Contemporary art theorist Thierry de Duve once wrote that art indicates “one of the thresholds where humans withdraw from their natural condition and where their universe sets itself to signifying”. Or where – in a slight rephrasing – the universe sets to signifying itself. Such self-consciousness is one of the basic prerequisites for culture, and art has long been a reliable (and entertaining) method of self-reflectively interrogating ourselves and our customs. Given this, it is natural that art should at some point turn its scrutiny to its own ontology. Academic studies into the nature of language, symbolism, and narrative are one thing; stories about storytelling are useful in an entirely different way.
The last century birthed literature that exposes the assumptions on which fiction rests. We have novels that know they are novels, books that ask the reader to question the nature of books, and stories that subvert expectations of what stories do. Heroes fail to act heroically, protagonists end up learning nothing, and the writing draws attention to itself rather than aspiring to a naturalism that keeps the words out of the way of the story. This is fiction acting as non-fiction, a kind of interrogative analysis in the form of literature. But that which studies is rarely as interesting as that which is studied, and there are only so many ways a novel can reveal itself and only so many times a reader wants to be reminded that she is reading. So where have we come from with this postmodern stuff and where can metafiction go in the future?
“I quote others only in order the better to express myself.”
(Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays)
In Kurt Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus, we are informed in a fictitious introduction that the novel was written on scraps of paper amassed by the narrator while in prison. Horizontal lines along the pages thus demark where the original scrap of paper ended and the next began, a charade intended to lend narrative credibility to the novel. But it also draws attention to the fact that none of this – our hero, his prison, the scraps of paper – is real. Every time the novel insists that it is non-fiction it reveals its fictitious nature. The text is even punctuated with the word “cough” to mark each time the author coughed while writing – a device intended to add a naturalistic quality to the writing while being so manufactured it becomes a huge neon sign advertising the novel’s construction.
Why did Vonnegut do this? Several reasons stand up to scrutiny, not least that he was a playful writer happy to poke fun at himself and his work. But the most pertinent reason is best expressed by the narrator of Hocus Pocus when he defines art: “Making the most of the raw materials of futility.” In utilising devices meant to portray the novel as non-fiction while remaining obviously fictitious, Vonnegut highlights the futility of complete realism in art and, most interestingly, the paradox at the heart of literature: that it is a lie masquerading as truth, and that it is only by being in a state of metaxis between the two that literature sources its power. The kind of literary self-reference Vonnegut plays with here reveals much about what it is to engage with literature and probes at the contradictions inherent in the relationship between the reader and the novel.
Last month, I examined characters that cross textual boundaries. Perhaps the ultimate crossover character is you, the reader, while reading Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller. It is a postmodern novel that describes your experience of reading the titular book. (Incidentally, the structure of Cloud Atlas was inspired by the structure of Italo’s novel, which itself was inspired by the work of an earlier academic.) This acknowledgment of the true nature of literature from within a piece of literature is about more than showing off or winking knowingly at the reader, as is now so often the case with postmodern irony. Calvino was speaking directly to the reader as a reader, sharing in the joy of reading together. His novel sets out to be a discussion of fiction and reading, the best description of which can only exist within a piece of literature, hence Calvino’s self-referential experimentation.
There was a time and culture in which the response to such postmodern explorations was profound and genuine surprise. When Magritte unveiled his painting The Treachery of Images, in which a pipe (or is it?) sits above the sentence, “This is not a pipe”, he was reproached for what was seen as a barefaced lie. This was because the line between the reality and falsity of what an artwork depicts had not been crossed until that point. Today, we see something like Magritte’s painting and smirk because we “get it”. Or, worse still, we don’t even notice it, saturated as we are in this kind of self-consciousness. Even corporate advertisements sell things to us now by acknowledging that you are watching an advertisement and that they are trying to sell you something. It is at this point that we should all see the cultural cul-de-sac postmodernism has driven us into.
“Over time, irony becomes the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.”
(Lewis Hyde, Alcohol & Poetry)
Two examples of the failing power of self-reference and metafiction from the Marvel Cinematic Universe:
First, the overuse of crossover characters. We are at a precipice, over which mainstream movies and books are falling into vacuous uses of ill-conceived crossover characters. Marvel kicked off a trend for shared universes, a fad now being replicated in the DC universe, MonsterVerse, Dark Universe, and the Stephen-King-for-TV universe of Castle Rock. Marvel have approached their own metafiction with originality, and the expansion of imagined worlds is one of the pleasures of metafiction, but it is being exploited by big studios and second-rate writers for profit and because it’s easy. They understand from the successes of previous films and the feedback of focus groups that audiences enjoy self-referential irreverence. Unfortunately, they are repeating it endlessly and with little concern for the fact that they are devaluing their own product. The more self-reference they feed us, the less hungry for it we become, and the less we appreciate its flavour.
Second, the over-reliance on bathos. The Guardians of the Galaxy films depend on parodic subversion of action-film conventions, Deadpool was a send-up of the whole idea of superheroes, and Doctor Strange turned at the most bizarre moments to humour, including a punchline during what should have been the culmination of the hero’s journey.* The writers seem to fear expressing sincere emotions or espousing noble convictions – god forbid that happen in a story about a dramatic superhero whose mission is to uphold justice. This kind of self-reference acknowledges the conventions of genre and, rather than saying much of interest about those conventions or attempting to vivify them, simply cuts the throat with a wink at the audience – a trick in which you thought I was going this way, but I suddenly went that way. How many times can I keep that up before you catch on and it gets old?
Admittedly, the misuse of a thing is not a criticism of the thing itself. But what if the adverse effects of postmodernism are not due to its misapplication but because it has run out of things to say? Many of its once culture-shattering ideas are now accepted as readily as the assumptions it destabilised. Today, parody, iconoclasm, and subversion of narrative norms are parlour tricks for sitcom writers and marketing executives. This is what happens to all counter-culture ideas, if they do not crumble under scrutiny. And like a broom used to sweep away the dust of dereliction and dirt of prejudices, postmodern self-reference was useful once and is worth bringing out from time to time when some of the clutter needs clearing. But what to do in the interim? When we’re ready for a break from critiquing and want to do some construction, what will our new tools be?
“If you think this Universe is bad, you should see some of the others.”
(Philip K Dick)
Postmodernism has undoubtedly given us some of the smartest (Infinite Jest, House of Leaves), probing (the work of Foucault and social commentary of Žižek), and hilarious (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) material of the last forty years. But the saturation of our culture with the narrative-subverting narrative of postmodernism is increasingly raising complaints. This dissent from the dominant worldview of our time comes from two fronts. One is the large number of our best writers and artists who, for at least two decades, have been questioning what comes next. The other is the general public: the readers who long for “old-fashioned storytelling” and those who long for the avant-garde to become interesting again; the film-goers cheering the sincere heroism of Wonder Woman and yawning at the self-aware pseudo-subversion of Suicide Squad; the gallery visitors who write off modern art as so introspective that it is hermetically sealed from their understanding.
There is a danger of becoming too broad in our dismissal of art-for-art’s-sake. It is a common complaint that modern art “can be anything” and therefore means nothing, because the elements to which it refers (often esoteric features of culture and art theory) are not always accessible to those of us outside of those circles. But there is no reason that some art should not be about the art world or should not appeal only to those with relevant experience and fluency in the lingua franca of contemporary art. Perhaps this comes down to a mistaken belief that art should inherently aim for as wide an audience as possible. I think this is not only untrue, it also risks homogenising art to a bland presentation of universals that require little thought or work on the part of the viewer. (Think of Banksy, for example.)
It would also be a misunderstanding to think I am arguing against irony, self-consciousness, and even cynicism in art. We would be the poorer for abandoning everything postmodernism brings to the table. I am suggesting that it is not enough on its own, and that we need to look forward to new modes of thought and creativity. Metafiction is one amongst many ways of doing literature (this is a postmodern precept), and I think that until the next big movement appears, it would be worth our time to revisit some of the older – more traditional and universal – ideas of human cultures. Maybe the way forward will be clearer with a brief step back. Maybe retracing our steps will lead to one of the adjacent paths to postmodernism that we did not take the first time round. Who knows?
* To clarify: these subversions are not always failures, and in the case of Deadpool the parody is entirely justified by the character – an appropriate match of content and style. But even when successful, they are part of the increasing trend towards ironic self-reference. Irony once liberated us from the cage of myopic certainty; now, it binds us in a cynical rejection of anything that seems sentimental. For an interesting look at the overuse and misuse of bathos, specifically regarding that awful moment in Doctor Strange, check out “What Writers Should Learn From Wonder Woman” (YouTube).
• Thierry de Duve, Kant After Duchamp (1996)
• Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays (1572)
• Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus (1990)
• Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveller (1979)
• David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (2004)
• René Magritte, The Treachery of Images (1929)
• Lewis Hyde, Alcohol & Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking (1975)
• Philip K Dick, source unknown.