29. The postmodern
Since this book does not attempt to introduce different critical schools or historical periods of literature, it may seem inappropriate to include a chapter on the postmodern. In the following pages, however, we wish to suggest that this topic provides us with an invaluable set of terms for thinking about literary and other cultural texts, that to a significant degree it involves ways of thinking which are unavoidable in the twenty-first century. The word ‘postmodern’ itself seems odd, paradoxically evoking what is after (‘post’) the contemporary (‘modern’). How can something be after the contemporary? In this respect, in as much as they are confronting the importance of paradox in relation to the contemporary study of literature, other chapters in this book are also dealing with the postmodern. But this paradox of the time of the postmodern also points to the fact that, strictly speaking, the postmodern should not be thought of as a term of periodization: the postmodern challenges our thinking about time, challenges us to see the present in the past, the future in the present, the present in a kind of no-time.
No doubt all periodizing terms (the Renaissance, the early modern period, the Romantic period, and so on) resist definition, but there is perhaps something additionally resistant, peculiar and (for many) maddening about the ‘postmodern’. Indeed, the postmodern appears to welcome and embrace a thinking of itself in terms of multiplicity. It resists the totalizing gesture of a metalanguage, the attempt to describe it as a set of coherent explanatory theories. Rather than trying to explain it in terms of a fixed philosophical position or as a kind of knowledge, we shall instead present a ‘postmodern vocabulary’ in order to suggest its mobile, fragmented and paradoxical nature.
The postmodern 249
A postmodern vocabulary
Undecidability involves the impossibility of deciding between two or more competing interpretations. As we point out in Chapter 18, classical logic is founded on the law of non-contradiction: something cannot be both A and not A at the same time. The postmodern gives particular emphasis to ways in which this law may be productively questioned or suspended. A classical example of this is the Cretan liar paradox. If someone says ‘I am a liar’, how can we tell if that person is lying or not? Our ability to make a decision about the validity of such a statement is, at least temporarily, suspended. According to classical logic, the Cretan liar paradox is an isolated and particular instance of a paradoxical statement. For the postmodern, by contrast, the suspension of the law of non-contradiction is endemic. In the postmodern, all absolute values – such as the traditional values of God, Truth, Reason, the Law and so on – become sites of questioning, of rethinking, of new kinds of affirmation. The postmodern, that is to say, does not simply reject the possibility of making decisions. Rather, it gives new attention to the value of the undecidable. What the new critics of the middle of the twentieth century called ambiguity or paradox is now considered in terms of undecidability. The difference is that for the new critics literary texts tended to exploit the polysemic potential of language to create a unified whole in which ambiguity produced an enriching of the text’s final unity. For postmodern critics, by contrast, undecidability radically undermines the very principle of unity: these critics celebrate multiplicity, heterogeneity, difference. Undecidability splits the text, disorders it. Undecidability dislodges the principle of a single final meaning in a literary text. It haunts. As Derrida puts it, there is no decision, nor any kind of moral or political responsibility, that is not haunted by the ‘experience and experiment of the undecidable’ (Derrida 1988, 116).
A new enlightenment
Theorists of the postmodern are drawn into that exhilarating as well as terrifying...
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