May 04, 2007

The Ethics of Alterity by Thomas Docherty pp. 140 – 148

POSTMODERN LITERARY THEORY: AN ANTHOLOGY. ED. NIALL LUCY. OXFORD: BLACKWELL, 2000.

Docherty argues that postmodern texts conjure characters whose selfhood is defined by difference: ‘Postmodern characterization […] advances an attack on the notion of identity, or of an essential Selfhood which is not traduced by a temporal dimension which threatens the Self with heterogeneity.’ (140). Such characters are not only different from others but from their putative selves. Previously characters were ‘present-to-themselves’ and reified as ‘en-soi’, while postmodern characters always dramatize their own ‘absence’ from themselves’. (140)

Docherty considers the incoherence of postmodern characters as character traits are contradicted, proper names used inconsistently, genders confused, humans and objects synthesised etc. The notion of representation is in the balance.

An existentialist philosophical tradition has produced a postmodern characterization that suggests a discrepancy between the character who acts and the character who watches themselves acting – a temporal distance between agency and the self consciousness regarding that same agency. Docherty uses the example of John Barth’s ‘Menelaiad’ and he suggests that the consciousness of Menalaus is out of step with the voice of Menalaus and the actions he has supposedly performed. This produces décalage or self-difference and consequently, Menalaus is never fully present in a conventional manner. Docherty quotes the character of Menalaus on time and he suggests that his character is the epitomy of Heideggerian Dasein – a being endlessly deferred, endlessly seeming otherwise and repeating itself in different figurations.

While previous narratives were based on a dichotomy between appearance and reality and encompassed a movement from mystification to enlightenment to revelation as truth, postmodern narratives represent a movement from homogeneity of character to heterogeneity. Such texts prefer an engagement with otherness. The self is related to forking paths of narrative and an excess or surplus of narrative.

In this economy of difference, Dasein enables the character who constantly escapes the fixity of identity by existing in and through the temporal predicament whereby the assumed or desired totality of the self is endlessly ‘dispositioned’, always a ‘being there’, as opposed to a being here, a being present to itself. Docherty finally gestures towards Kristeva’s idea of a subject in process as another alternative manifestation of this kind of character.


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