Ideology and its others: The postmodern fiction of Ishmael Reed, Kathy Acker and Don DeLillo

Date of Completion

January 2003


Literature, Comparative|American Studies|Literature, American




This dissertation examines how postmodern American novels by Ishmael Reed (Mumbo Jumbo), Kathy Acker (The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec), and Don DeLillo ( White Noise) exemplify postmodern theory's refiguring of authorship, text, and reader, while also embodying the modernist ethical, political and historical tenets—including ideological critique—much postmodern theory rejects. Much postmodernism is informed by French poststructuralism, which uses concepts like discourse, discursivity, difference, and intertextuality to undermine unitary authorship, the singular text, and the unified autonomous subject. Such postmodernism rejects all grand narratives and totalizations, as well as truth statements normally associated with modernism and modernity. Ethical, political, or historical claims therefore have no grounding because all such claims are themselves totalizing and comprehensive. The dissertation begins by examining Mumbo Jumbo's refiguring of authorship and African-American identity via Haitian voodoo, which strongly resembles postmodern theory's dissolution of unitary authorship and identity. However, Reed's refiguring is characteristically modernist; representing a sustained ethical, political, and historical critique of dominant white western culture's definitions of these concepts. Acker idiosyncratically uses postmodern theories to critique totalizations, including the unitary text, as well as the reified and coherent self. Employing the detective genre, which fetishizes reason and causation via strong hermeneutic and proaretic codes, Acker uses intertextuality to reveal that behind unified self, text, and genre, stands a pervasive phallogocentrism, which is also the at the heart of capitalism's oppression of both women and the poor. Using the frame of the college mystery novel genre, DeLillo's White Noise offers a sustained critique of contemporary consumer culture and subject's place within it, while also addressing associated issues, such as the university's complicity with capitalism, as everything-including the university's subject matter and enlightenment mission-becomes commodified and part of society's general crisis of legitimation. The critique speaks to many readers because the novel appeals both to individuals who desire coherent, closed narratives, as well as those readers seeking experimental literature. The dissertation's closing specifically addresses problems with categorizing the novels as postmodern, addressing Reed's relation to African-American literary tradition, Acker's problematic usage of postructuralism, and DeLillo modernist ethical-political appeal. ^