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Innovation: Notes on Nihilism and the Aesthetics of the Novel

 Originally Appeared in: The Novel Vol. 2: Forms and Themes | Published: 2007

Can we define innovation in the novel? It obviously has something to do with modernism and postmodernism. The idea of modernism implies innovation: Make it new. II faut etre absolument moderne. The idea of postmodernism— after, beyond, newer than the new—also implies innovation. A bad start on definitions.

Opposing ways out of this confusion have been proposed by Peter Burger, Fredric Jameson, and Jean-Frangois Lyotard. According to Burger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde, the early twentieth-century avant-gardes were genuinely innovative because they challenged the separation of art and life, until modernism institutionalized innovation and thereby killed it. He answers the confusion with a historical paradox: earlier artists made it new, newer artists do not. After futurism and surrealism, twentieth-century art is the afterglow or half-life of a failed project. Burger mounts a principled defense of this position. But that is the problem, for to evaluate our era’s art on the basis of the principle of fusing art and life assumes that the intellectual-aesthetic powers of the contemporary critic have somehow escaped the intellectual-aesthetic fate of contemporary artists. It is doubtful.

Jameson arrives at a similar embarrassment in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, starting out from the perspective that realism, modernism, and postmodernism correspond to the phases of capitalism, respectively: industrial, imperialist, and global (or developing, developed, and late ). He preserves both the later Lukacs’s understanding of realism: the realist novel represents, despite ideological refractions, the total class structure of society, as well as Adorno’s understanding of modernism: the modernist work represents, negatively, the individual’s estranged relation to the (now hidden) truth of the social totality. Jameson then looks to adduce the comparable relation between late capitalism and postmodern art. As consumer society drives individuals ever further into the privatized world of commodities and as globalization disperses economic exploitation beyond anyone s tangible grasp, art begins to lose its very ability to represent. Insofar as postmodernism merely relishes the loss of representation, it is the symptom (the cultural dominant”) of this historical process. Can there then be a postmodern art that matches the knowledge embodied in Lukacs s realism and the negative protest of Adorno’s modernism? In answering that question, Jameson puts himself as literary critic in a position as awkward as Burger’s: rather than criticizing his society through the literature it produces, he calls for a literature that would represent the society he already, in theory, knows: “the new political art (if it is possible at all) will have to hold to the truth of postmodernism, that is to say to its fundamental object—the world space of multinational capital—at the same time as it achieves a breakthrough to some unimaginable new mode of representing this last.” Critics have frequently stimulated new artistic movements by denouncing the limitations of existing ones, but Jameson’s call for the missing aesthetic of “global cognitive mapping” is epochal in scope. It is deduced from his theoretical premise about the nature of late capitalism and its “cultural dominant.” Is the missing aesthetic a utopian-critical hypothesis or the alibi of the original premise? The issue is at best undecidable.

Lyotard, in contrast to Burger and Jameson, sees permanent avant-garde revolution everywhere, right up through postmodernism: genuine art continually negates what came before. He revives the spirit of early-twentiethcentury formalism’s account of the avant-garde’s defamiliarization of conventions

and breaks with tradition. Art pursues “the unpresentable” and “dissension”—on principle. Since artworks do eventually become understood by a public (that is, become “institutionalized” in Burger’s sense), Lyotard solves the innovation puzzle with a purely logical rather than historical paradox: every genuine artwork is postmodern before it is modern, the post/modern always precedes the modern. Reliance on a singular principle or logic of artistic innovation leads to impasse, impasses that are all the more striking in these three theorists because their work is otherwise filled with interpretive insights and guided by deeply thought-out historical and aesthetic perspectives. This fact underscores how troublesome, and seductive, the keywords avant-garde, modernism, and postmodernism truly are. Meanwhile, journalistic as well as scholarly literary criticism now dispenses with the complexity and contradictoriness of aesthetic trends and typically divides the past century of literature into a modern” and a “postmodern” half. Before the divide, literature affirms the self, aesthetic unity, and Enlightenment; afterward, it does not. The modern is foundationals, totalizing, and universalist; the postmodern is not. An era of criticism that began under the inspiration of Derrida, Barthes, and de Man by excoriating binary oppositions and sneering at linear narratives today uses a half-dozen binaries and two periods to sum up all of twentieth-century art.

The modernist/postmodernist plot thoroughly distorts the history of the novel and the state of contemporary world fiction. Our era’s fiction does not fall into two symmetrical halves; it unfurls in dizzying spirals of modern epics and language experiments, surrealisms and realisms, colonialist adventures and postcolonial tragedies, male mythologies and feminist rewritings, fictional autobiographies and documentary novels, not to mention the steady flow of romances, detective stories, and science fiction.

The reigning view of the novel tells, instead, a tidy little story: in the beginning was realism (naive nineteenth-century representations of vulgar social reality); in the middle was modernism; in the end, postmodernism. Antirealism becomes the defining feature of twentieth-century fiction: modernism supersedes realistic representations with stream-of-consciousness and formalistic rigor, and then postmodernism fractures or deconstructs representation, consciousness, and form. Accordingly, innovation removes the novel ever farther from realism.

But is any of this true?

The most important developments and innovations in recent fiction have come from novelists like Christa Wolf, Toni Morrison, Giinter Grass, Milan Kundera, Norman Mailer, Carlos Fuentes, Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk, and Nadine Gordimer. The imperatives of realism—to illuminate individual life histories in the flow of collective histories, to represent how time and impersonal forces move through individual experience and intimate relationships, to assess the boundaries of moral action—are manifest across these writers diverse projects and varied styles. The realist imperative is ingrained in the very innovations that get labeled “modernist” or “postmodernist.” Take Morrison. She incorporates reconstructed folk narratives, disjointed narrative voices, and layered temporalities not in order to overthrow realism but to get at the shape of experiences belonging to very precise times and places: a segregated community in northern Ohio in the early 1960s on the cusp of its awareness of the civil rights movement in Song of Solomon-, an isolated community of escaped slaves in southern Ohio in the 1850s under the regime of the Fugitive Slave Law in Beloved-, the streets and apartments of 1920s Harlem in the grip of migration and renaissance in Jazz; a black township in Oklahoma in the 1970s whose century-long memories and mythologies are torn apart by incoming fragments of Vietnam, the counterculture, and Black Power in Paradise.

My thesis, then: realism and innovation are a double imperative in the contemporary novel. To rethink what is meant by innovation in light of this thesis will require a skeptical reconsideration, though not a wholesale rejection, of all the other keywords in the discussion: modernism, postmodernism, avant-garde, modernity. I will return to these terms intermittently as I try to measure contemporary theory against the artistic achievements of the contemporary novel.

First, though, it is necessary to clarify how I understand the realist imperative of the novel. Forget the commonplace that what makes a novel realistic is its intent to mirror a stable reality. That idea has never been more than a caricature of the aesthetic of nineteenth-century realism. It helped justify the twentieth-century novel’s new points of departure; it seemed to explain the stakes, for example, when the author of Dubliners undertook to write Ulysses. But realism never was a mirror, and reality was hardly more stable in the nineteenth century than today. When Stendhal famously said that a novel is a mirror moving down a roadway, his metaphor had nothing to do with picturing a stable reality. On the contrary, it evoked the upheaval, mobility, and uncertainty of social life and called upon the novel to find the artistic means of referring to that unstable reality.

Novels do not reproduce reality; they refer to it, with deep awareness of its elusiveness. Novelists are also atuned to the myriad other discourses that refer to reality, whether to flee it or master it: the discourses of romance, myth, religion, ideology, science. Novels thus make reference to reality by making reference to other discourses. That was Mikhail Bakhtin s great insight. There are only angles on reality. The perspectivalism that modern thought thinks it inherited from Nietzsche has been the vocation of the novel since its modern rebirth in Rabelais, Cervantes, and Grimmelshausen. (That Nietzsche disdained the novel as an empiricist illusion of the modern herd mentality is another story, a very intriguing one.) Even the most private perspectives intersect with shared ones, whether those of classes or sects, scientists or ideologues, parties or subcultures, believers or infidels. The novel is charged with disclosing the individual’s fateful encounters at those crossroads. Its vocation ultimately arises perhaps from its impossible dual allegiance to skepticism and imagination; the novelist invents worlds to unmask the world. Yeats was as unreceptive to the novel as Nietzsche, and probably for the same reasons, but the calling he attributed to art in general surely fits the novel’s demystifying, questioning, fabricating, perspectival habits: against the rhetorician’s deceptions and the sentimentalists self-deceptions, the novel “is but a vision of reality.”…

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