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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Postgraduate Diary: The Schisms of -Isms

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Now back to writing after Christmas, I am working on my second chapter on A.S. Byatt, this time looking at her Booker Prize winning novel, Possession. This is a work with an encyclopaedic scope, with its themes ranging from the romance of love to the romance of the quest, its plots derived from the detective story and the romance and the Victorian epic; it is a palimpsest of letters, journals, poetry and fairy tales. And in the process of all these it takes a fairly hefty swipe at the more dogmatic aspects of literary academia, from the biography industry to postmodern psychoanalytic feminism (try saying that with your mouth full). Thus it might seem surprising that those in the establishment it critiques chose to bestow upon it a series of welcome reviews, as well as British literature's top prize. On the other hand, postmodernist critics like nothing more than to be critiqued themselves. See, for example, the following statements: "postmodernism contests culture from within its own assumptions"; "postmodernism literally names and constitutes its own paradoxical identity"; "postmodernist discourses need the very myths and conventions they contest and reduce" (all quotes taken from my current "read," Linda Hutcheon's The Poetics of Postmodernism). Postmodernist criticism erects a facade not unlike those energy-absorbing shields so loved by starship captains, in which anything which attacks the postmodern paradox simply feeds in more powerful evidence of the contradictions and destabilisations of culture that are postmodernism.

All this debate places me in a thicket of language and terminology, and I need to cut my way through it before I can start to tackle Possession on my own terms. Happily, however, Byatt herself comes to my rescue. Asked by Nicolas Tredell about her novel's attack on poststructuralism, Byatt acknowledges "Possession is a postmodernist, poststructuralist novel and it knows it is. It does present itself as a piece of Victorian melodrama, but of course it's no such thing.” However, she goes on, “within that, it is also a sort of passionate plea for readers to be allowed to identify with characters...Most postmodernist fiction cuts out any emotion very much earlier on. It doesn't allow the reader any pleasure, except in the cleverness of the person constructing the postmodernist fiction. I think that's boring. I think you can have all the other pleasures as well.” And very enjoyable the novel is too, without the need for it to be acknowledged as belonging to one category or genre, or to say that its critical work is more significant than the wave of the plot of romance and detection on which that critique rides.

I suspect that Byatt, like myself, finds the term postmodernism a somewhat necessary irritant. Necessary because it allows us to place a particular text in context; an irritant because we can become so bogged down in determining and defining precisely what that context is that we ignore the immediate pleasures of reading the text itself. In developing a "poetics" of postmodernism, we forget to read the poem. I am therefore unwilling, let alone unable, to answer the general questions "what is postmodernism" and "what is a postmodernist text," which lead to my more immediate concern which is "is Possession a postmodern text and, if so, why?"

In looking at the first two questions, I use the analogy of evolution. One of the fundamental errors made by creationists is that they argue that since we cannot see evolution happening in the present, or even in the (incomplete) fossil record, then there is no evidence for evolution at all. However, as Richard Dawkins dismisses this fallacy in The Blind Watchmaker, the error is really one of scale. Wander around any modern zoo, and you will see lions and tigers, and you will go home and talk about them to your domestic tabby. All three seem to be distinct sub-species of the cat family. Surely the creationists cry, since they are distinct, this implies they were created in one moment, by a discrete process, rather than by the continuous development argued for by evolution. However, imagine now that you are visiting a virtual zoo, in which a representative of every cat family currently on this earth are prowling in one large cage. Now, imagine every individual in every cat sub-species is present in one enormous cage. And, finally, imagine every individual of every cat sub-species which ever lived in one gargantuan cage. Now, looking at this last enclosure, it would be impossible to define where the group of "tigers" starts, and the group of "tigers" gives way to "lions." There would be clusters of individuals more tiger-like and less-lion like, and some small ones who bear some resemblance to your pet cat. The idea of a species or sub-species is in some senses a completely false one. Darwin himself did not like the term species - which implies a discrete group of individuals with particular characteristics - preferring instead the term variation, for reasons that should be obvious from the analogy. Nevertheless, without the concept of species, the art of taxonomy (and it is in some senses an art) could not exist; producing nature programmes would be impossible; and knowing on which species to perform experiments which relate to humans could not happen. The term species is a necessary irritant.

So it is with postmodernism, or, indeed, with any form of generic categorisation we use in literary theory: the Chivalric Age, Renaissance period, Romanticism, Victorian period, Modernism, Postmodernism. If you were to line every literary work (indeed, what is a "literary" work, for that matter? The Origin of Species has its own beautifully creative eloquence.) ever written on your long, long shelves, then pinpointing precisely the "species" that is the Romantic poem or the postmodern novel would be impossible. Deciding when the Victorian period gives way to Modernism (other than by using the strict dates of Victoria's reign) is an entirely arbitrary one, and results in debates around transitional figures such as Thomas Hardy or Hopkins. In my opinion, and in the guises in which I use it, postmodernism is a unit of terminological currency, one which enables me vaguely to locate a text in time and style, and then to move on and study the text itself.

All this might seem a somewhat aimless argument. However, in an unexpected way, deciding whether A.S. Byatt is a postmodernist writer, feeds nicely in to the more holistic framework of my thesis. I am looking at the role of metaphors of the "demon" in science as well as literature: Maxwell's demon, Descartes' deceiving demon, Daniel Dennett's "pandemonium" model of consciousness, and others less well known. So often, these strange beasts - given legitimacy in science by being called "models" rather than "metaphors" - are used to allow thinking to continue in a hypothetical sense, a future tense, even as the empirical evidence supporting the theory of the moment remains elusive. For example, Maxwell suggested that a demon could circumvent the second law of thermodynamics; however, he had no idea how this might manifest itself in a practical, working device (others such as Wojciech Żurek in the twentieth century have been able to create computer simulations, however, and point to potential applications of Maxwell's demon in medical nanotechnology). Daniel Dennett argues that consciousness works through a series of competing "demons" chattering together and, out of the chaos, a consensus emerges which we think of as a thought. Neuroscience has yet to develop the sorts of brain scanners that might allow "demons" (which would be called something different when they are found) to be pinpointed, but by positing that term, he enables his thinking to move on, rather than getting stalled simply because the technology has not caught up with the hypothesis.

When I first entered the debate around postmodernism, I rather like Charles Newman's denunciation of post-modernism as "a dash surrounded by a contradiction." However, conjunctions of competing terms - demons and science, species and evolution - are often highly productive.

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Posted by Alistair at 11:27 am

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