Stephen Schryer contrasts narratological and postsecular readings of postmodernism in a review of Gerhard Hoffmann’s vast study, From Modernsism to Postmodernism (2005), and John McClure’s narrower but more pointed exploration, Partial Faiths (2007).
As a critical concept, postmodernism outlived its usefulness sometime in the mid-1990s. In an accelerated fashion, the term accumulated the same proliferation of definitions as modernism itself. Moreover, many of the themes that critics associated with postmodernism (hybridity, pluralism, relativism, etc.) became well-worn critical clichés, part of the unconscious ideology of the humanities. Indeed, as Brian McHale argues in a recent ebr article, it is now common to speak of postmodernism in the past-tense - as an exhausted movement that has given way to an as yet undefined post-postmodern sensibility. For this reason, new studies of postmodern fiction face an enormous burden - the need to establish new categories, different strategies for grouping together and reading postmodern texts in an already crowded disciplinary field. This is a challenge that two recent studies - Gerhard Hoffmann’s From Modernism to Postmodernism and John McClure’s Partial Faiths - confront in different ways and with varying results. Hoffmann’s book provides a totalizing account of literary postmodernism, systematically charting the similarities and differences between it and its modernist predecessor. McClure’s study, by contrast, grapples with a particular problem in postmodern studies: the notion that much contemporary fiction is characterized by its partial reclamation of forms of spirituality and faith sidelined or repressed in secular modernity.
I. From Modernism to Postmodernism
Of the two books, Hoffmann’s densely-written, 750-page study covers the least amount of new territory. From Modernism to Postmodernism instead presents itself as a comprehensive synthesis of already existing theories and accounts of postmodern U.S. fiction. By postmodern fiction, Hoffmann means something very particular - the “high postmodernism” produced by (generally white male) experimental writers in the 1960s and 1970s. Hence, Hoffmann’s study encompasses obvious choices like John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, Robert Coover, and Donald Barthelme, as well as lesser-known figures like Raymond Federman, Ronald Sukenick, and John Hawkes. With the exception of Ishmael Reed, he excludes multicultural and feminist writers who selectively draw upon postmodern techniques, perhaps because many of them wrote their best work in the 1980s and 1990s (Charles Johnson, Kathy Acker, etc.). He also excludes the magical realism of writers like Toni Morrison, who share many of the influences of properly postmodern writers but do not problematize questions of literary representation to the same extent (240).
In studying this relatively narrow group of writers, Hoffmann is not especially interested in the cultural milieu within which they produced their work. He begins by acknowledging that postmodernism “is a product of the Sixties” (13) and that it confirms “the liberating and deconstructive drives” of that decade’s culture “by an exuberant creation of new work, a playful and ironic attitude, and a decomposition of its own traditional logic of cohesion and integration” (33). Hoffmann, however, does not much elaborate upon postmodern writers’ relationship to this countercultural zeitgeist. Indeed, his study generally neglects the most interesting characteristic of postmodern fiction. Novelists like Pynchon and Gaddis were relentlessly sociological writers, who tried to map out the complex, global systems that shape our lives. Their works harkened back to the great realist novels of the nineteenth century that traced the transformations wrought by industrialization upon British and continental society. However, the systems that Pynchon, Gaddis, and other writers evoked were less tangible, more abstract, requiring an unprecedented technical virtuosity. These efforts were frequently distorted by the cultural peculiarities of the post-World War II era - in Pynchon’s case, by his ongoing, imaginative engagement with the 1960s counterculture. Nevertheless, they marked a crucial shift away from the predominantly existential focus of much 1950s fiction.
Hoffmann instead focuses almost exclusively on the formal innovations of postmodern fiction. He uses a narratological approach that isolates the “narrated situation” (19) as the basic structural unit of fiction and divides it into four constitutive elements: space and time (the situation’s natural frame), character and action (the situation’s social frame). What distinguishes postmodern fiction is the way that it deconstructs all of the totalizing features of narrative: character, plot, theme, etc., in order to defamiliarize the conventions that novelists use to construct the basic narrated situation. Hence, postmodern writers emphasize the extent to which time, space, character, and action are cultural constructs, subject to interpretation. Characters, for instance, are no longer defined in terms of their essential identity; rather, they dissolve into “a multiplicity of roles in the mobile interrelation with other people and the environment, with power-systems, institutions, religious and cultural traditions, and language-patterns” (423). This playful experimentation with fiction’s basic codes and structures draws upon and extends similar innovations developed by literary modernists in the early twentieth century. However, in postmodern fiction, the ultimate purpose of this experimentation is to achieve an ontological perspective that Hoffmann calls “situationalism”: an awareness of the elementary, pre-subjective field of experience and of the processes by which it is constructed and deconstructed. This perspective, Hoffmann argues, is the episteme of postmodernism, which differentiates it from the anguished concern with “fragile subjectivity” characteristic of aesthetic modernism (105).
In developing this thesis, Hoffmann outlines the philosophical questions at stake in postmodern fiction. Each chapter begins with an extended account of the history of Hoffmann’s basic concepts; his chapter on the space-time continuum in postmodern fiction traces notions of time and space from Kant to Derrida. However, he does not do much of what could be called close reading. Although he provides helpful plot summaries, the fifty or so novels that he discusses become the raw material for a systematic categorization of the postmodernists’ deconstructive and reconstructive techniques. Hence, Pynchon, Gaddis and Barth establish situationalism through a maximalist proliferation of plots, characters, and perspectives; Barthelme and Hawkes do the same thing through a carefully controlled literary minimalism that pares these elements away. Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 subverts the traditional novel’s emphasis upon meaningful action by inverting the detective novel’s identity quest; Gaddis’s JR does the same through its parody of business enterprise. The most interesting moment in this analysis comes in the book’s final chapter, when Hoffmann shifts away from 1960s and 1970s postmodernists to writers who made their mark between the 1980s and the present, such as Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, Richard Powers, and Jonathan Franzen. Here, Hoffmann’s text finally gains some argumentative traction. On the one hand, these “post-postmodern” (623) novelists register their sense that postmodern fiction is exhausted through a partial return to realist techniques. On the other hand, they cannot help but filter their aesthetic through the altered ontological perspective introduced within the postmodern fiction of the 1970s. Even the most programmatic neorealist text, such as Franzen’s The Corrections, incorporates the postmodern realization that “change, mobility, and becoming have to be accepted as the defining constituents of our world and also of the identity of the individual” (629). After the deconstructive turn of modern and postmodern experimentalism, there is no uncontaminated return to a lost realist origin.
Overall, however, From Modernism to Postmodernism does not tell us much that we do not already know about post-1960s American fiction. Early on in the study, Hoffmann briefly summarizes McHale’s often-cited distinction between modernism and postmodernism from Postmodernist Fiction. The modernists were preoccupied with epistemology, with the question of how we learn to know an essentially stable, consistently ordered reality. In postmodernism, this project collapses. Postmodern writers no longer assume the existence of a singular, stable world; they instead engage in imaginative acts of world destruction and creation. In spite of its comprehensiveness and erudition, one cannot help but feel that Hoffmann’s situationalism merely elaborates upon McHale’s definition and applies it to a relatively predictable set of texts.
II. Partial Faiths
John McClure’s Partial Faiths, in contrast, offers a more pointed and original take on postmodern fiction. Ultimately, as I will argue, it passes up on an opportunity to problematize some of the basic political assumptions of postmodern criticism and fiction. Nevertheless, it succeeds as an insightful discussion of an often-neglected critical problem and as a collection of elegant, culturally-engaged close readings. The study picks up a theme that resonates through the work of theorists like Jacques Derrida, Charles Taylor, and Gianni Vattimo: the idea that secular modernity has given way to postsecularism, a spiritual attitude resistant to both secular and dogmatic religious constructions of reality. This attitude, McClure argues, pervades the work of many contemporary writers, including the work of novelists that critics characterize as predominantly secular. In approaching this topic, McClure encompasses both a smaller number and broader range of authors than Hoffmann, dwelling at length upon Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, and Michael Ondaatje. All of these authors, McClure argues, affirm or invent forms of faith that are “dramatically partial and open-ended” (ix). These “preterite spiritualities” (19), which emerge on the margins of society, hybridize various scriptural traditions and profanely mix the spiritual and secular. Their purpose is to affirm varieties of religious experience excluded from a strictly secularist worldview, while at the same time exposing and countering the dangers of fundamentalism.
Within this group of novelists, McClure discovers diverse configurations of the postsecularist project. Pynchon, for instance, achieves his weak religiosity through a bewildering multiplication of religious and secular perspectives, which introduce us “to a universe more tremendous even than that of secular science, an expanded cosmos that accommodates not one enchanted system but many” (30). This multiplication of worldviews takes the form of Pynchon’s “crass supernaturalism” (17); his novels are populated by angels and spirits from various traditions, which interact freely with his this-worldly characters. DeLillo, in contrast, pursues a more cautious approach. On the one hand, he resacralizes the world “by subtly loosening the fabric of everyday reality so that something else - presence or emptiness - shines through” (65). On the other hand, he highlights the ways in which spiritual impulses, repressed in secular modernity, manifest themselves in virulent forms of fundamentalism such as the cults and terror groups that he explores in his novels. These readings work best when McClure shows how his authors respond to particular religious traditions. Hence, one of the study’s highlights is its account of Morrison’s creolized Protestant / African spiritual communities in Beloved and Paradise. While many critics have emphasized Morrison’s references to African traditions in her work, none have discussed her exploration of African-American Exodus theology to extent that McClure does here. Similarly, his reading of the impact of Catholic theology upon DeLillo’s fiction helpfully illuminates his emphasis on this-worldly grace in works like The Names and White Noise.
For me, however, the most fascinating but also dissatisfying aspect of Partial Faiths is its exploration of the political ramifications of postsecularism. According to McClure, postsecular authors often link their weakened spirituality to a specific vision of political praxis, one that envisages spiritual seekers gathering together into disparate “communities of resistance,” dedicated to “local efforts at survival, self-transformation, and face-to-face service” (20). Prominent examples are the martial-arts Buddhist community in Pynchon’s Vineland, the post-emancipation African-American community in Morrison’s Beloved, and the various Native-American communities in Momaday, Silko, and Erdrich. These communities are postsecular responses to the collapse of secular leftism, and they eschew the totalizing historical narratives that subtend Marxist and liberal ideologies. Instead, they embrace a neomonastic politics that consists of retreating from the secular empire in order to cultivate spiritual ways of being. Indeed, McClure highlights the prevalence of monastic motifs in contemporary fiction; a startling range of texts feature abandoned or ruined convents and monasteries within which postsecular communities like the battered women in Morrison’s Paradise and the war weary survivors in Ondaatje’s The English Patient congregate. For McClure, these communities invoke implicit and explicit parallels between the present day and the collapse of classical civilization. Political resistance, these novels suggest, “no longer takes the form of a continued struggle for reform or revolution along conventional lines. Instead, it entails a surrender of dreams of imminent large-scale social transformation, a rejection of conventional political devotions to nation or cause, and a quasi-monastic commitment to deep reflection, disciplined self-transformation, and the nurturing of alternative communities” (165-166).
This political vision is familiar enough. It is the politics of the 1960s counterculture, in its reaction against the progressivism of the Old Left. In a world dominated by Them, The Firm, a (singular, submerged) “Counterforce,” and numerous other “We” and “They” systems in Gravity’s Rainbow and other post-1968 novels, the politics of neomonastic withdrawal that McClure describes seems like an attractive option. Indeed, one of the salutary aspects of McClure’s study is the extent to which it highlights the ongoing appeal of this politics for contemporary literary intellectuals. This millenarian politics, however, has a limited applicability outside of the work of writers and critics working in the shadow of the counterculture and New Left. It is at odds with the politics of most liberal and left-wing religious movements, such as liberation theology, Christian socialism, and Social Gospel. These movements embrace a combination of spiritualism and secularism similar to that which McClure discovers in contemporary fiction. However, they are much more interested in the pragmatics of social work and community organizing than in imagining contemplative retreats from secular modernity. The nexus of politically-engaged postsecularism in the United States and Canada does not lie in the kind of anti-organizational politics that pervades post-World War II literature and institutionalized literary criticism. Rather, it lies in the constitutive connection between liberal religion and the now faltering welfare state.
Nevertheless, Partial Faiths, much more so than From Modernism to Postmodernism, encourages us to reorganize the conceptual categories through which we approach contemporary fiction. Above all else, it successfully challenges secular critics to grapple with the various forms of religiosity that pervade U.S. culture.
Hoffmann, Gerhard. From Modernism to Postmodernism: Concepts and Strategies of Postmodern American Fiction. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005.
McClure, John. Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 2007.
McHale, Brian. “What Was Postmodernism?” electronic book review 20 Dec. 2007. 20 June 2008