Postmodernist Intertextuality in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas

Thesis (M.A.) 2008 128 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



I Introduction

II Historical and Theoretical Backgrounds of Postmodernity/ Postmodernism
1. The Postmodern Condition
2. Challenging the Given: Deconstruction and Discourse
3. Concepts of Postmodernism
4. Intertextuality as Metafiction and Dialogue
5. Postmodernist Intertextuality and the Politics of Representation

III Postmodernist Intertextuality in Cloud Atlas
1. Intertextual Structures and Recurring Motifs
1.1 Framing Narratives: The Matrioshka as Structuring Principle and Metaphor
1.2 Intertextuality as Déjà-Lu
1.3 Fragmentation and Indeterminacy
1.4 Making Connections: Perhaps and Accident, Perhaps an Intention
1.5 Eternal Recurrence and the Will to Power
2. Ideological Fictions: Deconstructing Generic and Narrative Conventions
2.1 Realism, Progress and the Conception of Empire in
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
2.2 Modernist Aestheticism in Letters from Zedelghem
2.3 Paranoia and Suspense and Catharsis: Half-lives – The First Luisa Rey Mystery as Corporate Thriller
2.4 The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish as
2.5 Metaphorising the Menace: An Orison of Sonmi~451 as Corpocratic Dystopia
2.6 After The Fall – Post-Apocalyptic Dystopia in Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After

IV Conclusion: Intertextual HiStories

V Bibliography




I Introduction

The title of this study is “Postmodernist Intertextuality in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas” and is based on the following hypotheses:

1. There is a particular kind of intertextuality specific to postmodernist literature that differs from previous uses of intertextual references.
2. Postmodernist intertextuality is deconstructive, self-reflexive and critical of Western hegemonic discourses and metanarratives.
3. This specific kind of intertextuality is a key element of postmodernist art.

The first part of this work is going to outline some of the social and historical developments that have been associated with the postmodern condition and the rise of new art forms which respond to these changes. Lyotard’s description of postmodernity as an age that is marked by its profound “incredulity toward metanarratives” (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge xxiv) is of particular significance to this study, especially his critique of the so-called “Enlightenment narrative” (xxiii) with its humanist values. This definition helps understand the interaction between postmodern theory and postmodernist art, which, as I will argue, are both directed against the same universalist assumptions. While Jameson and Baudrillard, usually the other two thinkers beside Lyotard associated with postmodern theory, describe postmodernity/ postmodernism as marked by depthlessness, Lyotard comprehends postmodernism as profoundly political. Post-structuralism presents a major point of departure for postmodern theory. “This is”, as Ian Gregson argues, “because postmodern theory stresses, above all, issues of representation – it focuses upon how the ‘real’ is constructed through language […]” (Postmodern Literature 7). Foucault’s method of “discourse analysis”, presented in The Archaeology of Knowledge, has strongly influenced postmodernist literature, as has Derrida’s theory on signification and his strategy of deconstruction. However, as their concepts have become something like the “standard tools” of contemporary philosophical and literary theory, their names will appear here less often than would be their due. Many of the theoretical sources I quote are strongly influenced by post-structuralist thought.

Postmodern theory, post-structuralism and postmodernism as aesthetic practice are all deeply concerned with questions of textuality and power. Although Derrida very seldom writes explicitly about political issues, the political potential of his problematizing of language as motivated and hierarchical is all but insignificant. His ideas have directly and indirectly influenced postcolonial and post-feminist writers and theorists as well, whose agendas are intricately related to those of postmodernism insofar as they attempt to give a voice to the marginalized, or what Linda Hutcheon in A Poetics of Postmodernism calls the “ex-centric” (35).

The study at hand is mostly based on Hutcheon’s notion of postmodernism, precisely because she, more than most others, grasps the political dimension of postmodernist art. Her concept of “historiographic metafiction” foregrounds the ways in which postmodernist literature draws attention to the complicity of literary and historical discourses in the perpetuation of dominant power structures. She thus identifies in postmodernism the same concerns – language, power, history – that are so prominent in the works of Lyotard, Foucault and Derrida, to name only a few. According to Hutcheon, postmodernism attempts to challenge Western hegemonic discourses by ironically revisiting and rewriting the stories and histories of the past, thereby both exposing their artificiality and giving a voice to those silenced by standard history. The second concept that presents the background to the concept of “postmodernist intertextuality” which I am going to present in this thesis, is Bakhtin’s “dialogism”, which has also influenced Hutcheon and McHale. “Dialogism” points to the ambiguity that is, due to the irreducible plurality of human experience, intrinsic to all forms of communication. Bakhtin claims that while some literary forms seek to suppress this indeterminacy, it is particularly prominent in the novel, which imitates the polyphony or “heteroglossia” within society (see Holquist Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World 69). Literary texts, according to Bakhtin, interact with the historical and social forces at work at the time of their production, engaging in turn in a dialogue with these structures. He thus comprehends literature as political in the sense that it can actively influence the discursive construction of society, or the “verbal-ideological world” (Holquist 146).

Historiographic metafiction and dialogism are intertextual concepts, as are, to some extent, discourse analysis and deconstruction. Intertextual insofar as their critique operates by placing texts in relation to other texts. Intertextuality consequently marks a relativizing move that is in tune with the post-structuralist and postmodernist challenging of universalist notions of truth. I furthermore suggest that intertextuality is the most prominent strategy of deconstruction within postmodernist literature, as it undermines monolithic discourses and exposes the relativity and plurality of meaning that postmodern theory propagates. I think it now becomes a little more evident what I understand under the term “postmodernist intertextuality”. Firstly, postmodernist intertextuality is political and conscious. It describes deliberate reference to other texts in order to undermine the discourses and metanarratives that legitimate dominant power structures. It thus differs from Julia Kristeva’s notion of intertextuality as a general attribute of all texts. However, this concept strongly inspires postmodernist intertextuality, since the interdependence of cultural practices is one of the ideas it draws attention to. Nor do I adopt Kristeva’s extended idea of text which basically includes all cultural structures – for the sole reason that it is of little heuristic value – but retain a fairly traditional definition of text. The main focus of this study are actual written texts, though I would include film and other related genres and media here as well. Secondly, these references can be to literary as well as “non-fictional” texts, because the distinctions between philosophy, history and literature are among the boundaries postmodernism seeks to question. Postmodernist intertextuality challenges hegemonic discourses by confronting them with subversive alternatives. The absolutist status of standard versions of history is undermined by presenting contradictory accounts, received notions of “centre” and “periphery” are questioned when the perspective of the so-called “ex-centric” is evoked, presenting culture as a reciprocal process. Other, often unconscious, prejudices and biases are first drawn attention to and subsequently subverted. At the same time, postmodernist literature is intensely self-reflexive, flaunting the awareness of its own textuality. In spite of that, or rather because of that, it can in turn influence other discourses that shape our reality.

In the second part of this study, I will apply the concept of “postmodernist intertextuality” to Mitchell’s postmodernist novel Cloud Atlas. Most critics have remarked upon the novel’s intertextuality and it indeed exhibits a dense web of intertextual references, to literary as well as theoretical text.. I suggest that the novel’s preoccupation with intertextuality can also be seen from its innovative structural arrangement and its recurring images and motifs. These intertextual structures will be the subject of their own section. Many intertextual references within Cloud Atlas are explicit – the names of Melville and Defoe, for example are mentioned in the travelogue chapter, as are the names of Huxley and Orwell in the dystopian fifth chapter. However, in some cases they take on the form of allusion, as in Half Lives – the First Luisa Rey Mystery whose protagonist’s name is reminiscent of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. I am going to analyse the effects of these different kinds of intertextuality and in how far they correspond to postmodernist notions of textuality and history. This part is furthermore going to examine several motifs and metaphors that recur throughout the novel. I am going to analyse how they connect the individual narratives and whether these repetitions indicate the existence of an underlying pattern.

Every narrative of Cloud Atlas evokes a different genre, first installing and then subverting generic conventions in order to expose their artificiality and ideological motivations. These different forms and conventions will be analysed in the second part of the textual analysis. Obviously, it is not possible here to elaborate on each and every intertextual reference in the novel, as there are too many of them and it is not my incentive to engage in source criticism. Instead, I am going to concentrate on a number of select texts that I consider fruitful to an intertextual reading of Cloud Atlas and to analyse what effects these references may have on the process of interpretation.

Intertextual references present a vast semantic potential that opens up the literary text and invites the reader to participate in the construction of meaning. In the following I will propose a reading that is strongly influenced by the notions of postmodernism and intertextuality that I have mentioned. As indicated by the term “reading”, the interpretation at hand does not and cannot claim objectivity, which would in fact be contrary to the very concepts of postmodernism that I have put forth. The process itself is highly selective and subjective. I first identify intertextual references within the text. I am aware that many, if not all, of those references I choose to neglect may allow for different readings, as they open up new perspectives on the text. I furthermore assume that many subtle intertextual references have gone unnoticed, due to a possible lack of familiarity with the intertext. While the references are intentional and the text provides signals that indicate either ironic distance to the quoted text or affirmative identification, their abundance as well as the fragmentary structure of the novel indicate a semantic openness that requires the reader to actively engage in the process of meaning-making.

II Historical and Theoretical Backgrounds of Postmodernity/ Postmodernism

1. The Postmodern Condition

What is “postmodernism”? This question has been asked many times in the past decades, resulting in almost as many definitions. The term is, as Linda Hutcheon points out in The Politics of Postmodernism, very often conflated with that of “postmodernity” (see 23-28). Though to Hutcheon the two are intimately related, she nevertheless argues for a careful differentiation. Postmodernity for Hutcheon designates “a social and philosophical period or ‘condition’” (The Politics of Postmodernism 23) marked by a profoundly problematizing stance toward discourse and an acute suspicion of ordering systems. The term “postmodernism”, on the other hand, denotes “cultural practices which acknowledge their inevitable implication in capitalism, without relinquishing the power or will to intervene critically in it” (Hutcheon The Politics of Postmodernism 25). The subversive aesthetic practices of postmodernism are thus born out of and respond to, the socio-economic and philosophical insights of postmodernity. The difficulty one encounters in retaining such a distinction between “postmodernity” and “postmodernism”, I would argue, underline the intricate connection between political theory and aesthetic practice. In the following section I will attempt a brief summary of the historical events and theories which inspired the rise of new aesthetic forms.

“Postmodernity suggests what came after modernity; it refers to the incipient or actual social dissolution of those social forms associated with modernity” (Sarup, Madan An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism 130). It is, however, often disputed whether postmodernity is in fact to be regarded as a part of the era of modernity, or rather as a radical break from it. Gregson suggests that the passage from modernity to postmodernity resulted from a waning of the belief in modern values and promises which rung more and more hollow in the face of the atrocities committed during and after World War II, in particular the holocaust (see 1).

Jean François Lyotard defines as postmodern an “incredulity toward metanarratives” (xxiv). At the basis of this statement lies the assumption that scientific knowledge “does not represent the totality of knowledge; it has always existed in competition and conflict with another kind of knowledge which Lyotard calls narrative” (Sarup 135). While scientific knowledge is subjected to the criterion of truth, narrative knowledge is required to bestow legitimation on institutions, that is it defines and justifies the value system the society is based upon. These metanarratives come in the form of religious, philosophical and national myths and legends. The beginnings of this process of growing disbelief significantly predate postmodernity. According to Gregson they can be “traced back to the Victorian period and the cultural crisis at that time, which involved the waning of Christianity as a result of the power of scientific theories like Darwinian evolution […]”. (1) This is quite consistent with the point of view of German sociology from Simmel to Weber, according to whom “modernity implies the progressive economic and administrative rationalization and differentiation of the social world […] which brought into being the modern capitalist industrial state” (Sarup 130). Growing urbanization and the appalling working and living conditions of the labouring poor that came in the wake of industrialization further contributed to the decline of traditional hierarchies and created new fears and problems:

The growth of the factory system led to all the horrors associated with overcrowded cities, and the resulting social tensions were all too obvious. Britain […] had to grapple with unrelenting demands for social reform, both from the captains of industry and from the lower ranks of the new industrial hierarchy. The nineteenth century saw itself as an age of transition from mediaeval to modern values – a transition that was often painful and that opened up massive uncertainties as to what modern values should be. (Bowler, Peter J. The Invention of Progress 1f)

In order to make sense of these changes, a modern metanarrative was required. This is “the Enlightenment narrative, in which the hero of knowledge works toward a good ethico-political end – universal peace” (Lyotard xxiiif). In the Enlightenment narrative, the quest for universal truth thus shifted from the realm of the religious toward that of the scientific but remained, according to Friedrich Nietzsche, metaphysical in essence:

It is still a metaphysical faith that underlies our faith in science – and we men of knowledge of today, we godless men and anti-metaphysicians, we, too, still derive our flame from the fire ignited by a faith millennia old, the Christian faith, which was also Plato’s, that God is truth, that truth is divine. (qtd. in Booker, M. Keith The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature: Fiction as Social Criticism 8)

It is this striving toward univocal truth and mastery of nature, nowhere more evident than in Bacon’s dictum “knowledge is power”, that leads Adorno to the assumption that Enlightenment reason serves as a tool of enslavement, rather than of liberation (see Booker 7). Adorno’s evaluation of Enlightenment reason is not only strongly influenced by Nietzsche’s critique, but also, of course, by the experience of World War II in which the Enlightenment rhetoric was employed to justify crimes against humanity, and technology served as a means to mass genocide. The incomprehensible cruelty of Auschwitz destroyed the belief in the Enlightenment narrative, Lyotard claims; it “shatters the possibility of a liberal consensus premised upon shared humanist assumptions” (8) and exposes the failure of the “project” of modernity. Moreover, the events surrounding Auschwitz cannot be adequately represented within the rational discourse of history, indicating a stark contrast between our constructions of reality and reality itself. The postmodern condition is therefore marked by the traumatic loss of ideological certainty, resulting in a profound desire to “digest” the trauma by revisiting and rewriting the past.

The experience of globalization and “the shift from economic structures based on heavy industry to those based on technology” (Gregson 1f) present further key changes. Fredric Jameson refers to these new economic and social conditions as “late capitalism” (see Gregson 8), which, considering his Marxist background, is clearly a negative evaluation. These conditions, according to Jameson, effectively determine artistic and cultural changes as well, as already transpires from the title of Jameson’s famous essay “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”. In other words, “late capitalism” describes a period – roughly from the 1960s to the present day – to which belongs a specific kind of cultural practice (including philosophy as well as art and other forms of discourse and behaviour): “postmodernism”. Characteristic for this era (and its art) is, according to Fredric Jameson, the repudiation of traditional depth models such as

(1) the dialectical one of essence and appearance […], (2) the Freudian model of latent and manifest, or of repression […], (3) the existential model of authenticity and inauthenticity […] and (4) most recently, the great semiotic opposition between signifier and signified […]. (qtd. in Gregson 9)

He suggests that these depth models have been replaced by a “new depthlessness” (Jameson 561), discourses and practices devoid of deeper meaning – in other words: with easy entertainment. Jameson’s economically deterministic notion of the postmodern implies continuity rather than a significant rupture between “late capitalism” and the era that preceded it. Part of the new era of “late capitalism” is the proliferation of mass media, particularly television, which has had a tremendous impact not only on the distribution of information and new forms of entertainment, but also on the way reality is perceived. Jean Baudrillard’s work focuses especially on this aspect, claiming that the precession of simulacra, that is of signs that pretend to be identical to their referents (such as televized images), has effaced the distinction between the real and its copy. In reality’s stead, we find ourselves in the firm grip of the “hyperreal” (see Baudrillard “Die Präzession der Simulacra” 7), a non-reality which has come to liquidate the logic of reference and uses signifying strategies to conceal, or, in Baudrillard’s words, “dissimulate” (see 10), its unreality. Very often, hyperreality is more alluring than the real, because it replaces meaning with nostalgia (see 15). Like Jameson, Baudrillard associates with the postmodern condition the replacement of meaning with immanence, of depth with surface. Both thinkers could be termed somewhat conservative, in spite of their engagement with the postmodern condition, since they are unwilling to abandon their beliefs in particular metanarratives. While Jameson retains the teleological Marxist notion of history, Baudrillard’s reflections on simulation entail a nostalgic longing for a time when truth was supposedly accessible. Jacques Derrida, probably the philosopher most commonly associated with post-structuralism, refutes this idea and claims that the referent is always already lost (see Grammatologie 66). Baudrillard in his concept of simulation clearly applies semiotic strategies, but while his apocalyptic notions remain strangely caught up with the logic of the Western metaphysics of presence, Derrida is more concerned with deconstructing these traditional depth models.

2. Challenging the Given: Deconstruction and Discourse

The post-structuralist strategy of “deconstruction” has become one of the most important means of challenging the institutions and ideologies of modernity. Post-structuralism relates to structuralism in a similar way as postmodernity does to modernity, that is, it developed as much out of it as against it, and therefore there are also elements of continuity between the two. Most post-structuralist theories depart from Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistic theories, in particular from his assumption that the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary and that the sign acquires meaning only in contrast to other signs. According to Gregson, “the gap this opens between language and the world is the space into which all postmodernist theorizing, and explicitly postmodernist literature, enters” (Gregson 3). Derrida, who coined the term “deconstruction” in the late 1960s, acknowledges the significance of Saussure’s semiotic theory (see Gregson 5), but pursues the idea of language-as-construct far beyond the structuralist horizon. Firstly, while Saussure still assumes an intricate, albeit arbitrary, bond between signifier and signified, Derrida refutes the idea of a stable connection between the two. Instead, he postulates that signs operate through a differential logic and can thus only ever refer to other signs in a never-ending chain of cross-references (see Derrida, Jaques 272). For Derrida, signs do not unproblematically refer to any reality “outside” of the text, on the contrary: reality itself can only be accessed through language. His famous concept of “différance” combines this idea of linguistic self-containment and deferral. Derrida also scrutinizes the way in which linguistic ordering systems that apply the logic of binary oppositions perpetuate dominant power structures. He illustrates that this logic is anything but neutral, as it always privileges one term over the other – e.g. man over woman, reason over emotion, active over passive, and so on (see Best and Kellner Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations see 21). In this, he is influenced by Nietzsche’s assumption that at the core of any cultural statement lies the will to power. He also stresses that it is impossible to “step outside” of these ordering systems which surround us completely, because all that “appears to be real is in fact structural” (Gregson 4). There is no outside of the text (see Derrida 274), insofar as we can only ever refer to and express ourselves through, linguistic signs. These presuppositions present the basis for the postmodernist strategy of “deconstruction”. With “deconstruction” we encounter another term that, like many others in the postmodernist terminology, is extremely hard to define and could even be said to somewhat resist definition. Derrida himself never delivered a satisfying definition. Ian Gregson comprehends deconstruction as “disbelief put into practice […], an antisystem, or a system that subverts systems […], a mechanism that exposes mechanisms” (1) by drawing attention to the structures “which are so familiar that they appear natural” (5).

This is also what Foucault sets about doing in his works. He is a key influence on many postmodern theorists (although he himself always rejected this label), since his work focuses on the linguistic construction of social institutions and conventions. He refers to these practices as “discourses”. In his very heterogeneous oeuvre, Foucault analyses diverse discourses and their historical development, ranging from medical to pathological, from criminal to sexual. Far from reflecting a positive reality, he claims that discourses are always motivated, producing knowledge that perpetuates power relations: “In any society, discourse is power because the rules determining discourse enforce norms of what is rational, sane, or true” (Best and Kellner 57f). Power, according to Foucault, is not a homogenous intersubjective force; it is not a structure or an institution. “It is a process, not a product” (Hutcheon A Poetics of Postmodernism 168). Although multiple power structures and discourses precede the formation of any subject, there are strategies of influencing them: “ […] as soon as there is a power relation, there is a possibility of resistance. We can never be ensnared by power; we can always modify its grip in determinate conditions and according to a precise strategy” (Foucault, Michel qtd. in Best and Kellner 55). These linguistic strategies or discourse politics enable marginal groups to contest hegemonic discourses and open them up for revision. Foucault’s discourse analysis can therefore be called a deconstructive method, as it contains the two movements described by the term deconstruction. It is equally disruptive and creative; it exposes or dismantles structures to open them up for reconsideration: “[…] there is a doubled discourse: a disavowal and then reinscription of control or power” (Hutcheon A Poetics of Postmodernism 186).

It is therefore not surprising that deconstruction has become a particularly powerful strategy in the emancipation of marginalized groups and minorities. Postcolonial and gender theorists use deconstructive methods to dislodge traditional binaries and undermine the rhetoric of domination. Gender critics use strategies of deconstruction in order to reveal the constructed nature of the gender divide and its ideological origins and functions. Postcolonial works, such as Edward Said’s Orientalism and Homi K. Bhabha’s Nation and Narration, scrutinize the discursivity of such concepts as “centre” and “periphery”, “self and other”, and their necessity for the ideological legitimation of Western civilization. While postcolonial and gender theory are by no means identical to postmodern theory, they are strongly affiliated, sharing not only means but also many ends. Its political potential, I would argue, indicates that deconstruction is by no means a purely nihilistic project, merely seeking to undo Western tradition, but, on the contrary, presents us with new individual strategies of intervention.

The evaluations of the postmodern condition range from pessimistic to celebratory, depending on whether their focus lies on the loss of traditional hierarchies and the belief in metanarratives that we have made out at the beginning of postmodernity, or whether they concentrate more on the political opportunities that come in the wake of this demise. While Baudrillard deplores the loss of an objectifiable and authentic reality, Jameson comprehends postmodern theory and culture as apolitical and depthless. Others reject the designation altogether, or, like Habermas opt for a critical continuation of the Enlightenment project (see “An Alternative Way out of the Philosophy of Subject: Communicative versus Subject-Centred Reason” 596f). Deconstruction and discourse analysis, on the other hand, have shown, that it is possible to both problematize totalizing metanarratives and retain a political agenda. Thus, many postmodern theorists, especially those concerned with minorities, celebrate the questioning of Western ideologies and the new emphasis on plurality which create new possibilities of emancipation, of giving a voice to the marginalized.

However, it is important to be aware of the tension that these two, ultimately opposed, tendencies introduce into the conception of the postmodern. The postmodern incredulity toward metanarratives, which entails the notion of meaning as contingent and provisional, and its commitment to combating injustice and oppression may not, at present, appear to conflict each other at all, as they are both directed against the domination of the West and its discourses of legitimation. This agenda is, however, anything but free from ideological bias. Instead, the values promoted indicate something of an overarching ideological structure, or metanarrative, underlying much of postmodern thought. It becomes evident from Jameson’s and Baudrillard’s accusation of nihilism, that they both neglect or depreciate the political potential of deconstruction and other postmodern practices. It is, on the other hand, quite easy to ignore the complicity of postmodernism and deconstruction with the very discourses of the West they are often directed against, such as liberal humanism, and lapse into yet another form of essentialism. Linda Hutcheon formulates the problem quite aptly:

These paradoxes are […] what has led to the political ambidexterity of postmodernism in general. If you ignore half of the contradiction, however, it becomes quite easy to see the postmodern as either neoconservatively nostalgic/reactionary or radically disruptive/revolutionary. I would argue that we must beware of this suppression of the full complexity of postmodernist paradoxes. (A Poetics of Postmodernism xiii)

These different evaluations of the postmodern condition also play a vital role in designating what renders a work of art postmodernist. In the following section, I will briefly outline some of the most popular definitions of postmodernism and illustrate the way these contradictions are, or are not, perceived.

3. Concepts of Postmodernism

Now that I have given a rough outline of the passage from modernity to postmodernity and presented some of the most influential concepts of the postmodern, I would like to focus on the manner in which the philosophical and political developments that presuppose it influence content and form of postmodernist art. What is postmodernism?

“Postmodernism”, Brian McHale argues, is itself a discursive construct, a literary-historical fiction that can be filled with a variety of meanings (see Postmodernist Literature 4). He pays particular attention to the prefix “POST” and the suffix “ISM”. The “ISM” for him points to a cluster of aesthetic techniques that differ from modernist devices (see McHale 5). He furthermore points out that some dislike the prefix “POST” as lessening the value of the movement, as “suggestive less of a vigorous or even interesting new direction [...] than of something anti-climatic, feebly following a very hard act to follow” (Barth, John qtd. in McHale 3). Similarly, Richard Kostelanetz thinks that “major movements are defined in their own terms, rather than by their relation to something else” (qtd. in McHale 3). McHale rejects such an evaluation, emphasizing that it merely underlines the historicity of the concept, its relation to the modernist movement - a relation, according to McHale, that is one of “historical consequence rather than sheer temporal posteriority. Postmodernism follows from modernism, in some sense, more than it follows after modernism” (McHale 5). This consequentiality is vital to his understanding of the rise of postmodernism and presents a useful starting point for the analysis of what characterizes an artistic work as “postmodernist”. With the help of Roman Jakobson’s concept of the dominant – “the focusing component of a work or art” (qtd. in McHale 6) – he identifies the shift from modernism to postmodernism with a shift from an epistemological in the first (see McHale 9) to an ontological dominant (see McHale 10) in the latter. According to McHale, modernist art is therefore marked by a concern with epistemological themes like the accessibility and limits of knowledge. In literature he identifies certain narrative techniques, like the use of interior monologue (see 9f), with a foregrounding of epistemological questions. Postmodernist literature, on the other hand, asks questions like:

What is a world?; What kinds of world are there, how are they constituted, and how do they differ?; What happens when different kinds of world are placed in confrontation, or when boundaries between worlds are violated?; What is the mode of existence of a text, and what is the mode of existence of the world (or worlds) it projects?; How is a projected world structured? (McHale 10)

The concept of the dominant quite neatly underlines the historicity of this development, because it describes it as a gradual process rather than as a violent rupture: “Intractable epistemological uncertainty becomes at a certain point ontological plurality or instability: push epistemological questions far enough and they ‘tip over’ into ontological questions” (McHale 11) – and vice versa. Thus, one mode always entails the other. What follows this definition is what McHale himself terms a “descriptive poetics” (McHale xi) of postmodernism that covers a vast number of texts and identifies manifold motifs and devices they share. Under this ontological umbrella he produces a catalogue of postmodernist features that includes generic plurality, mise-en-abyme, metalepsis, heteroglossia, indeterminacy and many other relevant elements.

McHale’s definition, however, exhibits two principal flaws. Firstly, as Steven Connor points out, by attempting to pinpoint the “underlying systematicity” (Postmodernist Culture 131) of postmodernist literature, he sometimes displays an awkward essentialism that runs contrary to the very idea of postmodernism. Secondly, and more importantly, he neglects the social and political dimension of this development. He neglects the fact that this shift in dominant is more than a literary change of focus – it represents, as we shall see, a conscious distancing from modernity and its latent ideologies. At times, he comes close to touching upon the political relevance of ontological scepticism, when he, for example proposes that the postmodern condition is “an anarchic landscape of worlds in the plural” (McHale 37), only to then return to his descriptive analysis. He specifically focuses on the “how”, but separates it from the “why”. Limiting his scope to specific characteristics of literary texts, McHale fails to clarify the ideological implications of this, as it were, “ontological turn”, and thus ultimately retains the traditional boundary between theory and art, in spite of the concept’s potential to draw attention to the artificiality of such boundaries.

By the same token, Steven Connor criticizes Ihab Hassan’s attempt to illustrate the alleged differences between modernism and postmodernism with a table where stylistic, philosophical and theological oppositions are confronted (see Connor Postmodernist Culture 117-121). While on the one hand insisting that there is no absolute break from modernism, that, indeed, “the postmodern spirit lies coiled within the great corpus of modernism” (Hassan, Ihab qtd. in Connor Postmodernist Culture 118), he on the other hand provides the reader with a positivistic table of characteristics. In ascribing to modernism principles such as “hierarchy”, “totalization”, “boundary”, and to postmodernism the preferred “anarchy”, “deconstruction”, “intertext” (see Connor Postmodernist Culture 118f), Hassan in fact applies the very logic of binary oppositions that post-structuralist theories so vehemently combat as perpetuating inequality and injustice.

Perhaps then, to avoid such an essentialist lapse, the question should be less what postmodernism is than what it does. What ideas and goals fuel the postmodernist imagination?

Alan Wilde considers the crucial difference between modernism and postmodernism to lie in the way they respond to the fragmentation and disorder that, to him, are as much part of the modern as of the postmodern condition (see Connor Postmodernist Culture 121). Modernism, to him, takes a very critical stance toward the capitalist dynamic of modernity. Writers of “high” modernism, like Eliot, Woolf and Forster, aestheticize these incoherences and project them “in the form of binary conflicts (flesh and spirit, self and society)” (Connor Postmodernist Culture 121). Far from presenting a resolution of the paradoxes that dominate the modern experience, this withdrawal into the, supposedly separate and autonomous, realm of art, leads to a containment of the crisis. Wilde refers to the modernist desire “simultaneously to be true to incoherence and to transcend it” (Connor Postmodernist Culture 121), as “disjunctive irony”, which is an “aristocratically unrevolutionary” (Connor Postmodernist Culture 121) reaction: “Disorder fixed in this way into the rictus of the aesthetic only internalizes pressures which are to erupt to the surface with postmodernism” (Connor Postmodernist Culture 122). “Suspensive irony”, the dominant strategy in postmodernist literature, on the other hand, is marked by an extreme awareness of the uncertainty of things coupled with an acceptance of a world “seen as random and multiple, even, at times absurd” (Wilde, Alan “Modernism and the Aesthetics of Crisis” 16). Instead of retreating and throwing a tantrum, postmodernist art is thus marked by an engagement in the world and an attempt to modify the disorder of postmodern realities.

4. Intertextuality as Metafiction and Dialogue

In the following section I will attempt to outline the concept of “postmodernist intertextuality”, for which Hutcheon’s notion of “historiographic metafiction” and Bakhtin’s “dialogism”, provide the main theoretical background.

Julia Kristeva who coined the term defines intertextuality as a principal characteristic of all texts:

[…] tout texte se construit comme mosaïque de citations, tout texte est absorption et transformation d’un autre texte. A la place de la notion d’intersubjectivité s’installe celle d’ intertextualité, et le langage poétique se lit, au moins, comme double. (qtd. in Pfister, Manfred “Konzepte der Intertextualität” 6)

Kristeva’s idea of text, however, radically extends the term to delineate any kind of cultural structure (see 7). Interrelatedness thus becomes a property of all signifying systems. Kristeva’s concept of intertextuality is without a doubt a powerful one, as it consequently undermines the boundaries between reality and its representations. It points to the constructedness of a reality we normally perceive as unproblematically given and comprehends any work of art as inextricably connected to the socio-historical conditions of its production. It is furthermore liberating, since it deconstructs claims to cultural autonomy and supremacy. This concept, however, is of little heuristic value, as Pfister points out (see 15), since every text thus per definitionem contains traces of the entire textual universe (see 13). For this reason, even defenders of the text-ontological model of intertextuality are forced to narrow down their scope when analysing a specific literary text.

In order to illuminate the connection between the postmodern agendas described above and the intertextual references we find in so many postmodernist texts, Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of “dialogism” from which Kristeva derived many of her ideas (see Pfister 1) is particularly useful. The starting point for “dialogičnost”, which has been translated into English as “dialogism”, is the non-identity of mind and world (see Holquist 17fi.e. the experience of otherness. The “self”, however, is not the opposite of this otherness, but attains definition only through its relation to the other, through dialogue. Bakhtin sees the relationships between fact/fiction, text/context not as binary oppositions but as “asymmetric dualisms” (Holquist 19), meaning they only ever exist together, simultaneously, in relation to one another. The self is surrounded by a multitude of different voices and discourses that it actively has to make sense of – a situation that Bakhtin describes with the term “heteroglossia” (Holquist 69). The literary text presents an effort not only to construct but also to disseminate meanings. Dialogism thus challenges the fixity of boundaries between “literary” and “extra-literary” discourse (without declaring such a distinction obsolete): “In the light of dialogism, literature can never be completely disentangled from its capacity to serve as a metaphor for other aspects of existence” (Holquist 107). Bakhtin regards writing as a political activity, a struggle (see Pfister 2), which can either realize the plurality of existence, or attempt to contain and unify heterogeneity. In authoritarian and centralized societies the latter mode of monologism is prevalent, as the dialogic principle always threatens to undermine centralized claims to power and truth (see Pfister 2). Dialogism, to Bakhtin, is especially prominent in the novel, because of this genre’s self-consciousness about its own status as genre, and, secondly, because it directly relates to the norms of everyday speech, thereby “flaunting or displaying the variety of discourses, knowledge of which other genres seek to suppress” (Holquist 72). Bakhtin refers to this awareness of multiplicity and polyphony as “novelness” (Holquist 67). He therefore comprehends literature not as mirroring the world, but as a reflection on the ways in which we construct the world.

The dialogic principle can potentially be found on each and every level of the literary discourse within the novel. The text first and foremost dialogically relates to a social, historical and cultural “reality”. Secondly, it relates to past texts which themselves partake in the discursive formations of the world. Thirdly, forms of dialogue can be found within the framework of the story, sometimes even within single characters (see Holquist 68f). As we shall see, Bakhtin’s notion of “dialogism” shares with Linda Hutcheon’s concept of “historiographic metafiction” the combination of self-reflexivity and intertextuality with the potential to bring about change in the way reality is perceived: “Greater or lesser degrees of novelness can serve as an index of greater or lesser awareness of otherness” (Holquist 73). Postmodernist fiction with its suspicion of realism and universalism, then, I would claim, is marked by a high degree of novelness.

The postmodernist novel, more often than not, realizes notions of multiplicity and otherness with the help of metaphors and innovative structural devices such as multiple diegetic levels and metalepsis, mix of genres, magical motives, alternative and open endings. These can all be said to call attention to the fictionality of the narrative, signalling both self-awareness and creating a significant gap between text and reader. This prevents the complete identification of the reader with the world portrayed within the text in the manner of Brecht’s “Verfremdungseffekt” (see Hutcheon A Poetics of Postmodernism 35). Bakhtin observes that, as we are constantly involved in the structures that determine our reality, it is impossible to comprehend their constructedness. His term “vnenakhodimost”, which has been translated into English as “outsideness” (Holquist 30), refers to a self-distancing move that enables one to perceive familiar structures such as the “self” and “home” from different angles and engage in a relativizing dialogue. Thus, the introduction of alienating elements into narratives that at first pretend to represent familiar historical or social conditions produces a dialogic tension that in turn calls into question our understanding of reality.

Bakhtin’s concept of dialogism is time and again evoked in theories on postmodernist literature (see Hutcheon A Poetics of Postmodernism; McHale 162-171, Gregson 33-36) and seems particularly relevant to those that define postmodernism through its “metafictional” awareness. According to Patricia Waugh

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. In providing a critique of their own methods of construction, such writings not only examine the fundamental structures of narrative fiction, they also explore the possible fictionality of the world outside the literary fictional text. (“What is Metafiction and Why are They Saying Such Awful Things About it?” 40)

To Linda Hutcheon, postmodernism problematizes the distinction between fact and fiction through what she refers to as “historiographic metafiction” (see A Poetics of Postmodernism 105). This kind of postmodernist fiction starts from the post-structuralist assumption that reality is only ever accessible in the form of texts. Historiography too is structured, coherent and teleological – that is it deploys the same techniques as fictional narratives:

History is […] being rethought – as a human construct. And in arguing that history does not exist except as text, it does not stupidly and ‘gleefully’ deny that the past existed, but only that its accessibility to us now is entirely conditioned by textuality. (Hutcheon A Poetics of Postmodernism 16)

Historiographic metafiction reflects knowingly upon its status as fiction, but simultaneously incorporates historical events and personages. These accounts, however, often contradict standard historiography, either because they foreground the possibility of mnemonic failure, misconception and even manipulation, or because they are presented from a different, often marginal, perspective. This preoccupation with history, for Hutcheon, is particularly urgent within postmodernist fiction, as Western concepts of history are closely connected with those humanist world views and values that postmodernism contests:

It seems to be inevitably tied up with that set of challenged cultural and social assumptions that also condition our notions of both theory and art today: our beliefs in origins and ends, unity, and totalization, logic and reason, consciousness and human nature, progress and fate, representation and truth, not to mention the notions of causality and temporal homogeneity, linearity, and continuity […].(Hutcheon A Poetics of Postmodernism 87)

Postmodernism as well as modernism is thus marked by an intense self-relfexivity, but while in modernism it signifies the attempt to withdraw from the “real” world into that of art, such a withdrawal is neither possible nor desirable if art is seen as coextensive with the real. Postmodernist self-reflexivity is therefore not mere textual play, but profoundly political:

Historiographic metafiction incorporates all three of these domains: that is, its theoretical self-awareness of history and fiction as human constructs (historio graphic meta fiction) is made the grounds for its rethinking and reworking of the forms and contents of the past. (Hutcheon A Poetics of Postmodernism 5)

Postmodernist literature engages in problematizing issues of representation and processes of production and reception. It becomes politically potent, not because it provides a theoretical frame that would enable a move into political action, but because it presents the meaning of cultural, racial and sexual difference as “something mutable, something historical, and therefore something we can do something about” (Burgin, Victor qtd. in Hutcheon The Politics of Postmodernism 22). It does so through the duplicitous strategy of “parody”. The term as she employs it does not denote “ridiculing imitation” – it does not at all exclude seriousness and purpose. Instead, it denotes “repetition with critical distance that allows ironic signalling of difference at the very heart of similarity” (Hutcheon A Poetics of Postmodernism 26).

She disagrees emphatically with Jameson’s evaluation of postmodernist art. While Jameson also considers intertextuality as a key feature of postmodernism, he considers it to be nostalgic in nature and void of political motives. He refers to this kind of “random cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusion” (Jameson, qtd. in Homer 106) as “pastiche”, as opposed to modernist “parody”, which judges the original by mocking its style. Indeed, Hutcheon’s and Jameson’s definitions of “parody” are quite similar, with the vital difference that Jameson ascribes it to modernist art while Hutcheon considers it characteristic of postmodernism. I agree with Linda Hutcheon. Taking a closer look at the body of postmodernist literature proves its political engagement, while many modernist texts, like Woolf's Mrs Dalloway or Joyce’s Ulysses are more concerned with subjectivity. Texts by authors like Salman Rushdie, Angela Carter or John Fowles, are both intensely historical and subversive.

Parody – often called ironic quotation, pastiche, appropriation, or intertextuality – is usually considered central to postmodernism, both by its detractors and its defenders. […] But this parodic reprise of the past of art is not nostalgic; it is always critical. (Hutcheon The Politics of Postmodernism 89)

Parody, as Hutcheon defines it, presents a privileged mode of postmodernist self-reflexivity, because it critically reflects upon the past and present from within, as it were, incorporating its very discourses into the text. It exposes power structures as man-made and thereby opens the “already-said” up to criticism and reinscription:

One of the things we must be open to listening to is what I have called the ex-centric, the off-centre. Postmodernism questions centralized, totalized, hierarchized, closed systems: questions, but does not destroy. It acknowledges the human urge to make order, while pointing out that the orders we create are just that: human constructs, not natural or given entities. (Hutcheon A Poetics of Postmodernism 41f)

Despite its subversive character, parody is nevertheless marked by irreducible duplicity because it is inextricably bound up with what it criticizes, as postmodernism always entails that which precedes and predetermines it (see Hutcheon The Politics of Postmodernism 4). Parody is an intertextual, dialogic, activity – “past and present are judged in each other’s light” (Hutcheon A Poetics of Postmodernism 39). Postmodernist art forms

at once use and abuse, install and then destabilize convention in parodic ways, self-consciously pointing both to their own inherent paradoxes and provisionality and, of course, to their critical or ironic re-reading of the art of the past. (Hutcheon A Poetics of Postmodernism 23)

Conventions are violated, boundaries transgressed to show their artificiality and to create new art forms that realize the plurality postmodernism calls for. This “playing with the pieces” is, however, “a case of play with purpose” (Hutcheon A Poetics of Postmodernism 49). Among the two most important divisions that postmodernism challenges are the separation of theory and practice and the distinction between high art and mass culture (see Hutcheon The Politics of Postmodernism 18). Linda Hutcheon claims that postmodernist art “does indeed ‘close the gap’ that Leslie Fiedler saw between high and low art forms, and it does so through the ironizing of both […]. Postmodernism is both academic and popular, élitist and accessible” (A Poetics of Postmodernism 44).

As far as the distinction between theory and practice is concerned, the boundaries become fluid if one foregrounds, as Hutcheon does, their textuality and considers history, philosophy and fiction as interrelated discursive practices that all partake in the production of power. What postmodernist fiction therefore does, is constantly challenge the centre by rewriting the literary and historical past.

Intertextual parody of canonical American and European classics is one mode of appropriating and reformulating - with significant change - the dominant white, male, middle-class, heterosexual, Euro-centric culture. It does not reject it, for it cannot. Postmodernism signals its dependence by its use of the canon, but reveals its rebellion through its ironic abuse of it. (Hutcheon A Poetics of Postmodernism 130)

Far from denying the necessity of the centre, postmodernism nevertheless manages in its de-naturalizing critique of the centre’s ideologies to point to its constructedness and arbitrariness, thus opening it up to the ex-centric. Hutcheon’s emancipatory notion of intertextuality is a consciously political kind of writing, one that engages the reader in the activity of deconstruction, one “that demands of the reader not only the recognition of textualized traces of the literary and historical past but also the awareness of what has been done – through irony – to those traces” (A Poetics of Postmodernism 127).

Although starting from completely different theoretical presumptions, Bakhtin and Hutcheon both arrive at similar conclusions regarding intentional intertextuality. Both ascribe to it the potential to intervene in the discourses that shape our reality. Moreover, both concepts are intensely dynamic and therefore escape the logic of essentialism to which Jameson, Hassan, McHale and others to some extend still adhere.

5. Postmodernist Intertextuality and the Politics of Representation

The starting point of this interpretation is the thesis that intertextuality in postmodernism can serve as a deconstructive strategy. Deconstructive readings “track down within a text the aporia or internal contradiction that undermines its claims to coherent meaning; or they reveal how texts can be seen to deconstruct themselves” (“deconstruction”). Intentional references to another text can do both, as they establish a dialogue between both texts, thus offering different perspectives on and alternative interpretations of, the intertext.



ISBN (eBook)
File size
881 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Frankfurt (Main) – Institut für England- und Amerikastudien
Postmodernist Intertextuality David Mitchell Cloud Atlas




Title: Postmodernist Intertextuality in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas