Early Postmodernism: Foundational Essays

Early Postmodernism: Foundational Essays

by Paul A. Bové

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In the decade that followed 1972, the journal boundary 2 consistently published many of the most distinguished and most influential statements of an emerging literary postmodernism. Recognizing postmodernism as a dominant force in culture, particularly in the literary and narrative imagination, the journal appeared when literary critical study in the United


In the decade that followed 1972, the journal boundary 2 consistently published many of the most distinguished and most influential statements of an emerging literary postmodernism. Recognizing postmodernism as a dominant force in culture, particularly in the literary and narrative imagination, the journal appeared when literary critical study in the United States was in a period of theory-induced ferment. The fundamental relations between postmodernism and poststructuralism were being initially examined and the effort to formulate a critical sense of the postmodern was underway. In this volume, Paul A. Bové, the current editor of boundary 2, has gathered many of those foundational essays and, as such, has assembled a basic text in the history of postmodernism.
Essays by noted cultural and literary theorists join with Bové’s contemporary preface to represent the important and unique moment in recent intellectual history when postmodernism was no longer seen primarily as an architectural term, had not yet come to describe the wide range of culture it does now, but was finding power and place in the literary realm. These essays show that the history of postmodernism and its attendant critical theories are both more complex and more deeply bound with literary criticism than often is acknowledged today. Early Postmodernism demonstrates not only the significance of these literary studies, but also the role played by literary critical postmodernism in making possible newer forms of critical and cultural studies.

Contributors. Barry Alpert, Charles Altieri, David Antin, Harold Bloom, Paul A. Bové, Hélène Cixous, Gerald Gillespie, Ihab Hassan, Joseph N. Riddel, William, V. Spanos, Catharine R. Stimpson, Cornel West

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Early Postmodernism

Foundational Essays

By Paul A. Bové

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9912-4


The Detective and the Boundary

Some Notes on the Postmodern Literary Imagination

... All the plays that have
ever been written, from ancient
Greece to the present day,
have never really been anything
but thrillers.
Drama's always been realistic
and there's always been a
detective about. Every
play's an investigation brought
to a successful conclusion.
There's a riddle, and it's
solved in the final scene.
earlier. Might as well give the
game away at the
Ionesco: Choubert,
Victims of Duty

"Elementary, my dear Watson...."
Conan Doyle: Sherlock Holmes,

And any explanation will satisfy:
We only ask to be reassured
About the noises in the cellar
And the window that should not have
been open.
Why do we all behave as if the door
might suddenly open, the
curtain be drawn,
The cellar make some dreadful
disclosure, the roof disappear,
And we should cease to be sure of
what is real or unreal?
Hold tight, hold tight, we must insist
that the world is what we have
always taken it to be....
Eliot: Chorus, The Family Reunion

Dread strikes us dumb.
Heidegger, "What is Metaphysics?"

Nilb, mun, mud.
Beckett: Watt, Watt


The literary revolution called Modernism that took place at the end of the nineteenth century in reaction against the European middle-class ethos and reached its apogee in the work of such writers as Marcel Proust, Stéphane Mallarmé, W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf—and in the New Criticism—was, ideologically, a revolt against the Western humanistic tradition and, aesthetically, against the "Aristotelian" tradition. The modern movement continues to the present to be characterized by its "anti-Westernism" and its "anti-Aristotelianism." But about the time of World War II, which witnessed—especially in the context of the Resistance—the emergence of existentialism not merely as a philosophy but as a mode of consciousness, the "anti-Aristotelianism" of the modern movement underwent a metamorphosis so profound that it has become necessary, I submit, to differentiate between an early or symbolist modernism and a later "postmodernism."

Broadly speaking, the anti-Westernism of the symbolists was above all an aesthetic reaction against the humanistic principle of utility, the imperative that man's role vis-à-vis the material world was to control or, more accurately, to manipulate Nature (the word "manipulate" will assume a different significance for the existential imagination) in behalf of the material well-being of man. Analogously, the anti-Aristotelianism of the symbolists constituted a rejection of "prose" in favor of "poetry" or, as Henri Bergson observes in Time and Free Will, a rejection of language that solidifies "our conscious states" for the purposes of social action in favor of a language that achieves an autonomous and something like autotelic status. On the level of mimesis, symbolist anti-Aristotelianism constituted a rejection of the primacy of linear and temporal plot in favor of the simultaneity of "spatial form." I will return to this all too brief definition of symbolist modernism. What I wish to suggest at the outset is that, unlike the early modern imagination—indeed, in partial reaction against its refusal of historicity—the postmodern imagination, agonized as it has been by the on-going boundary situation which is contemporary history, is an existential imagination. Its antiAristotelianism—its refusal to fulfill causally oriented expectations, to create fictions (and in extreme cases, sentences) with beginnings, middles, and ends—has its source, not so much in an aesthetic as in an existential critique of the traditional Western view of man in the world, especially as it has been formulated by positivistic science and disseminated by the vested interests of the modern—technological—City. It is not, in other words, the ugliness, the busyness, the noisiness of a world organized on the principle of utility that has called forth postmodern anti-Aristotelianism; it is rather, though the two are not mutually exclusive, the anthropomorphic objectification of a world in which God is dead or has withdrawn.

At the heart of the existential critique of positivistic humanism—indeed, at the heart of all existential philosophies as such—is the well known but too often misunderstood concept of dread (Angst) or, rather, the distinction between dread and fear (Furcht). According to Heidegger, for example, who, it should be remembered, derived his fundamental categories from Søren Kierkegaard, dread differs radically from fear. "We are always afraid of this or that definite thing which threatens us in this or that definite way." Fear, in other words, has an object which, as Tillich puts it with Kierkegaard and Heidegger clearly in mind, "can be faced, analyzed, attacked, endured." That is, fear has no ontological status because, having an object that can, as it were, be taken hold of, one is certain that it can be dealt with: eliminated or neutralized or even used. (This obsessive need to take hold of nothing, it is worth observing, reminds us of Keats's implicit criticism of the kind of writer who, because he does not have negative capability, reaches irritably "after fact or reason.")

Dread, on the other hand, has no thing or nothing as its object. This "indefiniteness of what we dread is not just lack of definition: it represents the essential impossibility of defining the 'what.'" It is, in other words, an existential and ontological (as opposed to existentiell and ontic) structure of reality:

In dread, as we say, "one feels something uncanny [unheimlich]." What is this "something" [es] and this "one"? We are unable to say what gives "one" that uncanny feeling. "One" just feels it generally [im Ganzen]. All things, and we with them, sink into a sort of indifference. But not in the sense that everything disappears; rather, in the very act of drawing away from us everything turns towards us. This withdrawal of what-is-in-totality, which crowds round us in dread, this is what oppresses us. There is nothing [as there is in fear] to hold on to. The only thing that remains and overwhelms us whilst what-is slips away, is this "nothing."

What is crucial to perceive in Heidegger's phenomenological example is that dread generates a withdrawal of the world as web of definite or defined objects ("what-is-in-totality") and discloses itself in its primordial ontological state, which is oppressive not only because it "crowds round us"—invades, as it were, our formerly secure world—but also because it provides us—like the chorus in the epigraph from Eliot's The Family Reunion—with "nothing to hold on to." Following Kierkegaard, whose existentialism exfoliates from his assertion that "Nothing begets dread," Heidegger concludes: "Dread reveals Nothing." Put in the way suggested by his reference to the feeling of uncanniness (Unheimlichkeit), dread discloses Dasein's (human being's) not-at-homeness in the world.

Seen in the light of the existential distinction between dread and fear, the Western perspective—by which I specifically mean the rational or rather the positivistic structure of consciousness that views spatial and temporal phenomena in the world as "problems" to be "solved"—constitutes a self-deceptive effort to find objects for dread in order to domesticate—to at-home—the threatening realm of Nothingness, the not-at-home, into which Dasein is thrown (geworfen). It is, in other words, a rigidified, evasive anthropomorphism which obsessively attempts by coercion to fix and stabilize the elusive flux of existence from the vantage point of a final rational cause. By means of this coercive transformation, the positivistic structure of consciousness is able not only to manipulate, to lay hands on, the irrational world (including man, of course) for the purpose of achieving what one early spokesman for this perspective referred to as "humane empire" over nature "for the benefit of man's estate." More basically, according to the existentialists, it can also justify the absurdity of human existence: it allows man, that is, to perceive the immediate, uncertain, problematic, and thus dreadful psychic or historical present of Dasein as a necessary part of a linear design, as a causal link between the past and /or future determined from a rational end. The one thing needful to fill the gaps between apparent discontinuities in both the internal and external worlds (i.e., memory and history) or, another way of putting it, to apprehend and to exploit this comforting linear design behind the absurd and dislocating, or, better, dis-lodging appearances, is a careful, "objective" observer of the uniformity among diverse phenomena, that is, the positivistic scientist or, what is the same thing, the behaviorist psychoanalyst.

According to the implications of existential philosophy, then, the problem-solution perspective of the "straightforward" Western man of action, as Dostoevsky's denizen of the underground calls the exponents of the Crystal Palace, has its ground in more than merely a belief in the susceptibility of nature to rational explanation. It is based, rather on a monolithic certainty that immediate psychic or historical experience is part of a comforting, even exciting and suspenseful well-made cosmic drama or novel—more particularly, a detective story (the French term is policière) in the manner of Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue or Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles. For just as the form of the detective story has its source in the comforting certainty that an acute "eye," private or otherwise, can solve the crime with resounding finality by inferring causal relationships between clues which point to it (they are "leads," suggesting the primacy of rigid linear narrative sequence), so the "form" of the well-made positivistic universe is grounded in the equally comforting certainty that the scientist and/or psychoanalyst can solve the immediate problem by the inductive method, a process involving the inference of relationships between discontinuous "facts" that point to or lead straight to an explanation of the "mystery," the "crime" of contingent existence. "'This is most important,' said [Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles].... 'It fills up a gap which I had been unable to bridge in this most complex affair.'"

Far from being arbitrary, this way of defining the structure of consciousness into which modern Western man has coerced his humanistic inheritance from the Renaissance is, as we shall see, amply justified, especially by the evidence of his popular arts and public-political life. Though, on the whole, scientists and psychologists no longer are inclined to view existence in this rigidly positivistic and deterministic way, it is nevertheless this structure of consciousness, which assumes the universe, the "book of nature," to be a well-made cosmic drama, that determines the questions and thus the expectations and answers—in language and in action—of the "silent majority," das Man of the modern technological City and of the political executors of its will.


As the profound influence of certain kinds of literature on existential philosophy suggests, the impulse of the Western writer to refuse to fulfill causal expectations, to refuse to provide "solutions" for the "crime" of existence, historically precedes the existential critique of Westernism. We discover it in, say, Euripides' Orestes, Shakespeare's problem plays, the tragi-comedies of the Jacobeans, Wycherley's The Plain Dealer, Dickens's Edwin Drood, and more recently in Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych, Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, Kafka's The Trial, Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, and even in T S. Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes. (These are works, it is worth observing, the radical temporality of which does not yield readily to the spatial methodology of the New Criticism, which has its source in the iconic art of symbolist modernism.) In Notes from Underground, for example, Dostoevsky as editor "concludes" this antinovel: "The 'notes' of this paradoxalist do not end here. However, he could not resist and continued them. But it also seems to me that we may stop here." Fully conscious of the psychological need of the "straightforward" Gentleman of the hyper-Westernized St. Petersburg—the "most intentional city in the whole world"—Dostoevsky refuses to transform the discordant experience of this terrible voice into a "sublime and beautiful," that is, "straightforward" and distancing story. So also in Six Characters in Search of an Author. Seeking relief from the agony of their ambiguous relationships, the characters express their need to give artistic shape to the "infinite absurdities" of their lives. But when the Director (I want to emphasize the coercive implications of the word)—who hates their authorless, that is, inconclusive drama ("it seems to me you are trying to imitate the manner of a certain author whom I heartily detest")—tries to make a well-made play, a melodrama in the manner of Eugene Scribe or Alexander Dumas fils of their dreadful experience ("What we've got to do is to combine and group up all the facts in one simultaneous close-knit action"), they 'refuse to be coerced into that comforting but fraudulent "arrangement." Similarly in Sweeney Agonistes, just as Sweeney will not allow his anxious listeners to package the terrible "anti-Aristotelian" murder story he tells them ("Well here again that don't apply / But I've gotta use words when I talk to you"), so Eliot in his great antidetective play will not allow his audience of middle class fugitives to fulfill their positivistically conditioned need to experience the explanatory and cathartic conclusion. Rather, like Dostoevsky, he ends the play inconclusively with the dreadful knocking at the door.

But in each of these earlier works, one has the feeling that the writer has only reluctantly resisted the conventional ending. It is actually the unconscious pressure of the powerfully felt content—the recognition and acknowledgment of contingency or what I prefer to call the ontological invasion—that has driven him into undermining the traditional Aristotelian dramatic or fictional form. The existential diagnosis and critique of the humanistic tradition had not yet emerged to suggest the formal implications of metaphysical disintegration. Only after the existentialist philosophers revealed that the perception of the universe as a well-made fiction, obsessive to the Western consciousness, is in reality a self-deceptive effort to evade the anxiety of contingent existence by objectifying and taking hold of "it," did it become clear to the modern writer that the ending-as-solution is the literary agency of this evasive objectification. And it is the discovery of the "anti-formal" imperatives of absurd time for fiction and drama and poetry (though poetry, which in our time means lyric poetry, as Sartre has said in What is Literature?, tends by its natural amenability to spatialization to be nonhistorical) that constitutes the most dynamic thrust of the contemporary Western literary imagination and differentiates the new from symbolist modernism.


Excerpted from Early Postmodernism by Paul A. Bové. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author

Paul A. Bové is Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh and editor of boundary 2, an international journal of literature and culture.

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