Linda Hutcheon: Reading Notes, Chapters 5 and 6

By Mamoun Alzoubi & Jessica Goodrich

Chapters 5 & 6

In chapter five, Hutcheon set forth Reiss’ analytical-referential discourse, which deals with language as a system that echoes logic of reason and organization of the world. This proposition assumes language as a self-sufficient entity that is harmonious with reason and the outside world and can be interpreted according to the laws of reason. However, Hutcheon emphasize that model of discourse suppress “the enunciating subject” (74). The enunciating act is becoming of great importance in science, philosophy and art; and in postmodern discourse it subverts the objectivity of discourse and language as independent identity that can be decoded by reason. Reiss’ view of discourse is an attempt to totalize (unify to control). It tries to show that language has definite closed meaning.

Historiographic metafiction defies this model through activating the role of the enunciative act and situating it with broader historical, political as well as intertextual context.  The importance the enunciating act started since Jakobson’s model of communication that emphasize that the meaning is context-bound and the significant role of “ circumstances surrounding any utterance” (75). This model of communication liberates the “ individual humanist subject” as the producer of “ a situated discourse” (75), which become the center of attention. Language is, therefore no longer self-sufficient signifying system rather it yields meaning by context and by who is speaking stressing the time, place and reason of speaking.

The emphasis on the enunciating act calls into question the notion of the author and the “originating author” (76). Barthes denies the presence of the original author that provides fixed meaning to the text. Instead, Barthes argues that there is “ a textual Scriptor” (76) who creates the text and its meaning at the time of reading: “ every text is eternally written here and now” (qtd. in Hutcheon 76). In other words, it is the role of the reader that Barthes activates and thus the reader becomes the virtual writer of the text and the activator of its meaning. According to postmodern thought, the original authorative meaning does not exist anymore and meaning is generated through the process of production at the time of enunciation. The focus is shifted to the interactive powers of production and reception of the text; the reader becomes collaborator instead of a consumer.

Furthermore, Hutcheon supports her discussion with Bakhtin’s view of the sign as a social construct that has to be connected to a situation in order to give meaning. In postmodernist discourse, process, context and enunciative situation are stressed and thus it urges to consider “discourse or language ‘in use’” (82). While structuralism focuses on langue, postmodernism emphasizes parole and the enunciating subject as a generator of parole.

In spite of emphasizing it, postmodernism puts subjectivity under the spot; it raises some problems of the subject and attempts to redefine the self which is no longer independent entity. The self, hence, gains meaning in relation to others. In addition, Hutcheon highlights the problematizing notion of the enunciating subject in postmodern texts. In Doctorow’s Ragtime, there is no center of consciousness; fragmentation and replication challenges the idea of the subject as coherent and continuous. In The Book of Daiel, on the other hand, the subject lacks “uniqueness and individuality” (84). In addition to fragmentation and discontinuity, the subject appears to be social and political lacking the sense of “private I” (84).

Postmodernism challenges modernism and structuralism through shifting the focus from the text to the enunciating process and context. However, even though the enunciating subject gains importance in postmodern text, it is viewed as public, fragmentary and discontinuous. There is always skepticism towards the claim to truth or totalizing system. In terms of the self, there is not always subject position from which to speak, as the subject is simply a construction of language and culture: “[a] self does not amount to much, but no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before” (qtd. in Hutcheon 83). One cannot maintain a static self, as it is always in flux. Any system that reduces human subjectivity and the self to neat, tight categories of being is unreliable. There is no longer any cohesive, coherent or totalizing narrative. Truth is not universal, but local.

In Hutcheon’s Chapter 6 of A Poetics of Postmodernism, she focuses on “Historicizing the Postmodern: Problematizing of History.” Hutcheon begins the chapter by highlighting the problem: “the detractors of postmodernism” view the movement as “ahistorical” (87). She goes on to say that history itself seems to come up again and again as a problem, and that must be because it is “inevitably tied up with that set of challenged cultural and social assumptions that also condition our notions of both theory and art today” (87). Among this “set” that influences our view of history, she lists ideologies about “origins and ends, unity, and totalization, logic and reason, consciousness and human nature, progress and fate, representation and truth… causality and temporal homogeneity, linearity, and continuity” (87). In other words, people seem to be tied to their ideologies about the world, life, and humanity which in turn colors their views of what history is. As an answer to these critics of postmodernism, Hutcheon presents several provisional possibilities.

Unlike modernism, Hutcheon asserts, postmodernism “has chosen to face straight on” (88) “the nightmare of history” (88). Whereas modernism might employ history in order to “search for a more secure and universal value system” (88), postmodernism views “both history and fiction [as] discourses, that both constitute systems of signification by which we make sense of the past” (89). Postmodernists do not “deny historical knowledge” (88). However, they would suggest that people look at the “systems” which have made “those past ‘events’ into present historical ‘facts’” (89). In this way, postmodernism seeks to recognize how human ideologies and “constructs” create meaning within the world (89).

While acknowledging “historical contexts as significant and even determining” (89), postmodern historicism seeks to “critically and contextually” (88) examine these “facts” for the “forms, contexts, and values of the past” (89) without allowing nostalgia and presuppositions to taint its critique. Where nostalgia is included in fiction, “it is always ironically turned against itself” (89), and Hutcheon includes an example from Doctorow to illustrate her point. She claims that postmodern works, like Doctorow’s, dispute art’s right to utilize and create “timeless universal values” (90). Postmodernism seems to be suspicious of anything (any art, work, value, historical context, etc.) that is unified or promotes unity of thought, contesting this unity in favor of “multiplicity and disparity” (90).

“Postmodern history, theory, and art share certain concerns” (90) in that history cannot always be trusted because of its similarity to fiction in the way it is written, including “teleology, causality, and continuity” (90). Postmodernists take into account the “powers and limitations of the writing” (90) of the past, and thus take a provisional and ironic view of that history (90). The postmodernist must be aware that “all signs change with time” (90), so that he can view the past while being aware of the subjectivities which color his view as well as the view of the person who wrote the history (90). This suspicion of history brought about “New Historicism” in literary theory (91).

New literary history, thanks to the “pioneering work of Marxists, feminists, gays, blacks, and ethic theorists” (91), examines the ideologies and institutions behind the history, “including the act of writing itself” (91). Postmodern fiction points out the motives and ideals behind the history represented, and then “leaves the readers to judge for themselves” (91). The use of history within this fiction intentionally confronts the “implied assumptions of historical statements: objectivity, neutrality, impersonality, and transparency of representation” (92). This leaves the reader with no “sure ground upon which to base representation and narration, in either historiography or fiction” (92). In this way, postmodernism investigates the question of “how we can and do come to have knowledge of the past” (92), and it seems to be through “imaginative reconstruction of [historical method] called historiography” (Gottschalk qtd. in Hutcheon 92).

Postmodern historiographic metafiction, then, acknowledges that the only claim we have to historical “truth” is in its “textualized form: documents, eye-witness accounts, archives” (93) because we can no longer access the “real” that once was.

The “strategies deployed to collect, record, and narrate evidence” (95) for historical “fact” also come under debate. Assuming “that the past can be accurately captured” (95), historians typically estrange their study from the writing of literature because they do not want their “reality” tainted with the imaginative qualities of fiction (95). “The way in which history is written has, of course, come under considerable scrutiny” (95) as historiography attempts to grapple with “the formerly excluded” or “ex-centric” (95) pasts of marginalized groups “(women, class, gays, ethnic and racial minorities, and so on)” (95). Hutcheon gives an example of this within historiographic metafiction in Christa Wolf’s Cassandra (95).

Narrative writings of historical accounts do not negate the validity of the history, but seeks to find the significance of the past for the present (96). These narratives often present a “pluralist… view of historiography as consisting of … the textualized remains… of the past” (96).  Here, Hutcheon refers to Foucault and Derrida as the background for “our postmodern rethinking of the relation between the past and our writing of it” (96). She submits that Derrida’s “trace” (97) connects past events to the present, often through “narrative positioning” (97). “Historiography, according to Derrida, is always teleological” (97), as is fiction (97), but “the difference in postmodern fiction” (97) is that it is conscious of its own teleological nature and realizes that it is provisional (97). “Historians are now being urged to take the contexts of their own inevitably interpretive act into account” (97) because “the writing, reception, and ‘critical reading’ of narratives” (97) are inevitably tied into the powers of the time (98).

Hayden White presents the question of current historians: “How are the facts to be described in order to sanction one mode of explaining them rather than another?” (qtd. in Hutcheon 99). Like in literary theory, history struggles to divide criticism from “philosophy of history or literary theory” (99). The problems of “historical knowledge and the semiotic notion of language” (99) reiterate themselves again and again throughout “theory, history, [and] artistic practice” (99), and seem to overlap each other (100).

Finally, Hutcheon asserts that “the formalist and the historical live side by side, but there is no dialectic” (100), and “the unresolved tensions of postmodern aesthetic practice remain… contradictions” (100). We, as readers, have to be willing to accept “problematic and doubled texts” (100) if we desire to become “non-totalizing” (101).

Works Cited

Hutcheon, Linda.  The Poetics of Postmodernism.  New York:  Routeledge, 1988: 74-101.