The Politics of Postmodernism



Photographic discourse


As a visual medium, photography has a long history of being both politically

useful and politically suspect: think of Brecht or Benjamin, or of Heartfield’s

photomontages. A recent show of three Vancouver photographers (Arni

Runar Haraldsson, Harold Ursuliak, and Michael Lawlor) called A Linear

Narration: Post Phallocentrism offered examples of sophisticated satirical

socio-political critiques of dominant cultural representations. Lawlor’s

media-derived photomontages are most reminiscent of Heartfield’s

technique, if not his virulence: Two Queens features roughly torn-out images

of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe and of a newspaper photo of Queen Elizabeth


II. This conjunction suggests a particularly Canadian irony directed against

Canada’s double colonialization, historical (British royalty) and present

(American media).

Photography today is one of the major forms of discourse through which

we are seen and see ourselves. Frequently what I want to call postmodern

photography foregrounds the notion of ideology as representation by

appropriating recognizable images from that omnipresent visual discourse,

almost as an act of retaliation for its (unacknowledged) political nature or its

(unacknowledged) constructing of those images of ourselves and our world.

Photography, precisely because of its massmedia ubiquity, allows what are

considered high-art representations – like those of Nigel Scott, Barbara

Kruger, or Richard Prince – to speak to and against those of the more visible

vernacular and to exploit the seduction of those images. But postmodern

photography also addresses the medium’s history and it does so in a way that

goes beyond obvious journalistic instrumentality and capitalist seduction:

for instance, modernism’s formalist art-photography and the documentary

‘victim’ photography of the 1930s are made rather politically problematic in

the work of Sherrie Levine and Martha Rosler, respectively; the




44 The Politics of Postmodernism


transparently referential conventions of portraiture get both installed and

subverted in Cindy Sherman’s self-posed self-portraits; the relation of

narrative to photographic sequences gets destabilized in the work of Duane

Michals and Victor Burgin (see Crimp 1980; Starenko 1983; Thornton



What is common to all these postmodern challengesto convention is their

simultaneous exploitation of the power of that convention and their reliance

on the viewers’ knowledge of its particulars. In most cases, this reliance does

not necessarily lead to elitist exclusion, because the convention being

evoked has usuallybecome partof the common representational vocabulary

of newspapers, magazines, and advertising – even if its history is more

extensive. In photographer Sarah Charlesworth’s words: ‘The reason why I

use what are commonly called “appropriated images”, images drawn from

popular culture, is that I wish to describe and address a state of mind that is a

direct product of living in a common world’ (in Clarkson 1987–8: 14). Many

video and performance artists have used similar methods to address social

and political issues from within the discourse of that larger field of cultural

representations that includes television, Hollywood movies, and

commercial advertising. There are, of course, other ways of achieving this

end, ones that artists in other media have explored: the theory-informed art

of postmodern painting is a good example, but it is also one that does indeed

raise the question of exclusivity. As we shall see in a later chapter,

postmodern photographers have often tried to avoid this danger by

introducing didactic verbal texts into their works.


Reappropriating existing representations that are effective precisely

because they are loaded with pre-existing meaning and putting them into

new and ironic contexts is a typical form of postmodern photographic

complicitous critique: while exploiting the power of familiar images, it also

de-naturalizes them, makes visible the concealed mechanisms which work

to make them seem transparent, and brings to the fore their politics, that is to

say, the interests in which they operate and the power they wield (Folland

1988: 60). Both any (realist) documentary value and any formal (modernist)

pleasure that such a practice may invoke are inscribed, even as they are

undercut. So too is any notion of individuality or authenticity – for work or




Postmodernist representation 45


artist – but that has always been problematic for photography as a

mechanically reproductive medium. This technological aspect has other

implications too. Commentators as diverse as Annette Kuhn, Susan Sontag,

and Roland Barthes have remarked on photography’s ambivalences: it is in

no way innocent of cultural formation (or innocent of forming culture) yet it

is in a very real sense technically tied to the real, or at least, to the visual and

the actual. And this is what postmodernist use of this medium exposes, even

as it exploits what Kuhn calls the ideology of ‘the visible as evidence.’ It also

exposes what may be the major photographic code, the one that pretends to

look uncoded.


If the postmodern photographer is more the manipulator of signs than the

producer of an art object and the viewer is more the active decoder of

messages than the passive consumer or contemplator of aesthetic beauty

(Foster 1985: 100), the difference is one of the politics of representation.

However, postmodern photography is often overtly about the representation

of politics too. The work of Hans Haacke on multinational corporations or of

Martha Rosler on the poverty of New York’s Bowery suggests a material and

maybe even materialist critique of the modernist art establishment’s

separation of the political and the aesthetic and of the art gallery/museum’s

neutralization ofany possible sense of art as resistance, much less revolution.

Yet Barbara Kruger’s use of the lenticular screen, in which viewers see two

different images depending on their position, directly addresses this issue. It

is a literalization and materialization of the notion of the positioning of the

body in ideology: what we see depends on where we are. As mentioned

earlier, Sherrie Levine’s re-presentation of famous photos of both the

modernist-formalist and realist-documentary traditions suggests that what

we see depends on context and perhaps even that we cannot avoid

approaching some subjects primarily through our culturally accepted

representations of them. This is not only true of poor farmers in 1930s’

America or of blacks or Asians or Native Peoples, but of women too.


In Ways of Seeing, John Berger argued that a woman ‘comes to consider

the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always

distinct elements of her identity as woman’ (Berger 1972a: 46). That ‘I/her’

or even ‘I/you’ split is exactly what a feminist and postmodern photographer




46 The Politics of Postmodernism


like Barbara Kruger explores in her enigmatic but powerful verbal/ visual

photographic collages: the words ‘You thrive on mistaken identity’ sit atop

an image of a stereotypically glamorous woman, but as photographed

through distorting patterned glass. The word ‘mistaken’ is placed directly

over her eyes. Kruger’s black and white works clearly echo Russian

constructivism, Heartfield’s photomontages, generic 1940s and 1950s

images (Bois et al. 1987: 199), and their message about the politics of

representation is as explicit as that of some of the even more didactic

postmodern representations of politics: Hans Haacke’s attacks on Mobil or

Alcan or Klaus Staeck’s ironic photomontages in aid of causes like the lack

of housing for the elderly (a photo of Durer’s famous drawing of his aged

mother with the caption: ‘Would you rent a room to this woman?’) or the

social inequalities in 1980s’ Britain (a parody of a political poster, featuring

the photo of an enormous Rolls Royce driving down a narrow alley in a poor

area, accompanied by the text: ‘For wider streets vote Conservative’).

Photography may legitimize and normalize existing power relations, but it

can also be used against itself to ‘de-doxify’ that authority and power and to

reveal how its representational strategies construct an ‘imaginary economy’

(Sekula 1987: 115) that might usefully be deconstructed.


Once again I should repeat that it is not only photography that both does

and undoes this ‘economy.’ Canadian artist Stan Douglas uses multi-media

installations to study representation in terms of the relations of culture to

technology, especially film technology. He disassembles film into its

constituent parts (sounds; stills projected as slides) in order to make opaque

the supposed ability of film to be a transparent recording/representation of

reality. The artists known as General Idea (A.A. Bronson, Felix Partz, and

Jorge Zontal) have taken a different tack: their 1984 Miss General Idea

Pageant made the high-art world into a beauty pageant, literalizing art’s

relation to displaced desire and to commodity acquisition and in the process

problematizing our culture’s notions of the erotic and of sexual ‘possession’

in relation to capitalist values.


What these artists share with the postmodern photographers I have

mentioned is a focus on the ways in which art overlaps and interacts with the

social system of the present and the past. All representations have a politics;




Postmodernist representation 47


they also have a history. The conjunction of these two concerns in what has

been calledthe New Art Historyhas meant that issues like gender, class, race,

ethnicity, and sexual orientation are now part of the discourse of the visual

arts, as they are of the literary ones. Social history cannot be separated from

the history of art; there is no value-neutral, much less value-free, place from

which to represent in any art form. And there never was.


Telling stories: fiction and history


In Postmodernist Fiction, Brian McHale has noted that both modernist and

postmodernist fiction show an affinity for cinematic models, and certainly

the work of Manuel Puig or SalmanRushdie would support such a claim. But

historiographic metafiction, obsessed with the question of how we can come

to know the past today, also shows an attractionto photographic models –and

to photographs – either as physically present (in Michael Ondaatje’s Coming

Through Slaughter) or as the narrativized trappings of the historical archive

(in Timothy Findley’s The Wars, Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, or

Gayl Jones’s Corregidora). In raising (and making problematic) the issue of

photographic representation, postmodern fiction often points

metaphorically to the related issue of narrative representation – its powers

and its limitations. Here, too, there is no transparency, only opacity. The

narrator in John Berger’s novel G. tries to describe an actual historical and

political event, but ends up in despair: ‘Write anything. Truth or untruth, it is

unimportant. Speak but speak with tenderness, for that is all that you can do

that may help a little. Build a barricade of words, no matter what they mean’

(Berger 1972b: 75). The politics of narrative representation can apparently

sometimes be of limited efficacy when it comes to the representation of



It is not surprising that this should be the case, especially with historical

representation, for the question of historiography’s representational powers

is a matter of current concern in a number of discourses but most obviously,

perhaps, in historiographic metafiction. Roa Bastos’s I the Supreme is a

typical, if extreme, example of this. El Supremo (Jose Gaspar Rodriguez




48 The Politics of Postmodernism


Francia) did exist and did rule Paraguay from 1814 to 1840, but the novel we

read opens with a story about the instability of even a dictator’s power over

his self-representation in the documents of history: he discovers that his

decrees are frequently parodied so well and so thoroughly that ‘even the truth

appears to be a lie’ (Roa Bastos 1986: 5) and the competence of the scribe to

whom the dictator ‘dictates’ his text is suspect. This novel disorients its

readers on the level of its narration (who speaks? is the text written? oral?

transcribed?), its plot and temporal structures, and even its material

existence (parts of the text are said to have been burned): ‘Forms disappear,

words remain, to signify the impossible. No story can ever be told’ (11),

especially, perhaps, the story of absolute power.


‘I the Supreme’ and I the Supreme equally distrust history’s ability and

will to convey ‘truth’: ‘The words ofpower, ofauthority, words above words,

will be transformed into clever words, lying words. Words below words’

(Roa Bastos 1986: 29). Historians, like novelists, are said to be interested not

in ‘recounting the facts, but [in] recounting that they are recounting them’

(32). Yet the text does provide a narrative of the historical past of Paraguay,

albeit one recounted in anachronistic wording that underlines the present

time of the recounting to the (doubly dictated-to) scribe who writes down

what he is told to. Or does he? He openly admits to not understanding the

meaning of what he transcribes, and, therefore, to misplacing words, to

writing ‘backwards’ (35). The text metafictionally includes even a reference

to Roa Bastos and his novel: ‘One or another of those emigre-scribblers will

doubtless take advantage of the impunity of distance and be so bold as to

cynically affix his signature’ to the text we read (35). And so he does.


I the Supreme is a novel about power, about history-writing, and about the

oral tradition of story-telling. It thematizes the postmodern concern with the

radically indeterminate and unstable nature of textuality and subjectivity,

two notions seen as inseparable: ‘I must dictate/write; note it down

somewhere. That is the only way I have of proving that I still exist’ (Roa

Bastos 1986: 45). Writing here is not ‘the art of tracing flowery figures’ but

that of ‘deflowering signs’ (58). Or, as the text explicitly states: ‘This is

representation. Literature. Representation of writing as representation’ (60).

However, the power of literary representation is as provisional as that of




Postmodernist representation 49


historiography: ‘readers do not know if they [Don Quixote and Sancho

Panza] are fables, true stories, pretended truths. The same will come to pass

with us. We too will pass for real-unreal beings’ (60).


The entire novel is full of such remarks about representation – in the

narratives of both fiction and history. The ‘Final Compiler’s Note’ states:


The reader will already have notedthat, unlike ordinary texts, this one was

read first and written later. Instead of saying and writing something new,

it merely faithfully copies what has already been said and composed by

others. . . . [T]he re-scriptor declares, in the words of a contemporary

author, that the history contained in these Notes is reduced to the fact that

the story that should have been told in them has not been told. As a

consequence, the characters and facts that figure in them have earned,

through the fatality of the written language, the right to a fictitious and

autonomous existence in the service of the no less fictitious and

autonomous reader.


(Roa Bastos 1986: 435)


This is postmodern de-naturalizing – the simultaneous inscribing and

subverting of the conventions of narrative.


Coinciding with this kind of challenge in the novels themselves, there

have been many theoretical examinations of the nature of narrative as a

major human system of understanding – in fiction, but also in history,

philosophy, anthropology, and so on. Peter Brooks (1984: xii) has claimed

that with the advent of romanticism, narrative became a dominant mode of

representation, though one might wonder what the status of the classical epic

and the Bible might be. He is likely right to say, however, that in the twentieth

century there has been an increasing suspicion of narrative plot and its

artifice, yet no diminishing of our reliance on plotting, however ironized or

parodied (7). We may no longer have recourse to the grand narratives that

once made sense of life for us, but we still have recourse to narrative

representations of some kind in most of our verbal discourses, and one of the

reasons may be political.




50 The Politics of Postmodernism


Lennard Davis describes the politics of novelistic narrative

representation in this way: ‘Novels do not depict life, they depict life as it is

represented by ideology’ (L. Davis 1987: 24). Ideology – how a culture

represents itself to itself – ‘doxifies’ or naturalizes narrative representation,

making it appear as natural or common-sensical (25); it presents what is

really constructed meaning as something inherent in that which is being

represented. But this is precisely what postmodern novels like Peter

Ackroyd’s Chatterton or Roa Bastos’s I the Supreme or Graham Swift’s

Waterland are about. And in none of these cases is there ever what Jameson

associates with the postmodern: ‘a repudiation of representation, a

“revolutionary” break with the (repressive) ideology of storytelling

generally’ (Jameson 1984c: 54). This misconception shows the danger of

defining the postmodern in terms of (French or American) antirepresentational

late modernism, as so many do. In these novels, there is no

dissolution or repudiation of representation; but there is a problematizing of



Historiographic metafiction is written today in the context of a serious

contemporary interrogating of the nature ofrepresentation in historiography.

There has been much interest recently in narrative – its forms, its function,

its powers, and its limitations – in many fields, but especially in history.

Hayden White has even asserted that the postmodern is ‘informed by a

programmatic, if ironic, commitment to the return to narrative as one of its

enabling presuppositions’ (White 1987: xi). If this is the case, his own work

has done much to make it so. Articles like ‘The value of narrativity in the

representation of reality’ have been influential in raising questions about

narrative representation and its politics in both history and literature. From a

different angle, the work of Dominick LaCapra has acted to de-naturalize

notions of historical documents as representations of the past and of the way

such archival traces of historical events are used within historiographic and

fictive representations. Documents are not inert or innocent, but may indeed

have ‘critical or even potentially transformative relations to phenomena

“represented” in them’ (LaCapra 1985: 38). But this is the subject of the next





Postmodernist representation 51


Of course, it is not just historiographic theory that has deconstructed

narrativerepresentation. Feminist thought, such asthat of Teresa de Lauretis,

has done much to deconstruct it as well. It has explored how ‘narrative and

narrativity . . . are mechanisms to be employed strategically and tactically in

the effort to construct other forms of coherence, to shift the terms of

representation, to produce the conditions of representability of another – and

gendered – social subject’ (de Lauretis 1987: 109). Narrative is indeed a

‘socially symbolicact,’ as Jameson claims,but it isalso the outcome of social

interaction. In the work of Maxine Hong Kingston or Gayl Jones, storytelling

is not presented as a privatized form of experience but as asserting a

communicational bond between the teller and the told within a context that

is historical, social, and political, as well as intertextual.


The same is true in the postmodern fiction of Salman Rushdie or Gabriel

Garcia Marquez. It is not simply a case of novels metafictionally revelling in

their own narrativity or fabulation; here narrative representation – storytelling

– is a historical and a political act. Perhaps it always is. Peter Brooks

argues: ‘We live immersed in narrative, recounting and reassessing the

meaning of our past actions, anticipating the outcome of our future projects,

situating ourselves at the intersection of several stories not yet completed’

(1984: 3). In Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the hero does just

this – at great length – and the contemporary narrator interrupts to forestall

our objections in the name of a kind of postmodern mimesis of process,

reminding us that we too do this constantly. While it is undoubtedly true that

modernism had already challenged the conventions of what could/should be

narrated and had already explored the limits of narrative’s ability to represent

‘life,’ it is postmodern culture at large that may have become ‘novelistic.’ As

Stephen Heath has argued, it mass-produces narratives (for television, radio,

film, video, magazines, comic books, novels), thereby creating a situation in

which we must consume ‘the constant narration of the social relations of

individuals, the ordering of meanings for the individual in society’ (Heath

1982: 85). Perhaps this is why story-telling has returned – but as a problem,

not as a given.


It is still a truism of anti-postmodernist criticism that this return has been

at the expense of a sense of history. But perhaps it just depends on your




52 The Politics of Postmodernism


definition of history – or History. We may indeed get few postmodern

narrative representations of the heroic victors who have traditionally defined

who and what made it into History. Often we get instead both the story and

the story-telling of the non-combatants or the losers: the Canadian Indians of

Rudy Wiebe’s The Temptations of Big Bear or Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful

Losers; the women of Troy in Christa Wolf’s Cassandra; the blacks of South

Africa or America in the work of J.M. Coetzee, Andre Brink, Toni Morrison,

or Ishmael Reed.


Equally interesting are the postmodern attempts to go beyond the

traditional representational forms of both fictional and historical narration:

Patrick Suskind’s Perfume offers the fictionalized history of eighteenthcentury

France in all its olfactory glory, though it must do so through verbal

representations of the physical sense that narrative so rarely records. The

novel offers the sense of smell as the vehicle not only for its historical and

social contextualizing but also for its metafictional commentary, since this is

the tale of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the product of French peasant misery

who is born an ‘abomination’ – with no bodily odor himself, but with the

most discerning nose in the world. The story’s narrator is omniscient and

controlling, as well as being our contemporary and in complicity with us as

readers. He uses this power and position to emphasize from the start the

limits of his (and our) language. As a boy Grenouille has trouble learning the

words of things that have no smell: ‘He could not retain them, confused them

with one another, and even as an adult used them unwillingly and often

incorrectly: justice, conscience, God, joy, responsibility, humility, gratitude,

etc. – what these were meant to express remained a mystery to him’ (Suskind

1986: 25). This may not be surprising, perhaps, for the protagonist of a novel

subtitled: The Story of a Murderer.


Grenouille is constantly aware of the discrepancy between the ‘richness

of the world perceivable by smell’ and ‘the poverty of language’ (Suskind

1986: 26). The narrator suggests that this linguistic impoverishment

accounts for our normal inability to make anything other than gross

distinctions in the ‘smellable world’ (125). The text links the failure of

language to Grenouille’s creativity as the distiller and creator of the greatest

perfumes in the world, and yet, as readers, we can never forget that we know




Postmodernist representation 53


of this only through the very language of the novel. The postmodern paradox

of inscription and subversion governs the metafictive reflexivity. It also

structures the plot, for this is a novel about power: the power the poor peasant

was not born into; the power he acquires in serving others with his gifts (as a

master of scents); the power to kill (for the perfect scent); the power that

perfect scent wields over others. His executioners and the crowd gathered to

witness justice done to this multiple murderer suddenly fall into an ecstatic

orgy of love for their victim – when he applies the ‘perfume’ distilled from

the murdered girl who had possessed the most powerful smell in the world:

‘A power stronger than the power of money or the power of terror or the

power of death: the invincible power to command the love of mankind’



Perfume points to the absence of the representation of the sense of smell

in historical, social, or fictional narratives. The olfactory density of the novel


– recounted through verbal representation, of course – ishistorically specific

and accurate and also socially significant. This is historiographic

metafiction, fictionalized history with a parodic twist. The form this twist

takes may vary from novel to novel, but it is always present: Mario Vargas

Llosa’s The War of the End of the World represents the history of the 1896

Canudos War in northeastern Brazil, but its parody shows how traditional

narrative models – both historiographical and fictional – that are based on

European models of continuous chronology and cause-and-effect relations

are utterly inadequate to the task of narrating the history of the New World.

Such a clashing of various possible discourses of narrative representation

is one way of signalling the postmodern use and abuse of convention that

works to ‘de-doxify’ any sense of the seamlessness of the join between the

natural and the cultural, the world and the text, thereby making us aware of

the irreducible ideological nature of every representation – of past or present.

This complexity of clashing discourses can be seen in many historiographic

metafictions. In Angela Carter’s ‘Black Venus,’ as we shall see in the last

chapter, the discourses of male erotic representation of woman and those of

female and colonial self-representations are juxtaposed with a certain

political efficacy. Similarly, confrontations between contemporary narrators

and their narrated historical contexts occur in novels as diverse as Banville’s




54 The Politics of Postmodernism


Doctor Copernicus and Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman or A



In challenging the seamless quality of the history/fiction (or world/art)

join implied by realist narrative, postmodern fiction does not, however,

disconnect itself from history or the world. It foregrounds and thus contests

the conventionality and unacknowledged ideology of that assumption of

seamlessness and asks its readers to question the processes by which we

represent our selves and our world to ourselves and to become aware of the

means by which we make sense of and construct order out of experience in

our particular culture. We cannot avoid representation. We can try to avoid

fixing our notion of it and assuming it to be transhistorical and transcultural.

We can also study how representation legitimizes and privileges certain

kinds of knowledge – including certain kinds of historical knowledge. As

Perfume implies, our access through narrative to the world of experience –

past or present – is always mediated by the powers and limits of our

representations of it. This is as true of historiographical narrative as it is of



In his review article, ‘The question of narrative in contemporary

historical theory,’ Hayden White outlines the role assigned to narrative

representation in the various schools of thought about the theory of history.

Given that narrative has become problematic in historiography as well as

fiction, what is interesting is that the same issues arise: narrative

representation as a mode of knowledge and explanation, as unavoidably

ideological, as a localizable code. One way of outlining some of these

parallel concerns would be to look at a historiographic metafiction that

directly addresses the intersection of the debates about representation in both

the novel and history: Graham Swift’s Waterland, a didactic fictive lesson or

a meditation on history – or both. No historical characters populate this book,

but it is a profoundly historical work none the less, in both form and content.


Its first (unattributed) epigraph conditions our entry into the novel and

prepares us for the ‘de-doxifying’ of narrative representation that it proceeds

to enact: ‘Historia, ae, f. 1. inquiry, investigation, learning. 2. a) a narrative

of past events, history. b) any kind of narrative: account, tale, story.’ The

novel’s action opens in the ‘fairy tale’ landscape of the fen country of




Postmodernist representation 55


England, a land so flat that it drives its inhabitants either to ‘unquiet’ or to

telling stories, especially to calm the fears of children. This is a land ‘both

palpable and unreal’ (Swift 1983: 6), an apt, self-reflexive setting for any

fiction. The narrator, Tom Crick, comes from a family that has the ‘knack for

telling stories’ of all kinds: true or made up, believable or unbelievable –

‘stories which were neither one thing nor another’ (1–2). This is a fitting

description, too, of Waterland itself.


However, the second chapter is called ‘About the end of history.’ It is

addressed to the second-person plural ‘Children’ by Crick, their history

teacher, who has spent his life trying to ‘unravel the mysteries of the past’

(Swift 1983: 4), but who is now to be retired because of some personal

embarrassment, though the official reason is that his school is ‘cutting back

on history.’ Crick’s response is to defend his discipline – and his personal

past: ‘sack me, don’t dismiss what I stand for. Don’t banish my history’ (18).

But his students seem little interested in his subject; for them history is a

‘fairy tale’ (5) and they prefer to learn of the ‘here and now’ of a world

threatened by nuclear annihilation. From the opening pages of the novel,

both history-telling and story-telling are thus linked to fear.


They are also connected to the marshy, reclaimed land of the fen country,

primarily through the major historical metaphor of the novel: ‘Silt: which

shapes and undermines continents; which demolishes as it builds; which is

simultaneous accretion and erosion; neither progress nor decay’ (Swift

1983: 7). A more perfect image of postmodern paradox would be hard to

find. In terms of history, the allegorical, slow ‘process of human siltation’ is

contrasted with that of revolution and of ‘grand metamorphoses.’ To Crick,

reality is what the monotonous fens provide: reality is ‘that nothing

happens.’ Historiography’s causality is only a construct: ‘How many of the

events of history have occurred . . . for this or for that reason, but for no other

reason, fundamentally, than the desire to make things happen? I present to

you History, the fabrication, the diversion, the reality-obscuring drama.

History, and its near relative, Histrionics’ (34). He would like to replace the

heroes of history with the silenced crowds who do the ‘donkey-work of

coping with reality’ (34).




56 The Politics of Postmodernism


Nevertheless, Crick realizes that we all imitate ‘the grand repertoire of

history’ in miniature and endorse ‘its longing for presence, for feature, for

purpose, for content’ (Swift 1983: 34–5) in order to convince ourselves that

reality means something. He himself attributes his becoming a history

teacher to the tales his mother told him when he was afraid of the dark as a

child. Later, when he wanted ‘an Explanation,’ he studied history as an

academic discipline, only to ‘uncover in this dedicated search more

mysteries, more fantasticalities, more wonders and grounds for

astonishment’ (53). In other words, as it had begun for him, history continues

to be ‘a yarn’: ‘History itself, the Grand Narrative, the filler of vacuums, the

dispeller of fears of the dark’ (53).


The story Crick actually tells us and the ‘Children’ is one that is overtly

fictive history, and we get to watch the fictionalizing process at work. At one

point we are told: ‘History does not record whether the day of Thomas’s

funeral was one of those dazzling mid-winter Fenland days’ (Swift 1983:

70), but fourteen pages later, Thomas’s funeral takes place under a definitely

dazzling sky. Crick is aware of this creative, constructive process. At one

point he stops: ‘Children, you are right. There are times when we have to

disentangle history from fairy-tale. . . . History, being an accredited subscience,

only wants to know facts. History, if it is to keep on constructing its

road into the future, must do so on solid ground’ (74) – something his

slippery fen-country tale often seems to lack. Swift manages to raise the issue

of narrative emplotment and its relation to both fictionality and

historiography at the same time as he begins his problematization of the

notion of historical knowledge. Crick tells his students: ‘When you asked, as

all history classes ask, as all history classes should ask, what is the point of

history? Why history? Why the past?’ he feels he can reply: ‘Isn’t this

seeking of reasons itself inevitably an historical process, since it must always

work backwards from what came after to what came before?’ (92).


The study of history – that ‘cumbersome but precious bag of clues’ –

involves inquiry that attempts to ‘uncover the mysteries of cause and effect’

(Swift 1983: 92), but most of all it teaches us ‘to accept the burden of our need

to ask why’ (93). That process of asking becomes more important than the

details of historiography: ‘the attempt to give an account, with incomplete




Postmodernist representation 57


knowledge, of actions themselves undertaken with incomplete knowledge’

(94). As he later says, ‘History: a lucky dip of meanings. Events elude

meaning, but we look for meanings’ (122) and we create them.


Tom Crick is in some ways an allegorical representation of the

postmodern historian who might well have read, not just Collingwood, with

his view of the historian as storyteller and detective, but also Hayden White,

Dominick LaCapra, Raymond Williams, Michel Foucault, and Jean-

Francois Lyotard. The debates about the nature and status of narrative

representation in historical discourse coincide and are inextricably

intertwined with the challenges offered by historiographic metafiction. Yet

we have seen that postmodern fiction is typically denounced as

dehistoricized, if not ahistorical, especially by Marxist critics. In the light of

fiction like Waterland or Midnight’s Children or Ragtime this position would

seem difficult to maintain. Of course, the problematized histories of

postmodernism have little to do with the single totalizing History of

Marxism, but they cannot be accused of neglecting or refusing engagement

with the issues of historical representation and knowledge.


Among the consequences of the postmodern desire to denaturalize

history is a new self-consciousness about the distinction between the brute

events of the past and the historical facts we construct out of them. Facts are

events to which we have given meaning. Different historical perspectives

therefore derive different facts from the same events. Take Paul Veyne’s

example of Louis XIV’s cold: even though the cold was a royal one, it was

not a political event and therefore it would be of no interest to a history of

politics, but it could be of considerable interest for a history of health and

sanitation in France (Veyne 1971: 35). Postmodern fiction often thematizes

this process of turning events into facts through the filtering and interpreting

of archival documents. Roa Bastos’s I the Supreme presents a narrator who

admits to being a compiler of discourses and whose text is woven out of

thousands of documents researched by the author. Of course, documents

have always functioned in this way in historical fiction of any kind. But in

historiographic metafiction the very process of turning events into facts

through the interpretation of archival evidence is shown to be a process of

turning the traces of the past (our only access to those events today) into




58 The Politics of Postmodernism


historical representation. In so doing, suchpostmodern fictionunderlines the

realization that ‘the past is not an “it” in the sense of an objectified entity that

may either be neutrally represented in and for itself or projectively

reprocessed in terms of our own narrowly “presentist” interests’ (LaCapra

1987: 10). While these are the words of a historian writing about historical

representation, they also describe well the postmodern lessons about

fictionalized historical representation.


The issue of representation in both fiction and history has usually been

dealt with in epistemological terms, in terms of how we know the past. The

past is not something to be escaped, avoided, or controlled – as various forms

of modernist art suggest through their implicit view of the ‘nightmare’ of

history. The past is something with which we must come to terms and such a

confrontation involves an acknowledgement of limitation as well as power.

We only have access to the past today through its traces – its documents, the

testimony of witnesses, and other archival materials. In other words, we only

have representations of the past from which to construct our narratives or

explanations. In a very real sense, postmodernism reveals a desire to

understand present culture as the product of previous representations. The

representation of history becomes the history of representation. What this

means is that postmodern art acknowledges and accepts the challenge of

tradition: the history of representation cannot be escaped but it can be both

exploited and commented on critically through irony and parody, as we shall

see in more detail in chapter 4. The forms of representation used and abused

by this paradoxical postmodern strategy can vary – from the parodic and

historic architectural forms in Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor that mirror and

structure the novel’s intricate narrative representation (itself parodic and

historic) to the strangely transcribed oral histories of the post-nuclearholocaust

world of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, where the narratives of

the past exist but are, in the text’s words, ‘changet so much thru the years

theyre all bits and blips and all mixt up’ (Hoban 1980: 20).


As this kind of novel makes clear, there are important parallels between

the processes of history-writing and fiction-writing and among the most

problematic of these are their common assumptions about narrative and

about the nature of mimetic representation. The postmodern situation is that




Postmodernist representation 59


a ‘truth is being told, with “facts” to back it up, but a teller constructs that

truth and chooses those facts’ (Foley 1986: 67). In fact, that teller – of story

or history – also constructs those very facts by giving a particular meaning to

events. Facts do not speak for themselves in either form of narrative: the

tellers speak for them, making these fragments of the past into a discursive

whole. The ‘true’ story of the historical gangster, Jack Diamond, that we read

in William Kennedy’s Legs is shown to be a postmodern compromised one

from its very title: ‘Legs’ is the protagonist’s public label, the name the

newspapers give him. In Jack’s words: ‘All the garbage they ever wrote

about me is true to people who don’t know me’ (Kennedy 1975: 245) – that

is to say, to people like us. Brian McHale calls this kind of work a ‘revisionist

historical novel’ (McHale 1987: 90) because he feels it revises and

reinterprets the official historical record and transforms the conventions of

historical fiction. I would rather put this challenge in terms of a denaturalizing

of the conventions of representing the past in narrative –

historical and fictional – that is done in such a way that the politics of the act

of representing are made manifest.


One of the clearest examples of this process self-consciously at work is

(ironically) a novel by a Marxist critic who has accused postmodern fiction

of being ahistorical: Terry Eagleton’s Saints and Scholars. The introductory

note to the novel asserts that the story is ‘not entirely fantasy.’ Some of the

characters are real, as are some of the events, but most of the rest is invented.

This becomes evident in the first chapter, a fictionalized historical account

of the last hours of Irish revolutionary James Connolly before he is executed

in Kilmainham gaol on 12 May 1916. But the account ends with a remark that

engenders the rest of the fiction to follow:


But history does not always get the facts in the most significant order, or  

arrange them in the most aesthetically pleasing pattern. Napoleon  

survived the battle of Waterloo, but it would have been symbolically 

appropriate if he had been killed there. Florence Nightingale lingered on 

until 1910, but this was an oversight on history’s part.  

(Eagleton 1987b: 10)




60 The Politics of Postmodernism


So the narrator arrests the bullets of the firing squad in mid-air in order to

‘prise open a space in these close-packed events through which Jimmy may

scamper, blast him out of the dreary continuum of history into a different

place altogether’ (10).


The plot action eventually comes to settle around a cottage on the west

coast of Ireland where gather, thanks to irony and chance, a wondrous

collection of historical and fictional excentrics: ‘A Scottish Irishman

[Connolly], an Irish Hungarian [Leopold Bloom], an anglicized Austrian

[Ludwig Wittgenstein], and a Russian [Nicolai Bakhtin, Mikhail’s brother]’

(Eagleton 1987b: 131–2). Though some are real and others fictional, all

characters work to problematize the very distinction: Nicolai Bakhtin is said

to be exceedingly extravagant but nevertheless historically real, and the

others think he is ‘an entirely fictional character,and the only realthing about

him was that he knew it’ (30). When he later tells the fictive Leopold Bloom

that the notion of individuality is a ‘supreme fiction,’ Joyce’s character

replies: ‘You might be a bleeding fiction. . . . You look pretty much like one

to me. I happen to be real. I think I’m just about the only real person here’



The novel’s metafictionality operates through many such parodic

intertextual echoes. To offer another instance: Bakhtin asks Connolly about

the success of the Easter Rising because he is eager to know whether he is ‘in

the presence of a world-historical figure’ (Eagleton 1987b: 94) – Lukacs’s

term for the real personages found within historical fiction. The text’s selfreflexivity

also functions on the level of language and this is where

Wittgenstein fits in. But what is also made clear is that Wittgenstein’s famous

linguistic theories are the direct product of his personal history, and

particularly of his national history as a Viennese and his racial history as a

Jew. When he (characteristically) tries to convince Connolly that the limits

of his language are the limits of his world, the orator and man of action

replies: ‘What do you propose instead? That we should languish in the

prison-house of language . . . ?’ (114). The echo of the title of Jameson’s

book, The Prison-House of Language, is not just a clever move in some

literary-critical recognition game: it invokes the entire context of Marxist

criticism’s (and Eagleton’s own) stand against the reflexivity of language




Postmodernist representation 61


and narrative in the name of politics. This is important because Saints and

Scholars attempts to reconcile these seemingly opposing positions – as

indeed does much historiographic metafiction.


Eagleton’s novel ends with another deferral of those firing-squad bullets

heading for Connolly’s body: ‘When the bullets reached him he would

disappear entirely into myth, his body nothing but a piece of language, the

first cry of the new republic’ (Eagleton 1987b: 145)Of course, we do only



know Connolly today primarily from pieces of language, the traces and texts

of the past. Eagleton wants to do more than problematize this

epistemological reality, though. He offers as well a new way of representing

history – not derived from the official accounts of the victors, but taken from

the unofficial, usually unrecorded perspective of the victims of history. The

novel’s densely detailed descriptions of the life of the poor and the working

class in Dublin are accompanied by analyses of the causes of the misery: the

economic and political maneuverings of imperialist Britain. The plot

contrasts a Viennese Jew’s desire to be ‘hiding from history’ (84) with an

Irish revolutionary leader’s view that to be free ‘you have to remember’

(128), tell your own story, and represent yourself: ‘A colonial territory was a

land where nothing happened, where you reacted to the narrative of your

rulers rather than created one of your own’ (104). Talk is all that is left to ‘a

race bereft of its history’ (104) but talk – ‘discourse’ – is a kind of action:

‘Discourse was something you did. . . . The Irish had never fallen for the

English myth that language was a second-hand reflection of reality’ (105).

Obviously, neither did the postmodern.


This is the kind of novel that works toward a critical return to history and

politics through – not despite – metafictionalself-consciousness and parodic

intertextuality. This is the postmodernist paradox, a ‘use and abuse’ of

history that Nietzsche, when considering that subject, never contemplated.

In Roland Barthes’s terms, we are shown that there is ‘nothing natural

anywhere, nothing but the historical’ anywhere (Barthes 1977b: 139), and

the consequences of this realization form the topic of the next chapter.




Re-presenting the past


‘Total history’ de-totalized


In the light of recent work in many theoretical areas, we have seen that

narrative has come to be acknowledged as, above all, a human-made

structure – never as ‘natural’ or given. Whether it be in historical or fictional

representation, the familiar narrative form of beginning, middle, and end

implies a structuring process that imparts meaning as well as order. The

notion of its ‘end’ suggests both teleology and closure and, of course, both of

these are concepts that have come under considerable scrutiny in recent

years, in philosophical and literary circles alike. The view of narrative that

so much current theory challenges is not new, but it has been given a new

designation: it is considered a mode of ‘totalizing’ representation.


The function of the term totalizing, as I understand it, is to point to the

process (hence the awkward ‘ing’ form) by which writers of history, fiction,

or even theory render their materials coherent, continuous, unified – but

always with an eye to the control and mastery of those materials, even at the

risk of doing violence to them. It is this link to power, as well as process, that

the adjective ‘totalizing’ is meant to suggest, and it is as such that the term




Re-presenting the past 63


has been used to characterize everything from liberal humanist ideals to the

aims of historiography. As Dominick LaCapra has pointed out, the


dream of a ‘total history’ corroborating the historian’s own desire for  

mastery of a documentary repertoire and furnishing the reader with a  

vicarious sense of – orperhaps a project for – control in a world out ofjoint  

has of course been a lodestar of historiography from Hegel to the Annales  


(LaCapra 1985: 25)


Witness Annales historian Fernand Braudel’s stated aim: ‘Everything must

be recaptured and relocated in the general framework of history, so that

despite the difficulties, the fundamental paradoxes and contradictions, we

may respect the unity of history which is also the unity of life’ (Braudel 1980:

16). Totalizing narrative representation has also, of course, been considered

by some critics as the defining characteristic of the novel as a genre, ever

since its beginnings in the overt controlling and ordering (and fictionalizing)

of Cervantes and Sterne.


In very general terms, the postmodern questioning of this totalizing

impulse may well have its roots in some sort of 1960s ’ or late romantic need

to privilege free, unconditioned experience. But this need seems to be

countered these days by an equally strong terror that it is really someone else


– rather than we ourselves – who is plotting, ordering, controlling our life for

us. British-based critics tend to localize as a particularly American

phenomenon a paradoxical desire for and suspicion of totalization, and the

work of writers like Joseph Heller and Thomas Pynchon certainly explains

why they do so. But there are equally powerful examples of the postmodern

paradox of anti-totalizing totalization in resolutely non-American novels

such as Midnight’s Children, The Name of the Rose, or The White Hotel,

novels which structurally both install and subvert the teleology, closure, and

causality of narrative, both historical and fictive.

A similar and equally contradictory impulse can be seen in postmodern

narrative photography – the same doubled urge, ironically playing with

conventions in order to turn the apparent veracity of photography against




64 The Politics of Postmodernism


itself. The overt self-reflexivity in the work of Duane Michaels, for example,

points to his various series of photographs as self-consciously composed,

fictionalized, and manipulated, but the images themselves nevertheless also

function as seemingly transparent documentary representations within a

temporal framework. This contradictory conjunction of the self-reflexive

and the documentary is precisely what characterizes the postmodern return

to story in poetry as well. Marjorie Perloff ( 1985: 158) has argued that much

recent narrative poetry challenges the modernist or late romantic separation

of lyric poetry and narrative prose by foregrounding both the narrative codes

and their (and our) desire for closure as well as for the order usually implied

by systematic plot structure. What this means is that – as in fiction – there is

an opening up of poetry to material once excluded from the genre as impure:

things political, ethical, historical, philosophical. This kind of verse can also

work to contest representation and the traditional notion of the transparent

referentiality of language in its problematizing of narrative form, and as such

resembles, in its effect, historiographic metafiction.


In all these cases, there is an urge to foreground, by means of

contradiction, the paradox of the desire for and the suspicion of narrative

mastery – and master narratives. Historiography too is no longer considered

the objective and disinterested recording of the past; it is more an attempt to

comprehend and master it by means of some working (narrative/

explanatory) model that, in fact, is precisely what grants a particularmeaning

to the past. What historiographic metafictions like Waterland or I the

Supreme ask, as we have seen, is whether the historian discovers or invents

the totalizing narrative form or model used. Of course, both discovery and

invention would involve some recourse to artifice and imagination, but there

is a significant difference in the epistemological value traditionally attached

to the two acts. It is this distinction that postmodernism problematizes.


The totalizing impulse that postmodern art both inscribes and challenges

should probably not be regarded either, on the one hand, as a naive kind of

deliberately imperialistic desire for total control or, on the other, as utterly

unavoidable and humanly inevitable, even necessary. The motivation and

even existence of such totalization may certainly remain unconscious and

repressed (or at least unspoken) or they may be completely overt, as in




Re-presenting the past 65


Fredric Jameson’s deliberate totalizing in the name of Marxism as the only

‘philosophically coherent and ideologically compelling resolution’ to the

dilemmas of historicism (1981: 18). But Jameson’s ‘History’ as

‘uninterrupted narrative,’ however repressed, is exactly what is contested by

the plural, interrupted, unrepressed histories (in the plural) of novels like

Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.


That novel’s postmodern narrating historian might be seen as indirectly

suggesting that not even Marxism can fully subsume all other interpretive

modes. In his postmodern story-telling there is no mediation that can act as a

dialectical term for establishing relationships between narrative form and

social ground. They both remain and they remain separate. The resulting

contradictions are not dialectically resolved, but co-exist in a heterogeneous

way: Rushdie’s novel, in fact, works to prevent any interpretation of its

contradictions as simply the outer discontinuous signs of some repressed

unity – suchasMarxist ‘History’ or ‘the Real.’ In fact, a novel like Midnight’s

Children works to foreground the totalizing impulse of western –

imperialistic – modes of history-writing by confronting it with indigenous

Indian models of history. Though Saleem Sinai narrates in English, in

‘Anglepoised-lit writing,’ his intertexts for both writing history and writing

fiction are doubled: they are,on the one hand, from Indian legends, films, and

literature and, on the other, from the west – The Tin Drum, Tristram Shandy,

One Hundred Years of Solitude, and so on.


Rushdie’s paradoxically anti-totalizing totalized image for his

historiographic metafictive process is the ‘chutnification of history’

(Rushdie 1981: 459). Each chapter of the novel, we are told, is like a pickle

jar that shapes its contents by its very form. The cliche with which Saleem is

clearly playing is that to understand him and his nation, we ‘have to swallow

a world’ and swallow too his literally preposterous story. But chutnification

is also an image of preserving: ‘my chutneys and kasaundies are, after all,

connected to my nocturnal scribblings. . . . Memory, as well as fruit, is being

saved from the corruption of the clocks’ (38). In both processes, however, he

acknowledges inevitable distortions: raw materials are transformed, given

‘shape and form – that is to say, meaning’ (461). This is as true of historywriting

as it is of novel-writing. As Saleem himself acknowledges:




66 The Politics of Postmodernism


Sometimes in the pickles’ version of history, Saleem appears to have  

known too little; at other times, too much . . . yes, I should revise and  

revise, improve and improve; but there is neither the time nor the energy. 

I am obliged to offer no more than this stubborn sentence: It happened that 

way because that’s how it happened.  

(Rushdie 1981: 560–1)


But does that opening ‘It’ of the last statement refer to the events of the past

or to the writing and preserving of them? In a novel about a man writing his

own and his country’s history, a man ‘desperate’ for meaning, as he insists he

is from the first paragraph, the answer cannot be clear.


To challenge the impulse to totalize is to contest the entire notion of

continuity in history and its writing. In Foucault’s terms discontinuity, once

the ‘stigma of temporal dislocation’ that it was the historian’s professional

job to remove from history, has become a new instrument of historical

analysis and simultaneously a result of that analysis. Instead of seeking

common denominators and homogeneous networks of causality and

analogy, historians have been freed, Foucault argues, to note the dispersing

interplay of different, heterogeneous discourses that acknowledge the

undecidable in both the past and our knowledge of the past. What has

surfaced is something different from the unitary, closed, evolutionary

narratives of historiography as we have traditionally known it: as we have

been seeing in historiographic metafiction as well, we now get the histories

(in the plural) of the losers as well as the winners, of the regional (and

colonial) as well as the centrist, of the unsung many as well as the much sung

few, and I might add, of women as well as men.


These are among the issues raised by postmodern fiction in its

paradoxical confrontation of self-consciously fictive and resolutely

historical representation. The narrativization of past events is not hidden; the

events no longer seem to speak for themselves, but are shown to be

consciously composed into a narrative, whose constructed – not found –

order is imposed upon them, often overtly by the narrating figure. The

process of making stories out of chronicles, of constructing plots out of

sequences, is what postmodern fiction underlines. This does not in any way




Re-presenting the past 67


deny the existence of the past real, but it focuses attention on the act of

imposing order on that past, of encoding strategies of meaning-making

through representation.


Among the lessons taught by this didactic postmodern fiction is that of the

importance of context, of discursive situation, in the narrativizing acts of

both fiction and historiography: novels like Timothy Findley’s Famous Last

Words or Salman Rushdie’s Shame teach us that both forms of narrative

representation are, in fact, particularized uses of language (i.e. discourses)

that inscribe social and ideological contexts. While both historians and

novelists (not to mention literary critics) have a long tradition of trying to

erase textual elements which would ‘situate’ them in their texts,

postmodernism refuses such an obfuscation of the context of its enunciation.

The particularizing and contextualizing that characterize the postmodern

focus are, of course, direct responses to those strong (and very common)

totalizing and universalizing impulses. But the resulting postmodern

relativity and provisionality are not causes for despair; they are to be

acknowledged as perhaps the very conditions of historical knowledge.

Historical meaning may thus be seen today as unstable, contextual,

relational, and provisional, but postmodernism argues that, in fact, it has

always been so. And it uses novelistic representations to underline the

narrative nature of much of that knowledge.


As Lyotard argued in The Postmodern Condition, narrative is still the

quintessential way we represent knowledge and this explains why the

denigration of narrative knowledge by positivistic science has provoked

such a strong response from so many different domains and points of view.

In many fields, narrative is, and always has been, a valid mode of

explanation, and historians have always availed themselves of its ordering

as well as its explanatory powers.


This is not unrelated to Collingwood’s early notion that the historian’s job

is to tell plausible stories, made out of the mess of fragmentary and

incomplete facts, facts which he or she processes and to which he or she

thereby grants meaning through emplotment. Hayden White, of course, goes

even further and points to how historians suppress, repeat, subordinate,

highlight, and order those facts, but once again, the result is to endow the




68 The Politics of Postmodernism


events of the past with a certain meaning. To call this act a literary act is, for

White, in no way to detract from its significance. However, what

contradictory postmodern fiction shows is how such meaning-granting can

be undermined even as it is asserted. In Pynchon’s V., for instance, the

writing of history is seen as an ultimately futile attempt to form experience

into meaning. The multiple and peripheral perspectives offered in the

fiction’s eye-witness accounts resist any final meaningful closure. And

despite the recognizable historical context (of the Cold War years and their

paranoia or of German policies in southwest Africa), the past still resists

complete human understanding. A plot, be it seen as a narrative structure or

as a conspiracy, is always a totalizing representation that integrates multiple

and scattered events into one unified story. But the simultaneous desire for

and suspicion of such representations are both part of the postmodern

contradictory response to emplotment.


In writing about historical events, both the emplotting historian and the

novelist are usually considered as working within certain constraints – those

of chronology, for instance. But what happens when postmodern fiction ‘dedoxifies’

even such obvious and ‘natural’ constraints, when Midnight’s

Children’s narrator notices an error in chronology in his narrative, but then

decides, ‘in my India, Gandhi will continue to die at the wrong time?’ Later

he also inverts the order of his own tenth birthday and the 1957 election, and

keeps that order because his memory stubbornly refuses to alter the sequence

of events. Rushdie offers no real answer to the questions Saleem poses, but

the issues are raised in such an overt manner that we too are asked to confront

them. Worried about that error in the date of Gandhi’s death, Saleem asks us:


Does one error invalidate the entire fabric? Am I so far gone, in my  

desperate need for meaning, that I’m prepared to distort everything – to  

re-write the whole history of my times purely in order to place myself in  

a central role? Today, in my confusion, I can’t judge. I’ll have to leave it  

to others.  

(Rushdie 1981: 166)




Re-presenting the past 69


Well, others (like us) are indeed left to ask – but not only of this particular

error within this particular novel – if one error would invalidate the entire

fabric of representation in history or fiction?


A related question: in the drive to totalize and give unified meaning to

historiography as well as fiction, are elisions (if not errors) not likely to occur

which would condition the ‘truth to fact’ of any representation of the past?

Related issues are certainly being discussed in Marxist and feminist theory

today, but they also come up in a novel like John Berger’s rather didactic G.

Here, the narrator intervenes in the middle of a description of a fictive

character caught up in a real historical event:


I cannot continue this account of the eleven-year-old boy in Milan on 6  

May 1898. From this point on everything I write will either converge upon  

a final full stop or else disperse so widely that it will become incoherent.  

Yet there was no such convergence and no incoherence. To stop here,  

despite all that I leave unsaid, is to admit more of the truth than will be  

possible if I bring the account to a conclusion. The writer’s desire to finish 

is fatal to the truth. The End unifies. Unity must be established in another  


(Berger 1972b: 77)


The only other way offered here is the representation of the brute data of

historical event (the number of dead workers in the Milan uprising) and their

political consequences – ‘the end of a phase of Italian history’ and the

initiation of a new one which meant that ‘crude repression gave way to

political manipulation’ (77) which kept suppressed any revolutionary urges

for at least twenty years.


While this is as much an ‘End’ and a ‘Unity’ as those of the fictive

narrative would have been, it does act to foreground the postmodern

suspicion of closure, of both its arbitrariness and its foreclosing interpretive

power. Perhaps this explains the multiple endings of E.L. Doctorow’s

fictionalizing of the Rosenbergs’ history in The Book of Daniel. Various plot

and thematic threads are rather problematically tied up, but in such an overt

way that they point to suspicious continuity as much as relativized finality.




70 The Politics of Postmodernism


In one ending Daniel goes back to the site of past trauma, the house of his

parents who have been executed for treason, only to find the quality of life

there worse, perhaps, than that of his experience: in the life of the poor black

inhabitants, however, he sees a continuity of suffering that forbids him to

wallow in personal pain. Another ending presents his sister’s funeral,

complete with paid prayers, offering a Kaddish for all the dead, past and

present, of Daniel’s life and this novel. And in yet another ending, as he sits

in the Columbia University library stacks in May 1968, writing the

dissertation/novel/ journal/confession we read, he is told to ‘Close the book,

man,’ for the revolution has begun, and its locus is life, not books. As he

writes the last pages we read, the book and this ending self-consciously selfdestruct

in a manner reminiscent of the final page of One Hundred Years of

Solitude. And, of course, the very last words we actually read are those of yet

another ‘Book of Daniel’ – the biblical one.


Postmodern fiction like this exploits and yet simultaneously calls into

question notions of closure, totalization, and universality that are part of

those challenged grand narratives. Rather than seeing this paradoxical use

and abuse as a sign of decadence or as a cause for despair, it might be possible

to postulate a less negative interpretation that would allow for at least the

potential for radical critical possibilities. Perhaps we need a rethinking of the

social and political (as well as the literary and historical) representations by

which we understand our world. Maybe we need to stop trying to find

totalizing narratives which dissolve difference and contradiction (into, for

instance, either humanist eternal Truth or Marxist dialectic).


Knowing the past in the present


Among the unresolved contradictions of representation in postmodern

fiction is that of the relation between the past and the present. In The Book of

Daniel, various stands on this issue are thematized: the 1960s’ revolutionary,

Artie Sternlicht, rejects the past in the name of the present and future; Susan

lives too much in the past and dies for it; Daniel tries to sort out the past in

order to understand his present. This relationship is one that has preoccupied




Re-presenting the past 71


historiography since at least the last century. Historians are aware that they

establish a relationship between the past they write about and the present in

which they write. The past may have appeared as confused, plural, and

unstructured as the present does as it was lived, but the historians’ task is to

order this fragmented experience into knowledge: ‘For the whole point of

history is not to know about actions as witnesses might, but as historians do,

in connection with later events and as parts of temporal wholes’ (Danto

1965: 185). In historiographic metafiction, it is this same realization that

underlies the frequent use of anachronisms, where earlier historical

characters speak the concepts and language clearly belonging to later figures

(as in Banville’s Doctor Copernicus or Doctorow’s Ragtime).


For the most part historiographic metafiction, like much contemporary

theory of history, does not fall into either ‘presentism’ or nostalgia in its

relation to the past it represents. What it does is de-naturalize that temporal

relationship. In both historiographic theory and postmodern fiction, there is

an intense self-consciousness (both theoretical and textual) about the act of

narrating in the present the events of the past, about the conjunction of

present action and the past absent object of that agency. In both historical and

literary postmodern representation, the doubleness remains; there is no sense

of either historian or novelist reducing the strange past to verisimilar present.

The contemporary resonances of the narration of a historical period piece

like Natalie Zemon Davis’s book (or film) of The Return of Martin Guerre

coexist with their counter-expectation in the form of the challenge to our

romantic cliched conventions of love conquering all. This is deliberately

doubly coded narrative, just as postmodern architecture is a doubly coded

form: they are historical and contemporary. There is no dialectic resolution

or recuperation in either case.


Works like Coover’s The Public Burning or Doctorow’s The Book of

Daniel do not rewrite, refashion, or expropriate history merely to satisfy

either some game-playing or some totalizing impulse; instead, they

juxtapose what we think we know of the past (from official archival sources

and personal memory) with an alternate representation that foregrounds the

postmodern epistemological questioning of the nature of historical

knowledge. Which ‘facts’ make it into history? And whose facts? The




72 The Politics of Postmodernism


narrating ‘historian’ of Rushdie’s Shamefinds that he has trouble keeping his

present knowledge of events from contaminating his representation of the

past. This is the condition of all writing about the past, be it fictional (‘it

seems that the future cannot be restrained, and insists on seeping back into

the past’ (Rushdie 1983: 24)) or factual (‘It is possible to see the subsequent

history of Pakistan as a duel between two layers of time, the obscured world

forcing its way back through what-had-been-imposed’ (87)). The narrator

knows that it ‘is the true desire of every artist to impose his or her vision on

the world’ (87). He goes on to ponder this similarity of impulse between

historical and fictional writing: ‘I, too, face the problem of history: what to

retain, what to dump, how to hold on to what memory insists on

relinquishing, how to deal with change’ (87–8). What he knows complicates

his narrative task in that he is dealing with a past ‘that refuses to be

suppressed, that is daily doing battle with the present’ (88), both in his novel

and in the actual, present-day history of Pakistan. He even admits that the

inspiration for his fictive investigation of the notion of shame came from a

real newspaper account of a murder in London of a Pakistani girl by her own

father (116) – or so he says. The present and the past, the fictive and the

factual: the boundaries may frequently be transgressed in postmodern

fiction, but there is never any resolution of the ensuing contradictions. In

other words, the boundaries remain, even if they are challenged.


It is at this level that these epistemological questions of postmodern

narrative representation are posed. How can the present know the past it

tells? We constantly narrate the past, but what are the conditions of the

knowledge implied by that totalizing act of narration? Must a historical

account acknowledge where it does not know for sure or is it allowed to

guess? Do we know the past only through the present? Or is it a matter of only

being able to understand the present through the past? As we have seen, these

confusing questions are those raised by postmodern novels like Graham

Swift’s Waterland. In the opposition between the history-teacher narrator

and his present-oriented students are enacted the conflicts of contemporary

historiographic debate. For the narrator, ‘life is one-tenth Here and Now,

nine-tenths a history lesson’ (Swift 1983: 52), but it is that one-tenth that has

taught him ‘that history was no invention but indeed existed – and I had




Re-presenting the past 73


become part of it’ (53). The novel’s fens landscape opposes the flux of water

(an image of both time and space) to the attempt at fixity by land reclamation


– and also by the discipline of history (both as memory and as story-telling).

The question is never whether the events of the past actually took place. The

past did exist – independently of our capacity to know it. Historiographic

metafiction accepts this philosophically realist view of the past and then

proceeds to confront it with an anti-realist one that suggests that, however

true that independence may be, nevertheless the past exists for us – now –

only as traces on and in the present. The absent past can only be inferred from

circumstantial evidence.

The tensions created by this realization that we can likely only know the

past through our present do not absolve postmodern historians or novelists

from trying to avoid dissolving those tensions, no matter how uncomfortable

they might make them. This, of course, was one of the lessons of Brecht:


we must drop our habit of taking the different social structures of past

periods, then stripping them of everything that makes them different; so

that they all look more or less like our own, which then acquires from this

process a certain air of having been there all along, in other words, of

permanence pure and simple. Instead we must leave them their

distinguishing marks and keep their impermanence always before our

eyes, so that our own period can be seen to be impermanent too.  

(Brecht 1964: 190)


Postmodern fiction stresses even more than this (if that is possible) the

tensions that exist, on the one hand, between the pastness (and absence) of

the past and the presentness (and presence) of the present, and on the other,

between the actual events of the past and the historian’s act of processing

them into facts. The anachronistic intertextual references to modern works

of science, philosophy, and aesthetics in Banville’s Doctor Copernicus point

to the contemporary relevance of the issues also raised in the sixteenth

century: the relations between theory and praxis, words and things, science

and the universe. But because the manner in which these questions are

presented is self-consciously anachronistic, the text also points at the same




74 The Politics of Postmodernism


time to the novelist’s act of making past/present connections in such a way

that there is still a radical discontinuity between then and now, between

experiencing and knowing.


Knowing the past becomes a question of representing, that is, of

constructing and interpreting, not of objective recording. Just as the Rankean

objectivity theory of history-writing was challenged by Hegel, Droysen,

Nietzsche, Croce, and so many others, so the metafictional aspects of

historiographic metafiction also highlight the areas in which interpretation

enters the domain of historiographic representation (in the choice of

narrative strategy, explanatory paradigm, or ideological encoding) to

condition any notion of history as objective presentation of past events,

rather than as interpretive representation of those past events, which are

given meaning (as historical facts) by the very discourse of the historian.

What is foregrounded in postmodern theory and practice is the selfconscious

inscription within history of the existing, but usually concealed,

attitude of historians toward their material. Provisionality and

undecidability, partisanship and even overt politics – these are what replace

the pose of objectivity and disinterestedness that denies the interpretive and

implicitly evaluative nature of historical representation.


The question of objectivity in historiography is not just one of

methodology. As discussed in the last chapter, it is also related to what

Jameson calls the ‘crisis of representation’ of our culture, ‘in which an

essentially realist epistemology, which conceives of representation as the

reproduction, for subjectivity, of an objectivity that lies outside it – projects

a mirror theory of knowledge and art, whose fundamental evaluative

categories are those of adequacy, accuracy, and Truth itself’ (Jameson

1984b: viii). The epistemological issues raised by representation in both

historiography and fiction belong in the context of this crisis. The work of

Hayden White has clearly been important in bringing these issues into the

forefront of historical and literary critical discussions. He has asked the same

kind of questions that novels like Berger’s G. or Boyd’s The New

Confessions have asked:




Re-presenting the past 75


What is the structure of a peculiarly historical consciousness? What is the  

epistemological status of historical explanations as compared with other  

kinds of explanations that might be offered to account for the materials  

with which historians ordinarily deal? What are the possible forms of  

historical representation and what are their bases? By what authority can 

historical accounts claim to be contributions to a secured knowledge of  

reality in general and to the human sciences in particular?  

(White 1978a: 41)


The issue of representation and its epistemological claims leads directly

to the problem introduced in the last chapter regarding the nature and status

of the ‘fact’ in both history-writing and fiction-writing. All past ‘events’ are

potential historical ‘facts,’ but the ones that become facts are those that are

chosen to be narrated. We have seen that this distinction between brute event

and meaning-granted fact is one with which postmodern fiction seems

obsessed. At a certain moment in his relating of the contemporary history of

India and Pakistan in Midnight’s Children, Saleem Sinai addresses his

reader: ‘I am trying hard to stop being mystifying. Important to concentrate

on good hard facts. But which facts?’ (Rushdie 1981: 338). This is a serious

problem because at one point he cannot tell, from ‘accurate’ accounts in

documents (newspapers), whether Pakistani troops really did enter Kashmir

or not. The ‘Voice of Pakistan’ and ‘All-India Radio’ give totally opposing

reports. And if they did (or did not) enter, what were the motives? ‘Again, a

rash of possible explanations,’ we are told (339). Saleem parodies the

historiographical drive toward causality and motivation through his

reductive, megalomaniacal exaggeration: ‘This reason or that or the other?

To simplify matters, I present two of my own: the war happened because I

dreamed Kashmir into the fantasies of our rulers; furthermore, I remained

impure, and the war was to separate me from my sins’ (339).


Such a perspective may be the only possible response left to a world where

‘[n]othing was real; nothing certain’ (Rushdie 1981: 340). Certainly the

text’s grammar here alters – from assertive sentences to a long list of

interrogatives that ends with what might be the ultimate example of

contradictory postmodern discourse: ‘Aircraft, real or fictional, dropped




76 The Politics of Postmodernism


actual or mythical bombs’ (341). Compared to what the sources and

documents of history offer him, Saleem himself is ‘only the humblest of

jugglers-with-facts’ in a country ‘where truth is what it is instructed to be’

(326). The ideological as well as historiographic implications here are overt.

The text’s self-reflexivity points in two directions at once, toward the events

being represented in the narrative and toward the act of narration itself. This

is precisely the same doubleness that characterizes all historical narrative.

Neither form of representation can separate ‘facts’ from the acts of

interpretation and narration that constitute them, for facts (though not

events) are created in and by those acts. And what actually becomes fact

depends as much as anything else on the social and cultural context of the

historian, as feminist theorists have shown with regard to women writers of

history over the centuries.


Despite first appearances, the distinction between fact and event is

actually quite different from that other opposition which is central to the

criticism of the novel genre: that of fiction versus non-fiction. But because

postmodern novels focus on the process of event becoming fact, they draw

attention to the dubiousness of the positivist, empiricist hierarchy implied in

the binary opposing of the real to the fictive, and they do so by suggesting

that the non-fictional is as constructed and as narratively known as is fiction.

For some critics, all novels are ambivalent in their attitude toward the

separation of fact and fiction, but some historiographic metafictions do seem

more overtly and problematically so. In his Factual Fictions: The Origins of

the English Novel (1983), Lennard Davis argues convincingly for the

coterminous discursive identity of fact and fiction in the mid-eighteenthcentury

novel of Defoe and others. But in the postmodern rewriting of

Robinson Crusoe in J.M. Coetzee’s Foe, it is necessary that we separate what

we know of the history of the writing of Defoe’s novel (its sources, its

intertexts) from what Coetzee offers as the (fictionally) real – but absented

and silenced – female origin of the story: the experience of castaway Susan

Barton. This may not be ‘true’ of Defoe’s particular story, but it does have

something to say about the position of women and the politics of

representation in both the fiction and the nonfiction of the eighteenth





Re-presenting the past 77


When historiographic metafictions use the verifiable events and

personages of history, like Defoe or Indira Gandhi, they are open to being

attacked for inaccuracies, lying, slander, or simply bad taste. Fuentes’s Terra

Nostra deliberately and provocatively violates what is conventionally

accepted as true about the events of the past: Elizabeth I gets married;

Columbus is a century or so out in his discovery of America. But the facts of

this warped history are no more – or less – fictionally constructed than are the

overtly fictive and intertextual ones: characters from different Spanish-

American novels all come together in one scene, with apt echoes of At SwimTwo-

Birds, Mulligan Stew, and other experimental fiction. The realist notion

of characters only being able to coexist legitimately if they belong to the

same text is clearly challenged here in both historical and fictional terms. The

facts of these fictional representations are as true – and false – as the facts of

history-writing can be, for they always exist as facts, not events. In the

representations of Coover’s Nixon in The Public Burning and Bowering’s

George Vancouver in Burning Water this interpretive process is made overt.


It is interesting that, in his influential discussion of the historical novel,

Georg Lukacs did not demand correctness of individual facts as a condition

of defining the historical faithfulness of situation. Historical data

traditionally enter nineteenth-century historical fiction in order to reinforce

the text’s claim to verifiability or at least to a persuasive rendering into fact

of its events. Of course, all realist fiction has always used historical events,

duly transformed into facts, in order to grant to its fictive universe a sense of

circumstantiality and specificity of detail, as well as verifiability. What

postmodern fiction does is make overt the fact-making and meaninggranting

processes. The narrator of Rushdie’s Shame announces:


The country in this story is not Pakistan, or not quite. There are two  

countries, real and fictional, occupying the same space. My story, my  

fictional country exist, like myself, at a slight angle to reality. I have found  

this off-centring to be necessary; but its value is, of course, open to debate.  

My view is that I am not writing only about Pakistan.  

(Rushdie 1983: 29)




78 The Politics of Postmodernism


The open mixing of the fictive with the historical in the narrator’s storytelling

is made into part of the very narrative:


In Delhi, in the days before partition, the authorities rounded up any  

Muslims . . . and locked them up in the red fortress . . . including members  

of my own family. It’s easy to imagine that as my relatives moved through  

the Red Fort in the parallel universe of history, they might have felt some  

hint of the fictional presence of Bilquis Kemal.  

(Rushdie 1983: 64)


A few pages later, however, we are reminded: ‘If this were a realistic novel

about Pakistan, I would not be writing about Bilquis and the wind; I would

be talking about my youngest sister’ (68) – about whom he then does indeed

talk. The seeming non sequitur here points both to the arbitrariness of the

process of deciding which events become facts and to the relationship

between realist fiction and the writing of history. Although the narrator

writes from England, he chooses to write about Pakistan, acknowledging

that ‘I am forced to reflect that world in fragments of broken mirrors. . . . I

must reconcile myself to the inevitability of the missing bits’ (69) – a

warning meant for the reader of both fiction and history.


Historiographic metafiction like this is self-conscious about the paradox

of the totalizing yet inevitably partial act of narrative representation. It

overtly ‘de-doxifies’ received notions about the process of representing the

actual in narrative – be it fictional or historical. It traces the processing of

events into facts, exploiting and then undermining the conventions of both

novelistic realism and historiographic reference. It implies that, like fiction,

history constructs its object, that events named become facts and thus both

do and do not retain their status outside language. This is the paradox of

postmodernism. The past really did exist, but we can only know it today

through its textual traces, its often complex and indirect representations in

the present: documents, archives, but also photographs, paintings,

architecture, films, and literature.

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