Looking At The Presence Of The Past Cultural Studies Essay

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Particularly known for her in postmodernism ,Linda Hutcheon basically describes herself as 'intellectually promiscuous' because she bring about a cross disciplinary action to her work. Her project could be said to revolve around one main idea. She endeavours to construct 'a "poetics" of postmodernism, a flexible conceptual structure which could at once constitute and contain postmodern culture and our discourses about and adjacent to it'. In this paper I shall highlight two famous work of Linda Hutcheon on postmodernism A Poetic Postmodernism and The Politics of Postmodernism and also examining 'the presence of the past' through the coining of the word historiographic metafiction, one of the genres which have been linked to postmodernism and also a term which leads us to question history.

Linda Hutcheon's The Politics of Postmodernism (1989), a follow-up to A Poetics of Postmodernism (1988), provide some measure of continuity in that they are engage with the question of formalism., though with 'a wealth of different example drawn from fiction and photography'. The difference is suggested by the title: the former book laid more emphasis on politics as understood by Hutcheon 'of postmodernism as a contradictory double entity'. The latter extracts by defining a category of fiction which has come to be a crucial one in studies of postmodernism and the novel, 'historiographic metafiction'. By historiographic metafiction Hutcheon means 'those well known and popular novels which are both intensely self-reflexive and yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical event and personage'. Thus it is essentially self-reflexive version of a long established fictional genre, the historical novel. In telling the story of a quest into the past, or by juxtaposing a story in the past and a story in the present day, historiographic metafiction raises questions about how we 'write'- or construct- 'history'. Therefore, it shows us that history is not a given, but something which always comes to us mediated through text. Although the conventional rhetoric suggest otherwise, historiography, the writing of the past, is subject to the same laws as the writing of fiction, that is, one implicated coherent narrative. It incorporate all the three major focus of attention, that is, literature, history and theory. The theoretical self awareness of history and fiction is made the ground for rethinking and reworking the content and form of the past.

Historiographic metafiction is one of the most common types of contemporary fiction, especially in Britain, where it has been the key product in a kind of boom industry within the 'literary' novel, featuring prominently on the shortlists of most literary prizes. Examples include John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969), Graham Swift's Waterland (1982), D. M. Thomas's The White Hotel (1981), Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981), Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot (1986), A. S. Byatt's Possession (1990), and recently, English Passengers (2000) by Matthew Kneale- a kind of role that calls some of the most significant British novel in the late twentieth century. Partly because of the influence of Hutcheon's work, the form has come to seem almost like a 'canon' of postmodern fiction- an alternative we can say to that of the other forms of postmodernist canon made up of earlier writers like Borges, Barth, Barthelme, Gass, Coover, Pynchon. Hutcheon clearly says that historiographic metafiction is a form of metafiction which retains a strong realist function, something which accounts its popularity. This very popularity of the genre testify to a serious degree of concern with history in contemporary culture, which gives an answer to some of the critique of postmodernism leveled by theorist such as Jameson, and support Hutcheon's main point in the extract which follows. Postmodern critique of history do not suggest a disbelief towards history, but that we no longer believe in history as something we can all agree upon or what history calls facts. Historiographic metafiction do not seek to deny that event in the past happened or that they are important in shaping the present and the future; the problem is in 'accessing' these events and determining precisely how they have shaped the present and future. Hutcheon explains clearly in The Politics of Postmodernism:

Historiographic metafiction represents not just a world of fiction, however self consciously presented as a constructed one, but also a world of public experience. The difference between this and the realist logic of reference is that here public world is rendered specifically as discourse. How do we know the past today? Through its discourse, through its text- that is, through the traces of its historical events: the archival material, the document, the narratives of witnesses and historian. On one level, then, postmodern fiction merely makes over the processes of narrative representation- of the real or the fictive and their interrelations.

In the same work she elaborates on the questions of history and literature with reference to Hayden White's essay 'The Value of narrativity in the representation of reality'. She says:

Historiographic metafiction is written today in the context of a serious contemporary interrogation of the nature of representation in historiography. There has been much interest recently in narrative- its form, its function, its powers, and its limitation- in many fields, but especially in history. Hayden White has even asserted that the postmodern is 'informed by a programmatic, if ironic, commitment to the return to narrative as one of its enabling presupposition' (White 1987: xi). If this is the case, his own work has done much to make it so. Articles like 'The value of narrativity in the representation of reality' have been influential in raising questions about narrative representation and its politics in both history and literature.

The question now is how we know the past. The past is unavoidable; it cannot 'be escaped, avoided, or controlled- as various form of modernist art suggest through their implicit view of any and the only hints which we can get access to it are through- documents, witnesses and archive materials. Thus, we have only representative of the past from which we construct our narrative, which in the real sense is what postmodern reveals: 'to understand present culture as a product of previous representation. The representation of history becomes the history of representation'. What postmodernism means is that it accepts the traditional culture and instead of avoiding history, it can be 'exploited and commented on critically through irony and parody.' The situation is that truth can be told with the support of facts, 'but a teller constructs that truth and chooses those facts'. 'What postmodern theory and practiced together suggest is that everything always was 'cultural' in this sense, that is always mediated by representation.' Baudrillard claims that truth, reference and non-culture have ceased to exist but according to Linda Hutcheon these notions have not cease to exit and they are no longer unproblematic issues rather they are self justifying. Finally postmodernism is questioning what reality is and how to know it. 'What postmodernism does is to denaturalize both realism transparency and modernism's reflexive response, while retaining (in its typically complicitously critical way) the historically attested power of both. This is the ambivalent politics of postmodern representation.

As mentioned earlier in the above statement about the popularity of the genre 'historiographic metafiction' which testify to a degree of concern with history in contemporary culture and that it gives answers to the critique of postmodern leveled by theorist like Jameson. It would unfair to quote the statement without any reference to his work, thus I shall bring about the difference approaches taken in two classical critical works on postmodernity: Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism and Linda Hutcheon's A Poetics of Postmodernism, History, Theory, Fiction.

Postmodernism is summarized with "the absence of the center". Both Jameson and Hutcheon starts with the same idea but took two very different path in pursuing it, as seen from the title of their work. Jameson took a postindustrialist position which views the eradication of the center as the cultural logic of late capitalism. Hutcheon on the other hand takes a poststructuralist stance, which sees the absence of the center as an opportunity created by decentering moves design to open up ideologies and social life to an appreciation of difference. They both began with the same foundation but develop a different structure. Poststructuralist resist conclusion and Hutcheon being a poststructuralist seeks to open up contradictions and develop a self renewing list of questions. They "believe (the desire to master the text and open its secret) is vain because there are unconscious, linguistics, or historical force which cannot be mastered. Poststructuralist asks questions rather than give answers". Jameson, however, sees definitive causes and effects attendant to postmodern culture and society, and he makes explicit his evaluation of their results. In his view, economic and historical circumstances shape culture.

For Jameson, postmodernism emerged as a gesture of revolt against the canonization of modernism and the consequent removal of its oppositional potential. But he also attributes postmodernism to developments in world capitalism the long global economic and military dominance. From his perspective, postmodernism has ushered in a cultural and experiential break with the past. It has thereby ended the distinction between "high" and "mass" culture crucial to modernism and engendered new categories, forms, and texts for art. Aesthetic changes stem from shifts in capitalism and politics because art and culture have become commodities integrally related to structures of economics and politics. Hutcheon defines postmodernism as "fundamentally contradictory, resolutely historical, and inescapably political," and she does not deny the commercial and commodified quality of postmodern cultural productions. But she urges us "to make some distinction between art and what the art promotional system does to it" (231). She points out that critics generally make this distinction in respect to modernism but only rarely when speaking about postmodernism. She focuses her inquiry on historiographic metafiction novels in order to reveal both the limits and the powers of historical knowledge. She celebrates the way these novels use irony to subvert but not reject history and the idea of historical objectivity as a means of rethinking and reworking the past. For Hutcheon, postmodernism questions both historical objectivity and artistic subjectivity without denying either one. It also challenges simple binary distinctions between life and art in order to formulate an open, flexible discourse that stresses to construct both life and art. Hutcheon believes that postmodernism serves a particularly important role by problematizing subjectivity.

For Jameson, loss of the center equals the death of the subject, and it engenders a crisis auguring the death of meaning, history, aesthetic inquiry, and temporality. These deaths manifest themselves in various ways central to the key terms of Jameson's critique. Jameson bemoans a situation that Hutcheon celebrates. The differences between them have as much to do with the personal circumstances and social situations of the two authors as with the climate of postmodernism.

Difference in gender provides help to understand Jameson and Hutcheon with very different stances toward cultural authority and criticism. As a woman, Hutcheon draws more effectively on the attention to difference and the questioning of divisions between public and private raised by feminist critics as a generative move in the creation of postmodernism itself. As a woman and a feminist, Hutcheon speaks from the standpoint of someone who stands to gain voice and power by postmodern cultural ideologies. Jameson, conversely, for all his oppositional intentions, stands to lose from the absence of the center. Postmodernism seems meaningless and even threatening to Jameson because it questions, problematizes, and even renounces the values, status, and centrality of people like him. Hutcheon, however, sees the same processes as producing new possibilities and opportunities. Jameson interprets visual representations within postmodernism and concludes that they constitute a meaningless, centerless simulacrum. Surface is everything in a simulacrum; meaning, truth, and reference are replaced by surfaces which results in fragmentation of the subject and the loss of the distinction between inside and outside. In contrast, Hutcheon sees the simulacrum as more than meaningless; in her view truth and reference still exist, but they have "ceased to be unproblematic issues". In her view, postmodern art problematizes representation, not to reduce it to a meaningless simulacrum but to call attention to the dangers and possibilities of the act of representation itself.

Jameson defines postmodernity as an age when people have forgotten how to think historically. Because the modernist concept of the alienated subject is no longer appropriate, capitalism has created a new fragmented subject. Postmodernism has become hegemony, so he claims freedom from alienation, but only because we are free from every other feeling as well. Hutcheon provides a useful alternative to this kind of critique. She sees the postmodern as an "attempt to re-historicize-not de-historicize-art and theory". In her interpretation, historiographic metafiction refuses a search for transcendent truths and, in the process, confronts and contests the modernist duality of either discarding or recuperating the past.

Hutcheon explains in direct response to Jameson who sees postmodernism as a "cultural dominant" agree that it is characterized by the results of late capitalist dissolution of bourgeois hegemony and the development of mass culture. In fact, the increasing uniformization of mass culture is one of the totalizing forces that postmodernism exists to challenge. It seeks to assert "difference" unlike "otherness", which could be said to be a typically postmodern concept of contradiction to define itself.

Hutcheon states that postmodernism is a useful way of questioning how and why we think we can know the past, while Jameson suggests that there is a known past that postmodernism is obliterating. Jameson argues that the collapse of high-modernist ideologies of style leave producers with nowhere to turn but to the past, the imitation of dead styles that turns the world into a series of images of itself, leaves them devoid of any meaning and allows no norm but fragmentations. Hutcheon sees a very different effect generated by fragmentation and commercialization. For her, "Culture has become cultures ". She sees this happening "in spite of and maybe even because of-the homogenizing impulse of the consumer society of late capitalism; yet another postmodern contradiction". For Jameson, the real is dead, and postmodernism killed it. For Hutcheon, the real might be dead, but the postmodern is questioning why it might have been murdered or how some people have come to think that it is dead.

The postmodern era opens up the realities of traditionally oppressed peoples and cultures and necessarily throws into question the objectivity of historical texts. But this does not deny the possibility of meaning. Hutcheon discusses postmodernism as a process that merges and rearranges the borders between art and life. Jameson's focus on sculpture, art, architecture, urban development, and public policy produces a postmodernism very different from those found by Hutcheon in historiographic metafiction. For Hutcheon, postmodernism acknowledges the power that ideologies have over the production of culture but questions why these ideologies exist and where they derive their power. Jameson sees all cultural production as an outgrowth of politics, technology, and economics the hallmarks of capitalism in its present stage. But Hutcheon uses poststructuralism to read the same circumstances as an opportunity to promote a decentered multicultural society.


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