PMC Logo


Volume 14, Number 1
September 2003

    Chris Bongie, Exiles on Main Stream: Valuing the Popularity of Postcolonial Literature

    • Abstract: This essay explores the problematic (lack of a) relation between postcolonial and cultural studies. It argues that the commitment to mass popular culture characteristic of so much work in cultural studies is one that is largely absent from postcolonial literary studies. If Jamaica Kincaid has nothing but contempt for the media star Roseanne (as related in the introductory pages of the essay), this hostility is not simply a sport of her querulous nature: counterintuitive as it might sound, her dismissive attitude exemplifies the "foundational bias" of postcolonial studies. The essay attempts to tease out this modernist bias against the "inauthentically popular" through several case studies, the first of which involves Tony Delsham, the most popular writer in the French Caribbean and yet one who is completely ignored by academic critics. The reason why this is so has much to do with the surreptitious elitism of postcolonial literary studies. In the second section, the essay introduces the concept of the "postcolonial middlebrow," arguing that the consecration of a novelist like Maryse Condé has gone hand-in-glove with a dogged refusal on the part of her academic readers to engage in any discussion of the middlebrow qualities of her work--qualities that help account for her popular appeal. The essay concludes by asserting a paradoxical double imperative for the postcolonial (literary) critic that entails both a concerted turn to cultural studies and a self-conscious return to literary studies, a thorough assimilation of the former's positive assumptions about the value of the popular and a cautious reassertion of the latter's necessarily doubtful, and doubtfully necessary, claims about the value of the aesthetic.--cb

    Christy L. Burns, Postmodern Historiography: Politics and the Parallactic Method in Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon

    • Abstract: In Mason & Dixon, Pynchon develops an important new method for postmodern political insight, introducing a parallactic method that allows him a dialectical representation of "America" as it was in the mid-to-late eighteenth century and as it is now, by various implications. In his use of parallax, Pynchon interweaves a critical representation of imperialism's oppressive practices with a history of science and exploration. While other writers have invoked parallax as a perspectival method in order to challenge univocal narrative form, Pynchon works the concept more radically into his fictional treatment of historiography. Avoiding any semblance of an apolitical sketch of the past--or simple didactic critique--he uses the same method that Mason and Dixon employed to chart the transits of Venus and to draw their boundary line, applying parallax to a series of triangulated views, starting with Mason's and Dixon's attempts to assess the New World and eventually delivering a temporal form of parallax, a synchronization of the past with the present. Pynchon's latest novel becomes his most political one, addressing social concerns such as racism, sexism, market culture, and agency. The novel critiques America's past (and by implication its present) while also recasting history, reinterpreting it in a way that might influence future trajectories. Pynchon continues his long-established interrogation of pragmatic America's optimism about agency, while invoking a larger cultural imaginary in search of a new national/cultural image. --clb

    Steve Helmling, Constellation and Critique: Adorno's Constellation, Benjamin's Dialectical Image

    • Abstract: This essay considers Adorno's theory and practice of "constellation," most centrally in relations both of influence and of tension with Walter Benjamin's practice of the "dialectical image." In later years, Adorno frequently ascribed to Benjamin's practice a "Medusa-gaze" that effectively petrified, or (telling ambivalence) exposed the always-already-petrified reification, of its ideological object; in this way, Benjamin's work aimed to evoke the baffled or arrested progress of modernity that he famously evoked in the phrase "dialectics at a standstill." This was a thematic Adorno prolonged, but from very early on, Adorno had misgivings about the effect of stasis that Benjamin's dialectical image as much reinforced as critiqued. The essay looks closely at various of Adorno's formulations about Benjamin as well as about such related matters as "immanent critique," Gestalt psychology, and Hölderlin's practice of "parataxis," to elicit the tensions in Adorno's thinking, over the course of his career, about the critical or dialectical mimesis necessarily obtaining between critique and its object (the representation of the object, the representation of the overcoming of the object). A particular focus here is narrative, a standard property of the type(s) of critique that Adorno meant to refuse; Adorno's "debate" with Lukàcs here appears as embodying the transition from "realism" to "modernism" that was the debate's ostensible theme. The essay closes with reflections on failed progress, or progress reverting to regress. Benjamin's "dialectics at a standstill" could be the apt formula, but also the fate from which Adorno and Horkheimer so desperately hope to redeem Enlightenment. --sh

    Peter Yoonsuk Paik, Smart Bombs, Serial Killing, and the Rapture: The Vanishing Bodies of Imperial Apocalypticism

    • Abstract: This essay considers the surge in apocalyptic imagery in American popular culture and politics after 9/11. It commences by contrasting the intellectual justifications for a new American imperialism (and a warlike foreign policy) among conservative thinkers, and the strange ideological partner of this neo-imperialism--the apocalypticism of the Christian fundamentalist Right. Examining the unprecedented historical phenomenon of an apocalypticism that endorses an imperialist politics, the essay analyzes the mass popularity of the Left Behind series of novels, which present a Christian fundamentalist scenario of catastrophes and genocidal bloodshed that will overtake the world with the rise of the Antichrist. The essay goes on to argue that the form of spirituality behind this imperial apocalypticism is not Christian in nature but Gnostic, taking up Harold Bloom's provocative thesis from The American Religion. The second half of the essay focuses upon the Gnostic reworkings of the dilemmas of faith and belief, such as the story of Abraham's sacrifice, in the recent Hollywood films Signs (2002) and Frailty (2001). The latter film, argues the author, depicts serial killing as a religiously sanctioned act of violence that is at the same time surgical, rendering in literal terms the rhetoric of President Bush's war on terror as a struggle of those who respect innocent life against "evil." However, the critical force of such a representation is limited because the film belongs to a new tendency in cinematic narrative that the essay calls "post-ironic," in which the most outrageous perspective raised by the narrative becomes validated by its conclusion. --pyp

    Leonard Wilcox, Baudrillard, September 11, and the Haunting Abyss of Reversal

    • Abstract: In his recent The Spirit of Terrorism, Baudrillard argues that the events of 9/11 represented an irreducible, singular symbolic challenge to the West. Yet some have argued that the West merely absorbed this symbolic challenge into media spectacle. This essay argues against such a proposition. It turns its attention to Baudrillard's "middle works" on terrorism, and their relation to the events of 9/11. These works focus on the West's orders of simulation (and terrorism's response to them), yet they also indicate Baudrillard's continuing preoccupation with symbolic exchange as an ineluctable force that persists, haunting an indifferent, hyperreal order. The events following 9/11 suggest the validity of Baudrillard's contention, for the West's claim to a universal code is troubled and unsettled by the aftereffects of calamitous and seismic symbolic violence. --lw

    Copyright (c) 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996, 1995, 1994, 1993, 1992, 1991, 1990 Postmodern Culture & the Johns Hopkins University Press.