Parody: The Art That Plays With Art
MODERNISM/Modernity 18.1 (2011): 190-92
Reviewed by Simon Dentith
Parody, Robert Chambers reminds us in this approachable, eccentric, self-deprecating, and mildly megalomaniac book, is one of the few literary terms that come down to us from ancient Greece, where it means something like "beside-or-against song" (3). Certainly Chambers has taken the licence of its antiquity to extend the scope of parody way beyond what most people have taken it to mean up to this point. It is not to be confined to the minor and disreputable genre beloved of nineteenth-century littérateurs and the New Statesman/New Yorker. This is because it is not to be confined to a genre at all, since it is in fact a pervasive technique characteristic of all literary periods, possibly even of all language use, which works to combine or play off one convention or set of conventions against another. Its scope is therefore very wide indeed, encompassing children's mimicry, all of the traditionally designated parodic genres (so: mock-epic, comic epic, burlesque, travesty, spoof, lampoon and hoax - though it's not itself a genre), word-play and puns, much of the history of the novel, skaz, film adaptations, imitations, Dada, self-reflexive art, and what we know as modernism and postmodernism. Parody is characteristically multistable, that is, it permits or encourages several perspectives simultaneously, thus challenging the linearity of Western thought in favour of the Yin and Yang of Daoism; it is the principal means by which genres get exploded and new genres develop; and its pervasiveness has only been overlooked by criticism since the Romantics because of extraordinary critical myopia (not to say stupidity). Chambers undertakes to remedy this myopia, more perhaps in hope than expectation, and does so with wit, wild erudition, much repetition, and lots of diagrams.
He develops his case by means of his own critical terminology, which at times threatens to get out of control and proliferate like a Mandelbrot fractal (one of the analogies for the complexity of parodic effects to which Chambers himself is drawn). In a conveniently alliterative way, parody works by banging, binding, or blending, usually in combination; that is, it either sets off explosive contrasts between conventions, binds them together while keeping them separate, or blends them in smoothly sustained combinations. This categorisation leads to further categorical proliferation, and permits mostly brief discussions of a wide range of examples taken from literature, film, the visual arts, popular culture, and music. One chapter is devoted to "Parodic Innovation and Modernism". The great writers of High Modernism, including especially Eliot and Joyce, are to be understood as centrally parodic writers. But given the low critical esteem afforded to parody, neither they nor their critical supporters have been able to admit this. Chambers, unfortunately, devotes his critical fire more towards rectifying the low critical esteem afforded to parody than to developing analyses of the parodic elements in The Waste Land or Ulysses. Much of the chapter also is devoted to making the case that, since modernist parody has the effect of trashing previous conventions, the history of art in the twentieth century, especially in the visual arts, has been of successively more extreme repudiations of each succeeding convention. This sounds a little too much like the cry of "the emperor has no clothes" for comfort. But in general the chapter is of a piece with the rest of the book: provocative, would-be iconoclastic, showing signs of too-obsessive a fixation on his topic.
Nevertheless, Chambers has a strong point to make, in fact a series of strong points. First, the pervasiveness of parody: seeing it as a technique rather than as a genre clears up a lot of the confusion generated by genre-based approaches to the topic, and locates it in an understanding of basic linguistic and aesthetic practice. But perhaps Chambers could go further with this insight, not so much in expanding still more the scope of parody, but in being more specific about the social, cultural, historical, even anthropological circumstances in which the technique occurs and proliferates. This would bear especially on the question of modernism and postmodernism, to which Chambers repeatedly returns; he starts the book with Ihab Hassan's famous list of contrasting traits, mentions Jameson's still more celebrated distinction between the respective places of parody and pastiche in these cultural modes, and acknowledges Linda Hutcheon's role in placing parody at the centre of studies of postmodernism. Is there any kind of explanation, not necessarily of a Jamesonian kind, which could account for this historical preponderance and these transformations? Second strong point: criticism's misidentification of parody with "specific parody" (Rejected Addresses; A Christmas Garland; Eliot's parody of The Rape of the Lock that Pound cut from The Waste Land) has obscured the pervasiveness of parody elsewhere. Third: Chambers pays repeated and handsome acknowledgements to the work of Bakhtin (along with the work of the Russian Formalists); he rightly sees the Russian theorist as transforming our understanding of the place of parody in all forms of artistic creation, but especially the novel. But the same question about social and historical location might be put to his use of Bakhtin; Chambers wishes to dispute Bakhtin's belief that parody in the modern world has lost the multiple fructifying character that it had in his accounts of carnival and the carnivalesque. He certainly has a point that parody has by no means gone away in the manner that Bakhtin seems to suggest. But the point of "carnival" is that it has a specific historical centre of gravity, which cannot simply be transferred to the modern world without some serious socio-cultural analysis. Chambers' fixation with righting the wrong that has been done to parody as a critical concept tends to disable him from that kind of analysis.
But this is to complain about the book that Chambers did not write rather than to acknowledge the book that he did. It's quirky, far too self-revealing, the product of a life-time's reflection, repetitious, badly organised, and compelling. Perhaps there's just too much stuff here to fit into the confines of a book this length, though I suspect that the writer will be pleased to have got it off his chest. Will it change the way that people in general, or even critics in general, think about parody, forcing them no longer to demean it as a second-order, derivative or parasitic genre, and instead to see it as the fundamentally generative and creative technique that it truly is? No, and Chambers knows that the answer is no. But perhaps there is little cause for regret here, since parody, on Chambers' own account, will go on banging, binding and blending as long as there are linguistic and artistic conventions to work on. Criticism, rather than parody itself, is after all the truly second-order genre.