Linda Hutcheon: Reading Notes for Chapters 1 & 2

By Alex Hall and Caleb Berkemeier

(Reading Notes for Linda Hutcheon’s A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction)

Chapter One:

In this first chapter, entitled “Theorizing the Postmodern: Toward a Poetics,” Linda Hutcheon informs the reader that the purpose of this book is to attempt a thorough definition of “postmodernism”—a concept that she claims is often under-theorized by both its supporters and its detractors. To this end, she reveals her primary argument, that “postmodernism is a contradictory phenomenon, one that uses and abuses, installs and then subverts, the very concepts it challenges” (3). If nothing else, this is the core idea that one should take away from the reading of this book: postmodernism is not a total or transcendent rejection of the past, nor is it an uncritical acceptance of the present—postmodernism is a provisional, contingent, complex, and even playful way of viewing past and present from a wholly immanent position. The transcendental position—the notion that one can critique a system without at the same time being implicated in that system—has been overthrown and is no longer the most sophisticated way of understanding the world. Therefore, the only way in which one can critique the present order is from within its logic, to “use and abuse” the concepts that the present order offers.

In order to elaborate on what she thinks postmodernism is, Hutcheon relies heavily upon literary texts as manifestations of postmodernity. The most amenable literary genre for this task is what she calls “historiographic metafiction” which includes novels that “are both intensely self-reflexive and yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personages” (5). According to Hutcheon, the study of postmodernism is directed at either literature, history, or theory and is narrative in all three. Historiographic metafiction, therefore, is the best source for understanding postmodernism because it “incorporates all three of these domains. . . . its theoretical self-awareness of history and fiction as human constructs. . . . is made the grounds for its rethinking and reworking of the forms and contents of the past” (5). Some theorists (such as Fredric Jameson) have misinterpreted this focus on the past “as a negative. . . . imprisoning of the text in the past through pastiche” (11), but Hutcheon counters this criticism by characterizing the explicit revisiting of history as “liberating” in its challenging of “a definition of subjectivity and creativity that has for too long ignored the role of history in art and thought” (11).

A common criticism of postmodernism is that it is ahistorical since it is preoccupied with the idea that history can only be known through text. This has led many to believe that postmodernism’s revisionary project is an assault on history rather than what it truly is: an examination of how we come to know history and everything that knowledge implies. Hutcheon says that history is “being rethought. . . . as a human construct” and that “in arguing that history does not exist except as text, it does not stupidly and “gleefully” deny that the past existed, but only that its accessibility to us now is entirely conditioned by textuality” (16). History is a real object (not just language as some radical semioticians claim), but it is impossible to recover the “real story” because history is always mediated through texts that, for all their pretensions to coherence and unity, cannot free themselves from the very history they record.

One of the important literary techniques (along with self-reflexivity) that is used to critique the rationalist historical view is that of ironic parody. It is what Hutcheon calls a “perfect postmodern form” because “it paradoxically both incorporates and challenges that which it parodies” (11). This is one of the more difficult ideas to grasp about postmodernism—that it uses what modernism has to offer but is not modernism itself since postmodernism is a critique of that logic. Modernism’s “discarding or recuperating of the past in the name of the future” (19) is what postmodernism opposes; the transcendent position of modernist art in its search for pure truth is turned into the parodic as postmodern art reenacts the past but without losing its self-conscious connection to the historical present. Through postmodern parody “ironic discontinuity. . . . is revealed at the heart of continuity, difference at the heart of similarity” (11).

But postmodern parody is no mere exercise in literary technique. Its purpose is ambitious and vitally important because it forces a reevaluation of the foundations of unquestioned narratives that are problematical in their exclusionary logic. Hutcheon says that “[p]ostmodern culture. . . . has a contradictory relationship to what we usually label our dominant, liberal humanist culture. It does not deny it, as some have asserted. . . . it contests it from within its own assumptions” (6). What this means is that the grand narratives of human reason and progress that have functioned as a cover for so much irrationality and regression are no longer untouchable. To question the truths of liberal humanism (or any other meta-narrative) is not to default to impoverished relativism; it is to say that truth is provisional and contingent. People can still believe in certain truths, but what they can no longer do is believe those truths uncritically and without the contextualizing process of self-reflexive consciousness. What Hutcheon wants to make clear is that “there are no natural hierarchies . . . only those we construct” (13).

Finally, Hutcheon is concerned with constructing a particular way in which we can talk about postmodernism, not a rigid theoretical framework but what she calls a “poetics.” The function of this poetics is to “offer, as provisional hypotheses, perceived overlappings of concern . . . reading literature through its surrounding theoretical discourses rather than as continuous with theory” (14). She demonstrates what she means by this in a lengthy passage where she accuses Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson of basing their arguments against postmodernism in abstract, theoretical terms that do not touch the world of practice. She goes through some of Eagleton’s criticisms of postmodernism and gives her own textual examples that seem to defy his claims. While at first this tangent seems too divergent, it soon becomes clear that what is most important about this deviation is not necessarily the particular counter-arguments against Eagleton—what is important is that Hutcheon is using products of postmodern practice in conjunction with abstracted theory. She is putting into practice her definition of a poetics of postmodernism that is constantly engaging both theory and practice, a poetics that does not “place itself in a position between theory and practice . . . but rather . . . seek[s] a position within both” (17).

Chapter Two:

Hutcheon’s second chapter, entitled “Modelling the Postmodern: Parody and Politics,” begins by first reiterating what she has already said about postmodern art: that it is “art marked paradoxically by both history and an internalized, self-reflexive investigation of the nature, the limits, and the possibilities of the discourse of art” (22).  Parody, she further suggests, is actually that which can relate the “aesthetic . . . to the political and the historical” (22).  With this in mind, Hutcheon proceeds to outline her intent in the chapter, which is to focus on what she believes “offers the best model for a poetics of postmodernism: postmodern architecture” (22).  According to Hutcheon, postmodern architecture is “the one art form in which the label [postmodern] seems to refer, uncontested, to a generally agreed upon corpus of works” (22).  Backtracking, Hutcheon again cites the historical and political, pointing out that postmodern works are both “precisely because they are formally parodic” (23).  Hutcheon takes this idea a bit further by suggesting that the parody that results in the historical and political aspects of postmodern art actually “use and abuse, install and destabilize convention in parodic ways, self-consciously pointing to both their own inherent paradoxes and provisionality and, of course, to their critical or ironic re-reading of the art of the past” (23).  This to say that postmodern art can simultaneously participate in and critique the system under which it is produced, including by bringing history to bear on the present.  One place where this process can be recognized quite distinctly is in architecture—but Hutcheon will come back to this.  First she is concerned with contextualizing her argument within intellectual discourses on postmodernism, showing that many critics have condemned postmodernism as something that is bereft of critical potential (she specifically points to the conceptions of postmodernism put forth separately by Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson).  For Hutcheon, however, there is critical potential in postmodern works because their use of parody, as she has said, causes the works to be both historical and political, the former of which directly contradicts the ideas about postmodernism according to Jameson.  She further shines her postmodernism through the lens of structuralism/poststructuralism “in an extension of the meaning of ‘language’” (25) which finally brings her to the subject of architecture.

Architecture is suggested as the way that identity was reestablished in Europe following the Second World War, and the use of historical architectural forms helped with that reestablishment.  Now, under postmodernity, “parodic revisitations of the history of architecture interrogate the modernist totalizing ideal of progress through rationality and purist form” (25).  Still, there is some suspicion that this kind of parody relegates postmodern architecture to the so-called “mass culture of late capitalism” (25), which is code for “low culture,” a level of distinction that postmodern art seems to subvert, if not simply ignore.  Thus, architecture, though it had began to look quite distinct from the high modern architecture around the 1970s, began to parody high modernism even as it utilized new styles (26).  At this point, Hutcheon sees the need to define her use of the word “parody,” that is, “repetition with critical distance that allows ironic signalling of difference at the very heart of similarity” (26).  This is to say, parody does not ridicule, but in fact allows for critique, once again because parody causes postmodern art to be both historical and political.

In the next section of the chapter, Hutcheon is interested in discussing how modernism in architecture actually sought to control the “users of the buildings” (27).  After all, as she points out, architecture is fundamentally social.  A loss of faith in this attitude, according to Hutcheon has produced that which we see in postmodern architecture.  Still, the parody inherent in postmodern architecture can challenge this loss (29-30).  In so doing, this period of architecture actually contains what might be characterized as utopian potential, for, as Hutcheon puts it, it “open[s] things up to the possibility of the new” (31).  One way this is evident is by the fact that postmodern architecture “urges us to be active, not passive, viewers” (32).

In the final section of the chapter, Hutcheon continues her discussion of how parody can ascribe critical potential to postmodern architecture.  Still, this potential can be “élitist, if the codes necessary for its comprehension are not shared by both encoder and decoder” (Hutcheon 34).  For this reason, architects might be preoccupied with assuring decoders are in the know, and they try to meet such an assurance via the parodying of classical forms of architecture that are familiar.  To conclude, Hutcheon writes that “postmodern architecture seems . . . to be paradigmatic of our seeming need, in both artistic theory and practice, to investigate the relation of ideology and power to all of our present discursive structures,” which is why she uses it throughout the book (36).