Postmodernism argues for a decentered existence as well as indeterminacy of meaning. Cursory readings can certainly reveal the decenteredness and indeterminacy found within postmodern fiction. These hasty and superficial readings of postmodern fiction can blind the reader to the deeper and underlying themes that seep through postmodern texts. Power and the ability to dominate usually rest in the hands of men according to history’s examples.
Postmodernism’s view of current society seeks to disrupt this theory. With defining terms such as decentered and indeterminate, postmodernism would seemingly defy the nature of power lying within the minds and bodies of males. Decenteredness and indeterminacy would appear to level the playing field for all who live. The fragmentation of identity and meaning would express a willingness to give equality to all.
Reading and examining certain postmodern novels can reveal a fallacy in postmodernism’s attempt at egalitarianism. Investigating the postmodern novels A Severed Head, Anthills of the Savannah, The God of Small Things, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest will expose trends of power and domination within the fiction. Analyzing Ntozake Shange’s “Indigo” and David Foster Wallace’s “Lyndon” will also allow the reader to further grasp the scheme of authority and domination present in postmodern fiction.
The novels and short stories should grant glimpses of exactly the types of people still suffering from domination. Detailed analysis of the previously mentioned postmodern works will provide evidence of women, minorities, and man viewed as less than man still suffering domination and suppression from a theory claiming to eradicate the possibilities of such ideas.
The language postmodernism utilizes contradicts the very concepts most postmodern theorists and writers purport subscribing to. One particular theorist and writer savvy to this contradiction is bell hooks. In her essay, “Postmodern Blackness,” hooks writes about the domination she feels postmodernism conveys and the audience to whom postmodern authors write for:
It is sadly ironic that the contemporary discourse which talks the most about heterogeneity, the decentered subject, declaring breakthroughs that allow recognition of Otherness, still directs its critical voice primarily to a specialized audience that shares a common language rooted in the very master narratives it claims to challenge. (626)
hooks admits postmodern theory claims to profess a dissimilarity, a non controlling center subject, and recognizing Others not controlling power. The statement of hooks also claims that the postmodern voice works itself to a certain audience. The audience uses a language derived from the narratives that precede postmodern works. The previous narratives would seemingly focus on homogeneity, centered subjects, and displacing the Other. The audience would not be able to distinguish a presence of domination in postmodern fiction due to the use of similar language from earlier works.
Postmodernism perpetuates domination in the failure to undermine the division involving high and low cultures. A goal of postmodernism remains the attempt to blend high culture with low culture. hooks argues that postmodernism achieves the opposite. Obviously high culture would reign over low culture with certain classes of people belonging to each. hooks advances her argument for postmodernist domination in her essay by writing about the true effect of postmodernism, “The overall impact of postmodernism is that many other groups now share with black folks a sense of deep alienation, despair, uncertainty, loss of a sense of grounding even if it is not informed by shared circumstance” (627-28).
In earlier times, from the Victorian era to the Modernist era that followed, black minorities would be looked upon as belonging within the low culture or, in other words, not as good as the high. Other minorities would almost certainly be overlooked completely. Rather than blending the current periods of high and low cultures, hooks convincingly argues that postmodernism succeeds only in including other minorities into the distinction. All groups of others can now be integrated within the widening arch of postmodernism’s domination.
One minority group of people that fall under postmodernism’s range of domination consists of homosexuals. A specific example of postmodern fiction will demonstrate how a homosexual male can be viewed as something less than a normal heterosexual man. The example the lessening takes place in occurs in the short story “Lyndon” by David Foster Wallace. The short story follows the career path of David Boyd under the employment of Senator and soon to be President Lyndon B. Johnson.
In the story Boyd’s identity as a homosexual becomes exposed to the reader. Through the passage of time in the story Boyd and Johnson construct a close acquaintanceship. Just how close a friendship becomes conjecture for several other characters found in the story. Later in the story Boyd receives an invitation to tea from Lady Bird Johnson. With this request Boyd is identified as less than a man. In the short story “Lyndon”, Wallace writes, “And it was well-known scuttlebutt Ã¢Â?Â¦ that Mrs. Johnson wanted Lyndon out, and saw his office/me as the rival she’d never had in life” (385). Wallace characterizes Boyd as a rival to Mrs. Johnson. Boyd is a rival to a woman and not another man.
The characterization of Boyd in this manner lessens his male status. Boyd can now be viewed as less than a man because of his incapacity to be the rival of a heterosexual male. Rather than an identity fragmented the postmodern work actually points out and solidifies a homosexual identity. Boyd becomes the equivalent and rival to another woman. With the lessening of Boyd’s maleness postmodernism continues to advance a form of domination.
Categorical identification remains present in postmodern texts. Postmodernism’s attempt to cast illumination on a decentered existence and fragmented identity fails. The failure then inevitably reproduces forms of domination that postmodernism seeks to eliminate. Reading Trinh T. Minh-ha’s essay From Woman, Native, Other will help the reader understand how the character David Boyd in Wallace’s story becomes categorized as less than man. Minh-ha writes, “Despite our desperate, eternal attempt to separate, contain, and mend, categories always leak” (649).
Regardless of postmodernism’s attempt to include everyone in a decentered existence, domination can and will seep through. Minh-ha continues with, “Difference as uniqueness or special identity is both limiting and deceiving” (650). The idea that difference refers to a “special identity” reveals a particular identity to still exist. Minh-ha also writes, “Even with or because of Her capacity to embody All, Woman is the lesser man” (651). The essay by Minh-ha helps establish that postmodernism possesses the potential to categorize identity. The ability to categorize implies the ability to dominate.
Another minority group dominated by postmodernism includes women. The main female character from Ntozake Shange’s “Indigo” can be seen as a woman less than man. The character of Indigo is a young African-American female in the story. Indigo is portrayed as a young girl who may possess mystical abilities. Indigo hangs around with her two friends Crunch and Spats. The three of them usually end up at a destination called Sneed’s.
On the surface Sneed’s employs the front of a bakery. Underneath Sneed’s lie different rooms where illegal activities take place. One of the illegal activities consists of cockfighting. At one of the cockfights Indigo can be viewed as a lesser man, or not as powerful as man. In a magical scene Indigo removes the razors from the roosters and places them in the hands of the men betting on the fights. The men begin fighting against each other with the newly acquired razors and then:
Pretty Man surveyed the situation. Put the evilest eye he could gather up on Indigo, who startled under the power of his gaze. That was all it took. The men slowly came back to themselves Ã¢Â?Â¦ Indigo was not malevolent. Yet Pretty Man would not tolerate such shenanigans in his place. (49)
Pretty Man’s power bests Indigo’s power. Indigo did not wish evil on others or become hostile. Due to the place’s ownership by a male and the male’s power over Indigo, Indigo could not prolong her act towards saving the roosters from violence. Indigo’s categorical characterization as a female and therefore, less than man, constructs an inability to overcome the powerful gaze of man. Shange’s piece of postmodern fiction develops a culpable portrait of female domination found in postmodernism.
Additional postmodern fiction supplies examples of female domination. Such examples can be found in the novel A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch. The female character in the novel subjected to domineering males is Honor Klein. Honor at first glance would appear to be a strong and powerful woman.
She possesses a high amount of intelligence, as a doctor she lectures in anthropology at Cambridge, and power, she wields a samurai sword quite expertly, yet Honor becomes dominated by two different male characters. The first instance of Honor’s domination in the novel comes at the hands of Martin Lynch-Gibbon, the male protagonist. The scene takes place as Martin confronts Honor about informing his wife, Antonia, and Palmer, Honor’s brother, about Martin’s affair with Georgie. As Honor attempts to leave Martin attacks her. Martin serving as narrator describes the fight that ensues:
We were both impeded by our overcoats, and I was also impeded by being extremely drunk. She was even stronger than I would have expected. But it took me only a moment to hold of her wrists. I crushed them both together in one hand, leaning my weight upon her until she became still Ã¢Â?Â¦ I lifted myself a little and Ã¢Â?Â¦ struck her three times, a sideways blow across the mouth. (Murdoch 111).
Regardless of Honor’s high intelligence and apparent power she still becomes dominated by Martin even in his inebriated state. As a male Martin can overcome the retaliatory strikes Honor throws at him. As a female though, Honor cannot own the ability to withstand Martin’s attempt to restrain and strike her. Postmodern fiction still reduces an apparently strong and powerful woman to a status less than man. Martin is not the only man that dominates Honor in the novel though.
Men may dominate women physically but they also dominate females sexually. Martin physically dominates Honor while her own brother, Palmer, dominates her sexually. The example of sexual domination can be seen in an incident that transpires later in the novel after Martin abuses Honor. Some time later Martin begins to believe he loves Honor so he decides to go visit her at her home. Martin enters the house unannounced and enters Honor’s bedroom.
Martin then details the sight he sees within the bedroom, “Sitting up in this bed and staring straight at me was Honor Ã¢Â?Â¦ She was not alone Ã¢Â?Â¦ it was immediately and indubitably apparent that I had interrupted a scene of lovers. The man was Palmer” (128). The scene can argue in favor of the idea that Honor has once again been dominated by a male. Crimes of incest are usually viewed as crimes of power committed by the man against the woman.
The female character in postmodern fiction plays the stereotypical female role. Honor’s victimization by an incestuous brother creates a continuance of domination found within some postmodern fiction. Tammy Grimshaw, author of Sexuality, Gender, and Power in Iris Murdoch’s Fiction, views male sexuality as a means for men to dominate women. In the book, Grimshaw writes, “The male partner to incest is generally the perpetrator” (Grimshaw 147). In the case of Palmer and Honor, Palmer can be viewed as a perpetrator due to Honor’s previous domination by Martin. Grimshaw adds, “Because male sexuality is seen as springing from the power and aggression of men in society, women are kept in their roles as passive, powerless victims” (147).
The argument can now be made that Honor’s character follows the traditional stereotypical domination men hold over women. The man controls power and aggression and the female maintains passivity and powerlessness.
The people of a nation can also display powerlessness. A country’s people can become socially dominated. In turn the same people of the nation can then progress the social domination.
An example of one such nation found in postmodern fiction is India. The nation of India serves as the setting for Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things. India becomes a nation struggling through postcolonialism in a postmodern era. The Indian nation seeks to construct an identity in a time period that supposedly seeks to blur identity. Domination most certainly runs rampant through such a nation during such times. One form of dominance present in Roy’s novel stems from a global economy. Through the power of television comes a global economic status delivered right into the resident homes of India. The images received from the television will only help reinforce the caste system found in India. Outside forces can be held responsible for contributing to a social dominance.
In Roy’s novel one particular character who becomes a partaker of social dominance is Baby Kochamma. She is the great aunt to Rahel and Estha, the two main characters in the book. Baby’s identity centers on watching television in postmodern times in which information and entertainment become mixed and simultaneously broadcast across most of the world. The narrator gives this account of Baby Kochamma and her servant, Kochu Maria, watching the television set, “They entered all the contests, availed themselves of all the discounts that were advertised and had Ã¢Â?Â¦ won a T-shirt and a thermos flask that Baby Kochamma kept locked away in her cupboard” (Roy 28).
Baby Kochamma behaves in a manner that she may not normally if some sort of global economy were not broadcast to her television from afar. Programming of the type which Baby Kochamma watches only encourages materialism and social distinction. By being swept up in a global economy Baby Kochamma inadvertently becomes a participant in the global economy that will socially dominate those who cannot participate.
The entertainment industry, through the medium of television, will also assist to establish a form of social righteousness and domination. In Janet Thormann’s critical essay “The Ethical Subject of The God of Small Things,” Thormann agrees the entertainment and world news continuously broadcast to Baby Kochamma’s television set ensures a form of social dominance remains present in India.
The essay states: “Television programming in India is an important medium for the implementation of class membership Ã¢Â?Â¦ and defines norms of global citizenship” (Thormann) The author then continues with, “Programming Ã¢Â?Â¦ provides a link to American fantasies of life-style and to ambitions reconfirmed by the staged politics of a television violence that threatens bourgeois comfort” (Thormann). Baby Kochamma, by watching television, becomes a global citizen. American entertainment only confirms, when contrasted to televised images of violence, the validity of ambitions and lifestyles that comprise the identity of a global citizen.
The confirmation of such an idea can be found in another passage detailing Baby Kochamma’s television watching. The narrator says:
She was frightened by the BBC famines and television wars that she encountered while she channel surfed. Her old fears of the Revolution and the Marxist-Leninist menace had been rekindled by new television worries about the growing numbers of desperate and dispossessed people. She viewed ethnic cleansing, famine and genocide as direct threats to her furniture. (Roy 28-9).
The programming makes Baby Kochamma aware that her materialist well being can be endangered. The television broadcasts also propel a belief in social superiority. Postmodern television programming found in postmodern works of fiction produces a continued, rather than a ceasing of, domination. Citizens of postcolonial nations will not get to hear their own voice in the matter regarding whether or not domination presents itself in their country.
Domination presents itself in Anthills of the Savannah because the characters cannot arrive at a coherent and central idea on how the fictitious nation of Kangan should be governed. Postmodernism can be blamed for the nation’s failure to properly govern itself. The goal of postmodernism to fragment identities should be viewed as the main reason. Postmodernism will keep a newly decolonized nation in a cyclical pattern of submission and domination. The possible presence of the pattern can be attributed to the fact that the postcolonial nation has yet to establish an identity of its own. Postmodernism prevents the establishment of a centered existence and identity. The nation of Kangan cannot affect a proper governing because it possesses no links to itself. Ikem, one of the novels main characters and narrators helps to clarify the situation postmodernism seems to have put Kangan into. Ikem thinks to himself about the reasons the government fails to govern the nation properly.
As narrator, Ikem states, “It is the failure of our rulers to re-establish vital inner links with the poor and disposed of this country, with the bruised heart that throbs painfully at the core of the nation’s being” (Achebe 131). Postmodernism prevents the linking with the “poor and disposed.” The “core of the nation’s being” has been fragmented in postmodern times. The nation without a previously owned coherent and central knowledge about itself cannot gain one in times of postmodernism.
The characters found in the novel also find themselves with fragmented knowledge and power. The fragmented knowledge of the characters also leads to the ability of postmodernism to keep domination present in Kangan. The essay “Knowledge and Power, the Story and the Storyteller: Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah” by Robin Ikegami states, “The relation between knowledge and power in Anthills, then, is particularly problematic, for the characters have a great deal of various kinds of knowledge, and they believe that they have a certain amount of power as well” (Ikegami 66).
The decentered and fragmented knowledge prevents the characters from unifying into a group of people who can put together a properly governing government. Postmodernism, with its ability to decenter knowledge and give that knowledge an indeterminate meaning, successfully dominates on a macro and micro level as seen in Anthills of the Savannah.
Another example of postmodernism dominating on a micro level lies in the female character of Beatrice. In the novel, Sam, also known as His Excellency, invites Beatrice to attend a gathering at his Presidential Retreat. Beatrice prefers not to attend but her boyfriend Chris, the Commissioner of Information, tells her to go. In a telephone conversation Chris says to Beatrice, “So my dear girl you will go and you may do some good. Sam is not such a fool you know. He knows things are now pretty hopeless and may see in you a last hope to extricate himself. You may be able to help” (Achebe 66-7). Chris hopes exchanging Beatrice with Sam will provide needed information. The exchange of Beatrice between Chris and Sam displays domination present in Achebe’s postmodern novel.
Chris and Sam’s exchanging Beatrice can be defined in terms of kinship. Kinship can be defined by the reading of Gayle Rubin’s essay, “The Traffic in Women.” In the essay Rubin states that “a kinship system is not a list of biological relatives. It is a system of categories and statuses which often contradict actual genetic relationships” (169). The definition of kinship by Rubin creates the plausibility that Beatrice, neither a relative to Chris or Sam, can be exchanged by the two men. The exchange of Beatrice, according to Rubin, “Does imply a distinction between gift and giver. If women are the gifts, then it is men who are the exchange partners. And it is the partners, not the presents, upon whom reciprocal exchange confers its Ã¢Â?Â¦ power of social linkage” (174). A distinction between Sam and Chris as exchangers and Beatrice as the gift is made. Rubin goes on to add, ” ‘Exchange of women’ is a shorthand for expressing that the social relations of kinship system specify that men have certain rights in their female kin, and that women do not have the same rights either to themselves or to their male kin” (177). Chris and Sam exercise a certain power and domination over their female counterpart Beatrice. Postmodern fiction once again displays male domination over females. Postmodernism also practices domination over minorities as well.
In the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey a Native-American character named Bromden is rescued from domination by the white race that sought to dominate him in the first place. Examples of the domination of Bromden appear several times in the novel. The most explicit is in his remembrances of his childhood home when three white people come to discuss buying the property. The three white characters dominate Bromden by acting as if he were invisible and deaf. Bromden says something to the white people and he believes they act like they did not hear any sound at all. Bromden narrates, “And I’m just about to go and tell them, how, if they’ll come on in Ã¢Â?Â¦ when I see that they don’t look like they’d heard me talk at all” (Kesey 181). The white people do not consider Bromden important enough to even consider the words he speaks. Remembering more details from the encounter Bromden continues with the narration, “The other two, John and the woman, are just standing. Not a one of the three acts like they heard a thing I said; in fact they’re all looking off from me like they’d as soon I wasn’t there at all” (181). The actions of the whites cause Bromden to feel a sense of insignificance and invisibility. The whites succeed in making Bromden gaining a sense of his identity as dominated.
Now that the whites dominate Bromden the novel portrays Bromden as saved by a white man. McMurphy, the main character in the novel, appears to be the only one powerful enough to help Bromden fight the domination that identifies him. In the book The Art of Grit: Ken Kesey’s Fiction by M. Gilbert Porter, the argument is made for McMurphy as Bromden’s savior. Porter writes about Bromden as a tortured conscience and possessing a fragmented identity. In his book, Porter adds about Bromden, “He is a fragmented man viewing fragmented men for a psychic distance that distorts wholes yet clarifies parts. Under McMurphy’s provocative influence, though, he moves to the control of his faculties and the ability to see the world steadily and whole” (9). Bromden can only be made whole by the white character McMurphy. Due to previous domination by white characters Bromden is unable to make himself a whole being. Bromden, as a non-white character, fails to control the power that can make his world steady. Only the white McMurphy can help Bromden. Porter adds later in his book, “Under the health-giving influence of McMurphy, Bromden experiences the sharpening of his senses and the heightening of his perceptions” (15). The white McMurphy continues to be responsible for Bromden’s mental and physical improvements. Domination by the other mental patients falls to the wayside as well.
Bromden achieves a certain greatness on the ward by association with McMurphy. The Native-American breaks free of domination by connecting himself with a white male. Bromden returns to his usual ward after him and McMurphy receive shock treatment. As he enters the room, Bromden narrates, “Everybody’s face turned up to me with a different look than they’d ever given me before. Their faces lighted up as if they were looking into the glare of sideshow platform” (Kesey 243). Bromden is thought to be closely connected now to the white man. He now possesses wisdom far beyond that of the others in the ward and the characters treat him accordingly. Porter writes, “When he returns to the ward from Disturbed with tales of McMurphy, he finds himself a hero by association, and he feels for the first time the pressure that the weak can apply to the strong” (Porter 32). An overt domination used to submit the Native-American character into silence subtly transfers into a more subtle domination. The white race continues to be responsible for dominating the character of Bromden. He receives a hero’s welcome only because of his association with a man of the white race.
Postmodernism displays many different and varying forms of domination within its fictional works. On a micro level postmodern works can continue trends that proceed to dominate different groups of people. On the macro level postmodernism is capable of maintaining domination over nations that encompass a lack of power. Working with the postmodern novels, short stories, and theorists found in this essay, the reader can view the abundance of domination that still presents itself in contemporary literature. Postmodernism seeks to recognize Others and give them a voice which can be heard and not suppressed by dominating forces. Yet in some postmodern works different types of domination still exist. A centeredness of Postmodernism that claims no center would appear to be the continuation of some sort of dominance.
Achebe, Chinua. Anthills of the Savannah. New York: Anchor Books, 1988.
Geyh, Paula, and Fred G. Leebron, Andrew Levy, eds. Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology. New York: Norton, 1998.
Grimshaw, Tammy. Sexuality, Gender, and Power in Iris Murdoch’s Fiction. Cranbury, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2005.
hooks, bell. “Postmodern Blackness.” Geyh, Leebron and Levy 624-631.
Ikegami, Robin. “Knowledge and Power, the Story and the Story Teller: Achebe’s Anthills in the Savannah. 1991. Postcolonial Literatures. eds. Micael Parker and Roger Starkey. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 65-81.
Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. New York: Signet, 1962.
Minh-ha, Trinh. “Woman, Native, Other.” Geyh, Leebron and Levy 649-654.
Murdoch, Iris. A Severed Head. New York: Penguin, 1961.
Porter, M. Gilbert. The Art of Grit: Ken Kesey’s Fiction. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.
Roy, Arundhati. The God of Small Things. New York: Harper Perennial, 1997.
Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” Toward an Anthropology of Women. Ed. Rayna R. Reiter. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975.
Shange, Ntozake. “Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo.” Geyh, Leebron and Levy 43-54.
Thurmann, Janet. “The Ethical Subject of The God of Small Things.” Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture & Society. 8.2 (2003): 299-307. Literature Resource Center. 23 Apr. 2006
Works Cited cont.
Wallace, David Foster. “Lyndon”. Geyh, Leebron and Levy 362-391.
24 April 2006