Dissertation Excerpt: Barthelme’s Defense of Postmodernism in ‘Not Knowing’

This excerpt is from a discussion of Donald Barthelme’s essay Not Knowing, which I am citing from his non-fiction collection of the same name. Below I give Barthelme’s defense of postmodernism and both expand on it and tie it to the theme of my dissertation, namely the relation of medium-responsiveness (that is, work that is produced, at least in part, in conscious response to the material and historical conditions of its medium) to innovative fiction.

Ok, this is not really revised yet and it is 4am, so bear with some possible rough patches. There are also a few statements in the text below that refer to things outside of the excerpt. Most of these are minor and should not interrupt the flow of reading. You should know that Barthelme titles the essay Not Knowing because he believes that not-knowing is an integral part of the writing process, from the blank page to the choices a writer must make about his characters, plot, style, etc. He begins the essay with a kind of craft talk in which he walks the reader through the construction of a story. Below there is a reference to Jacqueline, Jemima, and the handsome thief. Those are all characters from the story at the essay’s beginning.

Caveats aside, here it goes:


Barthelme lists and summarizes the main arguments against postmodernist literature.

The criticisms run roughly as follows: that this kind of writing has turned its back on the world, is in some sense not about the world but about its own processes, that it is masturbatory, certainly chilly, that is excludes readers by design, speaks only to the already tenured, or that it does not speak at all.1

To his credit, Barthelme does not make straw men of his critics. Instead, though with a dose of his characteristic humor, he gives honest attention to the criticisms in order to build the ground for his counterarguments. To Barthelme, what gives postmodernist fiction its real and lasting value is that, in his understanding, it is located “in relation to a series of problems, and … that these problems are durable ones.”2 To the critics of postmodernism’s notorious difficultness and opacity, Barthelme explains that

The problems that seem to me to define the writer’s task at this moment (to the extent that he has chosen them as his problems) are not of a kind that makes for ease of communication, for work that rushes toward the reader with out-flung arms – rather, they’re the reverse. Let me cite three such difficulties that I take to be important, all having to do with language. First, there is art’s own project, since Mallarmé, of restoring freshness to a much-handled language, essentially an effort toward finding a language in which making art is possible at all. This remains a ground theme, as potent, problematically, today as it was a century ago. Secondly, there is the political and social contamination of language by its use in manipulation of various kinds over time and the effort to find what might be called a “clean” language, problems associated with the Roland Barthes of Writing Degree Zero but also discussed by Lukács and others. Finally there is the pressure on language from contemporary culture in the broadest sense – I mean our devouring commercial culture – which results in a double impoverishment: theft of complexity from the reader, theft of reader from the writer.3

The sum effect of these problems, among others, is that for a writer to engage in them “automatically creates barriers to the ready assimilation of the work.” This leads Barthelme to the beautiful formulation: “Art is not difficult because it wishes it be difficult, but because it wishes to be art.” He continues,

However much the writer might long to be, in his work, simple, honest, straightforward, these virtues are no longer available to him. He discovers that in being simple, honest, and straightforward, nothing much happens: he speaks the speakable, whereas what we are looking for is the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken.4

I’ve presented the core of Barthelme’s argument largely through this series of extended quotations because I want to convey the grain of his thought and the character of his rhetoric. In the space of about a page, he constructs a dense and sophisticated manifesto for literary difficulty, one which we will, at least partially, unpack as it bears on Barthelme’s medium-responsiveness, to fiction as conceived as a response to the conditions of language.

According to the logic of Not Knowing, the primary concerns with which a writer must wrestle, before questions of content, before the goings on of Jacqueline and Jemima and the handsome thief, are questions of how to use language, specifically how to use language in ways that are not already so loaded with popular-cultural, conventional, and political overcodings as to foreclose the possibility of art. Thus, with fiction conceived as the search for “the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken,” the not-knowing of Not Knowing slips into the unknown, and that occluded space must become the site of art. This, in part, is why the literary text must be as an object in the world, so that the language can be seen fresh – confronted as language – and not disappear like window glass, a forgettable clear barrier through which an image appears, and so that that image can be reconfigured through the dense scrim of literary language instead of as the ideologically ready-cooked, worn-in, wholly expected images of ordinary language, of stock phrases, but also of structural and syntactic formulations that have been heard so many times that they are appear for all the world as natural, representative of the order of the world as it should and must be.

Seen thus, Barthelme’s desire for a thoroughly enstranging5 literary language is the logical response to the state of his art and the historical condition of language, his primary medium. For those writers who concern themselves with the problems of language, novelty and innovation are practically imperatives, as their task is the continual refreshing of a language that is constantly in danger of being co-opted and overused. Thus innovation is quite literally a consequence of writerly medium-responsiveness. The inverse of this is alluded to in the parenthetical “(to the extent that he has chosen them as his problems.)” The fiction writer who has not chosen these as his problems is not concerned with his medium and cannot be expected to invigorate it. He will only say what is already known and said. In so doing, he is little more than a copy clerk who we may wish, like Bartleby, would prefer not to write, for what he writes is journalism without the virtue of truth, and so truly only the purest expression of ideology, unwittingly but unmistakably propaganda.


1Not Knowing. p. 15

2Ibid. p. 14

3Ibid. p. 15


5See: Viktor Schklovsky’s Theory of Prose

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July 2011

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