Science Fiction Studies

#61 = Volume 20, Part 3 = November 1993

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.

An Elaborate Suggestion

Brian McHale. Constructing Postmodernism. London and NY: Routledge, 1992. xii+342. $49.95 cloth, $15.95 paper.

In the final two essays of Constructing Postmodernism, Brian McHale makes an appealing case for giving SF, and particularly cyberpunk, a privileged place in postmodernist writing. McHale begins from a single, ostensibly simple premise: postmodernist fiction is based on an "ontological dominant," in contrast to modernist writing's "epistemological dominant." In McHale's account, modernist fiction was characterized by its concern with the problems of perspectivism, of individual consciousnesses trying to know the world: a world assumed by authors and readers to be unified and objective, and yet ultimately inaccessible to human consciousness. The most characteristic genre of the epoch was the detective story, with a questing cognitive hero traversing a labyrinthine world-reality in search of the truth about things. "Modernist perspectivism (e.g., Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, To the Lighthouse, Les Faux-Monnayeurs) multiplied points of view on the world, but without, for the most part, undermining the underlying unity of the self. Though in modernist fiction the perspectives on the world are many, and each differs from all the others, nevertheless each perspective is lodged in a subjectivity which is itself relatively coherent, relatively centered and stable..." (CP 254).

Postmodernist fiction, by contrast, assumes that the world is not one, that we function in an ontologically plural multiverse of experience in which the classical subject is decentered and fragmented; or rather both selves and worlds operate in many modalities that can neither be reduced to nor synthesized into an overarching common reality. The exemplary genre for the ontological mode is, for McHale, SF. For SF's stock-in-trade is the potential infinity of bodily forms, cultures, spacetimes, realities. "[W]hile epistemologically-oriented fiction (modernism, detective fiction) is preoccupied with questions such as: what is there to know about the world? and who knows it, and how reliably? How is knowledge transmitted, to whom, and how reliably?, etc., ontologically-oriented fiction (postmodernism, SF) is preoccupied with questions such as: what is a world? How is a world constituted? Are there alternative worlds, and if so, how are they constituted? How do different worlds, and different kinds of world, differ, and what happens when one passes from one world to another, etc.?" (247).

In his previous book, Postmodernist Fiction, McHale used this opposition to derive a rich catalog--"repertoire" is McHale's preferred term--of the topics and devices that made an enormous variety of postmodernist writers seem to share a common concern. CP is concerned primarily with the way postmodernist reading-strategies involve and imply modernist ones (if only to subvert them), exemplified in the work of Joyce, Pynchon, Brooke-Rose, Eco, McElroy. CP's intensive reading of a few texts complements PF's sweep, but it also extends the earlier book's argument in at least three ways. It moderates PF's unfashionably developmental notion that postmodernist style always succeeds modernist style. It emphasizes that the ontological obsessions of postmodernist fiction ultimately reflect concern about individual and collective death. And it arrives at the conclusion that SF, with the emergence of cyberpunk, should be treated as one of, if not the, paradigmatic genres of postmodernism, in which the essential techniques of postmodernist fiction are made flesh on the level of action and content.

McHale had already given SF an exemplary role in PF, even before encountering Gibson, Sterling & Co.. "It is," he wrote then, "perhaps the ontological genre par excellence. We can think of science fiction as postmodernism's noncanonized or 'low art' double..." (PF59). This hypothesis was strengthened by cyberpunk writers' avid engagement with the American postmodernist masters, and in CP McHale abandons the discourse about "low art," identifying SF as something close to postmodern literature's generic dominant:

Since [PF], my conviction has grown that SF, far from being marginal to contemporary "advanced" or "state-of-the-art" writing, may actually be paradigmatic of it. This is so in at least two respects. First, SF is openly and avowedly ontological in its orientation, i.e., like "mainstream" postmodernist writing it is self-consciously world-building fiction, laying bare the process of world-making itself. Secondly, SF constitutes a particularly clear and demonstrable example of an intertextual field, one in which models, materials, images, "ideas," etc. circulate openly from text to text, and are conspicuously cited, analyzed, combined, revised, and reconfigured. In this it differs from "mainstream" postmodernism only in the openness and visibility of the process. It is precisely this visibility of intertextual circulation in SF that makes it so valuable as a heuristic model of literature in general, and postmodernist literature in particular. (13)

The notion that a theory of literature might be constructed using SF as the ruling model is tantalizing, but McHale does not follow up on it in CP. He does, however, make much of the more specific connection between postmodernist SF (i.e., cyberpunk) and the postmodernist mainstream. In the book's penultimate essay, "POSTcyberMODERNpunkISM," McHale describes a privileged relationship between the two streams, which has been marked by a zig-zag historical development of ever closer approach to aesthetic contemporaneity. The SF of the 50s aspired to conditions of the best-seller (which McHale sees as derived from the classical art novel), while a few late modernists were beginning to adopt motifs from SF. Gradually, there evolved a "peculiar relationship of nonsychronization between SF and advanced mainstream fiction...with each reflecting an outdated phase of the other" (228). The writers of the New Wave imitated the techniques of modernist art fiction, while the new postmodernists like Burroughs and Pynchon picked up the clichés of pulp SF. In the present moment (of 1988, when the essay first appeared in Larry McCaffery's famous cyberpunk issue of Mississippi Review), the independent developments of these two literary modes have meshed to create a science- fictionized mainstream and postmodernized SF distilled in cyberpunk.

In the concluding essay of CP, "Towards a Poetics of Cyberpunk," McHale shows how the main motifs that he identifies as postmodernist concern with "worldness," with the centrifugal self, and with individual and collective death appear in cyberpunk actualized and literalized, "translate[d] or transcode[d]...from the level of form (the verbal continuum, narrative strategies) to the level of content or world" (246). Cyberpunk thus shares with postmodernist art fiction the emphasis on space, the recourse to parallel and inset worlds, the fragmentation of identity, and the focus on states of being other than life and death. All of these of course represent topoi particularly concerned with ontological plurality, and McHale clearly takes pleasure in the cyberpunks' exuberant invention of states that they resolutely refuse to reduce to a single overarching continuum.

On its own, "Towards a Poetics of Cyberpunk" is one of the best recent essays published on the status of SF in 20th century fiction. As it emerges from his larger argument about the ontological concern of postmodernist art, McHale's defense of cyberpunk is rich and even playful, for inventing and entertaining fictional worlds is ultimately less an ontological concern, than a ludic one; even for critics there's something game-like in deciding which cultural phenomena fit under epistemology, and which ones under ontology. Having said this, I find myself torn between delight that such a sophisticated literary-historical apology for c-p can exist at all, and frustration at the vagueness and weakness of McHale's supporting arguments. McHale's thesis seems to bear out the opinion that many scientists have about literary criticism, that it creates scads of interesting ideas out of impossibly fuzzy models. How fuzzy a model is may be irrelevant if we can throw it away after it generates good ideas, and judging by the admiration CP has garnered on the electronic net and among SF academics, McHale's model is persuasive. But on close examination, McHale's argument depends almost entirely on the combination of close textual analysis and the application of certain concepts that, although they help to organize the critical reading, cannot stand on their own. If most of the work of grounding McHale's argument and of extending it beyond a case study in literary history remains to be done, then his model, at least in its present form, may be less a model than an elaborate suggestion.

The potentially paradigmatic role of SF is closely connected to McHale's whole conception of postmodernism, and the problem begins here--for McHale studiously avoids developing a theory of postmodernism that might explain the specific literary phenomena he discusses in PF and CP. In the preface to PF McHale modestly claimed only to be writing a "descriptive poetics" (PF, xi), as if theory were somehow out of his league. In CP McHale reiterates this position, with rather more protestation. But McHale's modesty is misplaced. His method is weak precisely to the extent that it refuses to reflect on its own premises, and on his consistent bracketing of out all the historical, social and cultural questions that might shed some light on it.

It is important to keep in mind how conservative McHale's method is for its strengths come from the way it attempts to translate the cultural concerns of postmodernism into the language of a modernist literary consciousness. McHale's invocations, in the introduction to CP, of Berger and Luckman's influential The Social Construction of Reality, and the work of Goodman, Rorty, and other pragmatic relativist thinkers are largely gestures; McHale does not truly connect his "one idea" to a broader theoretical metanarrative. In the essays, McHale's "construction" of postmodernism is conceived almost entirely in terms of individual constructs, like houses on a hill, or like novels put together by individual authors, not like the social construction of cultural systems in which individual works are embedded. CP's essays are, accordingly, almost all close readings of individual classical or "typical" works and oeuvres. There is one (superb) essay on Ulysses, treating it as a example of how one text can include both modernist and postmodernist elements; two essays on Gravity's Rainbow and the many ways in which modernist readers misread it; another excellent essay on Vineland; two on Eco's novels; one each on the fiction of Joseph McElroy and Christine Brooke-Rose.

McHale's gift for meticulous close readings sends him to texts that reward traditional techniques of textual analysis and encourages him ignore the more noisy, corrupt, and hypertextual multimedia that many would consider more typical of postmodernism than long, intricate books. In McHale's readings, Gravity's Rainbow and Eco's paint-by-the-pomo-numbers novels become models of postmodern fiction because they seem to engage directly the reading strategies of modernism, if only to subvert them. Further, this use of "high-literary" texts and authors to make claims about a literary current that subverts the status of elite art at every turn is so problematic that even the blurb attached to Routledge's paperback edition seems to make apologies for it: "Although mainly focused on 'high' or 'elite' cultural products 'art' novels, Constructing Postmodernism relates these products to such phenomena of postmodern culture as television and cinema, paranoia and nuclear anxiety, angelology and the cybernetic interface, and death, now as always (in spite of what Captain Kirk says) the true Final Frontier." The blurb is silly and inept, but it identifies the problem: McHale looks for the key where the light is, not where he lost it. To paraphrase McHale himself, he is a modernist reading a postmodern world, but without noticing the lag.

In my view, three weaknesses in particular mar McHale's argument: the notion of the "ontological dominant"; McHale's desire to see the plurality of worlds in cyberpunk as irreducible, rather than as expressions of a technological dominant; and the laxness of McHale's supporting evidence.

The idea of an "ontological dominant" is the foundation upon which the whole edifice rests. The Russian Formalists and Prague Structuralists invented and refined the notion of the dominant as a way to determine which features of a given work or oeuvre are most emphasized, and which have been consequently de-emphasized vis vis earlier styles. It was originally applied to components of artistic works (rhythm, diction, plot, etc.), and it is fruitful as long as the elements it refers to are clearly defined within a relatively circumscribed domain of artistic technique. The Prague School ultimately gave the imprimatur for applying it to theme, but this move dispersed the idea of the dominant into areas that are simultaneously far more abstract and far more culturally grounded than artistic technique and form. When with McHale's theory "ontology" or ontological concern fills the niche of the dominant, the idea completely breaks out of the frame of the formal study of artistic techniques into the comprehensive domain of culture, where definitions of dominant features are hotly contested, and indeed where a dominant comes perilously close to turning into a Zeitgeist. A putative dominant of cultural concern begs for explanations of its connection to the conditions of life and these explanations must come from outside literature, for literature is in this sort of model an expression of culture, not the other way around.

Only in his chapter on Pynchon's Vineland does McHale drop his elite book-centeredness to discuss another artistic technology and its cultural practice: television and channel-zapping. Calling it an "ontological pluralizer" McHale approaches a broader cultural explanation, forced, as it happens, by Pynchon's own insistence on referring to it in his book. In the chapter on cyberpunk, however, McHale manages the dubious tour-de-force of discussing the genre without referring to the legitimate ontological questions posed by actual or plausible real-world technologies novels that "pluralize worlds", like psychedelics, VR, AI, etc.; instead, McHale discusses the historico-technological speculations of those works exclusively as novelistic devices. This is where, to my mind, McHale's theory is weakest. One of his main contentions is that postmodernist fiction revels in the proliferation of worlds and modes of being without ever reducing them to some encompassing authoritative principle. Although this may be true of mainstream postmodernism (I tend to doubt it, postmodern chaos has its reasons), I am certain it is not true for cyberpunk. Behind and within all the worlds-within-and-alongside-worlds, experiences, identities, and conditions of existence that are neither life nor death, there is a continuum which determines the relative importance of the thematic elements: namely, the history of technology. Technology's almost autonomous force, distributed through machines, drugs, bionics, cyborgs, Ellul's "technique," etc., saturates cyberpunk, and indeed most SF, to a degree that it demands to be viewed as a driving principle overriding all other lesser powers. If there is a thematic dominant in cyberpunk (and perhaps SF in general) it is technology, for it is the concrete, unguided and global transformative power of technology that inspires the widespread concern with worlds in contemporary culture which McHale calls ontological. Technology, however, unlike ontology, has a material social history that both determines and is determined by other cultural practices; it can be socially and politically unconscious, even in art. It can be suffered, comprehended, contested, joined, and even avoided via the idea of ontology, for example. It is a ground for fiction. McHale, in trying to maintain some radical indeterminacy and irreducibility in his object (postmodernist fiction, SF) while conserving the idealist assumptions of his formalist method, sees the plurality of worlds as completely open and undetermined, except perhaps by the logic of literature (and, I assume, philosophy) that led the epistemological concerns of modernism to "tip over" into ontology when they were pushed hard enough (PF, 11).

McHale's discomfort with metanarratives leaves him with no convincing way to distinguish why certain postmodernist practices differ from similar practices in earlier ages, and what makes earlier modes attractive to later ages. For example, he treats the device of the plurality of worlds as one of the central points of convergence of postmodern SF and postmodern mainstream fiction. He attributes this convergence to the common origin of both modes in medieval romance, a genre which also delighted in inset and parallel worlds, questing heroes, etc. But to explain why romance should suddenly be so favored McHale gestures to Jameson's well-known essay, "Magical Narratives: Romance as Genre," which discusses modern romance as a form pre-capitalist nostalgia. Jameson's political-cultural argument, which ties the genre to the social history it is embedded in, seems irrelevant to McHale. The only important point is the structural similarity of the romance to postmodernist modes. One might argue that modernist writing was just as entangled with medieval romance, although in a different register, without postmodern fiction's deadpan, unironic, and, in SF's case, literalizing reproduction of romantic chronotopes. But why should pomo writers return to medieval devices? Is the similarity trivial or richly determined? Does McHale accept the politically critical motivation of Jameson, his only supporting source for the romance connection, or not? And if not, what are the implications of deferring to Jameson's authority?

There is also considerable fuzziness about where SF comes into the explanatory picture. Is SF per se the epitome of postmodernism, or only its postmodernist evolute, cyberpunk? I think one could argue that most of the classical works of SF "lay bare the process," as McHale phrases it, of world-making, the fragmentation of identity, and most definitely the representation of immortality and collective death. (I need to note here that McHale fudges the distinction between ontological world-making, which is linked to concepts like reality, determination, qualities of being, and fictional world-making, which is linked to concepts like play, irony, suspension. The two activities may be entwined, perhaps especially in SF, but this is far from self-evident, and nowhere in CP does McHale show he's aware that he has conflated them.) Using those categories alone I would include Stapledon, Cordwainer Smith, Sturgeon, Van Vogt, Dick, Delany, Watson, LeGuin, Bester, Russ... tell me when to stop. But if SF is not postmodernist in its own right, then what makes cyberpunk so? It appears to be a matter of foregrounding and combining certain traditional SF motifs into a new configuration. Discussing the worlds-within-worlds motif McHale notes that such worlds en abyme occur in all SF, but in cyberpunk they appear "with a new intensity of emphasis, sharpness of focus, and functional centrality" (248). They are pomo, because they are more pomo. Hmmmm.

This weakness of support extends down from larger theses to smaller arguments. At one point McHale claims that cyberpunk and "biopunk" writers "often foreground [the] metafictional potential of paraspace" (253) by developing an analogy between the author of the text and the author of the cyberspace or paraspace world. He provides two examples, Continuity's function in Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive and Donnell's role in Lucius Shepard's Green Eyes. But these, too, are not self-evident, and the case of Continuity, at least, is so obscure that cries out for a supporting interpretation. If these are the handiest examples of the metafictional use of paraspace as metaphor in c-p, then one must wonder whether there really are many others. Similarly, after claiming that cyberpunk, like mainstream postmodernism, is concerned with the fragmentation and decentering of identity, McHale has to backtrack. Well, it's not really true, "cyberpunk writers have all too often ended up falling back on the perspectivist structural cliches inherited from modernist poetics" (259). Finally, the description of the relationship between the postmodernist mainstream and cyberpunk that McHale identifies in his "POSTcyberMODERNpunkISM" is so disconnected that it constitutes a set of notes for possible elaboration in the future, rather than evidence. It is very disappointing to see Burroughs's and Pynchon's connection to SF explained by way of a paragraph on the travels of the title Blade Runner from Alan Nourse's novel to Riddley Scott's film, or via a list of characters and themes from Burroughs and Pynchon alluded to by cyberpunk writers. And in what should be the coup de grace, a text-to-text comparison of Kathy Acker's parodies of Neuromancer in The Empire of the Senseless with Gibson's original passages, McHale is content to speculate, tautologically, that Acker is simply attracted to the same repertoire of motifs that a mainstream postmodernist like Acker would be attracted to. Why Acker should be attracted to Gibson to make her "blank parodies" and sentence-violence is bracketed out; and seeing the relevant passages side by side makes this reader, at least, refuse to waive my right to consecutive interpretation.

McHale has anticipated critiques such as mine. Defending his "construction" (which I take to mean his description) of postmodernism against competing notions in his introduction to CP, he writes "choices among competing constructions can only be made strategically, in the light of the kind of work that the chosen construction might be expected to accomplish" (10). This is practical wisdom, close to the astonishing advice quoted by McHale from Nelson Goodman: "For a categorial system, what needs to be shown is not that it is true but what it can do. Put crassly, what is called for in such cases is less like arguing than selling" (26). Clearly, McHale's formalist, descriptive, top-down sell of postmodern literary practices will do valuable work in attracting academic literary circles to buy into cyberpunk and SF. But can it do more?

I believe that "POSTcyberMODERNpunkISM" and "Towards a Poetics of Cyberpunk" can do much better work as parts of another book that seems to want to emerge from CP, a book both more personal and more engaged with the world in which SF is embedded than CP. McHale may be headed toward an exploration of the thematics of death in postmodern writing that will give meat and nerves to the groundless abstraction of ontology, as well as requiring him to refer to personal reflections and cultural concerns that extend beyond categorizing literary strategies. In that context McHale may provide us not only a richly grounded theory of postmodern writing and SF, but a construction that actually deals with the questions about writing's relation to non-writing SF, to multi- and hypermedia, to the filaments of interest and commitment that tie criticism to social life--in short, a construction worth moving into and living in, not just to buy and sell.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)   Back to Home