>>-->Is the Bible Postmodern?
(Editors' note: Steve Tomasula's March 26, 2001 riPOSTe was written in response to an editorial by Michael Bérubé in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Reading between the lines that ran on The Chronicle of Higher Education's cover, it wasn't difficult to assume we were about to be treated to another attack on postmodern lit: "Opinion: Michael Bérubé on the Myths of Postmodern Fiction," i.e., Michael Bérubé debunks the myths of pomo lit, i.e., Bérubé debunks pomo lit. The article's title, "Teaching Postmodern Fiction Without Being Sure That the Genre Exists," certainly seems to imply that the myth Bérubé was out to debunk was one with the point of attack favored by neocons and other champions of the Eternal Human Heart: the myth that postmodern fiction exists at all.
The fact that it was so easy to jump to these conclusions and, as Eric Rasmussen puts it, read the essay in the context of the "larger backlash against theory and...more adventurous and experimental literatures" is only a symptom of our literary times. As both Rasmussen and Bérubé recall, every other art form is allowed to have a formal history: no one expects contemporary architecture to look like Bauhaus architecture; no one expects contemporary painting to look like post-impressionism; no one expects contemporary music to sound like the Beatles. In narrative form, however, the thinking that dominates publishing and the academy is that no one expects the novel to read like anything they haven't already read. Or as Bérubé reminds us, paraphrasing William Gass, "The dominant form of the 20th century novel is the 19th century novel."
The squelching-through-omission of formally challenging lit by mainstream publishers and reviewers (both commercial and academic) is an old story by now and parallels the dearth of contemporary, conceptual literature in the classroom. When contemporary novels do appear in the curriculum, they are more likely to be the books of, as Bérubé calls them, the "mimesis-minded chroniclers of contemporary life." Or, as he also says, novels that are more interesting as movies, rather than anything more linguistically or conceptually challenging (challenging writing being reserved for critics doing a close reading of Mario Puzo, or if you'll be at next year's MLA, The Teletubbies). And don't even mention that strongest of all bastions of conservative lit: creative writing programs, where the term "postmodern" has become a synonym for "anything bad." One would think that the university, at least, would be the natural home of literary radicalism and experimentation — or at least of joy in jacking around with words and ideas, the "confusing and fun" learning that Bérubé says happens in his classroom. Too often what one finds is a climate such as that of the annual convention of the AWP, the professional organization of writing programs, where the few sessions that have the stink of postmodernism about their titles go sparsely attended, while sessions on finding an agent are packed to their standing-room gills by serious-faced writing apprentices after that holy grail of the New Yorker story, the Hollywood option. This is the climate in which we receive Bérubé's essay.
Turning to the essay itself, Bérubé clears away the inanity of assaying whether XYZ novel is 55% modern and 45% postmodern, or vice versa. Rightfully, he points out that there's "nothing uniquely postmodern about most of the experiments conducted in contemporary experimental fiction" and that "every attempt to define postmodern fiction in stylistic terms...winds up being a definition of modernist fiction as well." And his suggestion to think outside the box by doing an end run around modern/postmodern navel gazing seems to be advice anyone could use. Yet, his suggestion "to rethink the categories" in terms of global markets also seems - like some cultural studies, like some neocon approaches - to leave aesthetics on the sideline. And if the focus is on postmodernism, if global markets are the lens through which to study it, why limit ourselves to a single product, the novel? Why not include hip-hop music, Starbucks coffee, Martha Stewart's lifestyle?
I don't want to imply, of course, that a market-oriented approach to literature can't be illuminating. Rather, I would bring to the fore what Bérubé himself implies in his essay: that genre formation is always a messy business and never makes sense in isolation. True enough, as he writes in his reply to Rasmussen,
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 maybe the disconnect or lack is not in the form that postmodern fiction takes, but in how we look at it. If, as Bérubé says, we can find nothing particularly postmodern about postmodern style, or for that matter, nothing experimental or innovative in "experimental" and "innovative" fiction — dated terms to be sure — then maybe we should stop using singularity as a yardstick. Wasn't the idea of Originality and all its kin the first to go with the exhaustion of modernism in general and the avant-garde in particular? Maybe a connection between contemporary narrative form and postmodernism would become more apparent if we simply began asking what the form of a novel brings to its content, and whether that message has anything to do with postmodern thought. Instead of placing our razor between modern and postmodern, then, we might find it more useful to distinguish between conceptual and representational (or commercial) literature, just as those in the visual arts often distinguish between conceptual and representational visual art.
And yet, the moment even these generic categories are formed, they begin to hemorrhage — hemophilia being germane to any genre. So before abandoning the concept of postmodern form, we might first ask if the formal distinctions between Modernism and Romanticism are any more impermeable. Doesn't any distinction - between, say, medieval and Renaissance - bleed, particularly when the ascendancy of one category from the other is a given, a necessary part of its definition? A relationship that we imply by affixing "post" to "modern"? In fact, wouldn't stylistic similarities be a requirement for this genre? Their absence proof of its nonexistence?
A survey of the literature on genre turns up some 80 theories of genre formation, with theorists putting the number of genres themselves in the range of zero (they don't exist) to infinity (any grouping). Which is to state what everyone knows: in genre formation, as in life, "We'll see it when we believe it."
I mean this in a positive sense. Thoreau might have wondered of nature, Why has man just these species of animals for his neighbor; as if nothing but a mouse could have filled this crevice? But we in literary studies can blow right by those constraints, coming up with whatever species we like. Indeed, grouping certain works together is obviously a powerful way to speak about all sorts of issues. And that motive, as Bérubé practices it, should be the raison d'être for any genre creation: to illuminate the work, or culture, or whatever — not to serve as some sort of litmus test by which to pigeonhole novels as if assembling a literary butterfly collection. The Norton anthology Postmodern American Fiction seems a good example of this. For all its flaws - and the following is, according to many readers, the gravest - it defines postmodern fiction in so many ways that it can contain work as aesthetically disparate as Bobby Ann Mason's "Shiloh" and Curtis White's "Combat." Which seems about right, if genre formation is contingent on use, and not the other way around; e.g., those of us who can remember when there were no women modern writers (except for Gertrude Stein in her role of schoolmarm to Hemingway) can certainly appreciate a conception of postmodern fiction that defines it through socio-political terms. To paraphrase an often repeated truism, just as there is no such thing as postmodernism, only postmodernism(s), so there can be no such thing as postmodern fiction, only pomo fiction(s). Why a critic would include novels x, y, and z in his or her genre of postmodern fiction, but not novels a, b & c, can only be answered after first asking, Why does it matter?
Which brings us back to an answer to Bérubé's questioning of form in postmodern fiction — aesthetics matter. If there is anything those of us in the literary industrial-academic complex can agree on, it is that how something is said is at least as important as what is said. But what of the doubt Bérubé throws upon the existence of postmodern fiction? Yes, it is true, as he and others point out, that Don Quixote can be read as a self-reflexive novel. Yet as Borges's "Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote" makes clear, even if Don Quixote were written word for word today, it would be different in time and therefore different. At least as different as Renaissance sculpture - with its return to realism after a long period of iconographic medieval art - was to Classical sculpture with its emphasis on realism. Thus, though a novel with talking animals like Jay Cantor's Krazy Kat or Art Spiegelman's Maus might have its antecedents in the talking animals of Aesop, they seem different - of a different time, coming as they do on the heels of an age many think is characterized by Eliot's The Waste Land. So seem polyglot novels such as Ulysses, even though Boethius, as far back as The Consolation of Philosophy, or, for that matter, those Ur writers of the Bible, were mixing genres. Is the Bible postmodern?
The question is valid only when the difference between postmodern literature and postmodernism is blurred: architectural critics don't see the use of Greek columns in postmodern buildings as evidence for the fact that there is no postmodern architecture, any more than we would hope that the existence of Mexican cuisine before the advent of Taco Bell would preclude a genre of postmodernism based on the globalization of markets.
As Barth famously wrote in "The Literature of Exhaustion," the distinction between postmodernism and postmodern fiction explains why there can exist simultaneously authors writing pre-modern and modern novels; poets working in antique, rhyming verse forms, as the New Formalists do today; and authors trying to articulate a cultural moment infused with this tonnage of history, the history of their own literary form as well as extra-literary history, i.e., their postmodern culture.
More germane to this discussion is Todorov's observation that a genre becomes a genre only when society codifies it as such. Society certainly seems to have codified something called postmodernism, so it seems useful to think through it in terms of a literature whose form - like the form of contemporary music, like the form of contemporary visual art - and way of speaking this culture is engaged with poststructural thought, just as its predecessor modern literature was influenced by Freudian thought: a form of literature that reflects and helps bring into existence a discursive culture that is increasingly digital and global, a culture of surveillance and spectacle that is as different from the culture of Gertrude Stein as Stein's time was from that of Cervantes.notes
 Whatever Cervantes thought he was doing, I doubt if he would use that term and all it implies to describe it — a point that always seems to get lost in appeals to antecedents to disprove the existence of postmodern fiction.
(Further discussion of the state of postmodern fiction can be sent to ebr.)