The Politics of Postmodernism









General editor’s preface vii

Acknowledgements ix


1 Representing the postmodern 1

What is postmodernism? 1

Representation and its politics 2

Whose postmodernism? 11

Postmodernity, postmodernism, and modernism 23


2 Postmodernist representation 31

De-naturalizing the natural 31

Photographic discourse 43

Telling stories: fiction and history 47


3 Re-presenting the past 62


‘Total history’ de-totalized




vi The Politics of Postmodernism


Knowing the past in the present 70


The archive as text 79

4 The politics of parody 93


Parodic postmodern representation 93


Double-coded politics 101


Postmodern film? 107


5 Text/image border tensions 118

The paradoxes of photography 118

The ideological arena of photo-graphy 124

The politics of address 134


6 Postmodernism and feminisms 141

Politicizing desire 142

Feminist postmodernist parody 151

The private and the public 160


Concluding note: some directed reading 169


Bibliography 171


Index 189




General editor’s preface



How can we recognise or deal with the new? Any equipment we bring to the

task will have been designed to engage with the old: it will look for and

identify extensions and developments of what we already know. To some

degree the unprecedented will always be unthinkable.


The New Accents series has made its own wary negotiation around that

paradox, turning it, over the years, into the central concern of a continuing

project. We are obliged, of course, to be bold. Change is our proclaimed

business, innovation our announced quarry, the accents of the future the

language in which we deal. So we have sought, and still seek, to confront and

respond to those developments in literary studies that seem crucial aspects

of the tidal waves of transformation that continue to sweep across our

culture. Areas such as structuralism, post-structuralism, feminism, marxism,

semiotics, subculture, deconstruction, dialogism, postmodernism, and the

new attention to the nature and modes of language, politics and way of life

that these bring, have already been the primary concern of a large number of

our volumes. Their ‘nuts and bolts’ exposition of the issues at stake in new

ways of writing texts and new ways of reading them has proved an effective

stratagem against perplexity.


But the question of what ‘texts’ are or may be has also become more and

more complex. It is not just the impact of the electronic modes of commu





viii The Politics of Postmodernism


nication, such as computer networks and data banks, that has forced us to

revise our sense of the sort of material to which the process called ‘reading’

may apply. Satellite television and supersonic travel have eroded the traditional

capacities of time and space to confirm prejudice, reinforce ignorance,

and conceal significant difference. Ways of life and cultural practices of

which we had barely heard can now be set compellingly beside – can even

confront – our own. The effect is to make us ponder the culture we have

inherited; to see it, perhaps for the first time, as an intricate, continuing

construction. And that means that we can also begin to see, and to question,

those arrangements of foregrounding and backgrounding, of stressing and

repressing, of placing at the centre and of restricting to the periphery, that

give our own way of life its distinctive character.


Small wonder if, nowadays, we frequently find ourselves at the boundaries

of the precedented and at the limit of the thinkable: peering into an

abyss out of which there begin to lurch awkwardly-formed monsters with

unaccountable – yet unavoidable – demands on our attention. These may

involve unnerving styles of narrative, unsettling notions of ‘history’,

unphilosophical ideas about ‘philosophy’, even un-childish views of ‘comics’,

to say nothing of a host of barely respectable activities for which we

have no reassuring names.


In this situation, straightforward elucidation, careful unpicking, informative

bibliographies, can offer positive help, and each New Accents volume

will continue to include these. But if the project of closely scrutinising the

new remains nonetheless a disconcerting one, there are still overwhelming

reasons for giving it all the consideration we can muster. The unthinkable,

after all, is that which covertly shapes our thoughts.









This book should probably be entitled Re-presenting Postmodernism, for it

literally presents once again certain core notions about the postmodern that

I first developed in different contexts and with a different focus in two

earlier studies – A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (1988)

and The Canadian Postmodern: A Study of Contemporary English–Canadian

Fiction (1988). But what was missing from both these books is the

subject of this one: that is, a general introductory overview of both

postmodernism and its politics and an investigation of their challenges to

the notion of representation in the verbal and visual arts.


In the other books, I always thanked my spouse, Michael Hutcheon,

last, but this time my debt to him must be acknowledged from the start, for

he is in a very real sense responsible for this work: his talent as a photographer

and his abiding interest in photography as an art form and a semiotic

practice provide the background for this entire book. In addition, his continued

support and enthusiasm, his critical acumen and his fine sense of humor

and his aequinimitas have never been more welcome. To him therefore go

my deepest gratitude and affection.


Because of the cumulative nature of this study, I feel I ought also to thank

once again all those I have already mentioned by name in the first two books


– all those colleagues, students, and friends, all those artists, critics, and



x The Politics of Postmodernism


theorists who have contributed to my understanding of postmodernism and

to the sheer enjoyment I have experienced working on these projects. I hope

they will accept one more time my thanks, this time collectively.


A special debt is owed to Terry Hawkes whose idea this book was and

whose wit, warmth, and wisdom make him the fine editor and critic he is. To

Janice Price, as always, my sincerest thanks for her unfailing confidence and

friendship. Finally I must express my gratitude to the Isaac Walton Killam

Foundation of the Canada Council whose Research Fellowship (1986–8)

enabled this and the other books to be written: the generosity and faith the

foundation shows toward its fellows makes scholarly work particularly



Some of the ideas in this book have appeared elsewhere in print, though

usually with a very different focus, depending on the occasion and the state

of development of the ideas at the time of writing. I would like to thank the

editors and publishers of the following journals and collections of essays for

their support of work in progress: Texte; Signature: A Journal of Theory

and Canadian Literature; Style (special issue editor: Mieke Bal); Canadian

Review of Comparative Literature (special issue editor: Alain Goldschlager);

Quarterly Review of Film and Video (ed. Ronald Gottesman); Bulletin of the

Humanities Institute at Stony Brook (ed. E. Ann Kaplan); Postmodernism

(ed. Hans Bertens, London: Macmillan); Intertextuality (ed. Heinrich F. Plett,

Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter).


Special thanks go to the early audiences who helped me refine these ideas

through their acute and discerning responses and to those who invited me to

speak at their conferences or universities: SUNY-Stony Brook (E. Ann

Kaplan); University of Western Ontario (Martin Kreiswirth); Queen’s

University (Clive Thomson); Toronto Semiotic Circle (Ian Lancashire);

Victoria College (Barbara Havercroft) and University College (Hans de

Groot), University of Toronto; International Summer Institute for Semiotic

and Structural Studies (Paul Bouissac); McMaster University (Nina


Kolesnikoff); American Comparative Literature Association (Daniel Javitch).




Representing the postmodern


What is postmodernism?


Few words are more used and abused in discussions of contemporary culture

than the word ‘postmodernism.’ As a result, any attempt to define the word

will necessarily and simultaneously have both positive and negative

dimensions. It will aim to say what postmodernism is but at the same time it

will have to say what it is not. Perhaps this is an appropriate condition, for

postmodernism is a phenomenon whose mode is resolutely contradictory as

well as unavoidably political.


Postmodernism manifests itself in many fields of cultural endeavor –

architecture, literature, photography, film, painting, video, dance, music,

and elsewhere. In general terms it takes the form of self-conscious, selfcontradictory,

self-undermining statement. It is rather like saying something

whilst at the same time putting inverted commas around what is being said.

The effect is to highlight, or ‘highlight,’ and to subvert, or ‘subvert,’ and the

mode is therefore a ‘knowing’ and an ironic – or even ‘ironic’ – one.

Postmodernism’s distinctive character lies in this kind of wholesale

‘nudging’ commitment to doubleness, or duplicity. In many ways it is an




2 The Politics of Postmodernism


even-handed process because postmodernism ultimately manages to install

and reinforce as much as undermine and subvert the conventions and

presuppositions it appears to challenge. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to

say that the postmodern’s initial concern is to de-naturalize some of the

dominant features of our way of life; to point out that those entities that we

unthinkingly experience as ‘natural’ (they might even include capitalism,

patriarchy, liberal humanism) are in fact ‘cultural’; made by us, not given to

us. Even nature, postmodernism might point out, doesn’t grow on trees.


This kind of definition may seem to run counter to the majority of those

discussed in the opening chapter of this book. But its roots lie in the sphere

in which the term ‘postmodern’ first found general usage: architecture. And

there we find a further contradiction. It is one which juxtaposes and gives

equal value to the self-reflexive and the historically grounded: to that which

is inward-directed and belongs to the world of art (such as parody) and that

which is outward-directed and belongs to ‘real life’ (such as history). The

tension between these apparent opposites finally defines the paradoxically

worldly texts of postmodernism. And it sparks, just as powerfully, their no

less real, if ultimately compromised politics. Indeed it is their compromised

stance which makes those politics recognizable and familiar to us. After all,

their mode – that of complicitous critique – is for the most part our own.


Representation and its politics


A decade or so ago a German writer stated: ‘I cannot keep politics out of the

question of post-modernism’ (Muller 1979: 58). Nor should he. The

intervening years have shown that politics and postmodernism have made

curious, if inevitable, bedfellows. For one thing, the debates on the definition

and evaluation of the postmodern have been conducted largely in political –

and negative – terms: primarily neoconservative (Newman 1985; Kramer

1982) and neoMarxist (Eagleton 1985; Jameson 1983, 1984a). Others on the

left (Caute 1972; Russell 1985) have seen, instead, its radical political

potential, if not actuality, while feminist artists and theorists haveresisted the




Representing the postmodern 3


incorporation of their work into postmodernism for fear of recuperation and

the attendant de-fusing of their own political agendas.


While these debates will not be the main focus of this study, they do form

its unavoidable background. This is not so much a book about the

representation of politics as aninvestigation of what postmodern theorist and

photographer Victor Burgin calls the ‘politics of representation’ (Burgin

1986b: 85). Roland Barthes once claimed that it is impossible to represent

the political, for it resists all mimetic copying. Rather, he said, ‘where

politics begins is where imitation ceases’ (Barthes 1977b: 154). And this is

where the self-reflexive, parodic art of the postmodern comes in, underlining

in its ironic way the realization that all cultural forms of representation –

literary, visual, aural – in high art or the mass media are ideologically

grounded, that they cannot avoid involvement with social and political

relations and apparatuses (Burgin 1986b: 55).


In saying this, I realize that I am going against a dominant trend in

contemporary criticism that asserts that the postmodern is disqualified from

political involvement because of its narcissistic and ironic appropriation of

existing images and stories and its seemingly limited accessibility – to those

who recognize the sources of parodic appropriation and understand the

theory that motivates it. But, what this study of the forms and politics of

postmodern representation aims to show is that such a stand is probably

politically naive and, in fact, quite impossible to take in the light of the actual

art of postmodernism. Postmodern art cannot but be political, at least in the

sense that its representations – its images and stories – are anything but

neutral, however ‘aestheticized’ they may appear to be in their parodic selfreflexivity.

While the postmodern has no effective theory of agency that

enables a move into political action, it does work to turn its inevitable

ideological grounding into a site of de-naturalizing critique. To adapt

Barthes’s general notion of the ‘doxa’ as public opinion or the ‘Voice of

Nature’ and consensus (Barthes 1977b: 47), postmodernism works to ‘dedoxify’

our cultural representations and their undeniable political import.


Umberto Eco has written that he considers postmodern ‘the orientation of

anyone who has learned the lesson of Foucault, i.e., that power is not

something unitary that exists outside us’ (in Rosso 1983: 4). He might well




4 The Politics of Postmodernism


have added to this, as others have, the lessons learned from Derrida about

textuality and deferral, or from Vattimo and Lyotard about intellectual

mastery and its limits. In other words, it is difficult to separate the ‘dedoxifying’

impulse of postmodern art and culture from the deconstructing

impulse of what we have labelled poststructuralist theory. A symptom of this

inseparability can be seen in the way in which postmodern artists and critics

speak about their ‘discourses’ – by which they mean to signal the

inescapably political contexts in which they speak and work. When

discourse is defned as the ‘system of relations between parties engaged in

communicative activity’ (Sekula 1982: 84), it points to politically uninnocent

things – like the expectation of shared meaning – and it does so

within a dynamic social context that acknowledges the inevitability of the

existence of power relations in any social relations. As one postmodern

theorist has put it: ‘Postmodern aesthetic experimentation should be viewed

as having an irreducible political dimension. It is inextricably bound up with

a critique of domination’ (Wellbery 1985: 235).


Yet, it must be admitted from the start that this is a strange kind of critique,

one bound up, too, with its own complicity with power and domination, one

that acknowledges that it cannot escape implication in that which it

nevertheless still wants to analyze and maybe even undermine. The

ambiguities of this kind of position are translated into both the content and

the form of postmodern art, which thus at once purveys and challenges

ideology – but always self-consciously. The untraditional ‘political’ novels

of Gunter Grass, E.L. Doctorow, or any number of Latin American writers

today are good examples. So too is Nigel Williams’s Star Turn in which we

find a simultaneous inscription and ‘de-doxification’ of both bourgeois and

Marxist notions of class. The working-class narrator, Amos Barking, likes to

hide his class origins: he goes by the name of Henry Swansea at work (in the

wartime Ministry of Information). The novel takes place in 1945, however,

a year in which, as Amos ironically notes, ‘all working-class people are

alleged to beheroes (perhaps because they are being killed in extremely large

numbers)’ (Williams 1985: 15).


This novel never lets its readers forget the issue of class; it never lets us

avoid the (often unacknowledged) class assumptions we might possess.




Representing the postmodern 5


While a number of historical personages – Marcel Proust, Douglas Haig,

Sigmund Freud – are presented as (acceptably) mad (thanks to their

protective class identities), Amos announces:


Difficult as it may seem to you, dear reader, there are probably still people  

out there in the East End of London quite unaware that, when worn down  

by the problems of the world, a quick and simple solution is often to lie on  

a couch and talk about one’s mother to a highly qualified stranger. In 1927 

in the Whitechapel area, if you allowed the world to get you down, you  

tended to go and jump under a bus – still a popular option for members of 

the working class foolish enough to opt for neurosis.  

(Williams 1985: 203)


But what is most obviously postmodern about the politics of this novel’s

mode of representation is that it does not stop at an analysis of class

difference: race is shown to enter into complicity with class on both the

formal and the thematic levels of the novel. The plot action revolves around

Isaac Rabinowitz, the Jewish boy who wants to be known as Tom Shadbolt,

all-English lad, and who ends up (ironically and tragically) as a stand-in

look-alike for the fascist and racist Oswald Mosley. Not only are fiction and

history mixed here in what I will argue to be a typically postmodern way, but

class and race and nationality as well. Difference and ex-centricity replace

homogeneity and centrality as the foci of postmodern social analysis. But

even this focus on the ‘marginal’ gets called into question in this selfundercutting



Amos calls England a ‘complacent, marginal little kingdom’ (Williams

1985: 17) and its marginality and complacency mirror his own: he witnesses

the First World War from the sidelines; he meets D.H. Lawrence, Marcel

Proust, Virginia Woolf, Freud, Churchill, Goebbels, Lord Haw Haw

(William Joyce), but somehow always remains peripheral to history.

Fittingly, he spends the Second World War at home cynically writing

propaganda. When he is forced to witness the firebombing of Dresden, his

first reaction, not surprisingly, is evasion:




6 The Politics of Postmodernism


Don’t think just because I’m British, Anglo-Saxon and the rest of it that I  

am party to allthat. I’m notresponsible for English history,thank you very  

much. I don’t actually like very much in this rotten little island, including,  

as it happens, the present war.  

(Williams 1985: 304–5)


Itis his German Jewish boss, however, who refuses to let him avoid public

responsibility, attacking him for feeling he has the liberty (and luxury) in a

democracy to decide what is true and what is not (such as the concentration

camps). He derides Amos’s contempt of history and tries to show him the real

pain and atrocity of war: ‘You’re a typical Englishman. . . . You’ve a

marvellous talent for hypocrisy. You have a way with language that spells

away your true feelings’ (Williams 1985: 306). The overt self-consciousness

about language and (hi)story-writing in the novel is tied directly to the

political, as Amos is taught that ‘[y]ou can’t hide behind your country and

abuse it at the same time, any more than you can dodge history’ (307). And

not dodging history would mean taking into account class, race, gender, and

nationality. It would mean de-naturalizing English social assumptions about



This is the kind of novel – both historical and self-reflexive – that enacts

yet another of the ambiguities of the postmodern position. This paradoxical

mixing of seeming opposites often results in its representations – be they

fictive or historical – being offered as overtly politicized, as inevitably

ideological. The conceptual grounding of such a postmodern view of the

politics of representation can be found in many theories today. In fact there

exists a journal, boundary 2, which clearly sees theory, postmodernism, and

politics as being at the very heart of its agenda. However, the single most

influential theoretical statement on the topic might well be Louis Althusser’s

much cited notion of ideology both as a system of representation and as a

necessary and unavoidable part of every social totality (Althusser 1969:

231–2). Both points are important to any discussion of postmodernism and,

indeed, inform the theoretical orientation of this book.


While it may indeed be the case that criticism in the literary and visual arts

has traditionally been based on foundations that are expressive (artist





Representing the postmodern 7


oriented), mimetic (world-imitative), or formalist (art as object), the impact

of feminist, gay, Marxist, black, postcolonial, and poststructuralist theory

has meant the addition of something else to these historical foundations and

has effected a kind of merger of their concerns, but now with a new focus: the

investigation of the social and ideological production of meaning. From this

perspective what we call ‘culture’ is seen as the effect of representations, not

their source. Yet, from another point of view, western capitalist culture has

also shown an amazing power to normalize (or ‘doxify’) signs and images,

however disparate (or contesting) they may be. The work of Jean-Francois

Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard has zeroed in on the socio-economics of our

production and reproduction of signs. These studies have been influential in

our understanding of postmodern culture. But it is specifically the politics of

postmodern representation – the ideological values and interests that inform

any representation – that will be the main focus of this book.


Underlying this notion of a postmodern process of cultural ‘dedoxification’

is a theoretical position that seems to assert that we can only

know the world through ‘a network of socially established meaning systems,

the discourses of our culture’ (Russell 1980: 183). And indeed I have chosen

to concentratehere ontwo art forms which most self-consciously foreground

precisely this awareness of the discursive and signifying nature of cultural

knowledge and they do so by raising the question of the supposed

transparency of representation. These are fiction and photography, the two

forms whose histories are firmly rooted in realist representation but which,

since their reinterpretation in modernist formalist terms, are now in a

position to confront both their documentary and formal impulses. This is the

confrontation that I shall be calling postmodernist: where documentary

historical actuality meets formalist self-reflexivity and parody. At this

conjuncture, a study of representation becomes, not a study of mimetic

mirroring or subjective projecting, but an exploration of the way in which

narratives and images structure how we see ourselves and how we construct

our notions of self, in the present and in the past.


Of course, the postmodern return both to figuration in painting and to

narrative in avant-garde film has had an important impact on the question of

representation in photography and fiction in recent years. Feminist theory




8 The Politics of Postmodernism


and practice have also problematized the same issue, pointing to the

construction of gender as both the effect and the ‘excess’ of representation

(de Lauretis 1987: 3). Less obvious, perhaps, but just as significant to

postmodernism have been the current debates about the nature and politics

of representation in history-writing (LaCapra 1985, 1987; White 1973,

1978b, 1987). Of course many other factors must be taken into account, but

generally speaking, the postmodern appears to coincide with a general

cultural awareness of the existence and power of systems of representation

which do not reflect society so much as grant meaning and value within a

particular society.


However, if we believe current social scientific theory, there is a paradox

involved in this awareness. On the one hand, there is a sense that we can never

get out from under the weight of a long tradition of visual and narrative

representations and, on the other hand, we also seem to be losing faith in both

the inexhaustibility and the power of those existing representations. And

parody is often the postmodern form this particular paradox takes. By both

using and ironically abusing general conventions and specific forms of

representation, postmodern art works to de-naturalize them, giving what

Rosalind Krauss has called the strange sense of ‘loosening the glue by which

labels used to adhere to the products of convention’ (Krauss 1979: 121). I am

not referring here to the kind of ahistorical kitsch seen in some New York or

Toronto restaurants or at Disneyland; rather, the postmodern parody in the

work of Salman Rushdie or Angela Carter or Manuel Puig has become one

of the means by which culture deals with both its social concerns and its

aesthetic needs – and the two are not unrelated.


A slight detour is in order before proceeding, because I do not want to give

the impression that representation is not problematized by other forms of

postmodern art. As the next section will show, I want to model

postmodernism in general on the example of postmodern architecture, where

it is not just the representation of the historical past of architectural styles that

gets de-naturalized, but also, e.g. in the work of Lars Lerup, even the

representational notions of ‘house’ and the (North American) economic and

social structures that engender them. Those social concerns and aesthetic

needs once again come together in an interrogation of the ideology of the




Representing the postmodern 9


stable family unit and of the ‘built as the vehicle of referentiality’ (Lerup

1987: 99).


Much has been written about postmodernism in architecture (see

bibliography entries on Jencks and Portoghesi) and of course the term

‘postmodern’ itself has been extended to cover most other art forms, as

shown best by Stanley Trachtenberg’s useful anthology of studies, The

Postmodern Moment: A Handbook of Contemporary Innovation in the Arts.

In some art forms, such as film, the word postmodern is often restricted to

avant-garde production. But, given the relative inaccessibility of such films

for general viewing, perhaps we should not ignore those commercial films

that are nevertheless quite deconstructive, quite parodic yet historically

grounded – films like Zelig, The Mozart Brothers, or Marlene – for they

could be said to illustrate just as well the paradox of postmodern

complicitous critique. This is not to deny that feminist avant-garde film, in

particular, is not equally (or more) parodically contesting. We need only

think of the miming of Kleist’s play in Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey’s

Penthesilea or Sally Potter’s retelling of La Boheme in her Thriller. This is

simply a plea to widen the scope of the term postmodernism in film studies,

in order to include, for instance, the sorts of things which (under the

influence, perhaps, of performance art) are considered postmodern in dance:

‘irony, playfulness, historical reference, the use of vernacular materials, the

continuity of cultures, an interest in process over product, breakdowns of

boundaries between art forms and between art and life, and new relationships

between artist and audience’ (Banes 1985: 82).


(See chapter 4.)


‘Postmodern’ is a term that is not used very often in music criticism, yet

there are analogies between postmodern architecture or dance and

contemporary music: in music too we find a stress on communication with

the audience through simple repetitive harmonies (offered in complex

rhythmic forms) in the work of Phil Glass or through a parodic return to

tonality and to the past of music, not as a source of embarrassment or

inspiration, but with ironic distance, as in the work of Lukas Foss or Luciano

Berio. What I shall argue to be typically postmodern genre-boundary

crossings can also be found in music: Phil Glass’s The Photographer is a




10 The Politics of Postmodernism


dramatic musical piece on the life and work of photographer Eadweard

Muybridge. And, going in another direction, his ‘cross-over’ Songs from

Liquid Days is both a song cycle and a pop album. Much of what might be

called postmodern music requires of its listeners a certain theoretical

sophistication and historical memory. So too does the postmodern poetry of

John Ashbery and others. There are other art forms that operate more directly

(if equally self-consciously) on the representations of mass culture which

surround us daily, such as the plays of Sam Shepard.


The one medium that is consistently referred to as postmodern, however,

is television. Jean Baudrillard calls it the paradigmatic form of postmodern

signification because its transparent sign seemingly offers direct access to a

signified reality. While there is some truth in this description, its relation to

postmodernism as I see it is tangential. Most television, in its

unproblematized reliance on realist narrative and transparent

representational conventions, is pure commodified complicity, without the

critique needed to define the postmodern paradox. That critique, I will argue,

is crucial to the definition of the postmodern, whatever its acknowledged

complicity; it is part of what some see as the unfinished project of the 1960s



for, at the very least, those years left in their wake a specific and historically

determined distrust of ideologies of power and a more general suspicion of

the power of ideology.


The word ‘postmodernism’ has been bandied about in artistic circles

since the 1960s, of course, most often used too generally and vaguely to be

very useful, encompassing things as diverse as Susan Sontag’s camp, Leslie

Fiedler’s pop, and Ihab Hassan’s literature of silence. Gerald Graff has

distinguished two strains in the 1960s’ version of ‘postmodernism’ – one of

apocalyptic despair and another of visionary celebration. But the

postmodernism of the 1970s and 1980s offers little cause for either despair

or celebration; it does leave a lot of room for questioning. Deriving its


ideological grounding from a general 1960s ’ challenging of authority and its

historical consciousness (and conscience) from the inscription into history

of women and ethnic/racial minorities during those years, today’s

postmodernism is both interrogative in mode and ‘de-doxifying’ in intent.




Representing the postmodern 11


But, less oppositional and less idealistic than the culture of the (formative)

1960s, the postmodern we know has to acknowledge its own complicity with

the very values upon which it seeks to comment.

But what exactly is this ‘postmodern we know?’


Whose postmodernism?


In his book, Postmodernist Fiction, Brian McHale points out that every critic

‘constructs’ postmodernism in his or her own way from different

perspectives, none more right or wrong than the others. The point is that all

are ‘finally fictions.’ He goes on to say:


Thus, there is John Barth’s postmodernism, the literature of

replenishment; Charles Newman’s postmodernism, the literature of an

inflationary economy; Jean-Francois Lyotard’s postmodernism, a

general condition of knowledge in the contemporary informational

regime; Ihab Hassan’s postmodernism, a stage on the road to the spiritual

unification of humankind; and so on. There is even Kermode’s

construction of postmodernism, which in effect constructs it right out of



(McHale 1987: 4)


To this, we could add McHale’s postmodernism, with its ontological

‘dominant’ in reaction to the epistemological ‘dominant’ of modernism. But

we should also include Fredric Jameson’s postmodernism, the cultural logic

of late capitalism; Jean Baudrillard’s postmodernism, in which the

simulacrum gloats over the body of the deceased referent; Kroker and

Cook’s (related) hyperreal dark side of postmodernism; Sloterdijk’s

postmodernism of cynicism or ‘enlightened false consciousness’; and Alan

Wilde’s literary ‘middle grounds’ of the postmodern.


As you will no doubt have noticed, since the prefatory note there is

another fiction or construct operating here too: my own paradoxical

postmodernism of complicity and critique, of reflexivity and historicity, that

at once inscribes and subverts the conventions and ideologies of the




12 The Politics of Postmodernism


dominant cultural and social forces of the twentieth-century western world.

My model for this definition is always that of postmodern architecture and

its response to the ahistorical purism of the modernism of the International

Style. Modernism may have begun as an ideological rejection of the

historical city because of the dominant class view of territoriality and of

history as hierarchical, but its deliberate break with history meant a

destruction of the connection to the way human society had come to relate to

space over time. Along with this came a rupture of the relations between

public street and private space. All this was intentional, but it also proved to

be politically naive and even socially destructive: Le Corbusier’s great

radiant city became Jane Jacobs’s great dead city. Postmodernism has called

into question the messianic faith of modernism, the faith that technical

innovation and purity of form can assure social order, even if that faith

disregards the social and aesthetic values of those who must inhabit those

modernist buildings. Postmodern architecture is plural and historical, not

pluralist and historicist; it neither ignores nor condemns the long heritage of

its built culture – including the modern. It uses the reappropriated forms of

the past to speak to a society from within the values and history of that

society, while still questioning it. It is in this way that its historical

representations, however parodic, get politicized.


To make this claim is not to deny the all too evident, trendy commercial

exploitation of these postmodern parodic strategies in contemporary design:

hardly a shopping plaza or office building gets constructed today that does

not have a classical keystone or column. These usually vague and unfocused

references to the past should be distinguished from the motivated historical

echoes found, for example, in Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia, intended as a

center for the Italian community of New Orleans: to signal ‘Italianness’

Moore respectfully parodied the Trevi Fountain, Roman classical arches,

even the geographical shape of the country itself, transcoding their historical

forms into contemporary materials (neon, stainless steel) as befits a

symbolic representation of modern Italian–American society. No doubt

Douglas Davis (1987) is right to deplore the existence of those kitschy

shopping plazas or even the gratuitous (or unconsciously ironic?)

architectural citations of the Acropolis and the Vatican in a (Kohn Pedersen




Representing the postmodern 13


Fox) Madison Avenue office complex. But we should not forget that this

commodification (anddemotivating) of postmodern strategies was preceded

by the same watering-down of heroic modern ideals by what could be called

‘corporate modernism.’ Such is life in advanced capitalist culture. But the

inevitability of commercial co-option should still not invalidate the aims and

successes of either modernism or postmodernism. Nor should it excuse their



However our culture may eventually come to evaluate postmodern

architecture, it certainly began and has continued to be seen by many as

politically inspired. The only disagreement is over the direction of its

politics: is it neoconservatively nostalgic or is it radically revolutionary?

Modeling postmodernism as a general cultural enterprise from postmodern

architecture, I would have to argue that it is both and neither: it sits on the

fence between a need (often ironic) to recall the past of our lived cultural

environment and a desire (often ironized too) to change its present. In Anne

Friedberg’s parodic terms, there is here a paradox worthy of Dickens: ‘it was

conservative politics, it was subversive politics, it was the return of tradition,

it was the final revolt of tradition, it was the unmooring of patriarchy, it was

the reassertion of patriarchy’ (Friedberg 1988: 12). This is the paradox of art

forms that want to (or feel they have to) speak to a culture from inside it, that

believe this to be the only way to reach that culture and make it question its

values and its self-constructing representations. Postmodernism aims to be

accessible through its overt and self-conscious parodic, historical, and

reflexive forms and thus to be an effective force in our culture. Its

complicitous critique, then, situates the postmodern squarely within both

economic capitalism and cultural humanism – two of the major dominants

of much of the western world.


What these two dominants have in common, as many have pointed out,

are their patriarchal underpinnings. They also share a view of the relation of

the individual to the social whole which is rather contradictory, to say the

least. In the context of humanism, the individual is unique and autonomous,

yet also partakes of that general human essence, human nature. In a capitalist

context, as Adorno argued, the pretence of individualism (and thus, of

choice) is in fact proportional to the ‘liquidation of the individual’ (Adorno




14 The Politics of Postmodernism


1978: 280) in mass manipulation, carried out, of course, in the name of

democratic ideals – the masks of conformity. If, as is frequently the case,

postmodernism is identified with a ‘decentering’ of this particular notion of

the individual, then both humanist and capitalist notions of selfhood or

subjectivity will necessarily be called into question. But I have been arguing

that the postmodern involves a paradoxical installing as well as subverting

of conventions – including conventions of the representation of the subject.

The complicitous inscribing is as evident as the subverting challenge in, for

example, Cindy Sherman’s early self-posed self-portraits modeled on

Hollywood film stills. They are considerably less complicitous than

Madonna’s appropriation of the same (masculine-coded) images in her selfconstruction,

in that Sherman’s images foreground femininity as

construction and even masquerade (Friedberg 1988), but they are hardly

innocent or uncompromised.


Recently the same kind of questions about the complicity that goes hand

in hand with the challenges of postmodern art have been asked of

postmodern theory. Is the theorizing of Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Foucault,

and others not, in a very real sense, entangled in its own de-doxifying logic?

Is there not a center to even the most decentered of these theories? What is

power to Foucault, writing to Derrida, or class to Marxism? Each of these

theoretical perspectives can be argued to be deeply – and knowingly –

implicated in that notion of center they attempt to subvert. It is this paradox

that makes them postmodern. Teresa de Lauretis has put the case of the

feminist version of this paradox in terms of the ‘subject of feminism,’ as it is

being constructed in feminist discourse today, being both inside and outside

the ideology of gender – and aware of the double pull (de Lauretis 1987: 10).

But complicity is not full affirmation or strict adherence; the awareness of

difference and contradiction, of being inside and outside, is never lost in the

feminist, as in the postmodern.


A few examples of the form this paradox can take might be helpful.

Sherrie Levine challenges the romantic/modernist notions of selfexpression,

authenticity, and originality (as well as the capitalist belief in

proprietorship) in her re-photographing of famous art photos by male artists.

However, as her critics never tire of saying, in her representations she still




Representing the postmodern 15


remains complicitous with the idea of ‘photography-as-art,’ even while

undermining both this and those attendant ideological presuppositions.

Narrative representation – fictive and historical – comes under similar

subversive scrutiny in the paradoxical postmodern form I would like to call

‘historiographic metafiction.’ Perhaps, as Lennard Davis (1987: 225) has

convincingly argued, the novel has been inherently ambivalent since its

inception: it has always been both fictional and worldly. If this is so, then

postmodern historiographic metafiction merely foregrounds this inherent

paradox by having its historical and socio-political grounding sit uneasily

alongside its self-reflexivity. Recently, many commentators have noticed an

uneasy mix of parody and history, metafiction and politics. This particular

combination is probably historically determined by postmodernism’s

conflictual response to literary modernism. On the one hand, the postmodern

obviously was made possible by the self-referentiality, irony, ambiguity, and

parody that characterize much of the art of modernism, as well as by its

explorations of language and its challenges to the classic realist system of

representation; on the other hand, postmodern fiction has come to contest the

modernist ideology of artistic autonomy, individual expression, and the

deliberate separation of art from mass culture and everyday life (Huyssen

1986: 53–4).


Postmodernism paradoxically manages to legitimize culture (high and

mass) even as it subverts it. It is this doubleness that avoids the danger

Jameson (1985: 52) sees in the subverting or deconstructing impulse

operating alone: that is, the danger (for the critic) of the illusion of critical

distance. It is the function of irony in postmodern discourse to posit that

critical distance and then undo it. It is also this doubleness that prevents any

possible critical urge to ignore or trivialize historical-political questions. As

producers or receivers of postmodern art, we are all implicated in the

legitimization of our culture. Postmodern art openly investigates the critical

possibilities open to art, without denying that its critique is inevitably in the

name of its own contradictory ideology.


I have offered my definition of postmodernism here at the start because it

will unavoidably condition everything I say about postmodern

representation in this study. Many a theorist has noted the problems of saying




16 The Politics of Postmodernism


anything enlightening about postmodernism without acknowledging the

perspective from which it is said, a perspective that will inevitably be

limited, if only because it will come from within the postmodern. The

postmodern is seemingly not so much a concept as a problematic: ‘a complex

of heterogeneousbut interrelated questions which will not be silenced by any

spuriously unitary answer’ (Burgin 1986a: 163–4). The political and the

artistic are not separable in this problematic. This is not always considered a

positive, of course. For the neoconservative critic, postmodernism is

fundamentally destabilizing, a threat to the preservation of tradition (and the

status quo). But when Charles Newman in The Postmodern Aura accuses the

postmodern of fearing stability, he mistakes stability for what he himself

calls stasis. It is indeed the case that the postmodern does not advocate the

‘restoration of faith in institutions’ (Newman 1985: 107), as Newman

desires, but it refuses to do so because it must ask important questions

instead: In whose institutions will faith be restored? In whose interest will

such a restoration be? Do these institutions deserve our faith? Can they be

changed? Should they be? While postmodernism may offer no answers,

these are questions perhaps worth asking – or so goes the lesson of the 1960s.

In other words, it is not postmodernism (at least, as I have been defining it)

that masks stasis, as Newman claims (184)but rather neoconservativism –



which does so in the name of stability and tradition. This kind of confusion

of definition offers a good example of the difficulties involved in discussing

postmodernism in general: no one seems to be able to agree, not only on the

interpretation, but often on what cultural phenomena are to be interpreted.


Nevertheless, we do seem to be stuck with the word. While ‘fastidious

academics’ once shunned the term ‘postmodernism,’ as Ihab Hassan has

noted, now it has become ‘a shibboleth for tendencies in film, theater, dance,

music, art, and architecture; in literature and criticism; in philosophy,

theology, psychoanalysis, and historiography; in new sciences, cybernetic

technologies, and various cultural life styles’ (Hassan 1987: xi). The history

and complexity of the term’s usage have been carefully traced by many

scholars working in architecture, in the visual arts, in literature and criticism,

and in social and cultural studies in general (see the , p. 169). There is little

sense repeating here this fine work, just as there is little sense in trying to find




Representing the postmodern 17


a definition of postmodernism that would encompass all the varying usages

of the term. That route would only lead to further confusion and contribute

to the already apparent lack of clarity and consistency of meaning in the use

of the word. Instead this study offers an investigation of one particular

definition of postmodernism from the point of view of its politicized

challenges to the conventions of representation.


Whatever the confusion over the definition of the term, however, in terms

of evaluation there are two clearly opposed ‘camps’ in the postmodern wars:

the radically antagonistic and the provisionally supportive. The tone of the

former group ranges from sly irony to rabid rage. Curiously, this camp

encompasses the opposition of the neoconservative right, the liberal center,

and the Marxist left. However positioned politically, the objections seem to

be consistently to what are perceived as, on the one hand, the ahistoricism

and pastiched depthlessness of the postmodern and, on the other, its crossing

of boundaries of genre and discourse once considered discrete and firm.

While these objections will be addressed in specific chapters later in this

study, it should be noted here that this camp tends to see only the complicity

and never the critique – yet together these two are constitutive of the

postmodern as I have been defining it. Furthermore, as many commentators

have remarked, the often unconscious ethnocentrism and phallocentrism

(not to mention heterocentrism) of many in this camp lead to a devaluing or

ignoring of the ‘marginalized’ challenges (aesthetic and political) of the ‘excentric,’

those relegated to the fringes of the dominant culture – the women,

blacks, gays, Native Peoples, and others who have made us aware of the

politics of all – not just postmodern – representations.


The work of those provisionally or tentatively supportive of

postmodernism ranges from descriptive accounts of the postmodern in terms

of its incredulity toward grand totalizing narratives to more tendentiously

rueful acknowledgements that we are all part of the postmodern, whether we

like it or not. Few critics outside the field of architecture seem willing to be

thoroughly positive about postmodernism: its complicity always interferes

with their evaluation of the efficacy of its critique. Hal Foster deals with the

political ambivalence of the postmodern by positing two kinds: one, a

postmodernism of resistance, and the other, of reaction, one poststructuralist




18 The Politics of Postmodernism


and the other neoconservative (Foster 1985: 121). I would argue that the

postmodern enterprise actually includes both Foster’s types: it is a critique

both of the view of representation as reflective (rather than as constitutive)

of reality and of the accepted idea of ‘man’ as the centered subject of

representation; but it is also an exploitation of those same challenged

foundations of representation. Postmodern texts paradoxically point to the

opaque nature of their representational strategies and at the same time to their

complicity with the notion of the transparency of representation – a

complicity shared, of course, by anyone who pretends even to describe their

‘de-doxifying’ tactics.


Many of the disagreements about the evaluation of postmodern strategies

can be seen as the result of a denial of the doubleness of postmodernist

discourse’s politics of representation. To Alan Wilde, irony is a positive and

defining characteristic of the postmodern; to Terry Eagleton, irony is what

condemns postmodernism to triviality and kitsch. To some,

postmodernism’s inevitable implication in the high art/mass culture debate

is significant; to others, it is lamentable. To M.H. Abrams (1981: 110), the

‘irresolvable indeterminacies’ by which he defines the postmodern are

implicitly related to meaninglessness and the undermining of cultural

foundations, whereas to Ihab Hassan those same indeterminacies are part of

‘a vast, revisionary will in the Western world, unsettling/ resettling codes,

canons, procedures, beliefs’ (1987: xvi).


Despite the polarized camps in the evaluation of the postmodern, there

does seem to be some agreement about certain of its characteristics. For

example, many point to its parody and self-reflexivity; others to the opposite,

its worldliness. Some, like myself, want to argue that these two qualities coexist

in an uneasy and problematizing tension that provokes an investigation

of how we make meaning in culture, how we ‘de-doxify’ the systems of

meaning (and representation) by which we know our culture and ourselves.

The tension between the worldly and the reflexive, the historical and the

parodic, acts to remind us of ‘the historicity of textuality’ (Spanos 1987: 7).


There are other kinds of border tension in the postmodern too: the ones

created by the transgression of the boundaries between genres, between




Representing the postmodern 19


disciplines or discourses, between high and mass culture, and most

problematically, perhaps, between practice and theory. While there is

arguably never any practice without theory, an overtly theoretical

component has become a notable aspect of postmodern art, displayed within

the works themselves as well as in the artists’ statements about their work.

The postmodern artist is no longer the inarticulate, silent, alienated creator

of the romantic/modernist tradition. Nor is the theorist the dry, detached,

dispassionate writer of the academic tradition: think of Peter Sloterdijk’s

Critique of Cynical Reason with its mixture of satire, complex philosophical

discourse, aphoristic play, anecdote, and the history of ideas and of literature.


There is little doubt that a certain kind of theory has supported and even

created a certain kind of art and that the academy, art institutions, and the

publishing industry have, in part, constructed postmodernism. As an editor

of October, a curator, and a critic, Douglas Crimp has effectively defined

photographic postmodernism (Andre 1984: 18–20). But so have Victor

Burgin, Barbara Kruger, Martha Rosier, Allan Sekula, and others who both

theorize and make the photographs that I want to call postmodern. We should

perhaps also keep in mind that art has never been free of institutional

constraints and even construction – not even (or especially not) the so-called

autonomous art of modernism. We need only think of the role of New York’s

Museum of Modern Art in the promotion and validation of both abstract

expressionist painting and formalist art-photography.


Many have pointed to the recent conjuncture of postmodern art and either

poststructuralist or psychoanalytic theory, but few have noted the even more

important impact of various forms of feminism on the need to investigate the

complexity of aesthetic/political interactions on the level of representation

(see, however, Owens 1983 and Creed 1987). Given the focus of this book

on the politics of representation, a feminist perspective has proved to be

literally unavoidable. As Andreas Huyssen puts it:


The ways in which we now raise questions of gender and sexuality,

reading and writing, subjectivity and enunciation, voice and performance

are unthinkable without the impact of feminism, even though many of




20 The Politics of Postmodernism


these activities may take place on the margin or even outside the

movement proper.

(Huyssen 1986: 220)


Feminist perspectives have brought about a major shift in our ways of

thinking about culture, knowledge, and art and also about the way in which

the political impinges upon and infuses all of our thinking and acting, both

public and private.


Yet there has been considerable resistance to any identification of the

postmodern with the feminist. There has been an understandable suspicion

of the deconstructing and undermining impulse of postmodernism at a

historic moment when construction and support seem more important

agendas for women. Yet, as the work of Christa Wolf, Angela Carter, Susan

Daitch, Audrey Thomas, and Maxine Hong Kingston shows, ‘dedoxification’

is as inherently a part of feminist as it is of postmodernist

discourse. This is not to deny the gender blindness of much postmodern

writing. But many writers, from John Berger to Margaret Atwood, are set

upon investigating the perhaps unavoidable binary opposition of gender. For

example, in Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth, two historical personages – a

man and a woman, the poets Kleist and Gunderrode – are made to meet in

fictional space. Their initial perception of the gender roles they must each

fulfil differs. Kleist looks at the woman poet and sees only her security:


She is provided for, whatever that may mean; she is not compelled to  

concentrate her thoughts on the most trivial demands of everyday life. It 

seemed to him a kind of advantage that she has no choice in the matter. As 

a woman she is not placed under the law of having to achieve everything  

or to regard everything as nothing.  

(Wolf 1982: 107)


Gunderrode’s version of her fate as a woman is different:


By the age of seventeen we must have accepted our fate, which is a man,

and must learn to accept the penalty should we behave so improbably as




Representing the postmodern 21


to resist. How often I have wanted to be a man, longed for the real wounds,

to which you men expose yourselves.

(Wolf 1982: 112)


In fact, as the two poets come to realize, ‘man and woman have a hostile

relationship’ within each of them: ‘Woman. Man. Untenable words. We two,

each imprisoned in his sex’ (108). The postmodern and feminist reply to

binary oppositions as unresolvable as this one is to problematize, to

acknowledge contradiction and difference, and to theorize and actualize the

site of their representation.


In the visual arts too, feminist work has meant that representation can no

longer be considered a politically neutral and theoretically innocent activity:


The question of representation locates itself between feminism and art. It  

is an interrogation into the way the repetition inherent in cultural imagery  

(whether in visual arts, mass media, or advertising) has the particular  

ideological function of presenting and positioning ‘feminine’ or  

‘masculine’ subjectivity as stable and fixed.  

(Gagnon 1987: 116)


To accept unquestioningly such fixed representations is to condone social

systems of power which validate and authorize some images of women (or

blacks, Asians, gays, etc.) and not others. Cultural production is carried on

within a social context and an ideology – a lived value system – and it is this

that feminist work has helped teach us. In photographic and cinematic art and

theory much has been done to investigate the maleness of the representing

camera eye. For instance, Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1983)

stresses the production of sexual difference through systems of

representation, while contesting the forms that the mastering male gaze has

traditionally created: this is no familiar figuration of the mother/madonna

and child, but a visualization through words and objects of the mother–child

relationship as a complex psycho-social process that is anything but simple,

serene, and natural – at least from a woman’s point of view. Similarly, Hans

Haacke’s fourteen informational panels about Seurat’s Les Poseuses, tracing




22 The Politics of Postmodernism


the history of the painting’s ownership from 1888 to 1975, foreground the

tradition of the female nude and the male heterosexual viewer who, through

mastering vision, ‘possesses’ the posed and viewed women as surely as if it

were an act of sexual possession, an act analogous to the economic

ownership whose history is the subject of Haacke’s work. This is art that still

works within the conventions of patriarchy, but in order to contest them, for

they are now problematized by a new and complex socio-political context.


I have chosen to concentrate in this study on photography, among the

visual arts, for much the same reason that I have chosen narrative fiction

among the literary: they are equally omnipresent in both high art and mass

culture and their very ubiquity has tended to grant their representations both

a certain transparency and a definite complexity. What Annette Kuhn says of

photography applies, with the appropriate adaptations of medium, to fictive

narrative today:


Representations are productive: photographs, far from merely

reproducing a pre-existing world, constitute a highly coded discourse

which, among other things, constructs whatever is in the image as object

of consumption – consumption by looking, as well as often quite literally

by purchase. It is no coincidence, therefore, that in many highly socially

visible (and profitable) forms of photography women dominate the

image. Where photography takes women as its subject matter, it also

constructs ‘woman’ as a set of meanings which then enter cultural and

economic circulation on their own account.


(Kuhn 1985: 19)


The same is true of its construction of ‘man’ or of race, ethnicity, or sexual

orientation. Postmodern photography and fiction both foreground the

productive, constructing aspects of their acts of representing. Nevertheless

their political complicity is as evident as their de-naturalizing critique. The

difference between the postmodern and the feminist can be seen in the

potential quietism of the political ambiguities or paradoxes of

postmodernism. The many feminist social agendas demand a theory of

agency, but such a theory is visibly lacking in postmodernism, caught as it is




Representing the postmodern 23


in a certain negativity that may be inherent in any critique of cultural

dominants. It has no theory of positive action on a social level; all feminist

positions do. To ‘de-doxify’ is not to act, even if it might be a step toward

action or even a necessary precondition of it.


This relation between the feminist and the postmodern is the topic of the

final chapter of this study, but it is important to note from the start both the

impact of the feminist on the postmodern and their shared deconstructing

impulses. It is not accidental that postmodernism coincides with the feminist

re-evaluation of non-canonical forms of discourse, that a very postmodern

autobiography (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes) and a very postmodern

family biography (Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family) have a lot in

common with Christa Wolf’s Patterns of Childhood or Maxine Hong

Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. They all not only challenge what we

consider to be literature (or rather, Literature) but also what was once

assumed to be the seamless, unified narrative representations of subjectivity

in life-writing. Of course, it is also not accidental that feminist theory’s

recent self-positioning both inside and outside dominant ideologies, using

representation both to reveal misrepresentation and to offer new

possibilities, coincides with the (admittedly more) complicitous critique of

postmodernism. Both try to avoid the bad faith of believing they can stand

outside ideology, but both want to reclaim their right to contest the power of

a dominant one, even if from a compromised position. Victor Burgin has

claimed that he wants his art and theory to show the meaning of sexual

difference (for others, it is difference of class, race, ethnicity, or sexual

preference) as a process of production, as ‘something mutable, something

historical, and therefore something we can do something about’ (Burgin

1986a: 108). Postmodernism may not do that something, but it may at least

show what needs undoing first.


Postmodernity, postmodernism, and modernism


Much of the confusion surrounding the usage of the term postmodernism is

due to the conflation of the cultural notion of postmodernism (and its




24 The Politics of Postmodernism


inherent relationship to modernism) and postmodernity as the designation of

a social and philosophical period or ‘condition.’ The latter has been

variously defined in terms of the relationship between intellectual and state

discourses; as a condition determined by universal, diffuse cynicism, by a

panic sense of the hyperreal and the simulacrum. The manifest

contradictions between some of these designationsof postmodernity will not

surprise anyone who enjoys generalizations about the present age.

Nevertheless many do see postmodernity as involving a critique of

humanism and positivism, and an investigation of the relation of both to our

notions of subjectivity.


In philosophical circles, postmodernity has been the term used to situate

theoretical positions as apparently diverse as Derrida’s challenges to the

western metaphysics of presence; Foucault’s investigations of the

complicities of discourse, knowledge, and power; Vattimo’s paradoxically

potent ‘weak thought’; and Lyotard’s questioning of the validity of the

metanarratives of legitimation and emancipation. In the broadest of terms,

these all share a view of discourse as problematic and of ordering systems as

suspect (and as humanly constructed). The debate about postmodernity –

and the confusion with postmodernism – seems to have begun with the

exchange on the topic of modernity between Jurgen Habermas and Jean-

Francois Lyotard. Both agreed that modernity could not be separated from

notions of unity and universality or what Lyotard dubbed ‘metanarratives.’

Habermas argued that the project of modernity, rooted in the context of

Enlightenment rationality, was still unfinished and required completion;

Lyotard countered with the view that modernity has actually been liquidated

by history, a history whose tragic paradigm was the Nazi concentration camp

and whose ultimate delegitimizing force was that of capitalist

‘technoscience’ which has changed for ever our concepts of knowledge.

Therefore, for Lyotard, postmodernity is characterized by no grand

totalizing narrative, but by smaller and multiple narratives which seek no

universalizing stabilization or legitimation. Fredric Jameson has pointed out

that both Lyotard and Habermas are clearly working from different, though

equally strong, legitimating ‘narrative archetypes’ – one French and (1789)

Revolutionary in inspiration, the other Germanic and Hegelian; one valuing




Representing the postmodern 25


commitment, the other consensus. Richard Rorty has offered a trenchant

critique of both positions, ironically noting that what they share is an almost

overblown sense of the role of philosophy today. Attempting a more modest

role that is ultimately postmodern – that of accepting the complicity of

knowledge with power – Rorty’s neopragmatism has been seen as bravely

trying to bridge the seeming opposites.


In a very real sense, though, such oppositions cannot be bridged quite so

easily. Part of the difficulty is a matter of history: modernity in Habermas’s

Germany could be said to have been cut short by Nazism and thus indeed to

be ‘incomplete.’ It would seem to be for this reason that Habermas opposes

what he sees as postmodern historicism: for him, the ‘radicalized

consciousness of modernity’ (Habermas 1983: 4) was able to free itself from

history and therein lay its glory and its explosive content. In the specifically

German context of this revolutionary view of modernity, the postmodern

might well look neoconservative, as Habermas has claimed. But many have

objected to Habermas’s extension of his critique of local forces of antimodernity

outside that specific German context to include all postmodernity

and postmodernism.


Lyotard’s challenge to Habermas’s definition of the postmodern has also

come under serious scrutiny. In his introductory remarks to the English

translation of La Condition Postmoderne, Jameson makes an attempt to

rescue the notion of metanarrative from Lyotard’s Habermas-inspired

attack, partly because his own notion of postmodernity is itself a

metanarrative one, based on Mandel’s cultural periodization: in its simplest

terms, market capitalism begat realism; monopoly capitalism begat

modernism; and therefore multinational capitalism begets postmodernism

(Jameson 1984a: 78). The slippage from postmodernity to postmodernism is

constant and deliberate in Jameson’s work: for him postmodernism is the

‘cultural logic of late capitalism.’ It replicates, reinforces, and intensifies the

‘deplorable and reprehensible’ (85) socio-economic effects of

postmodernity. Perhaps. But I want to argue that it also critiques those

effects, while never pretending to be able to operate outside them.


The slippage to postmodernism from postmodernity is replicated in the

very title of Jameson’s influential 1984 article, ‘Postmodernism, or the




26 The Politics of Postmodernism


cultural logic of late capitalism.’ Yet what is confusing is that Jameson

retains the word postmodernism for both the socio-economic periodization

and the cultural designation. In his more recent work, he is adamant about

defining postmodernism as both ‘a whole set of aesthetic and cultural

features and procedures’ and ‘the socioeconomic organization of our society

commonly called late capitalism’ (Jameson 1986–7: 38–9). While the two

are no doubt inextricably related, I would want to argue for their separation

in the context of discourse. The verbal similarity of the terms postmodernity

and postmodernism signals their relationship overtly enough without either

confusing the issue by using the same word to denote both or evading the

issue by conflating the two in some sort of transparent causality. The

relationship must be argued, not assumed by some verbal sleight of hand. My

exhortation to keep the two separate is conditioned by my desire to show that

critique is as important as complicity in the response of cultural

postmodernism to the philosophical and socio-economic realities of

postmodernity: postmodernism here is not so much what Jameson sees as a

systemic form of capitalism as the name given to cultural practices which

acknowledge their inevitable implication in capitalism, without

relinquishing the power or will to intervene critically in it.


Habermas, Lyotard, and Jameson, from their very different perspectives,

have all raised the important issue of the socio-economic and philosophical

grounding of postmodernism in postmodernity. But to assume an equation

of the culture and its ground, rather than allowing for at least the possibility

of a relation of contestation and subversion, is to forget the lesson of

postmodernism’s complex relation to modernism: its retention of

modernism’s initial oppositional impulses, both ideological and aesthetic,

and its equally strong rejection of its founding notion of formalist autonomy.


Much serious scholarly work has already been done on the complexity of

the relationship between postmodernism and modernism. Certainly many of

the attacks on the postmodern come from the implicit or explicit vantage

point of what Walter Moser once wittily called ‘a relapsarian modernism.’

Others – less negatively – want to root postmodernism historically in the

oppositionality of the modernist avant-garde. For the Marxist critic, the

attraction of modernism lies in what Jameson calls its ‘Utopian




Representing the postmodern 27


compensation’ (1981: 42) and its ‘commitments to radical change’ ( 1985:

87). While the postmodern has indeed no such impulse, it is none the less

fundamentally demystifying and critical, and among the things of which it is

critical are modernism’s elitist and sometimes almost totalitarian modes of

effecting that ‘radical change’ – from those of Mies van der Rohe to those of

Pound and Eliot, not to mention Celine. The oppositional politics to which

modernism laid claim were not always leftist, as defenders like Eagleton and

Jameson appear to suggest. We must not forget, as Andreas Huyssen has put

it, that modernism has also been ‘chided by the left as the elitist, arrogant and

mystifying master-code of bourgeois culture while demonized by the right

as the Agent Orange of natural social cohesion’ (Huyssen 1986: 16–17).

Huyssen goes on to explain that the historical (or modernist) avant-garde too

was, in its turn, condemned by both the right (as a threat to the bourgeois

desire for cultural legitimation) and the left (by the Second International’s

and by Lukacs’s valorizing of classical bourgeois realism).


Among the crypto-modernist anti-postmodernists, there is a strong sense

that postmodernism somehow represents a lowering of standards or that it is

the lamentable consequence of the institutionalization and acculturation of

the radical potential of modernism. In other words, it would seem to be

difficult to discuss postmodernism without somehow engaging in a debate

about the value and even identity of modernism. Jameson (1984c: 62) has

claimed that there are four possible positions: pro-postmodernist and antimodernist;

pro-postmodernist and pro-modernist; anti-postmodernist and

anti-modernist; and anti-postmodernist and pro-modernist. But however

you break down the positions, there is still an even more basic underlying

opposition between those who believe postmodernism represents a break

from modernism, and those who see it in a relation of continuity. The latter

position stresses what the two share: their self-consciousness or their

reliance, however ironic, on tradition. Contrary to the tendency of some

critics to label as typically postmodern both American surfiction and the

French texts of Tel Quel, I would see these as extensions of modernist notions

of autonomy and auto-referentiality and thus as ‘late modernist.’ These

formalist extremes are precisely what are called into question by the

historical and social grounding of postmodern fiction and photography. To




28 The Politics of Postmodernism


use Stanley Trachtenberg’s terms, the postmodern is not (or perhaps not

only) an ‘intransitive art, which constitutes an act in itself’; it is also

‘transitive or purposive’ (in Preface to Trachtenberg 1985: xii).


From those committed to a model of rupture rather than continuity

between the modernist and the postmodernist come arguments based on any

number of fundamental differences: in socio-economic organization; in the

aesthetic and moral position of the artist; in the concept of knowledge and its

relation to power; in philosophical orientation; in the notion of where

meaning inheres in art; in the relation of message to addressee/ addresser. For

some critics, the modernist and the postmodernist can in fact be opposed

point by point (see Hassan 1980b). But one of the most contentious of these

points seems to be that of the relation of mass culture to both modernism and

postmodernism. The Marxist attacks on the postmodern are often in terms of

its conflation of high art and mass culture, a conflation modernism rejected

with great firmness. It is precisely this rejection that Andreas Huyssen

addresses so cogently in his After the Great Divide (1986), arguing that

modernism defined itself through the exclusion of mass culture and was

driven, by its fear of contamination by the consumer culture burgeoning

around it, into an elitist and exclusive view of aesthetic formalism and the

autonomy of art. It is certainly the historical avant-garde that prepares the

way for postmodernism’s renegotiation of the different possible relations (of

complicity and critique) between high and popular forms of culture.

Huyssen does much to upset the view (presented by Jameson and Eagleton,

among others) of mass culture as, in his words, ‘the homogeneously sinister

background on which the achievements of modernism can shine in their

glory’ (Huyssen 1986: ix). It is not that the modernist exclusion was not

historically understandable in the context of, say, fascist spectacle, but

Huyssen claims that this is now a ‘historically superseded protest’ (x) which

needs rethinking precisely in the context of late capitalism.


Much influential work has been done on high/popular cultural

oppositions and their interactions in order to show that the crossing of such

borders does not necessarily mean the destruction of all order or the intrinsic

devaluation of all received ideas, as Charles Newman thinks, or an

increasing dehumanization of life, as Jameson seems to believe. There is still




Representing the postmodern 29


a tendency to see ethnic, local, or generally popular forms of art as

‘subcultural’ (Foster1985: 25) and it is for this reason that I have deliberately

chosen to focus on those two most consistently omnipresent and

problematic forms of postmodern representation – still photography and

narrative fiction. Between them they constitute a statistically significant

number of the representations of both mass culture and high art today. The

photography of postmodernism challenges the ideological underpinnings of

both the high-art photography of modernism and the mass- (advertising,

newspapers, magazines) and popular- (snapshots) cultural photographic

forms. It moves out of the hermeticism and narcissism that is always possible

in self-referentiality and into the cultural and social world, a world

bombarded daily with photographic images. And it manages to point at once

to the contingency of art and to the primacy of social codes, making the

invisible visible, ‘de-doxifying’ the doxa – be it either modernist/formalist

or realist/documentary. In postmodern fiction, too, the documentary impulse

of realism meets the problematizing of reference seen earlier in selfreflexive

modernism. Postmodern narrative is filtered through the history of

both. And this is where the question of representation and its politics enters.




Postmodernist representation


De-naturalizing the natural


Like every great word, ‘representation/s’ is a stew. A scrambled menu, it

serves up several meanings at once. For a representation can be an image


– visual, verbal, or aural. . . . A representation can also be a narrative, a

sequence of images and ideas. . . . Or, a representation can be the product

of ideology, that vast scheme for showing forth the world and justifying

its dealings.

(Stimpson 1988: 223)


Postmodern representation is self-consciously all of these – image,

narrative, product of (and producer of) ideology. It is a truism of sociology

and cultural studies today to say that life in the postmodern world is utterly

mediated through representations and that our age of satellites and

computers has gone well beyond Benjamin’s ‘Age of Mechanical

Reproduction’ and its particular philosophical and artistic consequences and

moved into a state of crisis in representation. Nevertheless, in literary and art

critical circles there is still a tendency to see postmodern theory and practice




32 The Politics of Postmodernism


either as simply replacing representation with the idea of textuality or as

denying our intricate involvement with representation, even though much

postmodern thought has disputed this tendency: think of Derrida’s

statements about the inescapability of the logic of representation, and

Foucault’s problematization, though never repudiation, of our traditional

modes of representation in our discourses of knowledge.


I suppose the very word ‘representation’ unavoidably suggests a given

which the act of representing duplicates in some way. This is normally

considered the realm of mimesis. Yet, by simply making representation into

an issue again postmodernism challenges our mimetic assumptions about

representation (in any of its ‘scrambled menu’ meanings): assumptions

about its transparency and common-sense naturalness. And it is not just

postmodern theory that has provoked this rethinking. Take, for instance,

Angela Carter’s story, ‘The Loves of Lady Purple.’ The plot details are

derived from literalizations of these same mimetic assumptions – and their

politics. It begins as the story of a master puppet-maker. The more life-like

his marionettes can be made to seem, the more ‘god-like’ he becomes (Carter

1974: 23). He is said to speculate ‘in a no-man’s limbo between the real and

that which, although we know very well it is not, nevertheless seems to be

real’ (23). He makes puppets which ‘cannot live’ yet can ‘mimic the living’

and even ‘project signals of signification.’ The precise imitation of these

representations is said to be ‘all the more disturbing because we know it to

be false’ (24). His ‘didactic vedette,’ Lady Purple, is such a success that she

is said to have ‘transcended the notion she was dependent on his hands and

appeared wholly real and yet entirely other’ (26). She did not so much imitate

as distill and intensify the actions of real women: ‘and so she could become

the quintessence of eroticism, for no woman born would have dared be so

blatantly seductive’ (26–7).


The handbills advertising her show speak of her ‘unappeaseable

appetites,’ for she is said to have once been a famous (living) prostitute who,

‘pulled only by the strings of lust’ (Carter 1974: 28), was reduced to this

puppet status. The prostitute’s tale is the narrative represented in the show.

What Carter’s text reveals is that women (as prostitutes, in particular) are

never real; they are but representations of male erotic fantasies and of male




Postmodernist representation 33


desire, ‘a metaphysical abstraction of the female’ (30). Lady Purple was

figuratively a puppet even in her living incarnation; she was always ‘her own

replica’ (33) in a sense. The short story ends with the puppet returning to life,

sucking her master’s breath and drinking his blood. But what does she do

with her new-found life and freedom? The only thing she can do: she heads

for the brothel in the town. The question we are left with is: ‘had the

marionette all the time parodied the living or was she, now living, to parody

her own performance as a marionette?’ (38). But there is another question

too: to what extent are all representations of women ‘the simulacra of the

living’ (25)? While there are obvious references in this story to Hoffman’s

‘Sandman’ story and thus to Freud’s Uncanny, to Pygmalion and even to

Mozart (Lady Purple is called ‘Queen of Night’), there is clearly a more

contemporary allusion here to Jean Baudrillard’s theory of the postmodern



In an article entitled ‘The precession of simulacra,’ Baudrillard argued

that today the mass media have neutralized reality by stages: first they

reflected it; then they masked and perverted it; next they had to mask its

absence; and finally they produced instead the simulacrum of the real, the

destruction of meaning and of all relation to reality. Baudrillard’s model has

come under attack for the metaphysical idealism of its view of the ‘real,’ for

its nostalgia for pre-mass-media authenticity, and for its apocalyptic

nihilism. But, as Carter’s story suggests, there is a more basic objection to his

assumption that it is (or was) ever possible to have unmediated access to

reality: have we ever known the ‘real’ except through representations? We

may see, hear, feel, smell, and touch it, but do we know it in the sense that we

give meaning to it? In Lisa Tickner’s succinct terms, the real is ‘enabled to

mean through systems of signs organized into discourses on the world’

(Tickner 1984: 19). This is obviously where the politics of representation

enters for, according to the Althusserian view, ideology is a production of

representations. Our common-sense presuppositions about the ‘real’ depend

upon how that ‘real’ is described, how it is put into discourse and interpreted.

There is nothing natural about the ‘real’ and there never was – even before

the existence of mass media.




34 The Politics of Postmodernism


This said, it is also true that – whatever the naivety of its view of the

innocent and stable representation once possible – Baudrillard’s notion of

the simulacrum has been immensely influential. Witness the

unacknowledged but none the less real debt to it in Jameson’s own version of

pre-mass-media nostalgia:


In the form of the logic of the image or the spectacle of the simulacrum,  

everything has become ‘cultural’ in some sense. A whole new house of  

mirrors of visual replication and of textual reproduction has replaced the  

older stable reality of reference and of the non-cultural ‘real.’  

(Jameson 1986–7: 42)


What postmodern theory and practice together suggest is that everything

always was ‘cultural’ in this sense, that is, always mediated by

representations. They suggest that notions of truth, reference, and the noncultural

real have not ceased to exist, as Baudrillard claims, but that they are

no longer unproblematic issues, assumed to be self-evident and selfjustifying.

The postmodern, as I have been defining it, is not a degeneration

into ‘hyperreality’ but a questioning of what reality can mean and how we

can come to know it. It is not that representation now dominates or effaces

the referent, but rather that it now self-consciously acknowledges its

existence as representation – that is, as interpeting (indeed as creating) its

referent, not as offering direct and immediate access to it.


This is not to say that what Jameson calls ‘the older logic of the referent

(or realism)’ (1986–7: 43) is not historically important to postmodernist

representation. In fact, many postmodern strategies are openly premised on

a challenge to the realist notion of representation that presumes the

transparency of the medium and thus the direct and natural link between sign

and referent or between word and world. Of course, modernist art, in all its

forms, challenged this notion as well, but it deliberately did so to the

detriment of the referent, that is, by emphasizing the opacity of the medium

and the self-sufficiency of the signifying system. What postmodernism does

is to denaturalize both realism’s transparency and modernism’s reflexive

response, while retaining (in its typically complicitously critical way) the




Postmodernist representation 35


historically attested power of both. This is the ambivalent politics of

postmodern representation.


With the problematizing and ‘de-doxifying’ of both realist reference and

modernist autonomy, postmodern representation opens up other possible

relations between art and the world: gone is the Benjaminian ‘aura’ with its

notions of originality, authenticity, and uniqueness, and with these go all the

taboos against strategies that rely on the parody and reappropriation of

already existing representations. In other words, the history of

representation itself can become a valid subject of art, and not just its history

in high art. The borders between high art and mass or popular culture and

those between the discourses of art and the discourses of the world

(especially history) are regularly crossed in postmodern theory and practice.

But it must be admitted that this crossing is rarely done without considerable

border tension.


As we shall see in later chapters, postmodern photography’s parodic

appropriation of various forms of mass-media representation has come

under severe attack by the (still largely modernist) art establishment. The

equivalent on the literary scene has been the hostile response of some critics

to the mixing of historical and fictive representation in historiographic

metafiction. It is not that the fact of the mixing is new: the historical novel,

not to mention the epic, should have habituated readers to that. The problem

seems to reside in its manner, in the self-consciousness of the fictionality, the

lack of the familiar pretence of transparency, and the calling into question of

the factual grounding of history-writing. The self-reflexivity of postmodern

fiction does indeed foreground many of the usually unacknowledged and

naturalized implications of narrative representation. In The Politics of

Reflexivity, Robert Siegle lists some of these:


the codes by which we organize reality, the means by which we organize  

words about it into narrative, the implications of the linguistic medium we  

use to do so, the means by which readers are drawn into narrative, and the 

nature of our relation to ‘actual’ states of reality.  

(Siegle 1986: 3)




36 The Politics of Postmodernism


Siegle further argues that textual reflexivity itself is ‘highly charged

ideologically precisely because it denaturalizes far more than merely literary

codes and pertains to more than the aesthetic “heterocosm” to which some

theorists might wish to restrict it’ (11). In other words, a self-reflexive text

suggests that perhaps narrative does not derive its authority from any reality

it represents, but from ‘the cultural conventions that define both narrative

and the construct we call “reality”’ (225). If this is so, the mixing of the

reflexively fictional with the verifiably historical might well be doubly

upsetting for some critics. Historiographic metafiction represents not just a

world of fiction, however self-consciously presented as a constructed one,

but also a world of public experience. The difference between this and the

realist logic of reference is that here that public world is rendered specifically

as discourse. How do we know the past today? Through its discourses,

through its texts – that is, through the traces of its historical events: the

archival materials, the documents, the narratives of witnesses . . . and

historians. On one level, then, postmodern fiction merely makes overt the

processes of narrative representation – of the real or the fictive and of their



Esquire’s recent publishing of what its editor clearly feels is an anomaly

for the magazine attests to both the interest and the unease provoked by this

kind of problematizing. Peter Davis’s ‘Prince Charles narrowly escapes

beheading’ is introduced to readers as an exploration of fact and fantasy. In

his editorial, Lee Eisenberg calls it ‘a work of the imagination’ yet ‘woven of

facts – some of which are true and accurate, others of whichare unverifiable.’

No doubt part of his motivation here is legal protection, but he significantly

has recourse to Doctorow’s fictionalized historical version of the ragtime era

and Coover’s of Richard Nixon in The Public Burning as precedents. Davis

is said to have walked where Prince Charles walks, tried to ‘dream his

dreams, to think his thoughts.’ In a more traditional journalistic fashion, he

has also spoken to ‘those who have tried to know him’ and read ‘both the

tomes and the tabs’ (P. Davis 1988: 93). Before the piece even begins, the

reader is told: ‘He came away with a real-life fiction. For the Lonely Prince

is a man, you see, but the Lonely Prince is a story, too.’ Davis is careful to

signal the fictionality of what, on the whole, is a realist narrative (even if in




Postmodernist representation 37


fragments) of the life and work of the heir to the British throne. He opens with

a section called ‘Masque’ which is a parody of a Renaissance dramatic

dialogue between Charles and Lady Diana, complete with Shakespearean

and Donnean punning (on ‘Di,’ for instance). In the rest of the text, there are

other literary echoes to point to both literary fabulation and narratorial

interpretation. After citing Charles on his political position and its present

limitations (‘I serve’), the text offers a Prufrockian comment: ‘One is not

Prince Hamlet nor was meant to be. Neither is one a courtier, though one can

be deferential, glad to be of use’ (96).


This is not really a blurring of boundaries between fact and fiction, but

more a hybridizing mix, where the borders are kept clear, even if they are

frequently crossed. The same is true of the other postmodern border tensions

between, say, the literary and the theoretical. It is a truism of contemporary

criticism that the seriously playful textuality of the writing of Derrida or the

fanciful fragments of the later works of Barthes, for instance, are as literary

as they are theoretical. Postmodernism has provoked many of its critics into

similar deviations from traditional academic critical norms: Ihab Hassan,

Peter Sloterdijk, even novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, whose Perpetual Orgy is

divided into three parts – a ‘tete-a-tete with Emma Bovary,’ a critical study

of the genesis and text of Flaubert’s novel (in the form of question and

answer), and an investigation into the heritage of the novel that reveals the

writer’s intense personal engagement with it.


Postmodern representational practices that refuse to stay neatly within

accepted conventions and traditions and that deploy hybrid forms and

seemingly mutually contradictory strategies frustrate critical attempts

(including this one) to systematize them, to order them with an eye to control

and mastery – that is, to totalize. Roland Barthes once asked: ‘Is it not the

characteristic of reality to be unmasterable? And is it not the characteristic

of system to master it? What then, confronting reality, can one do who rejects

mastery?’ (1977b: 172). Postmodern representation itself contests mastery

and totalization, often by unmasking both their powers and their limitations.

We watch the process of what Foucault once called the interrogating of limits

that is now replacing the search for totality. On the level of representation,

this postmodern questioning overlaps with similarly pointed challenges by




38 The Politics of Postmodernism


those working in, for example, postcolonial and feminist contexts. How is

the ‘other’ represented in, say, imperialist or patriarchal discourses? But a

caveat is in order. It may be true that postmodern thought ‘refuses to turn the

Other into the Same’ (During 1987: 33), but there is also a very real sense in

which the postmodernist notions of difference and a positively valorized

marginality often reveal the same familiar totalizing strategies of

domination, though usually masked by the liberating rhetoric of First World

critics who appropriate Third World cultures to their own ends (Chow 1986–


7: 91). Postmodernist critique is always compromised. The ex-centric

‘other’ itself may have different (and less complicitous) modes of

representation and may therefore require different methods of study.

The standard negative evaluation of postmodernism asserts that it is

without an ordered and coherent vision of ‘truth’: ‘To the postmodernist

mind, everything is empty at the center. Our vision is not integrated – and it

lacks form and definition’ (Gablik 1984: 17). Actually, that center is not so

much empty as called into question, interrogated as to its power and its

politics. And if the notion of center – be it seen as ‘Man’ or Truth or whatever


– is challenged in postmodernism, what happens to the idea of the ‘centered’

subjectivity, the subject of representation? In Catherine Stimpson’s terms,

the theory that representational machineries were reality’s synonyms, not a  

window (often cracked) onto reality, eroded the immediate security of  

another lovely gift of Western humanism: the belief in a conscious self  

that generates texts, meanings, and a substantial identity.  

(Stimpson 1988: 236)


That sense of the coherent, continuous, autonomous, and free subject is, as

Foucault too suggested in The Order of Things, a historically conditioned

and historically determined construct, with its analogue in the representation

of the individual in fiction. In historiographic metafiction, written from the

perspective of a different historical moment, one which at least queries that

‘lovely gift of Western humanism,’ character gets represented rather





Postmodernist representation 39


In John Fowles’s A Maggot, for instance, the self-consciously

contemporary narrator introduces the eighteenth-century prophet John Lee

as, in his words, an ‘innocently self-believing . . . ignorant mystic.’ He then

adds, however:


To speak so is anachronistic. Like so many of his class at this time, he still  

lacks what even the least intelligent human today, far stupider even than  

he, would recognize – an unmistakable sense of personal identity set in a  

world to some degree, however small, manipulable or controllable by that  

identity. John Lee would not have understood Cogito, ergo sum; and far  

less its even terser modern equivalent, I am. The contemporary I does not 

need to think, to know it exists. To be sure the intelligentsia of John Lee’s  

time had a clear, almost but not quite modern, sense of self.  

(Fowles 1985: 385)


This kind of historical situating of the notion of subjectivity is presented in

the most metafictively self-reflexive of ways: ‘John Lee is, of course; but as

a tool or a beast is, in a world so entirely pre-ordained it might be written, like

this book’ (385). The text’s representational self-consciousness points to a

very postmodern awareness of both the nature and historicity of our

discursive representations of the self (see Smith 1988). And it is not simply


poststructuralist theory that has engendered this complex awareness. As we

saw in the first chapter, feminist theory and practice have problematized

poststructuralism’s (unconsciously, perhaps, phallocentric) tendency to see

the subject in apocalyptic terms of loss or dispersal, for they refuse to

foreclose the question of identity and do so in the name of the (different)

history of women: ‘Because women have not had the same historical relation

of identity to origin, institution, production, that men have had, women have

not, I think, (collectively) felt burdened by too much Self, Ego, Cogito, etc.’

(Miller 1986: 106). It is the feminist need to inscribe first – and only then

subvert – that I think has influenced most the postmodern complicitously

critical stand of underlining and undermining received notions of the

represented subject.




40 The Politics of Postmodernism


Whether it be in the photography of Victor Burgin or Barbara Kruger or

in the fiction of John Fowles or Angela Carter, subjectivity is represented as

something in process, never as fixed and never as autonomous, outside

history. It is always a gendered subjectivity, rooted also in class, race,

ethnicity, and sexual orientation. And it is usually textual self-reflexivity that

paradoxically calls these worldly particularities to our attention by

foregrounding the doxa, the unacknowledged politics, behind the dominant

representations of the self– and the other – in visual images or in narratives.

Of course, not only photography and fiction do this. Films like Zelig or

Sammy and Rosie Get Laid unmask representation as the process of

constructing the self, but they also show the role of the ‘other’ in mediating

that sense of self. Similarly Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s Patria


I: The Characteristics Man is a theatrical/ operatic/rock performance work

that thematizes and actualizes the problematic nature of postmodern

subjectivity. A silent anonymous immigrant (‘D.P.’), introduced to the

audience as ‘victim’ (a large sign with the word and an arrow follows him

about the stage), seeks to define a self in a new and hostile world that denies

him his speech (it is not English) and leaves him with only the symbolic voice

of the ethnically coded accordion. A strategically placed wall of mirrors

facing the audience prevents any self-distancing and any denial of


Another way of problematizing the notion of the ‘centered self’ can be

seen in the challenges to the conventions of self-representation in

postmodern autobiographical writing, most infamously exemplified,

perhaps, by Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. From its title alone, this calls

attention to itself as a parody of the French series of X par lui-meme to which

Barthes contributed the volume on Michelet. When the text opens with a

hand-written facsimile representation of a note warning that everything we

are about to read must be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel,

we know we have entered the problematized zone of postmodern selfrepresentation.

Given my focus here on photographic and narrative

representation, this is a particularly important book, for it opens with

photographs of Barthes and his family. Yet, the opening of the verbal text

reverses the readers’ perceiving order, telling us that the visuals are ‘the




Postmodernist representation 41


author’s treat to himself, for finishing his book. His pleasure is a matter of

fascination (and thereby quite selfish). I have kept only the images which

enthrall me’ (Barthes 1977b: 3).


This sliding from the third to the first person is a constant in the text and

it always serves to emphasize Barthes’s awareness of the doubleness of the

self, as both narrator and narrated: ‘I see the fissure in the subject (the very

thing about which he can say nothing)’ (Barthes 1977b: 3). And it is the

representation of self in the photographs, as much as in the act of writing, that

provokes this double vision. In addition, there is another split, that between

the self-image and the imaged self, between representation to the self and

representation of the self, between the childhood self represented in the

pictures and in memory and the adult self writing in words: ‘“But I never

looked like that!” How do you know? What is the “you” you might or might

not look like?’ (36).


It is hard to imagine a text that would address the issue of representationas-

construction more directly than this postmodern autobiography: ‘I do not

say: “I am going to describe myself” but: “I am writing a text, and I call it

R.B.”’ (Barthes 1977b: 56). He then adds: ‘Do I not know that, in the field of

the subject, there is no referent?’ To represent the self is to ‘constitute’ the

self (82), be it in images or in stories. Even if the chronological linearity or

the causality of the Bildungsroman are to be rejected, even if fragments with

no center are to structure the text, there is still a story of a self, a construction

of a subject, however ‘deconstructed, taken apart, shifted, without

anchorage’ (168) it may be. As Barthes puts it: ‘nothing is reported without

making it signify’ (151).


His self-consciousness about the act of representing in both writing and

photography undoes the mimetic assumptions of transparency that underpin

the realist project, while refusing as well the anti-representationalism of

modernist and late modernist abstraction and textuality. Roland Barthes by

Roland Barthes manages to de-naturalize both the ‘copying’ apparatus of

photography and the realist reflecting mirror of narrative, while still

acknowledging – and exploiting – their shared power of inscription and

construction. Its simultaneous use and abuse of both realist reference and

modernist self-reflexivity is typically postmodern, as is its deployment of




42 The Politics of Postmodernism


both photographic and narrative representation. Both forms have

traditionally been assumed to be transparent media which paradoxically

could master/capture/fix the real. Yet the modernist formalist reaction to this

transparent instrumentality revealed photography and fiction to be, in fact,

highly coded forms of representation. This is the history behind the

postmodern view of representation as a matter of construction, not

reflection. After modernism, one might well ask, does this still have to be

argued? I think the answer is yes, because realism and its attendant ideology

have found renewed vigor in popular fiction and film, just as the

transparency of visual representation is generally assumed in the ubiquitous

advertising images that surround us and in the snapshots we take.


This last point provides another reason for the linking of photography and

fiction in this study: both are unavoidably connected to mass-media

representations today and, even in their high-art manifestations, they tend to

acknowledge this inevitable (if compromising) implication. This is most

obvious in the appropriation of film and ad. images in postmodern

photography, but a similar process occurs in the use, for example, of

detective-story structures in ‘serious’ fiction like The Name of the Rose or

Hawksmoor. Lennard Davis has even suggested that the question of

narrative representation was already problematized in the earliest examples

of the novel as a genre:


After all, the novel, as the first wave in the sweep of mass media and the

entertainment industry, stands as an example of how large, controlled,

cultural forms came to be used by large numbers of people who wished or

were taught to have a different relation to reality than those who preceded

them. As the first powerful, broad, and hegemonic literary form, the novel

served to blur, in a way never before experienced, the distinction between

illusion and reality, between fact and fiction, between symbol and what is



(L. Davis 1987: 3)

Postmodern historiographic metafiction simply does all of this overtly,

asking us to question how we represent – how we construct – our view of




Postmodernist representation 43


reality and of our selves. Along with the photographic practices of Martha

Rosler, Hans Haacke, and Silvia Kolbowski, as we shall see, these novels ask

us to acknowledge that representation has a politics.