Cosmopolitanism in Postmodernism’s Clothing

While the postmodern challenge embraced relativism of cultural positions and the play of cultural difference, the cosmopolitan identity adds an unswerving ethical component, based on exposure to, and experience of, the cultural other (Skrbis and Woodward 2013: 16).

If we accept Jean-Francois Lyotard’s prominent definition of the postmodern, which concerns ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, then this problematises the positioning of Cloud Atlas as a postmodern text (1984: xxiv).14 As Thomas Docherty notes, metanarratives ‘deny the specificity of the local and traduce it in the interests of a global homogeneity’ (1993: 11). A postmodern reading of the novel would perceive the Russian-doll narrative structure to be eternally recursive, with humanity’s cyclical rise and fall indicative of the impossibility for a more cosmopolitan society to be realised. In this sense, Cloud Atlas continues the tradition of postmodernity; the interrupted narratives demonstrate a form of fragmentation while the disparate manifestations of the same soul suggest the hybridity of human identity. The postmodern trickiness of Mitchell’s narrative mechanisms, however, fails to weaken the novel’s intrinsic ethical sensibilities. The connective tissue of cosmopolitan memory prevents an infinite en abyme system; Zachry’s uninterrupted central narrative (around which the temporal design of the novel revolves) offers salvation from the broken history of the past and narrative recursivity. As Ashcroft identifies, memory can function as ‘the vehicle of potentiality rather than stasis. This is the potentiality of return, when the past adumbrates a future that transforms the present’ (2010: 83). Therefore, although the chapters are momentarily suspended by the narrative structure, they ultimately coalesce to form a larger configuration of human history in which cosmopolitan communication is conducive to progress. Narrative displacement in Cloud Atlas is indicative of the extent to which an individual’s life is caught up in the lives of global others. The novelist Douglas Coupland recently claimed that Cloud Atlas was an example of ‘a new literary genre’ he terms ‘Translit’ (2012: n.pag.). Novels in this emerging genre cross ‘history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place’, inserting ‘the contemporary reader into other locations and times, while leaving no doubt that its viewpoint is relentlessly modern and speaks entirely of our extreme present’ (2012: n.pag.). He goes on to argue that the cultural connectivity engendered through spatial and temporal nomadism is not merely ‘some sort of postmodern party trick [ ... ] more a statement of fact about the early-21st-century condition’ (2012: n.pag.). Rather like Ghostwritten, to perceive the separate chapters of Cloud Atlas as fragmentary is to ignore both their intratextual connectivity and open-ended nature, and to understand the novel is to embrace and integrate these conflicting interpretations of the narrative structure.

Consequently, Dillon contends that a general consensus has been reached regarding Mitchell’s literary positioning: ‘while Mitchell employs postmodern literary techniques, he does not adhere to the apolitical and anti-social nihilism of postmodernity with its ironic take on modern life and its paradoxical insistence on the inadequateness of narrative, language and literature’ (2011b: 18). The narrative structure of Cloud Atlas is predominantly responsible for complicating both the issue of the narrative’s ‘end’ and the dichotomy between fragmentary and collective visions of global commonality. The palindromic narrative trajectory means that later chapters impact on the actions of earlier chapters - a reminder that futures are still open and subject to individual agency. For Boxall, the novel is part of a larger movement in twenty-first century fiction towards ‘an expanded form in which we might see the world whole, and an opposite tendency towards fragmentation, towards a kind of broken failure of collective sight’ (2013: 191). Following this reasoning, should temporality take priority, making the most futuristic chapter, ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’, the narrative denouement? Or, alternatively, should the novel’s counter-factual textual structure take prominence, with Ewing’s concluding narrative returning to its cyclical beginnings and indicating a fresh start (or, more accurately, retreat)?15 Certainly, the novel requires constant recontextualisation regarding the sequential ordering of the chapters in order to forge some semblance of linearity. Structurally, then, there are also inherent weaknesses in defining Cloud Atlas as a celebration of cosmopolitan cultural interconnection. As the nuclear disaster and imperial practices demonstrate, epochal shifts repeatedly fail to result in progressive ethical advancement - there is historical evolution without the developmental logic that naturally follows. As a result, Cloud Atlas rejects the Kantian teleology of an inexorable movement towards a cosmopolitan union of diverse peoples. For Helene Machinal, the ‘motif of historical recurrence’ disrupts ‘the deterministic view of History as progress’ (2011: 135). The narrative structure’s counter-factual cosmopolitanism is itself a form of admission that cosmopolitan ideals have not prevailed while new globalised versions of oppression and imperialism attain planetary dominance.

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