The Politics of Postmodernism




Re-presenting the past 79


The archive as text


When critics write of the ‘prior textualization’ of history or suggest that

events are really just abstractions from narratives, they directly echo the

insights of historiographic metafiction. In theoretical debates, what has been

emphasized is the specifically textual nature of the archival traces of those

events, traces by which we infer meaning and grant factual status to those

empirical data. We only know, for instance, that wars existed by the accounts

of them in the documents and eye-witness reports of the time. And the point

is, these archival traces are by no means unproblematic in their different

possible interpretations. Historiographic metafiction’s self-conscious

thematizing of the processes of fact-producing also foregrounds this

hermeneutic problem. In Christa Wolf’s Cassandra, we are asked to imagine

that the usually accepted ‘fact’ of Paris’s abduction of Helen to Troy might

actually have been a fiction created by the Trojan council and the priests. If

so, in Cassandra’s words: ‘I saw how a news report was manufactured, hard,

forged, polished like a spear’ (Wolf 1984: 64). She watched as ‘people ran

through the streets cheering. I saw a news item turn into the truth’ (65). What

Wolf offers is the hypothesis that the war thought to have been fought over

Helen was really fought over lying pride: Helen was, in fact, taken from Paris

by the King of Egypt and never reached Troy. And, of course, according to

the history books, if not Homer’s epic, as she reminds us, the war was

officially fought over sea trade routes. This is the postmodern

problematizing of interpretive, selective fact in relation to actual event.


What novels such as this focus on are the discrepancies between the res

gestae and the historia rerum gestarum. Needless to say, this has also

become one of the fundamental issues of historiographic theory. Even an

eye-witness account can only offer one limited interpretation of what

happened; another could be different, because of many things, including

background knowledge, circumstances, angle of vision, or what is at stake

for that witness. Nevertheless, as Frank Kermode reminds us,


although we are aware that a particular view of the world, aboutwhat must

or ought to happen, affects accounts of what does or did happen, we tend




80 The Politics of Postmodernism


to repress this knowledge in writing and reading history, and allow it free  

play only when firmly situated in the differently privileged ground of  


(Kermode 1979: 109)


Historiographic metafiction, however, also shakes up that privileged

ground. The narrator of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death

Foretold attempts to reconstruct a murder twenty-seven years after the event,

from both his own memories and those of eye-witnesses. But, by the second

page of the book, we are made aware of the radical unreliability of both

sources: ‘Many people coincided in recalling that it was a radiant morning. .

. . But most agreed that the weather was funereal, with a cloudy, low sky’

(Garcia Marquez 1982: 2). He turns to the investigating judge’s 500-page

report of the crime, of which (significantly) he can only recover 322 pages.

Again the documentary evidence turns out to be partial – in both senses of the

word, for the judge, it seems, was ‘a man burning with the fever of literature’


(116) not history.

Texts like this suggest that among the issues about representation that

have been subjected to ‘de-doxification’ are the concepts of truth of

correspondence (to reality) and its relation to truth of coherence (within the

narrative) (White 1976: 22). What is the relationship between the

documentary and the formalizing impulses in historiographic

representation? The source of this problematizing in postmodern fiction

seems to lie in the textual nature of the archival traces of events which are

then made into facts. Because those traces are already textualized, they can

be ‘buried, exhumed, deposed, contradicted, recanted’ (Doctorow 1983:

23); they can be and indeed are inevitably interpreted. The same questioning

of the status of the document and its interpretation that is being conducted in

historiography can be found in postmodern novels like Berger’s G. or

Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, or D.M. Thomas’s The White Hotel. This sort of

fiction has contributed to the now quite general reconsideration of the nature

of documentary evidence. If the archive is composed of texts, it is open to all

kinds of use and abuse. The archive has always been the site of a lot of

activity, but rarely of such self-consciously totalizing activity as it is today.




Re-presenting the past 81


Even what is considered acceptable as documentary evidence has changed.

And certainly the status of the document has altered: since it is

acknowledged that it can offer no direct access to the past, then it must be a

representation or a replacement through textual refiguring of the brute event.


In postmodern fiction, there is a contradictory turning to the archive and

yet a contesting of its authority. In Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men,

documents are shown to be extremely unstablesourcesof identity: American

citizenship papers, visas, and passports are all bought and sold with ease.The

historical archive may verify the existence of Harry Houdini, Sigmund

Freud, Karl Jung, Emma Goldman, Stanford White, J.P. Morgan, Henry

Ford, and other characters in Doctorow’s Ragtime, but it remains stubbornly

silent about the ride Freud and Jung are made to take through the Coney

Island tunnel of love, though that fictive incident might be argued to be

historically accurate as a metaphor of the two men’s relationship. Is

Doctorow’s interpretation of the Rosenbergs’ trial in The Book of Daniel

somehow trivialized because he changes their name to Isaacson and makes

their two sons into a son and daughter, and their incriminating witness not a

family member, but a friend? Doctorow has not tried to solve the question of

their historical innocence or guilt. What he has done, through his character

Daniel’s process of searching, is to investigate how we might begin to

interrogate the documents in order to interpret them one way or the other.


If the past is only known to us today through its textualized traces (which,

like all texts, are always open to interpretation), then the writing of both

history and historiographic metafiction becomes a form of complex

intertextual cross-referencing that operates within (and does not deny) its

unavoidably discursive context. There can be little doubt of the impact of

poststructuralist theories of textuality on this kind of writing, for this is

writing that raises basic questions about the possibilities and limits of

meaning in the representation of the past. The focus on textuality, in

LaCapra’s words, ‘serves to render less dogmatic the concept of reality by

pointing to the fact that one is “always already” implicated in problems of

language use’ (1983: 26) and discourse.


To say that the past is only known to us through textual traces is not,

however, the same as saying that the past is only textual, as the semiotic




82 The Politics of Postmodernism


idealism of some forms of poststructuralism seems to assert. This

ontological reduction is not the point of postmodernism: past events existed

empirically, but in epistemological terms we can only know them today

through texts. Past events are given meaning, not existence, by their

representation in history. This is quite the opposite of Baudrillard’s claim

that they are reduced to simulacra; instead, they are made to signify. History

is not ‘what hurts’ so much as ‘what we say once hurt’ – for we are both

irremediably distanced by time and yet determined to grant meaning to that

real pain of others (and ourselves).


What postmodern novels like Fowles’s A Maggot or Findley’s Famous

Last Words do is to focus in a very self-reflexive way on the processes of both

the production and the reception of paradoxically fictive historical writing.

They raise the issue of how the intertexts of history, its documents or its

traces, get incorporated into such an avowedly fictional context, while

somehow also retaining their historical documentary value. The actual

physical means of this particular incorporating representation are often,

perhaps not surprisingly, those of history-writing, especially its ‘paratextual’

conventions: in particular, its footnotes and illustrations, but also its

subtitles, prefaces, epilogues, epigraphs, and so on. The kind of paratextual

practice found in postmodern fiction is not unique to it, of course. Think of

the documentary function of newspaper accounts in Dreiser’s An American

Tragedy, for instance. Or we might also recall the use of history in the

nonfictional novel, such as Norman Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon. I

mention this particular work only because, in it, Mailer made a factual error

in describing the moon-landing lights on the Eagle. Though immediately

corrected by a more knowledgeable reader, he never made the change

textually, except to add a footnote in the paperback edition. He seems to have

wantedto retain the dichotomy of its imaginative, iferroneous, fictionalizing

and of the corrective paratext, as well, in order to signal to the reader the dual

status of his representation of the Apollo mission: the events actually

happened, but the facts that we read are those constituted by his narrativized

account of them.


Similarly, the forewords and afterwords that frame many other

nonfictional novels remind us that these works, despite their rooting in




Re-presenting the past 83


documentary reality, are still created forms, with a particular perspective that

transforms. In these texts, thedocumentary isshownto be inevitably touched

by the fictive, the shaped, the invented. In historiographic metafiction,

however, this relationship is often more complex. In John Fowles’s selfreflexively

‘eighteenth-century’ novel, A Maggot, the epilogue functions in

two ways. On the one hand, it asserts the fictionalizing of a historical event

that has gone on: the actual historical personages who appear in the novel are

said to be ‘almost all invention beyond their names.’ But the epilogue also

roots the fiction firmly in historical – and ideological – actuality: both that of

the origins of the historical Shakers and that of the present metaphorical

‘faith’ of the writing narrator himself. In a statement which echoes the tone

and sentiments of the fictive voice of Fowles’s earlier (self-reflexively

‘nineteenth-century’) novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the

contextualizing epilogist asserts: ‘In much else we have developed

immeasurably from the eighteenth century; with their central plain question


– what morality justifies the flagrant injustice and inequality of human

society? – we have not progressed one inch’ (Fowles 1985: 454). Instead of

the neat closure of the eighteenth-century narrative which he inscribes and

then subverts, Fowles offers us an ending which is labelled as an ‘epilogue’

(that is, external to the narrative), but which (unlike the pre-textual

‘prologue’) is not signed ‘John Fowles.’ Whose voice addresses us, then, at

the very end? Our inability to reply with any certainty points, not to any

neatly completed plot structure, but to how it is we, as writers and readers,

who desire and make closure.

Whatever the degree of complexity of the paratextuality, its presence is

hard to ignore in this kind of postmodern writing. William Gass has pointed

out that, from the first, the novel has been a ‘fact-infested form’ (Gass 1985:

86), and for him the novelistic battle for ‘reality’ has always been fought

between ‘data and design’ (95). Therefore, the postmodern self-conscious

use of paratexts to represent historical data within fictive narrative design

might well be regarded as a highly artificial and un-organic mode of doing

what novels have always done. And this would certainly be true. But perhaps

it is deliberately awkward, as a means of directing our attention to the very




84 The Politics of Postmodernism


processes by which we understand and interpret the past through its textual

representations – be it in history or in fiction.


History-writing’s paratexts (especially footnotes and the textual

incorporation of written documents) are conventions which historiographic

metafiction both uses and abuses, perhaps parodically exacting revenge for

some historians’ tendency to read literature only as historical document.

Although, as we have seen, the validity of the entire concept of objective and

unproblematic documentation in the writing of history has been called into

question, even today paratextuality remains the central mode of textually

certifying historical events, and the footnote is still the main textual form by

which this believability is procured. Although publishers hate footnotes

(they are expensive and they disrupt the reader’s attention), such paratexts

have always been central to historiographic practice, to the writing of the

doubled narrative of the past in the present.


Historiographic metafiction is, in a number of senses, even more overtly

another example of doubled narrative, and even a brief look at the functions

of footnotes in a novel like Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman shows

the role paratextuality can play in the insertion of historical texts into

metafiction. Here the specifcity of Victorian social and literary history is

evoked (in tandem with both the fictional narrative and the metafictional

commentary) through footnotes which explain details of Victorian sexual

habits, vocabulary, politics, or social practices. Sometimes a note is used to

offer a translation for modern readers, who just might not be able to translate

Latin quite as easily as their Victorian forebears could. This is in clear (and

ironic) contrast to Laurence Sterne’s assumption in Tristram Shandy that

readers and commentators shared a certain educational background.

Obviously, part of the function of these postmodern notes is extra-textual,

referring us to a world outside the novel, but there is something else going on

too: most of the notes refer us explicitly to other texts, other representations

first, and to the external world only indirectly through them.


A second function of paratextuality, then, would be primarily a discursive

one. The reader’s linear reading is disrupted by the presence of a lower text

on the same page, and this hermeneutic disruption calls attention to the

footnote’s own very doubled or dialogic form. In historical discourse, we




Re-presenting the past 85


know that footnotes are often the space where opposing views are dealt with

(and textually marginalized), but we also know that they can offer a

supplement to the upper text or can often provide an authority to support it.

In historiographic metafiction these footnoting conventions are both

inscribed and parodically inverted. They do indeed function here as selfreflexive

signals to assure the reader as to the historical credibility of the

particular witness or authority cited, while at the same time they also disrupt

our reading – that is, our creating – of a coherent, totalizing fictive narrative.

In other words, these notes operate centrifugally as well as centripetally. The

roots of this kind of paradoxical practice predate postmodernism, of course.

Think of the notes in Finnegans Wake.


The metafictional self-reflexivity induced by the postmodern footnote’s

paradox of represented yet resisted authority is made evident in novels such

as Alasdair Gray’s parodic Lanark, where the text incorporates selfcommenting

footnotes, which themselves also refer to a set of marginal

notations (an ‘Index of Plagiarisms,’ in fact), which is in turn a parodic play

on the marginal glosses of earlier literature, such as the same Finnegans

Wake or ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ Chinese-box-structured

metafiction like this frequently upsets (and therefore foregrounds) the

normal or conventional balance of the primary text and the traditionally

secondary paratextual notes or commentary. Sometimes, too, the notes will

even engulf the text, as in Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. In these particular

overpowering footnotes, the irony of the seemingly authoritative

documenting of psychoanalytic explanatory authorities is that they

frequently do not at all explain the characters’ behavior – either sexual or

political. The conventionally presumed authority of the footnote form and

content is rendered questionable, if not totally undermined. A similar

paratextual de-naturalizing of the questions of precedence, origin, and

authority can also be seen in those other, much discussed, paratextual

classics: Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Derrida’s Glas.


A related, doubled use-and-abuse of conventional expectation

accompanies other forms of metafictional paratextuality, such as chapter

headings and epigraphs. As with footnotes, forewords, and epilogues, these

devices in historiographic metafiction move in two directions at once: to




86 The Politics of Postmodernism


remind us of the narrativity (and fictionality) of the primary text and to assert

its factuality and historicity. In novels like John Barth’s LETTERS the

deliberately excessive kind of descriptive chapter headings points to the

fictiveness and the organizational patterning that belie the realist

representation conventionally suggested by the use of the epistolary form.

On the other hand, there are novels, such as Audrey Thomas’s Intertidal Life

and Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman once again, which use

epigraphs to direct the reader to a specific, real historical context within (or

against) which the fictive universe operates, however problematically.

These paratexts prevent any tendency on the part of the reader to universalize

and eternalize – that is, to dehistoricize. In Fowles’s novel, the historical

particularity of both the Victorian and the contemporary is asserted. This is

yet another way in which postmodern literature works to contest (from

within) any totalizing narrative impulse. Recalling Lyotard’s definition of

the postmodern condition as that which is characterized by an active distrust

of the master narratives that we have used to make sense of our world, the

aggressive assertion of the historical and the social particularity of the fictive

worlds of these novels ends up calling attention, not to what fits the master

narrative, but instead, to the ex-centric, the marginal, the borderline – all

those things that threaten the (illusory but comforting) security of the

centered, totalizing, masterly discourses of our culture.


Whatever the paratextual form – footnote, epigraph, title – the function is

to make space for the intertexts of history within the texts of fiction. To the

historian, though, such ‘intertexts’ are usually thought of in quite different

terms: as documentary evidence. But, as we have seen, historians have

increasingly had to face challenges to their traditional trust in documentary

authenticity as the repository of truth, as what allows them to reconstitute

brute experiential events into historical facts in an unproblematic way. There

has always been an implicit or explicit hierarchy among documentary

sources for historians: the farther we get from the actual event, the less

trustworthy is the document. But whether historians deal with seemingly

direct informational reports and registers or with eye-witness accounts, the

problem is that historians deal with representations, with texts, which they

then process. The denial of this act of processing can lead to a kind of




Re-presenting the past 87


fetishizing of the archive, making it into a substitute for the past. In

postmodern novels like Chris Scott’s Antichthon or Rushdie’s Midnight’s

Children, the stress is on the act of de-naturalizing documents in both

historical and fictional writing. The document can no longer pretend to be a

transparent means to a past event; it is instead the textually transformed trace

of that past. D.M. Thomas used the text of Dina Pronicheva’s eye-witness

account of Babi Yar in his The White Hotel, but this account was already

doubly distanced from the historical event: it was her later recounting of her

experience, as told by Anatoli Kuznetsov in his book, Babi Yar. Historians

never seize the event directly and entirely, only incompletely and laterally –

through documents, that is, through texts like this. History does not so much

say what the past was; rather, it says what it is still possible to know – and thus

represent – of it.


Historians are readers of fragmentary documents and, like readers of

fiction, they fill in the gaps and create ordering structures which may be

further disrupted by new textual inconsistencies that will force the formation

of new totalizing patterns. In Lionel Gossman’s terms: ‘The historian’s

narrative is constructed not upon reality itself or upon transparent images of

it, but on signifiers which the historian’s own action transforms into signs. It

is not historical reality itself but the present signs of the historian that limit

and order the historical narrative’ (Gossman 1978: 32). And Gossman points

to paratextuality as the very sign of this ontological split: ‘The division of the

historiographical page [by footnotes] is a testimony to the discontinuity

between past “reality” and the historical narrative’ (32). But even that past

‘reality’ is a textualized one – at least, for us today. What historiographic

metafiction suggests is a recognition of a central responsibility of the

historian and the novelist alike: their responsibility as makers of meaning

through representation.


Postmodern texts consistently use and abuse actual historical documents

and documentation in such a way as to stress both the discursive nature of

those representations of the past and the narrativized form in which we read

them. In Cortazar’s Libro de Manuel, suggestively translated as A Manual

for Manuel, the physical intrusion of newspaper clippings in the text that we

read constitutes a formal and hermeneutic disruption. Their typographical




88 The Politics of Postmodernism


reproduction (in a typeface different from that of the text’s body) asserts their

paratextual, authenticating role. They act as a kind of collage, but only

ironically, because what they incorporate is not any actual fragment of the

real referent, but – once again – its textualized representation. It has been

argued that the collage form is one that remains representational while still

breaking with realism through its fragmentation and discontinuity.

Cortazar’s paratextual use of a collage of newsclippings inserted into the

fictional text points not only to the actual social and political background of

the novel’s action, but also to the fact that our knowledge of that background

is always already a discursive one: we know past (and present?) reality

mostly through texts that recount it through representations, just as we pass

on our historical knowledge through other representations. The book is (as

its title suggests) a manual for the revolutionaries’ child, Manuel.

Newspapers and magazines are the recording texts and the representations

of contemporary history. In Coover’s The Public Burning, Time magazine

and the New York Times are revealed as the documents – or docu-fictions –

of twentieth-century America, the very creators and manipulators of



Another function of the paratextual insertion of actual historical

documents into historiographic metafictions can be related to Brecht’s

alienation effect: like the songs in his plays, the historical documents

dropped into thefictions have the potential effect of interrupting any illusion,

of making the reader into an aware collaborator, not a passive consumer. The

potential for Brechtian ideological challenge is perhaps present in those

modes of art that incorporate history’s texts very self-consciously and

materially. In Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men the documents of

American law regarding Chinese citizens as immigrants are juxtaposed with

the fictionalized narrative of the actual realities of the American treatment of

Chinese railway workers. One chapter begins with the representation of this



The United States of America and the Emperor of China cordially

recognize the inherent and inalienable right of man to change his home

and allegiance, and also the mutual advantage of the free migration and




Re-presenting the past 89


emigration of their citizens and subjects respectively from the one

country to the other for purposes of curiosity, of trade, or as permanent



NOVEMBER 23, 1869.

(Kingston 1980: 150)


By 1878however, only ChinesefishermeninCalifornia were being required



to pay fishing taxes; by 1882, the first Chinese Exclusion Act had been

passed, preventing immigration for ten years; and by 1893, the Supreme

Court of the United States had decreed that Congress had ‘the right to expel

members of a race who “continued to be aliens, having taken no steps toward

becoming citizens, and incapable of becoming such under the naturalization

laws”’ (153emphasis mine). The Supreme Court seemed unaware of the



heavy irony of the ‘Catch-22’ of Chinese immigrants not becoming citizens

when, in fact, prevented from doing so by law. The ideological impact here

is a strong one.


It is worth noting, however, that in fiction like this, despite the

metafictional self-reflexivity, the general apparatus of novelistic realism is

in a sense retained. For example, the reproduction of pages from the

Gentleman’s Magazine for 1736 in A Maggot does offer other – external, but

still textualized – contexts for the fiction. These documents do have a selfverifying

place in the narrative, but this is always a paradoxical place: there

is both the assertion of external reference and the contradictory reminder that

we only know that external world through other texts. This postmodern use

of paratextuality as a formal mode of overt intertextuality both works within

and subverts that apparatus of realism still typical of the novel genre, even in

its more metafictional forms. Parodic play with what we might call the

trappings of realist representation has increased lately, perhaps because of

the new trappings that technology has offered us. The popular device of the

tape recorder, for instance, has brought us the ‘talked book’ (taped

interviews, transcribed and edited) and the nonfictional novel based on taperecorded

‘documents’ which may appear to filter out the narrator and allow




90 The Politics of Postmodernism


some direct access to actuality – though only if we ignore the distorting effect

that the taping process itself can have upon speakers. Metafictional parody

of this pretence of objectivity sometimes takes the form of an intense textual

awareness of the process of oral recording (as in Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch

or Jack Hodgins’s The Invention of the World).


In one sense, however, what such postmodern parody points to is the

acknowledgement that these are only technological updatings of those

earlier trappings of realism: the written, clerical transcriptions of oral

statements. These are metafictively ironized in A Maggot, with an air of

authenticity but with more avowed room for error (or fictionalizing gapfilling).

The clerk who takes down in shorthand the testimonies of witnesses

being interrogated admits: ‘where Icannot read when I copy in the long hand,

why, I make it up. So I may hang a man, or pardon him, and none the wiser’

(Fowles 1985: 343). Historiographic metafiction also uses some of the

newer trappings, however, in order to mimic an electronically reproduced

oral culture, while always aware that the reader only has access to that orality

in written form. As novelist Ronald Sukenick puts it: ‘Fiction, finally,

involves print on a page, and that is not an incidental convenience of

production and distribution, but an essential of the medium’ (1985: 46).


While the oral tradition has traditionally been directly connected with the

cultural handing down of the past and of our knowledge of the past, its

particular role in postmodern fiction is tied up with that of the trappings of

realism upon which paratextuality relies. The desire for self-authenticating

oral presence is matched by a need for permanence through writing. In The

Temptations of Big Bear, Rudy Wiebe has attempted, in a very self-reflexive

manner, to capture in print and in fiction a historical character whose essence

was his voice. He also had to convey the rhetorical and ritualistic power of

oral Indian speech in written English. This attempt to present the historical

fact of Big Bear’s oral presence was further complicated for Wiebe by the

lack of records (much less recordings) of the great Cree orator’s speeches.

But the novel’s textual self-consciousness about this oral/written dichotomy

points to the text’s triple ironic realization: that Big Bear’s dynamic oral

presence in the past can be conveyed to us today only in static print; that the

oratorical power that went beyond words can be expressed only in words;




Re-presenting the past 91


and that, maybe, the truth of historical fact can be represented most

powerfully today in self-consciously novelistic fiction.


Illustrations, especially photographs, function in much the same manner

as other paratexts in relation to the apparatus of novelistic realism. That this

is especially true in historiographic metafiction should not be surprising. As

we have seen, the photograph presents both the past as presence and the

present as inescapably historical. All photographs are by definition

representations of the past. In Coming Through Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje

paratextually reproduces the one known photograph of the early jazz

musician, Buddy Bolden, the one taken by E.J. Bellocq. In this biographical

metafiction, Bellocq’s presence in the narrative and the narrator’s own

entrance as photographer (as well as writer) are used to juxtapose the fluid,

dynamic, but unrecorded music of the mad, and finally silent, Bolden with

the static, reductive, but enduring recording on paper – by both photography

and biography. But both forms of recording or representing in a way mark

only the absence of the recorded. Both do record yet in a very real sense they

also falsify the real they represent. This is the paradox of the postmodern.


In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes offers another way of looking at

photography and history, one that might seem to explain even better the

paratextual attraction to photos within postmodern fiction. Photographs are

said to carry their referent within themselves: there is a necessarily real thing

which was once placed before the lens and which, while happening only

once, can be repeated on paper. As Barthes says, ‘the thing has been there’

(1981: 76) in the past. The photo ratifies what was there, what it represents,

and does so in a way that language can never do. It is not odd that the

historiographic metafictionist, grappling with the same issue of

representation of the past, might want to turn, for analogies and inspiration,

to this other medium, this ‘certificate of presence’ (87)this paradoxically



undermining yet authentifying representation of the past real. As we have

already seen, it was Walter Benjamin’s insight that photography also

subverts romantic uniqueness and authorial authenticity, and it is this

subversion that postmodern fiction foregrounds too in the constant

contradiction at the heart of its use of photographic paratextual

representation: photos are still presences of absences. They both verify the




92 The Politics of Postmodernism


past and void it of its historicity. Like writing, photography is as much

transformation as recording; representation is always alteration, be it in

language or in images, and it always has its politics.


Postmodern paratextual insertions of these different kinds of historical

traces of events, what historians call documents – be they newspaper

clippings, legal statements, or photographic illustrations – de-naturalize the

archive, foregrounding above all the textuality of its representations. These

documentary texts appear in footnotes, epigraphs, prefaces, and epilogues;

sometimes they are parachuted directly into the fictive discourse, as if in a

collage. What they all do, however, is pose once again that important

postmodern question: how exactly is it that we come to know the past? In

these novels, we literally see the paratextual traces of history, the discourses

or texts of thepast, its documents and its narrativized representations. But the

final result of all this self-consciousness is not to offer us any answers to that

question, but only to suggest even more problematizing queries. How can

historiography (much less fiction) begin to deal with what Coover’s Uncle

Sam calls ‘the fatal slantindicular futility of Fact?’




The politics of parody


Parodic postmodern representation


Parody – often called ironic quotation, pastiche, appropriation, or

intertextuality – is usually considered central to postmodernism, both by its

detractors and its defenders. For artists, the postmodern is said to involve a

rummaging through the image reserves of the past in such a way as to show

the history of the representations their parody calls to our attention. In

Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s (1984a: 76) felicitous terms, Duchamp’s

modernist ‘ready made’ has become postmodernism’s ‘already made.’ But

this parodic reprise of the past of art is not nostalgic; it is always critical. It is

also not ahistorical or de-historicizing; it does not wrest past art from its

original historical context and reassemble it into some sort of presentist

spectacle. Instead, through a double process of installing and ironizing,

parody signals how present representations come from past ones and what

ideological consequences derive from both continuity and difference.


Parody also contests our humanist assumptions about artistic originality

and uniqueness and our capitalist notions of ownership and property. With

parody – as with any form of reproduction – the notion of the original as rare,




94 The Politics of Postmodernism


single, and valuable (in aesthetic or commercial terms) is called into

question. This does not mean that art has lost its meaning and purpose, but

that it will inevitably have a new and different significance. In other words,

parody works to foreground the politics of representation. Needless to say,

this is not the accepted view of postmodernist parody. The prevailing

interpretation is that postmodernism offers a value-free, decorative, dehistoricized

quotation of past forms and that this is a most apt mode for a

culture like our own that is oversaturated with images. Instead, I would want

to argue that postmodernist parody is a value-problematizing, denaturalizing

form of acknowledging the history (and through irony, the

politics) of representations.


It is interesting that few commentators on postmodernism actually use the

word ‘parody.’ I think the reason is that it is still tainted with eighteenthcentury

notions of wit and ridicule. But there is an argument to be made that

we should not be restricted to such period-limited definitions of parody and

that twentieth-century art forms teach that parody has a wide range of forms

and intents – from that witty ridicule to the playfully ludic to the seriously

respectful. Many critics, including Jameson, call postmodern ironic citation

‘pastiche’ or empty parody, assuming that only unique styles can be parodied

and that such novelty and individuality are impossible today. In the light of

the parodic yet individual voices of Salman Rushdie and Angela Carter, to

mention only two, such a stand seems hard to defend. In fact it could be

ignored – if it had not proved to have such a strong following.


For instance pastiche has been offered as the ‘official sign’ of

neoconservative postmodernism (Foster 1985: 127), for it is said to

disregard the context of and continuum with the past and yet falsely to

resolve ‘conflictual forms of art and modes of production’ (16). But as I see

it, postmodern parody does not disregard the context of the past

representations it cites, but uses irony to acknowledge the fact that we are

inevitably separated from that past today – by time and by the subsequent

history of those representations. There is continuum, but there is also ironic

difference, difference induced by that very history. Not only is there no

resolution (false or otherwise) of contradictory forms in postmodern parody,

but there is a foregrounding of those very contradictions. Think of the variety




The politics of parody 95


of parodied texts in Eco’s The Name of the Rose: Jan Potocki’s Manuscrit

trouve a Saragosse and the work of Borges, the writings of Conan Doyle and

Wittgenstein, the Coena Cypriani, and conventions as diverse as those of the

detective novel and theological argument. Irony makes these intertextual

references into something more than simply academic play or some infinite

regress into textuality: what is called to our attention is the entire

representational process – in a wide range of forms and modes of production


– and the impossibility of finding any totalizing model to resolve the

resulting postmodern contradictions.

By way of contrast, it could be argued that a relatively unproblematized

view of historical continuity and the context of representation offers a stable

plot structure to Dos Passos’s USA trilogy. But this very stabilityis called into

question in Doctorow’s postmodern ironic reworking of the same historical

material in his historiographic metafiction, Ragtime. Parodying Dos

Passos’s very historicity, Doctorow both usesand abuses it. He counts on our

knowledge that a historical Freud or Jung or Goldman existed in order to

challenge our perhaps unexamined notions about what might constitute

historical truth. Postmodern parody is a kind of contesting revision or

rereading of the past that both confirms and subverts the power of the

representations of history. This paradoxical conviction of the remoteness of

the past and the need to deal with it in the present has been called the

‘allegorical impulse’ of postmodernism (Owens 1980a: 67). I would simply

call it parody.


Peter Ackroyd’s Chatterton offers a good example of a postmodern novel

whose form and content de-naturalize representation in both visual and

verbal media in such a way as to illustrate well the deconstructive potential

of parody – in other words, its politics. Chatterton is a novel about history

and representation and about parody and plagiarism. As the title suggests,

here the focus of representation (in history, biography, and art) is Thomas

Chatterton, eighteenth-century poet and ‘forger’ – that is, author of poems

said to be by a medieval monk. The novel posits that, contrary to official

biographical history, Chatterton did not die by suicide in 1770 at the age of

18 (thus becoming the stereotypical representation of the gifted and doomed

youthful genius). Instead, two alternate versions are offered: that he died, not




96 The Politics of Postmodernism


by suicide, but from an accident produced by his inept and inexpert selfmedication

for VD; and that he did not die at 18 at all, but faked his death to

avoid being exposed as a fraud and lived on to compose other great forgeries,

such as the ones we know today as the works of William Blake.


The official historical record is given on the first page of the novel, so we

are always aware of deviations from it, including the actual historical ones of

Henry Wallis’s famous nineteenth-century painting of the death of

Chatterton, in which the image of the poet’s corpse was painted from a

model: the writer George Meredith. The production of this painting provides

a second line of plot action. The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century stories

are then played off against a contemporary one, also involving a poet

(Charles Wychwood) who finds a painting which he believes to represent the

aged Chatterton. To add to this already parodically complicated plot, Charles

sometimes works for a writer who is a plagiarizer. She in turn has a friend

who is writing a history of beautiful representations of death in English

painting – such as Wallis’s of Chatterton. Charles’s wife is employed in an

art gallery that deals in forgeries. From the start, then, this is a novel selfconsciously,

even excessively, about representation – its illusions and its

powers, its possibilities and its politics. In the nineteenth-century plot line,

Meredith poses as the dead Chatterton for Wallis, calling himself ‘the model

poet’ because ‘I am pretending to be someone else’ (Ackroyd 1987: 2).

Nevertheless, he is uneasy portraying a dead poet: ‘I can endure death. It is

the representation of death I cannot bear’ (2 and 138).


In this novel all visual and verbal representations are important, from the

paintings described to the fiction’s obsession with names as representing

people. Wallis’s painted representation of Chatterton’s death is important to

the various plots and to the theme of the novel, but so is the writer who was

the model: as Wallis paints Meredith they talk about the real versus the ideal

in representation – in words or paint. Both forms are said to create ‘true

fictions’ which paradoxically fix and falsify reality. A final irony lies in the

fact that the representations remain and live on; their creators and models do

not. Wallis’s realist belief that the real exists and ‘you have only to depict it’

is countered by Meredith partly because the real (Chatterton) being painted

is in fact Meredith, who remarks:




The politics of parody 97


I said that the words were real, Henry, I did not say that what they depicted  

was real. Our dear dead poet created the monk Rowley out of thin air, and  

yet he has more life in him than any medieval priest who actually existed.  

. . . But Chatterton did not create an individual simply. He invented an  

entire period and made its imagination his own. . . . The poet does not  

merely recreate or describe the world. He actually creates it.  

(Ackroyd 1987: 157)


Similarly, Wallis’s painting of Meredith creates the death of Chatterton for

posterity through its representation: ‘this will always be remembered as the

true death of Chatterton’ (157). And so it is. Even the dying Charles

Wychwood identifies with his obsession, Chatterton, and feels he is living

out – in dying – Wallis’s representation of his death. But Charles knows he

should resist: ‘This is not real. I am not meant to be here. I have seen this

before, and it is an illusion’ (169) – in more than one sense.


The plots of this novel are heavy with such self-reflexive moments and

with unresolved suspicious coincidences that center on plagiarism, faking,

forging, and parody. Chapter 6 is even narrated by Chatterton, telling us how

he ‘reproduc’d the Past’ by mixing the real and the fictive in a way

reminiscent of the technique of Chatterton: ‘Thus do we see in every Line an

Echoe, for the truest Plagiarism is the truest Poetry’ (Ackroyd 1987: 87). In

a similarly self-conscious way, the historical record is shown to be no

guarantee of veracity. As Charles reads the various historical representations

of the life of Chatterton, he discovers that ‘each biography described a quite

different poet: even the simplest observation by one was contradicted by

another, so that nothing seemed certain’ (127) – neither the subject nor the

possibility of knowing the past in the present. The postmodern condition

with respect to history might well be described as one of the acceptance of

radical uncertainty: ‘Why should historical research not . . . remain

incomplete, existing as a possibility and not fading into knowledge?’ (213).

Supposedly real documents – paintings, manuscripts – turn out to be

forgeries; the beautiful representations of death turn out to be lies. The novel

ends with a powerful representation in words of the actual reality of death by




98 The Politics of Postmodernism


arsenic poisoning – a death rather different from that ‘depicted’ so

beautifully by Wallis from his (very living) model.


Many other novels today similarly challenge the concealed or

unacknowledged politics and evasions of aesthetic representation by using

parody as a means to connect the present to the past without positing the

transparency of representation, verbal or visual. For instance, in a feminist

parody of Leda and the Swan, the protagonist of Angela Carter’s Nights at

the Circus (known as Fevvers) becomes ‘no longer an imagined fiction but a

plain fact’ (Carter 1984: 286) – ‘the female paradigm,’ ‘the pure child of the

century that just now is waiting in the wings, the New Age in which no

woman will be bound to the ground’ (25). The novel’s parodic echoes of

Pericles, Hamlet, and Gulliver’s Travels all function as do those of Yeats’s

poetry when describing a whorehouse full of bizarre women as ‘this lumber

room of femininity, this rag-and-bone shop of the heart’ (69): they are all

ironic feminizations of traditional or canonic male representations of the socalled

generic human – ‘Man.’ This is the kind of politics of representation

that parody calls to our attention.


In objecting, as I have, to the relegation of the postmodern parodic to the

ahistorical and empty realm of pastiche, I do not want to suggest that there is

not a nostalgic, neoconservative recovery of past meaning going on in a lot

of contemporary culture; I just want to draw a distinction between that

practice and postmodernist parody. The latter is fundamentally ironic and

critical, not nostalgic or antiquarian in its relation to the past. It ‘de-doxifies’

our assumptions about our representations of that past. Postmodern parody

is both deconstructively critical and constructively creative, paradoxically

making us aware of both the limits and the powers of representation – in any

medium. Sherrie Levine, whose name keeps recurring here as the parodic

Pierre Menard of the art world today, has stated her reasons why parody is

unavoidable for postmodernism:


Every word, every image, is leased and mortgaged. We know that a

picture is but a space in which a variety of images, none of them original,

blend and clash. A picture is a tissue of quotations drawn from the

innumerable centers of culture. . . . The viewer is the tablet on which all




The politics of parody 99


the quotations that make up a painting are inscribed without any of them


being lost.


(Levine 1987: 92)

When she photographs Egon Schiele’s self-portraits, she parodically cites

not just the work of a specific artist, but the conventions and myths of art-asexpression

and points to the politics of that particular view of representation.


Mark Tansey’s parodic painting called The Innocent Eye Test takes on

another canonical form of representation. It presents the unveiling of Paulus

Potter’s 1647 painting of a Young Bull, once accepted as the paradigm of

realist art. But Tansey’s parodically realist reproduction of this work is

depicted as being judged – by a cow, for who better to adjudicate the success

of such ‘bullish’ realism and who better to symbolize ironically the ‘innocent

eye’ assumed by mimetic theories of the transparency of representation. (A

mop is depicted at the ready, lest she ‘voice’ her opinion in material terms.)

This is postmodern ironic parody, using the conventions of realism against

themselves in order to foreground the complexity of representation and its

implied politics.


Of course, parody was also a dominant mode of much modernist art,

especially in the writing of T.S. Eliot, Thomas Mann, and James Joyce and

the painting of Picasso, Manet, and Magritte. In this art, too, parody at once

inscribed convention and history and yet distanced itself from both. The

continuity between the postmodernist and the modernist use of parody as a

strategy of appropriating the past is to be found on the level of their shared

(compromised) challenges to the conventions of representation. There are

significant differences, however, in the final impact of the two uses of

parody. It is not that modernism was serious and significant and

postmodernism is ironic and parodic, as some have claimed; it is more that

postmodernism’s irony is one that rejects the resolving urge of modernism

toward closure or at least distance. Complicity always attends its critique.


Unacknowledged modernist assumptions about closure, distance, artistic

autonomy, and the apolitical nature of representation are what

postmodernism sets out to uncover and deconstruct. In postmodernist





100 The Politics of Postmodernism


modernist pretensions to artistic independence have been further

subverted by the demonstration of the necessarily ‘intertextual’ nature of

the production of meaning; we can no longer unproblematically assume

that ‘Art’ is somehow ‘outside’ of the complex of other representational

practices and institutions with which it is contemporary – particularly,

today, those which constitute what we so problematically call the ‘massmedia.’


(Burgin 1986a: 204)


The complexity of these parodic representational strategiescan be seen in the

photography of Barbara Kruger or Silvia Kolbowski with its parodic

appropriation of mass-media images. The 1988 show entitled Photographs

Beget Photographs (curated by the Minneapolis Institute of Art) gave a good

sense of the parodic postmodern play with the history of photography – both

as scientifically accurate documentary recording and as formalist art.

Marion Faller and Hollis Frampton presented ‘Sixteen studies from

“vegetable locomotion”’ which (in title and form) parodied Muybridge’s

famous human and animal scientific locomotion studies by using (normally

inert) vegetables and fruit as the subjects. Other artists in the show chose to

parody icons of photography-as-high-art by Ansel Adams (John Pfahl, Jim

Stone) or Weston (Pfahl again, Kenneth Josephson), always pointing with

irony to how modernism contributed to the mystification and canonization

of photo-graphic representation. Contrary to the prevailing view of parody

as a kind of ahistorical and apolitical pastiche, postmodern art like this uses

parody and irony to engage the history of art and the memory of the viewer

in a re-evaluation of aesthetic forms and contents through a reconsideration

of their usually unacknowledged politics of representation. As Dominick

LaCapra has so forcefully put it:


irony and parody are themselves not unequivocal signs of disengagement

on the part of an apolitical, transcendental ego that floats above historical

reality or founders in the abysmal pull of aporia. Rather a certain use of

irony and parody may play a role both in the critique of ideology and in

the anticipation of a polity wherein commitment does not exclude but




The politics of parody 101


accompanies an ability to achieve critical distance on one’s deepest

commitments and desires.

(LaCapra 1987: 128)


Postmodernism offers precisely that ‘certain use of irony and parody.’


Double-coded politics


As form of ironic representation, parody is doubly coded in political terms:

it both legitimizes and subverts that which it parodies. This kind of

authorized transgression is what makes it a ready vehicle for the political

contradictions of postmodernism at large. Parody can be used as a selfreflexive

technique that points to art as art, but also to art as inescapably

bound to its aesthetic and even social past. Its ironic reprise also offers an

internalized sign of a certain self-consciousness about our culture’s means of

ideological legitimation. How do some representations get legitimized and

authorized? And at the expense of which others? Parody can offer a way of

investigating the history of that process. In her feminist pacifist work

Cassandra, we have seen that Christa Wolf parodically rewrites Homer’s

tale of men and war, offering economic and political rather than romantic

reasons for the Trojan war (trade access to the Bosporus and sexual one-upman-

ship, not Helen) and telling the silenced story of the everyday life of the

Trojan women omitted by the historical and epic narratives written by the

conquering foreigners, the Greeks. Other texts are parodied too –

Aeschylus’s Oresteia, the writings of Herodotus and Aristotle, Goethe’s

Faust and Schiller’s ‘Cassandra’ – and frequently it is the male

representation of the female (or the lack thereof) that is the focus of the

rewriting. As Wolf claims in the essay ‘Conditions of a narrative’ (which

accompanies Cassandra in its English translation): ‘How quickly does lack

of speech turn into lack of identity?’ (Wolf 1984: 161). This is especially true

of Cassandra who, though she had speech, was not believed. Furthermore, as

Wolf asks: ‘Who was Cassandra before people wrote about her? (For she is

a creation of the poets, she speaks onlythrough them, we have only their view

of her)’ (287). Because we only know Cassandra through male




102 The Politics of Postmodernism


representations of her, Wolf adds her own feminist representation, one that

is equally the ‘creation’ of a writer, of course.


In feminist art, written or visual, the politics of representation are

inevitably the politics of gender:


The way women appear to themselves, the way men look at women, the

way women are pictured in the media, the way womenlook at themselves,

the way male sexuality becomes fetishism, the criteria for physical beauty


– most of these are cultural representations and therefore not immutable

but conditioned.

(Malen 1988: 7)


Postmodern parodic strategies are often used by feminist artists to point to

the history and historical power of those cultural representations, while

ironically contextualizing both in such a way as to deconstruct them. When

Sylvia Sleigh parodies Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus in her descriptively

entitled Philip Golub Reclining, she de-naturalizes the iconographic

tradition of the female erotic nude intended for male viewing through her

obvious gender reversal: the male is here represented as reclining,

languorous, and passive. The title alone, though, parodically contests the

representation of specific yet anonymous women models as generic mythic

figures of male desire. The postmodern version has the historical specificity

of a portrait. But it is not just the history of high-art representation that gets

‘de-doxified’ in postmodern parody: the 1988 Media Post Media show (at

the Scott Hanson Gallery in New York) presented mixed media works that

did parody the representational practices of high art (David Salle’s) but also

those of the mass media (videos, ads). All nineteen artists were women,

perhaps underlining the fact that women have more to win, not lose, by a

critique of the politics of representation.


Some male artists have used parody to investigate their own complicity

in such apparatuses of representation, while still trying to find a space for a

criticism, however compromised. Victor Burgin’s photography is one

example of this verypostmodern form of complicitous critique. In one photo,

from the series The Bridge, he parodies John Everett Millais’s Ophelia




The politics of parody 103


through a ‘transcoding’ of its female subject into a representation of a model

in Ophelia’s pose but portraying Kim Novak’s representation of the

character, Madeleine in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. This is no transparent realist

representation: the water is obviously cellophane (a parodic echo of Cecil

Beaton’s use of cellophane in his fashion photography) and the model is

obviously posed in a period-piece wig and dress. But this Ophelia/

Madeleine/(fashion) model figure is still represented as dead or dying and,

given the context, also as an enigma to be investigated obsessively by male

voyeuristic curiosity. Burgin admits to being a modernist-trained artist who

wants to milk the density and richness of art history in his photography, but

he also wants to do two other things: first, to use parody to throw off the ‘dead

hand’ of that art history and its beliefs in eternal values and spontaneous

genius; and second, to use the history of representation (here, in painting and

in film) to comment critically on the politics of the representation of women

by men – including himself.


The intersection of gender with class politics is a particular interest of

Burgin’s. In a series of photographs parodying Edward Hopper’s painting

Office at Night, he reinterprets this canonical icon in terms of the

organization of sexuality within and for capitalism (Burgin 1986b: 183).

Hopper’s depicted secretary and her boss working late at the office come to

represent all couples within a capitalist patriarchal system of values: the man

ignores the woman, whose clinging dress and full figure and yet downcast

eyes manage to make her both seductive and modest. Burgin says that the

representation of the man ignoring the woman allows male viewers to look

at and enjoy the pictured woman while safely identifying with the man who

does not. Burgin’s Preparatory Work for Office at Night self-reflexively

updates to the present these representations and their now problematized

politics – in both gender and class terms – by absenting the (safe) male.


When parody and its politics are discussed, it is not only this kind of visual

art that should be considered. Latin American fiction, for instance, has

consistently underlined the intrinsically political character of parody and its

challenges to the conventional and the authoritative. The politics of

representation and the representation of politics frequently go hand in hand

in parodic postmodern historiographic metafiction. Parody becomes a way




104 The Politics of Postmodernism


of ironically revisiting the past – of both art and history – in a novel like

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children with its double parodic intertexts:

Grass’s The Tin Drum and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Both parodies

politicize representation, but in very different ways. Midnight’s Children

translates all the German social, cultural, and historical detail of Grass’s

novel into Indian terms. In addition, Saleem Sinai shares everything from

little Oskar’s physical strangeness to his withdrawn alienated position with

regard to his society. Both tell their stories to someone else and both offer

literally self-begetting novels, Bildungsromanen which show how they are

‘handcuffed to history,’ to use Saleem’s phrase. The representation of

politics is here achieved through the overt politicizing and historicizing of

the act of representing.


Both Saleem’s and Oskar’s stories have Shandian openings – or nonopenings

– and both narrators echo Sterne’s much earlier parody of narrative

conventions. In Rushdie’s text, however, the intertextual presence of

Tristram Shandy does more than simply work to undercut Saleem’s

megalomaniac attempts at ordering and systematizing byreminding us of the

inevitability of contingency; it also points to the Empire, the imperialist

British past, that is literally a part of India’s self-representation as much as of

Saleem’s. The structure of the parody enables that past to be admitted as

inscribed, but also subverted at the same time. The literary inheritance of an

Indian writing in English is inescapably double, as Omar Khayyam in Shame

comes to see so clearly. Similar political paradoxes underlie the use of

parody in black American writing as well. Ishmael Reed has parodied the

historical novel (Flight to Canada), the western (Yellow Back Radio Broke-

Down), the detective story (Mumbo Jumbo), Dickens (The Terrible Twos),

and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Flight to Canada), but always within a political

context that points to what the dominant white traditions silence: the

representations both of blacks and by blacks – the entire Afro-American

literary tradition of the past and the present.


A similar critical contextualizing and appropriating of the past and its

representational practices can be seen in the visual arts too, for instance, in

the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Second Sight show where Mark

Tansey showed his painting entitled The Triumph of the New York School.




The politics of parody 105


The parodies operating here are multiple. The title refers to Irving Sandler’s

well-known textbook, The Triumph of American Painting. But the work

itself ironically literalizes this title: members of the French army (looking

like Picasso, Duchamp, Apollinaire, and Leger) surrender their outdated

arms to the technically superior American forces (whose officers

represented include Jackson Pollock, Clement Greenberg, and Barnett

Newman). Tansey’s overall composition is a parody of Velasquez’s

Surrender of Breda (1634) which represents both a specific act of chivalry in

the Thirty Years’ War and a more general glorification of art through war (see

Beal 1986: 9). Here all that is ironically inverted and placed in an entirely

different context.


Is there a problem of accessibility here, however? What if we do not

recognize the represented figures or the parodied composition? The title, I

suppose, does alert us to the place to look for a means of access – Sandler’s

textbook. This functions much as do the acknowledgement pages of

postmodern parodic fiction (such as Berger’s G., Thomas’s The White Hotel,

Banville’s Doctor Copernicus). These may not provide all the parodic

allusions, but they teach us the rules of the game and make us alert to other

possibilities. This is not to deny, however, that there exists a very real threat

of elitism or lack of access in the use of parody in any art. This question of

accessibility is undeniably part of the politics of postmodern representation.

But it is the complicity of postmodern parody – its inscribing as well as

undermining of that which it parodies – that is central to its ability to be

understood. This may explain the frequent parodic reappropriation of massmedia

images in particular by many postmodern photographers: there is no

need to know the entire history of art to understand the critique of these

representations. All you have to do is look around you. But some artists want

to use parody to recover that high-art history too, to reconnect the

representational strategies of the present with those of the past, in order to

critique both. As Martha Rosler puts it:


At certain historical junctures, quotation [or what I have called parody]

allows a defeat of alienation, an asserted reconnection with obscured

traditions. Yet the elevation of an unknown or disused past emphasizes a




106 The Politics of Postmodernism


rupture with the immediate past, a revolutionary break in the supposed  

stream of history, intended to destroy the credibility of the reigning  

historical accounts – in favor of the point of view of history’s designated  

losers. The homage of quotation is capable of signalling not self 

effacement but rather a strengthening or consolidating resolve.  

(Rosler 1981: 81)


As we shall see inthe next chapter, Rosler’schallenge to social and economic

history through a parody of the history of photography does indeed offer a

new way to represent ‘history’s designated losers.’ The financial and artistic

success of the American documentary art of the 1930s in contrast to its

subjects’ continuing conditions of poverty and misery is part ofthe historical

context that formal parody calls up in Rosler’s series, The Bowery in Two

Inadequate Descriptive Systems.


Barbara Kruger chooses to appropriate mass-media images and use their

formal complicity with capitalist and patriarchal representational strategies

to foreground conflictual elements through ironic contradictions. Parody,

she asserts, allows for some distance and critique, especially of notions such

as ‘competence, originality, authorship and property’ (Kruger 1982: 90).

Certain of Vincent Leo’s works may look like derivative variations or

pastiches of the work of Robert Frank – and they are. They are cut-up

collages of reproductions from Frank’s canonical book of photographs The

Americans. It has been argued that this kind of parodic play has its own

complex politics of representation: it points to the legions of contemporary

photographers who unreflectively copy the canonical icons and their

techniques; it undercuts the myth and mystique of originality in art; it works

to recall the history of photography by literally using the past as the building

blocks of the present; and it comments critically on the canonical status of

photographers like Frank within the art institution (Solomon-Godeau 1984a:



Parody in postmodern art is more than just a sign of the attention artists

pay to each others’ work and to the art of the past. It may indeed be

complicitous with the values it inscribes as well as subverts, but the

subversion is still there: the politics of postmodern parodic representation is




The politics of parody 107


not the same as that of most rock videos’ use of allusions to standard film

genres or texts. This is what should be called pastiche, according to

Jameson’s definition. In postmodern parody, the doubleness of the politics

of authorized transgression remains intact: there is no dialectic resolution or

recuperative evasion of contradiction in narrative fiction, painting,

photography, or film.


Postmodern film?


In his article, ‘Metacinema: a modern necessity,’ William Siska

characterizes ‘modernist’ cinema in terms of a new kind of self-reflexivity,

one that challenges the traditional Hollywood variety of movies about

movie-making that retain the orthodox realist notion of the transparency of

narrative structures and representations: Sunset Boulevard, Day for Night,

Singin’ in the Rain (Siska 1979: 285). The ‘modernist’ contesting of this, he

argues, takes the form of an insistence on formal intransitivity by such

techniques as the rupturing of the chain of causation upon which character

and plot motivation depend, spatial or temporal fragmentation, or the

introduction of ‘alien forms and information’ (286). Examples would

include W.R., Persona, and 81/2. But what happens when the ‘alien’ form

introduced is parody? And what if it is that very self-conscious introduction

of the ‘alien’ that is itself being parodied? What happens when we get Woody

Allen’s Stardust Memories parodying and challenging, however

respectfully, Fellini’s modernist 81/2?


What happens, perhaps, is something we should label as postmodern,

something that has the same relation to its modernist past as can be seen in

postmodern architecture today: both a respectful – if problematized –

awareness of cultural continuity and a need to adapt to changing formal

demands and social conditions through an ironic contesting of the authority

of that same continuity. The postmodernist is in this sense less radical than

the modernist; it is more willfully compromised, more ideologically

ambivalent or contradictory. It at once exploits and subverts that which went

before, that is, both the modernist and the traditionally realist.




108 The Politics of Postmodernism


Parody, of course, is omnipresent in contemporary film and it is not

always challenging in mode. Parody can work to signal continuity with

(though today it is usually with some ironic difference from) a tradition of

film-making: Witness rewrites High Noon’s characterization structure (law

officer male/pacifist woman) and even echoes individual shots (villains on

the high road), but adds the distancing irony of the increased (not, as might

be expected, decreased) ruralization of the modern world, at least in terms of

the Amish community. Similarly, Crossroads reworks Leadbelly’s thematic

and formal structure in fictionalized terms, with differences that foreground

the relation of race to the blues. While both music films operate within the

same historical framework (Allan Lomax and Folkway recordings figure

prominently in both plots), the new climactic contest scene has significant

ironic differences: it pits the electric guitar versus the acoustic (in the original

it was six-versus twelve-string) and adds a heavy dose of Faustian challenge.


Another way of talking about the political paradoxes of parody would be

to see it as self-consciously intransitive representation (film recalls film)

which also milks the power of transitivity to create the spectator’s

identification. In other words, it simultaneously destabilizes and inscribes

the dominant ideology through its (almost overly obvious) interpellation of

the spectator as subject in and of ideology (Althusser 1971; Belsey 1980: 56–

84). In other chapters, too, I have argued that the question of ideology’s

relation to subjectivity is central to postmodernism. The challenges to the

humanist concept of a coherent, continuous, autonomous individual (who

paradoxically also shares in some generalized universal human essence)

have come from all sides today: from poststructuralist philosophical and

literary theory, Marxist political philosophy, Freudian/Lacanian

psychoanalysis, sociology, and many other domains. We have also seen that

photography and fiction – two art forms with a certain relevance for film –

have shared in this questioning of the nature and formation of subjectivity.

Where modernism investigated the grounding of experience in the self, its

focus was ontheself seeking integration amidfragmentation.In other words,

its (for many, defining) focus on subjectivity was still within the dominant

humanist framework, though the obsessive search for wholeness itself

suggests the beginnings of what would be a more radical postmodern




The politics of parody 109


questioning, a challenging brought about by the doubleness of postmodern

discourse. In other words, postmodernism works both to underline and to

undermine the notion of the coherent, self-sufficient subject as the source of

meaning or action.


Think of films like Woody Allen’s Zelig, with its many parodic intertexts,

including actual historical film footage and the conventions of documentary

as well as other specific films from Citizen Kane to Reds. Parody points at

once to and beyond cinematic textuality to the ideological formation of the

subject by our various cultural representations. Zelig is centrally concerned

with the history and politics of the prewar years for which the chameleon

Zelig becomes the ironic symbol. Real historical personages (Susan Sontag,

Saul Bellow) ‘document’ and ‘authenticate’ Zelig in this symbolic role: his

freakishness becomes his typicality. But what does it mean to be a symbol of

something when that something only wants to be other than what it is? The

implied historical intertexts give us the answer to this contradiction: as a Jew,

Zelig has a special (and historically ironic) interest in fitting in, in being other

than what he is – as we know from subsequent history. In other words, this is

more than just the typical Allen assimilation anxiety: the history of the

Holocaust cannot be forgotten by the contemporary viewer of this film. Nor

can the history of the representation of the subject in cinema. The story of a

self that changes constantly, that is unstable, decentered, and discontinuous,

is a parody both of the traditional filmic subject of realist cinema and also of

the modernist searching for integration and wholeness of personality. Here

the only wholeness attained is that of the media monster the public makes of

the protean protagonist. Zelig is ‘about’ the formation of subjectivity, both

the subjectivity of the spectator and that created by the spectator – the Star.


This critique from within the institution and history of film production is

part of what is postmodern about Allen’s work: its insider–outsider doubled

position. Through parody, it uses and abuses dominant conventions in order

to emphasize both the process of subject-formation and the temptations of

easy accommodation to the power of interpellation. It questions the nature of

the ‘real’ and its relation to the ‘reel’ through its parody and metacinematic

play. This questioning becomes even more overt in The Purple Rose of

Cairo, where real and reel life mingle with self-conscious irony. This kind of




110 The Politics of Postmodernism


postmodern film never loses sight of the appeal of that humanist-modernist

wholeness; indeed, it exploits it. But the exploitation is done in the name of

contesting the values and beliefs upon which that wholeness is constructed


– with the emphasis on the act of construction – through representations.

Showing the formation process not just of subjectivity but also of

narrativity and visual representation has become a staple of metacinema

today. The postmodern variant of this kind of self-reflexivity calls attention

to the very acts of production and reception of the film itself. In Richard

Rush’s The Stunt Man, the audience is placed in the same (hermeneutic)

position as the protagonist, as the conventions of movie-making are both

employed (and employed effectively – to dramatic and suspenseful ends)

and undercut, that is, bared as conventions in a self-conscious way. This

focus on what we might call the enunciation is typical of postmodern art in

general, with its overt awareness that art is produced and received within a

social and political, as well as aesthetic, context.


Suzanne Osten’s The Mozart Brothers gives a good sense of the

complexity of parody’s politics of representation. Walter, an opera director

who wants to do Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni as a series of flashbacks set

in a graveyard, is played by co-writer Etienne Glaser who, in fact, is also an

opera director who has done precisely such a production. Within this film

about rehearsing an opera, we also watch a female director make a

documentary film about Walter. Her camera and her feminist perspective are

periodically brought to our attention, problematizing the gender politics of

all representation – filmic, operatic, documentary.


This is a movie about a Swedish opera company’s production of an utterly

unconventional version of Mozart’s famous opera. The outrage that greets

Walter’s anti-canonical directorial decisions comes from singers, orchestra,

theater managers, voice trainers, stage crew, in short, everyone who has

worked within certain Mozartian conventions and sees them as fixed ‘doxa’


– ‘what Mozart intended.’ However, the ghostly apparition of the composer

himself keeps assuring Walter that it is convention – not opera itself – that is

boring and that even if people hate his production, at least they will be

responding emotionally to it. The opposite of love is not hate, but

indifference. In a scene which parodically recalls the Volksoper parody of



The politics of parody 111


Don Giovanni in the film of Amadeus, the ghost of Mozart appears in the

mirror, as Walter eats and drinks with the cleaners and theater workers who

lustily sing in falsetto voices Zerlina’s interactions with Masetto. Mozart

smiles in delight at their true joyous pleasure in his music, even if it is not

sung in any traditional manner or place.


The most intricate example of how parodic representation functions in

this film is in the structural parallels between the opera and the movie: the

members of the opera company live out the opera’s emotions and even its

plot details. Thewomanizing Walter is clearly the modern Don Giovanni; the

vengeful Donna Elvira is to be sung in this production by Walter’s ex-wife,

a strong and forceful woman who loves him still – despite herself. Walter’s

musical assistant calls himself Leporello and at one point even changes

shirts, if not cloaks and hats, with Giovanni/Walter. Walter insults the singer

who plays Donna Anna, but she has no father to avenge her slighted (singing)

honor. She does, however, have a mother-figure, her teacher, who attacks

Walter with her sword-like umbrella. Similarly, it is not Leporello who tells

Donna Elvira of the Don’s many female conquests; it is the office

receptionist who tells the singer portraying Donna Elvira of Walter’s other

wives and conquests. This ex-wife herself then warns the female film

director of Walter’s perfidy, but this is no innocent Zerlina, warned and

protected by Donna Elvira: the woman directing is as much seducer as



The Mozart Brothers inevitably suggests other parodic contexts: as a

Swedish film about a Mozart opera, it probably cannot avoid recalling

Bergman’s The Magic Flute, with which it shares similarities of selfreflexivity

in terms of staging and also in its play with the usual transparent

conventions ofrealist representation. And its unconventional stage setting in

mud and water is a comment, perhaps, on Joseph Losey’s famous Venetian

film of the opera, with its beautiful watery sets. The final irony of all this

parody and self-reflexivity is that we never get to hear or see the planned

production. Or do we? Through the rehearsal action and the singers’

interactions, we actually have seen a full, if ironically transcoded, version of

Don Giovanni that is at least as untraditional as that envisaged by Walter.




112 The Politics of Postmodernism


Films made from postmodern novels seem to be particularly open to the

referential complexities of parody. While all filming of novelistic narrative

involves the clash of two very different representational systems, in the

postmodern form there are added levels of intricacy. John Fowles’s The

French Lieutenant’s Woman, with its intense self-reflexivity of narration and

its dense parodic intertextuality (of both specific Victorian novels and

generic conventions), had to be cinematically transcoded in order to change

its insistently novelistic focus into a filmic one.


Another example would be Manuel Puig’s novel, Kiss of the Spider

Woman, where the ironies of Molina’s parodic verbal representations of

films had to be visually inscribed for the spectator, while remaining narrated

for Molina’s cell companion, Valentin. The number of narrated films in the

novel had to be drastically reduced in the film without losing the function and

significance of the representational process itself. In addition, as we have

already seen, the irony of the novel’s extended paratextual parody in the form

of long footnotes full of authenticating psychoanalytic sources of

information (which explain nothing of the subjectivity they presume to

illuminate) has to be played out solely through character interaction.


In these and other films, parody is not a form of self-regarding narcissism

or in-joke elitist allusions by film-school trained directors. The complex

transcoding in Carlos Saura’s Carmen of French high art (Bizet’s opera and

Merrimee’s literary text) into the conventions of Spanish flamenco offers a

good example of the kind of political critique of which parodic

representation is indeed capable. Flamenco is historically not the music and

dance of high art; it is the regional and popular art of the poor and the socially

marginalized. Saura’s film is about the relation of the present to the past

traditions of both Spanish folk art and European high-art culture (with its

fascination for the stereotypically exotic).


Like The French Lieutenant’s Woman, however, this is a very postmodern

film in its dialogic doublings. It is textually aware of – and challenges – the

boundaries between genres and ultimately between art and life. The wallsize

studio window onto the outside world is curtained, and the performance

goes on behind those curtains. Somewhat reminiscent of the one in Fellini’s

The Orchestra Rehearsal, the performance is both a documentary on a form




The politics of parody 113


of music and a rehearsal of a fiction. Added to this is the plot structure’s

reflexivity, wherein the dancers begin to enact – in their private lives – the

jealousy and passion of the fiction. The fact that as viewers we often cannot

tell whether we are watching the fiction or the dancers’ ‘real’-life action

underlines the doubling boundary play of the film. The self-reflexivity of

Carmen also raises another issue of ideological import: this is a film about

the production of art, about art as representation derived from the words and

music of others, but as filtered through the imagination of the artist figure,

the male Pygmalion who wills reality – a woman and a dancer – to take the

form of art and become his Carmen. The overt process of subject-formation

here underlines the cognate relationship between subject and subjection.


The dominant view of postmodern parody as trivial and trivializing that

we saw earlier is also to be found in the field of filmcriticism. Jameson (1983,

1984a) argues that parody in films like Body Heat or Star Wars is a sign of

nostalgic escapism, ‘the imprisonment of the past’ through pastiche that

prevents confronting the present. However, at the same time, we have seen

that Jameson laments a loss of a sense of history in today’s art. He sees

parodic art as simply narcissistic, as ‘a terrible indictment of consumer

capitalism itself – or at the very least, an alarming and pathological symptom

of a society that has become incapable of dealing with time and history’

(Jameson 1983: 117). However, Zelig, Carmen, The French Lieutenant’s

Woman, and other postmodern films do indeed deal with history and they do

so in ironic, but not at all un-serious, ways. The problem for Jameson may

simply be that they do not deal with Marxist History: in these films there is

little of the positive utopian notion of History and no unproblematic faith in

the accessibility of the ‘real referent’ of historical discourse.


What they suggest instead is that there is no directly and naturally

accessible past ‘real’ for us today: we can only know – and construct – the

past through its traces, its representations. As we have repeatedly seen,

whether these be documents, eye-witness accounts, documentary film

footage, or other works of art, they are still representations and they are our

only means of access to the past. Jameson laments the loss of a sense of his

particular definition of history, then, while dismissing as nostalgia the only

kind of history wemay beable to acknowledge: a contingent and inescapably




114 The Politics of Postmodernism


intertextual history. To write this off as pastiche and nostalgia and then to

lament that our contemporary social system has ‘begun to lose its capacity to

retain its own past, has begun to live in a perpetual present’ (Jameson 1983:

125) seems of questionable validity. Postmodernist film (and fiction) is, if

anything, obsessed with history and with how we can know the past today.

How can this be an ‘enfeeblement of historicity’ (Jameson 1986: 303)?


Writing as I do in an Anglo-American context, I think that Jameson’s

blanket condemnation of Hollywood for its wholesale implication in

capitalism (made from within an academy that is just as implicated) is what

is behind his distrust of irony and ambiguity, a distrust that blinds him to the

possibilities of the potentially positive oppositional and contestatory nature

of parody. Postmodern film does not deny that it is implicated in capitalist

modes of production, because it knows it cannot. Instead it exploits its

‘insider’ position in order to begin a subversion from within, to talk to

consumers in a capitalist society in a way that will get us where we live, so to

speak. The difference between postmodern parody and nostalgia – which

once again I do not deny is part of our culture today – lies in the role of this

double-voiced irony. Compare the ponderousness of Dune (which takes

itself most seriously) with Star Wars’ irony and play with cultural

conventions of narrative and visual representation or with Tampopo’s

cultural inversion of both the traditional western (e.g. Shane with its lone

hero helping needy widow) and the Italian ‘spaghetti western’ into what

might literally be called a ‘noodle eastern.’ What postmodern parody does is

to evoke what reception theorists call the horizon of expectation of the

spectator, a horizon formed by recognizable conventions of genre, style, or

form of representation. This is then destabilized and dismantled step by step.

It is not accidental, of course, that irony has often been the rhetorical vehicle

of satire. Even a relatively ‘light’ parody such as De Palma’s Phantom of the

Paradise offers irony working with satire, ranging in target from the sexism

of Hugh Hefner-like harems (Swan’s – with ironic echoes perhaps of Du cote

de chez Swann) to the interpellation of the Star by the public and its taste for

extremes. The vehicle of this satire is multiple parody: of The Bird Man of

Alcatraz (transported to Sing Sing – a more appropriate site for a singercomposer),

Psycho (the knife replaced by a plunger; the female victim by a




The politics of parody 115


male), The Picture of Dorian Gray (the painting updated to video tape).

Despite the obvious fun, this is also a film about the politics of

representation, specifcally the representation of the original and originating

subject as artist: its dangers, its victims, its consequences. The major

intertexts are Faust and the earlier film, The Phantom of the Opera, here

transcoded into rock music terms. This particular parodied text and only this

can explain such otherwise unmotivated details as the organ overtones to the

protagonist’s opening piano playing. The Faust parody is overt as well, since

the phantom writes a rock cantata based on it. And of course his pact with the

demonic Swan is signed in blood.


Multiple and obvious parody like this can paradoxically bring out the

politics of representation by baring and thus challenging convention, just as

the Russian formalists had suggested it could. Metacinematic devices work

in much the same way. The mixing of the fictive and the historical in

Coppola’s Cotton Club warns the spectator to beware of institutionalized

boundaries, to refuse to let life and art get either too separated or totally

merged, so that when the club’s stage acts echo and foreshadow the action of

the main plot, we do not miss the implications. For instance, the dance of the

light-skinned Lila Rose and the darker Sandman Williams prefigures on

stage their tortured relationship for she, but only she, can pass in a white

world. Genre boundaries are structurally analogous to social borders (here

racially defined) and both are called to account.


This parodic genre-crossing between the discourses of fiction and history

maywell reflect ageneral andincreasing interest innon-fictional forms since

the 1960s. In film, popular works such as The Return of Martin Guerre and

(somewhat more problematically) Amadeus would support such an

interpretation of the orientation of much current culture. But a film like

Maximilian Schell’s Marlene can also parody the documentary genre in a

postmodern cinematic way. It opens asking ‘Who is Dietrich?’ and the

question is revealed as unanswerable. The postmodernist investigation of

subject-formation combines here with one of the forms that the postmodern

challenge to historical knowledge has taken: the one that operates in the

realm of private history, that is, biography. Novels like Banville’s Kepler or

Wiebe’s The Temptations of Big Bear or Kennedy’s Legs all work to present




116 The Politics of Postmodernism


a portrait of an individual and yet to subvert any stability in or certainty of

ever knowing – or representing – that subject. This is what Marlene is also

about. The much photographed Dietrich remains off-stage, never

represented visually. She is only a querulous voice, a cantankerous absent



Schell turns this to postmodernadvantage bymaking this intoa film about

trying to make a documentary about a willfully absent subject, one who

refuses to be subjected to the discourses and representations of others any

longer. Dietrich has her own version of her life, one which, as the

metacinematic frame makes clear, is itself a fictionalized one. She claims at

one point that she wants a documentary without criticism: what Schell

should do is show archival pictures of, for instance, the boat on which she

arrived in America. Schell then immediately offers us these very pictures and

the effect is both humorous and revelatory: the archive may be real but it tells

us little about the subject. The portrait of Dietrich that emerges here is of a

woman of contradictions, business-like yet sentimental, self-denigrating yet

proud, rejecting almost all her work as rubbish yet moved to enthusiasm by

watching Schell in Judgment at Nuremburg. The suggestion is that all

subjectivity would be as radically split as this if we were to examine it this

closely, that the humanist ideal representation of a whole, integrated

individual is a fiction – a fiction that not even the subject (or her biographer)

can ever successfully construct. Schell’s despair is as much at this as at

Dietrich’s stubborn inaccessibility to his camera. He can edit her films all he

likes (and we watch him do so), but she remains elusive and for ever



Marlene is the kind of film I would label as postmodern: parodic,

metacinematic, questioning. Its constantly contradictory, doubled discourse

calls to our attention the issue of the ideological construction – through

representation – of subjectivity and of the way we know history, both

personal and public. Very few films have managed to raise these particular

issues as obsessively as has Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts.

Everything in this movie is doubled, from the characters to the parodies. The

master intertext is the (‘photographic’) realist representation of Vermeer’s

paintings (the lighting techniques of which are echoed directly in the




The politics of parody 117


filming). But even this overt intertext becomes problematic. Within the

film’s narrative there is a surgeon named Van Meegeren. This is also the

name of Vermeer’s principal forger, the man who successfully convinced

Goebbels (and the rest of the world) that there existed more than the once

accepted twenty-six authenticated Vermeer paintings. As in Ackroyd’s

Chatterton, the real and the fictive or the authentic and the fake cannot be

separated. And, by means of one character’s personal sense of loss, the entire

history of the human species is placed in the context of evolution and

devolution: Charles Darwin becomes both a biological historian and an

ingenious storyteller.


A Zed and Two Noughts seems to me to be a borderline case, however, a

cas limite of the postmodern film. Its challenges to the spectator’s

expectations are more radical than those of any of the other films I have

mentioned. While its contradictions are not really resolved, they are

certainly stylized in the extreme. Postmodern film, as I see it, would be more

compromised than this. Its tensions would be more deliberately left

unresolved, its contradictions more deliberately left manifest. This constant

double encoding – inscribing and subverting prevailing conventions – is

what causes some critics to reject such films utterly, while others acclaim

them enthusiastically. This discrepancy may be caused by the fact that if only

one side – either – of the postmodern contradiction is seen (or valued), then

the ambivalent doubleness of the parodic encoding can easily be resolved

into a single decoding. Postmodern film is that which paradoxically wants to

challenge the outer borders of cinema and wants to ask questions (though

rarely offer answers) about ideology’s role in subject-formation and in

historical knowledge. Perhaps parody is a particularly apt representational

strategy for postmodernism, a strategy once described (Said 1983: 135) as

the use of parallel script rather than original inscription. Were we to heed the

implications of such a model, we might have to reconsider the operations by

which we both create and give meaning to our culture through

representation. And that is not bad for a so-called nostalgic escapist


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