Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Comprehensive Exam 2 of 3, Postmodern Theory, Dr. Tammy Clewell, 3 June 2010

This is the fifty-ninth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

After completing two years of course work in the PhD in English program at Kent State University, I began preparing for my comprehensive exams with faculty who I hoped to also work with when I moved on to the dissertation stage.

After having taken two classes with Dr. Tammy Clewell, I was very happy that she agreed to lead my exam on postmodern theory. Leading up the exam, Dr. Clewell and I negotiated on my reading list–considering those texts that were essential, foundational works and those that supported the kinds of work that I wanted to do on my dissertation. After the list was completed, we scheduled meetings to discuss the core questions in postmodern theory. These were the best part about the process, because they required me to know how to articulate in spoken language the major debates and arguments before I sat down for the exam. Speaking face-to-face requires a different kind of thinking and preparedness. After successfully passing these discussion interviews, I was able to proceed to the written exams a day after taking my major exam on 20th-century American literature. Unlike the five hour major exam, I only had four hours to write my response to this exam.

A serendipitous outcome of our conversations was Dr. Clewell introducing me to the neurohumanities and cognitive cultural studies. Our informal discussions about these topics led to my dissertation project. Had she not asked me one day, “Jason, what do you know about the brain,” my dissertation would likely have looked VERY different. I am deeply grateful for Dr. Clewell introducing me to these ideas and then inviting me to join an interdisciplinary neurohumanities reading group that she organized later. Our reading group and our readings informed much of my thinking after the exams while I was completing the dissertation.

Below, I have included my written responses to Dr. Clewell’s postmodern theory exam. Question 1 concerns the major debates. Question 2 is about the posthuman. Question 3 explores the relationship between science fiction and postmodernism.

Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Tammy Clewell

PhD Minor Exam: Theory

3 June 2010

Question 1

            Poststructuralism and postmodernism are often invoked together, because they share an affinity for challenging the modes of thought and systems of analysis that historically precede theme. However, they are in fact also continuations or ironic reinventions of culture and philosophy of the last few hundred years. Poststructuralism is a philosophical reaction to structuralism’s form and order, and postmodernism is a continuation of modernism’s decentering of the subject while critiquing discourse and its own position within discourse. In the following discussion, I will better define these terms and engage some of the major overlapping discussions by major theorists in the field.

Poststructuralism is a set of linguistic, philosophical, and cultural theories that primarily challenge and react to the earlier structuralist theories, which were popular from around the 1950s to the 1970s. Structuralism holds that there are deep structures underneath all phenomena that prescribe how those phenomena develop. The world itself is ordered by interconnected systems, and each system works by its own set of rules or grammar. These systems can be analyzed by structuralist analysis, because the rules are thought to operate in similar ways. Thus, the world can be known completely through analysis of its systems and their rules of operation.

Poststructuralists reacted against structuralism, because they felt that it was oppressive and too ordered. It was considered oppressive, because it didn’t allow room for human agency. The structures operate through people rather than people acting on structures. Its ordering and clear delineations of rules ruled out chance or the apparent complexity of the real world. Instead of finding patterns of similarity, which tend to exclude, the poststructuralists sought to look at the world in terms of difference rather than similarity. There are provocative gaps and contradictions in the way systems operate that challenge the predictability proposed by structuralism. In particular for deconstructionists, including Derrida, structuralism is a totalizing theory with an authoritarian premise that is not open-ended enough to account for difference.

Postmodernists likewise chafe at universalizing theories including structuralism. Poststructuralism can be called a postmodern theory, because it is one among many other theories and political interventions that are reactions to totalizing and universalizing beliefs bound to Western Enlightenment thought: progress as political improvement of humanity and mastery over Nature through the accumulation of knowledge and technology. Not to fall into a totalizing trap, it is important to note that it is through modernity, defined as the period beginning with the Enlightenment through the Industrial Revolution to the Second World War, that many of the ideas that are now considered postmodern first began to be formulated. This is particularly important to the refutation of the liberal humanist idea of identity or a centered self. I will respond more to this in the second question below. For now, it suffices to say that I define postmodernism as the array of cultural theories and attitudes that have developed as skepticism colored with irony, emphasizing language and power relations, toward long standing Western universalized theories and beliefs including: the idea of human progress, the power of reason and rationality, objective reality, and the human. Modernism had already brought into question many of these issues, especially concerning the human as center of the self and of the world, but postmodernism extends and critiques these earlier reformulations.

In the rise of poststructuralism and postmodernism, often linked to post-industrial society after World War II, two polarizing debates developed between poststructuralists and other theorists who held on to forms of structuralist analysis. The first of these that I will discuss is between Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault regarding Derrida’s groundbreaking theory of deconstruction, and the second is between Jean-Francois Lyotard and Fredric Jameson regarding legitimating grand narratives.

Derrida developed the approach known as deconstruction in reaction to what he saw as the totalizing and universalizing tendencies of structuralism. My discussion of deconstruction carries the caveat that deconstruction is not a method, a critique, or an analysis. It is not a procedural operation that arrives at a particular and desired output. Derrida describes it as an event, because each deconstruction is different. It is not a critique in the Kantian sense (i.e., critique vs. dogma), because it relies on language. Language is dogmatic due to its invoking metaphysics through the being assumed in all signified-transcending signifiers relationships. Finally, it is not an analysis, because the whole text—words, sentences, etc.—is interconnected and dependent upon the whole. Any cutting up of a text for analysis is arbitrary and there is no single meaningful way to divide a text for analysis as such. These are all negative descriptions that say what deconstruction is not. Derrida prefers these definitions, because they do not cut off what deconstruction means by saying emphatically what it is. I will use the terms method and approach as a short hand in the discussion that follows. These terms can be thought of as being written under erasure for lack of better terms describing deconstruction.

Derrida is skeptical of the Western philosophical privileging of speech over writing. He argues that the West is logocentric (i.e., grounded on logos, which in Greek means word and rationality). Logocentrism in the West derives from phonocentrism, or the privileging of speech. This has to do with the belief that logos in speech is present while writing is not present. The nonpresence of writing implies that it is open to interpretation and hence not as rational or concrete in its meaning as the presence of speech. Derrida demonstrates that all language, including its usage in speech, is open to interpretation by the reader or hearer. Furthermore, language is a system of signs and since signs are written, he sees no reason why writing should be prioritized under that of speech.

Deconstruction is an attempt to reach the limits of interpretation of a text by demonstrating how the structure of the text and its authorial genesis cannot be supported by the text itself. In other words, the text itself is always already deconstructing. It is a matter of engagement of the text through an interpretive reading to show its irreconcilable and built-in contradictions. Its core concept is that of differance (i.e., difference with an ‘a’, and due to time, I will omit the stress on the e). Differance is the name Derrida gives to the very basis of how language works and to the operations of deconstruction. In regard to language, Derrida, building on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, argues that words are not substitutes for the real, but instead, words are linked together metonymically in a chain. Signifiers are linked to signifiers, and one word triggers connections with other words as metonymic connections rather than metaphoric replacements. This shows that language is in movement and that slippages in meaning are possible as a result of that movement. It is from the basis of metonymy in language that Derrida made the differance neologism based on the French verb ‘differer,’ which can mean to differ and to defer. Differance means both of these things at the same time. Signifiers differ from one another and they defer meaning along a whole chain of signifiers. Meaning is thus endlessly deferred and indeterminate. There are apparent meanings for things due to the ‘self-effacing trace,’ or the difference between words that give an apparent meaning, but the operation of both the trace and deferral render fixed meanings impossible. Differance is a description of the operations of language and it performs the operation that it describes. Specifically in terms of deconstruction, differance is the middle way for the tension between unity and difference. Differance then becomes the excess or space between texts. It is in opposition to Hegel’s third term or Habermas’ unity and consensus. Derrida sees Hegel and Habermas enforcing synthesis where there should be difference. Differance is an alternative to unity and an acknowledgement of the excess between interpretations. It resists efforts to erase Otherness or multiplicity. Furthermore, meaning is, according to Derrida, disseminated: there is an effect of meaning, but meaning is dispersed and specific meanings are irresolvable. Thus, deconstruction is always already present in a given text, and the deconstructive reading of a text relies on what is there in the text itself. Deconstruction relies on textuality, or the importance and centrality of texts, and how a single text can be different from itself via another reading and how each text can be a trace of other texts, which invokes Barthes concept of intertextuality. Texts are not alone, but connected to one another via the trace.

Foucault’s concept of discourse can be seen as more closely aligned with the structuralists than Derrida’s deconstruction. Foucault’s emphasis was not on language and the individual text, but instead, he focused on discourse—the conversation and connections between texts and the relationships of power that those connections represent and develop. Discourse does involve texts in the promotion and implementation of the discourse and its power networks, but it is not something contained within a single text. For Foucault, discourse refers to systems of belief, knowledge, and practices that are governed by internalized rules. Discourse comes about and operates by power relationships. The discourse and the power relationships tied up within a discourse can change over time. The power in a discourse is distributed through networks that are all inclusive—there is no constitutive outside to discourse. Discourses change over time and they may disappear all together. Furthermore, discourses do not carry universal truths, but they do establish their own beliefs, which may be promoted as truths within the discourse and within its power relations. For example, Foucault argues that sexuality did not become a discourse until very recently with the rise of medicine as a science and the adoption of a heterosexual/heteronormative standard within the discourse of medicine. This particular example shows a very one sided power dynamic with the institutions of medicine adopting a particular norm and their enforcing that norm on individuals (e.g., women, homosexuals, transsexuals, those without the institutional support given to the white, male doctors) with the support of state power. Discourse can include the arts and politics and any other system that is based on a system of power relationships. Other examples of discourse include capitalism or modernism in the arts. Foucault calls the totalization of discourse within a historical period an episteme. The Enlightenment or postmodernity would be examples of episteme. In Foucault’s conceptualization of discourse, he finds most to be oppressive and controlling. There are haves and have-nots within the power networks of a discourse. As such, these discourses should be challenged, as he did against heteronormativity in The History of Sexuality.

The primary difference between Foucault and Derrida is that Foucault sees in texts or utterances another discourse, whereas Derrida sees another self-deconstructing text playing with language. Each theorist sees his work as a constructive challenge to different manifestations of power. Derrida sees privileging and hierarchies in the texts he deconstructs, and Foucault finds the distribution of power within the connections between people, their texts, and their practices. This is not to say that Derrida is not aware of the big picture, so to speak, but his approach deconstructs the individual text and by doing so unravels its assumptions and connections to other texts through the always already there deconstructive seed within the text. Foucault attempts to reveal the intentionality within the text in order to show the way its relationship to power and its discourse is oppressive in some way. Derrida shows that the genesis, along with the structure of the text, explodes when taken into consideration of the text as a whole. The text’s connection to a discourse is based on the interpretation by Foucault, which is only one interpretation among many. Furthermore, Foucault’s analysis of a text is based on what is within the text itself under consideration. Without saying so, this is a kind of interpretation, because as Derrida shows there are different ways of reading an individual text. Derrida did this himself when he used a key passage from Foucault’s History of Madness. This beginning to their ten year long silence to one another is precipitated on Foucault’s belief that certain concepts are not deconstructable. Madness, sexuality, knowledge, etc. are idea concepts that, for Foucault, are beyond the deconstructive practices of Derrida. Foucault said of Derrida following his essay that deconstruction teaches the student that there is nothing outside the text, and that the only point of consideration is the spaces in-between and words written under erasure. Derrida later refuted Foucault’s claim by saying that there is nothing outside CONtext—meaning that the historical, biographical, ideological, etc. should be considered when interpreting a text, but that it is necessary to remember the other side of context that these things are historically contingent and not universally established.

Next, I will discuss another significant debate in poststructuralism and postmodernism. This has to do with the argument between the poststructuralist thinker Lyotard and the Marxist scholar Jameson on the issue of metanarratives.

Jameson describes a hard division between modernism and postmodernism. He identifies modernism with time and memory, which is embedded in an earlier form of capitalism that had not yet worked its way into fundamentally transforming the world and the circuits of relation between people. Postmodernism is emblematic of the contemporary mode of production, and the cultural manifestation of what Mandel calls the third stage of capitalism, or late capitalism. Considering Jameson in terms of Foucault, Marxism is a discourse, as is his formulation of postmodernism and modernism that are a part of or connected to the larger Marxist discourse. The postmodern for Jameson is a disavowed yet seized upon term to discuss the historical in a present where history is in a sense forgotten or at least transformed by nostalgia. Oppositions between postmodernism and modernism include: He favors historicism over style (his favoring of Ragtime over Gravity’s Rainbow is problematic in this regard, however); pastiche, not parody; space over time; and surface over interiority and stream of consciousness. Cyberpunk, especially the work of William Gibson, is the literature of postmodernism, because of its emphasis on space over time and the effects of capitalism at shaping the landscape and the narrative plot. Emblematic of the shift from the modern to the postmodern is also the loss of interiority. Jameson laments the waning of affect. In postmodernism, there is a loss of feeling and emotion now that space has made its ascendance in the circulations of capital. People are now surfaces to be written on by the effects of capital and not individuals with some sense of an interior self. The postmodern subject is formed by the circulations of capital and the effects of its cultural manifestations on the person. Under his spatial model, things rise to the surface, including to the surface of bodies, and as a result, he feels that we have lost something precious to the human experience that was there before.

Lyotard offers an alternative to Jameson’s lament. Instead of lamenting the loss of the modern, Lyotard embraces the postmodern, because he sees it as hopeful and loaded with potential energy. Returning to the division between modernism and postmodernism, modernism offers universalized meanings, meanings which are closed to critique. Postmodernism on the other hand critiques those meanings while also critiquing itself. This creates exciting possibilities, and it creates a space for unanticipated thinking. The postmodern in Lyotard’s conception doesn’t favor consensus, and it also doesn’t promote positive content (Derrida would agree with this in regard to his own definitions of deconstruction, which provide no closed meanings). Lyotard also argues that the grand narratives of progress, knowability, and freedom can no longer contain or represent everyone. Thus, the postmodern in its most simplistic formulation is incredulity towards metanarratives. Instead of grand narratives and universals, we now have a proliferation of micronarratives. He draws on Wittgenstein’s language games as the means for creating and circulating knowledge within micronarratives. A common critique against Lyotard is that his narrative is another grand narrative, but Lyotard specifically challenges narratives of legitimation and not all narratives, including those of knowledge. On the other hand, Jameson’s Marxism is a grand narrative. It provides a closed solution to understanding the relationships between people and the circulations of capital. It is universalized and it is believed to apply to all peoples according to their particular historical context and the current mode of production. There is no room for critique within a grand narrative such as this, and it legitimates a certain kind of power structure. Lyotard is skeptical of such a narrative, because there are no new possibilities within such a narrative. Lyotard also undermines Jameson’s division of the modern as no longer accessible now that we are in the postmodern era. Lyotard argues convincingly that the reciprocal of Jameson’s formulation is true. For Lyotard, to be modern, we must first be postmodern. Postmodernism is the disruption of the discourse of modernism. Postmodernism is not a movement, but it is a process leading back to narratives that have been worked out through the openness of the postmodern. Within this process, Lyotard favors the event (again, a connection with Derrida) while Jameson relies on synchronic, sign systems. Lyotard sees the event as a temporal figure which cannot be reduced to meaning (e.g., Auschwitz—it cannot be remembered in its totality or forgotten, either). This non-dialectal event has an affinity with Derrida’s differance. Lyotard provides a way of working through the meaning of the modern and its conflicting narratives via postmodernism, but Jameson holds to his Marxist grand narrative and historiographic space, which does not offer a space for critique outside its discourse.


Question 2

            Articulations of the human subject are an on-going philosophical concern. Coming from the Enlightenment, the human was considered a rational being with a core identity that was untouched by the outside world. A radical critique of this idea was brought by modernist Sigmund Freud, who is credited with decentering the self into the id, ego, and superego. The id and its unbridled desires were repressed by the rational projection of the self or the ego, and the superego’s self-reflection of the self in regard to the social brought the human subject in line with the outside world.

Postmodernism inherited and extended the idea of a decentered self and formulated a rearticulation of what the human subject is. A notable break with the modernist stance on a decentered subject comes from Jameson and his lament for the waning of affect. The senses of a deep interiority, stream of consciousness, and a private voice have disappeared as the world has become embedded in that interiority. The inner self has become another surface upon which the world and the social write themselves. The social is what makes us subjects (subject to the effects of power and mired in power relationships exterior to ourselves) instead of centered persons with an identity of our own narration and creation. As I mentioned above, Jameson does not celebrate this change, because he sees this as an effect of late capitalism and its global reach. Human beings and their art are made possible, at least how we see ourselves and the works that we create, by the effects of capitalism. There is no outside of that system, and as subjects of the system, our creative works cannot maintain a critique of the system that makes them possible.

Like Jameson, other theorists recognize the anxieties about a loss of interiority, and the inevitability of the world changes in which we find ourselves. Particularly, Donna Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles, and Mark Poster offer a different reading of the inevitability of the postmodern and the promises to be found there.

Before discussing Haraway, Hayles, and Poster, it would be useful to rehearse Bruno Latour’s ideas that inform their history of science and technology based arguments. For Latour, science, technology, and society develop together within networks. He finds the Enlightenment division of subjects and objects into separate categories to be an artificial division. He demonstrates that subject-object hybrids circulate within networks, but they are purified into subject or object by the so-called moderns. Quasi-subjects and quasi-objects are purified while hybrids proliferate under the surface imposed by the moderns. Thus, what we consider modernity with its artificially clear boundaries has never in fact occurred, because the presence of hybrids refutes the claims of the moderns.

Haraway extends Latour and his actor-network theory by looking at them from Marxist-feminist and animal studies perspectives. She develops two very big ideas in her work: the cyborg as a social-politically enabling subject, and the importance for social relations to include humans and non-humans. Haraway’s cyborg resists the purification of the moderns, who would try to divide it rather than encounter or engage its synthesis. Haraway argues that we are all now hybrids or cyborgs, because we are part of the modern circuit of humanity and technology that has been made possible by the effects of late capital. She defines the cyborg as: “A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction.” The cyborg brings together in a new kind of subject the machine and the animal, and it is connected to other cyborgs and other beings through our lived social relationships. The fictional cyborg, in effect, becomes a world-changing fiction, because it shows how we have radically changed as a species. The cyborg as postmodern subject is to be embraced, because it resists the artificial purifications of the moderns that would strip us of our politically powerful assemblages. Connected to the cyborg is Haraway’s concept that “social relations include humans and non-humans as socially active partners. All that is unhuman is not un-kind, outside kinship, outside the orders of signification, excluded from trading in signs and wonder.” Using her emblematic characters Modest Witness (women on the net), FemaleMan (a cyborg making feminism, and making science), and OncoMouse (another kind of cyborg, the first genetically engineered animal), she articulates the cyborg as providing the future alternative to the liberal humanist subject. The liberal humanist subject is a human being with a centered self, male is the model, heteronormative, linked to patriarchal hierarchies, and historically domineering. The cyborg is inclusive of gender, sexual orientation, and even different species. The cyborg provides an emblem of affinity across modern-derived divisions (e.g., man/woman, machine/human, human/animal, etc.).

Hayles takes a different but related tact to Haraway by using a feminist critique to uncover how technology blurs and erases socially imposed boundaries. Hayles, whose interest is in cyberneticists and fiction on cybernetics, is more focused on the way hybrids have been dealt with historically after World War II. Hayles argues that bodies are under erasure. She sees intelligence as embodied information, which implies that intelligent bodies can take other forms. Like Haraway, Hayles dismantles the liberal humanist subject (and its autonomy, rationality, free will, agency, and consciousness as the seat of identity) through her argument for the posthuman. She recognizes the problems of the social writing itself on the subject (i.e., writing the subject) and the earlier work of Freud to decenter the subject, but she argues that the posthuman inevitability can be terrifying and pleasurable. It is a present and future that she asserts we should walk freely into. For Hayles, the posthuman is distributed cognition, agency as an effect of multiple nodes, consciousness is emergent, information coding through all levels of cognition, and the incorporation of the individual into market relations. Our minds and our memories can be distributed, such as in social networking websites or knowing where to find information (e.g., Google or our internal catalog of books we have read) we cannot readily recall. Agency is a result of our relations to other nodes within a network of relations. Our consciousness is emergent from our biology and socialization. Information is coded through all levels of our cognition and its distribution. We are all interconnected through the networks of capital. The key to all of these things is the body. Unlike the liberal humanist subject, in which consciousness is seen as so much software running on the brain’s hardware and can thus be transferred to other containers (e.g., The Matrix or Avatar), she sees intelligence as being embodied as something (bodies and intelligence are intertwined and dependent). The human as information makes no sense unless there is a body to contain the information. It can’t be stressed enough that specific body/information subjects are co-dependent. Who I am is dependent on my informational experiences, reflections, and behaviors that are linked to my body and cannot be easily transferred to just any container. A book, likewise, needs a vessel to contain its information (but I would say that this is a weaker example of the implications of her ideas on embodied information and subjectivity). Returning to the human as information wedded to a body, she sees embodiment as necessary for agency and history as much as for accounting for relationships. Furthermore, bodies need boundaries in order to share information with other bodies and to interface with the world around us.

The importance of interface and information is articulated in Poster’s work. He develops a parallel argument to Marx’s mode of production, which he calls the mode of information. Each mode is a way of defining relationships—the mode of production deals with exchange and its forms around commodity fetishism, and the mode of information deals with communication and it forms around information fetishism. Poster develops three stages to the mode of information, but these are not historical processes. Instead, they are discursive totalizations, which means that they will overlap and co-exist based on historical development of each. The first stage of the mode of information is face-to-face communication, which is self-instantiated through enunciation and involves symbols. The second stage concerns writing and print, which relies on the representation of signs, and the self is constructed as an agent centered in rationality and imaginary autonomy. Finally, the third stage is the electronic stage, which features information simulations, and the self is decentered, dispersed across social space, and multiplied in continuous instability. In Poster’s formulation, information produces the modern subject, and pushing into the electronic stage begins to yield a new kind of human. His argument goes that humans build computers, but computers may in turn be building a new kind of human. Humans and their machines co-evolve and co-develop. What Poster finds important to this interaction between humans and machines is that interfaces and boundaries become increasingly important, because it is at the point where the human and machine meet that negotiations are made leading to the emergence of something new. It is the emergence of something new that Poster identifies as the postmodern.

Haraway, Hayles, and Poster offer a different take on the postmodern subject that extends the earlier work by the moderns. However, each of them accepts change as inevitable, and the modern concern about the machine and the human, or the transformation of the human into a machine is not to be feared according to these theorists. However, they are writing from a protected position as information workers within the academy. I do not think that price checking cyborgs at Wal-Mart or Chinese gold farmers playing World of Warcraft for 12+ hours a day can be said to be enjoying the fruits of cyborg/posthuman/information subject promised by these theorists. Just as in Marx’s mode of production there are some people who get the rewards from the system and others who do not, the same is true in the postmodern reconfiguration of the human subject as cyborg. There will be some cyborgs who will be empowered or enjoy their cyborg subjectivity, but others will, for lack of better terms, be dehumanized and perhaps literally turned into machines as a result of their integration into the circuits of capital and global networks of power. This is a real concern for some postmodern writers including Philip K. Dick, who sees transformations from machine into human and human into machine as equal possibilities. For Dick, empathy was the key determining factor for what constituted a ‘human’ whatever form it may take—human being, alien, or machine. I am confident that this largely informed Jameson’s earlier thinking on the postmodern and the waning of affect. Haraway in particular confronts this issue with cyborg existence by showing that it is our relationships with others (human and non-human like) that empowers us in this new kind of human-machine subjectivity. So, I would say that we have not yet lost all affect, but it should be made more evident how we can use technology to explore and expand on what it means to be human without it overtaking us and erasing what humanity can be.


Question 3

            Postmodernism and science fiction have according to some converged into overlapping literatures or at least literatures in strong conversation with one another. To begin this discussion, I will briefly define postmodern literature and science fiction, and then I will proceed to look at the theories of Damien Broderick, Scott Bukatman, Brian McHale, and Fredric Jameson on the interrelationship between postmodern literature and science fiction.

A working definition of postmodern literature includes the following. Postmodern literature critiques the here-and-now, universalized assumptions, and metanarratives while also critiquing itself. It is a continuation of modernist forms and themes, but through mixing, intertextuality, and bricolage repurposing, often with an ironic turn, it takes these techniques into new, unexplored areas. It supports multiplicity of narratives and meaning, and it rejects determinacy and closed meanings. It is inclusive (leveling high and low art distinctions and embracing popular culture) and relational instead of exclusive and situated.

I will rely on Darko Suvin’s widely accepted definition of science fiction, which defines science fiction as “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is the imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.” Science fiction is the literature of cognitive estrangement, because it must use some cognitive or explanatory element that is usually based in science and technology. The scientific phenomena or technoscientific device that drives the plot is essential to these stories. Science fiction must also estrange the reader from the here-and-now, but it often does this as metaphor in order to critique the here-and-now without directly challenging the status quo. It veils its argument behind the accoutrements that we consider science fictional. Considering the effects of postmodernity on the human subject as outlined in question two, it seems evident that reality is beginning to catch up with science fiction. It could be this operation of the increasingly technologized everyday world that has caused what could be otherwise called mundane literature to have an increasingly science fictional aspect. When we are all cyborgs or posthumans, is there any other kind of literature besides science fiction? Would science fiction continue to be estranging? In the discussion below, I will look at how some major theorists in the field approach the relationship between postmodern literature and science fiction.

Jameson identifies cyberpunk and specifically the fiction of William Gibson as the representative literature of the postmodern. All the characters in his fiction are surfaces to be written on, each character demonstrates the waning of affect discussed above, the characters are embedded within the networks of capital, and it is the influence of the market that drives the plot (i.e., Neuromancer and Wintermute are AIs that seek to break out of the human imposed barriers to their pre-programmed need to fuse together, protections intended to save humanity from the unknown operations of intelligences that are decidedly not human). Of late however, Jameson has worked on the potential for utopian thinking in postmodern literature. Earlier, Jameson had claimed that the system cannot be critiqued from within, because all art and subjects are subject to the system of global capital. It is within science fiction that Jameson locates contemporary utopian thought and its satirical critique of the here-and-now. However, he does not agree with the potential of cyborg politics within much recent science fiction, and he most certainly would not condone the cyborgization of the human subject via Haraway or Hayles. This is interesting, because some of his lauded examples of postmodern science fiction include the heterotopias of Kim Stanley Robinson (who was Jameson’s student at UC, San Diego), which feature elements of the posthuman that Jameson condemns.

Broderick agrees in large part with Jameson. Broderick argues that science fiction is the native storytelling form for societies undergoing the technological and industrial changes we are now encountering. For him, science fiction has metaphoric strategies (one thing represents another from the here-and-now), metonymic tactics (concepts are linked together), the megatext of shared terms and concepts is foregrounded while aesthetics and characterization is placed in the background (this complements Jameson’s waning of affect), and attention to objects over subjects (again, the waning of affect). Space for Broderick is also a primary concern over that of time. He defines genre in general as a negotiated territory within what he calls narrative phase space. Phase space is a term from physics that describes a space, defined by coordinates of independent variables that describe a dynamic system that maps onto multiple dimensions. The genre negotiation of this dynamic space is done through what he calls the megatext. Extending the idea from Phillippe Haman and Christine Brooke-Rose, Broderick defines the science fiction megatext as a shared collection of terms, ideas, and concepts that a reader must apprentice to in order to gain entrance to science fiction’s negotiated territory within narrative phase space. Knowing the difference between a robot and a ray gun, for example, enables the reader’s engagement of science fiction literature in general, because most texts reference some of these shared terms. Knowing what these things are allows the reader to more quickly understand what is going on without each author needing to describe minute details of something like a robot that doesn’t necessarily pertain to the progression of the plot. It frees the author to integrate science and technology into the plot in a meaningful way without getting bogged down in elaborate and often unnecessary explanations. Of course, these terms experience slippage and change over time from various uses by authors and interpretations by readers. However, the general elements of science fiction for Broderick do align with the generic definition of postmodern literature in terms of space, critique, and surfaces.

Bukatman, like Jameson and Broderick, focuses on the spatial, maps, writing on bodies, and cyberspace for defining contemporary science fiction. Bukatman argues that science fiction is no longer concerned with narrating bodies and an ideal soul. The subject as body/mind/memory is now hardwired into a subjectivity of being and electronic technology. Again, like Jameson, Bukatman places an emphasis on cyberpunk, a subgenre of contemporary science fiction, as the central example of postmodern literature that maps the spaces of this new subjectivity. For Bukatman, terminal identity is a transitional stage in the information age (connect his argument to Poster) in which the subject is propelled into the machine. He argues that information is invisible (not embodied like Hayles), difficult to represent, difficult to separate the human from the machine, and science fiction narrates provisional subjects as terminal identities. Science fiction and theory are different yet interrelated kinds of writing that address this issue. Each develops its own metaphors for reality, and he reads them alongside one another rather than one against the other. Science fiction is a form of language game (connecting himself to Broderick and the changing megatext), and special effects are a visual form of language game, which reinforces the idea of surfaces where the screen has replaced interiority. Bukatman’s theory couples to what I will discuss in the final section on McHale and zones: Bukatman contends that electronic space is where language, rationality, and subjectivity break down. He notes the possibilities with cybernauts (cyberspace/hackers) and posthumans/cyborgs, but he seems deeply interested in the effects on the margins, which gestures towards de Certeau’s tactics versus power’s strategies. Like Haraway and Hayles, Bukatman sees the changes to the postmodern subject as inevitable. He, unlike Jameson, embraces the changes and he tries to envision how these changes can be used to challenge the structures of dominating power.

McHale provides perhaps the most useful theoretical bridge between postmodernism and science fiction. His big idea is based on structuralism and the Jacobson’s concept of the dominant. His simple, yet powerful, argument is that: for modernism, the dominant is epistemological (questions of knowing and knowability), and the postmodern dominant is ontological (modes of being and making sense of the world/worlds). He argues that persistent epistemological doubt leads to ontological instability. Pursing epistemological questions long enough will turn into ontological problems, and vice versa. Thus, the one kind of question leads to the other and back again, which means that his theory does not form a historical break in the two kinds of writing like Jameson, who divides modernism and postmodernism with a clear demarcation. For McHale, these are just different kinds of questions that a particular historical moment may promote, but there is no reason why one dominant cannot be found in an earlier or later period. Importantly, McHale complicates Jacobson’s idea. McHale argues that there are always multiple dominants operating at different levels. It all depends on your analysis and how you choose to telescope in or out among your reading of the levels. A single text may have both epistemological and ontological questions, but only one will be in the foreground. In fact, taking Philip K. Dick as an example, his trajectory as a writer can be described as beginning with an epistemological dominant (e.g., “Imposter”), which led to ontological questions in his middle period (e.g., Ubik), and then a return to epistemological questions in his later period (e.g., VALIS). Sister genres provide a direct connection between postmodernism and science fiction. Modernism’s sister genre is detective fiction (questions of knowing), and postmodernism’s sister genre is science fiction (building worlds and exploring worlds). Postmodern world building is termed zones. Zones correspond to worlds within the text and not the real world. Heterotopias are a plurality of worlds or zones. Hutcheon’s less effective theory of historiographic fiction can be viewed in McHale’s theory as another example of the postmodern: world building, uncovering history through ironic invention, juxtaposition, pastiche, etc. He says that acceptance of the world or ontological indeterminacy is only a postmodern thematics and not a totalizing poetics of postmodern literature.

Of these theories, McHale’s seems to be the most useful and productive in a wide range of circumstances. Furthermore, it provides the strongest connection between a wide range of science fiction and the postmodern. Science fiction is a literature with a historical development. It has changed over time, and in general, it does have a strong affinity to McHale’s theory of the postmodern through its use of world building. Jameson, Broderick, and Bukatman make compelling cases for the relationship between science fiction and the postmodern, but they focus on contemporary science fiction as if it represented all of science fiction. They look to specific works or specific subgenres without studying the bigger picture as does McHale. However, they are more concerned with the current milieu, which I do not believe has borne out the emphasis on cyberpunk (which is itself a now mostly defunct subgenre of science fiction that has been absorbed into other narratives). I do agree with McHale that science fiction is related to the postmodern through its ontological emphasis and the critique of its worlds and itself (something found primarily in the most literary or experimental science fictions by authors including Kim Stanley Robinson, Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany, and Joanna Russ, to name only a few).


I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Kent State, Recovered Writing, Science Fiction
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.


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