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88

Postmodernist Metafiction: John Barth

4
terms
7
notes

about Barth's problematic metafiction, analysed in light of Derrida's strategy of deconstruction

Pieter den Dulk, A. (2014). Postmodernist Metafiction: John Barth. In Pieter den Dulk, A. Existentialist Engagement in Wallace, Eggers and Foer: A Philosophical Analysis of Contemporary American Literature. Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 88-108

88

'Oh God comma I abhor self-consciousness.' This sentence from John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse is emblematic of the reflexive irony of Barth's fiction: it professes an aversion to self-reflectivity, while actually wallowing in it. [...]

—p.88 by Allard Pieter den Dulk 2 years, 4 months ago

'Oh God comma I abhor self-consciousness.' This sentence from John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse is emblematic of the reflexive irony of Barth's fiction: it professes an aversion to self-reflectivity, while actually wallowing in it. [...]

—p.88 by Allard Pieter den Dulk 2 years, 4 months ago
88

[...] These two literary trends can be seen to represent the two senses in which the term postmodernism is most often employed: on the one hand, a theoretical postmodernism, signifying a predominantly 'academic' problematization and subversion of beliefs considered to be central to modernist thought or Western thought in general; and on the other hand, a popular postmodernism, referring to a broader societal situation, namely, the widely shared perception of reality as having become uncertain and devoid of value. [...]

Barth and Ellis, respectively

—p.88 by Allard Pieter den Dulk 2 years, 4 months ago

[...] These two literary trends can be seen to represent the two senses in which the term postmodernism is most often employed: on the one hand, a theoretical postmodernism, signifying a predominantly 'academic' problematization and subversion of beliefs considered to be central to modernist thought or Western thought in general; and on the other hand, a popular postmodernism, referring to a broader societal situation, namely, the widely shared perception of reality as having become uncertain and devoid of value. [...]

Barth and Ellis, respectively

—p.88 by Allard Pieter den Dulk 2 years, 4 months ago

part (taken) for the whole

90

To label this literary trend 'metafiction' is a pars pro toto, symbolic of its larger postmodernist project of unveiling artificiality and problematizing reality.

—p.90 by Allard Pieter den Dulk
confirm
2 years, 4 months ago

To label this literary trend 'metafiction' is a pars pro toto, symbolic of its larger postmodernist project of unveiling artificiality and problematizing reality.

—p.90 by Allard Pieter den Dulk
confirm
2 years, 4 months ago
90

The historical period we are living through has been singularly uncertain, insecure, self-questioning and culturally pluralistic. Contemporary fiction clearly reflects this dissatisfaction with, and breakdown of, traditional values. Previously, as in the case of nineteenth-century realism, the forms of fiction derived from a firm belief in a commonly experienced, objectively existing world of history. Modernist fiction, written in the earlier part of this century, responded to the initial loss of belief in such a world. [...] Contemporary metafictional writing is both a response and a contribution to an even more thoroughgoing sense that reality or history are provisional: no longer a world of eternal verities but a series of constructions, artifices, impermanent structures.

This 'thoroughgoing' awareness of the 'provisional', 'constructed' character of reality and history is expressed, according to Brian McHale, by a shift from mainly 'epistemological' questions as the 'dominant' (the position from which the world is interrogated) of the previous literary period, for example 'How can I interpret this world of which I am part?', to mainly 'ontological' questions, for example 'what and how is this world?,' as the `dominant' of the new trend of metafictional literature. This shift in the literary interrogation of the world is equated by Waugh, Federman and McHale to the shift from modernist to postmodernist literature. Therefore, this literary trend is often labelled as 'postmodernist metafiction' (which is also the term that Wallace uses).

quoted from Waugh's Metafiction (book 49)

—p.90 by Patricia Waugh 2 years, 4 months ago

The historical period we are living through has been singularly uncertain, insecure, self-questioning and culturally pluralistic. Contemporary fiction clearly reflects this dissatisfaction with, and breakdown of, traditional values. Previously, as in the case of nineteenth-century realism, the forms of fiction derived from a firm belief in a commonly experienced, objectively existing world of history. Modernist fiction, written in the earlier part of this century, responded to the initial loss of belief in such a world. [...] Contemporary metafictional writing is both a response and a contribution to an even more thoroughgoing sense that reality or history are provisional: no longer a world of eternal verities but a series of constructions, artifices, impermanent structures.

This 'thoroughgoing' awareness of the 'provisional', 'constructed' character of reality and history is expressed, according to Brian McHale, by a shift from mainly 'epistemological' questions as the 'dominant' (the position from which the world is interrogated) of the previous literary period, for example 'How can I interpret this world of which I am part?', to mainly 'ontological' questions, for example 'what and how is this world?,' as the `dominant' of the new trend of metafictional literature. This shift in the literary interrogation of the world is equated by Waugh, Federman and McHale to the shift from modernist to postmodernist literature. Therefore, this literary trend is often labelled as 'postmodernist metafiction' (which is also the term that Wallace uses).

quoted from Waugh's Metafiction (book 49)

—p.90 by Patricia Waugh 2 years, 4 months ago

(noun) fiction which refers to or takes as its subject fictional writing and its conventions

90

Patricia Waugh defines it as follows: 'Metafiction is a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality.'

quoting Waugh's book called Metafiction lol

—p.90 by Allard Pieter den Dulk
notable
2 years, 4 months ago

Patricia Waugh defines it as follows: 'Metafiction is a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality.'

quoting Waugh's book called Metafiction lol

—p.90 by Allard Pieter den Dulk
notable
2 years, 4 months ago
92

Postmodernist metafictional writing, by reflecting on itself, that is, by showing how it is structured, how it has come into being, openly displays its artificial character [...] In doing so, these works expressly deny that they are trying to project a reality by offering a credible story. These metafictional texts pierce their own illusionary reality (and thereby, that of other pieces of fiction) by revealing the artificiality that underlies it. Such a text, writes Waugh, 'lays bare its rules in order to investigate the relation of "fiction" to "reality", the concept of "pretence"'. '[I]t systematically disturbs the air of reality by foregrounding the ontological structure of texts and of fictional worlds,' writes McHale: 'we are left facing the words on the page: this happens again and again in postmodernist writing, [...] our attention is distracted from the projected world and made to fix on its linguistic medium'. This 'disturbance' of the 'air of reality' is meant to contribute to an awareness of the fact that what we regard, outside literary texts, as our normal, unproblematic everyday reality, is likewise a fictional, artificial construct. McHale speaks of 'destabilizing the ontology of this projected world and simultaneously laying bare the process of work construction'.

The reflexive-ironic nature of postmodernist metafiction is clear: its essential operation is a constant ironic self-distancing through the self-conscious unveiling of its own structures. This strategy has an idealistic purpose: it wants to unmask the illusions that we regard as reality.

so this irony is aimed at liberation, and is important and necessary in its own right, but you need something afterwards!

—p.92 by Allard Pieter den Dulk 2 years, 4 months ago

Postmodernist metafictional writing, by reflecting on itself, that is, by showing how it is structured, how it has come into being, openly displays its artificial character [...] In doing so, these works expressly deny that they are trying to project a reality by offering a credible story. These metafictional texts pierce their own illusionary reality (and thereby, that of other pieces of fiction) by revealing the artificiality that underlies it. Such a text, writes Waugh, 'lays bare its rules in order to investigate the relation of "fiction" to "reality", the concept of "pretence"'. '[I]t systematically disturbs the air of reality by foregrounding the ontological structure of texts and of fictional worlds,' writes McHale: 'we are left facing the words on the page: this happens again and again in postmodernist writing, [...] our attention is distracted from the projected world and made to fix on its linguistic medium'. This 'disturbance' of the 'air of reality' is meant to contribute to an awareness of the fact that what we regard, outside literary texts, as our normal, unproblematic everyday reality, is likewise a fictional, artificial construct. McHale speaks of 'destabilizing the ontology of this projected world and simultaneously laying bare the process of work construction'.

The reflexive-ironic nature of postmodernist metafiction is clear: its essential operation is a constant ironic self-distancing through the self-conscious unveiling of its own structures. This strategy has an idealistic purpose: it wants to unmask the illusions that we regard as reality.

so this irony is aimed at liberation, and is important and necessary in its own right, but you need something afterwards!

—p.92 by Allard Pieter den Dulk 2 years, 4 months ago
94

[...] one of the main features of deconstruction seems to be the impossibility of a message, text, or philosophy having a clear unequivocal meaning. This means that Derrida's philosophy of deconstruction, as Eddo Evink formulates it, 'cannot be discussed as "Derrida's philosophy" without opposing the leading idea of that philosophy--and this assertion, too struggles with the same problem'. [...]

Like postmodernist metafiction, Derrida's philosophy of deconstruction has an idealistic, liberating motivation: it wants to expose illusory notions and thereby transform our way of thinking. [...] a general characteristic of deconstruction is that it implies both construction and undermining (deconstruction does not destroy the illusions at which it is aimed; it both 'constructs' and 'undermines' them). The second aspect, or second double movement, is actually a specification of the process of undermining, naming that it is executed through the, as Derrida writes, 'double gesture' of 'overturning' and 'displacement'.

he's comparing it to Barth's literature of exhaustion

—p.94 by Allard Pieter den Dulk 2 years, 4 months ago

[...] one of the main features of deconstruction seems to be the impossibility of a message, text, or philosophy having a clear unequivocal meaning. This means that Derrida's philosophy of deconstruction, as Eddo Evink formulates it, 'cannot be discussed as "Derrida's philosophy" without opposing the leading idea of that philosophy--and this assertion, too struggles with the same problem'. [...]

Like postmodernist metafiction, Derrida's philosophy of deconstruction has an idealistic, liberating motivation: it wants to expose illusory notions and thereby transform our way of thinking. [...] a general characteristic of deconstruction is that it implies both construction and undermining (deconstruction does not destroy the illusions at which it is aimed; it both 'constructs' and 'undermines' them). The second aspect, or second double movement, is actually a specification of the process of undermining, naming that it is executed through the, as Derrida writes, 'double gesture' of 'overturning' and 'displacement'.

he's comparing it to Barth's literature of exhaustion

—p.94 by Allard Pieter den Dulk 2 years, 4 months ago
95

According to Derrida, the most fundamental notions of Western thought--that is, the notions of metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that tries to contemplate the deepest ground, the first causes of existence--are based on illusions. The illusion that dominates Western thought, and that therefore is deconstruction's target, is the ideal of presence. All Western philosophy, according to Derrida, strives to reach a fundamental level where truth and meaning are fully present. All philosophical attempts at definition, at indicating the determining grounds for something, the principle on which something is based--all these attempts imply the ideal of presence. They all imply that, if one could only go (back) deep or far enough, one could clearly determine the essence, the 'pure meaning of something. This ideal of metaphysical essences expressed in perfect, pure definitions is an illusion, an impossible dream, according to Derrida.

However, at the same time, it is an impossible dream from which we cannot free ourselves, without which our language would not be able to function, argues Derrida. Seen by themselves, words seem nothing more than a series of marks or sounds, 'without life,' one could say; a word seems to require something that accompanies it, that is 'present' to it and, as such, gives meaning to that word. Derrida says that we necessarily regard a word as a supplement for something else, as referring to something-to a thing in the world, or a thought in my head. Without that connection, a word would appear to be dead, meaningless.

By presupposing that a word functions as a supplement to something, as referring to something outside itself, a gap opens up between language and what it seeks to express in the world (for example, an object, or a thought in my head). If that gap is to be bridged, if language is to express the world, a clear and unequivocal connection between language and world is required, that infuses words with accurate meaning, and thereby, their capacity to describe the world. However, such an accurate reflection of language and world requires a shared metaphysical 'origin', a system of essences, of transcendental signifieds that underlies both the being of the world and the possibility for its accurate expression in language.

—p.95 by Allard Pieter den Dulk 2 years, 4 months ago

According to Derrida, the most fundamental notions of Western thought--that is, the notions of metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that tries to contemplate the deepest ground, the first causes of existence--are based on illusions. The illusion that dominates Western thought, and that therefore is deconstruction's target, is the ideal of presence. All Western philosophy, according to Derrida, strives to reach a fundamental level where truth and meaning are fully present. All philosophical attempts at definition, at indicating the determining grounds for something, the principle on which something is based--all these attempts imply the ideal of presence. They all imply that, if one could only go (back) deep or far enough, one could clearly determine the essence, the 'pure meaning of something. This ideal of metaphysical essences expressed in perfect, pure definitions is an illusion, an impossible dream, according to Derrida.

However, at the same time, it is an impossible dream from which we cannot free ourselves, without which our language would not be able to function, argues Derrida. Seen by themselves, words seem nothing more than a series of marks or sounds, 'without life,' one could say; a word seems to require something that accompanies it, that is 'present' to it and, as such, gives meaning to that word. Derrida says that we necessarily regard a word as a supplement for something else, as referring to something-to a thing in the world, or a thought in my head. Without that connection, a word would appear to be dead, meaningless.

By presupposing that a word functions as a supplement to something, as referring to something outside itself, a gap opens up between language and what it seeks to express in the world (for example, an object, or a thought in my head). If that gap is to be bridged, if language is to express the world, a clear and unequivocal connection between language and world is required, that infuses words with accurate meaning, and thereby, their capacity to describe the world. However, such an accurate reflection of language and world requires a shared metaphysical 'origin', a system of essences, of transcendental signifieds that underlies both the being of the world and the possibility for its accurate expression in language.

—p.95 by Allard Pieter den Dulk 2 years, 4 months ago

unable to be resisted or avoided; inescapable

98

by constructing an attempt to establish presence, deconstruction exposes an ineluctable, ineffaceable element of absence that undermines the ideal of presence

—p.98 by Allard Pieter den Dulk
notable
2 years, 4 months ago

by constructing an attempt to establish presence, deconstruction exposes an ineluctable, ineffaceable element of absence that undermines the ideal of presence

—p.98 by Allard Pieter den Dulk
notable
2 years, 4 months ago

the belief that sounds and speech are inherently superior to, or more primary than, written language

102

According to Derrida, Western philosophy has always privileged speech over writing, and he calls this engrained preference 'phonocentrism'.

—p.102 by Allard Pieter den Dulk
notable
2 years, 4 months ago

According to Derrida, Western philosophy has always privileged speech over writing, and he calls this engrained preference 'phonocentrism'.

—p.102 by Allard Pieter den Dulk
notable
2 years, 4 months ago
108

[...] Derrida and Barth's goals are not to destroy what they regard as both illusory and indispensable notions, but to maintain their unresolvability, endlessly revoking, postponing the determination of meaning.

Here, in this endless cycle of affirmation and undermining, we can readily see that deconstruction and metafiction turn into forms of hyperreflexive irony. Barth's postmodernist metafiction is solely occupied with the ironic exposure of its own fictional structures. It cannot breach its obsession with itself, for it perceives its task as endless, and it cannot put anything--no positivity, no 'positive freedom' to use a Kierkegaardian term--in the place of that which it exposes. This results in what Wallace describes as scepticism and solipsism. Postmodernist metafiction constantly 'crosses out its own descriptions of reality, because they inevitably contain fictional elements,' Barth's fiction cannot express anything truthful about reality; it can only express its own unreality, its own fictionality. Wallace writes: 'It gets empty and solipsistic real fast. It spirals in on itself.' As a result, postmodernist metafiction can be seen as withering away into non-committal introversion.

—p.108 by Allard Pieter den Dulk 2 years, 4 months ago

[...] Derrida and Barth's goals are not to destroy what they regard as both illusory and indispensable notions, but to maintain their unresolvability, endlessly revoking, postponing the determination of meaning.

Here, in this endless cycle of affirmation and undermining, we can readily see that deconstruction and metafiction turn into forms of hyperreflexive irony. Barth's postmodernist metafiction is solely occupied with the ironic exposure of its own fictional structures. It cannot breach its obsession with itself, for it perceives its task as endless, and it cannot put anything--no positivity, no 'positive freedom' to use a Kierkegaardian term--in the place of that which it exposes. This results in what Wallace describes as scepticism and solipsism. Postmodernist metafiction constantly 'crosses out its own descriptions of reality, because they inevitably contain fictional elements,' Barth's fiction cannot express anything truthful about reality; it can only express its own unreality, its own fictionality. Wallace writes: 'It gets empty and solipsistic real fast. It spirals in on itself.' As a result, postmodernist metafiction can be seen as withering away into non-committal introversion.

—p.108 by Allard Pieter den Dulk 2 years, 4 months ago