A version of this essay was originally submitted in partial fulfilment of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester in 2009.
Please note that if you quote or cite this work that it is © Karl Hodge 2012. The correct form of referencing is:
Karl Hodge. (2012). Time out of Joint Pt 1: The End of History. Again. Available: http://www.brokenenglish.co.uk/the-end-of-history/. Last accessed DD/MM/YYYY.
This is the first instalment of a six part essay that explores the role of postmodernity as a periodising concept in two contemporary novels: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and AL Kennedy’s Day. In this part, the author sets out a definition of postmodernity based on the work of Jameson, Lyotard and Baudrillard.
‘If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice,’
So says comic book supervillain The Joker in Alan Moore’s graphic novel The Killing Joke.
The Joker is a character with an 80 year history, reinvented over and over in comics, novels, radio, TV and film. He is a character that – with many iterations, influences and interpretations – embodies the condition of postmodernity.
There are multiple postmodernisms; named or knighted by critics. The aesthetic postmodernity of modern architecture, the hypertextual postmodernity of video games and the revolt into style of fractured youth cultures. These movements are products of a frequently forgotten root; of postmodernity as a condition.
I wish to go to the source and look at postmodernity as a theoretical construct. I’ll be using postmodernity as a periodising concept, following the leads of literary critic Fredric Jameson, post-structuralist theorist Jean Baudrillard and, the ‘father’ of postmodern theory, Jean Francois Lyotard.
Two novels will come under scrutiny: A.L Kennedy’s Day and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The former is a historical narrative set in and around the time of World War II. It follows the character of Alfred Day as he deals with the trauma of an abusive childhood and a war spent in combat and captivity.
Cloud Atlas is, structurally, a more ambitious book. It’s a novel of six interlinked stories that span six time zones. Though markedly different in terms of scope and theme, the two books share a common, fractured temporality. This is the key feature I wish to investigate.
Both texts might be labelled ‘postmodern’ in a stylistic sense. They are both knowing and self-referential; they acknowledge their borrowing and seem cognisant of their place in historical canon. Still, my interest here is not in postmodernity as a style.
And while there will be some overlap, it is not my intention to dwell too much on questions that interrogate the constitution of a postmodern novel; postmodernism as a genre. Indeed, my contention is that all contemporary fiction is postmodern to a greater or lesser extent.
I am more concerned with time – which is an apparently perverse choice given that the postmodern condition is most often categorised as ‘the end of history’; the end of change and modernity. As a theoretical construct postmodernity is most commonly associated and preoccupied with space. However, although postmodernity begins with a full stop, time – necessarily – continues. It is only our experience of time that alters; our representation of it. In the same way that we can never authentically use the axiom ‘the camera never lies’ in the postmodern world, we can no longer believe in the reality of recorded history.
That is postmodernism’s immutable core. In Jean-Francois Lyotard’s La Condition Postmoderne, published in 1979 and translated into English in 1984, he says:
‘In contemporary society and culture — postindustrial society, postmodern culture — the grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation. (…) That is what the postmodern world is all about’
By ‘grand narrative’ Lyotard means the legacy of culturally agreed truths; the convictions upon which societies were founded and operated. He cites mythology, religion and then – in the ‘modern’ age – science as examples. At the end of modernity – the end of the age of invention – these are all in doubt. They are fragmented, fractured and no longer absolute. Postmodernity is, then, an age of uncertainty and a time without a future or an unequivocal past. The past is multiple choice. Myth, religion and science are no longer able to guide us to resolution.
The end of modernity is implicit in this. Though its modality, practices and even intentions remain intact in every branch of cultural production, the results are always, arguably, postmodern. It is those results – the modes of expression left to the creative practitioner in the postmodern era – that will be explicit in my analysis of the two texts I’ve chosen to look at. In particular I wish to signal that, though the postmodern condition may be the ‘end of history’, it is not the end of temporality.
I’d also like to state that I am not arguing for the reader to accept the postmodern condition without question. Theory is hyperbole. Theory is metaphor. Theories that define postmodernity as a condition are useful tools. We may not feel as though the postmodern condition is in our lived experience, but we can trace its influence in the artefacts of our culture; film, art and, of course, literature.
Here, the theory provides a framing concept that will enable me to talk about periodising elements in Cloud Atlas and Day, two texts that stretch the boundaries of linear narrative and sequential chronology.