Taylorized, formulaic mental labor that authors must work through rather than simply rejecting (116).

At the time I wrote this account, I knew it was insufficient, although I didn't know quite why. I still think there's something to be said for this understanding of postmodernism's relationship to genre, especially when seen against the different (less self-conscious, less elitist, frequently more joyful) embrace of genre forms by recent writers like Jonathan Lethem, Junot Diaz, and Jennifer Egan. But what I described, and am here describing, as the postmodern relationship to genre is not that of postmodernism tout court, but of what postmodernism in a late phase became: DeLillo's banalization of the espionage thriller, for instance, in The Names (1982), or of the disaster film in White Noise (1985). (1) Here it's worth noting, however, that in the process of elaborating the category of "Post-Modernism" in his 1970 essay "Cross the Border--Close the Gap" (270 ff.)--the gap in question being that between high and low culture--Leslie Fiedler describes a markedly different relationship between then-contemporary writers and the popular genres from which they borrow:

  The forms of the novel which they prefer are ... at the furthest
  possible remove from art and avant-garde, the greatest distance from
  inwardness, analysis, and pretension; and, therefore, immune to
  lyricism, on the one hand, or righteous social commentary, on the
  other. It is not compromise by the market place they fear; on the
  contrary, they choose the genre most associated with exploitation by
  the mass media: notably, the Western, Science Fiction,
  and Pornography. (278)

This is not precisely the current relationship of authors to genre fiction--one way of characterizing the difference is to note that more recent writers have turned to popular genres precisely in the interests of lyricism and social commentary--but it does suggest that in a period when it was more likely to be known as black humor than postmodernism, aspirational American writing saw in its generic cousins an anti-systemic rather than a systemic bent. (2) In this regard, perhaps Pynchon's recent turn, in Against the Day (2006), from high postmodernist to genre archivist (3) is less of a shift than a long-coming fulfillment.

I still believe that we should read postmodernism as the worldview of the late twentieth-century US middle class, but as is often the case when one purports to be thinking dialectically, I described only half of the dialectic. On One side middle-class proletarianization and the corruption of individual style by popular genres as reified products of Taylorized mental labor; on the other a displaced aesthetic resistance to such proletarianization embodied in the turn to genres as anarchic, bad-mannered, market-driven enclaves of authorial agency. If, as Franco Moretti reminds us, the novel is constantly renewing itself via recourse to "vulgar" forms (29 n. …

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