Spring/Summer 1993, Volume 10.2
CATHARINE R. STIMPSON
The Postmodern Element in the Postmodern Humanities1
In the middle of 1992, a clever Englishwoman, Tina Brown, left the editorship of one American magazine, Vanity Fair, in order to assume the editorship of another, The New Yorker. Many construed this move as an act of upward mobility, but in the last issue of Vanity Fair that Brown edited, she published a proud, regretful "Editor's Letter." "Vanity Fair," she declared, "is the quintessential postmodern magazine. It is the great high-low show, able to deliver Roseann Barr mud-wrestling side by side with Chancellor Kohl cogitating, or Demi Moore's pregnant belly side by side with Martha Graham's dance aesthetic. It is a cross-cultural synthesis that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. It is all about context . . ." (8).
For better or worse, Tina Brown is no Ph.D. Yet, her description of "the postmodern" echoes that of the brilliant German cultural critic who now teaches in America, Andreas Huyssen. Six years earlier, in 1986, in a massive book, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, Huyssen had traced the birth of postmodernism from the matrix of the historical avant garde (for example, French Surrealism). "Diverse and multifaceted" (x), Huyssen writes, postmodernism rejects the powerful, imperious modern discourse that projects a "Great Divide" between high art, which is masculinized, and mass culture, which is feminized. Roseann and Martha Grahamboth have their interest for us, as active creators and not as passive symbols.
Significantly, three of Tina Brown's four exemplary figures are women. Chancellor Helmut Kohl cogitates in the midst of a mud-wrestling Roseann Barr, a baby-carrying Demi Moore, and a movement-making Martha Graham. Whether this juxtaposition would have pleased Socrates or Rodin's "Le Penseur," if this sculpture were to speak, is an open question. Andreas Huyssen also rightly proposes that the re-emergence of a powerful women's movement is another critical element of postmodernism. Women are "self-confident and creative forces in the arts, in literature, film, and criticism" (220). As significantly, Brown speaks of a "cross-cultural synthesis." Earlier, Huyssen, too, suggested that postmodernists are increasingly aware "that other cultures, non-European, non-Western cultures must be met by means other than conquest or domination" (220)2.
In brief, Tina Brown, shake hands with Andreas Huyssen. You seem to agree that postmodernism means the interlacing of high culture with pop; the interlacing of various groups and societies; the interfusing of culture with diverse women's energies. You seem to celebrate these green shoots in the field of time. I, too, celebrate them. Yet, even when conjoined, Brown and Huyssen cannot exhaust the meanings of "postmodernism." One of its primary meanings is that we can never certainly fix, never firmly nail down, the meaning of much. Definers of postmodernism should tell us to distrust their potential as bossy, nail-driving definers. Postmodernism eludes a stable, universal definition. We agree to disagree about it. It may be a little thing, something, some things, everything, nothing, or nothing but a Western concept that lacks relevance for "non-Westerners."
Given all this, my title, "The Postmodern Element in the Postmodern Humanities" is an example of waste, fraud, and verbal abuse. I would have been humbler and more honest to offer "A Postmodern Element in Some Postmodern Humanities" as my rubric. Nevertheless, our use of the word "postmodern," which increased dramatically after 1960, is neither wasteful nor fraudulent nor abusive. For the word signifies a plausible conviction that something did happen, not to everyone in every place, but to many people in many places after 1945. Of course, we have deep continuities with the world before 1945. The postmodern builds on the modern world that has mutated in the last several centuries. Still, something happened after 1945. Like radiation, we will not be able to grasp and measure its effect for many years, but something did happen after the construction and discovery of genocidal concentration camps; the invention and explosion of the atomic bomb; the physical exploration of space beyond the earth by human beings and machines; the slow, still incomplete collapse of modern empires and their epic, rationalizing myths; the intensity of various liberation and nationalist movements; the invention of the modern computer; and the international reach of the electronic media. Today, for nearly everyone but professors of literature and avid readers, Sharp is not the name of a literary character (the smart, conniving Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, William M. Thackeray's classic novel of 1847-48), but the name of a Japanese electronics firm with global markets.
Let me note but three consequences of these shifts in the tectonic plates of culture and society:
First, many in the arts prefer a particular style. With her customary incisiveness, Marjorie Perloff lists its features, "violation, disruption, dislocation, decentering, contradiction, confrontation, multiplicity, and indeter minacy." She might have added a free-wheeling zappiness and quick cuts between images and scenes (7-8). We cross and hybridize genres with swiftness and aplomb. We bend, not only gender, but genre. We have, not only heteroglossia, but heterogenria. We prefer idioms to axioms; open to fenced-in borders; a ludic and ironic to a regulatory and hierarchical spirit. Together, the arts, entertainment, and the media overwhelm and saturate us with images. By 1994, a cable television company will offer a system with 500 channels and perhaps 50 Saturday afternoon college football games. This is an overly-fertilized field for couch potatoes. So awash with images, we find them flowing into reality, as if images and realities were the meeting of two rivers. In this flux, we no longer cleanly distinguish between representation and reality, between fiction and fact. Is Mickey Mouse an "imaginary" or a "real" creature?
One of the works of the writer Ursula LeGuin is a moderate, gentle example of a cross-hybridizing style. In 1985, she published Always Coming Home. Juxtaposed against the punk rock of cyberfiction, Always Coming Home is a series of pieces of chamber music played on exotic instruments. Its setting is a possible future in Northern California. The human species has mingled with others. The narrator, "Stone Telling," says, "The only other human people directly in my family lived in Madidinou." The novelist is at once archaeologist and anthropologist of the future. So positioning herself, she synchronizes past, present, and future. She presents her story in a series of episodes, anecdotes, plays, poems, and rituals. In the "Back of the Book" are notes and information about the language and linguistics, architecture, animals, kinship ties, lodges and societies, food, music, and medicine of her people. This archaeologist/anthropologist packages her work primarily as a book, but the book is in a box, with a pastoral photograph of a cover and with a tape cassette of the music and poetry of the Kesh.
Second, in our social and psychological life, we speak, not of unchanging and life-long identities, but of performances and roles that change over a lifetime. To be sure, the use of the theater as a metaphor for human life did not begin in 1945. Shakespeare did write "All the world's a stage,/And all the men and women merely players" around 1600 (As You Like It, II, 7, 139-40). Nevertheless, our sense of ourselves as performing selves is pervasive. At our worst, we speak of "lifestyles," as if we could slip in and out of life's little dramas as if they were an L.L. Bean shirt or a peignoir. If we feel that we do have an identity, a core of self, it often seems fragmented, composed of bits and pieces from several sources. In an autobiographical manifesto, Gloria Anzaldúa writes of reclaiming this self-divided core, "I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice: Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent's tonguemy woman's voice, my sexual voice, my poet's voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence" (207).
Third in our social and economic life, money and information jump across national boundaries. The most affluent among us exchange pounds, liras, francs, marks, dollars, and the yen with dazzling rapidity and often with demonic rapacity. We catch glimpses of these exchanges: an ambitious American minister-entrepreneur paying millions of dollars to buy a British telecommunications company, which already owns liberal sitcoms made in Hollywood, in order to create an international network that will push his arch-conservative version of family values; an Iraqi dictator laundering money and credits through the Georgia branch of an Italian bank in order to build up a military machine that the United States military, as part of a coalition, will then fight for 100 hours. Sorrowfully, all of our money, information, and technology have not brought global peace and security. Postmodernism has not tamed the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Indeed, the riders of the red horse of war have smart bombs as well as swords. A starving woman and her child cannot eat a microchip.
No matter how incomplete, these evolutions have influenced the contemporary humanities. In turn, the contemporary humanities have helped to shape and explain postmodernism. The word "humanities" has several parents, themselves part of a cultural kinship system. In the Renaissance, "humanity" was "a kind of learning distinct from divinity . . . and . . . from natural science." This human learning was associated with the classics, with the Greek and Roman culture that was being revived. In the 18th century, the humanities expanded to take in modern literature and philosophy. In a related development, the humanist, revivifying classical cultures, was a student of human matters. In still another related development, humanism, a Renaissance movement, stressed man and his capacities. A "spiritual alternative to orthodox Christianity," the perspectives of humanism would gaze at the possibilities of human "self-development and self-perfection" (Gunn 119).
Today, the humanities retain their belief that their proper subject is human life, particularly our cultural and aesthetic activities. However, the humanities have also become a set of academic disciplines, a development inseparable from the growth of modern higher education in the 19th and 20th centuries. The humanities now refer to departments of classics, philosophy, literature and literary criticism, history and art history, political theory and jurisprudence, anthropology, film studies. We now give and get academic credit for doing "humanities."
Happily, postmodernism has pushed these disciplines in several directions. Without abandoning tradition, postmodernism has corrected and enlivened them. So doing, postmodernism has done to the humanities what Gertrude Stein told writers to do to literature in "Patriarchal Poetry"(1927), "Reject rejoice rejuvenate rejuvenate rejoice reject rejoice rejuvenate reject rejuvenate reject rejoice"(111). Three of these directions are of unusual interest.
First, postmodernism has asked the humanities to cross disciplinary and departmental borders. History , literature, anthropology, and media studiesoften under the rubric of "cultural studies"are asking together how cultures work; how they make moral and aesthetic judgements; how "high" art and other cultural artifacts fit together. Second, together and separately, the disciplines have become far more open to access and democratic in scope. They are studying groups that the traditional humanities often ignored, trivialized, demonized, or sentimentalized: women of all races; racial and ethnic groups; the poor and unlettered; the citizens of previously-colonized countries. The postmodern humanities are then asking why, for what social and political and cultural reasons, these groups were ignored, trivialized, demonized, or sentimentalized. Third and finally, largely because of the influence of European philosophy, some humanists think of themselves as "anti-humanist." For complex and controversial reasons, they query the stellar role in the universe that the traditional humanities assigned to "man" and human consciousness. Is man really the rational measure of all things? These developments have their quarrels, internally and with each other. They have had, however, a common consequence: the suspicion of the existence of a master narrative. Such a master narrative tells an overarching, universal story about the human species that compresses and squeezes the various experiences of all of us into an account of Man and His Inevitable, Oom-pah-pah March Upwards Towards Sweetness, Perfection, Transcendental Truth and Light, Masterpieces In Hand. Instead, the human species has told itself a number of far more local stories about itself, some of which have survived, some of which have died.
The postmodern rejuvenation of the humanities has also led to an enlarged picture of the good humanist. The good humanist can be a woman of any race; a man of any race. Though still a scholar, the good humanist likes questions as much as answers, perhaps more than answers. The good humanist also knows that if we are to study what is human, we must study, not simply Greece and Rome, crucial though they are; not simply Europe and America, crucial though they are; but global societies. We must understand, not simply the grand and the powerful, but the ordinary and the powerless as well. We must, in brief, study all of us, in all our commonalities and diversities, our reciprocal kindnesses and murderous intolerances. Moreover, no matter where each of us might have been educated, we are all potentially good humanists. What matters is the quality of our inquiries, our seriousness, scrupulousness, curiosity, generosity, freedom, degree of moral imagination, and capacity for good thinking. The humanities, then, are more than a set of texts and academic disciplines. They are an ethical activity, a way of approaching and living in the world. This way is essential if we are to negotiate fairly our sense of moral and cultural values in a worldly welter of competing values. The bad side of postmodernism, the descent of a welter of competing values down to a killing ground of ethnic and national rivalries, makes the saving power of the good humanist even more urgent.
In the 1960s, Lionel Trilling contributed an eloquent, supple, beautifully intelligent essay to our discourse about literature and the humanities, "On the Teaching of Modern Literature," first published as "On the Modern Element in Modern Literature." Trilling suggests that a great theme of modern literature, perhaps its greatest, is "the disenchantment of our culture with culture itself" (3). Trilling tells us that we are no longer Victorians like Matthew Arnold. Instead, the historic sense of our literature is "a long excess of civilization to which may be ascribed the bitterness and bloodiness both of the past and of the present and of which the peaceful aspects are to be thought of as mainly contemptibleits order achieved at the cost of extravagant personal repression, either that of coercion or that of acquiescence; its repose otiose; its tolerance either flaccid or capricious; its material comfort corrupt and corrupting; its taste a manifestation either of timidity or of pride; its rationality attained only at the price of energy and passion"(16-17).
A postmodern reading of Trilling's essay can show how postmodern attitudes have evolved in the past decades. Such a reading might find his description of modern history still fitting, although much postmodern art has a ludic quality and women's creativity now often exemplifies a Utopian spirit. It is, however, a mark of Trilling's generation that his modern humanistic canon, the canon between the end of World War II and Vietnam, is European and American, that it lacks any women or any "minority" writers. His canon is Frazier, Nietzsche, Blake, Conrad, Mann, Freud, Diderot, Dostoevsky, Tolstoi, Pirandello; a canon without the play of Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein or the haunting wisdom of The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois. It is a mark of postmodernism that we want Trilling's canon, magisterial and wonderful though it is, to be more elastic, more capacious. This elasticity and capaciousness is one consequence of our shift from thinking about Self and The Other to thinking about self and others. In turn, these shifts in thinking show postmodernists as pragmatists. That is, as cognitive agents, they care less for fixed definitions of a person, place or thing than for complex interpretations of them. Not surprisingly, then, as moral agents, postmodern pragmatists care less for sermons and dictates about our lives than for conversations among us that will enable us to choose how to live well.
However, postmodernismin general and in the humanitieshas failed to install itself globally or even in the American academy. Its appeal is uneven, especially in the domain of culture and morals. Not everyone cheers for Tina Brown and Andreas Huyssen. Some claim that postmodernism is a cultural parody of Brownian motion, particles in constant and silly motion. For others, the appeal of a monolithic traditionin culture or morals or bothis irresistible. The picture of a Christian Fundamentalist minister setting up a telecommunications empire is one image of an unstable, often dangerous co-existence of tradition, his message, and postmodernism, his methods for delivering his message. So, too, is the image of the writer Salman Rushdie condemned to death by some Islamic fundamentalists for writing a book, The Satanic Verses.
In brief, we live among cultural differences and conflicts about the meaning of culture and the value of cultural differences. Let me offer a benign example of such flux, of a heteroglossia and heterogenria that are efflorescent, even fluorescent. In 1990, I chaired the fiction panel of the National Book Award. We ultimately gave first prize to a wonderful novel by an African-American man, Middle Passage by Charles Johnson. The panel was unfairly accused of being politically correct simply because the prize did go to an African-American man. During our deliberations, we read only fiction that citizens/residents of the United States had written. Despite the internationalism of our economies and cultures, cultural nationalism still feeds literature. Some of what we read was boiler-plate and beach-reading, but most was competent, eloquent, vital. What did I note?
The persistence of what I call "normal literature," well-constructed, smoothly-textured, traditionally realistic, with a focus on individual characters and their circumstances, especially their family and domestic circumstances.
Similarly, the persistence of the theme of Thackeray's Vanity Fair, that life is a bazaar and bizarre, a fair that is not fair; that everything is for sale; that Lord Hategoods rig our courtrooms; and that humanity, socially and psychologically, is corrupt and fragile.
The absorption, the standardization, of modernist literary techniques: the monologist as narrator; the landscape of alienation; the self-consciousness about language and form; the use of the collage, juxtapositions of image and feeling. The most favored source of epigraphs was Wallace Stevens. Such modernist techniques rested, as comfortably as two books on a shelf, with normal literature. Both were part of a writer's repertoire.
The interest in a formally self-conscious historical novel that blurs the distinctions between fiction and history. The critic Linda Hutcheon calls such blurring a prime feature of postmodernism and names it "historiographic metafiction." I read the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde told from the point-of-view of a servant girl, a fiction about a historical fiction; the story of Tolstoy and Egon Schiele; the tale of murder on the West Coast of Florida.
The rise of "cyberpunk," of the blasphemous, druggy, computer cowboy, consoled only by his computer console.3 He is the son, not of William S. Hart, but William S. Burroughs.
Finally, I noted the extraordinary power and variety of "outsider" voices, of the previously marginalized, of women of all races; African-Americans; Hispanics; the now grown children of once-colonized nations; gay men and lesbian women, some of the angriest and most grievous writing about AIDS. Becky Sharp is now writing her own story. So is the both benignly satirized and maligned Miss Swartz, the rich mulatto heiress of St. Kitts in Vanity Fair. There was a variety of zones, positions, locales, and voices. In the midst of this was a tremendous book, a deep and exhaustive elegy for the men of a particular race and generation, John Updike's Rabbit at Rest.
No matter whether we like postmodernism or not, we must confront a cultural dilemma that postmodern technologists have created. To use shorthand, the book is undergoing an electronic trial by fire. The outcome of this trial is crucial for the humanities, because the book and the idea of the text have been their great tool. Reading and writing have been their dominant activities. Paradoxically, our postmodern books tell of the threat to books. Our books send off warning signals of their own dangers. In William Gibson's Neuromancer, Case, a cyberspace cowboy, goes to visit Finn, perhaps a personification of Wintermute, an artificial intelligence.
Finn (a destabilizing pun on both the French and English meanings of "fin") lives in a grungy, barricaded warehouse, full of junk, obsolete electronic gear and TV sets. The walls are lined with "shelves of crumbling paperbacks. An enormous pile of old magazines had cascaded into the open area, flesh of lost summers staring blindly up . . . "(48). Later, Case asks Finn if Finn can read his mind, or rather, if Wintermute can read his mind. Finn tells him, "Minds aren't read. See, you've still got the paradigms print gave you, and you're barely print literate. I can access your memory, but that's not the same as your mind" (170).
More accurately, the book is at the stake in three trials. The first is the question of the presence of the reader. To be sure, reader response criticism, in which readers help to create the meaning of a text, is a flourishing school of literary criticism. To be sure, too, people do read. In one recent survey in the United States, 59% of the respondents said that they read books frequently; 40% bought books often. 90% said they read in order to "learn about other people's lives." 79% said they read because they could "get away" from their problems. Books provide instruction and the delights of escape (Americans and the Arts 13). Nevertheless, the reader may be an endangered species. Trilling writes of the paradox of teaching modern literature, of taming its radical and subversive energy in the stables of the classroom. His students "respond to ideas with a happy vagueness, a delighted glibness, a joyous sense of power in the use of received or receivable generalizations, a grateful wonder at how easy it is to formulate and judge, at how little resistance language offers to their intentions" (4-5). But for many of us, our students, no matter how nice and good they might be, no matter how diligent and decent, have little truck with complex literary and philosophical ideas and language at all. Close reading might well be the name of a bad rock group. Postmodern grammarians might well be the Wayne of Wayne's World or a Valley Girl. The canonical modern metaphor of an urban landscape, "like a patient etherized upon a table," is less familiar than video metaphors. "The sky above the port," William Gibson writes, "was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel"(Neuromancer 3). If the reader is an endangered species, people who love literature and textuality must rally like environmentalists around a stand of first-growth timber.
The second stake is the question of the book itself, not as a metaphysical but as a material and physical object. Symbolically, in 1992, William Gibson published a self-consuming autobiographical novel. Not only does the object have etchings in an ink that changes when exposed to light, the text itself, on a computer disk, literally disappears after it (the story) scrolls on a screen (Fein). The wild geometries and colors of cyberspace, like the simulated landscapes of virtual reality, may be replacing the regularities and achromatopsic greyness of the printed page.4 Since 1990, Random House, the publisher, has sold 100,000 print copies of a 1-volume encyclopedia, but nearly 400,000 electronic copies (Rogers 66). In November 1992, Newsweek magazine announced that it would now issue a version on CD-ROM (computer diskread only memory), the first general interest magazine to do so.
The electronic age still pays its tribute to the book. An entrepreneur of the electronic age has launched Project Gutenberg. He will take 10,000 books. In order to avoid copyright problems, they will be in the public domain. They will include The Bible, O Pioneers!, Peter Pan, and The U. S. Constitution. By the year 2001, a fabled date of the space fictions of postmodern culture, he will, he promises, distribute a trillion electronic copies (Wilson). This is indeed a postmodern great books enterprise. Even more ardently, the electronic age pays tribute to reading and writing as skills, as competencies. It uses technology to praise literacy as a social necessity and personal tool. In Fall 1992, American Airlines placed, in the little holder for magazines and airsickness bags on the back of seats, an advertising brochure. The commodities being sold are instructional video cassettes for golf and other sports, for health, for self-esteem and personal growth, for fashion. There are also tapes for reading, writing, and speaking, in both English and other languages, gathered together as "the language arts." One cassette is Evelyn Wood's Reading Dynamics; another is "Vocabulary," so that "You'll never be at a loss for words again." Another is entitled, "Read Smarter/Speed Learning." For kids, grades 2-12, there is "Video Tutor, Exploring the English Language," an 8-volume set for $199.60. The collective name of these programs is Sybervision, Sybervision Learning Programs.
Yet each of these tributes contains a threat within it. For Project Gutenberg will change the material shape of the book. The book will be like a vein of coal to be strip mined by digitalization. The Sybervision Learning Programs, though they praise literacy and language, are reticent about literature. In the face of these threats, two responses are emerging. The first is conservation, the preservation of the book as a material object to treat all books as if they were rare books. The humanistic commitment to this is strong. In a survey of 317 humanists, Phyllis Franklin found 95% of them saying that we must preserve original textsin an act of cultural ecology. Imagine, Franklin asks, that the print era will conclude in 2055, 600 years after it began, after a slow and evolutionary shift to electronic texts. Even if this were to happen, we would still need a history of print, its artifacts and lovely residues (Franklin). The second response is aesthetic, a recursive turn to the illuminated manuscript. Here the postmodern book becomes at once visual and verbal. As a genre, it embraces the art book, concrete poetry, the serious comic, the children's book that adults read, or the photonovella.5 Here the postmodern book is at once writerly and painterly; the reader a multi-literate.
Fortunately, the electronic age is also permitting humanists to perform more accurately and bountifully. Tape, video, and audio are now an art form. Tape also permits us to record sounds and images. We are able to preserve speakers and musicians, dancers and actors. Imagine what the videocamera might have done with Socrates or Sappho. In psycholinguistics, the technology of the computer is helping us to map the brain, to find out which areas of the brain are responsible for which functions of language and how these areas speak together.6 We are learning anew what it means to be a language-user, to have concepts, to form words and sentences and paragraphs. In history, we may be able to store copies of all our texts, to collate all our libraries, all our cultural data. The question, I believe, is not whether we should do this, but how. Who will maintain our banks of data? Who will have access? Who will name the files?
The third stake is far thicker, less a stake than a thicket of branches. It is nothing less than the question of the human subject itself, the nature of our human being, the subject matter of the humanities. This question is so vast that the rubrics "from humanist to antihumanist" and "from modern to postmodern" are as flat a description as a highway freeway sign is of the localities to which is points. The fragmented self, which I mentioned before, is surely a familiar figure in our postmodern psychic dramas. Here, the three faces of Eve are less a sign of psychiatric disturbance than of a flexible psychic constructionand legitimately so. I find, however, that an even more imaginative and suggestive postmodern figure for a different human subject is "the Cyborg," a descendent of Frankenstein's lamentable, lamenting monster child. The Cyborg's novelist is the brilliant feminist theoretian and historian of science, Donna Haraway. In her mesh of a prose poem, "A Manifesto for Cyborgs," Haraway writes of the Cyborg as a "cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction." She finds the Cyborg in science fiction, modern medicine, modern production, modern war. At once mapping our realities and promising our future, the Cyborg is "resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity"(192). The Cyborg breaches traditional borders as easily as a tank might smash through a border guard's hut of mud.
Obliterating borders, it (postgender, the Cyborg demands the neutral pronoun) erases a profoundly influential distinction between nature and culture. One border is that between animal and human. Indeed, as I once was about to praise Haraway as a far-out prophet and a Utopian, I read a story in The New York Times (October 30, 1990). It reported a successful experiment with laboratory mice. These frisky creatures now grew human organs, a lung, a pancreas. When I finished the story, Haraway was no longer far-out but right here. A second border is that between the organism (animal and human) and the machine. Indeed, one of speculative fiction's general motifs is the collapse of this distinction. "We can read cyberpunk as an analysis of the postmodern identification of human and machine" (Hollinger 205). In Neuromancer, nerves are spliced; organs transplanted; molecules manipulated; eyes implanted. Crazed, multiple amputees become whole men, armed with a prosthesis of mind and body. Indeed, after death, exemplary personalities can be captured on CD-ROM. Jacked into a console, they can speak, think, and even laugh.
What, then, are good humanists to do? Like our ancestors, we are on a pilgrimage through human history. We are passing through, traveling through, postmodernism. In this process, we are both individuals and an element in multiple contexts: some social, some natural, some good for us, some ghastly. No matter what their qualities, these contexts change us. We change them.7 On this pilgrimage, we may be Cyborgs in training, not Christian and Christiana from a still earlier Vanity Fair, that of John Bunyan (1678,1684). Our devils our Beelzebubs, Apollyons, and Legionsare not always robustly and simply dramatized for us. We no longer have the consolation of allegory, the genre that morally and psychologically demarcates the world for us, labeling what is good, and what is bad. In fact, experience has taught us to fear societies that set up these binary distinctions, exalting themselves while demonizing, purging, and cleansing the other. Nor do we have another traditional comfort of the pilgrimage, that of a morally clear and illuminating destination, a blessed and permanent Quality Inn. We may have only the Slough of Despond, the Valley of Death, and Vanity Fair. Moreover, if in the postmodern Vanity Fair, we said we wanted to buy only "the truth," we might be asked, in certain humanities classrooms, why we had retained such hermeneutic innocence.
However, the humanities, that resilient tramp, are with us. Much more than we might suspect, the humanities, with their traditions and changes, are good company for us now. If we interrogate them, with pleasure and patience and faithfulness, we can discern their value for us. We may have to sever a single-minded identification of literature with the printed book. We may have to abandon consoling beliefs in unsullied objectivity and omniscient observers. The humanities, however, bear with them the maps of the terrain of many pilgrimages through human history. Their number and substance should give us courage. Some of these maps are themselves historical. They tell us where we have been. They tell us of our traditions, so that we may choose to keep some, adapt others, cast still others aside. Other maps the humanities carry comprise our narratives, the stories and myths that we have told ourselves in order to describe our various worldsstories about gods and goddesses, devils and witches, men and women, animals and nature. Even the blasphemies of cyberpunk carry traditional narratives with them. A cowboy in cyberspace is a cowboy; an Amazonian gun moll is still an Amazon and a moll. Still other maps are ethical, our apprehensions of the just and the good. Still others are aesthetic, our apprehensions of the beautiful. Still others are philosophical, our apprehensions of the true. Finally, still other maps are linguistic, which tell us about the languages with which we build maps themselves.
In his essay, "On the Modern Element in Literature," Matthew Arnold separated modern literature from contemporary literature. So doing, he separated literary history from a notion of progress. He saw modern literature emerging whenever a great epoch and its literature were commensuratein classical Greece, for example. In finding the modern, the just now, throughout history, he interestingly and unexpectedly anticipated the postmodern with its theory that all of the past is present for our use. Despite this prophecy, many of us in the postmodern humanities quarrel with Arnold. We quiver at his use of the generic "he". We disagree with some, though not all, of Arnold's elements of a modern epoch: peace in civil life; a tolerant spirit; a "capacity for refined pursuits" (24); and most important, intellectual maturity, a critical spirit, a search for laws. We might find some of these elements too Utopian, or too genteel, or too disrespectful of working-class needs and culture, or epistemologically unrealistic.
We might say this as well of another Arnoldian characteristic of a modern age. He says that it seeks "intellectual deliverance" from a complex and copious present. A modern age "contemplates . . . the spectacle of a vast multitude of facts awaiting and inviting [our] comprehension. The deliverance consists in man's apprehension of this present and past" (20). A century and more after Arnold's essay, we continue to yearn for intellectual deliverance. Some postmodern literature, even the grungiest, is replete with characters doing it in one way or another. In William Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive, Gentry is driven to find the "Shape" of cyberspace, "an overall total form." This search is his "grail" (75-76). The postmodern humanities do caution us about the plausibility of a single, "true point of view from which to comprehend this spectacle" and about a literature of completeness and harmony. Yet, we do have delivers, even if these delivers carry only one menu, one perspective, with them. Because our delivers carry but one perspective, we must find many, let them play against each other. At their most ethical, then, the postmodern humanities provide us with a balance of intellectual deliverance and intellectual skepticism about the delivery system of a totalitarian perspective. Postmodern literature also has a genre that offers us intellectual deliverance. It balances the collage form with an epic scope and sweep. In the novel, an example is Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. In poetry, the genre includes the descendents of Whitman, Pound, and Williams, The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson, the later poetry of Adrienne Rich, Omeros by Derek Walcott. Such texts are suspicious and self-conscious about their own adequacy, but they fix a shape of things.
Let this particular fixing end with a list of names: Tina Brown, Chancellor Kohl, Demi Moore, Martha Graham, Andreas Huyssen, Socrates, Rodin, William Thackeray, Marjorie Perloff, Ursula LeGuin, Shakespeare, Gloria Anzaldúa, Gertrude Stein, Lionel Trilling and all the names in his canon, W. E. B. DuBois, Salman Rushdie, Charles Johnson, Wallace Stevens, Linda Hutcheon, Tolstoi, Egon Schiele, William S. Hart, William S. Burroughs, John Updike, William Gibson, Sappho, Donna Haraway, John Bunyan, Matthew Arnold, Thomas Pynchon, Whitman, Pound, W. C. Williams, Charles Olson, Adrienne Rich, Derek Walcott. These are, of course, the names that I have dropped over my pages. Together, they are the merest drop in the great, leaking buckets of history and society, but I have wanted to arrange them in a shapely way. In his novel, The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon invents a character, Oedipa Maas, a California housewife who becomes a questor, seeking to "make sense" of things and of her legacies. For her, the phrase is a haunting pun. When she makes sense of things, is she discovering/uncovering what is there, or is she making things up, inventing order? The same task, to make sense, has driven my paper and compels the postmodern humanities in their various interrogations. The cautionary pun on "making sense" haunts both the humanities and me. The humanists of the next millenium will, I believe, ask how well, how reasonably and how imaginatively, how fairly and how decently, with what lack of vanity, we made sense of thingseven though our languages, like our histories, bred ghosts that howled out with reminders of our divisions, inventions, and fragilities.
1 Earlier versions of this paper were given as the luncheon address at the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association in October 1992, and as the Jerard Lecture in the Humanities, Washington State University, December 1992. I am very grateful to Professor Neila C. Seshachari of Weber State University and editor of Weber Studies for her support.
2 Huyssen's map of postmodernism also features ecological and environmental questions.
3 Fredric Jameson calls cyberpunk "henceforth, for many of us, the late supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of the late capitalism itself" (419).
4 William Gibson, in Mona Lisa Overdrive, defines cyberspace as "the sum total of data in the human system . . . " (308); in Neuromancer as "A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system" (51).
5 Hubert helpfully describes a postmodern book indebted to Gertrude Stein.
6 Damasio and Damasio are an account of recent research in this area.
7 Interestingly, the notion of process may also prove to be important to psycholinguistics, to the learning of language. When, a neuroscientist has written, we think about the mind, we must describe its "structural, functional and molecular variety." We must also consider "plasticity, the tendency of synapses and neuronal circuits to change as a result of activity. Plasticity weaves the tapestry on which the continuity of mental life depends. Action potentials not only encode information, their metabolic aftereffects alter the circuits over which they are transmitted" (Fischbach 54).
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