Aspects of Postmodernism in Douglas Coupland's Fiction
Between the years 1991 and 1999 Douglas Coupland published seven works of fiction: Generation X, Shampoo Planet, Life After God, Polaroids From the Dead, Girlfriend in a Coma and Miss Wyoming. All of Coupland's books take up issues contemporary society is constantly confronted with – consumption, confusion, alienation, anxiety and many more. The initial question is what the distinguishing features of Coupland's fiction are, as well as the culture he depicts in it? In order to be able to answer this question satisfactorily, a suitable theoretical approach has to be worked out, which will then constitute the necessary fundament for the later analysis of Douglas Coupland's works.
The theory that meets the necessary requirements for analyzing Coupland's literary works is the one of postmodernism. The formulation of a definition, a historical outline and the introduction of the main features of postmodernism will be the three main constituents of the thesis' theoretical part.
Consequently, the aim will be to find elements in Douglas Coupland's works that correspond with postmodern theory. The final questions will be, then, whether there are enough features of postmodernism to call Douglas Coupland's literature postmodern alltogether, and if it is, what exactly makes it postmodern and to what extent does his fiction fulfill postmodern theory's requirements?
I Theoretical Part
The following chapters will be important in order to understand the theoretical concept of postmodernism. First of all, several different theoretical approaches shall be introduced, which have then been rejected in the course of the debate. One of the most important critics in this context is Frederic Jameson.
Consequently, the terms modernity and modernism will be discussed, since they serve as the basis for understanding the concept of postmodernism. Then, the transition from modernism to postmodernism and its historical development will be discussed. Finally, postmodernism's relevance in the arts will elucidate the theoretical aspects which have been worked out in the course of this chapter.
The vague heading of this chapter already suggests the difficulty of defining the concept of 'postmodernism', which has been questioned from its beginning. There has not a single definition, which has not been called into question. (cf. Strinati 1995, p.12) In this chapter a discussion of the many attempts of defining postmodernism shall lead towards an overall definition of the term. Frederic Jameson, one of the most important postmodern theorists, says that
it is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place. (Jameson 1991, p.ix)
This quote points to the contradictory nature of postmodernism. Like many other -isms, postmodernism is a very vague term and does not have a definite character. Postmodernist theory is dialectical since it uses its own uncertainty as its primary indicator. Postmodern theory necessarily needs to be imperfect. (Cf.Cuddon 1992, p.734) The consequence of such an imperfection is the impossibility of formulating a coherent definition.
One of the distinct features of postmodernist theory is the insistence on its fragmentation. This fragmentation, which concerns all social and cultural aspects of life, is expressed best by the statement that postmodernism "emphasizes unpredictability, uncertainty, catastrophe [...], chaos, and, most of all, paralogy, or dissensus" (Lechte 1995, p.248)
In terms of how to view postmodernism, several approaches are to be discussed. Peter V. Zima (cf. 1997, p.5ff) offers various possible starting points which he examines closely. In the following two paragraphs these will be presented briefly. It is tempting to construct postmodernism chronologically as a period or an epoch, because the prefix
'-post' already suggests that postmodernism is something that comes after modernism and that postmodernism, despite all its affinities, has to differ from modernism. It does not seem to be sufficient, though, to look at postmodernism only as a certain period of time.
Another, rather radical, point of view that has been taken into account by several critics, is to consider postmodernism as yet another ideology that is characterized by a system of fixed values, which differs from the one in modernism. Some critics even say that postmodernism is nothing but an ideologically and aesthetically motivated rejection of the past, but this view would reduce postmodernism to a relatively homogeneous, aesthetic ideology.
Yet another way of defining postmodernism is by considering it mainly on a stylistic level. Zima discusses the topic of postmodernism as a style by referring to Ihab Hassan (1987, p.47-56 cited in Zima 1997, p.7) who formulated an analysis of distinctive postmodern stylistic features, which are among others vagueness, fragmentation, dissolution of the canon, irony and carnivalization. It turns out to be rather unsatisfactory to solely rely on a stylistic analysis of the postmodern phenomenon, since many of these characteristics are distinct features of modernism as well and, therefore, it is suggested to turn to a more complex way of looking at postmodernism.
The prior examples of definitions of the term postmodernism show, first of all, that it is not a very efficient strategy to simply define postmodernism on a stylistic basis nor to describe it only chronologically, because either way it leaves out several important factors that constitute postmodernism, such as the historical, social, political or philosophical developments. Secondly, the definition of postmodernism cannot be described as being a separate ideology, which has fixed values and that has nothing in common with the previous period. In defining postmodernism we have to consider the concept of modernism.
Frederic Jameson (1991, p.4) says that postmodernism ought to be seen
not as a style but rather as a cultural dominant: a conception which allows for the presence and the coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate features
Jameson's statement points to the fact that postmodernism does not simply reject notions preceding it, but that they are an important factor in determining postmodernism's distinct character.
Postmodernism and modernism are strongly interwoven. Avant-garde tendencies in literature for example, are generally credited to be modernist, but these tendencies can be found within postmodernism as well. That is what is often called the new avant-garde. Postmodernism is responsible for many changes, developments and tendencies, which have occurred in the arts, in philosophy, in music as well as in almost every other field of knowledge. Postmodernism's beginnings are set in the 1940s or the 1950s and could be understood as a reaction against modernism and in so far it differs from it, but has its roots in it as well. One meaning of the term postmodernism is that it designates a large system of anti-modernist approaches in the arts that first appeared in the 1950s and reached its peak in the 1960s. (Cf. Strinati 1995, p.3) Concluding it can be stated that it is not possible to draw a sharp line between the two movements.
The term postmodernism has been used in combination with many issues that concern our so-called reality, whereas reality in contemporary Western society shows itself in variable ways. Peter V. Zima (cf. 1997, p.1-2) suggests that it is best to think of postmodernism not as a concrete object, but rather as a philosophical approach which seems to be symptomatic for the present condition of the European and North American society. It ought to be considered if postmodernism could not eventually designate actual changes in people’s believes and actions, as in such realms of philosophy, the arts, architecture or politics. Many of the critics agree on the fact that the understanding of the term 'culture' has changed. Frederic Jameson (1991, p.ix) states that
postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good. It is a more fully human world than the older one, but one in which 'culture' has become a veritable 'second nature'.
In other words, culture and nature can no longer be viewed separately, but they have become one. The whole cultural area has changed. And exactly these cultural changes contribute to the understanding of the postmodern concept. What happened is that the realm of culture started to widen enormously by bringing in, for instance, commodities. The Real has been acculturated in an enormous way and finally, reality has come under the influence of a massive aestheticization. As a result of this aestheticization culture itself has become a product. (Cf. Jameson 1991, p.31) There is no longer a dividing line between the so-called high and popular culture. In postmodernism popular culture has to be studied as well. What comes in, is the postmodern mode of commodifying culture - anything can be bought or sold. (Cf. URL:carmen artsci.washington.edu/panop/nmlit.htm)[March 27, 2000]) Postmodernism tries to identify breaks and events within the current society and does not search for entirely new worlds. It looks for the modifications and unreversable changes in the way things are represented and in what ways these representations have changed. Postmodernism is no longer about the actual content after such a representational change, but it is rather about the variation itself. (Cf. Jameson 1991, p.ix) Consequently the different realms of reality are more open for new and radical transformations than they have ever been. It will be discussed in detail in chapter five, in what ways these are especially relevant within postmodernism
Concluding it is suggested that a definition of the term postmodernism, as well as postmodernism itself, will always remain open and debatable. It is a construction out of many different aspects, which all have to be taken into account in order to grasp postmodernity's unique character. Again, the term postmodernism cannot be approached by discussing it from a single viewpoint. When only taking into account the chronological aspect of the term postmodernism, the definition will not be very extensive. The same effect is achieved when the concept of postmodernism is being considered to be nothing but yet another ideology that simply rejects parts of the past, and when it is analyzed only on a stylistic level the resulting definition is unsatisfactory as well. These findings lead to the assumption that an outline of the term postmodern has to be a much more embracing one. Postmodernism is quite a democratic concept. Nothing is being excluded for good, everything has a right to exist and be part of formulating postmodernism's unique character. Changes within culture change the term postmodernism which means that a final definition is not existent.
The main references in this chapter are taken from Albert Borgmann's Crossing the Postmodern Divide (1992, p.20-82).
Modernity was born when three radical blows, which are generally associated with Columbus, Copernicus, and Luther, shattered the medieval form of life and beliefs. All three men lived around the turn of the fifteenth century and they revolutionized mankind's way of life and thinking. New technologies which radically changed and continually improved the standards of living were being developed. In this historical sense the term modern can be reduced to the word 'newness'.
These implementations should illustrate that one epoch generally ends when its central beliefs start to weaken and innovations reshape the whole cultural and economic world. This, too, is exactly what happened with modernist beliefs and production methods during the transitional period from modernism to postmodernism. All of the essential elements of the modern era had been affected in the course of this process - be it universalism, realism, or individualism. The shift from modernism to postmodernism is characterized by the fact that a completely new world has been created, because the earlier emphasis on production and creation has been overcome. Postmodern society puts a stress on the leisure industry rather than on the one of production, and prefers adventures in hyperreality to actual experiences. In order to fully understand these developments it is useful to outline the main characteristics of the modern era first. The character and the limits of modernism have to be understood in order to be able to overcome them.
As it has been pointed out earlier, modernist theories and practices serve as the basis for understanding the concept of postmodernism. Modernism was at its peak after the First World War during the 1920 and 1930s. Modernists reacted against the former political order and they no longer considered the old ways of representing the world in which they live as appropriate. The existing order was no longer acceptable.
(URL: carmen.artsci.washington.edu/panop/nmlit.htm [March 27, 2000])
Modernism is the period which strongly emphasizes individualism. It is one essential feature of the modernist period that it is very strongly connected with the creation of unique and authentic styles through which an individual expresses personal opinions about the world. (cf. Sarup 1989, p.133) Generally speaking
modernism reveals a breaking away from established rules, traditions and conventions, fresh ways of looking at man's position and function in the universe and many (in some cases remarkable) experiments in form and style. (Cuddon 1992³, p.551)
Modernists reacted against the former universalism, which consisted of a number of set rules that were applied to every aspect of life. In the arts, in literature, hierarchical structures within society or religious beliefs were strictly defined and people had to live according to these standards in order to be part of society. Within modernism, then, these earlier established rules were no longer accepted. What happened was that the traditional standards were simply replaced by different ones, which were as universal and as strict as the older ones. As a consequence, the need to separate the old and the new, as well as the one to distinguish between art and non-art continued throughout the modern period.
Modernism is characterized by projects, artistic as well as theoretical ones, that are aimed at representing and interpreting the real (Cf. Kellner 1989, p.117). This means that the earlier emphasis on emotion has vanished and instead of feelings the actual thing stands for itself without any further comment. This of course allowed for experiments in form and content within every cultural and artistic realm - whereas the extent of how far these experiments were going, had been regulated. Richard Rorty even talks about an aggressive realism, which was also "a constructive reply to the disintegration of the medieval order" (Borgmann 1992, p.51), and which is a realism that approves of the eloquence of things. (Cf. ibid.)
Concluding it can be summed up that modern beliefs center around individualism, a variation of the former universalism and a new kind of realism. Thinking of postmodernism it is exactly these three areas as well, which have been transformed.
The main concern of this chapter will be to elucidate in what ways the moment of change, from the modern to the postmodern period, can be described. Several aspects have to be considered in order to answer this question. On the one hand, postmodernism always implies a move away from the old - from modernism, but, on the other hand, it also takes up some of the former elements and restructures them. The third way of describing the moment of change is to look at social changes. This approach will show that society and culture have changed as far as individualism, universalism and realism are concerned.
Generally speaking, the postmodern struggle is dealt with on two levels: on the cultural and on the political level. On the political level postmodernists criticize Marxism and on the cultural level they turn against modernism.
Most postmodernists reject the following models: the existential model of authenticity and inauthenticity; the semiotic opposition between signifier and signified, the Freudian model of latent and manifest, and the Marxist one of appearance and essence. (Sarup 1989, p.144)
Postmodernism has either developed out of earlier modernist practices or it has been a total rejection of the former high-modernist period. Ann E. Kaplan (1988, p.1) argues that
the postmodern moment is a break initiated by modernism, which is here viewed as a transitional period between nineteenth-century Romanticism and the current cultural scene. The word 'postmodern' is then useful in implying the links with modernism, while at the same time indicating a substantial move beyond/away from it.
But it cannot be said that postmodernism simply rejects notions preceding it. This is made clear by the statement that
radical breaks between periods do not generally involve complete changes of content but rather the restructuring of a certain number of elements already given: features that in an earlier period or system were subordinate now become dominant, and features that had been dominant again become secondary. (Kaplan 1988, p.26)
And this is exactly what has happened within the transition from the modern to the postmodern era. As examples serve modern artists or writers who were considered shocking and scandalous during their peak of artistic creation and who are nowadays part of the canon and are no longer seen as destructive. The determining period of transition could therefore be set in the early 1960s when
the position of high modernism and its dominant aesthetics became established in the academy and are henceforth felt to be academic by a whole new generation of poets, painters and musicians. (Ibid. p.28)
But the moment of change can also be described in terms of social change. Sometime after the Second World War a new type of a social order came into existence. This new social organization is often referred to as consumer society, postindustrial society or media society. (Cf. ibid.)
The disciplines of the modern era were technology and economy, and, as it has been said earlier, the characteristics of the modern social world were an "aggressive realism, [a] methodical universalism, and an ambiguous individualism". (Borgmann 1992, p.5) These three traits of the modern era have been constantly criticized by postmodernists during the last decades. Within postmodernism for each of these modern principles a counter-argument has emerged:
Information processing in place of aggressive realism, flexible specialization instead of methodical universalism, and informed cooperation rather than rugged individualism. (Ibid. p.65)
Within society several fundamental changes have taken place throughout the last decades. Communal life and the central position of the church got lost and with them habits that had served as moral landmarks in everyone's daily lives. On the one hand, one no longer has these basic points of orientation, (ibid. p.54) on the other hand, this kind of moral universalism is always dominant and as a consequence of this dominance it can be oppressive. Today universals have been rejected in almost every realm of contemporary culture:
it is now seen as an anxious and pretentious yet ultimately futile effort to enforce rigor and uniformity in an unruly and luxuriant world. (Ibid. p.55)
As a reaction against universalism, eclecticism, a once widespread term, becomes fashionable again. Eclecticism designates philosophical theories, which are taken from several different approaches. The theorist's aim is not to accomplish a unified systematic principle, but his only concern is that the different individual theories make sense in their own right. The term eclecticism has long been used pejoratively, in the context of having 'simply imitated' something, or that something has not been created independently. Within the present postmodern debate eclecticism gains importace once more. The eclectic use of traditional styles is one of the main characteristics of the postmodern. (Cf. Hügli 1997, p.164)
Concerning the modern aggressive realism, recent developments within society and culture show a diminishing emphasis on realism. Jean Baudrillard is known best for the terms 'simulation' and 'hyperrealism', which are perfect examples for postmodern anti-realism. It needs to be noted, though, that anti-realism involves whole new concepts of what has been considered as reality up until recently.
Within the concept of anti-realism the postmodern phenomenon of the ongoing decline of history will be discussed as well. General history as well as personal history no longer play a significant role in postmodern life. A side-effect of such a loss is what is generally called 'nostalgia'. Nostalgia is very often what Jameson calls 'false realism' and what Baudrillard calls 'simulations'. (Cf. Storey 1993, p.170) Yet another phenomenon that fits into the realm of anti-realism is the growing ‘depthless-ness’ of present society, as well as the existence of so-called 'schizophrenia', which means that the way we perceive time and space has changed within the postmodern period.
The growing immediacy of global space and time resulting from the dominance of the mass media means that our previously unified and coherent ideas about space and time begin to be undermined, and become distorted and confused. (Bertens 1995, p.226)
The question whether individualism has ended in postmodernity and how society deals with the changing concepts of identity will be of interest in the last part of the analysis. Contemporary concepts of identity and individuality are rather conflicting and sometimes the effort of defining is futile, since postmodern identity's hallmark is that, at times it is not existent at all.
This chapter mainly refers to Andreas Huyssen's book After the Great Divide. Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (1986, p.184ff.).
and to the book Modern American Culture: An Introduction edited by Mick Gidley (1993, p.372ff.).
The term postmodern has a long history, but, as it has already been stated in chapter 2 there is no agreement on postmodernism's exact field of reference as well as there is no consent on its point of beginning. Another problem that presents itself within the postmodern debate is that critics in the early period did not actually use the term postmodern, but they simply wrote in a way that later on was considered to be postmodern. It has been possible only some time after these writings were published to identify them as being part of postmodern thought. Relevant for the contemporary debate about postmodernism is only the use of the term that began in the late 1950s and early 1960s. (cf. Strinati 1995, p.14ff.) The first time the term postmodernism was mentioned, was around 1870 by the British painter John Watkins Chapman who wanted his works to go beyond modern French Impressionism. During the 1950s the expression 'postmodernism' was first used by the Irving Howe and Harry Levin who wanted to express their worry about the modern era going down. In the 1960s Ihab Hassan, Leslie Fiedler and others used the term postmodernism rather assertively, even though their views on what precisely made literature postmodern, differed greatly. Starting in the early and mid-1970s the term gradually spread across the different cultural areas such as architecture, which was affected by postmodern tendencies first, then dance, theater, painting, film and finally the realm of music.
One characteristic of early postmodernism is that
there emerged a vigorous, though again largely uncritical attempt to validate popular culture as a challenge to the canon of modernist and traditional high art. (Huyssen 1986, p.194)
The postmodernist practice of the 1960s and the 1970s was mainly criticizing certain aspects of modernism. The postmodernism of the 1970s differed from the one of the 1960s in so far as it
had abandoned any claim to critique, transgression or negation and [that] an alternative postmodernism in which resistance, critique, and negation of the status quo were redefined in non-modernist and non-avantgardist terms, terms which match the political development in contemporary culture more effectively than the older theories of modernism. (Huyssen 1986, p.188)
This statement deals with the fact that the need to criticize modernist practices had changed in so far as it not simply rejected certain aspects of modernism, but that the rejection of the old standards was formulated more reasonably in order to fit the actual situation of society. By the 1970s postmodernism dealt more and more with language in the most general sense. This concern with language is called post-structuralism.
Post-structuralism doubts the adequacy of structuralism and, as far as literature is concerned, tends to reveal that the meaning of any text is, of its nature, unstable. It reveals that signification is, of its nature, unstable. (Cuddon 1992³, p.735)
In the beginning postmodernism was identified with mostly deconstructionists who focused on rhetoric and reflexivity, such as Roland Barthes and Jaques Derrida. Deconstructionism is a very important characteristic of post-structuralism since it "defines a new kind of reading practice which is a key application of post-structuralism." (Cuddon 1992³, p.222) Deconstructive reading of a text reveals that there is nothing but text and that a text has so many different meanings that in the end it does not have a meaning at all. (Cf. Cuddon 1992³, p.222) Summed up it could be argued that in this stage of postmdodernism everything that had ever been written, was called into question.
Later postmodernism was closely associated with Michel Foucault and Jaques Lacan and their revisions of Freud. (cf. Strinati 1995, p.5) Another transformation within postmodernism was that it changed in so far as it started to view the former, rather optimistically considered realms of technology, media and popular culture more critically. Generally it could be stated that it gets increasingly difficult to describe and analyze the cultural scene after the 1960s since it seems to have got much more diverse and sometimes even diffuse. It was from the 1970s on, that artists started to work with forms of popular or mass culture and genres in connection with modernist strategies more frequently.
A distinct feature of postmodernism in the context of the American culture that contributes greatly to the understanding of postmodernism, is its plurality, which fully emerged after the 1960s. America has never been shaped by a single characteristic, it has always been a melting pot of cultures. The prevailing concept of the present United States is that they stand for cultural pluralism. But several cultural groups demanded cultural diversity instead of cultural coherence. In the 1960s, for example, under the Civil Rights Movement, black Americans called for their right to live and cultivate their culture. Blacks wanted the white Americans to recognize that black culture contributes a great deal to white American culture. After the 1960s minorities made aware of the fact that there is no such thing as the American. An American always means to be a mixture of several cultures. Toni Morrison and Alice Walker are only two representatives of this new black American consciousness. The formulation of a new multicultural American consciousness has made it possible to reveal the cultural inconsistencies and, as a consequence, a different kind of cultural identity has emerged since America is no longer being perceived as a unified but as a diverse culture. In its beginnings "the postmodern harbored the promise of a 'post-white,' 'post-male,' 'post-humanist,' 'post-puritan' world." (Huyssen 1986, p.194)
Other movements during the 1960s that dramatically changed the cultural scene and which contributed largely to laying the foundations for a more self-confident postmodernism, was the women's movement. Concepts of family, marriage, sexuality and violence were analyzed and questioned the prevailing concepts of where the woman's place in society was. In academic terms women criticized the literary canon as being made mostly by men. Women also rewrote the American history by narrating it from a female perspective. Examples for such women writers are Kate Chopin, Zara Neale Hurston, Charlotte Perkins Gilman or Betty Friedan.
The main changes that occurred within postmodernism during the last three decades are that minority groups no longer feel the urge to protest since they have established stable identities. They have become integrated into society, and the need to conform to certain rules and norms that were formulated in the initiative phase in order to disassociate themselves from others, no longer mattered. At least in the context of postmodern theory all men and women are created equal. This also means that, in the end, postmodernism has managed to resolve the problem of replacing the old universalisms with new ones. Present postmodernism can be understood as being within an area of conflict between traditional values and innovative forces, between conserving and renewing things, between popular and high culture. The important point here is that the traditional values, conservation and high culture are no longer perceived as being superior. And therefore, as it has already been pointed out, the end of the early need to separate the old from the new marks an important change within postmodernism.
In this last chapter of the theoretical part an outline of the arts within postmodernism shall be given. Postmodern architecture, literature, popular culture and pop art comprise many of the characteristics that determine postmodern culture and society. One tendency within the arts that is said to be postmodern, is the general tendency against universalisms which leads to the effacement of the distinction between high and low. In this context popular culture and pop art are exemplary. Other characteristic traits are the decline of the so-called 'grand récits', as well as an increasing fragmentation and decentralization. The end of individualism is a general phenomenon, which is not only in effect within the arts. Just like anti-realistic tendencies they have penetrated the whole society. Anti-realism involves so-called hyperrealism and certain mechanisms that distort people's sense of time and place. These mechanisms include a general superficiality, the decline of history, feelings of nostalgia and a phenomenon called schizophrenia.
When discussing Douglas Coupland's fiction, the field of literature, of popular culture and of pop art will be crucial, since he integrates the postmodern tenets, mentioned above, in his books. It could be argued that Coupland's literary creation mirrors postmodernism with all its artistic and societal aspects.
Before going into the field of postmodern architecture, literature, popular culture and pop art, general postmodern trends within the arts shall be examined. When looking at the artworks of postmodernism, two characteristics which are particularly relevant in the artistic realm, become obvious. One is that many postmodernisms have their origin in a particular protest against well-accepted modernisms.
The second important factor within postmodernism is that several modernist separations, such as the clear distinction between high culture and mass or popular culture, have crumbled. This is often perceived as a rather negative trait of postmodernism, since modernist had always put emphasis on the protection of the "realm of high or elite culture". (Kaplan 1988, p.14) from the 'lower' forms of culture. But within postmodernism the extinction of the separation between 'high' and 'low' is being considered as one of the most important changes following modernist beliefs and practices.
What happened was that new and experimental methods that had earlier been spread by the avant-garde have then reappeared in advertising, pop music and films. Large parts of the American culture were now dominated by the mass media and by distinct elements of the former counter-culture. (Cf. Huyssen 1986, p.375) Pop art gradually became part of everyday life and soon it was no longer possible to differentiate between the realm of 'high' and 'low' culture, or, to express it differently, postmodernist no longer felt the urge to do so, since popular culture has then been taken uncritically for what it has been and postmodern artistic practices, compared to modernist ones, did not intend to change society or transform everyday life. (Cf. Ibid. p.170)
Postmodernism can be found in almost any discipline of the arts. Examples for postmodern works of art are those by Andy Warhol and Roy Liechtenstein in the fine arts, by Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens in poetry, by Igor Stravinsky in music, by Le Corbusier, Frank Loyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe in architecture, and by James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, William S. Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon and Ishmael Reed in literature. In the 1960s the young generation revolted against certain modernsims, which they identified as being "dead, stifling, canonical, [...] reified monuments one has to destroy to do anything new." (Kaplan 1988, p.14) As a consequence, there have emerged as many postmodernisms as there had been modernisms. Any postmodernist artistic practice aims at replacing a particular modernist one.
In the following chapters postmodern architecture, the area of literature and finally the field of popular culture and popular art will be discussed. The first has been chosen mainly because postmodernism has its origins within the area of architecture and, therefore, it serves best to illustrate the transitional process form modernist to postmodernist practices. Postmodern literature and popular culture will be described in more detail, since they are integral elements of Douglas Coupland's works and, therefore, it is necessary to understand their importance within postmodernism.
The term 'postmodernism' has been used first in the early 1960s by the architect Robert Venturi. O'Hara calls this kind of architecture "'mall style' or McDonald'-ism, a kind of 'pop art' one could walk through or sit down in." (1993, p.322) He defines the postmodern style as being an "intentionally cartoonish, user-friendly localism" opposed to the architectural style of modernism, which is characterized by the "international skyscraper style". (1993, p.322) Architecture serves very well for illustrating the differences between modernism and postmodernism since architects have clearly identified their buildings as either modern or postmodern. Modernism became popular in the 1920s and its most obvious characteristic in architecture was that all forms prior to modernism were being rejected completely. The main task was that buildings had to be constructed completely new.
Functionality and efficiency, high rise, streamlined, glass and concrete structures, and a disregard for the past and for context, have all become [modernism's] hallmarks. (Bertens 1995, p.228)
Postmodernists have rejected these modernist characteristics since for them they constitute just another universalism. Postmodernist trademarks of architecture are that buildings are fancily decorated and carefully designed, "a stress on fictionality and playfulness, and the mixing of styles drawn from different historical periods in almost random and eclectic fashion." (Bertens 1995, p.228) Postmodernism celebrates superficiality, it makes 'fun' of already existing architecture, but postmodernism does not use the device of parody ,though, but the one of 'pastiche'. Pastiche is blank parody, parody that no longer mocks an original. (Cf. chapter 4.3) What has happened in postmodernism is that, due to the general fragmentation, former norms have disappeared and, as a consequence, there are no longer any standards to be ridiculed. What remains is nothing but stylistic diversity and heterogeneity.
Within the context of postmodern literature the term 'poststructuralism' is often mentioned. Post-structuralism works out the "possibilities, implications and shortcomings of structuralism and its basis in Saussurean linguistics itself". (Cuddon 1992³, p.734) More drastically Post-structuralism gives us new ways of interpreting, explaining and analyzing texts. It holds the opinion that the meaning of a text is not a fixed one. Postmodern literature and criticism, just like any other postmodernist practice, stress
the heterogeneity and profound discontinuities of the work of art, no longer unified or organic, but now a virtual grab bag or lumber room of disjoined subsystems and random raw materials and impulses of all kinds. (Jameson 1991, p.31)
Postmodernist literature tends to be against traditional writing and against "authority and signification". (Cuddon 1992³, p.734) Other basic traits of postmodernism are an "eclectic approach, aleatory writing, parody and pastiche". (Ibid.) Magic realism in fictional writing, new variants in science fiction and the popularity of the neo-Gothic and the horror story are an integral part in postmodern literature. The nouveau roman and the anti-novel are examples for postmodern experimental techniques. Poets have experimented with so-called concrete poetry, and in drama form, content and presentation have been subjects to experimentation. Theatrical concepts worth being mentioned are the Theater of the Absurd and the Total Theater. (Cf.Ibid.)
Literature nowadays no longer only cites from traditional works of high art, but includes it without necessarily ridiculing it. This combination of classical literature with trivial and commercial literature makes it rather difficult to draw a reasonable line between different art forms, but it also makes it interesting to read. Douglas Coupland can be called a professional in writing characteristic postmodern literature. What exactly makes him a postmodern writer shall be examined in the course of the analytical part.
Looking at the term 'popular culture', the most obvious definition instantly comes to mind, namely, popular culture as being a "culture which is widely favored or well liked by many people". (Storey 1993, p.7) But this is not enough in order to grasp the complex nature of the term 'popular culture'. As another possible definition Storey suggests that popular culture is the culture which remains after the entire realm of 'high culture' has been excluded from culture. Popular culture, then, is a "residual category, there to accommodate cultural texts and practices, which fail to meet the required standards to qualify as high culture." According to that, popular culture is perceived as being a "substandard culture". (Cf. Ibid.)
Yet another way of defining popular culture is to view it as mass culture. Critics who refer to popular culture as mass culture suggest that it is a "hopelessly commercial culture" (Storey 1993, p.10), which is often used in a negative sense, since the consumer is said to consume culture passively and automatically. (Cf.ibid.) But, as will be described later, the culture industries do not always manage to completely numb the consumer. A lot of new products fail, no matter how extensive the advertising has been. (Cf. Fiske 1989, p.5)
Popular culture has also been described as being a culture which stems from the people. (Cf. Storey 1993, p.12) It is not the people, though, who produce culture from raw materials.
"Whatever popular culture is, what is certain is, that its raw materials are those which are commercially provided." (Ibid.) It would be more reasonable, if the hypothesis was that popular culture is a culture where people choose from what they are offered. The range of cultural products selected by the majority becomes the most popular culture. In this context culture actually does come from the people and this proves the earlier argument to be right since it is not simply the culture industry's power to determine what does or does not constitute people's culture.
The term popular culture, as it will be of interest in this context, is being used in relation to the debate on postmodernism. The central point is that postmodernists reject the common distinction between high and popular culture and, as a consequence, all culture is part of postmodernist culture. It is also stated that any culture is commercial culture, which is not perceived as being negative by postmodernists, but which is rather celebrated. Storey (cf. 1992, p.15) clarifies this point by using the example of pop music used in television commercials, where the cultural and the commercial realm are penetrating each other and where one can no longer distinguish between the two. Contemporary culture is characterized as being a commodity culture and it no longer makes sense to argue that culture and profit exclude each other.
Today's cultural reality is marked by an interplay between the consumption of products produced by the cultural industries and people's everyday lives. These two seemingly separate factors have become one within popular culture. The cultural industries, by which John Fiske means all industries, produce a range of products from which people are able to choose. And people do choose the products they want to use. (Cf. Fiske 1989, p.4f) What can definitely be said about popular culture is that it is "a culture that only emerged following industrialization and urbanization" (Storey 1993, p.16), because without these developments the necessary resources would not be available. Especially popular media culture expands rapidly because the media and mass communication contribute a great deal to its rise. Hans Bertens (1995, p.236) specifies this point by stating that it is
the growth of consumer credit, the expansion of agencies like advertising, marketing, design and public relations, [which is] encouraging people to consume, and the emergence of a postmodern popular culture which celebrates consumerism, hedonism and style.
Concluding popular culture can clearly be identified as an integral part of postmodernism since it shares many of its traits. John Fiske (1989, p.6) describes popular culture as being
full of puns whose meanings multiply and escape the norms of the social order and overflow their discipline; its excess offers opportunities for parody, subversion, or inversion; it is obvious and superficial, refusing to produce the deep, complexly crafted texts that narrow down their audiences and social meanings; it is tasteless and vulgar, for taste is social control and class interest masquerading as a naturally finer sensibility; it is shot through with contradictions, for contradictions require the productivity of the reader to make his or her sense out of them.
The term pop art was first coined by the British artist Richard Hamilton in the 1950s and was later developed by the Independent Group of Artists and Critics. Lawrence Alloway theorized the term pop art as follows:
'The area of contact was mass-produced urban culture: movies, advertising, science fiction, pop music. We felt none of the dislike of commercial culture standard among most intellectuals, but accepted it as fact, discussed it in detail, and consumed it enthusiastically. One result of our discussions was to take Pop culture out of the realm of 'escapism', 'sheer entertainment', 'relaxation', and to treat it with the seriousness of art.' (Frith; Horn in Storey 1993, p.157)
In the middle of the 1960s, with the artworks by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and others, the new concept of pop started to fascinate people. "Pop became a synonym for the new lifestyle of the younger generation, a lifestyle which rebelled against authority and sought liberation from the norms of existing society. The former modernist works which had been considered shocking, became canonized and, therefore, lost their provocative character. Postmodernism made it possible to shock the middle class once more. (Cf. Storey 1993; p.155) Marcel Duchamp, for example, is one of the pop artists who succeeded in destroying the
traditional art work's aura, that aura of authenticity and uniqueness that constituted the work's distance from life and that required contemplation and immersion on the part of the spectator. (Huyssen 1986, p.10)
With time moving on, pop was integrated gradually in the official activities of the New Left movement. The reaction of the conservative press was that they feared that Western culture was going to break down and conservative cultural critics labeled Pop art as "non-art, supermarket-art, Kitsch-art, and as a coca-colonization of Western Europe." (Hermand 1971, p.47-51 cited in Huyssen 1986, p.141)
Pop art is characterized by its closeness to common objects and images and by the way it represents people's conventional lives. It is this 'realistic' aspect of pop art which stimulated a debate concerning the connection between art and life, and between image and reality. (Huyssen 1986, p.143) The most commonly known artist that instantly comes to mind here is Andy Warhol and his reproduction techniques. Andy Warhol's art could be called the
reproduction of a reproduction. It is not reality itself that provides the content of the work of art, but rather a secondary reality - the portrait of the mass idol as the cliché image that appears millions of times in the mass media and that sinks into the consciousness of a mass audience. [...] The artist has surrendered to the principles of anonymous mass reproduction and has documented his closeness to the image world of the mass media. (Huyssen 1986, p.146)
The serial portraits of Marilyn Monroe, the Campbell's tomato soup cans and of Coca Cola bottles are the most obvious examples for the way Warhol's art works. Pop artists glorified the growing commodification as well as the fact that there was no longer any concrete difference between
advertisements and art. And, as a general consequence, one can no longer differentiate between reality and image, nor between art and life. Popular Culture contains realisms but it mixes possible with impossible elements as well. (Cf. Polan in Kaplan 1988, p.52)
Pop art, "more than any other preceding art movement [...] laid bare the commodity character of all contemporary art production." (Hermand cited in Huyssen 1986, p.149) Pop art criticized how huge profits were being made by selling products labeled as 'high art'. By uplifting everyday items to the same level as conventional 'high art' the commodity character of every kind of art becomes visible. Since the mass media determines our sense of reality and surface dominates content, in the postmodern world it is no longer possible to differentiate between popular culture and art, because there are no longer any distinguishing features that are generally agreed on, which would allow to tell apart popular culture from art. Some postmodern critics consider this development to be a positive one. Examples here are the works by Andy Warhol who took for instance Leonardo Da Vinci's painting of The Mona Lisa and reproduced it thirtyfold and, therefore, destroyed its "uniqueness, the artistic aura". (Bertens 1995, p.226) The blending of popular culture and art becomes even more obvious in Warhol's presentations of famous popular icons and of everyday consumer items. What has happened is that art has become to play an important part in advertising and, as a result, has become a commodity itself: art has nowadays become an integral part of the economy. Popular culture refuses to accept the claim of distinctiveness in the arts. (Cf. Ibid.)
In a way, pop art has never ceased being a "form of autonomous bourgeois art," (Huyssen 1986, p.156) because in the end it has been considered 'high' art after all. Everyone knows and recognizes Andy Warhol as artist. The postmodern paradigm of the 'dead subject' has not been at work yet and, therefore, one could, on the one hand, point to this contradictory nature of early pop art and strongly criticize it. But, on the other hand, the concept of pop art can definitely be taken as the framework where postmodernism first took on its characteristic shape, because since postmodernism's beginnings until today it questions modernism's negative attitudes toward mass culture (cf. Huyssen 1986, p.188) and this is an important factor which identifies pop art as being postmodern. "With Pop, [...] art became profane, concrete and suitable for mass reception"(Ibid. p.143) Concluding Huyssen (ibid. p.187f.) states that,
if Pop art has drawn our attention to the imagery of daily life, demanding that the separation of high and low art be eliminated, then today it is the task of the artist to break out of the art's ivory tower and contribute to a change of everyday life."
The aim of the theoretical part has been to give an overall definition of the term postmodernism. The result is the realization that a proper description of what postmodern means, can only be given by taking into account many different social and cultural aspects. Consequently, a list of postmodern characteristics has been worked out. Such a list can never be a complete one, though. All of the following postmodern features can be subsumed into three categories, which are tendencies against universalism, against individualism, and anti-realistic tendencies. In the course of the analytical part the individual postmodern characteristics will be discussed theoretically and, most importantly, in connection with Douglas Coupland's works.
II. Analytical Part
In the course of the analytical part Douglas Coupland's literary works shall be examined closely in order to find out postmodernism's relevance in his books. The thorough theoretical description of the phenomenon of postmodernism serves as the necessary foundation to be able to identify postmodern features within Coupland's writings.
The structure of the analytical part will be as follows: the individual postmodern features will be introduced and analyzed one after the other. The features that will be discussed in the first section of the analysis, which is concerned with postmodernism's turn against any kind of universalism, will be the effacement of the distinction between high and low culture, the decline of the grand narratives and the ongoing fragmentation and decentralization within postmodernism. The second part of the analysis will take up the issue of anti-realism which will involve Jean Baudrillard's theory of hyperrealism and the introduction of four postmodern phenomena, which are all about a distorted perception of the sense of time. In this context superficiality, the decline of public as well as personal history, the phenomenon of nostalgia and the one of schizophrenia will be of interest. The third section will deal with the end of individualism within postmodern society.
Every aspect of postmodernism mentioned above, shall be outlined theoretically in order to be able to track down proper examples from Douglas Coupland's literary work, which consists of Generation X (1991), Shampoo Planet (1992), Life After God (1994), Microserfs (1995), Polaroids From the Dead (1996), Girlfriend in a Coma (1998) and Miss Wyoming (1999).
After giving a short introduction where parts of the earlier theoretical part will be reviewed briefly, the main objective of the analytical part will be to describe the individual tenets of postmodernism in order to be able to find out whether Douglas Coupland's fiction depicts a postmodern world or not.
To a large extent, the analysis of Coupland's books involves the books' content. The main issues will be the characters' lives, their behavior and their self-concepts. These sociological elements have been examined only little within the existing theories concerning postmodernism. One has to look at contemporary society, at popular culture and at the mass media in order to be able to describe the postmodern elements in these areas. (Cf. Bertens 1995, p.22ff.) Changes in contemporary society shall be identified by means of theoretical postmodern approaches which will then be compared to the lives of the characters in Douglas Coupland's fiction. To begin with, the main ideas of postmodern theory shall be recapitulated shortly.
Postmodernism always involves the rejection, as well as the restructuring of modernist cultural practices. The moment of change can also be described in terms of social change. These different counteractions, changes and developments which mainly concern the areas of individualism, universalism and realism, will be discussed in detail in the following chapters. The postmodern tenets that will be dealt with are the effacement of the distinction between high and low, the decline of the grand narratives, the issue of fragmentation and decentralization, hyperrealism, the flattening of history, nostalgia, schizophrenia, a growing superficiality and postmodern society and identity.
It is not always easy to draw exact lines between these different tenets of postmodernism, though. Therefore, the following characteristics should not be viewed as separate features that are strictly self-contained, but they should rather be considered as being strongly interwoven. This interdependence becomes even more obvious when discussing the individual aspects of postmodernism within Douglas Coupland's writings. Approaching one postmodern topic after the other by referring to his fiction will elucidate these points even more clearly. The result will be an eclectic unity where the individual characteristics of postmodernity remain recognizable.
The following three chapters will deal with the effects of the vanishing universalisms which is a central issue in Coupland's books. One feature of postmodernism in the context of rejecting all universalisms, is the disappearance of a rational differentiation of high and low culture. Coupland's extensive references to popular culture is only one example. The rapid decline of so-called metanarratives is a key feature in all of his novels, since in one way or the other, all characters are occupied with questions concerning god, former systems of belief or other earlier universalims. The growing tendency toward fragmentation and decentralization is evident in Coupland's works on a stylistic level as well as on the level of content. Pages, paragraphs, characters, landscapes and thoughts - everything is fragmented. In connection with fragmentation the postmodern practice of pastiche instead of the former irony will become relevant. Pastiche, again, is one of Coupland's literary devices. He pastes different stylistic elements next to each other and he presents culture and society as a conglomerate consisting out of many different components.
Douglas Coupland's works serve as examples that within the social and artistic realm the need to differentiate between high and low has vanished. The following analysis is not supposed to constitute a general truth but it ought to elucidate certain postmodern tendencies within Western culture and society with the help of Douglas Coupland's literary realism. The following chapter of high versus low culture is going to be subdivided into the realm of popular culture, which is present throughout Coupland's works and into the realm of consumer culture. References to popular culture and its seemingly natural integration in the characters' lives can not be ignored. The way consumer culture is dealt with by Douglas Coupland changes somewhat in the course of his writings, but generally it can be argued that the topic of consumption is dealt with persistently. Before analyzing the works of Coupland it seems helpful to provide a short theoretical introduction on why postmodernists no longer believe in the earlier separation of high and low culture.
Postmodernism came out of a radical break that occurred in the late 1950s or the early 1960s. The word postmodernism itself shows clearly that this break is closely connected with the rejection of the modernist movement. Modernism, with its high-modernist representational forms in literature and film, its abstract expressionism in painting and with its existentialism in philosophy, obviously had to come to an end.
As a result, one basic characteristic that is part of all different postmodernisms is the "effacement [...] of the older (essentially high-modernist) frontier between high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture." (Jameson 1991, p.2) Postmodernism brought forward new kinds of texts, which are characterized by forms, categories and contents that had been attacked by modernists starting with Leavis and the American New Criticism up to Adorno and the Frankfurt School. Postmodernists were attracted to exactly these 'humiliated' forms of culture. They drew on all the
schlock and kitsch, [...] TV series and [the] Reader's Digest culture, advertising and motels, [...] the late show and the grade-B Hollywood film, [...] the so-called paraliterature, with its airport paperback categories of the gothic and the romance, the popular biography, the murder mystery, and the science fiction or fantasy novel. (Ibid. p.2f)
The end of the early need to separate the 'old' and the 'new' marks an important change within postmodernism.
The starting point of the following literary analysis is going to be a rather general discussion of elements within Douglas Coupland's books which concern the problem of high versus low culture as a central theme.
In 1995 the New Republic published "55 Statements About the Culture" by Douglas Coupland where he takes up several points closely connected to postmodern theory. In connection with the debate about high versus low culture he writes that "only art that speaks to everybody counts" or "art-for-art's-sake remains valid". These statements point towards the theoretical exposition mentioned above. No matter what, everything that had been created counts as art, since there are always critics that consider something to be art. Especially popular culture comes to mind here, since everyone is confronted with everyday items. Thus, it could be said that consumer products are art as well. This, again, implies that nothing is inferior to anything else. Innovative forces and popular culture, which were formerly labeled as low culture, are no longer separated from high culture, high art and traditional values. As one of the most important postmodern traits, the vanishing differentiation of the 'old' and the 'new' can easily be transferred to the social realm where the liberal ideas of postmodernism are being stressed. Contemporary society is marked by a determining relativism: "there is no appeal to objective standards of truth, thus it follows that one phenomenon can only stand in relation to another phenomenon." (URL:www.sspp.net/wooley.htm [May 20, 2000]) This means that nothing exists without its counterpart. There are no women without men, no heterosexuality without homosexuality and there is no low culture without high culture. The result is that formerly unacceptable socio-cultural phenomena have shifted and have become socially accepted ones. (Cf. ibid). It could be argued that it has not been a wholly new process that has taken place within postmodern society, and that throughout history values and traditions have changed from being rejected to becoming standard. The difference in present society is that nothing is seen as being unacceptable in the first place. Different ways of living and different forms of belief exist simultaneously and are considered as being equal. In Generation X Andy is buying candles for Christmas: "votive candles, birthday candles, and candles from the Hindu bookstore bearing peoploid cartoons of saints. They all count - all flames are equal." (Coupland 1991, p.141) The different candles which are all regarded the same, stand for Andy's general attitude of accepting the world as it is, with all its different components. Whatever the characters in Coupland's works do or believe is always free from value judgments. Individual experience is more important than some general truths. In Generation X Andy, Dag and Claire tell each other stories, some are about their real experiences and others are made up. To the reader this does not matter since all the stories, the real and the invented ones, form a unity that reveals the character of a whole generation, a generation which accepts things as fact, but which tries to find a way for itself to handle life. A close connection to the subject of the declining grand narratives which will be discussed in chapter 4.2, can already be detected here.
Be it Andy, Dag and Claire in Generation X, the characters in Microserfs, John and Susan in Miss Wyoming or Tyler in Shampoo Planet they all, at one point or another, take the opportunity to escape from the lives they lead at the time. In Microserfs, Daniel Underwood and his friends quit their jobs at Microsoft in order to found a small company in Silicon Valley called Oop!. The characters in Generation X eventually quit their "'pointless jobs done grudgingly to little applause'" (ibid. cover) before leaving for the Californian desert where they start working in so-called McJobs where enough time is left to tell each other stories. Life is not lived according to certain traditional standards, but is organized the way the individual wants it. The reader's reactions are often feelings of ambiguity, indifference and ambivalence, the same feelings that the books' characters experience. (Cf. Zima 1997, p.23) The characters in Douglas Coupland's novels are always confronted with more than one possibility of how to manage their lives. The different prospects are in a way free from value judgments and this is where the term 'indifference' gains importance. Zima (cf. ibid. p.26) discusses this issue by stating that indifference is a determining trait of the postmodern era. It is the era of individuals, relationships and ideologies which are interchangeable. Treated as a sociological term, indifference does not necessarily imply that the individual does not care, but that certain values they actually do care about, are no longer credible since these values have to compete with others and, as a result, become substitutable. Indifference brings about pluralism and vice versa. (Cf. ibid. p.86f) A possible effect of an undifferentiated pluralism can result in superficiality and apathy and this is one of the central themes in Coupland's works, as well as in postmodern theory, which will be discussed in detail in chapter 5.2.1.
One thing all works by Douglas Coupland have in common is that consumerism and popular culture are an integral part. The constant references to brand names, malls, slogans from advertisements, television series and all kinds of cultural artifacts create a unique atmosphere that could be called one of Douglas Coupland's hallmarks.
When looking more closely, it is a fact that the realms of commodities and popular culture become all-determining features, because they serve as a background in all of the books. People, places, situations - the whole world - is characterized by comparing or equating everything with commodities. Much of the novel Microserfs "consists of aphorism and asides - semiotic decodings of advertising and consumer products." (McInerney 1995) The characters in most of the books "communicate in rants, tirades which focus on the cultural meaning of Barbie, Lego, Star Trek and the Brady Bunch" (Moore 1995) Again, the significance of popular culture points to a close connection to the theory of postmodernism. Everyday items are integrated in Coupland's literary creation. His books are perfect examples where 'high' culture meets 'low' culture. A very literary style meets the popular realm of everyday life.
Baudrillard (1998, p.15) states that
Consumption has been extended to all of culture; we are witnessing the commodification of culture. This, in turn, leads to one of the basic premises of postmodernism - the erosion of the distinction between high and low culture.
This quote serves as the starting point for the following analysis where aspects of consumption and popular culture in Coupland's writings shall be looked at in a postmodern context. In Polaroids From the Dead the rhetorical questions
What would it be like to have never had these commercialized images in my head? What if I had grown up in the past or in a nonmedia culture? Would I still be "me"? Would my "personality" be different? (Coupland 1996, p.112)
deal with the issue of whether contemporary consumer culture fundamentally changes the individual or not. In a more or less detailed way all books take up this matter and comment on it. When leafing through Coupland's books the reader is struck by the countless references to commodities and pop culture items in order to stress certain actions and events: "I was trying to give our situation a guy-like dignity, like two models chatting in a J. Crew catalogue." (Ibid. 1994, p.202) Consumer products are also used to describe places:
It's still a car culture town here, and on a busy night it can feel [...] 'like a Daytona, big tits, burger-and-shake kind of place where kids in go-go boots and asbestos jackets eat Death Fries in orange vinyl restaurants booths shaped like a whitewall GT tire.' (Ibid. 1991, p.115)
Another example is the description of Jamestown, New York that "looked like just another American town that bought Tide, ate Campell's soup and generated at least one weird, senseless killing per decade". (Ibid. 1999, p.15) At one point in Polaroids From the Dead dying is equated with one's soul simply being "ATM'ed into the forest next door" (Ibid. 1996, p.103) Even illness, in the following example bulimia, is characterized by the kind of food that is eaten when suffering from it:
several buckets of Häagen-Dazs strawberry
two large spaghetti dinners
large box of Godiva chocolates
stack of eight grilled cheese sandwiches with ketchup
two dozen chocolate pudding cups
four hundred grapes
bucket of McDonald's french fries
even larger Godiva chocolates
largest box of chocolate in the universe (Ibid. 1995, p.256)
In order to answer the initial question whether our personality would be different in a non-media culture, the answer must be yes. The media and consumerism are determining components of contemporary culture. "The environment which humanity acts in is not a natural environment, rather it is a consumption based environment."
(URL:www.sspp.net/wooley.html [May 20, 2000])
All cultural aspects reflect social reality and vice versa, therefore, it can be argued that the individual in a mediated and consumer-saturated surrounding differs from one not being exposed to it. The answer to the earlier question can also be found in Polaroids From the Dead:
The other day I saw a Shake 'n Bake TV commercial, one I had not seen in twenty years, and in a flash, the whole commercial came back to me, as though I had just seen it five minutes ago. So I guess my head is stuffed with an almost-endless series of corporation-sponsored consumer tableaux of various lenghts. These 'other' commercialized memories are all in my head, somewhere, and this is indeed something worth considering. (Coupland 1996, p.112)
What is striking is the constant name dropping. Entire sections of the books refer to the wording of advertisements or are filled with product names. In Microserfs the characters are portrayed by products they prefer. If their life was a game of Jeopardy! they would categorize it according to their seven dream categories, some of which are: Jell-O 1-2-3, Macintosh products, SEGA Genesis gaming addition, meals made from combinations of Costco products or FORTRAN. At one point the "coolest bar-codes" are discussed where they decide that "the best ones would be products with high brand-name recognition: Kraft dinner, Kotex, Marlboro, Coca-Cola and so forth." (Ibid. 1994, p.115)
One critic wrote that in Microserfs junk food is "lovingly itemized", (McInerney 1995) for instance when Daniel and his friends go shopping for "'flat' foods to slip underneath Michael's door". They buy "Kraft singles, Premium Plus crackers, Pop-Tarts, grape leather, and Freezie-Pops." (Coupland 1995, p.2) On other occasions they write a list of "'decadent cereals'" describing Cap'n Crunch cereal, Sugar Frosted Flakes, Trix, Lucky Charms, Rice Krispies, Cocoa Puffs and Count Chocula - Frankenberry (Cf. Ibid. 265f), or Daniel compares the effects of eating cereal with a character from the television series The Brady Bunch:
I sandpapered the roof of my mouth with three bowls of Cap'n Crunch - had raw gobbets of mouth-beef dangling onto my tongue all day. It hurt like crazy, and it made me talk with a Cindy Brady lisp until late afternoon. (Ibid. p.25)
In Microserfs Karla, Susan and Dusty discuss the way in which certain food products have been cloning themselves: "For example, old Coke, new Coke, diet Coke, old Coke without caffeine, new Coke without Caffeine, Coke with pulpy bits, Coke with cheese...". (Ibid. 286) But it is not only food product names that are talked about. As the discussion evolves, they start theorizing about tampons - whether O.B.s are better than Playtex. (cf. ibid.) As the title Shampoo Planet already implies, shampoos play an important role in this novel. Compared to consumer products that are mentioned in the other books, Tyler's shampoos are given names that are made up, though:
Which shampoo will I use today? Maybe PsycoPath®, the sports shampoo with salon-grade microprotein packed in a manly black injection-molded plastic motor-oil canister. Afterward? A bracing energizer splash of Monk-On-Fire®, containing placenta, nectarine-pit extract, and B vitamins. And to hold it all together? First-Strike® sculpting mousse manufactured by the pluTONium™ hair-care institute of Sherman Oaks, California. (Ibid. 1992, p.7)
At one point in Life After God the reader is confronted with the world of television and advertisements, which merges into the narration. The following serves well as an example for postmodernism and its claim to include all cultural and social aspects:
I want you to imagine that you're making a can of Campbell's chicken noodle soup on a weekday night. The TV is playing a Hawaii Five-O rerun in the living room. Your hair is a mess and you're in an old terry cloth robe and maybe you're trying to decide if you should make popcorn. The doorbell rings and you shuffle down the hall to answer it. When you do, masked terrorists crash in. (Ibid. 1994, p. 240)
The inclusion of television series and product names changes the narration. It is no longer what one would call traditional or standard writing. It is standard writing that takes in new elements and integrates them. This is, among other features, what makes Coupland's writing postmodern.
The reference to all kinds of consumer items already implies the act of buying and consumption. Shopping malls, supermarkets and the topic of buying and consuming in general are important issues in Coupland's novels. In Generation X consumerism is dealt with rather critically and they try to escape from it. They migrate "toward lower-tech, lower information environments containing a lessened emphasis on consumerism" which is termed "Emallgration". (Ibid. 1991, p.173) One heading says "Purchased Experiences Don't Count" (Ibid. p.87), but this is not always the dominant attitude toward consumerism. In his "55 Statements About the Culture" Douglas Coupland (1995) writes that "commodity fetishism is a recognizably biological impulse" and that "desire seems to have boiled down to shopping." These two statements point towards an assumption that consumption is something natural and acceptable, but when looking at the novels more closely the issue is being dealt with on several levels. On the one hand consumption has become an everyday practice, on the other hand it often seems as if it has got out of control. Consumption patterns within society often seem to interfere with the rest of people's life. A quote from Generation X shall illustrate this point more clearly: "Our parents' generation seems neither able nor interested in understanding how marketers exploit them. They take shopping at face value." (Coupland 1991, p.68) The argument here is that it is not only the consumer's choice to consume, but that a whole industry makes them to do so.
In Microserfs a life without brand name products seems to be impossible, even though they are at times looked at critically. In Shampoo Planet consumerism is dealt with more ironically than in Douglas Coupland's other works, and in Generation X the characters despise excessive consumption. Their philosophy is a "LESSNESS" (Ibid. p.54) and that "Shopping is not creating". (Ibid. p.39) But what remains valid throughout Coupland's literature is that the world is no longer conceivable without the realm of consumption.
Jean Baudrillard holds on to the dream of an art that, instead of being enslaved by consumer society, would be able to decipher it. (Cf. Baudrillard 1998 p.16) Douglas Coupland manages to do so by capturing consumer society realistically and critically at the same time.
Postmodern theory is against all universalisms and so are many of the characters in Douglas Coupland's books. In the context of rejecting former general truths, the phenomenon of indifference, where everything is interchangeable, becomes relevant. The same is expressed by Jean-François Lyotard who demands that everything particular ought to attack everything that claims to be a universal truth. Eventually this leads to the actual decline of all universalizing theories and methods - the grand récits, as Lyotard calls them.. The term for such universalistic stories used in this context is 'metanarratives'. (Cf. Zima 1997, p.139)
First of all it is necessary to formulate a definition of what these all-embracing narratives are all about, only then is it possible to understand the consequences that result from their decline. Following that theoretical exposition, Douglas Coupland's writing will be analyzed. The aim is to show that his books contain examples that proof that absolute and universal truths are no longer credible. By doing so, the connection between the important characteristic of postmodern theory and Douglas Coupland's fiction shall be established.
John Storey (1993, p.159) states that
metanarratives operate through inclusion and exclusion as homogenizing forces, marshalling heterogeneity into ordered realms; silencing and excluding other discourses, other voices in the name of universal principles and general goals.
The turn from modernism to postmodernism is said to be the point where all universalistic metanarratives start to collapse. Postmodernist theory is mainly concerned with the purpose of small narratives. The term 'narrative', as used by postmodernists, does not necessarily designate a literary form, but rather a theoretical concept or abstract through which we get to understand the world. Madan Sarup (1989, p. 142) defines 'narrative' as being "a specific mechanism through which the collective consciousness represses historical contradictions." The basic idea of postmodernism is the turn away from
master narratives of causal explanation such as those of myth, religion, and science to the fragmentary, admittedly fictional, purely contingent improvisations we tell ourselves merely to get through the day, whatever our circumstances. (O'Hara 1993, p.322)
Masternarratives claim to hold the absolute and universal explanations for knowledge and truth. As examples for such metanarratives serve religion, science, art, modernism or Marxism. Postmodernists question these metanarratives and reject universal theories that claim to have absolute knowledge. (Cf. Bertens 1995, p.228) The 'incredulity toward metanarratives', as formulated by Lyotard - means that "in an age of purposive rationality no global explanation of conduct is credible." (Lechte 1995, p.231) This means that any distinction between good and bad has to be rejected as well.
(Cf.URL:carmen.artsci.washington.edu/panop/nmlit.htm [March 27, 2000]) As a postmodern fact, then,
the grand récits, which [are] master narratives - narratives of mastery, of man seeking his telos in the conquest of nature, are no longer credible. As a consequence all narratives are bad when they become philosophies of history. (Sarup 1989, p.132f)
Instead of continuing to trust such universal philosophies, contemporary culture "self-consciously or sheepishly" refuses these grand narratives by telling the "small stories of [the people's] quotidian lives" (O'Hara 1993, p.322) This also means that, compared to modernism, works of art and science are no longer considered to be windows to the truth, but they are understood as individual texts that can only make sense in themselves.(Cf.URL:carmen.artsci.washington.edu/panop/nmlit.htm [March 27, 2000])
It is not only the field of the arts and science that are affected by this process of particularization, but the social realm as well. Groups which were not explicitly mentioned before, have gained social importance: women, homosexuals, prostitutes, divorced people, foreigners and many more. The individual groups tend to govern themselves, which means that the importance of an all-embracing government vanishes. Many small centers have replaced a single big one. This already points to chapter 4.3. that discusses fragmentation and decentralization, which is connected closely to the decline of the grand narratives.
The questioning of such universals, with all its side effects, is a recurring issue in Douglas Coupland's writings. The phrase "self-discovery in [a] world without cohesive or credible belief systems" (Tapia 1995) pretty much sums up the situation of most of the characters in Coupland's books. The term 'belief system' includes not only religious beliefs which have crumbled, but the belief in traditional values as well, which includes conventional conceptions of a proper career, as well as the traditional concept of marriage. Such questions of belief and of traditional value systems are being raised in all of Coupland's books, but the approach and the tone are different in each one. In Life after God the narrators seem to lament the fact that there is nothing to believe in:
I was wondering what was the logical end product of this recent business of my feeling less and less. Is feeling nothing the inevitable end result of believing in nothing? And then I got to feeling frightened - thinking that there might not actually be anything to believe in, in particular. I thought it would be such a sick joke to have to remain alive for decades and not believe in or feel anything. (Coupland 1994, p.177f)
A feeling of being lost - a recurring theme as well - gives way to a different view of not having a God to believe in. During the course of the book the tone changes:
But I'm happy. And it's not like I'm lost or anything. We're all too fucking middle class to ever be lost. Lost means you had faith or something to begin with and the middle class never really had any of that. So we can never be lost. (Ibid. p.305)
In certain aspects the novel Generation X, itself, stands for the decline of meta-narratives. The novel does not have a continuous story-line, but several different stories, all of which speak for themselves. Taken as a whole, one of the main postmodern characteristics appears in the novel, namely that anything ought to be taken into account and that there is no such thing as a single universal truth. When Claire tells the story about Linda, a woman who tried "for herself the spiritual release of the seven-year-seven-month-seven-day method" (Ibid. 1991 p.125), one gets the notion that it does not matter whether something is done according to certain standards or not. What counts is that the individual is content with the outcome of what has been done. "Yes, Linda had done everything incorrectly, but she had won anyway. It was a strange victory, but a victory nonetheless." (Ibid. p.128)
Generation X captures the lives of the first generation brought up without religion, they are "stumbling their way towards finding their own form of God" (Lappin 1994) The search for new belief systems is difficult and not always successful. Often the quest for meaning in life results in aimlessness, hopelessness, despair and anomie. "Anomie is the feeling of alienation and uncertainty that comes from a lack of purpose or belief." (Mallick) The characters struggle to make sense of their lives, but in one way or the other they all succeed. Some of them accept the absence of general truths as fact and others formulate their own systems of orientation. According to Generation X "a small rule for living, bordering on a superstition, that allows one to cope with everyday life in the absence of cultural or religious dictums" (Coupland 1991, p.74), exists. It is called "Personal Tabu". (Ibid.) In addition to such a personal tabu individual religions are being invented. The term ME-ISM describes
a search by an individual, in the absence of training in traditional religious tenets, to formulate a personally tailored religion by himself. Most frequently a mishmash of reincarnation, personal dialogue with a nebulously defined god figure, naturalism, and karmic eye-for-eye attitudes. (Ibid. p.126)
This corresponds with postmodern theory where
knowledge is produced, in Lyotard's view, by dissent, by putting into question existing paradigms, by inventing new ones rather than assenting to universal truth or agreeing to a consensus. (Best, Kellner 1991, p.166)
In Microserfs Bill Gates serves as a metaphor for God. And Microsoft constitutes the religion he stands for. In the beginning his omnipresence is accepted as a fact. Everyone employed at Microsoft sacrifices most of his or her time for Bill. They worship him: "Bill's so smart. Bill is wise. Bill is kind. Bill is benevolent. Bill, Be My Friend...Please!" (Coupland 1995, p.1) But Bill is invisible and out of reach. Daniel and his colleagues continue to be subjected to Microsoft up to the point when Michael offers all of them jobs at a start-up company. When considering their leaving Microsoft in the context of grand narratives versus small narratives, the group turns their back against an established huge corporation in order to find their individual way by combining their knowledge gained at Microsoft with the urge to create something new and unique. They are confronted with formerly unknown problems before starting the new company, but they prefer the hassle to the prior experience of receiving instructions, performing the same procedures day in and day out and of 'not having a life'. Daniel and his friends have reacted just like people within postmodern society do. They turn their back against a well established religion that claims to be the absolute truth and formulate individual ones out of many different fragments.
Obviously the characters in Generation X are content with their fabricated beliefs that help them to make some sense out of their lives. When Andy reaches the peak of a crisis, he simply joins Dag and Claire in the Californian desert. They are leaving behind their former ordinary lives and try to find deeper selves in the stories they tell each other. It is one possible escape from the grand narratives to formulate small ones. The outcome is a rather superficial life. In Generation X the reader is left with the impression that this depthless-ness is considered to be part of an ideal strategy to eke out one's existence.
The characters in Girlfriend in a Coma lead a similar superficial life. When the world is struck with a plague, all of a sudden the situation changes. From the former slogan "Reject Every Idea" (ibid. 1998, p.93) it switches to "One Idea will win" (ibid. p.247). The characters are wondering what it was that made only the eight of them deserve to live through the end of the world. Linus asks: "What was so wrong about our lives that we had to go through the past year? [...] Our lives were going along pretty smoothly, actually." (Ibid. p.254) But in the course of talking to Jared, a ghost and their friend who died when they were young, they begin to realize that their lives were not that smooth after all. Linus tells them that they had a fair chance to return back to the world if they had only asked themselves the most obvious questions about why the world became the way it did." (Ibid. p.257) But instead they were busy with "arson, looting, cocktails, videos and demo derbies" (Ibid.) Richard is the first to become conscious of the fact that they do not seem to have "any values, any absolutes. We've always maneuvered our values to suit our immediate purposes. There's nothing large in our lives." (Ibid. p.255) This understanding points towards a notion that values and beliefs are important after all. Girlfriend in a Coma does not suggest a return to an all-embracing religion, but it proposes a recollection of basic values. "Acts of kindness, evidence of contemplation, devotion, sacrifice. All these things that indicate a world inside us." (Ibid. p.256) Jared offers them a second chance. He tells them that a great truth does exists and that they were to return to the world as it were and ask questions:
Ask whatever challenges dead and thoughtless beliefs. Ask: When did we become human beings and stop being whatever it was we were before this? Ask: What was the specific change that made us human? Ask: Why do the people not particularly care about their ancestors more than three generations back? Ask: Why are we unable to think of any real future beyond, say, a hundred years from now? Ask: How can we begin to think of the future as something enormous before us that includes us? Ask: Having become human, what is it that we are now doing or creating that will transform us into whatever it is that we are slated to next become? [...] What is destiny? Is there a difference between personal destiny and collective destiny? Is Destiny artificial? Is it unique to Man? Where did Destiny come from? (Ibid. p.269f)
Girlfriend in a Coma suggests to live life starting again with the basics of our existence. The common universalizing ideas have to be rejected in order to gain a deeper understanding of our existence. People no longer know how to handle traditional values. Jared very rightly asks:
Didn't you feel as if all the symbols and ideas fed to you since birth had become worn out like old shoes? Didn't you ache for change, but you didn't know how to achieve it?" (Ibid. p.268)
Consequently the world does not need a superimposing religion or any of the known 'grand récits'. What the world needs is a deeper understanding of the self, of an inner life that everyone holds somewhere. Richard in Girlfriend in a Coma expresses this by uttering: "I need to express the me indside." (Ibid. p.256)
The decline of metanarratives becomes obvious in several other aspects of Coupland's novels as well. Not only religious beliefs have vanished but a "general disregard for a proper career" and a "cynical belief in marriage" (Chin 1993) become evident. The concept of marriage and the one of working at the best job possible are master narratives that have broken down. People still marry and work but what is in effect is what is called "Safety Net-ism: The belief that there will always be a financial and emotional safety net to buffer life's hurts. Usually parents." (Coupland 1991, p.34) When marrying someone it is no longer the dictum of living with this person for the rest of one's life that is at work, but a variant of a Safety Net-ism, the "Divorce Assumption: the belief that if a marriage doesn't work out, then there is no problem because partners can simply seek a divorce." (Ibid.) (Cf. Illustration 7)
Working with a certain company no longer means that one continues to do so for the rest of his working life. People change their jobs and they do not necessarily identify with their job. The former perception of a working life constituted a grand narrative as well. To not devote one's life to work meant financial as well as personal ruin. People strove for a satisfactory job situation, which has changed nowadays. To work first of all means to work on the self. The actual 'job' is a mere means to an end. Making money and engaging in meaningful activities have become separate concepts. (Cf. Goebel 1997, p.31) In other words, working in a 'McJob' does not necessarily imply that this person is not content with his or her life. The term "Occupational Slumming" (Coupland 1991, p.113) describes people who are
taking a job well beneath [their] skill or education level as a means of retreat from adult responsibilities and/or avoiding possible failure in [their] true occupation. (Ibid.)
At one point or the other most of the characters in Coupland's books leave their jobs and start working something else. In Microserfs Daniel and the others leave Microsoft in order to realize their dream of their own company. They have more fun than they had before and life starts to make more sense. In Miss Wyoming John gives up being a movie producer and even sheds his identity, Susan takes the opportunity to retreat from her life of being an actress when she finds herself to be the only survivor of a plane crash.
They both start to seek something different, something more meaningful in life. In Generation X Andy and Dag work at a bar after they have quit their office work that took place in so called "veal-fattening pens" (Ibid. p.20) (Cf. Illustration 8)
Johannes Goebel (Cf. 1997, p.93f) criticizes Douglas Coupland in his book Die Tugend der Orientierungslosigkeit, for having betrayed the members of the generation X he describes. Coupland's protagonists who are desperately seeking love are described as a group of people who try to break away from the illusion of safety and prosperity by engaging mainly in aimlessness and McJobs. A couple novels later, Coupland considers the recollection of family values and later even the past values of Christianity. The change of tone in Coupland's later books can not simply be interpreted as the betrayal of a generation, because, in a way, it demonstrates how postmodern society is evolving. Generation X is the portrayal of a whole generation that is temporarily stuck with aimlessness, future anxiety and a lack of values. In the following novels, most obviously in Shampoo Planet, the reader is confronted with a modified view of the world. Tyler in Shampoo Planet dreams of an escape, too, but of a proper career as well. He "wants to work for a huge corporation. The bigger the better." (Coupland 1991, p.107) The narrator in Life After God is flirting with the idea of what believing in something - believing in God - must be like:
And there were Christian radio stations, too, so many stations, and the voices on them seemed so enthusiastic and committed. They sounded like they sincerely believed in what they were saying, and so for once I decided to pay attention to these stations, trying to figure out what exactly it was they were believing in, trying to understand the notion of Belief. [...] I had to ask myself over and over again what it was that these radio people were seeing in the face of Jesus. They sounded like their lives had once been so messed up and lost as they spoke; at least they were no longer so lost anymore - like AA people. So I figured it was a good thing. (Coupland 1994, p.182ff)
Microserfs and Miss Wyoming take up the issue of 'love'. The protagonists find that there is more to life than writing codes, checking bugs, producing movies or constantly being confronted with being a former child-beauty-pageants contender. Microserfs explicitly addresses the issue of vanishing ideologies. After Dusty has tried to dedicate herself to Marxism, Maoism, body building and bulimia her search finally ends when she gets pregnant. Her central statement is: "'Ideology. Yes - I can feel it leaving my body. And I don't care. And I don't miss it.'" (Ibid. 1995, p. 282)
Girlfriend in a Coma challenges the depthless-ness of society by confronting the characters with the end of the world and giving them a second chance where they ought to find out life's deeper meaning. Considering Coupland's writings as a whole the problem does not present itself in the lack of coherent, credible and compulsory belief systems, but rather because society is confronted with such a great supply of different morals. There is not a single universal truth for every problem, therefore, people have to choose and this can result in a deep personal crisis. As soon as this crisis is overcome, life presents its more pleasant aspects. Concluding a quote from Microserfs Daniel sums up the postmodern aspect of having no longer any grand narratives to rely on:
We don't have the traditional identity-donating structures like other places in the world have: religion, politics, cohesive family structure, roots, a sense of history or other prescribed belief systems that take the onus off individuals having to figure out who they are. You are on your own here. It's a big task, but just look at the flood of ideas that emerge from the plastic! (Ibid. p.236)
In the course of the following chapter several aspects will be discussed. First of all it will be helpful to provide a short summary of why fragmentation and decentralization have become important aspects within postmodernism. In the introductory paragraphs the interdependence of the individual tenets, which have been discussed up to now will already become apparent. Douglas Coupland's works will provide examples for the fragmentation as a distinct feature of postmodernism. These examples will be taken from the books' formal, stylistic as well as the content level. In the context of fragmentation the postmodern practice of pastiche will be introduced and here, too, Coupland's literary works will be searched for suitable examples in order to illustrate the earlier theory.
As it has been pointed out earlier, the chapter on the decline of the metanarratives is closely connected to the issue of fragmentation and decentralization. The latter is the logical consequence after all totalizing concepts, which try to offer universal answers to every question within society, have been rejected. Hans Bertens (1995, p.228) confirms this point by stating that
the diverse iconoclastic, referential and collage-like character of postmodern popular culture clearly draws inspiration from the decline of metanarratives.
Generally, postmodernism puts a stress on the necessity and arbitrariness of fragmentation. (Hügli 1997, p.512) Starting with the postulate of the end of history, a topic that will be discussed separately in chapter 5.2.2, postmodernism tries to freely combine elements of previous theories and this, again, is where the eclectic approach gains importance. It could be argued that modernism borrowed historical elements as well, but postmodernism is different in so far as it does not simply quote other cultural or historical features but that it combines them with anything. A consequence of this intermingling of many different elements is that almost any critical approach becomes impossible. This comes out clearly when looking at the connection between high and popular culture, since in postmodernism such distinctions do not exist. Present critics argue that "conceptual systems founded upon ideas of center, margin, hierarchy, and linearity" need to be abandoned in order to have them replaced with systems of "multilinearity, nodes, links and networks." (Landow 1992, p.2) This goes with postmodernism's statement that the world consists of a "multiplicity of texts and discourses" (Ibid.). Postmodern texts, compared to modern ones, are not linear. The most obvious example for non-linearity is the World Wide Web. (cf. URL: carmen.artsci.washington.edu/panop/nmlit.html. [March 27, 2000])
The introductory paragraphs of this chapter already point to the difficulty of dealing with the individual postmodern characteristics separately. It is not possible to explain one tenet without keeping in mind the others. The following analysis will try to focuses on the contents and the formal aspects of Douglas Coupland's works that are solely concerned with the issue of fragmentation and decentralization without going into detail about other postmodern features.
Frederic Jameson (1991, p.25) describes postmodernism to consist of "'heaps of fragments' and [to be] a practice of the randomly heterogeneous and fragmentary and the aleatory." And
according to Baudrillard, postmodernist culture is a culture of the present made from fragments of the past, a toying with historical ruins: 'All that remains to be done is to play with the pieces. Playing with the pieces - that is postmodernism.' (Baudrillard cited in Storey 1993, p.165)
Breaks and discontinuities are obvious formal features in Douglas Coupland's writings. Following Jean Baudrillard's quote a critic found the formal appearance of Generation X to be "ironically reminiscent of the format of the American Heritage Dictionary" (Alexander 1993) where the definition of different terms is being given in the form of sidebars. This resemblance is significant because, on the one hand, it demonstrates the importance of integrating chunks of American history into the novel - in this case mainly on the formal level - and, on the other hand, it points toward the postmodern practice of pastiche, which will be discussed in detail later, that is being employed by Coupland throughout his works. In order to read the side notes the reader is constantly forced to decide, when to break away from the main text. Thus, Coupland manages to fragment the story by involving the reader in the process of splitting the text. The reader actively interrupts the rhythm of continuous reading. As soon as one gets used to automatically integrating the definitions at the margins of the pages the story start to form a whole. (Cf. Horowitz 1993) The notes are essential in order to grasp the whole meaning of Generation X.
Another formal feature that Generation X shares with Life After God, Miss Wyoming and Girlfriend in a Coma is that the individual short chapters are only clumsily sewn together. (Cf. Wright 1992) Mark Brett (1992/93) writes in The Minnesota Review about the story-line in Generation X that
there is no real plot here. Any X'er will tell you that nobody's life is a story. Nothing has a beginning, a middle, an end. There are always pre-existing conditions that define and shape any event. The best we can do is string along anecdotes and fill in some holes along the way.
This statement is applicable to most of Coupland's writings and it's meaning becomes more obvious by looking at Polaroids From the Dead and Microserfs. The major part of the stories in Polaroids From the Dead are articles from magazines and newspapers like Spin, The New Republic, Artforum or the Washington Post, which have nothing in common . It is sort of an 'oddities and b-sides collection' from several years. (Cf. Richard 1996) In the end, the 'fragments' - the individual tales and the pictures - form a whole. Coupland elucidates this point in the introductory chapter of Polaroids From the Dead:
This book - comprised of both fiction and nonfiction - explores the world that existed in the early 1990s, back when the decade was young and had yet to locate its own texture. Back in 1990, North American society seemed to be living in a 1980s hangover and was unclear in its direction. People seemed unsure that the 1990s were even going to be capable of generating their own mood. Now I read these pieces over, and it's as though I've opened a kitchen drawer and found a Kleenex box full of already nostalgic Polaroid snapshots and postcards. (Coupland 1996, p.1)
Microserfs' formal appearance is an obvious example for literature that is, at least formally, fragmented. By having the narrator write a computerized journal, Coupland manages to create a novel consisting of very short chapters with
quasi-random phrases in large typeface, empty or half empty pages, and gobbledygook (entire pages filled with binary code, a single repeated word or journal entries rendered illegible by computer glitches). (Hurwitt 1995)
From these descriptions the critic concludes that the novel never became fully grown, but in terms of postmodernist theory it meets the necessary requirements - and fragmentation is a necessity in postmodernism. From time to time the reader is struck by sentences which seem to be marked by a certain fragmented pattern. Sounds, nature or people are often characterized with words and phrases one would not expect in a certain context. The reader has to think before one is able to envision a certain picture or situation. An example from Generation X is where Andy, Dag and Claire's car does not start:
It alternates tubercular hacking salvos with confused bunny coughs, giving the impression of a small child blending fits of demonic possession with the coughing up of bits of hamburger. (Coupland 1991, p.114)
Another example of this same jerky pattern, which is "reflected in microcosm at sentence level, where phrases knee-deep in nouns grind against one another with only the occasional verb for lubrication" (Wright 1992), is another description in Generation X: "Baby magnesium flare twinkle lights gird the sentinel palms of Highway 111". (Coupland 1991, p.114)
A formal characteristic, which can frequently be found in Microserfs is Coupland's use of charts and lists.
The list is Mr. Coupland's favourite literary trope. What metaphor was to John Donne and epigram to Oscar Wilde, [...] lists are to Douglas Coupland. What makes them good, when they are good, is their precision. (McInerney 1995)
The use of lists points toward a preference of fragments instead of a total, since there is no need to write in full sentences and it usually represents only parts of a whole. Karla and Daniel's ideas for new Campbell's soup flavors, which they list on a napkin is one example:
(Coupland 1995, p.51)
and the list of their in-office snacks, which all cost 75¢ each, another one:
Mr. Noodles (for Dusty)
hot chocolate mix
Famous Amos cookies
BBQ potato chips
Language always, no matter if written or spoken, reflects social reality. Postmodern society is a fragmented one and, therefore, its discourses are fragmentary as well. Douglas Coupland's writing conveys this interdependence, and in Generation X one finds a very good example for it:
Their talk was endless, compulsive, and indulgent, sometimes sounding like the remains of the English language after having been hashed over by nuclear war survivors for a few hundred years. But then their words so strongly captured the spirit of our times. (Ibid. 1991, p.35)
In the broader context of fragmentation, Coupland's word creations and coinages shall be mentioned. The title of his first novel, Generation X, is one of these word creations, which has come to define an entire generation and which is now part of our cultural language. The marginal definitions in Generation X are mostly neologisms that combine different words to create a new meaning or that simply put words in a new context. Here are only a few examples:
Poorochondria: Hypochondria derived from not having medical insurance. (p.74)
Air Family: Describes the false sense of community experienced among coworkers in an office environment. (p.111)
Nutritional Slumming: Food whose enjoyment stems not from flavor but from a complex mixture of class connotations, nostalgia signals, and packaging semiotics. (p.120)
Squirming: Discomfort inflicted on young people by old people who see no irony in their gestures. Karen died a thousand deaths as her father made a big show of tasting a recently manufactured bottle of wine before allowing it to be poured as the family sat in Steak Hut.(p.112)
Conversational Slumming: The self-conscious enjoyment of a given conversation precisely for its lack of intellectual rigor. A major spin-off activity of Recreational Slumming. (p.113)
Rebellion Postponement: The tendency in one's youth to avoid traditionally youthful activities and artistic experiences in order to obtain serious career experience. Sometimes results in the mourning for lost youth at about age thirty, followed by silly haircuts and expensive joke-inducing wardrobes. (p.106)
Occupational Slumming: Taking a job well beneath one's skill or education level as a means of retreat from adult responsibilities and/or avoiding possible failure in one's true occupation. (p.113)
In the context of inventing new terminology by using words that already exist, Coupland's novels offer a lot more examples. Tyler in Shampoo Planet collects and uses shampoos and hair care products with seemingly absurd brandnames like PsycoPath®, Monk-On-Fire®, First Strike®, ComPulsion®, MOODSwing®, Undead!™, DandruffDungeon®, SlimeWarrior®, SlimeDamsel®, HotLava®, Hairhenge®, Mist of Naralon® or SpellCaster®. (Cf. Coupland 1992, p.7f; 132f) In Generation X the characters talk about "dreadful drinks with dreadful names" such as "Date Rapes", "Chemotherapies" or "Headless Prom Queens." (Cf. ibid. 1991, p.120)
The first and the last pages of Shampoo Planet show charts resembling the ones with the elements. Each little square contains a number, one or two letters, and a word written underneath. Looking at the chart more closely all of these elements form a whole, a whole that is situated in the realm of postmodernism. To prove this argument only a few words from the chart shall be listed here: The Dead, Explosion, Toxic Waste, Loss, Obsession, Journey, Divorce, The Past, The Future, Marilyn Monroe and Ideology. (Cf. ibid. 1992, p.1; p.300)
Jameson claims, in addition to the omnipresent fragmentation of society and of culture, that the individual subject is actually disappearing. This means that in the arts there are no longer any individual styles by which the artists can be distinguished. The combination of these two phenomena results in what is called 'pastiche'. Pastiche is an important characteristic of postmodernism and it is often confused with parody, since they share several traits. Pastiche as well as parody imitate or mimic "other styles and particularly [...] the mannerisms and stylistic twitches of other styles." (Kaplan 1988, p.15) But there is a distinct difference between pastiche and parody: parody always mocks
a divergence from convention or a norm - pastiche is a 'blank parody' or 'empty copy' - which has no sense of the very possibility of there being a norm or a convention from which to diverge. (Storey 1993, p.168)
What happens in postmodernism is that due to the fragmentation and privatization of today's literature, linguistic norms disappear and, as a consequence, there are no longer any standards to be ridiculed, since there is nothing but stylistic diversity and heterogeneity. (Cf. Kaplan 1988, p.15f) In connection with the practice of pastiche Frederic Jameson describes the postmodern world as one
'in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.' (Jameson in Storey 1993, p.168)
He defines pastiche as being
like parody, the imitation of a peculiar mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody's ulterior motives, amputated of the satirical impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists. Pastiche is thus blank parody. (Jameson 1991, p.17)
The discussion of pastiche clearly connects with the earlier debate on fragmentation. Douglas Coupland's novels offer many examples in order to make perfectly clear what exactly the significance of pastiche is. One tale in Polaroids From the Dead is called "James Rosenqist's F-111", which is about a painting of the same name. (Cf. Illustration 9) The painting
contains, among others, images of an angel food cake, tinned spaghetti, the words 'U.S. AIR FORCE,' a nuclear explosion, and a Firestone tire, all splashed across the length of an F-111 fighter plane. [...] There is even a young girl [...] underneath a hair dryer. (Coupland 1996, p.122)
Illustration 1: James Rosenquist's F-111
Illustration 1: James Rosenquist's F-111
"F-111" is a pop art painting, and what makes it especially interesting is the way the narrator, who clearly identifies himself as Douglas Coupland, questions the nature of popular culture in connection with irony:
As irony itself seems to be on shaky ground these days, ironists, seeking ever more obscure tactics, need pooh-pooh the clumsier, more puppy-like ironic thrusts of early Pop. This of course makes necessary a revision of Pop. Was Pop ironic? Was Andy all irony? Was Rosenquist ever at all ironic? (Ibid. p.123)
When considering the concept of pastiche, the answer has to be no. Starting with 'Pop' irony ceased to be ironic. Rosenquist's "F-111" is "one of the largest antiwar paintings ever created" (ibid. 124) and it does not make the viewer laugh. It combines everyday images with images of war - reflections of reality. Andy Warhol's art rests on the same principle. A copy of a Campbell's soup can that claims to be a work of art, is not perceived ironic at all. Pop art has proven to be serious, critical art as well as popular culture is no longer inferior to the realms of so-called high culture.
The explanation of the term "Decade Blending" in Generation X serves as an example of how pastiche is in effect within postmodern society. Postmodern architecture was the first cultural area where imitating and mixing styles was in effect. Generation X examines other cultural and personal realms that are affected by pastiche. The definition of "Decade Blending" is "in clothing: the indiscriminate combination of two or more items from various decades to create a personal mood." (Ibid. 1991, p.15) The following example from Generation X illustrates this principle:
'Her hair was totally 1950s Indiana Woolworth perfume clerk. You know - sweet but dumb - she'll marry her way out of the trailer park some day soon. But the dress was early '60s Aeroflot stewardess - you know - that really sad blue the Russians used before they all started wanting to buy Sony's and having Guy Laroche design their Politburo caps. And such make-up! Perfect '70s Mary Quant, with these little floral appliqué earrings that looked like antiskid bathtub stickers from a gay Hollywood tub circa 1956. She really caught the sadness - she was the hippest person there. Totally.' (Ibid. 1991, p.1)
Another example is the characterization of Tyler's friend Harmony in Shampoo Planet: "a rich computer hacker with a fetish for Star-Trek and the Medieval." (Ibid 1992, p. 142 ) The most contrary personal features form a unity and one would expect it to be ironic, but it is not. It is a realistic depiction of contemporary society. The characters in Shampoo Planet spend their free time at a place called the "Toxic Waste Dump" where they eat "Fungus Humungus Burgers" (Ibid. p.32) How is one supposed to picture this restaurant? Scary? Not really.
When Dag in Generation X drops a jar full of trinitite and it breaks, a rather absurd scene takes place in Claire's bungalow. Claire rages against Dag:
This stuff's death for the next four and a half billion years. [...] Don't even speak to me, you hell-bound P.R. Frankenstein monster, until you've decontaminated this entire house. Until then, I'll be staying at Andy's. Good night. (Ibid. 1991, p.77)
Later Dag tries to cheer up Andy by telling him
You have nada to worry about. Look at me. I just made someone's apartment uninhabitable for the next four and a half billion years. Imagine the guilt I must feel. (Ibid. p.83)
The plutonium incident is one of the best examples of how postmodernism and pastiche are free from real irony. Eventually the reader finds this situation to be past irony and experiences feelings of indifference because on the one hand, the situation is too absurd, on the other hand, the mere idea of something like that actually happening, is too terrifying. Other examples for pastiche are the names of Tyler's shampoos or the names of the drinks that have already been mentioned earlier.
Daniel Underwood's subconscious' file in Microserfs is yet another example of different words and phrases that have virtually nothing in common, but which give insight in contemporary culture and thus form a whole. This can be compared to the way how deconstructionists described the nature of a text itself. According to Roland Barthes' 'The death of the author', any text, or discourse, is a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash; "as a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture"
(Cf. Barthes in Strinati 1995, p.7)
As it has already been pointed out earlier, postmodernists lay emphasis on "fragmentation - of language games, of time, of the human subject, of society itself." (Sarup 1989, p.135) The following paragraphs will deal with the issue of fragmentation in terms of how society is affected by it. The question will be if Douglas Coupland's books address the topic of decentralization and fragmentation not only in terms of formal features, but as far as their content is concerned. Socially speaking the shift from modernism to postmodernism is characterized by a move
from the belief in a manifest destiny to respect for Native American wisdom, from white Anglo-Saxon Protestant hegemony to ethnic pluralism, from male chauvinism to many kinds of feminism, from liberal democratic theory to communitarian reflections, from litigation to mediation, from heroic medical technology to the hospice movement, from industrialism to environmentalism, from hard to soft solutions. (Borgmann 1992, p.78)
Huyssen (cf. 1986, p172) believes that the world is under the influence of an alternative search for tradition and history, which becomes obvious when considering the stress that is put on cultural formations that are not dominated by logocentric and technocratic thought, on the decentering of traditional forms of identity, on the women's search for their history, on the rejection of centralisms, mainstreams and melting pots of all kinds, and generally the stress on otherness and difference. In connection with fragmentation and decentralization the term 'carnival' gains importance. Carnival "is a collective celebration, at once sacred and profane, in which the socially marginalized - the poor, blacks, homosexuals - take over the symbolic center of social life." (Stam in Kaplan 1988, p.134f)
With the characters' move away from Bill Gates and Microsoft, Microserfs offers a perfect example for decentralization. By leaving Microsoft and by founding their own company the center vanishes or shifts and, as a consequence, their lives change. Before they leave Bill Gates' company, the characters live a life without any ups and downs. Daniel writes in his computer journal: "My life is lived day to day, one line of bug-free code at a time". (Coupland 1995, p.4) But still, Daniel and his colleagues seem to be mortally afraid of becoming 'nonlinear' or 'random', and in the end they actually do become kind of 'nonlinear', but as it turns out, this is a rather positive development. Their lives are no longer confined to bug checking, but they get to know themselves and each other. Their identities are no longer characterized by simply working at Microsoft, but they all become individuals with distinct characteristics. Friendship, love, homosexuality, nature, gender, the body and many other issues become important - new centers in life are forming. The characters start to differentiate from each other. In this context Coupland's statement that "borders are interesting because they generate difference and hence newness" (Coupland 1995) is interesting. Fragmentation may result in the feeling of being lost and this is obviously the case in Generation X, since being lost is the result of having too many offers and not being able to decide what is the best one. Andy, Dag and Claire seem to be very much aware of the fragmented world they live in, as well as of their fragmented identities:
'The world has gotten too big - way beyond our capacity to tell stories about it, and so all we're stuck with are these blips and chunks and snippets on bumpers.' (Ibid. 1991, p.5)
The fact that they are surrounded by fragments is emphasized by the stories they tell. The different stories reflect the characters' lives that are formed out of "blips and chunks and snippets" (Ibid.) as well.
By analyzing family structures and relationships in Douglas Coupland's writings, the question of fragmentation becomes relevant once again. Brad Newsham states that "fractured families are the norm" in most of his books. Tyler's mother in Shampoo Planet is divorced twice. The children take this unpleasant piece of news rather calmly, as can be concluded from Tyler's reaction: "Well, I think to myself, fatherless again." (Ibid. 1992, p.4) Family life in general is never depicted as being traditional and harmonious. Susan's lifelong conflict with her mother in Miss Wyoming, or Karla's problems with her family in Microserfs, which led her to suffer from anorexia: "My parents. They just won't accept what was going on with me. I see them and I want to starve. I can't let myself see them.'" (Ibid. 1995, p.101) These are only a few examples that show how old family structures fall apart.
Not only families, but identities, too, start to crumble. The concept of identity is an important one in discussing postmodernism. Former, rather stable identities have started to fall apart into many fragile and separate identities. The formation of a postmodern self is closely connected to the earlier discussion on the decline of metanarratives. What has been known as collective identities has given way to a growing fragmentation of individual identities. People experience that traditional values are gradually vanishing. Values that formerly gave us a possibility of self-definition and of positioning ourselves within society. In contemporary society there are no new systems or ideas that could replace the old standards and values of our culture. Consumerism, mass media and other features of postmodernism enforce the already existing unstability as far as identity formation is concerned. What happens is that even if there were any collective identities which a person belongs to, they are very often being ignored or fragmented. (Cf. Bertens 1995, p.138f) The outcome of not being able to form one's identity or being predestined to live with a fragmented concept of the self leads to feelings of loneliness and worthlessness. The narrator in Life After God describes this feeling:
But loneliness had of late become an emotion I had stopped feeling so intensely. I had learned loneliness' extremes and had mapped its boundaries; loneliness was no longer something new or frightening - just another aspect of life that, once identified, seemed to disappear. But I realized a capacity for not feeling lonely carried a very real prize, which was the threat of feeling nothing at all. Perhaps the nothingness outside was trying to seep into the car in whatever way it could. I rolled up my window even though I knew it was rolled up as high as possible already and again pressed the SEEK button. (Ibid. 1994, p.170f)
Pressing the SEEK button (Cf. Illustration 10) could be interpreted as the constant search for new perspectives which would lend life more meaning. The effect is always sort of random, since the individual does not seem to have the possibilities to actively influence the next step. It is a phenomenon of contemporary society that people passively experience changes. Coupland's novels deal with this issue of what one critic describes as "apathetic complacency" (Brett 1992/1993) as it can be found in Generation X, as well as in Microserfs, in Miss Wyoming and in Girlfriend in a Coma. Only after very drastic event in their lives - Dag leaving for the desert, Michael leaving Microsoft to start up a new company, John who "comes away from a near-death experience" (Coupland 1999, cover) and Susan being the only survivor of a plane crash, and finally the characters in Girlfriend in a Coma who have to live through the end of the world - do they become aware of the necessity to change in order to lend their lives some kind of meaning. From being "pathetic, full of irony, alienated and neurotic" (Segal 1995) they all manage to follow completely new directions. In Girlfriend in a Coma Jared asks:
Back in the old world, didn't you often feel as if the only way you could truly change yourself in the powerful way you yearned for was to die and then start again from scratch? [...] Didn't you ache for a change but you didn't know how to achieve it? (Coupland 1998, p.268)
This question could be asked in the other novels as well, because "this feeling is specific to the times we live in." (Ibid.) - the feeling of having too many different possibilities, that leaves people stuck with heaps of fragments.
After having discussed the anti-universalistic tendencies, the anti-realistic realm within postmodernism and within Coupland's works will be of interest in the following chapters. Before the individual postmodern traits that are concerned with anti-realism, will be introduced, the development of what the reasons for the changing concept of reality is, shall be outlined briefly. Consequently, the changing concepts of reality can be linked to parts of Jean Baudrillard's theories, where the key terms are 'simulation', 'simulacra' and 'hyperreality'. These terms are often associated with the rapid development of new technologies. The following chapters shall also be seen in the light of the changing technology and especially the leisure industry. Society has to cope with tendencies which often lead to a distorted sense of time and place. Very common phenomena in this context are a dominant superficiality within postmodern culture, the ongoing decline of public and personal history, as well as the widespread postmodern occurrence of nostalgia and schizophrenia. Douglas Coupland's writing provides a lot of material that explains, exemplifies and comment all the anti-realistic tendencies in postmodernism. The aim is to provide a deeper understanding of how postmodern anti-realisms shape the largest part of contemporary society.
Before going into detail, the next paragraph will provide a short introduction on the change of reality. As it has already been pointed out earlier, it was the aggressive realism and the 'philosophical or metaphysical realism' that have been the immediate target of postmodern critics. A possible result of such an assault could be the destruction of reality where reality would vanish or would at least become invisible. (Cf. Borgmann 1992, p.117) Borgmann explains this in more detail by comparing premodern reality to the contemporary so-called 'hyperreality':
Premodern reality was entirely natural and traditional, and typically it was locally bounded, cosmically centered, and divinely constituted. Postmodern reality is natural and traditional only in places where hyperreality and its mechanical supports have left openings. On closer inspection, the line between hyperreality and eloquent reality turns out to be heavily reticulated Hyperreality is like a thickening network that overlies and obscures the underlying natural and traditional reality. At the limit, the hyperreal overlay will have choked off the underlying reality and reduced it entirely to a mechanical and marginal condition. (Ibid. p.119)
In the following paragraphs parts of Jean Baudrillard's theories, which are mainly known for his speculations that involve the terms 'simulacra', 'implosion' and 'hyperrealism', will be introduced. Then, in the light of these theories, Douglas Coupland's writing will be analyzed. Douglas Coupland is very much concerned with everything that involves so-called simulacra. Generally, the question whether something is real or not plays a significant role in most of his books.
First of all a definition of the term simulation should help to gain a better understanding of these rather complicated theories. When looking up the word to 'simulate' in the Oxford Desk Dictionary one finds the following definitions: "1 pretend 2 imitate; counterfeit". Additionally the term 'to simulate' obviously relates to the word 'similar' (Urdang, 1995 p.539). Simulation develops out of the changing nature of sign and signification. Only in the course of history did people start to relate to a certain symbolic usage, which led to a certain level of signification. With the 19th century, signs started to gain importance and to dominate mass society.
This primacy of signs leads on to the development of simulation, the process whereby representations of things come to replace the things being represented. In other words, we think that the representations are more important than the 'real'
In his first books Baudrillard works up a theory about postmodern consumer society where he tries to analyze society in terms of objects and consumed goods, which are perceived to be the center of the new, socializing rituals of contemporary culture. In his later theories Baudrillard discusses the way the symbolic functions within postmodern society. His thoughts about virtual reality, simulation and seduction have led to a general distinction between the sign and truth. (Cf. Huegli 1997, p.80) In the middle of the 1970s Jean Baudrillard (cf. 1995, p.539) concentrated on what he refers to as 'implosion' and 'hyperreality', terms which include the realms of simulation and simulacra, media, information and new technologies.
Baudrillard talks about four degrees of signification. The first degree indicates that signs are basically reflecting reality. This basic simulation is what Baudrillard calls 'first-order simulacra'. 'Second-order simulacra' refer to a reality that masks reality. When talking about 'third-order simulacra' it means that the sign masks the absence of reality. One of Baudrillard's arguments is, that in postmodernism the possibility to distinguish the original from its copy, has been shattered. Examples are records or films. There is no original to be bought or seen anywhere in the world. Every record or film has always already been a copy. Finally, in the fourth stage, the signs actually become what Baudrillard calls 'simulacra'. Simulacra are signs that have no relation to reality - they are absolute simulations, signs without meaning. Douglas Kellner (1989, p.79) calls it "simulation proper" where simulation models actually constitute the world, they "overtake and finally 'devour' representation." (Ibid.) Compared to simulations, then, simulacra go just one step further. The concept of the 'simulacrum' was first formulated by Plato and it refers to an "identical copy to which no original has ever existed." (Jameson 1991, p.18) Social life more and more consists of reproduced models. (Cf. Kellner 1989, p.83) An example for a simulacrum would be Disneyland's Main Street USA, [cf. Illustration 11] which "is a representation that exists in the absence of reality." (URL:carmen.artsci.washington.edu/panop/baudrillard.htm) Other examples are highways, the media, shopping malls or the world of fashion, because they are built after models as well.
At this point one talks about 'hyperreality'. Hyperreality means that the sign itself has replaced reality - it actually is reality. It designates that the differentiation between something that is being simulated and the real, constantly implodes, imagination and reality are continually intermixed, and, as a consequence, become indistinguishable. (Storey, 1993 p.163) This means that a copy is worth as much as if it was an original. The model becomes a determinant of the real and thus hyperreality and everyday life are no longer separate concepts. (Cf. Best; Kellner 1991 p.119f) In this context a few more words of explanation by Baudrillard (cited in ibid.) shall follow:
Hyperreality [...] points to a blurring of distinctions between the real and the unreal in which the prefix 'hyper' signifies more real than real whereby the real is produced according to a model. When the real is no longer simply given (for example as a landscape or the sea), but is artificially (re)produced as 'real' (for example as a simulated environment), it becomes not unreal, or surreal, but realer-than-real, a real retouched and refurbished in 'a hallucinatory resemblance' with itself.
A recurring issue the reader of Coupland's novels is frequently confronted with, is the same as the narrator in Polaroids From the Dead is dealing with, namely the question whether something is real or not: "What exactly, does real mean? Are you real? Am I real? Was this German reporter real? How real is real?" (Coupland 1996 p.80f) The question, whether something is real or not, is being raised again and again. In Girlfriend in a Coma the statements "It's all fake" (ibid. 1998, p.25), "The future is fake" (ibid. p.218) or "Infinity is artificial" (ibid. p.231) point towards an awareness that simulation, simulacra and hyperrealism are a fact within their world. Tyler in Shampoo Planet engages in simulation when he makes "wax-crayon rubbings of the brass celebrity stars inlaid on the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard" which he calls "StarStars™" and sells for 5$ each. (Cf. Ibid. 1992, p.254) In a way it is absurd to pay for such a copy of something, which is not real from the start, but postmodern society takes these rubbings for 'real' and buys them. The characters in Microserfs talk about how people keep kayaks as props in their garage in order to pretend that they have hobbies, which they actually don't have.
The marginal statement "SIMULATE YOURSELF" (Ibid. 1991, p.227) in Generation X connects with Tyler's comment that he scribbles on a dollar bill saying: "We're all theme parks". (Ibid. 1992, p.237) Disneyland and theme parks are a recurring topic in Couplands writing. Disneyland is a miniature world reproduced by means of a model. It simulates reality, but it is a reality that makes it possible to experience adventure without risk. (Ibid. 1991, p.153) Jean Baudrillard's quote, (1994, p.12) which describes the very nature of theme parks sums up these thoughts:
Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the 'real' country, all of 'real' America that is Disneyland. [...] Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation.
Another example for this kind of simulation is Tyler's concept of a theme park named HistoryWorld™.
HistoryWorld's motto: INSTANT HISTORY. At night visitors would then stay in Bechtol's HistoryWorld™ on-site hotels featuring HistoryWorld™ museum franchises showcasing the history of history. (Ibid. p.200)
In Polaroids From the Dead the narrator and the German reporter walk through the Nitobe Japanese Garden, which is commented on: "although it is a manufactured version of wilderness, like a seventeenth century Disneyland, it is still beautiful," (Ibid. 1996, p.81) which suggests that, concerning the aspect of pleasure, it does not make a difference whether something is real or not. The enthusiastic engagement in computer and video games proves this point, since a race in cyberspace can be as thrilling as actually taking part in one.
Another key tenet in Jean Baudrillard's social theory, is his theory of implosion. Implosion stands for the process where boundaries collapse. Steven Best and Douglas Kellner (1991, p.120) use the example of 'infotainment', where the boundaries between information and entertainment collapse. (1991, p.120) It is no longer possible to distinguish between the two. Such implosions are to be found everywhere within today's cultural and social landscape. The enormous spreading of media messages have suffused all of society. The constant flow of information, entertainment, advertisements and politics has led to the fact that meaning and messages are predominantly perceived peripheral. According to Baudrillard the masses are affected by boredom and resentments as a result of constantly being exposed to messages and of constantly being asked to either buy, consume, work, vote, point out one's opinion or to engage in social activities. (Cf. Ibid. p.121)
The apathetic masses thus become a sullen silent majority in which all meaning, messages, and solicitations implode as if sucked into a black hole. The social thus disappears and with it distinctions implode between classes, political ideologies, cultural forms, and between media semiurgy and the real itself. (Ibid.)
Baudrillard concludes that society as a whole is implosive. This argument leads us back to an earlier chapter, that is, the decline of metanarratives. Postmodern society lives in a world without boundaries where the old becomes indistinguishable form the new. Ideologies, social and political theories have "imploded into an undifferentiated flux of simulacra." (Ibid.)
In Generation X Andy, Dag and Claire refuse to conform to this sort of hyperrealism; they refuse to buy, they refuse to vote, all they do is leave for the desert and tell each other stories. The term "Option Paralysis" describes one aspect of the outcome of the postmodern phenomenon of implosion: "The tendency, when given unlimited choices, to make none." (Coupland 1991, p.139) In this context Baudrillard states that attempts to revitalize the social through the rapid growth of media communication leads to ambivalence, disaffection and indifference.
Too many messages, advertisements, ideological discourses, signs and meanings eventually lead to an oversaturation which makes audiences suspicious of - or bored with - manipulation and media hype. (Kellner 1989, p.87)
And as a result Andy and the others do make a choice by moving to the desert. They migrate toward a lower-tech, lower-information environment, which contains a lessened emphasis on consumerism (Cf. Coupland 1991, p.173), and thus they escape from parts of the omnipresent hyperrealism. According to Baudrillard the desert stands as a "figure for America itself, for its landscapes, cities, highways, (non)culture and way of life". (Kellner 1989, p.170) Another interpretation of the desert is that it represents the "emptiness of the soul in a fallen world." (Ibid.) Both of these views seem to be applicable in the novel Generation X, it is both an account of America and its culture which to them has become an empty one. The situation in Girlfriend in a Coma is a similar one. The only difference is that, in the end, the characters are being offered a second chance. As opposed to Generation X's characters they are given hope that there is a way out of this emptiness.
Apart from the novel Generation X, other books of Coupland provide several examples for illustrating the theory of implosion. In Polaroids From the Dead we find the account that "we discussed the notion of 'being real' [...] and of being 'hyper-real and 'post-human', and I don't think we arrived at any definite answer". (Coupland 1996, p.85) This leads to the assumption that it is not at all easy to always differentiate between something being either real or hyper-real. Tyler's comment in Shampoo Planet that "truth and reality become murky - a fax of a fax of a fax of a fax of a photograph," (Ibid. 1992, p.249) serves as an easily comprehensible example in this context. When thinking about this statement one can eventually sort out the different dimensions of reality. The photograph is a copy of something real, whereas the fax is a mere simulation of something - a copy of a photograph, which does no longer have any connection to a real object. One can find other examples where the characters seem to be no longer able to sort out whether something is in accordance with reality or not. In Miss Wyoming "the events on TV seemed more real to [Susan] than did her actual experience" (Ibid. 1999, p.19) and when John looks at Susan's reflection in the window glass, he explains this by saying that impressionist painters used to reflect things onto something dark in order to reveal its only true nature. (Cf. Ibid. p.310) After Karen awakes from her coma in Girlfriend in a Coma, life becomes 'surreal' because the following events, which include apocalyptic scenes, have completely ceased to be 'fictional realism' - a term often used in connection with Coupland's novels. The author seems to be toying with blurring the line between reality and hyper-reality.
Reproducing models is the same as instantiating codes. Kellner's (1989, p.87) statement that "reproducibility now becomes the fundamental logic and code of the society" leads to another central issue in Baudrillard's theory where he talks about the era of 'code'. Baudrillard takes up the code of the postmodern society, which is concerned mostly with computerization and digitalization. According to Baudrillard code means the binary code, or the DNA code, or the digital code. Computerization and digitalization make it possible to exactly reproduce objects or situations. This leads to the point where there is no longer a thing called reality, "because there is nothing behind the flow of codes, signs and simulacra". (Kellner 1989 p.83) As it has already been pointed out, Baudrillard (Cf. Ibid. p.233;235) names this alternative 'hyperreality'. He
states that the era of the code begins to penetrate the whole of the social fabric. One of the symptoms of this is that opposites begin to collapse and 'everything becomes indecidable': the beautiful and the ugly in fashion, the left and the right in politics, the true and the false in the media, the useful and the useless at the level of objects, nature and culture - all these become interchangeable in the era of reproduction and simulation." (Lechte 1995 p.236)
In Microserfs the significance of code is obvious. Pages full with binary code, personification of the character's computers - code that has become alive, and a well-developed trust in technology dominate this novel. Douglas Kellner argues that everything is influenced by codes and models, including thoughts and behavior, since these models are being reproduced in social relations and self-concepts. (Cf. Kellner 1989, p.83) An example from Microserfs is where Daniel lists "The 8 Models of Interactivity". (Coupland 1995, p.140) Especially model vi) RPGs (Role-Playing Games) is interesting since this model can easily be imagined as transferred into real life. But the way consumerism works could be understood as a kind of code as well. Fashion-codes, for an example, determine what and where to buy - not to conform to these codes means to be an outsider. At one point the characters in Microserfs independently of each other went to the Gap, and because of this a discussion about how the Gap is synonymous for this fashion-code, ensued. Bug's opinion is that
the Gap is good because 'you can go into a Gap anywhere, buy anything they sell, and never have to worry about coming out and looking like a dweeb wearing whatever it was you bought there.' (Ibid. p.268)
And in the course of their discussion they find that there are
more Gaps than just the Gap. 'J.Crew is a thinly veiled Gap. So is Eddie Bauer. Banana Republic is owned by the same people as the Gap. Armani A/X is a EuroGap. Brooks Brothers is a Gap for people with more disposable income whose bodies need hiding, upscaling, and standardization. Victoria's secret is a Gap of calculated naughtiness for ladies. McDonald's is the Gap of hamburgers. LensCrafters is the Gap of eyewear. Mrs. Fields is the Gap of cookies. And so on.' (Ibid. p.269)
The way the characters in all of Coupland's books are shaped by television and technology could be interpreted as code that penetrates their lives, too. Microserfs is a portrait of the so called computer culture - the "most powerful monoculture in the world" (Moore 1995) The novel could be interpreted as being a critical account that technology can become too absorbing and the fact that the characters don't seem 'to have a life' is closely connected with their work and with technology in general: "'You never heard people 'not having lives' until about five years ago, just when all of the '80s technologies really penetrated our lives.'" (Coupland 1995 p.164) In this context one critic wrote that
cultural artifacts may use our minds in the same way genes use our bodies. Microserfs is a hymn to the 'meme', the catch songs, TV programs, brand names and slogans that colonize our inner lives. (Jukes 1995).
Considering this statement the meaning of the title of Microserfs becomes clear. It means that "on the micro level we are all slaves to the information that bombards us."(Ibid.) In the end of the novel the reader is given hope, though. All characters have managed to find a way of coping with their surroundings and it is technology that saves them from being forever apart from Daniel's mother. In this respect Coupland's comment that "Technology got us into this, technology will get us out" (Coupland 1995) is the appropriate conclusion to make.
Albert Borgmann (1992, p.102) analyzes the nature of hyperreality. His argument is that hyperreality resembles a game that blurs the line between "its instrumental and final halves, between labor and leisure" Reality itself confines and is inconvenient, whereas hyperreality is marked by glamour, which itself stands for the perfect commodity. Today's problem is that we are still confronted with reality from time to time, since the realm of commodity is not yet perfect. This return to reality is full with resentments since the world of hyperrealism is much more appealing - exactly because of its glamour. (Cf. ibid. p.96) But
hyperreality does not grant us the tasks and the benefits that evoke patience and energy in everyone of us. The imaginary and loosely connected glamour of hyperreality brings about disorientation and confusion. (Ibid. p.97)
Many of the characters in Douglas Coupland's works are confronted with these feelings of disorientation and confusion and one can make a connection between them and the realm of hyperrealism. Much of the confusion stems from the fact that the only orientation the characters are given, comes from shopping malls, television, advertisements, the fashion industry, technology, theme parks and other leisure activities. Susan in Miss Wyoming has not much to relate to in her life except her being a former child-beauty-pageant contender, which has nothing to do with real life.
In the context of simulacra, television plays an important role and Douglas Coupland takes up this issue quite often. One critic even writes that "Television is his guiding light, his North Star, his totem and talisman." (Mc Inerney 1995) There is no doubt that Coupland's writing is greatly influenced by media contents - especially television. Game shows, advertisements and Sitcoms are even fit to serve as a provider for morals as the coinage "Tele Parablizing" (Coupland 1991, p.120) proves. Situations happening in reality are made comprehensible by comparing them to situations that 'happened' on television. At one point in Microserfs, for instance, "it turned all Itchy&Scratchy again." (Ibid. 1995 p.189) In most of the books television serves as a reference point: in Microserfs the characters are introduced by having their lives compared to a game of Jeopardy!. And their dream categories are almost entirely what Baudrillard refers to as simulacra:
Trash TV of the late '70s and early '80s
The history of Apple
Plant life of the Pacific Northwest
Jell-O 1-2-3 (Ibid. 1995, p.3)
The characters in Microserfs refer to themselves as what powers they would have on Star Trek. And in the end of Generation X one finds statistics concerning television:
Chances that an American has been on TV: 1:4
Percentage of Americans who say they do not watch TV: 8
Number of hours per week spent watching TV by those who say they do not watch TV: 10
Number of murders the average child has seen on television by the age of sixteen: 18,000
Number of commercials American children see by age eighteen: 350,000
The foregoing amount expressed in days (based on an average of 40 seconds per commercial: 160.4
Number of TV sets...
in 1947: 170,000
in 1991: 750 million
(CONNOISSEUR, SEPTEMBER, 1989 in: Coupland 1991 p.182)
As a closing point for this chapter on real versus hyperreal, and on the issue whether this differentiation will be of any relevance in the future, a quote from Polaroids From the Dead shall provide answer:
I think the unspoken agreement between us as a culture is that we're not supposed to consider the commercialized memories in our head as real, that real life consists of time spent away from TV's, magazines and theaters. But soon the planet will be entirely populated by people who have only known a world with TVs and computers. When this point arrives, will we still continue with pre-TV notions of identity? Probably not. (Coupland 1996, p.112)
In addition to the earlier chapter on the more obvious anti-realisms within postmodernism, such as simulation and hyperrealism, , anti-realisms in a much broader sense shall be discussed here. Every aspect of postmodernism, which has been discussed up until this point can easily be linked to the issues that will be of importance in this chapter. Jameson lists several essential characteristics of postmodernism. Among others he mentions "a new depthless-ness", which becomes evident in contemporary postmodern theory, as well as in the widespread practice of the cultural use of images and simulacra. Another postmodern feature is the constant decline of history, which is obvious in society's connection with 'public History' as well as in new forms of society's private temporality. This temporality is being explained with Lacan's term 'schizophrenia'. All these transformations stem from relationships to completely new technologies, which themselves stand for an entirely new economic world system. (Jameson 1991, p.6) In addition to that, these postmodern tendencies, as many others, are mutually dependent. Having no historical background to rely on, necessarily leads to a certain depthless-ness and to what is called schizophrenia which, in turn, provides the grounds for nostalgia, since it grants at least a bit of stability.
In order to avoid confusion the individual tenets will be discussed individually. Since Douglas Coupland's books offer many examples for each of the following postmodern characteristics concerning the perception of time, it makes sense to deal with one after the other.
Jameson's (1991, p.12) statement that in postmodernism "depth is replaced by surface, or by multiple surfaces (what if [sic!] often called intertextuality is in that sense no longer a matter of depth)" can be grasped best when thinking about the World Wide Web. When looking at how the World Wide Web works, how it is structured and how deeply the Western world has got involved in it, one could say that the Internet is closely connected to of postmodernism, especially as far as depthless-ness and superficiality are concerned. John Storey expresses this same thought by arguing that postmodernism is a culture of depthless-ness, of superficiality, of flatness, "of images and surfaces, without 'latent' possibilities, it derives its hermeneutic force from other images, other surfaces [and] the interplay of intertextuality." (Storey 1993, p.169)
Douglas Coupland's works are often criticized in so far as they are said to lack something - either this is a theme, coherence or depth. But the question is, if it could not have been Coupland's intention to write fiction that lacks and that is, at times, without depth? He may want to make his readers aware of the depthless-ness, flatness and superficiality, which are omnipresent in our present world. The following analysis concentrates on the issue of depthless-ness on different levels. One is the superficiality which arises from our contemporary consumption-based environment. Another reason is the spiritual emptiness people are experiencing due to the constant decline of generally applicable belief systems. In the end all societal areas are affected by this superficiality - be it leisure activities, work life or relationships.
People consume in order to establish their identity. What happens when every store sells the same products and the consumer does not have a choice but only a limited range of products to choose from? Douglas Coupland (1995) states that "In the future everybody will be the same," which means, drastically spoken, that when everyone shops at the Gap and eats at the McDonalds - because no other clothing stores and restaurants exist - people, even if they wanted to, will not be able to find any alternative possibilities of identification. In Generation X Andy says that "where you're from feels kind of irrelevant these days ('Since everyone has the same stores in their minimalls,' according to my younger brother, Tyler)". (Ibid. 1991, p.4) In this context Texlahoma, the world Andy, Dag and Claire have created and where many of their stories are set, should be mentioned. Texlahoma is "a sad Everyplace, where citizens are always getting fired from their jobs at 7-Eleven, [...]life is boring there [...] and the year is permanently 1974." (Ibid. p.39f) Texlahoma seems to be a condensed version of the world the characters actually live in. The discussion about the Gap in Microserfs (cf. p. 77) picks out the topic of how indistinguishable everyone has become as a central theme, and when Peter Jukes states that cultural artifacts colonize our inner lives it can be concluded that we all have been 'programmed' identically. As soon as everyone is the same there is no need to search for the depths within the others, because people simply assume to already know their insides and at the same time everyone believes that it is not worth the trouble to at least attempt to establish a distinct self. At times it seems as if there is no real identity left even though people still believe that their lives are still marked by profoundness. But this profoundness often turns out to be superficiality after all. In Generation X one chapter is headed "Shopping is not Creating" (Ibid. p.39) and on one dollar bill of Tyler's 'tragic cash' it says "You are unable to differentiate between facade and substance." (Ibid. 1992, p.205) It is debatable, though, whether something is considered to be superficial or not. One day there may be a majority of people who consider shopping to be the most profound activity. One of Douglas Coupland's "55 Statements About the Culture" (1995) is that "personal memory and corporate memory are so blurred together that individualism has become a shaky concept", which explains this precarious issue.
David Segal's text on Microserfs is titled "An Empty Tale of Modern Times" (1995) which could be taken to sum up Coupland's literary works in general. All characters seem to be spiritually empty. Especially Life After God is concerned with the question whether life has ceased to be as profound as it was once. And the narrator feels sad for
people who are unable to connect with the profound - people such as my boring brother-in-law, a hearty type so concerned with normality and fitting in that he eliminates any possibility of uniqueness for himself and his own personality. (Coupland 1994, p.50)
On another occasion in the book the narrator speaks about himself and how he lives his life without feelings of depth:
One of my big concerns these past few years is that I've been losing my ability to feel things with the same intensity - the way I felt when I was younger. It's scary - to feel your emotions floating away and just not caring. (Ibid. p.150)
People are afraid to find something about themselves, which they do not like. Only a couple of decades ago there was no question what to belief in and what to make out of one's life. People always had God to rely on. Religion once was a very solid concept which it no longer is. People have to find new ways of coping with life and with themselves. A certain development concerning the characters' attitude can be detected when comparing Coupland's books. Whereas Andy, Dag and Claire in Generation X (1991, p.149) seem to be "only skimming the surface of life, like a water spider", the narrator in Life after God seems to be searching for some kind of depth, Tyler in Shampoo Planet encounters at least some profoundness in life which is, among others, symbolized by his hippie mother who tries to make him aware of life's twists and turns. And finally the characters in Girlfriend in A Coma, Microserfs and Miss Wyoming obviously manage to escape from their earlier lives without meaning. From eating flat foods, having superficial friendships and meaningless jobs they find a way of 'getting a life', which is everything but meaningless and flat. Instead of shopping they start to think, come to appreciate nature, they start having deeply felt relationships and it seems as if most of them develop an independent identity and their individual beliefs.
In postmodernism superficiality and depthless-ness seem to be necessities - just like it is in Coupland's novels. The characters' aim is to keep life simple. "Simple objects for a noncomplex life" (Ibid. p.121) and non-sexual friendships with members of the opposite sex - a platonic shadow is the fit term - which simplifies life as well (cf. ibid. p.61f). In Microserfs Daniel and the others live together in a group house only by chance. They did not move in together because they were friends, but simply because they were working at the same company. At first the characters do not appear to have any individual qualities. One critic describes them by writing that "they don't have lives, and for much of the book these characters have exactly as much depth as their 'Jeopardy!' categories." (McInernay 1995) The frequent reference to the television medium in Coupland's works in general, points to a certain superficiality, too. Sitcom characters are very often very flat characters and the fact that the characters in the books compare themselves and their lives with people from sitcoms like the Brady Bunch, game shows such as Jeopardy! or fantasy series like Star Wars, seems to stress their superficiality. When we learn about the characters' leisure activities these often strike us as being rather senseless, too. In Microserfs they speed-read subtitled movies on the fast forward mode, because "movies at the theater take FOREVER to watch - no fast forward. And VCR rental movies take forever to watch, even using the FFWD button." (Coupland 1995, p.258) This creates the impression that activities without a lot of 'depth', compared to those which are intellectually demanding, are being preferred. Recent trends in the leisure industry, especially within the area of television, confirm this thought. So called 'reality shows' such as Big Brother in Germany or Expedition Robinson or Taxi Orange in Austria, where people's lives are being observed and broadcasted via Internet twenty-four hours a day, are becoming rather popular these days. Do these shows provide positive role-models or are they nothing but numbing the viewer's mind? In terms of postmodern theory it could be argued that engaging in superficial leisure activities fits in perfectly well with all of the characteristics of postmodernism discussed up to this point. The lines between high and low culture are being blurred almost beyond recognition, intertextuality in the sense of depth is no longer a necessity and there are no longer any universal truths to identify with - this alone justifies any form of leisure activity - be it reading French philosophers or watching the most cheesy sitcoms or game shows.
Concluding it can be said that superficiality, consumption based society and the leisure industry are mutually dependent from each other. The leisure industry produces a certain range of products, the consumer consumes what fits his needs best , which can be the least demanding object, television series or leisure activity. This interdependence leads up to the next chapter which deals with the decline of history in postmodernism, where the earlier mentioned factors play an important role as well.
Not having a deeper meaning in life is not only connected closely to the decline of the grand narratives, which are being discussed in chapter 5.2, but it also relates to a lost sense of history in contemporary society. A paragraph from Polaroids From the Dead will clarify this point:
The West Coast, with its lack of history, places a daily psychic pressure on its citizens for continual self-reinvention. If one does not change mates, religions, hairdos, bodies, politics or residence periodically, the secret and vaguely pejorative assumption among natives is: that person really isn't trying. (Coupland 1996, p.189)
Constant reinvention, which is a necessity in Western society, calls for a certain superficiality, because without it, the constant change of one's identity would not be credible. In addition to superficiality, a certain lack of history - be it personal or public history - is an important factor in postmodernism. Present society's temporality and "the diminishing nature of privacy in modern culture" (ibid. p.188) are products of not having a history to relate to. The decline of history is strongly related to the vanishing of the grand narratives. Hans Bertens (1995, p.228) clarifies this connection by stating that
postmodern society has no longer a sense of history. History is no longer understood as continuous chronology of events. This leads to a decline of metanarratives.
Postmodernism's claim that contemporary society is one that exists outside of history can also be explained by means of post-structuralist theory. Post-structuralism postulates that every meaning of a text is unstable (cf. Cuddon 1992³, p.735) and since the past exists only as a variety of texts, we are not able to learn from the texts of the past.
In this chapter Coupland's works will be searched for elements, which show that postmodern society is a society outside of history. In all of Douglas Coupland's books the reader is confronted with the issue of the decline or loss of history. Generation X and Microserfs even provide sort of explanations when and why history has vanished. Andy theorizes about how the Vietnam War can be taken to be the last point in history:
Okay, yes, I think to myself, they were ugly times. But they were also the only times I'll ever get - genuine capital H history times, before history was turned into a press release, marketing strategy, and a cynical campaign tool. And hey, it's not as if I got to see much real history, either - I arrived to see a concert in history's arena just as the final set was finishing. (Coupland 1991, p.151)
And what has happened from then up until this day is that "we can no longer create the feeling of an era...of time being particular to one spot in time." (Ibid. 1995, p.75) The way we perceive time and space in general has changed within the last decades.
The growing immediacy of global space and time resulting from the dominance of the mass media means that our previously unified and coherent ideas about space and time begin to be undermined, and become distorted and confused. (Bertens 1995, p.226)
Our conception of space and time, as we knew it, has become distorted by the accelerated exchange of money, the movements within culture and the transfer of information. People and data are able to travel quickly in time and space which results in confusion, inconsistency and in a lack of understanding. Postmodern popular culture communicates these confusions. "[...] Postmodern popular culture is a culture sans frontières, outside history." (Ibid. p.227) The characters' attitude in Coupland's books toward the ongoing decline of history ranges from a rather pensive one to a notion that having no history is a necessity. Another standpoint is that - no matter if there is too little or too much history - either way it constitutes a hindrance, and, drastically speaking, a legitimization for living a meaningless life as it most obviously appears to be the case in Generation X. They live a life where a certain meaninglessness is being accepted and wanted, since they have actively chosen it. Remarks such as "'Quit everything,'" "I was merely trying to erase all traces of history from my past" (Coupland 1991, p.36) or "I knew even then that there was still too much history there for me. That I needed less in life. Less past" (Ibid. p.59) are only a few examples for Andy, Dag and Claire's craving for being able to totally live outside history. The characters in Generation X can be described as being refugees from history. The same attitude is expressed by the title "The Past is a Bad Idea" (ibid. 1998, p.189) in Girlfriend in a Coma.
On several occasions it seems as if history has caught up with the characters and this is not perceived as being something positive. In Generation X Claire tells her friends the very metaphorical story about the sunlight that has gone bad on a farmer in Russia. The sun projects the odor of old Life magazines onto the field, which finally kills the crops. The Life magazines stand for history and in this case it is something dangerous since the farmer's "wheat is dying of history poisoning." (Ibid. 1991, p.8) In connection with history poisoning the term 'historical overdosing' should be mentioned. To overdose on history means: "to live in a period of time when too much seems to happen. Major symptoms include addiction to newspapers, magazines, and TV news broadcasts" (Ibid.) In Shampoo Planet Tyler writes a postcard from Europe:
I think I'm overdosing on history here. I'm never sure if wearing hip clothing in a church is a 'sin'. [...] All too many domes and refineries and people praying to gods I'll never even know about, let alone understand. [...] What I want is to be back home and on the coast in a big glass house on the edge of the planet, on the Olympic Peninsula, say, and just look out over the water and nothing else. (Ibid. 1992, p.95)
To be confronted with actual history obviously turns out to be a burden. On the one hand Tyler is used to having no history and, therefore, being confronted with Europe's actual history is too overwhelming. On the other hand he has plans to
develop a nationwide chain of theme parks called HistoryWorld™ in which visitors[...] dig through landfill sites abandoned decades ago [...] in search of historical objects like pop bottles, old telephones, and furniture. The deeper visitors dig, the further visitors travel back in time, and hence the more they would pay. HistoryWorld™'s motto: INSTANT HISTORY (Ibid. 1992, p.200)
In Tyler's mind, the reason for creating such a theme park is, that the country is short of historical objects. Between historical objects and actual history is a great difference, though. Historical objects are nothing but artificially developed history - a simulation of history. And the fact that history should take place in the confinements of a theme park calls the readers attention to Jean Baudrillard's theory about theme parks, where he claims that theme parks are presented as being imaginary in order to make the people believe that its surroundings are real which they are in fact not. Another aspect Baudrillard mentions, and which fits in very well with Tyler's fantasies concerning HistoryWorld™ is, that he treats theme parks as being equivalent to
a space of regeneration of the imaginary as waste-treatment plants are elsewhere, and even here. Everywhere today one must recycle waste, and the dreams, the phantasms, the historical, fairylike, legendary imaginary of children and adults [are] a waste product, the first great toxic excrement of a hyperreal civilization. (Baudrillard 1994, p.13)
Actually, Tyler's idea of what history is, is equivalent to recycling waste. One gets the impression that digging up all sorts of consumer products people have used as children, or which their grandparents used is what history is all about. History has simply been reduced to the consumption habits people once had.
On several occasions in Douglas Coupland's books it seems as if history has not yet gone for good or where at least the characters appear to search for the reasons why history is gradually disappearing. Statements like "What is our memory? What is our history?" (Coupland 1994, p.210) or "Days. We lose our days - and our ability to retrieve them - and yet there are some days that should never be lost." (Ibid. 1996, p.86) point towards a certain consciousness of the fact that the past is vanishing. In one passage in Miss Wyoming the only one who is aware that a past ever existed, seems to be the narrator:
They crossed San Vicente Boulevard, passing building and roads that once held stories for each of them, but which now seemed transient and disconnected from their lives, like window displays. (Ibid. 1999, p.9)
In Polaroids From the Dead one chapter is headed "Technology Will Spare Us The Tedium of Repeating History." (Ibid. 1996, p.49) And this sentence adds a new factor to the earlier expositions on the topic of the disappearance of history, namely, the aspect of technology. Another chapter has the title "Our Capacity For Amnesia Is Terrifying." (Ibid. p.139) It shall be suggested that these two statements are closely connected, and this link shall be made clear with a remark by Frederic Jameson where he states that technology helps us to forget and that it serves as "the very agent and mechanism for our historical amnesia." (Cf. Kaplan 1988, p.28) The first statement above could well be interpreted as meaning that, because of technology, we will not make the same mistakes as we did in the past, but when we consider Jameson's comment it takes on a deeper meaning. Technology, especially the media, makes us forget history, since as soon as it is text - and all forms of media are text - it is no longer credible, thus, we forget the past. And the capacity for historical amnesia is terrifying since new media technologies have already penetrated almost every cultural and social area. In Polaroids from the Dead Los Angeles, more accurately Brentwood, is the place where historical amnesia takes on its full meaning. In this context Douglas Coupland uses the term 'denarration': "It is the process whereby one loses one's life story.[...] Denarration is the technical way of saying, 'not having a life.'" (Coupland 1996, p.179) Not having a life is symptomatic for postmodern society. Due to the new information technologies people are able to become what Coupland calls "post-famous". (Ibid. p.184) He describes how Marilyn Monroe was the first person to become post-famous.
Monroe went as far as it is possible for a human to travel into the hyperspace of fame. After this occurred, sex, high culture, temptations and the sating of earthly desires had lost all attractive charms for her. She had realized the limits of how far the body can take one.
The story of Monroe's life had been stripped away. She had been denarrated and there seemed no other possible narrative arc to her life. [...] In the end it seemed she was trying too hard to put a pleasant facade onto - nothingness. Her body had become a liability. [...] Monroe, empty child of Los Angeles, blank screen, according to Norman Mailer "free of history." (Ibid.)
When equating Marilyn Monroe's life with postmodern society, it could be argued that, because of the omnipresence of media technologies, we have seen and heard and experienced almost everything. Hyperreality enables us to experience a past that never existed. In the end we are left with an empty space, with nothingness and as soon as we are confronted with nothing, history no longer exists.
The chapter on the decline of history is related closely to the following one on nostalgia, since they share certain characteristics which are, to a large extent, concerned with the different levels of realism. Before Douglas Coupland's books will be examined closely in terms of elements concerning nostalgia, its significance in the context of postmodern theory shall be discussed.
A basic definition of the term nostalgia is that it is used for describing either "severe homesickness" (Urdang 1995, p.393) or the "yearning for a past period." (Ibid) In a more limited sense, nostalgia is being defined as the "bittersweet, selective longing for things, persons, or situations of the often idealized past. " (URL: www.louisville.edu/a-s.htm) The term nostalgia is always used in connection with different kinds of loss. Loss in terms of the past, which is no longer within reach. Additionally, the present fragmentation and pluralization within postmodern societies imply the loss of a former wholeness, and finally, the end of individualism and authenticity fit into the concept of having lost basic grounds which have formerly been highly important in people's lives. (Cf. Ibid.)
One could ask now: how is it possible to yearn for, or idealize something which will definitely be out of reach forever? Linda Hutcheon's article "Irony, Nostalgia and the Postmodern" (URL:www.utlink.utoronto.ca/www/utel/criticism/hutchINP.html [7.nov.2000]) helps to understand the seemingly ambiguous nature of the term nostalgia. She writes that nostalgia feeds on the very impossibility of recapturing the past, since this inaccessibility makes the past even more appealing. The past is being idealized by means of memory and desire. A past, which does not necessarily have to be an actually experienced one, is being imagined. This means that nostalgia is more about the present than about the past. Mikhail Bakhtin calls this mechanism 'historical inversion' (cf. in: Hutcheon 1998) which means that perfection, which cannot be achieved in the present, is now projected into the past.
It is "memorialized" as past, crystallized into precious moments selected by memory, but also by forgetting, and by desire's distortions and reorganizations. Simultaneously distancing and proximating, nostalgia exiles us from the present as it brings the imagined past near. The simple, pure, ordered, easy, beautiful, or harmonious past is constructed (and then experienced emotionally) in conjunction with the present - which, in turn, is constructed as complicated, contaminated, anarchic, difficult, ugly, and confrontational. (Ibid.)
The result is that the past appears to be complete, stable and safe. People take refuge in this secure past instead of being constantly confronted with the present world of confusion and meaninglessness. It is not mere memorizing, though, but rather a complex act of projection which manages to merge the invocation of a partial, idealized history with a dissatisfaction with the present. (Cf. Ibid.) In this context Baudrillard's statement that "history is our lost referential, that is to say our myth [and] by virtue of this fact [...] it takes the place of myths" (Baudrillard 1994, p.43) gains significance. This statement leads to the assumption that the meaning of the concept of nostalgia can be equated with the one of myths.
When looking at the topic in more detail, it becomes clear that nostalgia is a typically postmodern phenomenon, which is closely related to many other central tenets of postmodernism, which have already been discussed. In the following paragraphs the concept of nostalgia shall be dealt with in connection with other postmodern characteristics and, most importantly, Douglas Coupland's works shall be analyzed in terms of features concerning the issue of nostalgia.
Douglas Coupland himself describes his collection of stories Polaroids From the Dead that "it's as though I've opened a kitchen drawer and found a Kleenex box full of already nostalgic Polaroid snapshots and postcards." (Coupland 1996, p.1) One critic wrote about nostalgia that "it is not merely snapshots of a time, but it is that time and space encapsulated and preserved - it is a conjuncture, a piece of history," (Woolley 1996) and this is exactly what Polaroids From the Dead can be said to be as well. At one point one can find a description of what nostalgia is all about:
Strange how when you're young you have no memories. Then one day you wake up and, boom, memories overpower all else in your life, forever making the present moment seem sad and unable to compete with a glorious past that now has a life of its own. (Coupland 1996, p.47)
In Life After God similar feelings of one of the characters are expressed in this paragraph:
She says she remembers another thing about when she was young - she remembers when the world was full of wonder - when life was a strand of magic moments strung together, a succession of mysteries revealed, leaving her feeling as though she was in a trance. She remembers back when all it took to make her feel like she was a part of the stars was to simply talk about things like death and life and the universe. She doesn't know how to reclaim that sense of magic anymore. (Ibid. 1994, p.138)
This kind of nostalgia is related to the postmodern notion of the decline of the grand narratives, since what once lent a story to one's life is now gone. The feelings that remain are the ones of superficiality and meaninglessness. This form of nostalgia is the outcome of simply memorizing parts of past events. More powerful feelings of nostalgia emerged within the last decades because a whole nostalgia-producing industry has been established. The most important thing is, that nostalgia requires some kind of evidence of the past, and nowadays it is technology that enables us to electronically and mechanically reproduce images of the past. Because of these new technologies "nostalgia no longer has to rely on individual memory or desire: it can be fed forever by quick access to an infinitely recyclable past." (Hutcheon 1998) This seems to be contradictory to the earlier discussion on the decline of historical memory, since, on the one hand postmodern society is said to suffer from historical amnesia. Several critics blame the existence of data banks, where memory is stored, for society's inability to actively remember the past. On the other hand Andreas Huyssen argues that "the more memory we store in data banks, the more the past is sucked into the orbit of the present, ready to be called up on the screen." (Huyssen in: Ibid.) This statement leads to the assumption that the past is no longer in the past but has been dragged into the present and, therefore, the past no longer exists as such. When looking at it this way, history has vanished after all. In Microserfs Michael tackles exactly this issue when he says that
the presumption of the existence of the notion of 'history' becomes not necessarily dead but somewhat beside the point. Access to memory replaces historical knowledge as a way for our species to process the past. Memory has replaced history - and this is not bad news. On the contrary, it's excellent because it means that we're no longer doomed to repeat our mistakes; (Coupland 1995, p.253)
The last sentence of this quote points back to the earlier statement that "Technology Will Spare Us The Tedium of Repeating History". (Ibid. 1996, p.49) Technology enables postmodern society to completely indulge in feelings of nostalgia which, in turn, spare us from feeling lost.
Due to the current globalization, which has brought forth a powerful nostalgia-producing industry, "a somewhat different and diffuse kind of willful, synthetic nostalgia - amounting to something like the global institutionalization of the nostalgic attitude" has been generated.
(Cf. URL: www.louisville.edu/a-s/english/subcultures/ideas/tonybaker/baketreating.htm [7.nov 2000])
In the context of globalization several issues concerning postmodernism in general, and nostalgia in particular, become relevant. Nostalgia is very often referred to as what Jameson calls 'false realism' and what Jean Baudrillard calls 'simulations' (Cf. Storey 1993, p.170) The kind of nostalgia that mainly operates through simulation includes for instance films about other films. Star Wars is only one example for such a nostalgia film since it reinvents the atmosphere of an older period. Films that are grounded on the principle of confusing the audience in terms of time and space are considered to be postmodern as well as those that use distinct cultural or technical genres such as the cartoon strip or the detective story. The recycling of older forms or of a film itself is postmodern, because it simply imitates other films and has nothing to do with depicting social reality. In this context, the earlier debate on pastiche comes to mind. Nostalgic feelings are a logical result of the use of pastiche, where different styles from the past are combined and are then constructed to a whole. This kind of reproduction offers the spectator to engage in a so-called 'retro-nostalgia.' (Cf. Bertens 1995, p.230) What makes these films postmodern, is that there is no artistic creativity or uniqueness to be found, as it would have been demanded in modernist films. The genre of film-making is only one example to illustrate the complex nature of nostalgia, but it seems to be a very good one to make clear the connection between nostalgia and pastiche.
In Douglas Coupland's books many references to this kind of nostalgia can be found and sometimes it seems as if the characters are almost lost in it. Nostalgia has become part of their lives. In Microserfs Daniel and his colleagues keep referring to Star Trek, wondering what their characters and powers would be in this television series. (Cf. Coupland 1995, p.262) Generation X is Coupland's novel, which is concerned with the topic of nostalgia far more than his other works. The characters tell each other stories that are often set in a place called Texlahoma. In Texlahoma the year is always 1974. (Cf. Ibid.1991, p.39) They are also engaging in the practice of "Obscurism" where they are
peppering daily life with obscure references (forgotten films, dead TV stars, unpopular books, defunct countries, etc.) as a subliminal means of showcasing both one's education and one's wish to disassociate from the world of mass culture. (Ibid. p.165)
These two examples show the characters' attempt of turning away from mass culture by means of nostalgia and this also explains the side note "NOSTALGIA IS A WEAPON" (Ibid. p.151). When nostalgia is taken to be a weapon in order to shield themselves from the harsh reality, the term "Ultra Short Term Nostalgia" (Ibid. p.96), which designates a "homesickness for the extremely recent past" (Ibid), gains significance as well. The question is, though, if nostalgia is in fact helpful, and, if nostalgia is a device, which people decide to use for themselves or if it would not be possible that is has been created by the industry of the very mass culture they are trying to escape from? It shall be suggested that the latter is the case. Nostalgia exists the way it does only because of our consumption based society. Most of the time nostalgia is closely connected to materialism since nostalgic feelings are often induced by certain objects which are associated with earlier periods. Linda Hutcheon (1998) describes this by stating that
nostalgia requires the availability of evidence of the past, and it is precisely the electronic and mechanical reproduction of images of the past that plays such an important role in the structuring of the nostalgic imagination today, furnishing it with the possibility of 'compelling vitality.'
It is not important whether the person engaged in nostalgic feelings has in fact experienced this past, or not. In Generation X this is called "Legislated Nostalgia" (Coupland 1991, p.41) which means that people are being forced to have memories they do not actually posses. (Cf. Ibid.) The question: "'how can I be part of the 1960s generation when I don't even remember any of it?'" tackles this issue. (Ibid.) Being able to experience a past one cannot even remember suggests that there exists some kind of an industry that provides all these artificial memories. This leads back to Tyler's idea of the theme park HistoryWorld™ in Shampoo Planet where people can dig up products from the past. Linda Hutcheon talks about present culture as a culture that is obsessed with remembering and forgetting at the same time, and she refers to Andreas Huyssen (in Hutcheon 1998) who talks about the present 'memorial culture' with its 'relentless museummania,' Linda Hutcheon (Ibid.) offers only a few examples of
nostalgic re-constructions of the past - from Disney World's Main Street, USA to those elaborate dramatized re-enactments of everything from the American Civil War to medieval jousts restaged in contemporary England.
The term "Historical Slumming" (Coupland 1991, p.11) could serve as an explanation of why these kinds of nostalgic experiences are that attractive, since it describes
the act of visiting locations such as diners, smokestack industrial sites, rural villages - locations where time appears to have been frozen many years back - so as to experience relief when one returns back to 'the present' (Ibid.)
The main reason why people engage in nostalgia is because they feel safe in the realm of a constructed world that refers mainly to the past, whereas the present does not provide these feelings of stability and security. This can easily result in what is called "Now Denial" where people tell themselves "that the only time worth living in is the past and that the only time that may ever be interesting again is the future." (Ibid. p.41) The leisure industry takes advantage of this attitude. Certain technical innovations, especially new computer technologies, have made it possible to reconstruct the past as well as to simulate a possible future. Nostalgia always works in a way that it "links to a historically specific event and reconstructs that event but in a selective manner and, most importantly, only in that event's wider structural context." (Woolley 1996) And this makes it much easier for the industry to provide settings or certain products which make people feel nostalgic. The first part of Polaroids From the Dead, which is called "Polaroids from the Dead" consists of ten stories, which all convey a certain feeling of nostalgia - the feeling of revisiting the 1960s. The spirit of a whole generation has been revived by a series of Grateful Dead concerts.
In a varied form nostalgia is at work in the fashion world. In this context the term "Decade Blending" (Coupland 1991, p.15) is significant, since it is
in clothing: the indiscriminate combination of two or more items from various decades to create a personal mood: Sheila = Mary Quant earrings (1960s) + cork wedgie platform shoes (1970s) + black leather jacket (1950s and 1980s) (Ibid.)
In Generation X several examples for this kind of Decade Blending can be found. For instance Elvissa who is "wearing an ill-fitting 1930s swimsuit, which is her attempt to be hip and retro" (Ibid. p.89) or when the overall effect around the pool is described as being "markedly 1949" (Cf. Ibid.). But is never simply the people's decision to be retro or not, because the market provides the fashion and the objects that are obligatory in order to engage in such nostalgia. Heather Mallick from the Toronto Sun interprets Karen's awakening in Girlfriend in a Coma in terms of nostalgia. She states that
Karen's waking up from 1979 directly into 1996 is a metaphor for something that has been foisted on us - '70s retro. Fashion designers, makeup artists, interior decorators and graphic designers - in other words, the most hateful and uncreative people around - appear to have had a secret meeting and decided they were going to shove the '70s down our throats again - minus the sweetness. (Mallick)
As a closing paragraph nostalgia's connection with realism shall be discussed. Nostalgia's key mechanism is that one particular event or object of the past is being transferred to the present and simulates to bring back one's youth or the past of an entire generation. The term simulation already suggests that feelings of nostalgia cannot be considered as real. The following statement confirms this idea:
if there is any realism left here, it is a 'realism' which springs from the shock of grasping that confinement and of realizing that, for whatever peculiar reasons, we seem condemned to seek the historical past through our own pop images and stereotypes about that past, which itself remains forever out of reach. (Kaplan 1988, p.20)
Nostalgia is about the simulation of the past as well as about the distortion of time since the past is no longer in the past, but it has been transferred into the present where it takes on a whole new form. Thus nostalgia has nothing to do with reality.
The following chapter deals with yet another postmodern feature, which concerns not only a distorted sense of time but also one of place. This postmodern phenomenon is called schizophrenia and this is one characteristic, which can also be found in Coupland's depiction of postmodern society. Before analyzing Coupland's literary work, it is helpful to shortly outline the most important factors which eventually lead to a schizophrenic experience of time or place. The following paragraphs will also provide a short summary of several postmodern features which have already been discussed. This will be helpful in order to understand in what ways most of the individual tenets of postmodernism are inter-linking with each other.
As it has already been pointed out in the theoretical part, modernism is very strongly connected with the creation of unique, authentic styles through which an individual expresses personal opinions about the world. Post-structuralists think this to be ideological and are, therefore, against any individualism of that kind. As a consequence, it is no longer possible to create a new style and the logical alternative to innovation is pastiche. The imitation of already dead styles leads to an inability to concentrate on one's here and now, which leads to a sense of being lost and to the inability to position oneself historically. This means that one no longer knows how to handle time. (Cf. Sarup 1989, p.133) Here comes in Jameson's term schizophrenia who borrows it from Jaques Lacan who used it for describing a language disorder where a child is not able to fully experience the whole range of language and speech. Language involves the factor of time since it has a past and a future and because the sentences move in time. If language cannot be articulated properly, the experience of time is dysfunctional as well. One is
condemned to live in a perpetual present with which the various moments of his of her past have little connection and for which there is no future on the horizon. In other words, schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence. (Ibid.)
This means that time is perceived as being fragmented, a series of recurring present moments. A schizophrenic person encounters the present much more intense than one usually does since the present moment is always experienced only as being a small part of past and future activities. (Cf. Ibid. p.134) Someone who suffers from schizophrenia is not able to experience time as a continuum, but experiences time as an everlasting present. The past and the future scarcely ever come in. A consequence of this lost temporal perception is the loss of identity since identity can only be established within a temporal continuum. For the postmodern human being schizophrenic means that one feels lost and without a defined self. (Cf. Storey 1993, p.170)
Douglas Coupland's works show that he is concerned with the schizophrenic experience. Coupland's statement that "place is a joke" (Coupland 1995) can be interpreted in terms of schizophrenia. In Polaroids From the Dead Brentwood is described as being "a hilly, canyoned Los Angeles suburb [...] Brentwood does not exist. Not technically."(Ibid. 1996, p.147)
Brentwood is a place that has never thought of itself as even existing. That is part of its charm, its attraction. Brentwood has no published written history [...] Citizens migrated to Brentwood for the express luxury of inhabiting a place where there is no "here" (Ibid. p.161f)
Obviously the postmodern individual prefers to live nowhere instead of having to deal with the risk of being confronted with a distorted sense of place. The phrase "to be from nowhere" is a recurring one, which conveys "a predominant sense of rootlessness - of both place and [my italics] time." (Magnino)
At one point in Polaroids From the Dead the narrator of the story, which is titled "The Whole World and an Entire Life in a Day" writes:
This morning I figured that if you lose your memory more or less completely, then each individual day becomes your entire life - because the next day you've already forgotten what came before. For a person with no memory, existence becomes a chain of discrete day-to-day lives. (Coupland 1996, p.108)
The same thought is expressed in Generation X when Claire says that "it's not healthy to live life as a succession of isolated cool moments. 'Either our lives become stories, or there's just no way to get through them.'" (Ibid. 1991, p.8) Whereas the first quote only speculates with the possibility of losing one's memory, the second warns the reader to lead such a life without having a past and a future to think of. In Life After God yet another view on the issue of schizophrenia can be found. It suggests that the reason, why we are not content with our lives, is exactly the fact that we do have to get through a life which presents itself as temporal continuum:
our curse as humans is that we are trapped in time - our curse is that we are forced to interpret life as a sequence of events - a story - and that when we can't figure out what our particular story is we feel lost somehow.[...] Humans have to endure everything in life in agonizingly endless clock time - every single second of it. Not only this, but we have to remember having endured our entire lives, as well. (Ibid. 1994, p.223)
The same thought is expressed by one of Douglas Coupland's "Statements About the Culture" which states that "linear time feels both laughable and terrifying." (Ibid. 1995) In "The German Reporter" the narrator explains: "I thought that this German reporter might be able to help fix my damaged sense of damaged [sic!] time and space." (Ibid. 1996, p.78) This remark suggests that this person is not at all happy with having to live a life with a distorted sense of time and place.
Society is confronted with schizophrenia as a characteristic of postmodernism, but the way people are affected differs from one person to the next. Based on the earlier quotes from Douglas Coupland's works is the assumption that there is no consent whether the postmodern phenomenon of schizophrenia should be considered as generally positive are negative. This question has to remain open, just like all the other questions postmodernism has raised up until this point. Schizophrenia is not something one can simply ignore, though, because it is the logical result of living in a fragmented world, outside of history, of having no longer any master narratives to rely on and, most importantly, of no longer being able to constitute oneself as a stable and coherent individual.
The inability of constituting oneself as a stable and coherent individual within postmodernist society will be a central issue in this last chapter. When the single tenets of postmodernism, which have been discussed up to this point, are looked at in a general context, the result is what is known as postmodern society. The aim of this chapter is to show that society is marked by distinct features with which postmodernity proves to be coherent after all - despite its fragmentary and indefinite character.
At first a general, rather theoretical introduction on what makes contemporary society postmodern and how the individual is affected by it, shall be given. In this context the influence of technology will play a central role. Technology is only one phenomenon that shapes postmodern society. After describing this so-called computer culture, or cyber culture, two other characteristic postmodern sub-cultures shall be portrayed. Douglas Coupland names these sub-groups Generation X and Global Teens. Coupland's fiction will provide many examples in order to paint a thorough picture of what postmodern culture, especially youth culture, is like.
Some time after the Second World War a new type of culture came into being. This new kind of society is best known as 'postindustrial society', a term coined by Daniel Bell, but also as consumer society, media society, information society, electronic society or high tech society. All of these terms stress that this new kind of society objects to the former laws of classical capitalism. (Cf. Jameson 1991, p.3) Determining factors of postmodern societies are the ever-increasing commodification and the media-saturation of both the private and the public.
The onslaught of commodification that is characteristic of late capitalism has [...] even managed to obliterate the classically Marxist distinction between the economic and the cultural. (Strinati 1995, p.10)
One argument here is that the economic needs of capitalism have changed. The most important factor in modern societies is no longer production but consumption. Compared to the era of production, the era of consumption is in need for people who inhibit a certain "leisure or consumer ethic in addition to a work ethic." (Bertens 1995, p.236) Nowadays it is more important to have people who consume goods rather than produce them. This development has been enforced by a large portion of the working class who are now being more engaged in consumer practices than before. (Cf. Ibid. p.235f)
Postmodern society is for Lyotard the society of computers, information, scientific knowledge, advanced technology, and rapid change due to new advances in science and technology. Indeed he seems to agree with theorists of postindustrial society concerning the primacy of knowledge, information, and computerization - describing postmodern society as 'the computerization of society'. (Best; Kellner 1991, p.166)
This technological side of postmodernism is the most obvious one since the use of new technologies has completely changed people's lives. Douglas Coupland most obviously tackles the issue of technology and its effects on society as well as on people's identities in his novel Microserfs. He describes the lives of a group of young people who are permanently confronted with all sorts of technical appliances. The most prevalent machine is the computer. At one point Ethan lists off all the 80's technologies that have really penetrated their and our lives:
VCRs, tape rentals, PCs, modems, answering machines, touch tone dialing, cellular phones, cordless phones, call screening, phone cards, ATM's, fax machines, Federal Express, bar coding, cable TV, satellite TV, CDs and calculators of almost other-worldly power that are so cheap that they practically come free with a tank of gas. (Coupland 1995, p.164)
All of these technologies are what Marshall McLuhan calls extensions of man. He explains this term by stating that
Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous systems itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly we approach the final phase of the extensions of man - the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media. (McLuhan 1966, 45)
It is suggested that Marshall McLuhan's expectation that the technological development has already reached this final phase. Cyberreality, for example, is nothing but simulated consciousness. Extensions of man are things that have become essential parts of all of us. Life without certain technical appliances seems to be impossible and it is obvious that technology does change society and has effects on people's identities. McLuhan expresses this by saying that "any extension, whether of skin, hand, or foot affects the whole psychic and social complex." (McLuhan in Benedetti; DeHart 1997, p.144)
At one point in Microserfs Abe writes an e-mail to Daniel saying: "My magnetic card keys fucked upa nd [sic!] I couldn't get into the building and I gfelt [sic!] I'd stopped existing". (Coupland 1995, p.274) Abe seems to be very much dependent on technology, in this case it has already become a matter of whether one is able to survive within society or not. Generally, the possible fusion of man and machine is a central topic in Microserfs. Daniel and the others constantly talk about personalized machines, philosophize about what the human mind could be if it was a machine or they debate machines' feelings:
I always used to wonder, do machines ever feel lonely? [...] I remember I used to get so mad when I read about car factories in Japan where they turned out the lights to allow the robots to work in darkness. (Ibid. p.322)
They talk about the human body as hard drive and they think of every individual as being an individual diskette with its personal version. (Ibid. p.242) The characters' view on the connection between technology and the human being is made more apparent by Daniel's argument that
machines really are our subconscious. I mean, people from outer space didn't come down to earth and make machines for us...we made them ourselves. So machines can only be products of our being, and as such, windows into our souls...by monitoring the machines we build, and the sorts of things we put into them, we have this amazingly direct litmus as to how we are evolving. (Ibid. p.228)
Daniel's subconscious file could now be interpreted according to this statement. The words that are in this file are not created by the computer, but they are part of Daniel who formulates them and types them into the computer. It does not evolve all by itself - it needs the human being to change. The change within Daniel's subconscious file reflects the change in his own subconscious. What started out with random words evolved to phrases and, in the end, to more or less meaningful statements. One could project this onto the characters in general by saying that Daniel and the others have developed from being rather simple-minded personalities to individuals with more depth. One should consider if technology could not simply be a natural part of ourselves, which contributes to the formation and the changes of our identity.
Concerning the societal aspects of cyberculture it shall be added that the characters in Microserfs develop their own social norms by only associating with other techies. In this context Peter V. Zima (1997, p.189) refers to Lyotard who perceives society and language as fragmented realms of hermetic groups and discourses, who have hardly any means to communicate with each other. Of course there are other postmodern groups within postmodern society that are not mainly characterized by technological aspects. Before Douglas Coupland wrote the novel Microserfs, he published Generation X and Shampoo Planet, both of which portray North American youth culture. These youth cultures which, too, have established their individual rules and norms, shall be discussed in the following chapter.
Generation X and Global Teens are both neologisms Douglas Coupland has created in order to name certain groups of people within North American society. Critics write that Coupland's first novels record with devastating accuracy, the preoccupation of an "angst-ridden, mall-and-MTV-shaped North American, white, middle-class" (Tapia 1995) youth culture and that his works "qualify as time capsules that capture the essence of generation X, that first generation to group in a postmodern world." (Ibid.) In the following paragraphs Coupland's books shall be analyzed in how far they depict parts of society that, according to the already discussed parameters, can be considered to be postmodern or not. The origin of the term generation x is given by Andy who talks about Japan, where one gets "phobic about being singled out from the crowd. It's about the worst thing that someone can do to you." (Coupland 1991, p.56) He then describes this in more detail by saying:
I felt like I was being excommunicated from the shin jin rui - that's what the Japanese newspapers call people like those kids in their twenties at the office - new human beings. It's hard to explain. We have the same group over here and it's just as large, but it doesn't have a name - an X generation - purposefully hiding itself. (Ibid.)
The connection between this X generation and postmodernism becomes evident already. Just like postmodernism this sub-group of society is "a demographic known for its lack of definition" (Horowitz 1993), a blank generation with no war or movement to define them, just as they refuse to define themselves. (Brett 1992/1993)
What are the qualities that make up a member of this so-called generation X? Dag has become a member by turning into a "Basement Person" after he quit his office job. He started engaging in "occupational slumming" which means that he took jobs well beneath his skill of education level. (Cf. Coupland 1991, p.113) The desired effect was, according to Dag,
to try and shake the taint that marketing had given me, that had indulged my need for control too bloodlessly, that had, in some way, taught me to not really like myself. (Ibid., 27)
The attempt to escape from a consumer oriented society is only one characteristic of this no-name generation. Their philosophy is a "Lessness [...] whereby one reconciles oneself with diminishing expectations of material wealth." (Ibid. p.54) In this context the term "Emallgration" shall be mentioned as well, which stands for the "migration toward lower-tech, lower-information environments containing a lessened emphasis on consumerism." (Ibid. p.173) In terms of postmodern theory it should be suggested that the attitude of rejecting almost everything, especially consumerism and technology, corresponds with the second phase of postmodernism where technology, the media and popular culture were looked on more critically than they were in the initiative period. At one point Andy, Dag and Claire criticize their parents' attitude towards consumerism: "Our parents' generation seems neither able nor interested in understanding how marketers exploit them. They take shopping at face value." (Ibid. 68) This remark points toward a more critical dealing with the commodification of society. Later on, when discussing the Global Teens in connection with the issue of consumption yet another change of attitude will become visible.
Dag's attempt to escape by turning into a Basement Person does not work out, though. What follows is that he is finally been confronted with his "Mid-Twenties Breakdown" (Ibid. 27) which he describes as follows:
There invariably comes a certain point where our youth fails us; where college fails us; where Mom and Dad fail us. [...] But my crisis wasn't just the failure of youth but also a failure of class and sex and the future and I still don't know what. (Ibid. 30)
Mark Brett (1992/1993) describes this as being the outcome of "all the symbols of hope put forth in our childhood [that] rendered worthless or sinister," which means that there is nothing left to believe in, which corresponds with the postmodern tenet of the decline of the grand narratives - no religion, no past and no future. At this point Dag decides to join Claire and Andy in the desert where they tell each other stories about the end of the world and about people who are searching for the meaning in life, like Linda, who
became a beautiful but desperately unhappy woman, constantly searching for one person, one idea, or one place that could rescue her from her, well, her life. Linda felt charmed but targetless - utterly alone. (Ibid. p.124)
Generation X is a lost generation. Like the group they represent, Andy, Dag and Claire "have nowhere to direct their anger, no one to assuage their fears and no culture to replace their anomie." (URL:www.geocities.com/SOHO/Gallery/5560.html) Before giving a detailed description of the generation that, according to Douglas Coupland's works, follows this X generation, a concluding statement from Publishers Weekly shall sum up the earlier paragraphs: the members of this generation X "are reared on a promiscuous diet of mass culture, and [they] regard politics, sex, the job market, global events and religion with the same degree of ironic apathy."
The Global Teens differ from the generation X in several ways. Their attitude does not conform to the one of their predecessors in terms of their expectations of the future and in terms of how they deal with consumerism. Generally the Global Teens are much more optimistic. Tyler in the novel Shampoo Planet is the representative of this generation. He collects shampoos, is surrounded by dying mega-malls and by a collapsed nuclear industry. He, too, dreams of an escape, but also of a career. In Generation X Andy remarks that "Tyler wants to work for a huge corporation. The bigger the better." (Coupland 1991, p.107) Concerning consumerism it is stated that
they embrace and believe the pseudo-globalism and ersatz racial harmony of ad campaigns engineered by the makers of soft drinks and computer-inventoried sweater. Many want to work for IBM when their lives end at the age of twenty-five. (Ibid. p.106)
It seems as if the generation following the Xers has totally stopped being against a consumer oriented life. Popular culture and product names can be found more frequently in Shampoo Planet than in Generation X. The reader finds the fictional names of shampoos and of Tyler's grandfather's cat food, "the KittyWhip Kat Food System", as well as many other everyday product names. It can be stated, though, that consumerism and technology are not yet taken for granted completely, as it is for instance the case in Coupland's novel Microserfs.
The main difference between Generation X and Shampoo Planet is the attitude towards the future. Andy, Dag and Claire are constantly worried about the imminent end of the world. At one point they even equate life with the apocalypse:
'And that's that. In the silent rush of hot wind, like the opening of a trillion oven doors that you've been imagining since you were six, it's all over: kind of scary, kind of sexy, and tainted by regret. A lot like life, wouldn't you say?' (Coupland 1991, p.64)
In Tyler's world the end, which comes in form of a nuclear explosion, is integrated in everyday life and thus makes it less frightening. The environmental sensitivity, which is prevalent in Generation X, has changed in so far as environmental problems are accepted as fact. How else is it possible that the characters spend their time in a place called the Toxic Waste Dump? In Generation X the characters tend to engage in a practice called "Dumpster Clocking" where they guesstimate the amount of time objects will take to eventually decompose: "Ski boots are the worst. Solid plastic. They'll be around till the sun goes supernova." (Coupland 1991, p.162) In Generation X the negative aspects of life are used as a justification for the meaningless life they are leading, whereas in Shampoo Planet they are simply accepted as facts. This is the difference between those two generations. Andy, Dag and Claire's constant preoccupation with the end of the world makes them envy Tyler and his generation. Andy comments: "I'm just jealous of how unafraid Tyler's friends are of the future. Scared and envious.'" (Ibid. p.138) When reading Generation X it seems as if the characters are constantly preoccupied with the apocalypse and with nuclear power plants and the atomic bomb. The general fear of the future is fed by telling each other stories about "atomic bomb mushroom clouds [which] really are much smaller than we make them out to be in our minds" (Ibid. p. 60) or by actually seeing a
thermonuclear cloud - as high in the sky as the horizon is far away - angry and thick, with an anvil-shaped head the size of a medieval kingdom and as black as a bedroom at night. [...] But there was no doubting it: yes, the cloud was on the horizon. It was not imaginary. It was the same cloud I'd been dreaming of steadily since I was five, shameless, exhausted, and gloating. (Ibid. p.176)
part of a travel menu that also includes the fabled Doomtowns of the Nevada test site, the aging plutonium production culture of Hanford, Washington's tri-city region [...], the Missile Garden of Alamogordo, New Mexico, and the Trinity Site, near Alamogordo, home of the world's first nuclear detonation. (Ibid. 1996, 126)
This fascination with everything that has to do with nuclear tests and atomic bombs could have something to do with the attempt of freeing oneself from, what Otis in Generation X says, "Bomb anxiety". (Ibid. 1991, p.70) In order to find out the actual size of the mushroom cloud by visiting actual test sites he
made a tour of what he called the Nuclear Road - southern Nevada, southwestern Utah, and then a loop down in to New Mexico to the test sites in Alamogordo and Las Cruces." (Ibid.)
In Alamogordo tourists can buy "nuclear waste" from a dealer. Dag buys trinitite as a gift for Claire. Before he hands it to her, he drops the jar which shatters. Claire's reaction follows immediately:
Oh my god. It's plutonium! You brought plutonium into my house. [...] I can't live here anymore! I have to move! My perfect little house - I live in a toxic waste dump - [...]This stuff's death for the next four and a half billion years. (Ibid. p.77)
With Claire's following comment that Dag should not dare to speak to her until he has decontaminated the entire house, the situation turns into a dramatic joke. The ironic description of how Dag and Andy are "hoovering plutonium out from the floorboards [...]" (Ibid. p.83) makes the reader smile. Later on Dag tries to cheer up Andy by saying: "Look at me. I just made someone's apartment uninhabitable for the next four and a half billion years. Imagine the guilt I must feel." (Ibid.)
When dealing with the issue in a more ironic way, the prospect of the end of the world does no longer mean that life is completely futile. Whereas the characters in Generation X seem to have no future perspectives at all, the situation in Shampoo Planet is a different one. Tyler does have plans for the future, even though the threat of the end of the world is omnipresent as well. Tyler's friends will work for "YEAR-3000, a toxic waste cleanup company commissioned by the government to detoxify the earth surrounding the Plants." (Ibid. 1992, p. 292)
The constantly changing environment has a determining influence on postmodern society. These changes are reflected in society's constant quest for a proper self. A sheer endless supply of different ways how to live one's life, and the disappearance of most of the identity-donating structures within society make it almost impossible to clearly define one's self.
In postmodernism, as well as in Douglas Coupland's books the issue of how the postmodern individual constitutes his or her self, is a central one. This last chapter shall offer a few insights in what ways contemporary forms of identity differ from earlier ones.
During the 1960s Jaques Lacan started theorizing about the decentered self and attacked the standard perception of a central, unitary and embedded self. In the beginning of the 1970s it became more and more difficult to answer the question what exactly characterizes individual as well as collective identities. Contemporary society is dominated by consumer culture, which means that people are more prone to buy and consume identities which they think are proper ones. This raises the question whether there is still something like an authentic identity, or not. What is certain, though, is that there has been a change of identity due to urban revolution and due to the mass media, which has been added to the city experience, and which also changes the sense of individual and cultural identity. The ongoing globalization which started out as an economic phenomenon, has then started to transform and break up former, rather stable, identities. Bertens (1995, p.239) points to the fact that
neither consumerism nor television form genuine sources of identity and belief, but since there are no dependable alternatives, popular culture and the mass media come to serve as the only frames of reference available for the construction of collective and personal identities.
In addition to consumerism, the mass media and other postmodern trends, contemporary society has to deal with an ongoing tendency that the formerly limited set of rather stable identities has started to break up into many fragile and separate identities. What has been known as collective identities has given way to a growing fragmentation of individual identities. People have experienced that traditional values, which were once the source of self-definition and of positioning oneself within society, are gradually vanishing. (Cf. ibid. 238f.)
The advantage of no longer being forced to conform to certain rules as far as identity is concerned, is, that we are free to decide who and what we are. Randy in Miss Wyoming changed his name to Hexum (cf. Coupland 1999, p.231) and Stephanie in Shampoo Planet talks about life in California where people who have not seen each other for two years, ask each other questions like:
'So who are you now? What is your new ray-ligion? What new style of clothes are you wearing these days? What kind of diet are you eating? Who is your wife? What sort of house are you in now? What different city? What new ideas do you believe?' (Coupland 1992, p.238)
And "if you are not a completely new person, your friends will be disappointed." (Ibid.) Tyler's comment, that he thinks that it is great to be able to reinvent oneself every week (cf. ibid.), is one possibility to come to terms with the constant changes within contemporary society. But very often, such reinvention of the self leads to feelings of being lost, of uncertainty, of alienation and of being nothing. People with unstable identities are described as "fanatically independent individuals [who are] pathologically ambivalent about the future and brimming with unsatisfied longings for permanence, for love and for their own home." [URL:www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Theater/4619/dc/dc2.html]
But why does postmodern society feel the need to constantly reinvent itself? Douglas Kellner (1995, p. 232) states that people's anxiety is one possible explanation for the postmodern phenomenon of unstable identities.
Anxiety [...] becomes a constituent experience for the modern self. For one is never certain that one has made the right choice, that one has chosen one's 'true' identity, or even constituted an identity at all. The modern self is aware of the constructed nature of identity and that one can always change and modify one's identity at will.
This constant anxiety can be found in Generation X, where it results in total apathy. In Microserfs the characters constantly talk about "not having a life" which means that they do not have any individual experiences. The only experience they know and which they share is the experience of working at Microsoft. After leaving Microsoft they start to unravel. What distinguishes the characters in Microserfs, in Girlfriend in a Coma, in Miss Wyoming and in Shampoo Planet from Andy, Dag and Claire in Generation X is, that they have not ceased searching for an identity. It is obvious that they hope that one day, they will start having a live.
Concluding, it can be said that unstable identities are an integral part of postmodern society. The possibility to change one's identity can be a tremendous advantage, since we are no longer subject to some general ideologies. We can choose from a vast number of different products and from many different self-concepts. One problem that presents itself when one is offered an unlimited range of possibilities is, that people are often not able to choose what or who they want to be. The result is often anomie, which is a "feeling of alienation and uncertainty that comes from a lack of purpose or belief." (Mallick) But still, it seems to be better to be able to choose instead of being stuck with all sorts of ideological apparatuses, which one has to conform to. After all, people can choose and find their true selves, even though it takes time to find out what the right choice will be.
The last chapter which is concerned with anti-individualistic tendencies, deals with Coupland's general attitude toward individualism in terms of his literary creation. In this context the problem of the vanishing importance of unique creation and innovation within contemporary culture will be examined as well.
Douglas Coupland's literature can definitely be called postmodern, since he has integrated all theoretical aspects of postmodernism in his work.
Coupland's fiction adds several points to the general qualities that go to make up a postmodern novel. He writes postmodern literature about postmodern society.
Coupland's writing can be identified to be postmodern on the formal level, as well as on the level of content. His work provides examples for all the features that have been discussed in the context of postmodern theory, be it the importance of popular culture and consumer culture, the decline of the grand narratives, the stress on fragmentation and decentralization, the discussion of hyperrealism or the question of identity.
The different narrators in Coupland's books always write from within North American culture, which corresponds with postmodernism's stress on it's self-reflexivity. The society that is being described, changes and evolves from one book to the other, and elements of one book can often be found in another one. Formerly subordinate elements become dominant and formerly dominant ones are no longer that important. The Global Teens, for instance, already take part in the generation X and vice versa. Society and culture are constantly deconstructed and restructured, which is yet another characteristic of postmodernism.
The following quote shall once more show Douglas Coupland's interest in postmodern matters:
Imagine that you have no religion. Imagine that the houses lived in by you and your friends are all built by contractors and furnished with dreams provided by Life magazine. Imagine that you inhibit a world with no history and no ideology. (Coupland 1996, p.121f)
This should not mean, that this is the final statement of what postmodernism is all about – as there will never be a final statement.
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