English 645: Postmodern Fiction

The Politics of the Unpresentable
 Professor Joseph Conte

Spring 2004

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In one of the foundational documents of an "anti-foundationalist" postmodernism, Jean-François Lyotard argues that the postmodern is an aesthetics of the unpresentable, a form of the sublime, in which new modes of presentation are constantly sought for that which is finally ineffable. Such is the case in the fiction of Kathy Acker, who seeks to arrive at a place, a society in Empire of the Senseless, that exists beyond taboo, that isn't "constructed according to the phallus," that is wholly outside of the patriarchy. The work of Don DeLillo describes the irony of our media ecology, in which the saturation of archived, broadcast, and electronic information miserably fails to explain the iridescent sheen of the Airborne Toxic Disaster in White Noise or the events in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963 in Libra. William Gaddis satirizes our continued attachment to elaborate systems that have ceased to conform to empirical observation: the churning of a finance market that bears increasingly little relation to the demands of labor in J R; and the practice of law without recourse to justice in A Frolic of His Own.

Nevertheless, Fredric Jameson has proposed that there has been a "waning of affect," or dedifferentiation, in the expressions of postmodernism, from the visual arts to literature. But the suggestion that postmodern fiction, particularly the brand that has tirelessly sought new modes of presentation, has lapsed into a degree zero of political critique is not borne out by the work we will read. Acker's Blood and Guts in High School and Great Expectations wage a terrorist campaign across the political spectrum, excoriating (and worse) "fascist" anti-pornographers, "empathetic" abortion-providers, and Plath's "Daddy" in any disguise. DeLillo's Underworld recognizes that waste management is the paradigmatic occupation in our disposable consumer economy and that the underclass-human disposability-is the most egregious form of waste.

To supplement the eight novels mentioned here, we will read some excerpts from the statements on postmodern theory by Lyotard, Jameson, and Baudrillard, as well as a number of critical assessments of the fiction by Ellen Friedman, Tom LeClair, Paul Maltby, Frank Lentricchia, and others.

Seminar participants who are registered intensively will be required to make a twenty-minute oral presentation and produce a twenty-page research paper.

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Last revised on Tuesday, December 16, 2004.

Copyright 2004 Joseph M. Conte. All Rights Reserved.