Reading without Prejudice

There is a strange phenomenon in Kashmir where scholars, students and professors alike are passionately involved in ‘not’ understanding certain topics, Postmodernism being on the hit list. Quite recently this (now outdated) innocent question of what postmodernism is, was posed to a person and yet again, like most people, he smirked and in a single breath denounced everything that Derrida, Barthes, Foucault and so many others have accomplished. He, like most people in Kashmir, seemed adamant on relegating postmodernism to what is called relativism and to the cult of anything goes. It made me think of two things. The first, how wrong our assumptions of this movement are, only because it somehow doesn’t conform to our beliefs (if we have any). The second, why do we still confine and limit ourselves to questions like these when the whole world has gone past it? Of course, the need to address and explicate the question is not the focus of this article. What, however, is relevant, is the absolute necessity for the movement to be understood in the socio-political context. The history of literature from the east to the west has always been a debate within itself where questions of being, ethics, existence, free will, and morality (among others) take on certain valuable roles. The same can be attributed to the history of postmodern literature, as well, where the notion of the questioning of authority, transgression, and experimentation take centre stage in multiple and diverse ways. The fact that these questions do not possess one single answer in itself should make us realize the very significance of the issues. That there is no single answer to the questions literature asks is what exactly Roland Barthes meant when he said that literature is the question minus its answer. The contemporary director Michael Haneke echoes the same notion in relation to art when he says that its foremost duty is to raise questions and not provide answers.

Whenever Postmodernism is discussed here in Kashmir, most people relate it to its theoretical understanding and not its fictive trend. This attitude relegates the movement to a bland academic discourse and, thus, disregards the intense workings of Postmodern Fiction. The fictional work of writers like Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, elegantly charts the course of the past and present stance of Postmodernism. Out of these writers, David Foster Wallace’s artistic trajectory from being an ardent proponent of postmodernism to its militant critic lays bare the transition of the ideas associated with the movement. Wallace, towards the later part of his career, tended to be at cross-roads with postmodern temperament. Wallace’s tweaking of the validity of the debate of postmodern literature provides a proper locus (if not answers) to be able to understand the situation. Among many other charges that Wallace levies on postmodern literature, the primary ones he attacks are the usage of self-reflexivity and irony in those works where the writer tends unnecessarily to be nothing else but witty. Wallace, in interviews as well as in his writings, decries the usage of postmodern irony and self-conscious narration as nothing but ‘poisonous’ because it only functions for him, in ‘avoiding some really thorny issues’ of the present time. Whereas for him the original urge of postmodern irony and self-consciousness was a way of rejecting the ‘ravening hypocrisy of institutions like the government or advertising’, it has now become ‘the contemporary mood of self-mocking materialism and blank indifference’. His position becomes more clear when in his essay ‘E Unibus Pluram; Television and US Fiction’, he dashes out against the hip culture, cynicism and nihilism of the postmodern fathers and hopes for a new generation of writers who, according to him, would be ‘anti-rebels’ (written in relation to postmodern writers as originary rebels); writers who would toss aside the stance of irony and would be happier talking in single-entendres in opposition to the kind of double-entendres which was so dear to the postmodern writing. Instead, the writers of this new generation, according to Wallace, would look up to the basic problems of human troubles and emotions and would be content to discard the self-conscious attitude that seems to be an end in itself. Wallace’s comment opens up a debate about the need to return to old problems, not in the sense of nostalgia, but a dire necessity to attempt to focus on the problems that cater to the struggle which human beings face in their daily lives. Because for Wallace, fiction is all about ‘what it is to be a fucking human being’ the definition of ‘good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.’ According to Wallace, thus, the real job of fiction in the twenty-first century is to address ‘the loneliness that dominates people’ and to ‘aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people’ in order ‘to move people to countenance it…’

Wallace’s stance is now being dubbed by writers and critics both as post-postmodernism or New Sincerity, a writing that embraces contemporary human problems with a sincere non-ironic faith and disclaims the erudite techniques of postmodernism as nothing but redundant. The idea, here, is not to put the onus of the debate on Wallace only, but to approach the said subject keeping in mind the issues he raises. What Wallace’s scrutiny of the postmodern debate teaches us is his crucial position in the literature of our times – as someone whose idols were postmodern writers but who, at the same time, wishes to go beyond them so as to understand the changing milieu.

To judge postmodernism as a banal array of relativism, a hollow movement of the west, among other things, has become way too easy for us in Kashmir. What one, however, needs is to survey the movement and the subsequent ones as a crucial point where literature comes up as, what I earlier termed, a debate within itself – a debate that can lead us towards fruitful evaluation of our times and not to some juvenile, semi-understood and regurgitated statements of detestation. New Sincerity or post-postmodernism, if looked at from that point, comes very close to what most teachers, students and professors didn’t exactly want from postmodernism, the point, however, is to approach it without prejudice.

Mubashir Karim is Assistant Professor (English) in S P College, Srinagar.