HUTCHEON ON POSTMODERNISM: A Summary
by Michael Bastian & Kim Clune
Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Theorist Linda Hutcheon finally offers a clear definition of postmodernism as compared to the somewhat slippery and “indefineable” definitions offered thus far. “Postmodern representation is self consciously all of these – image, narrative, product of (and producer of) ideology” (28). She combines several concepts which all work together in the following way:
For our purposes, mimesis is the assumption that representation is, in some way, a duplication of “the real” and also that there is a “real” to represent. (To trace the morphing philosophy of mimesis since the time of ancient Greece, visit the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, University of Virginia.)
Using this definition of mimesis, Hutcheon then says, “Postmodernism challenges our mimetic assumptions about representation” (30). This is called dedoxification.
Ideology constructs and naturalizes the way a culture presents itself to itself. To de-doxify this representation is to denaturalize the contrived reality that ideology assumes as truth. Postmodernism simultaneously inscribes and subverts the convention of narrative to this end.
Hutcheon uses Angela Carter’s The Loves of Lady Purple to exemplify the dedoxification of femininity. A marionette is made to represent the image of the woman prostitute in the construct of male erotic fantasy. We are left to question, “Had the marionette all the time parodied the living or was she, now living, to parody her own performance as a marionette?” and, “to what extent are all representations of women the ‘simulacra of the living’?”(31).
Ultimately, the job of postmodernism is to question “reality” and how we come to know it. It forces us to examine the ways in which we’ve chosen (or have been made to choose) to represent ourselves. Historiographic metafiction dedoxifies assumptions of ideology by consciously and self-reflexively working to accomplish two things:
- bringing historical context into the text in recognition of history’s authority and power, and
- simultaneously calls into question?historical limitations
By inserting elements of fiction within historical context, “fact” is exposed as an author’s assigned meaning or subjective interpretation of an event. Historical representation is revealed to be inconclusive, one more narrative employing the same devices used in fiction. As we understand it, this functions the same way through all mediums of postmodern expression whether fiction, photography or painting.
For more on Hutcheon’s historiographic metafiction, visit Victoria Orlowski’s explanation (last entry at the bottom) at Emory.edu.
THEORY IN PRACTICE
- Michaels’ Observation: Photographic Discourse as Evident in the Work of Cindy Sherman
- What is happening in this photo? Let’s create a narrative. We see this woman’s bathing suit floating next to her. We can assume she doesn’t have a spare. She’s naked, nude, in the skinny. The only articles of clothing she’s wearing are the goggles (spy goggles) and a mask (a spy’s mask). Sherman is mimicking the actions of a spy approaching an enemy’s territory. This woman doesn’t want to be seen. The pool is lit up. At the same time she is a naked woman swimming in a pool that someone could be spying on. She’s acting the part of a spy and sexually promiscuous woman. Those are antique goggles; they help to represent the historical representation of a spy. Although this spy does not represent one historical event we can narrate one. Mixing the story of the naked woman and the spy together does not work. Who is she looking at? What is she looking at? These are all questions in creating the narrative. The black and white photograph makes it seem like this photograph is representative of a historical “real.” The move to de-doxify the reflex we have to link black and white to old is uncovered because of the use of fiction (the naked spy-woman). Uncovering this not only brings to question the power that black and white photography has over us, but reifies the power it does because of the reflexes it’s bringing out of us. This is called historiographic metafiction; examining the history of representing history through the use of fiction to pivot it against.
Male erotic fantasy led me to believe that Sherman was swimming naked; her bathing suit swimming next to her. Kim pointed out, after sharing my analysis with her, that Sherman isn’t actually naked at all. The bathing suit is just distorted by the water. I created a narrative based on an ideology that I subscribe to. I assigned her femininity, false femininity, based on the image presented. The history, male erotic fantastical history, associates woman in pool with sexually promiscuous woman. We now have three fictions with which to work from, that all work to subvert the control of the form and emphasize its control over our reflexes as cattle grazing on the fields of ideologies. – Michael
(Well, Michael’s cattle reflex anyway. – Kim, who finds this all very amusing.)
- Kim’s Observation: Fiction and History as Demonstrated?in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club
Fight Club demonstrates Hutcheon’s theory well. Historical assumptions about the subject are called into question alongside those of historical representation, and each are de-doxified through self-reflexive construction of this historiographic metafiction. Although one human body acts out the events of the novel, that body is complicated by the presence of two identities or subjects housed within it. Each has a very different perspective and thus drastically different representation of the same chronological events. Tyler collects his events and assigns meaning via his conscious state while the narrator, when he is awake and occupying the body, assigns different meaning to the same events. In this way, perspective is limited and skewed depending upon who is in charge at the time. Additionally, because the narrator is the reader’s only source of information about Tyler, his limited scope of understanding filters out aspects of his alter-ego. In this way, the narrator unknowingly skews the telling of his own history until the end when he fully realizes that he has become a split identity and thus the bigger picture is finally revealed to the reader. Our ideological notions about how naturally subjectivity represents history are challenged once we realize the power the narrator has over representation as well as his limitations in revealing all sides.
Palahniuk also explores society’s historical context through capitalism. By placing fictitious characters within a backdrop specific to the 90’s, we are better able to examine various concepts and perceptions of capitalism from two perspectives than we are from one. Interestingly, neither is verifiable truth, nor are they together, but…
(I had a train of thought to explore here, but Michael just stole my copy of Hutcheon and left campus.)
We find that Hutcheon offers a logical answer to several theoretical questions. Disputing negative generalizations of postmodern disorder, incoherence, and Jameson’s accusation of “depthlessness,” Hutcheon says postmodernism has the specific function to reflexively question history by employing it’s own narrative in order to reveal the holes in such perceived truth. This specificity is new from what we’ve seen this semester. She argues that Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra, representation as a copy of a copy, and media’s neutralization of the “real” assumes that there was a “real” to begin with. She counters that “there is nothing natural about the ‘real’ and there never was — even before the existence of mass media” (31). According to Hutcheon, we have not slipped into a false world because we have postmodernism.
Rather than postmodernism being a departure from contextualized history, or what Jameson calls “a ‘revolutionary’ break with the repressive ideology of storytelling generally,” (47) the postmodern relies upon that very device to decenter the ideological notions of authenticity and subjectivity. In the moment in which the center is questioned through narrative, postmodern stories of the oppressed “other” rise to the surface, no longer suppressed by ideology and past historical influence. Postmodernism contradicts this notion of the real and accepts that everything has always been culturally represented.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
- Hutcheon says events have no meaning until certain facts are selected and meaning is assigned. Do you agree? Why?
- Since history can be fictional and fiction can reveal certain truths,?is there?a line of distinction between history and fiction at present?
From the scholar-sphere:
- Felluga, Dino. “Modules on Hutcheon: On Postmodernity.” Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. November 23, 2003. Purdue U.
- Felluga, Dino. “Modules on Hutcheon: On Parody.” Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. November 23, 2003. Purdue U.
From the blog-o-sphere:?
Two posts from the Derivative Blog: Thoughts on Hutcheon by a graduate student of English literature and culture at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.