>>--> Bérubé responds
I'm grateful to Eric Rasmussen for so gracious and thorough a reply to my Chronicle of Higher Education essay on postmodern fiction, and I promise not to claim to be a marginalized academic in my riposte. Indeed, the only thing that gives me a twinge of regret in Rasmussen's essay is the awful reminder that I really shouldn't have fired back at Joe Amato the first time around, back in '96. I was stunned and pissed, at the time, that anyone would respond to an essay in which I called for cultural studies to engage with public policy by saying, in effect, "who are Michael Bérubé and Andrew Ross to tell us what to do? They're superstars & they should be quiet for a while." Poor Joe had the misfortune to be among the very first people to hit me with this kind of thing, and he did it at a time when I still thought, foolishly, that I was supposed to reply to all my mail and all my critics. These days, my volume of mail is far greater, and broadsides like Joe's are more common than painstaking replies like Eric's; that postmodern-fiction essay, in particular, generated a remarkable number of e-mail replies that all opened with "YOU FOOL!!! Don't you KNOW that I and I ALONE have broken with the Western mimetic tradition since Plato!!!! In my recent cryptofiction I ..." My expression of gratitude for the demeanor of Eric Rasmussen's reply is thus altogether sincere.
Still, I do hope that it doesn't become obligatory for ebr folks to update people on my professional standing before taking me to task for this or that argument. In Rasmussen's essay, the determination of my standing is, in fact, part of the critique: it is precisely because I am part of the "academic literary establishment" that my essay might "unwittingly help to undermine the already precarious status of postmodern literary studies in the United States." Still worse, it "could easily provide fuel for the neoconservatives who, throughout the so-called culture wars, have fought to keep pomo texts out of the highly contested literary canon and out of classrooms." The argument, in other words, is that malevolent curmudgeons just might read my essay as a work in the genre made famous by Frank Lentricchia: big-time literary critic repudiates his career, comes in out of the cold, grabs a cup of hot chocolate, and snuggles down for a long winter's nap with his new bedfellows - the revanchists, aesthetes, and theoryphobes he'd attacked all his adult life.
I think this fear is groundless, but not trivial. That is, I think it's worth worrying about the place of contemporary literature in the curriculum, but not because of anything I wrote in the Chronicle. Indeed (and this is as defensive as I'm going to get), Rasmussen's characterization of my essay doesn't always line up exactly with the essay itself. You know how it goes. In one sentence you're being pretty accurately paraphrased as having claimed that "postmodern fiction is a suspect genre that cannot be clearly defined," and in the next sentence you're described as having issued a "call for abandoning postmodern studies per se." Honest, I didn't do any such thing. On the contrary, I distinguished myself from Richard Rorty precisely on the grounds that I still consider "postmodernity" a real and tangible thing, both a distinctive social formation and a useful concept (and better yet, I still consider Rorty's work a useful device for introducing students to this useful concept). This alone should dampen any neocon's enthusiasm for using my work to bar the classroom door to postmodern texts, since, of course, neocons are usually just as averse to recent critical theory as they are to recent experimental fiction.
More important, I've argued fairly consistently in a series of Chronicle essays that neocons' arguments against the teaching of contemporary literature, contemporary theory, and popular culture are misguided or incoherent or both. Usually both. You'd have to take a couple of words here and there, almost at random, from the "postmodern fiction" essay if you wanted to construe my work as a call to abandon postmodern studies. Of course, this is just what nasty neocons do when they want to paste together something like an argument that will appease their weird, antediluvian yearnings, but I'm not sure I'm entirely responsible for other people's malicious abuses of my arguments. Especially when those abuses haven't actually happened yet. But just so there's no ambiguity on my end, let me write down a few words that anyone can clip and paste and send to a friendly neighborhood curricular conservative.
There is no reason, no reason at all, why the "test of time" for works published after 1945 should be conducted by everyone in the world except university professors. Quite the contrary: the college curriculum, if it has any life in it or interest in the life around it, should be one of the key sites at which educated readers help to determine which are the most important, challenging, vibrant, and valuable works of our time. It is not a scandal that U.S. universities offer courses in contemporary literature, theory, and popular culture; it is only a scandal that they offer so few courses in contemporary literature.
OK, now for a couple of specifics. I realize that Eric Rasmussen wasn't worried about the teaching of just any literature after 1945 - it's the "postmodern" kind we're talking about. Courses in the work of Oscar Hijuelos, E. Annie Proulx, and Richard Ford aren't up for discussion here. And as for Rushdie, Ondaatje, Gordimer, and company, well, Rasmussen is right - I did, unfortunately, tend to collapse the category of the postmodern into the category of the postcolonial, answering Anthony Appiah's classic "post" question with a monosyllabic yes. That simply won't do. (As one skeptical e-mail critic wrote to me, "ah, so what's postmodern about postmodern literature is that the realist novels are now being written in different places?") I should have been far more careful, in retrospect, to make it clear that I don't really think there's no such thing as postmodern fiction. What's more, as many readers were quick - and I mean quick - to point out, I did give short shrift to science fiction and experiments with hypertext. And yes, I neglected to mention all those folks who, all by themselves, have broken with the Western mimetic tradition since Plato. Nonetheless, I still think that most of our formal descriptions of "postmodern fiction" aren't nearly as persuasive as they should be, in that they don't manage a sufficiently convincing account of the relationship between postmodern fiction and postmodernity. But that argument, in turn, is merely ancillary to the main point, namely: I believe that when we look back on twentieth-century fiction from, say, the deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise in 2450 or whatever, the modernist/postmodernist distinction is not going to loom nearly as large as will the global explosion of world literatures in English in the latter half of the century. And in the year 2525, if Man is still alive, if Woman can survive, perhaps we will wonder why we ever spent so much energy trying to define and maintain a decisive period/genre distinction between Woolf and Gaddis, Joyce and Pynchon. Though it's only the twenty-first century, I thought I might as well start the wondering early.
But the only way to address these questions, it seems to me, is to have lots and lots and lots of courses in English literature after 1945: some for the Gaddis-Pynchon-DeLillo folks, some for the Acker-Eurudice-Amerika crowd, some for Hijuelos-Proulx-Ford, some for the devotees of Neuromancer and Snow Crash, some for Achebe-Rushdie-Atwood, and a whole semester on the recent history of the Booker Prize. And, needless to say, every possible combination thereof.
In the end, then, Eric Rasmussen and I aren't really at odds here. I'm flattered that he's read so much of my earlier work and has managed to find a more or less coherent thread running through it. I'm also flattered that he's mentioned my labors in the same breath as those of Fredric Jameson, since they're nowhere near the same breadth as those of Fredric Jameson. But it's true that I "agree with" Jameson (in the special sense of "agree with" that really means "learned from") about what Rasmussen calls the imperative to correlate "the production and transmission of literary (and other) texts with larger social, political, and economic phenomena," and it's true that I see postmodernism "as one aspect of our current historical condition in which 'free-market' capitalism and its attendant consumer culture have spread virus-like around the globe." And what I've found most difficult about the task of apprehending our current historical condition is precisely what Jameson has found most difficult; after all, it was Jameson who, in that famously gnomic essay, "Cognitive Mapping," suggested that postmodernity itself precludes any synoptic view of it. Realist and modernist literature, Jameson argued, churning in Lukács' wake, mapped the social and cognitive spaces of the worlds of 1848-1910 and 1910-1945. The place (and I mean that word in every available sense) of "postmodern" literature, with regard to the world of 1945-2000, has yet to be determined. Let me simply suggest, then, that we're not going to get a sufficiently useful sense of this problem simply by reading the limited series of postwar novels usually called "postmodern." Nor will we get it simply by reading cyberpunk or hypertext or the works of African Anglophone writers. We may never "get it" at all, and the condition of postmodernity may wind up being generally understood as the condition of not being able to say with any certainty what the condition of postmodernity is. But we do need a cognitive map to help us get around in the world, and that's why I think Rasmussen's "best-case scenario" is the best course of action for English departments: lots and lots and lots of courses on post-1945 literature of every description, from the postmodern to the postcolonial, from neotraditional chronicles of contemporary life to sci-fi and cyberspace. I've been misunderstood on this front before, so let me say once again that this shouldn't be a zero-sum game: I love Chaucer, Spenser, the Gawain poet, and Fulke Greville almost as much as anyone and more than most. But the dearth of curricular offerings in contemporary literature in U.S. universities is - or should be - a national embarrassment. So when we're making arguments about the curriculum, when we're being told about our limited resources and our skeptical constituencies and our overtly hostile critics, let's try exploiting the paradox that contemporary literature is here to stay.
(Further ripostes re: posts can be sent to ebr.)