CHAPTER 5: Cultivating the Desert

By Krijnen, Joost | Postmodern Studies, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

CHAPTER 5: Cultivating the Desert


Krijnen, Joost, Postmodern Studies


To many critics and intellectuals, the Holocaust does not only represent the brutal murder of six million Jews, but also the bankruptcy of the project of modernity. After this gruesome history, which took place within the heart of civilization and was made possible by the latest technologies, modernity's promise of progress, and its faith in reason, science, and technology, had come to sound hollow and suspect. In this new context-a post-Holocaust age, but also an atomic age, as well as an era of decolonization-the traditional certainties of Western civilization to many had lost their grounding and legitimacy. And so, the Holocaust can be seen as one of the key events that necessitated a thorough re-thinking of Western culture. These efforts began in the arts, in criticism, and in philosophy, but would gradually spread much more broadly and develop into what is now referred to as postmodernism.

A discourse of "no longer possibles," to use Eric Santner's suggestive phrase, postmodernism thrives on challenging and deconstructing traditional certainties.1 It questions and subverts such notions as meaning, reference, knowledge, history, art, gender, and identity, and suggests that these concepts do not refer to autonomous (or transcendental) regimes of Absolute Truth or objective knowledge. Instead, they are the products or effects of self-referential language games (Derrida), the outcomes of which are determined less by reason per se than by changing relationships of power (Foucault). Undermining the very foundations of knowledge and authority, postmodernism on the one hand is a highly liberating force that emancipates previously suppressed voices and discourses. Indeed, under the sign of postmodernism, the entrenched binaries of Western thought are destabilized and deconstructed, allowing the free manifestation of (previously) subaltern discourses and the untrammeled proliferation of new forms of knowledge. On the other hand, postmodernism also seems to harbor within it a decidedly relativistic streak: if all foundations are destabilized, and if facts are not truths but "constructs," one form of "knowledge" seems as good as the next. Consequently, there is the risk of ending up in a world where "anything goes," where meaning is nothing but signs referring to other signs, and where nothing really makes sense anymore. And so, after having broken down the temple of liberal humanism, postmodernism seems to have led us into a desert of free-floating signifiers that at once suggests a liberating sense of unlimited opportunity as well as paralysis, indifference, and (moral) vacuity. Indeed, as a profoundly paradoxical metaphor of the contemporary, the postmodern desert provokes some elemental questions: to what extent is this desert a habitable space? Indeed, is it possible to live in such a place?

For the Jewish American authors Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Nathan Englander, the answers to such questions are deeply ambiguous. On the one hand, it is postmodernism that allows these authors to engage with the Holocaust and with Jewishness in highly Americanized, contemporized, and postethnic ways. On the other, these authors assume remarkably hopeful, "un-postmodern" stances with regard to the possibilities of narrative and representation, regeneration, identity, and, not least, love. Indeed, these authors turn to such "traditional" concepts and values not to "deconstruct" them, as might be expected from postmodern writers, but rather to embrace and explore the possibilities of reconstructing them. Significantly, this apparent ambiguity about the postmodern project on the part of these authors can be related precisely to their interest in the memory of the Holocaust, as I will explore in the next chapter. Closer to the concerns of the present chapter, however, is that these authors do not stand alone in their ambiguous position on postmodernism. Indeed, for some time now, critics have been beginning to identify emerging trends in the arts, criticism, and theory that, often through various ways of "reconstruction," seem to move beyond postmodernism. …

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