Chinese Box World

‘With the metaphor of the Chinese box Brian McHale in his book Postmodernist Fiction explains a frequent phenomenon in postmodernist literature. The phenomenon whereby a story-line is interrupted by another story, thus creating a discontinuity that may be subtle as in the case of Hamlet’s play-within-the-play, where each story represents a different ‘world’. The purpose of these novels-within-the-novel; still-photographs-within-the-novel; films-within-the novel in modernist literature “serves as a tool for exploring issues of narrative authority, reliability and unreliability, the circulation of knowledge, and so forth.” In postmodernist literature these different interrupting worlds/narratives are so frequent that the original narrative sometimes gets lost. Attention is drawn to the fact that we can never know the complete truth, we are only capable of knowing a truth, and different Chinese boxes will give us different (sometimes conflicting) information about different worlds.’

– McHale, B. 1987. Pöstmödernist Fiction London, United Kingdom: Methuen Inc. p. 113

Characteristics of Postmodern Fiction

‘One might summarise some of the key characteristics of postmodern fiction as follows. Postmodern fiction often shows:

  1. a preoccupation with the viability of systems of representation;
  2. the decentring of the subject by discursive systems, and the inscription of multiple fictive selves;
  3. narrative fragmentation and narrative reflexivity; narratives which double back on their own presuppositions;
  4. an open-ended play with formal devices and narrative artifice, in which narrative self-consciously alludes to its own artifice, thus challenging some of the presuppositions of literary realism;
  5. an interrogation of the ontological basis of and connections between narrative and subjectivity;
  6. an abolition of the cultural divide beween high and popular forms of culture, embracing all in a mélange;
  7. an exploration of ways in which narrative mediates and constructs history: e.g. Graham Swift’s preoccupation with the relationship between story and history in Waterland (1983);
  8. the displacement of the real by simulacra, such that the original is always already linguistically constructed: novels incorporate ‘historical’ fictions as fact.’

– Tim Woods Beginning Postmodernism, 1999: 81-2

Modernism vs. Postmodernism

The Self
Modernism: Existence of stable, coherent “self”, independent of culture and society.
Postmodernism: The “self” is a myth and largely a composite of one’s social experiences and cultural contexts. The “self” is an Ideology.

Modernism: Reason and science provide accurate, objective, reliable foundation of “knowledge”.
Postmodernism: Reason and science are Ideologies in the Marxist sense; myths created by man.

Modernism: Women are oppressed by patriarchy and can use Reason to achieve both independence and regain their “authentic selves”.
Postmodernism: The categories male/female, masculine/feminine are themselves culturally constructed and/or Ideology. Gender roles are culturally relative in all cultures and contexts.

Objective Truth
Modernism: Reason transcends and exists independently of our existential, historical, cultural contexts; it is universal and “true”.
Postmodernism: There is no universal, objective means of judging any given concept as “true”; all judgements of truth exist within a cultural context (cultural relativism).

“Modernism had two great wishes. It wanted its audience to be led toward a recognition of the social reality of the sign (away from the comforts of narrative and illusionism, was the claim); but equally it dreamed of turning the sign back to a bedrock of World/Nature/Sensation/Subjectivity which the to and fro of capitalism had all but destroyed.” – T.J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism

Modernism: Reason and human independence/freedom are inherently linked; just laws conform to the dictates of Reason.
Postmodernism: The application of pure Reason (predicated Cartesian Radical Skepticism) disproves the universal nature of a priori human freedom. Independence/Freedom are Western Ideologies used to colonize foreign cultures (i.e. Belgian Congo, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan).

Universal Truth
Modernism: Because it is universal, Reason can help us overcome all conflicts. Reason will lead to universal truths all cultures will embrace.
Postmodernism: Reason is no more universal than is any other culture’s definition of “truth”.

Modernism: Science is the paradigm of all true knowledge.
Postmodernism: Science is Ideology.

Modernism: Language is transparent; a one to one relationship between signifier (word) and signified (thing or concept).
Postmodernism: Language is fluid and arbitrary and/or rooted in Power/Knowledge relations. Meaning is fluid and arbitrary. Meaning is “messy”.

Modernism: The application of Reason leads to a progressive movement toward civilization, democracy, freedom, scientific advancement. The Enlightenment is prescriptive: a means of building a better society.
Postmodernism: There is no objective means upon which to predicate morality and right/just governance. Postmodern theory is descriptive of the human condition; it describes an impasse in philosophy and social relations.

“There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.” – Harold Pinter

In Sum
Modernism: Truth exists independent of human consciousness and can be known through the application of Reason. All Enlightenment conclusions lead from this assumption.
Postmodernism: Truth may exist independent of human consciousness but there is no objective means of nailing it down. All Postmodern conclusions lead from this assumption.