Following the postmodern conference held in May, 2008 [see my note on the conference itself here] at the University of Ottawa, finally comes RE: READING THE POSTMODERNISM: Canadian Literature and Criticism after Modernism, ed. Robert David Stacey (Ottawa ON: University of Ottawa Press, 2010), a collection of some of the pieces presented, including pieces by Robert Kroetsch, Frank Davey, Linda Hutcheson, Christian Bök, Stephen Cain, Alexander MacLeod, Gregory Betts, Herb Wylie, Jennifer Blair, Jason Wiens, Pauline Butling and Susan Rudy. As editor Stacey writes in the introduction:
When I first encountered the term as an undergraduate at McGill University in the late 1980s, talk of postmodernism was everywhere. For me at that time the postmodern seemed virtually the property of Linda Hutcheon, whose books—The Poetics of Postmodernism (1988), The Politics of Postmodernism (1989), and The Canadian Postmodern (1988)—I eagerly took up as indispensable supplements to my course readings. It was through Hutcheon’s texts that I and many of my peers were first exposed to theorists such as Roland Barthes, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, and Jacques Derrida, whose writings, different and sometimes incompatible as they are, nevertheless characterize the so-called linguistic turn in the humanities with which the postmodern, as aesthetic, is broadly aligned. These thinkers and their associated literary and philosophical concepts are among the most cited in the present collection as well. That this is so suggests that their ideas remain relevant to an understanding of the postmodern, even when the effort has been made, as it has here, to broaden and complicate that understanding beyond the dominant Canadian view.
At nearly four hundred pages, I can understand why not every piece gets invited to participate in the post-conference collection, but I have to admit to being disappointed to not be able to further engage with a piece by Toronto poet and critic Andy Weaver. Still, the collection furnishes rare essays on selected works by Lynn Crosbie and the late Daniel Jones in Stephen Cain’s “Feeling Ugly: Daniel Jones, Lynn Crosbie, and Canadian Postmodernism’s Second Wave,” and bill bissett, the late bpNichol, Steve McCaffery and Judith Copithorne in St. Catharine’s, Ontario poet and critic Gregory Betts’ “Postmodern Decadence in Canadian Sound and Visual Poetry,” two essays which, by themselves, notwithstanding a single other piece, are more than worth the entire collection. As Betts writes:
In fact, as Johanna Drucker points out, Canadian sound and visual poetry was distinct from other concurrent manifestations precisely because of its self-conscious use of theoretical and philosophical implications within its radical aesthetics (128-129). Experimental poets such as Nichol, McCaffery, Judith Copithorne, and bissett, and sound poetry groups like The Four Horsemen, Owen Sound, and Re: Sounding, used their creative work as the embodiment and manifestation of radical manifestos for emerging postmodern tropes like deconstruction and poststructuralism. Their art, as Habermas predicted, was indeed a decadent explosion of the barbaric yawp, the wild grunt, and primitive howl—proprioceptive intensities amplified by an anarchistic transhistoricism. As Nichol wrote, “i break letters for you like bread […] this is the divine experience. that i have found my words useless to reach you” (Gifts n.p.). Though language is said to fail in this passage, its sacrifice is a devotional offering to Nichol’s invented neologistic gods. As such, it releases an unexpressed, elusive spiritual fulfillment: an imaginary order emerging through disorder. Postmodernism in Canada begins with this kind of pale utopian fire, with this kind of playful, self-conscious irony. The spirit of decadere, of falling away from established norms of language-use without falling toward anything—a systematic derangement of the senses—represents an embrace of the end of order, the end of stability. In lines such as these, Nichol remains optimistic about the experience of instability, of being beyond or outside of language and the language game.
This collection also reminds me that I’ve seen a number of interesting and compelling critical pieces by Toronto writer and critic Stephen Cain that seem both academic and incredibly readable, exploring corners that so often otherwise would have gone unnoticed, including a magnificent piece on the Toronto geographies of bpNichol’s The Martyrology Book V (1982). I wonder, might Cain compile his essays into a collection at some point? Cain’s piece in the conference, and thus in this anthology, focus on Lynn Crosbie’s incredible novel Paul’s Case (1997) and Daniel Jones’ Obsessions (1992), writing of “These two novels, written by two friends living mere blocks from each other on College Street in downtown Toronto at the time, both illustrate the formal style and ideology of this new postmodernism, as well as share a similar affective expression (primarily that of paranoia and irritation) and, throughout, articulate a lack of social and political agency.” An explanation of much of the nihilism Cain talks about from this period could so easily be summed up in a quote he brings in by R.M. Vaughan, from an interview with him published in the anthology The Notebooks: Interviews and New Fiction from Contemporary Writers (eds. Michelle Berry and Natalee Caple, Toronto ON: Anchor, 2002):
When [Michael Ondaatje] got the Governor General’s Award for Anil’s Ghost he made a speech about how important it was for him in the 1970s to get the Governor General’s Award for Billy the Kid. He said that getting that award when he was in his twenties gave him validation, gave him access to a bigger audience, and gave him all that stuff that we all need at certain periods in our career. And I thought, well, good for you for putting this in context and giving people a sense of the importance of these sorts of things.
Then my second thought was, all the people I know who are currently writing the equivalent of the experimental book that you wrote in the seventies will never never never get near the Governor General’s Awards, or the Gillers, or the Griffin. It’s like that generation, with a few exceptions, got in and then slammed the gates shut. Of course, that’s the history of the boomers in all fields, that’s their economic survival strategy.
Still, why do we care about postmodernism? It’s already over, I’ve heard some suggest: why bother? But I’m far more interested in Stacey’s mention in his introduction that offers the same idea, footnoting that “A notable exception is Christian Bök who forcefully argues in “Getting Ready to have been Postmodern” that, at least in terms of literary criticism, genuine postmodernism has yet to begin in earnest here, having been aggressively suppressed within the dominant critical discourse of Canadian literature.” This, in my mind, is a far more compelling direction to move further of our writing and criticism in. Targeting Hutcheon, specifically her book The Canadian Postmodern, in a scathing defense of the postmodern, Bök writes in his essay:
While Hutcheon might argue that postmodern literature is “ex-centric,” insofar as it occupies a marginal position at the periphery of our culture, she nevertheless exacerbates the marginality of such literature by failing to discuss anti-classic, anti-mimetic fiction on the grounds that it has only a minor status among the major voices in Canada—and consequently, she forfeits the appropriate opportunity to study the work of avant-garde writers who have gone largely ignored in canonical narratives about our literary heritage. Even though a handful of critics have balked at these rhetorical manoeuvres, her book has nevertheless sanctioned exuberance among far too many scholars who now have permission to read, as postmodern, any realistic narrative that demonstrates even the merest degree of narrative aberrancy. Such scholars have adopted the catchy jargon of the “pomo,” but they have continued to evade any sustained encounter with the most obdurate examples of postmodern innovation, thereby ignoring the rare cases of a more experimental genre in order to depict as progressive the many cases of a more conservative genre.