The combined silence


Critically and commercially successful postmodernist novels such as Slaughterhouse Five and The Book of Daniel present themselves, ironically, as ‘failures’ - as evidence of the inability the narrator/author to compose a coherent narrative or text, to ‘make sense’ of experience or interpret history intelligibly. Discuss the functions and effects of the trope of ‘failure’ and authorial ‘impotence’ in any set text(s).


By the time Roland Barthes announced the death of the author more writers were engaged with the idea their novels should not formulate meaning for the reader. Truths are heading towards multiple places and coming from multiple texts, perhaps all unoriginal. Styles such as historiographic metafiction draw attention to the author’s dilemma by crossing frames of reference,[1] and Slaughterhouse-Five speaks to these multiple contexts where failure of authority is more than a dichotomy.


If a coherent narrative is one which layers a possible history over the reader’s world view and attempts to stretch the spaces between images so that they correlate inconspicuously then it hands responsibility of interpretation with the reader. Postmodern literature might sense the transaction as consumer fetishism, that interpretation is not subject to patronising encouragement or sold to an end-user. This is partly because the contextualised reading of narrative is a constraint of judgement, or judgement itself. An academic essay signifies expectation that some goal might be achieved, constrained to some conclusion/strength of argument. Holes in the establishment of theory are not acceptable given that will prevent orderable structural discourse if they represent failure or unwillingness to reference authored texts. A personal essay can connote the possibility of failure as a possibility of an open ended goal, or contribution to an ongoing and ontologically-based idea. We will be looking at combinations of interpreted contexts and disassociating language in the propagation of judgement, the attention that failure recognises in passing hand to hand.


The academic pretext is in acknowledging the existence of facts which the event of experience alone shall miss, and that single experiences cannot at once evaluate the reinforcement of cultural capital. Recycling, rejecting are part of the search for coherence of theory. In the modernist context the number of re-readings narrows down the possibilities; until like a pillar of salt the meaning ceases to be elusive. Why, according to Vonnegut, is this act so human? It is as if events are so impelling that we search for all forms of meaning, including those that make us old and full of facts. We can’t cope with this, either, and the only answer Vonnegut appears to award Professor Rumfoord who probes Billy for the confirmation of truth of the war is the emptiness of the Tralfamadorian one. This is, however, a transaction of language and Burnham and Hinchliffe argue that the over all humanist tones of Vonnegut’s novel are a sublimation of the differend, as designated by Jean-François Lyotard.[2]


The differend is the unstable state and instant of language wherein something which must be able to be put into phrases cannot yet be. This state includes silence, which is a negative phrase, but it also calls upon phrases which are in principle possible. This state is signalled by what one ordinarily calls a feeling: “One cannot find the words”, etc. A lot of searching must be done to find new rules for forming and linking phrases that are able to express the differend disclosed by the feeling. (Lyotard, The Differend, §22, 13)


Vonnegut is resolute in offering a failed phrase for ending a massacre, “Poo-tee-weet?” The differend becomes much more analogous to this personal context however though the comparisons with the exhaustive speculative goals of history professors and accomplished movie credits-watching Tralfamadorians. Burnham and Hinchliffe investigate the totalising narcissism of language, describing how the Tralfamadorians view the professors’ attempt to conquer time as


not invalid because of a feeling (since they seem to have none) or because it reduces freedom, but because it is resisting the inevitable. Tralfamadorians find such attempts amusing because to them it is unthinkable that one should want or try to conquer time. To want to conquer time, then, is a failure of feeling, because while the human encounter with temporal openness provides the possibility of a differend, the desire to conquer time (by the production of universal phrase genres) nevertheless represses the differend along with the feeling that is a sign of its happening.


The “universal phrase genre” involves Lyotard’s rules for the pragmatic dimensionality of units, or phrases, of language in relation to each other.[3] The universal phrase genre is


one in which the rules for the linkage of phrases are understood to be uniquely valid so that it cannot recognise the legitimacy of other genres with a related telos. For example, the cognitive phrase genre is one that uniquely defines the rules for obtaining objective knowledge of the world such that knowledge is understood to be impossible in any other way. Such phrases are thus guaranteed to be homogeneous across time - that is they are temporally totalising.[4]


With such a war of the worlds hanging in the balance harnessing the weapons of mass-assimilation the combination of possible readers’ contexts becomes the very context in which Vonnegut appears as “the author as a guest in his own text.”[5] He acts inside a simulacrum of temporal waves attempting to appropriate the resonant frequencies of a reader’s feeling of contemporary status overlapping the superpositioned “origin” of people’s texts to reproduce identity as language. Witness the old man and his Pall Malls who can’t keep still yet suggests that the reader examine the angles that form between his pillar of a text and the attempts to engage it.


The implications of failure are not harmonious and can be interpreted contextually in the signs and signification of audience, peers and society. To deny the last word from the author and from anyone who might try to have it can imply an insistence to always be thinking about it – to the effect that the reader can choose to be slave to the problematising world of the subject or choose to see subjects as intertexual and without definition, so that the text is ‘free’ to engage and interpret on a wide range of scales. Seeing this as a redeeming quality of historiographic metafiction, Hutcheon quotes Streuver’s objection to historical novels in that they “are not histories, not because of a penchant for untruth, but because the author-reader contract denies the reader participation in the communal project.” [6] The failure of the author to make intelligent responses can suggest the reader focus on the speculation of events rather than facts. The question of who comes closer to listening to a crazy person is invoked by the novel by situating Billy as the proximity to figures like Wild Bob and Roland Weary. The meek, the ones who would not assume they understand, redeliver first hand reception, bowing down to any possible authority who will listen, since we are not privy to a conversation where we can enjoy Billy’s reaction. This may be the only way to make events seem less crazy, or subjective, if a mute narrative reaction is more unbelievable than the actual event. It is almost an encouragement of a least conscious interpretation, a failure to perceive facts.


“The writer does not originate his discourse, but mixes already extant discourses”[7] and in this sense aporia is not the failure of writing but its recognition. Vonnegut comments, “I came home in 1945, started writing about it, and wrote about it and wrote about it, and WROTE ABOUT IT. This thin book is about what it’s like to write a book about a thing like that.”[8] Through the differend Vonnegut is blurring the facts interpreted from this event (of writing) with the feeling of Dresden’s name, confining himself to look at the “present”.


In the differend, something “asks” to be put into phrases, and suffers from the wrong of not being able to be put into phrases right away. This is when the human beings who thought they could use language as an instrument of communication learn through the feeling of pain which accompanies silence (and of pleasure which accompanies the invention of a new idiom), that they are summoned by language, not to augment to their profit the quantity of information communicable through existing idioms, but to recognize that what remains phrased exceeds what they can presently phrase, and that they must be allowed to institute idioms which do not yet exist. (The Differend, § 23, 13)


If the achievement of metafiction lies supposedly in the present call by language to you rather than a writer’s urge to look back it models an “all or nothing” approach, an analogue of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The novel then fails from a historian’s point of view due to the attitude of the novelist, Doctorow writes “history is kind of fiction in which we live and hope to survive, and fiction is a kind of speculative history… by which the available data for the composition is seen to be greater and more various in its sources than the historian supposes.”[9] The writing failure-victory equation is folded by the combination of author-reader contexts yet always influences the differend to stay and ask what you are asking language.


Clearly problems are presented towards a state of knowledge, as context of phrase genres tip uncertainties in one direction after another. To look for a totalising view Hutcheon outlines, “Historiographic metafiction, for example, keeps distinct its formal auto-representation and its historical context, and in so doing problematises the very possibility of historical knowledge, because there is no reconciliation, no dialectic here – just unresolved contradiction…”[10] When the American soldier is felled and asks, “Why me?” to which the German replies “Vy anybody? Vy anything?” this absence of knowledge becomes somewhat opposed to the obligation that the individual has a Cartesian acknowledgement of eternity which Billy is taught by the Tralfamadorians. Whether it be the absence of knowledge, rather, language, or the totatilisation of it, the differend provoked by “Why?” acts like an appeal to have feeling of judgement remain disassociated from it. If the speculative possibilities of the external world, or the ‘events’ of history, are equated with a Cartesian perception, Vonnegut’s authorial statement, “I imagined dropping bombs on those lights, those villages and cities and towns,” though I suspect is there in earnest, does lend an arbitrary quality to the differend to deal with Dresden; why would you expect to know how it feels to create awe? The resistance of looking backward for knowledge does not change its context if translated to try looking forward to using the lessons of history, it is incongruent with the novel’s distancing from the Tralfamadorian meaninglessness of time.


In a journey through complex movements like war the distinction of “being” amongst humans acting out their maximum influence on the physical world has an indefinite problem of scale. The constraint of choosing some words over other words makes it difficult for a participant to expect that they wield much influence over the text of historicism and would let the giants speak instead, “One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.”[11] Yet if we should be deemed innocent the feelings aroused from proxy to terror should translate well to facts; “… history is a fiction. It’s a dream in the mind of humanity, forever striving… towards what? Towards perfection.”[12] At one point Vonnegut as the narrator mirrors the speech of his protagonist, “I was there.” If this is in reference to Billy’s confrontational attitude towards the “deaf and blind enemy” in the guise of Rumfoord, is this suppose to draw our attention to an interpretation of his novel as suffering “echolalia”, a symptom of combined circumstances? If so then the facts are emphasised as singled out from the truths of others who were privy to events.


Burnham and Hinchliffe suggest the Kantian notion of the sublime forces us to take feelings as serious as empirical evidence. At the same time whether it is an attempt to justify innocence or more to be more complex and deface history without remaining hypocritical it is clear discussion would be kept as short as possible. In this sense Billy may only be trusting a single identifier of the war as a point of comparison in his memory, and the one time that he “remembers” the past as opposed to travelling and seeing events is triggered by an image mimicking the German “barbershop quartet” in Dresden, where the image, the guards’ moving mouths, before him was failing to react to the world (which for once Billy is part of), before Billy himself could try and fail (to create language, facts) – the differend has spoken to him. This would equate looking back with the summation or critical point of being, or feeling, or ownership, and suggests that it is the one true staticness of evidence that results from any participant of history. It is a differend that traps all owners of language to simulate Billy’s “windows” of time making them as arbitrary as possible to ensure nothing matches the real. Even an old man with his Pall Malls must keep moving.


Lastly, with the analogy of an “anti-glacier” book in operation Vonnegut metafictionalises the world’s conception of the power relations between authorship and consumerism. His ongoing “war” is a failure to fight for all weapon disarmament to prevent more acts of pointlessness such as missing transport links which Allied pilots were told to bomb in Dresden.[13] Time travel itself is an allusion to the inability to keep history down, as he stays within the framework of war and the novel’s “sequence of events adds up to nothing more than one damn thing after another.”[14] The humanist inclination to refuse valuing some events as more important than others is one feeling in the image of multiple feelings, yet this is a structure of language and invokes military funded images. Do we call the novel potentially failed propaganda which relies on feeling, as most propaganda does, attacking it for dismissing other feelings like those in Auschwitz as some critics have?[15] Burnham and Hinchliffe state that “Differends are also strictly speaking insoluble. The aim is not to convert a differend into a litigation, but to recognise its happening and “disarm” the power relations which conspire to keep it hidden.”[16] In other words, the attention to politics may not be the novel’s style, it is another image which provokes by analogy rather than feeling as the Tralfamadorian way condescends:


Tralfamadorians find such attempts amusing because to them it is unthinkable that one should want or try to conquer time. To want to conquer time, then, is a failure of feeling, because while the human encounter with temporal openness provides the possibility of a differend, the desire to conquer time (by the production of universal phrase genres) nevertheless represses the differend along with the feeling that is a sign of its happening.[17]


To achieve a cognitive phrase genre to describe the acceptance of Dresden into contemporary consciousness Vonnegut could follow Jameson’s concept where the “crisis of historicity” has lost the referent of the past and construct a sense of history through pop-representations, ideals and stereotypes of the past.[18] But the popular representation of a contemporary World War II was death and appears even more directionless than the language which continues to ignore the inane voices locked by the differend. For following the metafictional reward path, he gets to say this: “All this happened, more or less” – whatever you feel is probably there.


Academia can only ever hope to establish referents and even then strictly in the form of language, it is about accessibility and commonality. It would do quite well to be the structure rather than the ontology of history, effective in exposing new differends for those who have no objective or no means to step outside the simulacrum. Slaughterhouse-Five is a purposeful dialogue between contexts of phrasing, cutting off each genre before the reader should believe they themselves have never spoken the same language. If postmodern novels are to ever believe that the heightened consciousness of failure should be a redundant sticker on their books then the assumptions by academics that individuals’ differend bear no fragments of the lost referent of the image must also be removed. A book sold by failure is one which wishes to pass on its structure of language, it is the very helplessness to patriarchal images which will undermine them as audiences respond with sublime evocations of multiple contexts that have constructed them. The academics are at once correct and constrained in that there are too many persons to for them all to be quoted but enunciate through a linear passage of history a universal phrase genre needing to write everything they read.



Burnham, Douglas and Hinchliffe, Darrell,  “Listen”: Toward the Differend in Slaughterhouse Five,, viewed 22/4/02


Jameson, Fredric, “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, New Left Review, 146, July/august 1984, 53-92


Hartshorne, Thomas L., “From Catch-22 To Slaughterhouse V: The Decline of the Political Mode,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 78, 1979, 17-33


Hutcheon, Linda, A Poetics of Postmodernism, Routledge, London, 1988


van Stralen, H., “Slaughter-house Five, existentialist themes elaborated in a postmodernism way”, Neophilologus, Kluwer Acadamic Publishers, Dordrecht, Jan 1995




[1] Hutcheon, 109

[2] quoted in Burnham and Hinchliffe

[3] Burnham and Hinchliffe

[4] ibid

[5] Brian McHale 1989, quoted in van Stralen, 205

[6] Streuver 1985, quoted in Hutcheon 115

[7] Brain McHale 1989, quoted in van Stralen 200

[8] quoted in Burnham and Hinchliffe

[9] Doctorow, 1983, quoted in Hutcheon, 112

[10] Hutcheon, 106

[11] van Stralen, 5

[12] Ian Watson, Chekhov’s Journey, 1983, quoted in Hutcheon, 111

[13] Hartshorne ,4

[14] ibid, 26

[15] ibid, 31

[16] Burnham and Hinchliffe

[17] ibid

[18] Jameson, 15


luffy (at)



Bob: When did you post this?

If recently (2010-2011) I would be interested in exchanging references and/or texts/links to Lyotard and PostModernism, articles on Camus, Anne Cauquelin on the Fragment (part summarised and translated for my own use...), Bann, Lassus...

I found your post covers a great deal of similar ground - I'm on a purely personal project.
(25.02.2012, 12:01)

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