Sunday, August 23, 2009

Narrative and Making Sense

In honor of my first day of school, here is the paper I submitted to the grad schools I applied to. It includes pieces of three posts I have already posted (two of which were originally papers for what I called the "Time Class"), but the material has shifted enough that I'm not even going to bother pointing them out.

I feel like I'm 18 again. I haven't like I was 18 again since I was 23.

This was the culmination of the Time Class I took last summer that began with James, Bergson and Woolf, and I'm quite happy with it (which will only last for another couple months, I imagine). I don't like Jameson much, but he ends up making a pretty good foil. This paper crystallizes the dynamic I've been exploring, picked up from Rorty's practical philosophy and Pirsig's philosophical practice, between Narrative and Theory. It is likely largest stepping-stone in the area from where I am now and the things I'll be writing in the future.

What might be interesting for readers of Pirsig is my engagement with Sherman Alexie. In Lila, Pirsig apotheosizes the Native American, but his descriptions of them, I don't think, go much further at best than a finger in the right direction, too fuzzy and glorifying to reach what's really interesting in a contrast with white American culture. Reading Alexie will give you that real contrast, and the tradition that should be tapped into. (While on the one hand, this seems to depreciate Pirsig's own accomplishment, on the other, when I move to interpreting Alexie at the end of the paper, when I move to suggest that what Thomas the myth-maker says is not literally true, but that that's because he isn't using a Western sense of literalness, I could've just as easily said that Thomas was being metaphorical. That would've been true, but only from a Western perspective, and the breaking from a narrow literary reading to a larger literary-philosophical reading of the book was made possible for me, in part, because of my previous encounter with Pirsig.)

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


There are two kinds of people who feel all too keenly the potential loss of self: teenagers and philosophers. For the former group, anxiety often arises as they navigate the treacherous waters of identity formation, passing from the stage of dependent learning of childhood to the achieved autonomy of adulthood. Occasionally adolescents become disaffected as they become self-conscious about the entire process, learning that the available identity forms they are facing—and have indeed already inculcated in childhood—are the contingent products of a nameless history they seem randomly inserted into, thus eliminating their sense of uniqueness and any hope for autonomous control. A few of these inadvertently read Nietzsche, or perhaps Sartre, and become philosophers.

Through an interesting, though for present purposes passable, chain of events, many who in a past age might have become philosophers find themselves comfortably seated in English departments. If philosophy is generically the task of apprehending the largeness of culture and its problems, literary studies has produced a wing of their own to do just that: literary theory. In what follows, I would like to pick up one theorist of culture, Frederic Jameson, and evaluate his situation in contemporary theoretical discourse. Jameson’s overall argument is that our cultural coherence has disintegrated, leaving us—i.e., any chance of us having a sense of self—and our attempts to live well and responsibly in tatters, calling this condition “postmodernism.” My overall argument shall be that, while Jameson interestingly collages together a number of contemporary cultural patterns, his attempt to produce a (specific kind of) theory is exactly what hampers him. More specifically, Jameson believes a holistic account of language unsettles our attempts to make sense, whereas I will argue, in effect, that making sense is a basic condition of humanity (the basic form of which to be repeated is: to make sense of the case that we have demonstrably stopped making sense is to performatively contradict the case—you’ve just made sense). If my argument is right, though, we must redescribe the old ways of describing our situation in life that Jameson still clings to. For this I will recur to the example of Sherman Alexie and the work of Alasdair MacIntyre. In their work, we will find the messy stuff of life housed in the dwelling of mythic narratives.

Jameson’s first feature of postmodernism is “a new depthlessness” (Jameson 6). One of the prime pieces of evidence for this that Jameson points to is the rise of antifoundationalism in contemporary philosophy and theory. In Geyh, Leebron and Levy’s functional introduction to postmodern theory, they flesh out the notion of antifoundationalism chiefly by reference to Lyotard and Derrida. Lyotard defines “postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives” (Lyotard xxiv, italics his). For Lyotard, the postmodern condition is basically a skeptical attitude toward “any philosophy or theory … which claims to provide a complete explanation of culture and society” (Geyh xx). Derrida’s orientation toward the function of language is a rejection of the atomistic, pairing off of word-bits with their correct world-bit partners in favor of a linguistic holism, where meaning is generated by the ensemble of signs in interlocking conjunction. Derrida’s realization was that meaning is therefore “always in some sense in process, unstable, and ‘in play,’” (xxi) as the circumscribed ensemble can always be increased or decreased as context demands—like the shift in music from a string quartet to the London Symphony Orchestra. So on the one hand, Lyotard eliminates the large, overarching foundations for situating ourselves in the world and, on the other, Derrida eliminates the small, underpinned moorings we used to situate ourselves.

This instability is enunciated well by Jameson as he discusses the fate of the “self” at the hands of postmodernism. Jameson says that “the very concept of expression presupposes indeed some separation within the subject, and along with that a whole metaphysics of the inside and outside” (Jameson 11) and that postmodernism has made it central to itself to be “committed to the mission of criticizing and discrediting this very hermeneutic model of the inside and the outside” (12). This obliteration of the self is predicted largely by Wyndham Lewis’ identification of the irony of romanticism—all this focus on the individual personality ends up eviscerating the notion individuals.[fn.1] What we have, in some sense, is a hyper-romanticism in postmodernism, a dissolution of anything substantive to be as a self by the elimination of the traditional hard edges (of metanarratives or word-world pinnings) and the relocation of meaning-inscription within each person as they swim through the bottomless stream of time. We begin blending into each other because we are never quite sure where we end and someone else begins because we ultimately only know ourselves.

We should look closely, however, at what Jameson means by the “hermeneutic model.” Jameson says, in reference to his two readings of Van Gogh, that he’s using it in the sense “in which the work in its inert, objectal form is taken as a clue or a symptom for some vaster reality which replaces it as its ultimate truth” (8). So, in Jameson’s example, either his initial or his Heideggerian reading of Van Gogh’s peasant shoes replaces, perhaps, a simpler, shorter reading of the painting (something like, “They are shoes.”). This is characteristic of the earlier modern period, but in the postmodern period, we have works like Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes which “does not really speak to us at all” (ibid.). After noting a number of the painting’s features, Jameson concludes, “There is therefore in Warhol no way to complete the hermeneutic gesture…” (ibid.). If this is the case, though, one might wonder what the proceeding 167 words were if not an attempt to elaborate the “ultimate truth” to which Warhol’s painting is but “a clue.” Isn’t “there is therefore…” a signal that whatever fills in the ellipsis is the truth of the matter? The whole functioning structure of argumentative discourse preempts Jameson’s attempt to argue that postmodern discourse refuses conclusions in favor of unconnected pieces of flotsam, “oddments” without their “whole larger lived context” (ibid.).

In Jameson’s defense, he’s attempting to pull out the consequences to our culture of arguments that so-called postmodern theorists have been making. He says it would “be inconsistent to defend the truth of its theoretical insights in a situation in which the very concept of ‘truth’ itself is part of the metaphysical baggage which poststructuralism seeks to abandon” (12). The problem for Jameson is that he’s taking seriously things that he shouldn’t. Antifoundationalism doesn’t translate into a loss of truth, though many less careful theorists have thought so. A thorough-going theoretical antifoundationalism translates into a pragmatic linguistic holism. It doesn’t eliminate our connection to life, but radically reasserts the “whole larger lived context.” All antifoundationalism does to the hermeneutic model (“the work in its inert, objectal form is taken as a clue or a symptom for some vaster reality which replaces it as its ultimate truth”) is excise the word “ultimate.”

To help show what I mean, I’d like to trail into Jameson’s discussion of schizophrenia. Piggybacking on Jacques Lacan, Jameson “describes schizophrenia as a breakdown in the signifying chain” (26). Jameson states rightly that in holism the old “signified,” which used to be classically seen in atomistic conceptions of language as a material world-chunk, is now seen to be just another signifier.[fn.2] A signifier-as-signified, however, is in a particular kind of context, one of, roughly, being-pointed-to as opposed to the usual doing-the-pointing situation of a signifier. Jameson, again rightly, calls this a “meaning-effect,” but then goes on to call this an “objective mirage of signification generated and projected by the relationship of signifiers among themselves” (ibid.). A consistent holist would not say that the context-dependence of meaning puts objectivity (or truth) in jeopardy, but simply replaces a bad philosophy of language with a better one, one that redescribes the sources of objectivity accordingly.

This is the crux of Jameson’s argument, however. He has to take seriously the idea that objectivity has been exposed as a mirage to be able to bridge from the analogy between, on the one hand, the psychic life of persons and the functioning of language to, on the other, the meltdown of literary and historical meaning as postmodern artists set out to render life in contextless (and hence, meaningless) chunks. Jameson’s fear of schizophrenia is the cultural realization of “a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers” (ibid.). He says this creates “an experience of pure material signifiers … a series of pure and unrelated presents in time” (27). We might feel Jameson’s fear, which could be described “in the negative terms of anxiety and loss of reality,” but we might also “just as well imagine in the positive terms of euphoria, a high, an intoxicatory or hallucinogenic intensity” (27-8). The old, atomistic view of language once safe-guarded our sense that we could get back in touch with a solid reality, but—now in postmodernity—we no longer have this comfort.[fn.3]

To reapply the form of my argument again, Jameson’s argument breaks down by its very ability to compose itself as an argument.[fn.4] Put very simply—schizophrenic contextlessness cannot actually exist, for if it did, it would be just as much a “meaning-effect,” an effect of context, as any other normal-seeming, contextually generated meaning.[fn.5] Jameson cannot move from holism to a scary form of schizophrenia because holism simply describes how we are (and were) always situated, not a new situation. The only new thing in antifoundationalist holism is the fact that we are rejecting Plato’s way describing our reality, not introducing a massively new and differently behaving and organizing reality.

According to Jameson’s theory, we should encounter cultural artifacts that are isolated and contextless, “randomly heterogeneous and fragmentary” (25). The consequence of this theory is that displays of history and time should be free-floating, broken from their signifying chain. A good example of how this theory founders in practice is Sherman Alexie’s “A Drug Called Tradition.” In this section, Victor and his friends take an unnamed drug and free-float through a series of hallucinatory dreams in the recapitulation of the evening. This would seem to be a good example for Jameson’s cause: the very concept of history is called into question as the boys see pasts and presents that are clearly not what had happened or is happening. And by the end, Alexie has someone hallucinating a theory of history that ends with “We are trapped in the now” (Alexie 22, italics his).

The ironic return of context begins with analyzing the italics in the passage. Devoid of the context of the piece, one might think Alexie was emphasizing the trap of presentness, much like Jameson’s notion of the sad, but inescapable state of postmodernism. But this is not what the italics mean. The italics are part of a consistent effort to demarcate the boundaries between hallucinative state of dream and normal state of reality. This stylistic choice, among others, is what signals to us, the readers, that we are reading something different than what is contained in the other parts (whatever the differences end up meaning on any of the many levels one could interpret them).

The point is that Alexie, as a writer, circumscribes the context with which we are to read the passages as much as the atomist supposes that the world circumscribes our words and what they mean. The hallucinatory effects in Alexie are as much “meaning-effects” as are normality and my attempt at asserting this particular meaning-effect over the italics-as-emphasis reading is as much hermeneutical as any other. This doesn’t mean atomism is true, it simply means that context always determines meaning, including the appearance of meaninglessnes or contextlessness. Jameson has confused a theoretical point about language-functioning for an empirical shift in culture, including the empirical shiftings of literary production.

Jameson must make this confusion, however, for his theory to attain its critical bite. Jameson’s intention is to identify “a dominant cultural logic or hegemonic norm” in order “to reflect more adequately on the most effective forms of any radical cultural politics today” (Jameson 6). The key to understanding the perspective Jameson is coming from is seeing him as a nostalgic Platonist. Jameson says our “cultural production” “can no longer gaze directly on some putative real world,” but is now “in Plato’s cave” (25, italics mine). Plato was suggesting a metaphorics for describing our knowledge-production. The holists, like Derrida, want to reject wholesale this entire edifice, whereas Jameson seems to swallow Plato’s poison pill and imagine we were once out in the light of Plato’s Form of the Good, but we have now—in real historical time—been shuttled back down into the cave.[fn.6]

Seeing Jameson this way makes sense of his strange remark that the contemporary announcement of the “‘death’ of the subject” sees two possible formulations, “the historicist one, that a once-existing centered subject … has today in the world organizational bureaucracy dissolved; and the more radical poststructuralist position, for which such a subject never existed…” (15). If one buys into my argument, that antifoundationalism doesn’t set us adrift into an endless sea of interpretation, but thrusts us, paradoxically, into the position we’ve always been in—of figuring out what stuff means by the context we find ourselves in—then poststructuralism is ultimately not radical at all because nothing follows from it in terms of how to figure out what stuff means: nothing changes as a consequence of it. Jameson does think that something has followed from poststructuralism, but some of his more extreme formulations seem to be more like reductio ad absurdums for his theory. If poststructuralism meant more than the death of Platonic rhetoric, then indeed it would mean the end “of style, in the sense of the unique brush stroke” (ibid.). And yet, how is that not just more hyperbole, in direct relation to the postmoderns who do think their deconstruction of Plato means something to culture and not just the culture of philosophers? And worst of all, Jameson suggests that “concepts such as anxiety and alienation … are no longer appropriate in the world of the postmodern,” to which the only appropriate response seems to be: as long as there are teenagers there will be anxiety and alienation.

The question might be why Jameson thinks we need a conception of language, or truth or whatever, that is harder and edgier than the holist’s. For this we need not diagnose culture-at-large, like Jameson, but simply the much smaller culture of philosophers. What Jameson, and others who hope for foundationalist theory, suffer from is what Richard Bernstein calls “Cartesian Anxiety.” Cartesian Anxiety is Bernstein’s name for the fear one experiences when faced with the “grand and seductive Either/Or” situation of Platonism: “Either there is some support for our being, a fixed foundation for our knowledge, or we cannot escape the forces of darkness that envelop us with madness, with intellectual and moral chaos” (Bernstein 18). Descartes set the pace for modern philosophy by turning inwards for the foundations of knowledge. The dialectic of modern philosophy, however, has turned up with nothing, and so we get Jameson and Lewis’ fear of the loss of personal identity.

There is another trail out of Descartes, however, that doesn’t falter on the trumped-up fear of falling into an abyss without a theoretical Archimedean point. Alasdair MacIntyre begins by thinking about what it means to be in an “epistemological crisis.” He does so in a very down to earth, real life manner, like when “someone who has believed that he was highly valued by his employers and colleagues is suddenly fired” or when “someone falls out of love and needs to know how he or she can possibly be so mistaken in the other” (MacIntyre 241). These are real problems that most of us have faced, or can at least imagine being in. What we think about people is based on how they behave, but sometimes our entire outlook on them changes and all their behavioral cues become transmogrified—and worse, sometimes we cease to be certain about how to take their behavior at all. What we “took to be evidence pointing unambiguously in some one direction now turns out to have been equally susceptible of rival interpretations” (ibid.).

This produces a frightful situation in which we lose our hold on reality. For “my ability to understand what you are doing and my ability to act intelligibly (both to myself and to others) are one and the same ability” (242). If we begin to lose our hold on others, we begin to lose our hold on ourselves. Recurring to the example of Hamlet as an exemplar of epistemological crisis, MacIntyre says perceptively that “to be unable to render oneself intelligible is to risk being taken to be mad—is, if carried far enough, to be mad. And madness or death may always be the outcomes that prevent the resolution of an epistemological crisis, for an epistemological crisis is always a crisis in human relationships” (243).

The wisdom that MacIntyre is pulling out of the example of such an individual in distress has the same implications for disciplines or paradigms of thought in distress. “When an epistemological crisis is resolved, it is by the construction of a new narrative, which enables the agent to understand both how he or she could intelligibly have held his or her original beliefs and how he or she could have been so drastically misled by them” (ibid.). The most important reason for such narratives is that without them we would be taken over by the kind of radical, paralyzing skepticism that Descartes (and every epistemological skeptic after) pretends to have. MacIntyre points out that even Descartes, having formally eschewed narrative for formal deduction from self-evident premises (Derridean transcendental signifieds), constructs narratives to couch his process in the Meditations. The epistemological consequences are large. MacIntyre says that an epistemological crisis, even after being abated, can induce two conclusions: 1) that our understanding of a situation, the schemata or paradigms we use to interpret, even the ones we just adopted to end the crisis, “may themselves, in turn, come to be put in question at any time” and 2) “because in such crises the criteria of truth, intelligibility and rationality may always themselves be put in question ... we are never in a position to claim that now we possess the truth or now are fully rational. The most that we can claim is that this is the best account anyone has been able to give so far, and that our beliefs about what the marks of ‘a best account so far’ are will themselves change in what are, at present, unpredictable ways” (244, italics mine).

I’d meditate on MacIntyre for so long because we see the antifoundationalist in a position of redescription. When MacIntyre says the italicized section above, he is saying the same thing as when Derrida suggests that meaning, in the sense of transcendental signifieds, is endless deferred.[fn.7] But we also get a sense of what this can mean to us actually living deferrers. It is a messy process and MacIntyre suggests that narrative is in fact indispensable to it. Without the writing of stories, of how we grew, matured, changed, we wouldn’t be able to make coherent sense of the stupid things we once believed. And our theories, our schemata, of how the world works, our sense of how reality is, is partly governed by the tradition we’ve grown out of. MacIntyre suggests that the only way to give consistent sense to the context in which meanings are both determined and change over time is if there is a diachronic notion like a tradition in play. And what’s more, “a tradition is a conflict of interpretations of that tradition, a conflict which itself has a history susceptible of rival interpretations” (249).

The conflict of interpretations, the conflict of truths, is the consternating thing about what is still broadly called postmodernism. One of the greatest, most morally inspiring impulses behind the frontal attacks on philosophical notions of “truth” and “objectivity” was that what counted as the “truth” was simply what the powerful, bloody winners at the altar of war said it was and all philosophy did was obfuscate the violence lying just underneath. The odd thing about Jameson is that he carries this strong moral impetus on his sleeve,[fn.8] and yet tries to diagnose our culture’s sense of “real history” by interpreting movies and novels—as if historians have ceased, or changed, their production. Jameson might be right that aesthetic innovations have altered our culture’s sense for the worse, but it is certainly not the case that they are a philosophical consequence of linguistic holism.[fn.9]

I would like to close by returning to Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and the curious, difficult-to-interpret Thomas Builds-the-Fire. Without question, Native American Indians are the necks underneath the boots of American military dominance. Our histories of their tribulations are naturally suspect. What we find in Alexie, particularly through the representation of Thomas, is not just an alternative history of Native American culture, like one would find in a Howard Zinn narrative, but a different conception of history, and particularly of our relation to it.

I’d like to begin again with “A Drug Called Tradition.” The boys in the story take a “new drug” (Alexie 13) which is never named in the story, which suggests we take the story’s title as a symbolic stand-in. This encoding takes on broader proportions when Victor says of doing the drug, “It’ll be very fucking Indian. Spiritual shit, you know?” (14) Native American culture has been eviscerated and overtly suppressed by the American government[fn.10] and the taking of this drug, tradition, suggests a reacquaintance with an outlawed piece of their culture. I would suggest that the notion of tradition at work in Alexie is very similar to the one MacIntyre develops. Thomas, throughout the stories in the book, represents most fully a person connected to the traditional past of Native American culture, through his act of visionary storytelling, but in this particular story the other boys become connected, too. Every boy has a vision of one of the other boys, though the stories are written in the first-person.[fn.11] This suggests a sort of symbiosis, that tradition isn’t just a connection to their past, but their connection to each other.[fn.12]

The suppression of Native American culture is shown as the violence it really is in Thomas’ trial. At the head of the story, a “BIA suit” says that Thomas has “A storytelling fetish accompanied by an extreme need to tell the truth. Dangerous” (93). The curious part is that Thomas’ truths sound distinctly like lies to Western ears. When Thomas is asked to tell “the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” he begins, “It all started on September 8, 1858. I was a young pony, strong and quick in every movement. I remember this” (96). None of this could be literally true, but Thomas isn’t speaking with a Western sense of literalness. Our “objective histories” are built on the metaphor of a passionless spectator recording the neutral details of life, like a clay tablet bombarded with particles. But the Native American notion of tradition and history born out of Alexie’s stories about Thomas is built out of a passion-filled orator connecting the value-ladened events of his life to the hopes of his community, like a leader marshalling his forces against the steady march of fate. Thomas’ “testimony” is allegorical from Western eyes (“What point are you trying to make with this story?” the judge asks (99)), but the community in front of him are held in thrall by his words, seeing the suppressed truth like Esther about her husband David WalksAlong.[fn.13] And so with the trial, we see the marginalized and ignored Thomas achieve apotheosis by a repentant crowd (“Thomas,” “We’re all listening” (99)) and condemned for nothing more than being Native American.[fn.14]

One of the most interesting figures in the story occurs three times, most prominently at the close. At the end of Thomas’ first story, where he’s a pony, he closes, “I lived that day, even escaped Colonel Wright, and galloped into other histories” (98). This is another odd locution for Western ears, but I think it suggests the over-lapping, dialectical quality found in MacIntyre’s sense of tradition.[fn.15] The second time is at the end of the news article recapitulating, from the slanted eyes of the West, what had transpired in the trial. It closes, “[Thomas] was transported away from this story and into the next” (103). The news article had carried the trappings and signals of “realness,” and Alexie’s close breaks us out of that spell, though we should perhaps wonder if it wasn’t a neutral real, but rather our Western real. The third occurs at the final close of the entire story, “Thomas closed his eyes and told this story” (ibid.).

Another self-referential quirk, perhaps, suggesting we start again at the beginning, but I think it brings us back to the skeletons in “A Drug Called Tradition.” Thomas’ myth-making fully encloses the whole story, including the points that make it seem Western-real and the ones that seem Indian-mythic, both of which require the opposition of the other to appear as the literary affectation of “real” and “mythic.”[fn.16] What’s more, they are also embedded in time-structures that ambiguously morph. The story told about the trial up to the point of the news article appears to be the present. The intersection of the article suddenly shifts us into thinking that what we had read was a recapitulation of the past in present-tense and the final switch occurs by making the suggestion that the story is a presently told past (“told this story”). Every gesture suggests all three time senses, past, present, and future.[fn.17]

“Your past is a skeleton walking one step behind you, and your future is a skeleton walking one step in front of you” (21). Alexie’s myth for the mythic sense of tradition is at once descriptive and haunting. One could seemingly apply it to everyone’s connection to reality, as his continual second-person referral suggests. But we shouldn’t forget that the myth itself is induced by the drug of tradition, bookmarked by fully italicized sentences. For the Native American, “the past, the future, all of it is wrapped up in the now. That’s how it is. We are trapped in the now” (22). Reconsidering the enormity of the suggestion—the blood spilled in objective histories, even if we aren’t making the kind of sense Jameson desires—we might begin think that the italics function both ways, demarcation and emphasis. Alexie’s characters continually refer to “how things are,” and as fluid as this may be in Native American myth (as opposed to the Greek myths of static, essential identity), there does seem to be a contemporary, real trap for specifically Native Americans, and not just the usual trap of life for us all. If the demons of the past wrap into your future, where does hope lie? Alexie’s answer lies in the myth-maker, Thomas, the one who would change his community’s identity, its vision, enter into agonistic relationship with its previous interpreters.

This may seem a little messianic until we realize that the vision is within us all. We all carry a piece of the community with us, our sharing is what makes us an “us,” and any one of us can light that spark. Jameson talks a lot about a shattered homogeneity careening into a schizophrenic, heterogeneous mass, but it is difficult to see anything but a dispelled myth of absolute homogeneity that, when lifted, reveals the mess that life’s always been. Jameson needs some “hegemonic norm,” whether it’s the homogenous hegemony of high modernism or the hetero hegemony of post-, in order to conceive of a “radical cultural politics” (Jameson 6). To make a radical break, you need one really big thing. But life’s not like that. Life is a long series of smaller conflicts, and a single life is a narrative of those conflicts, and indeed, a narrative of conflicting narratives. We can arrange them in elucidating ways, like Alexie’s interweaving of time, reality, and myth, but what we shouldn’t do is become so afraid as to become philosophers, reducing everything to a single, if massively amorphous and interpenetrating, enemy. Leave that to the teenagers.


Alexie, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. New York: Grove Press, 1993, 2005.

Bernstein, Richard. Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.

Derrida, Jacques. Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

---. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayari Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974, 176.

Geyh, Paula, Fred G. Leebron and Andrew Levy. Postmodern American Fiction. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Lewis, Wyndham. Time and Western Man. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1993, 1927.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative and the Philosophy of Science.” The Monist 60 (1977): 453-72. Rpt. in Anti-Theory in Ethics and Moral Conservatism. Eds. Stanley G. Clarke and Even Simpson. New York: State University of New York Press, 1989. 241-61.


[1] “…the more your particular personality … obsess[es] you, … the less ‘individualist’ you will be in the ordinary political sense. … Your ‘individualism’ will be that mad one of the ‘one and only’ self, a sort of instinctive solipsism in practice” (Lewis 8).

[2] This is the real meaning behind Derrida’s much parodied line “Il n'y a pas de hors-texte” (“There is nothing outside the text,” or better, “There is no outside-text”). Derrida was not staking out a new form of idealism, or denying the existence of rocks, but denying, like Wittgenstein when he denied ostensive definition, that language is (or perhaps, can be reduced to) a word-world relation. Words are words (i.e., have meaning and are not just sounds or marks on a page) because of how they hang in a web with other words. For Derrida, the “transcendental signified” is the stopgap with which philosopher’s have searched so that endless bickering about the truth of X would cease. After the Kantian turn in philosophy, the stopgap has often been “the world,” or in Kant’s lingo, “the thing-in-itself.” See, on this, Derrida’s discussion of Peirce where he says, “The thing itself is a sign” (Derrida, Of Grammatology 49) and on his most infamous line Derrida, Of Grammatology 158.

[3] To be sure, the notion of schizophrenia as a breakdown in the signifying chain can be used just as well for an atomist, but there seems to be a heightened sense of precariousness for the holist. In the atomist picture, a break in the chain can be rectified by being put back in touch with the solid, unalterable signified. On the holist picture, on the other hand, everything is a chain of signifiers, every signified can be reduced to a signifier such that a shift in signifiers alters the composition of the signified. This is the force of Jameson’s “objective mirage”: once our solid signifieds are really as ephemeral as our constantly shifting significations, we begin to really fear the loss, now irrevocable, of our grip on reality.

[4] Which should be suitably ironic, given how much fun holists-cum-deconstructionists have in showing how displays of intelligibility slide into unintelligibility, that Jameson’s display of unintelligibility should slide into intelligibility.

[5] For instance, the actual psychological state of schizophrenia could be described as signifiers losing touch with their signifieds (which seems to be the image that Jameson more relies on), but that reposes on the old atomistic view. On the holist view, schizophrenia would better be described as signification-chain-A losing touch with signification-chain-B. On this view, schizophrenics don’t behave oddly because they are acting without context, but because they are acting in the wrong context, an A-chain that would be less socially awkward if it were an AB-chain.

[6] Lyotard makes this same mistake when he says that “the obsolescence of the metanarrative apparatus of legitimation corresponds, most notably, [to] the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university institution which in the past relied on it” (Lyotard xxiv). Universities and other institutions of knowledge-production, like scientific laboratories, have gone on producing without a hitch even after the loss of what Nietzsche called “metaphysical comfort.” Like the excising of “ultimate” in Jameson’s hermeneutical model, all the holist is excising is the “meta-” in metanarrative, and then arguing that all we need for legitimation are regular, run-of-the-mill narratives (about which I shall discuss shortly).

[7] This is partly what Derrida means by his neologism “différance.” See, for instance: “it marks not only the activity of ‘originary’ difference, but also the temporizing detour of deferral” (Derrida, Margins 14)

[8] See especially, “Yet this is the point at which I must remind the reader of the obvious; namely, that this whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror” (Jameson 5). Also, “Faceless masters continue to inflect the economic strategies which constrain our existence…” (17).

[9] Possibly the most revealing passage in terms of the connection Jameson hopes to make between artistic innovations and poststructuralism is this one:
Here [in Warhol’s work] it is as though the external and colored surface of things … has been stripped away to reveal the deathly black-and-white substratum of the photographic negative which subtends them. Although this kind of death of the world of appearance becomes thematized in certain of Warhol’s pieces … this is not, I think, a matter of content any longer but of some more fundamental mutation both in the object world itself—now become a set of texts or simulacra—and in the disposition of the subject. (Jameson 9)
Are we really to believe the stylistic innovation of self-reference or of calling attention to the materials at work in the presentation means the destruction of reality? Jameson wants to connect the notion of a signifiedless signifier (a Platonic notion Baudrillard runs with, not the holistic notion of a signification chain) to these now common and old hat artistic tools and suggest they are destroying our sense of reality, but should we really buy that, rather than blaming it on, say, the pernicious effects on national trust of state propaganda brought on by the lack of governmental transparency?

[10] The subtle background of the white, governmental presence is given excellent expression by Alexie’s referral to the “BIA,” an agency most Americans are entirely unaware of. By casually using the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ acronym (like an FBI or CIA) Alexie is able to call attention to a major difference in the lived cultures of Native Americans and European Americans—Native Americans would recognize the “BIA” as the BIA, whereas almost all others would have to stop and think about what the “BIA” stands for (unlike “FBI,” which is just the FBI). The first appearance of this is Alexie 49, in an offhand reference (another way of suggesting the subtle, circumscribing presence) to a brick going through a BIA pick-up’s window.

[11] The first is Thomas’ about Victor (Alexie 15-6), the second is Junior’s about Thomas (17), and the third is Victor’s about Junior (18-9). The fourth vision is one of Thomas’ stories and the fifth, the skeletal theory of history, is ambiguously left unattributed.

[12] This is reinforced in Victor’s journey to Arizona with Thomas. At the end of it, Victor thinks to himself, “he couldn’t really be friends with Thomas, even after all that had happened. It was cruel but it was real” (Alexie 74). Thomas calls out verbally every thought Victor has in this passage, including that one, to which Victor responds internally: “Victor was ashamed of himself. Whatever happened to the tribal ties, the sense of community? The only real thing he shared with anybody was a bottle and broken dreams” (ibid.). I think this passage does two things: one, it reinforces this notion of tradition as our source of community (our context, what circumscribes who counts as “us,” “we,” “our”). And two, it weaves in the notion that Victor’s previous notion of “reality” isn’t, perhaps, so real after all, and it is Thomas’ myth-making that forms the real core of a true Native American reality. Alcoholism is our current reality, but is it all we can hope for?

[13] Esther hears “a noise that sounded something like rain” and gained the courage to leave her husband, who—so in step with the BIA—“took to calling his wife a savage in polyester pants” (Alexie 94, italics his).

[14] “[Thomas] was guilty, he knew that. All that was variable on any reservation was how the convicted would be punished” (Alexie 94-5). Since it was already established that the BIA was trying to make something up for him to be guilty of, what Thomas knows is his heritage and the convicted are every inhabitant on a reservation, punished variably by jail or alcoholism.

[15] This point is reinforced by the fact that Thomas is said, in an earlier crisis, to have “threatened to make significant changes in the tribal vision” (Alexie 93).

[16] For instance, Thomas’ telling of the stories appear weird to us at points because of reassertions of “expected behavior,” like the judge pounding the gavel or demanding the point of the stories.

[17] The story is first the present, then embedded in the past by the news article, and then swept into the future, when we will hear the story we already know, at the close.

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