Irony is liking things, Donald Barthelme's postmodern poetics

Thumbnail Image
Caughlin, Mark
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
On the one hand, the fiction of Donald Barthelme is distinctive and makes a strong impact on its reader, but on the other, both its meanings and accomplishments are elusive. I argue, however, that Barthelme must first and foremost be understood as an ironist, and in order to contextualize his work, I have formulated a theory of postmodern irony that borrows more from the philosophy of Schlegel and of Husserl than from traditional literary theory. I also contend that Barthelme employs language as an object, and that from the avant-garde and pop art traditions, as well as from late modernism, Barthelme has learned to express language as manifestation rather than as meaning. Such a strategy, in conjunction with his use of the meaningless of signs, not only allows him to transform the reified state of language under late capitalism, but also allows him to radicalize the commodity logic that I argue is inherent in literature. I conclude, finally, that Barthelme's fiction has productive results, despite its tendency to rupture and to parody existing forms. I demonstrate, for instance, how it counters the pessmistic vision of the world Baudrillard offers but affirms the epistemological positives that Lyotard uncovers in the postmodern condition.