Scholarly article on topic 'Deconstructing and Reconstructing Identity. Philosophical Frames and Literary Experiments'

Deconstructing and Reconstructing Identity. Philosophical Frames and Literary Experiments Academic research paper on "Law"

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Abstract of research paper on Law, author of scientific article — Steluţa Stan, Gabriela Iuliana Colipcă

Abstract Of all the crises postmodernity continues or itself generates, the identity crisis tends to be considered symptomatic. The search for identity was an imperative in modernism, culminating in the literature of existentialist influence. In postmodernism, the individual's cutting off from transcendence, the loss of essence and meaning of existence itself are no longer considered a tragedy. He turns towards the past in an ontological need for spiritual regeneration, the modernist epistemological doubt being replaced by the ontological one.That one of the dominant, obsessively resurfacing issues of the mid and late twentieth-century fiction is the problem of the subject, of constructing identity, has probably been due to the tremendous influence that psychoanalytic writings have had upon the contemporary mind and stage. Postmodern, hyperrealist, magic realist and all the other experimental types of writing have primarily focused on this problem reflected in fictional characterisation, authorship and intentionality, reception and readership, narrative technique, style, genre and thematics.

Academic research paper on topic "Deconstructing and Reconstructing Identity. Philosophical Frames and Literary Experiments"

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Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 63 (2012) 325 - 330

The 4th Edition of the International Conference: Paradigms of the Ideological Discourse 2012

Deconstructing and Reconstructing Identity. Philosophical Frames and Literary Experiments

Steluta Stana*, Gabriela Iuliana Colipcab**

a Associate Professor PhD, "Dunarea de Jos " University of Galati, Romania _b Associate Professor PhD, "Dunarea de Jos " University of Galati, Romania_

Abstract

Of all the crises postmodernity continues or itself generates, the identity crisis tends to be considered symptomatic. The search for identity was an imperative in modernism, culminating in the literature of existentialist influence. In postmodernism, the individual's cutting off from transcendence, the loss of essence and meaning of existence itself are no longer considered a tragedy. He turns towards the past in an ontological need for spiritual regeneration, the modernist epistemological doubt being replaced by the ontological one.

That one of the dominant, obsessively resurfacing issues of the mid and late twentieth-century fiction is the problem of the subject, of constructing identity, has probably been due to the tremendous influence that psychoanalytic writings have had upon the contemporary mind and stage. Postmodern, hyperrealist, magic realist and all the other experimental types of writing have primarily focused on this problem reflected in fictional characterisation, authorship and intentionality, reception and readership, narrative technique, style, genre and thematics.

© 2012 TheAuthors.PublishedbyElsevier Ltd.Selection and/or peer-review under responsibility of Dunarea de Jos UniversityofGalati

Keywords: fabulation, identity crisis, postmodernism, postmodernity, social and cultural criticism.

* Steluta Stan, Tel.: +40-740-318147 E-mail address: Steluta.Stan@ugal.ro

** Gabriela Iuliana Colipca, Tel.: +40-722-460437 E-mail address: Gabriela.Colipca@ugal.ro

1877-0428 © 2012 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. Selection and/or peer-review under responsibility of Dunarea de Jos University of Galati doi: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2012.10.045

For anyone trying to get a leading clue in the labyrinth of, more often than not, contradictory tendencies in defining modernism and postmodernism, it becomes clear that any attempt at a 'surgical' delimitation of the two great areas of thinking and creation of the twentieth century is illusory.

Modern and postmodern are terms defining rather "complementary states of spirit, in simultaneous discontinuance,continuityandinterpenetration"[1]*. This statement also maintains its perfect validity when the debate is on the dichotomies world/self and self/others, or on matters characteristic of self defining or individual/ group identity. The term identity, carrying the meaning of uniqueness or unity of something with its own self, is a key-concept in the thinking and creation of all times.

Turning upside down and inside out the modernist perspective on the world, postmodernism reacts against an aesthetic that "is discarded as false, pretentious, much too experimental to match our desperate attempts at penetrating beyond surfaces" and seeks to find new ways of tackling "cultural events derived from previously unheard of phenomena: new viruses (including electronic ones) resisting antidote, cloning, widespread genocide, travels into space, portable communication facilitators - to name only a few. Consequently, if we accept to describe our age in terms of postmodernism, we are forced to take into account the multifarious aspects it presupposes and deal with it as complex, involving a multidisciplinary effort" [2].

In the study Loss of the Self in Modern Literature and Art, Wylie Sypher [3] demonstrates that western literature and art have been forced, since the nineteenth century to gradually change the ideas about the nature of the self and individual identity. Gradually, the Romantic notion of identity, according to which the individual is considered the supreme value and substance, made way to the existentialist search for identity, in hope of discovering "the irreducible minimum of our experience that can be honestly identified as our own" [4].

One more remark should be added here: if, in modernity (the realist-psychological literature), the focus was on the relationship self - world, proof of the interior exile of the writer and/or the characters, in Lyotard's and Foucault's democratic and pluralist postmodernity, with its explosion of nuances, groups and differences, the author's attention is not only on the individual's identity, but also on that of the group, of the minority in its relationship with the majority. The phrase identity crisis, recurrent in discussions about postmodernity, can be used in both ways plus some more. We might, for example, talk about the self-identity of the text from a deconstructive perspective in terms of Derrida's so much debated on il n'y a pas dehors texte. Quite understandably, we limit ourselves to the beginnings of postmodernist literature, where the influence of existentialist philosophy is mostly felt.

The post-war American novel, as well as the European one, presented in detail the show of the imminent loss of the self (understood as interior being, essential and assumed, that which Jung called "the personal core" [5], and William James, "the real nucleus of our personal identity"[6]) and described the battles and confusions that it triggered; hence, Manfred Pütz's coinage "identity fable", which reveals the relationship between the allegorical projection specific by definition to a fable and the self-identity of an individual faced with a disconcerting universe in which he can no longer find the certainty anchors he used to know. The alienated, absurd, existentialist anti-heroes were all in the same position, failing to find the clear meaning of a personal, identifiable, form of existence.

Characters like Herzog, Joseph or Charles Citrine in Saul Bellow's novels Herzog (1964), The Dangling Man (1944) and Humboldt's Gift (1975); Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951); Nat Turner in W. Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967); Rabbit in John Updike's series Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990); Tod Andrews in Barth's The Floating Opera (1956) and Giles, the goat-boy, in the novel bearing the same title (1966) - all find themselves suspended between contradictory pressures of the environment and the self, estranged from a world in which they are outsiders. Sensitivity and the capacity for intellectual analysis, doubled by a kind of passivity sustaining

* All translations from Romanian into English belong to the authors of this paper.

introverted inclinations, are prominent features of the modernist hero, but also of the postmodernist one. The interior conflict, the sharp feeling of failure and hurt, the lack of orientation, self-alienation, even loss of identity are all visible consequences, most of the times, and if sometimes they accept the role society assigns to them, this is made at the cost of losing their dream of freedom.

For the hero of post-war fiction, this dream and the fear of isolation and conditioning are counterbalanced, at the same time, by the fear of freedom and the dream of some constraining contours. This "oddly dispersed, ragged, mingled, broken, amorphous creature whose outlines are everywhere, whose being is bathed in mind as the tissues are bathed in blood, and who is impossible to circumscribe in a scheme of time", as Bellow put it [7], placed in an entropic universe (a term frequently used in the critical debates of the last decades), sets out in search for the pattern. This anti-entropic battle of many contemporary heroes against total chaos denying distinction, differentiation and form, proves their desire and need for order. This engenders the danger of boring uniqueness and homogeneity imposed by a rigid society in all domains of existence. The pattern, or better said, the logical patterns that the human being seeks - through myth, religion, history, imagination - are considered arbitrary constructs of the human mind. In search of a mysterious and incomprehensible unity, Herzog, like so many other modern heroes, makes up his mind in a Romantic way: he isolates himself refusing to get involved in anything, clinging to his disputable and unreliable identity, at the obvious risk of isolation and withdrawal - a risky attempt at using his identity and self as a shield against external forces.

Neither the absurd, nor the existential incoherence, are accepted as final formulas; there are many versions of Sisyphus in the American prose, maybe of Camusian origin, victim-characters, but also rebels in search for solutions presupposing failure but also initiation, sufferance but also illumination, negation but also affirmation.

Alienation, this cliché of cultural criticism, a result of personal identity issues and simultaneous search for a principle to reconcile the self with the world and individual existence with society, starts to make room for acceptation and adaptation, that state of the spirit emerging when the revolt is exhausted, when, all of a sudden, the manner in which the individual - intellectual, writer, or any other person - confronted society is no longer certain, when there are no conventionalisms meant to limit freedom, when all theories seem to disappear. Although we are skeptic about such a stage coming into being any time soon, nevertheless, we can credit the idea that the individual (writer)'s priorities can be different, function of a variety of social, historical, cultural, religious factors.

The global mutations in the architecture of the contemporary world and the mentality of the (post)modern being determine the cultural approach that today, more than ever, takes part in the social and communicational weaving of the world, models it and becomes one of its most significant epiphenomena. Entering postmodernity involved a long and painful process for the intellectual (and not only), trained in the spirit of humanist culture, and witnessing the destruction of most fundamental premises of his/her placement in the world. Restlessness and disorientation experienced when facing an apparently undetermined, chaotic and unstable world, become more and more intense for the individual attached to some ideals and values that he thought eternal.

From the restlessness of someone who has to live in a society characterized by an infinite and abstract complexity, and a suffocating competition between its individuals (as the rule of performance requires), to the resurrection of nationalisms, tribalisms of all kinds and fundamentalisms, all these can be interpreted as the anguished response of some peoples, categories of individuals and individuals for whom the fear of the future has reached the climax.

The attitude of many contemporary writers (Vladimir Nabokov, William Burroughs, John Hawkes, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Robert Coover, Kurt Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme, Richard Brautigan etc.) has also been delimited by the context of the developments in the new sciences of knowledge, where Heisenberg, Popper and Prigogine begin to show interest in relations of indetermination, of far-from-equilibrium systems, in an irreversible time seen as a source of order, where we meet the theory of catastrophes and of fractals, where

thinkers like Foucault, Derrida, Vattimo or Lyotard find languages adequate for a new image of the world and of the individual, where the modernist deconstruction of myths is followed by a deconstruction of this deconstruction. Phenomenologists like Husserl or Heidegger highlight the existence of a dynamic and conscientious self, as the sole, central and unifying observer of experience. Wittgenstein's insistence on the importance of language - "the limits of my language signify the limits of my world" [8] - finds its echo in the writings of many contemporary novelists (Barth and Pynchon even quote Wittgenstein). Existentialists like Camus or Sartre also imprinted postmodernist literature through the focus on the individual's freedom in the face of the void, hence, the necessity to take over new roles and choose one's own values.

Robert Scholes, in Fabulation and Metafiction, sees in the definitive compromising of the idea of realism, a real chance for the "new fabulators", who seem to feel that "[t]he positivistic basis for traditional realism had been eroded, and the reality, if it could be caught at all, would require a whole new set of fictional skills" [9]. In Scholes's opinion, the art of writers like those mentioned above does not imply a departure from reality, but an attempt to find much more subtle correspondences between fictional reality and real fiction.

Abandoning the classical concept of reality, the solution that most postmodernist fabulators have found is continuity with the artistic forms of the past, a past that modernism rejected and despised in its strive for novelty. In their vision, the great tradition should be recuperated with nostalgia and reinterpreted in a playful, ironic and parodic manner, and literary genres, such as the picaresque, the epistolary novel or the historical story should be revived. Barth proposes in novels such as The Sot-Weed Factor, Giles Goat-Boy or End of the Road, the use of creative imagination and re-use of myth in history and daily life. This is an approach to the myth that takes into account its artificiality, incomplete character, and partial numbness in the face of reality. Mythotherapy tries to force the entire world into the self and the self into the entire world, to subordinate everything that exists in this world to the drama of the tearing apart of the self. This manner of treating the myth that Toma, quoting Wasson, calls mythoplastic art, ironically returns over itself and acts towards the knowledge of the mysterious difference between the self and the other, artifice and reality [10].

For example, Jacob Horner, the protagonist of End of the Road, is marked by insecurity and, consequently, suffers the erasure of personal contours: "In a Sense, I Am Jacob Horner" [11], he states in the first sentence of his confessions, but does not seem to make up his mind in what specific way. The novel forwards a potential solution to his difficult situation when he is approached by a weird physician claiming that a proper use of human imagination offers an infallible therapy for all those exposed to total or partial loss of the self, mythotherapy, based on the existentialist assertion that the individual is free not only to choose his own essence, but to modify it as well.

The modernist use of the myth (with Yeats and Joyce, for example) as a source of identities is different in some recent novelists' writings. For example, the "eruptions" of imagination in Barth's, Nabokov's, Vonnegut's or Brautigan's novels, to mention only some of them, lead to personal fantasies never paralleled previously. These writers rarely make use of specific models or public myths, as the moderns did. In exchange, recent myth makers have their characters invent completely new fictions, populated and populable only by them. Mention can be made here of Jacob Horner's or Ebenezer Cooke's (John Barth, End of the Road, The Sot-Weed Factor), Bokonon's (Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle), Herbert Stencil's (Thomas Pynchon, V.) personal myths.

Contemporary supporters of fantasy, fable and myth, all presupposing the creative and synthesizing force of imagination, of disruption of realist illusion, are aware of the doubtful authority of imagination and the precarious character of the constructs. Constructed fictions do not signify, but exist; the same as their characters, for that matter, given the confusing and confused ontological status; with them, we can talk about existence rather than essence, an existence characterized by difference rather than identity: "Postmodern figures are always differing, not just from other characters but also from their putative selves. Following in the wake of an existentialist philosophical tradition, many postmodern characterizations seem to argue that there is always a discrepancy between the character who acts and the character who watches himself/herself acting" [12].

The character in the postmodernist novel can never be reduced to the status of an epistemologically accessible quality or a list of qualities, the notion of representation itself being undermined; he is the carrier of Genette's metalepsis, an example of violation of the narrative levels, a disturber of these levels through the awareness of the structures he is a part of.

The characters of another American novelist, Richard Brautigan, also try to evade and thus free themselves from the constraints exerted upon them. Withdrawing from the social reality, they start out in search of isolated places allowing for an alternative life in which to become themselves, not functions of the world and others. In Trout Fishing in America (1967), the anonymous narrator starts on a journey as a naturalist, intending to free himself from a limited previous existence; in The Abortion (1971), the protagonist, autobiographic in some way, tries to isolate himself in a mysterious library in San Francisco, where the social identity is subordinated to other forms of personal identity that are to be found; in In Watermelon Sugar, the central character (again) isolates himself in the strange universe of death (iDeath), where the aggressive and superdominant inclinations of the self are abandoned, and people's lives are made of an omnipresent substance (the sugar in the watermelon) ensuring a satisfying form of existence, free from alienation. Brautigan ironically rejects and exposes even the instruments and means by which the imaginary paradises were constructed.

As can be easily noticed, the identity fables with Barth and Brautigan are centred on the correlation between the imagined projections and the acts of instatement of the self. By contrast, Thomas Pynchon's novels focus mainly on matters of historical imagination and discourse, subordinated to the self, and covering concepts as entropy, paranoia, history of narration. Here, the search for order and pattern express a reaction of the self to its condition in the universe of history. In V. (1963), for example, there are two narrative directions covering the peregrinations of the two heroes: Benny Profane, attracted in a neo-picaresque wandering in the present, and Herbert Stencil, in a picaresque, intellectual journey in the past. Profane becomes a sort of a modern anti-hero, archetypal, fighting with problems of an alienated existence in a overwhelmingly disorganized world, all this leaving him passive, a human yo-yo, striving to lose himself by immersing in a conundrum of un-coordinated events. Unlike Stencil, Profane permanently tries to find or produce significant models of coherence allowing the discovery of identity. Pynchon parodies aspects of basic models in the detective or mystery novels, making of Stencil one of the amateur detectives typical of his prose; his task is to find V., a fundamentally indetermined character, multitude of possible identities and places, who, at the end, proves to be what the pursuers previously presumed: a terribly defused and disconcerting concept (the same as postmodernity itself).

In Ronald Sukenick's and Vladimir Nabokov's writings, the identity fable takes on new configurations, the focus shifting from the problems of the fictional characters to the ones involving the character of fiction itself; this directly engages the reader in the act of decoding of some texts devoided of univocal identity. The issue of identity, this time materialized in games of identification in which the triad character-author/text-reader is stimulated by an active collaboration without which the significations cannot be born.

Examples could go on and on, in an endless play of identification, differently approached or with different solutions from one writer to the other. Moreover, if we open the gate to postcolonial novelists (Ishiguro, Naipaul, Rushdie, etc.), or to the representatives of feminist literature (Lessing, Rhys, Weldon, Carter, etc.), we begin to understand that literary postmodernism, in its infinite variety, mirrors (however reluctant we might be of the term) this "paradoxical time under which the contemporary being lives his life as a dream and puts in this dream the passion of real existence" [13].

In a totally different register, in 1964 Bob Dylan was supporting the same idea: that all judgements of who and what we are at present should remain relative, :

Come writers and critics Who prohesize with your pen And keep your eyes open wide The chance won't come again

And don't speak too soon

For the wheel's still in spin

And there's no tellin' who

That it's namin'.

For the loser now

Will be later to win

For the times they are a-changin'.

References

[1] Cärtärescu, M. (1999). Postmodernismul romänesc. Bucurejti: Humanitas, 107.

[2] Praisler, M. (2005). On Modernism, Postmodernism and the Novel. Bucurejti: Editura Didacticä 51 Pedagogicä, 63.

[3] Sypher, W. (1962). Loss of the Self in Modern Literature and Art. New York: Random House.

[4] Pütz, M. (1987). The Story of Identity: American Fiction of the Sixties. München: W. Fink, 34.

[5] Homans, P. (1995). Jung in Context: Modernity and the Making of a Psychology. 2nd edition. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press, 91.

[6] James, W. (1984). The Essential Writings. Albany: State University of New York Press, 108.

[7] Hoffmann, G. (2005). From Modernism to Postmodernism. Concepts and Strategies of Postmodern American Fiction. Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi, 682.

[8] Schulte, J. (1992). Wittgenstein: An Introduction. Translated by William H. Brenner and John F. Holley. Albany: State University of New York Press, 63.

[9] Scholes, R. (1979). Fabulation andMetafiction. Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 4.

[10] (Toma, I. (2004). Uses and Abuses of Tradition in Postmodernist Fiction. Ploiejti: Premier.

[11] Barth, J. (1981). The End of the Road. New York: Bantam Books, 1.

[12] Docherty, T. (1983). "Postmodern Characterization: The Ethics of Alterity." In Edmund J. Smyth (ed.), Postmodernism and Contemporary Fiction, London: Batsford, 183.

[13] Cärtärescu, M. (1999). Postmodernismul romänesc. Bucurejti: Humanitas, 114.