Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

On the Graphic in Postmodern Theoretical Writing

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

On the Graphic in Postmodern Theoretical Writing

Article excerpt

  This evictive state naturally corresponds to a plenitude of   virtualities: it is an absence of meaning full of all the   meanings.   --Roland Barthes ("Rhetoric" 39) 

The word "postmodern." conjures up a number of concepts and associations that are by now quite familiar: incredulity toward metanarratives; incommensurability among different forms of knowledge; the commodity- and nostalgia-driven cultural logic of late capitalism; play with artistic forms from collage and pastiche to repetition and citation; cultural relativism, and so forth. For those working in the literary humanities, the postmodern cannot not be, in addition, a question about language. How so? Although there are many possible ways to respond to this question, postmodernity's inheritance of modernity's fraught relation to language seems a logical place to begin.

In the Anglo-American context, T.S. Eliot's well-known experiments with language in his early poetic work, experiments that are as morally pessimistic as they are stylistically innovative, are chancteristic of high modernism's twin one might say schizophrenic) approach. In the poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," for instance, the relationship of the poet to language is implicitly homologized to a balding middle-aged man haunted by his own sexual impotence. But while this anxiety about a medium that seems increasingly unreliable and untrustworthy shapes literary modernism's classic sense of its own predicament ("It is impossible to say just what I mean!" [16]), the lack of fit between words and things (what Samuel Beckett's plays dramatize as the condition of unhappiness) also proves to be a source of immense artistic productivity, as modernist writings in different genres, by authors such as Joyce, Woolf, Stein, and innumerable others, have shown. The incontrovertible epistemic issue seems to be the sense of a definitive transformation in language's status in relation to representation. This transformation is commonly conceived of as a loss: language, once in possession of a sovereign overview of the world like a polished windowpane, is said to have become opaque, incapacitated, and unable or unwilling to communicate. With reference to Jean-Francois Lyotard's work, it is perhaps possible to include this assumption (or story) of language's previous potency among the meta-narratives whose passing has, according to Lyotard, come to define the postmodern condition. Whether or not language was ever really the master of representation, the collective mournful belief--one that has powerfully influenced philosophical and artistic thinking about the modern condition--is that it has, somehow, slipped from this magical status.

In response to language's putative decline, scholars of the humanities have typically attempted to reinvest in language's relevance by emphasizing the antagonism and incompatibility between humanistic learning, on the one hand, and science and technology, on the other. Martin Heidegger is an outstanding example of a philosopher who tries to reanimate language from this perspective. For Heidegger language is not only the dwelling of Being; it is also equipped with the mystical power to interpellate, to call and bid things to come forth (189-210). Similarly turning to poetic language as a way to reclaim humanistic learning's universal significance, the Anglo-American New Critics exemplify the poem appreciated in isolation as an organic whole, whose reality is deemed independent of history and authorial intention. "A poem should not mean /But be": in this well-known proclamation from Archibald MacLeish's "Ars Poetica" (126-27), one detects a purist desire for the work of art to be (understood as) ontologically self-sufficient, as though any swerve into meaning would amount to a detraction. Once ontological self-sufficiency has ascended to the place of a supreme moral virtue, it becomes an ideal to which everyone aspires. The postmodern trends in multiplying narratives, in particular narratives about the self, may in this light be seen as a continuation of the ongoing revitalization and reinvention of (the relevance of) poetic language. …

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