Friday, July 17, 2009

On Prolepticism

This list of "61 Essential Postmodern Reads" is as good an occasion as any to air another of my literary pet-peeves: the insistence by numerous people (critics, academics, fans) that there is something meaningful about a phrase like "Chaucer was a postmodernist avant la lettre" or "Tristram Shandy anticipated postmodernism" or, worse but surprisingly common in work by scholars who should know better, "The conditions we see today were proleptically analyzed thirty years ago by X." No, actually worst of all, something like "Did David Foster Wallace anticipate Twitter?" or "Thomas Pynchon predicted the dynamics of internet culture."

Partly, my pique comes from the imperialism of such a gesture, as if all literary meaning derives from comparison to the immediate present. But mostly it arises from the sheer laziness of this rhetoric—rather than making the effort to craft an extended comparison respecting the contexts of each side (between say, Chaucer's 14th century milieu and the largely academic working environment for mid-to-late-20th postmodernists) to see if there are significant similarities which have bearing on the conditions of literary production, these words and phrases act simply to provide an evanescent frisson of, well, re-branding. Robert Burton—the seventeenth-century heir to DFW!

There is a sort of tabloid shock to these phrases, a touch of the subterranean conspiracy, as if postmodernism (or modernism) isn't so much a way of describing and theorizing a set of temporally localizable conditions as it is a sort of masonic rite which, existing from earliest times, has initiated certain figures into its mysteries across the centuries and which has now reached a great degree of power and influence. The allure of this kind of thing is self-evident, but it is just as meaningless as the latest piece on alien abductions and Elvis. What is really served by telling me that Tristram Shandy is full of metacommentary and is therefore a properly postmodern novel? Just this—you can get the same people who drool over Gass and Gaddis to read an 18th century text. Forgive me for not cheering. Tristram Shandy doesn't need that kind of intermediation.

I suppose I may be simply too anal about these kind of things, but I do think there is something significantly wrong about pretending that literary time can be folded at will for the sake of a momentary spark of historical wire-crossing. The damage is not, I think, to an orderly sense of literary history, but rather to any legitimate attempt to make cross-period comparisons. The sensationalism of presentist re-branding undercuts, I feel, more serious attempts to analyze how writers make use of the past and comment on their present; it is part of a more general shirking of the hard work of thinking about books as part and product of their own culture, both rooted and respondent. By insisting that all writers from all eras are at all times looking forward (so-and-so "anticipates" or is "proleptically" this or that or "predicts" this or that, &c.), I think we do serious damage to our abilities to compare how writers look at their own times, or times prior to them. What Chaucer thought about the people around him may illuminate in some small way what Donald Barthelme thought about the other academics around him (though I doubt it), but I don't seriously believe that what Chaucer "predicted" about the postmodern novel illuminates anything at all.


T. Hodler said...

What do you think of Borges' essay, "Kafka and His Precursors"? Or maybe I'm drawing a connection that isn't valid...

zunguzungu said...

Yes. I must admit I'm somewhat attracted to the idea that we retroactively reconstruct past texts by reference to our own contemporary idioms -- the literary equivalent of a usable past would be the usable predecessor -- but the lazy bad way to do this would be what you describe: instead of observing the ways that past challenges and forces us to revise our sense of the present (the ways it resists being transformed into something that simply confirms what we already thought) we simply replay the past as a pre-figuration of the present. But its those failures of translation that keep the past relevant; when we try to understand, say, Chaucer as a postmodernist, the intersting thing isn't the confirmation of it, but the ways he *isn't* a postmodernist, a discovery the analogy enables but a discovery that still occurs in terms of what it fails to predict or explain. But then, bad postmodernism is all about producing a sense of ourselves as ex nihilo, such that a past that simply looks exactly like us is a congenial fiction to both lazy thinkers and people who distrust the notion of history.

Andrew Seal said...

T. Hodler,
I think it is and it isn't a valid connection--valid because it illustrates the same phenomenon, but maybe invalid because I think Borges is making a similar point.

How I read Borges, he's saying that Kafka's draw on our imaginations is so powerful that we are forced to find his precursors in texts which, at the time they were composed, would not have been read in terms similar to those by which we read Kafka. That is, Browning wasn't Kafkaesque until there is a Kafka to compare him to. Which is obvious, but not so obvious that it doesn't need to be stated, perhaps.

Or at least what does need to be stated, and what often fails to be stated, is that Kafkaesqueness is a made thing, not a found thing: "Kafka's idiosyncrasy, in greater or lesser degree, is present in each of these writings, but if Kafka had not written we would not perceive it; that is to say, it would not exist." The things which we can group under this category of the Kafkaesque have no unity apart from this category--that without the figure of Kafka, we wouldn't recognize them as related. There is no universal essence of Kafkaesqueness that has existed in perpetuity and was just distilled by Kafka in its purest form. Which (I think) was what I was trying to say about postmodernism.

I agree very much about the value of failed translations--I guess I just feel less sanguine about what often seems like overly purposeful failures--provocations, not comparisons.

Mike said...

Well DFW did anticipate the dark side of social networking and video phone technology over a decade ago.

Andrew Seal said...

Well, but literally speaking, that's not factually true. Neither his essay on TV ("E Unibus Pluram") nor his Interlace invention in IJ are actually about Facebook or Twitter. Wallace analyzed the conditions of sociality within the framework of existing entertainment technologies, and he did so in terms that still seem applicable to present conditions. But they still seem applicable, I would argue, not because he "anticipated" Facebook but because we read (or re-read) his analyses looking for continued applicability and relevance.

The videophony example is a good one. I think we should read it not as a clever prediction, as prescience, but rather as an extremely astute analysis of how people actually use the telephone. If we read it as prediction, we have to ignore or write off as hyperbolic huge parts of that "prediction"--the use of masks or other deceptive image-manipulation has obviously never come to pass in any widespread manner. And his "anticipation" completely misses the boat on non-synchronous videophonic communication--vodcasts or webcasts, or video messages.

If we assert that the videophony section is most saliently a prediction or an anticipation, we need to admit that it's not all that terrific at what it's supposed to do. Or in order to cover that admission over, we have either to ignore what he misses or mispredicts or to recategorize those errors as hyperbole or satire, which kind of blows the point about it being predictive. However, read as an analysis of people's telephonic behavior, it's almost impossible to beat--I can't think of another passage in literature that compares.