The new cultural geology

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Author: Mark McGurl
Date: Fall-Winter 2011
From: Twentieth Century Literature(Vol. 57, Issue 3-4)
Publisher: Hofstra University
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,175 words
Lexile Measure: 1590L

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Paraphrasing a remark Freud makes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, we could say: "In the last resort, what has left its mark on the development of thought must be the history of the earth we live on and its relation to the sun." --Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound (223)

In the early morning darkness of May 3, 2003 the New Hampshire geological formation known as the Old Man of the Mountain crumbled to the ground. It was an ignominious end to a famously lofty visage, and one I would like to link, however improbably, to the ongoing decay of the "postmodern" as the leading description of the contemporary cultural-historical moment. To do so, as we shall see, is to posit that what enables the perception of the postmodern-as-past is a new cultural geology, by which I mean a range of theoretical and other initiatives that position culture in a time-frame large enough to crack open the carapace of human self-concern, exposing it to the idea, and maybe even the fact, of its external ontological preconditions, its ground. This is as much to say that there has always been something residually humanist and even "romantic" in the leading formulations of the postmodern; and that the ongoing advent of post-post-modern has something to do with the profound challenge that cultural geological thinking poses to that residual humanism. But it is also to admit up front that this challenge is already as it were there as a latency in the postmodern, in fact already there in the discourse of the "modern," whose narrative of the progressive domination of nature by science has long been ironized by the discovery, in that very process, of the bizarrely humiliating length of geologic time, the staggering vastness and complexity of the known universe, the relative puniness of the human in the play of fundamental and evolutionary forces. (1) Realism, naturalism, primitivism, literary modernism, and postmodernism--these are some of the cultural formations where that irony has been fitfully recorded, and their accumulation must give one pause before declaring the arrival of something new The term I would apply to this not-newness, the exomodern, positions itself strategically outside of rather than after the modern and postmodern, displacing postmodernism's notorious pillaging of past historical styles by trying to imagine what lies beyond or alongside style. A projection of posthumanist thinking into the cultural realm, exomodernism is however not so much a period or school of artistic endeavor as a name for the glimpses we hallucinate, in various cultural works, of the unincorporated remainder of the work of all periods and schools. Even more than in Eliot's symbolic compression of thousands of years into the moment of The Waste Land (1922), the "now" of the exomodern is perforce a long now, a now whose duration is hard to measure but which is unquestionably eventful.

Seen from the right angle and distance, the jutting slabs of granite near Franconia Notch had suggested a human head seen in profile against the sky, heavy-browed, as...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A301872326