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Faceting: Rereading Feminism and Postmodernism


This project offers a feminist reconsideration of the postmodern aesthetic across a set of American fictions since 1945. From our current perspective, postmodernism is both overdetermined and undervalued; we limit our readings by equating its sheen and sparkle with irony, paranoia, and superficiality. I present an alternative to two longstanding default modes of interpreting the postmodern: the excavatory, hermeneutic model inaugurated by Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, and the poststructuralist model, which celebrates a seemingly infinite profusion of references and surfaces. My project’s impact is threefold: I demonstrate how feminism refashions the postmodern aesthetic, I reanimate a quintessentially postmodern language of surface and depth in terms of our current crisis of reading, and I show how feminism is uniquely equipped to supersede, though not erase, that binary. Drawing together new debates in feminist, postcritical, and film theory, I present another approach to novels by Sylvia Plath, Christopher Isherwood, Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Leslie Marmon Silko, as well as several films and the television series Mad Men.

Feminist theory has a vexed relationship with postmodernism, both as an aesthetic category and in relation to its two major interpretive frameworks. For Jameson, the postmodern resists interpretation because of its baroque excesses, which he alternately compares to “heaps of fragments” and to “the distorting and fragmenting reflections of one enormous glass surface.” Jameson’s imagery emphasizes postmodernism’s illegibility, whether by profusion or impenetrability; while poststructuralist readings distinguish themselves by ennobling and elaborating upon these assumptions, they do not fundamentally unseat them. I argue that postmodernism’s aesthetic, supremely fragmented but also flatly reflective, actually invites the reader to make sense of the text in a pleasurable act of construction. This calls for a method of reading I term faceting, from the Latin facere, “to make or do,” a word that connotes reflection, refraction, and repositioning. To constellate meanings in a postmodern text is to negotiate a plural but limited set of interrelations from its vast networks of data and its myriad surfaces. The reader fastens shifting, tessellated planes into a provisional, dimensional, if hollow, narrative whole. If, in Rita Felski’s terms, intersectional feminism is always a “reworking,” an essentially “purposeful and hopeful” project of improvement, its history brings much to bear on the recent disciplinary turn to the postcritical, which is rooted in feminist and queer theory and eudaimonic in its aims. The pleasures of postmodernism, I maintain, lie precisely at its jagged seams and shifting juxtapositions, which the reader herself is constantly in the process of remaking. Rather than a readerly pose of ironic detachment or paranoid suspicion, faceting entails attachment, effort, and desire.

Faceting seizes specifically on metonymy as an alternative, feminist form of figuration that is both prominent in and amenable to the aims of postmodernism. Unlike metaphor, which encourages a binary reading, whereby the reader searches for significance behind a surface, metonymy enables the reader to perceive the postmodern aesthetic as a severalty of surfaces – as, in a word, multifaceted. In each chapter, I analyze a seemingly binary mode of representation that faceting transforms into a limited plurality. I begin by using The Bell Jar and A Single Man to counter Jameson’s claims in Postmodernism, as figures that appear to be dual yield greater complexity when viewed via faceting. I go on to trace the implications of narrative eversion – the process by which a shape is pulled inside out – in The Crying of Lot 49 and Ada, or Ardor. I consider how projections into the past and future in The Woman Warrior disrupt narrative teleology, building on those observations in an analysis of the later Almanac of the Dead and Mason & Dixon. The project is bracketed by analyses of film and television, which offer insight into the visual aspects of faceting, evident in its relationship to terms like face and façade. The introduction reviews the literature that contributed to faceting as a concept, as well as the hollow pleasures of two mid-century films, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Imitation of Life; the epilogue addresses the contemporary nostalgia for the postmodern in the tension between photographic and moving images in Mad Men.

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