Linda Hutcheon: Reading Notes, Chapters 9 and 10

By Kelly Codding and Darla Goodroad

Chapters 9 & 10

In Chapter 9 of Linda Hutcheon’s A Poetics of Postmodernism, entitled “The Problem of Reference,” there is indeed a debate about reference in regards to postmodernism.  Hutcheon calls this a “productive problematizing” of reference in relating language to reality, since all objects and thoughts are “grounded in representation” (Hutcheon 141).  The focus is on reference in relation to history and fiction, which are linked, and Hutcheon describes historiographic metafiction as “resolutely fictive yet undeniably historical” (Hutcheon 142).  It “could never refer to any actual empirical world, but merely to another text” (Hutcheon 143).  Thus the writing of history is problematic, with reference supporting “what history refers to is the actual, real world; what fiction refers to is a fictive universe” (Hutcheon 142).  Postmodern fiction is separate from history as the “real world” but relies heavily on history as intertext, a “discursive construct upon which fiction draws as easily as it does upon other texts of literature” (Hutcheon 142).   There is no limit to what postmodernists may do with varying types of reference, when history is intertextual.

Furthermore, for metafiction, “all referents are fictive” and therefore can “direct us, instead, to facts, or to new directions in which to think about events” (Hutcheon 153-154).

Thrown into this is Hayden White’s ideas about history as a narrative.  Hutcheon paraphrases White when she asserts that history “is unaviodable figurative, allegorical, fictive; it is always already textualized, always already interpreted” and also that “only by narrativizing the past will we accept it as ‘true’” (Hutcheon 143).  This idea, from my perspective, is an argument for all historical fiction, not just postmodernist texts.  What constitutes true history, since even eyewitness accounts are often just an individual’s interpretation of their own reality?

Hutcheon quotes White’s idea that truth “wears the mask of meaning, the completeness and fullness of which we can only imagine, never experience” (Hutcheon 143).  The problem of reference then becomes one of linguistic signs and representations (Hutcheon 144).  Literature, therefore, paradoxically uses and challenges signs and representations.  However, the difference between postmodernist and modernist reference is that the postmodernist reference has an “overt acknowledgement of the existence, if relative inaccessibility, of the past real (except through discourse)” (Hutcheon 146).  Everything is filtered through our perspective and connotations, and thus there is a “relative inaccessibility of any reality” (Hutcheon 146).

Many other schools of thought are included in Hutcheon’s analysis on reference.  She mentions analytic philosophy, which asserts that “reference is central to the philosophical debate between ‘realism’ and ‘nominalism’ in both fictive and ordinary language discourses” (Hutcheon 147).   If the ideas in every reference exist only as names, then, as Hutcheon paraphases Frege, “imaginary or fictive terms could have no reference—only sense—because they do not pose questions about truth or falsehood”  and  “could aim only at aesthetic delight, not knowledge” (Hutcheon 147).  Thus there is a “‘denial of truth-value’” (Hutcheon 147).  The other influential idea about reference that Hutcheon deals with is Saussurian structuralism, which “accepts that language is a structure of signifying relations between words and concepts, rather than between words and things” (Hutcheon 148).  Therefore, when reading historical texts, “meaning can be derived only from within texts through deferral” (Hutcheon 149).   The relationship between words and meanings is arbitrary and fixed in language and we derive meaning through a logical sequence.  Since “language is a system of signs, of signifiers and signifieds,” the referent is no longer relevant; it “is not necessarily immediately accessible through knowledge” (Hutcheon 148).  Therefore all texts should be questioned, for the interpreted facts that give us meaning can be separated from the actual events; they may or may not be  accurate, and if they are valid, they may be true just for some and not for others (Hutcheon 149).  To take this one step further, Hutcheon paraphrases Lyotard when she asserts that “language does not articulate the meaning of the world; it constantly excludes what it tries to grasp” (Hutcheon 150).

For historiographic metafiction, Hutcheon gives us five types of reference: intra-textual reference, self-reference, inter-textual reference, texualized extra-textual reference and hermeneutic reference (Hutcheon 154).  All of these references can be used or discarded, combined or separated, and for postmodernists there is a term that Hutcheon borrows from Norris, “referential agnosticism” (Hutcheon 157). Thus the use of references is “always self-reflexive; they may be mutually contradictory at times; they may raise more questions than they answer” (Hutcheon 157).  The first type of reference is intra-textual, in which the language deals with “the universe of reality of fiction,” but is based on experience (Hutcheon 154-155).  The second idea of self-reference can also be called “auto-representation,” and contains the idea that language isn’t connected to reality, but to itself (Hutcheon 155).  The third idea, inter-textual, is closely linked to the fourth, the textualized extratextual (Hutcheon 155).  While the former looks within the reference as intertext, the latter is “historiography as presentation of fact, as the textualized tracing of event” (Hutcheon 156).  The last is hermeneutic, which, when dealing with interpretation, it is not just textual, because we can never really separate ourselves from the process (Hutcheon 156).

Hutcheon spends quite a bit of time on the idea of reference as hermeneutics, which is the science of interpretation.  The text is not stable, but it gives us clues to our interpretation. You are looking at a moment, but the entire whole does not need to be there to make a judgment.  Thus according to Hutcheon, the “postmodernist’s text’s self-conscious return to the performative process and to the entirety of the enunciative act demands that the reader, the you, not be left out, even when dealing with the question of reference” (Hutcheon 156).  Once again, we are led back to the postmodern idea that the text, and the references, can have multiple meanings, to multiple readers.

If the reader cannot be left out of the text and reference is not a fixed, stable entity, then the modernist goal of a universal subject is, in postmodernism, dissolved—or at least complicated.  Postmodern American Fiction, A Norton Anthology defines the role of the subject—“the preferred critical term for the ‘self’” (Geyh et. al., xxv)—in postmodern fiction as “fragmented and contingent…less self than an intersection of fluctuating subject positions within languages, cultures, and social structures” (Geyh st. al., xxvi).  Unlike in modernist fiction, where the subject was considered a whole entity, or at least a single entity with a Freudian conscious and unconscious (Geyh et. al., xxv), postmodernism allows for a less concrete view of the subject, and therefore a greater potential for exploration and a deconstruction of traditional subjectivities.

In Chapter 10 of A Poetics of Postmodernism, “Subject in/of/to History and His Story,” Hutcheon tackles what Jameson refers to as this “fragmentation and death of the subject” (Hutcheon 158).  She asserts that postmodernism does not deny the subject, but instead problematizes it by recognizing differences.  She quotes Derrida as saying, “The subject is absolutely indispensible.  I don’t destroy the subject; I situate it” (Hutcheon 159).  Beginning the discussion with the establishment of subjectivity by point of view, she talks about how historiographic metafiction undermines the subject’s stability, as it is supposed to exist in the traditional realist novel (Hutcheon 160).

The Postmodern American Fiction, A Norton Anthology claims this problematizing of the subject is one important aspect of postmodernism, which “exchanged the authority and certitude of previous cultural periods for a pragmatic skepticism that pursues diffuse and open-ended explanations for what was previously believed to be a unified phenomenon” (Geyh et. al., xxvi).  Hutcheon mentions Benveniste’s “Subjectivity in Language”—how language is a tool by which the subject is constituted.  Benveniste says that “Subjectivity is the fundamental property of language” (Hutcheon 168).  We can only express our concept of self through language.  Hutcheon says this could lead to an “aesthetic privileging of language,” as in modernism, a focus on craft and on the depth of what is going on in a character’s mind; in postmodern theory and practice, however, the focus is on “language as discourse” (Hutcheon 168).  The “signs, signifiers, and signifieds” we use to express our identity are culturally constructed (Hutcheon 148).

In addition, Hutcheon calls to attention the intersection of “feminist poststructuralist theory and postmodernist critique,” both of which challenge and undermine the cultural “gaze” (much referred to in feminist critique, the patriarchal cultural view through which we filter our perceptions of the subject) which she applies not only to gender, but also historiography (Hutcheon 165).  So, in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Padma’s constant questioning of Saleem leads to a destabilization not only of the male-centric narrative, but also of the narrative wholeness—undermining not only Saleem’s gendered subjectivity, but also the concept of Saleem’s wholeness as a person and through him, the wholeness of the historiographic narrative he is trying to accomplish.  In The White Hotel, “What we learn as readers when we struggle with the contradictions of Lisa’s inscribed subjectivity is that in interpreting the novel we too are engaged in a historically and socially constituted, gendered subjectivity” (Hutcheon 174).  In postmodernist fiction, the self-reflexive structure of the work is aware of being a construction based in cultural assumptions and ideologies, whether of gender or ethnicity, and strives to make the reader aware also.

Hutcheon quotes Silverman as saying, “We cannot isolate language from discourse or discourse from subjectivity,” and paraphrases deLaurentis when she says, “The reader can have no other identity than as subject of those discursive practices” (Hutcheon 169).  So postmodernism’s self-reflexivity and awareness that it exists in a culturally defined discourse—Derrida’s “situating” of the subject—makes the reader aware of his/her participation in the construction of meaning.  By engaging with the multiple, fragmented, questioned, or problematized points of view in postmodern fiction, the reader cannot identify with one subjectivity, and has to confront their own notions of what constitutes self in relation to the discourse.

Postmodernism’s simultaneous use and undermining of both reference and subjectivity allow for the destabilizing of the cultural and ideological filters through which we as readers view our reality: through the problematizing of the subject, the reader is forced to question his or her concept of self—both the characters’ or his or her own; through the complication of reference, the reader is shown how to question his or her concept of history and relation to the outside world.


Geyh, Paula, Fred G. Leebron, and Andrew Levy.  Postmodern American Fiction, A Norton Anthology.  New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1998.

Hutcheon, Linda.  A Poetics of Postmodernism.  New York:  Routeledge, 1988.