postmodern knitting and the circular narrative

Categories: craft

Knitting is such an entrenched, yet malleable metaphor, but for some reason I hadn’t expected to find it pressed into service in  Postmodern literary theory. In “Knitting and Knotting the Narrative Thread-Beloved as Postmodern Novel”, Rafael Perez-Torres considers the postmodernity of Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’, with its ‘circular narrative’ and ‘multiple time frames’.

I’ve got a few reservations about the use of knitting as a metaphor where multiple time frames and disparate narrative threads are concerned: knitting, usually, involved a single thread, methodically and continuously worked into a fabric. Traditional knitting frequently used several double pins, so that garments were knitted ‘of a piece’ – all in one, with no seams. Piecework knitting was a more recent development. Weaving, with its warp and weft, seems to me a more apt metaphor for this type of work.

Maureen Melnyk uses the knitted metaphor more appropriately in her discussion of Steven Connor’s ‘The Book of Skin’:

In accordance with the knitting metaphor that I here employ and that Connor uses to describe his attempt to explore the contours of each intrigue—itself deriving from the root tricoter, to knit or knot, according to the book’s etymological tracing (47)—in the thread that is the cultural history of skin, the first large section of the book (chapters one through five) attempts to unknot the various topological conceptions of the skin relating to its relative visibility.

Patchwork, quilting, the creation of a fabric out of pieces, is a related and, I think, even more appropriate metaphor for postmodern art forms. In Postmodern ‘piecing’: Alice Munro’s contingent ontologies, Mark Nunes writes:

Munro’s stories focus on the successful process of pieces becoming narrative, rather than on the contingent finished work. We can see the seams; we can see what’s holding the pieces together. Wittgenstein employs a similar image in On Certainty to describe the formulation of world-views and the construction of ontologies:

The child learns to believe a host of things…. Bit by bit there forms a system of what is believed, and in that system some things stand unshakably fast and some are more or less liable to shift.What stands fast does so, not because it is intrinsically obvious or convincing; it is rather held fast by what lies around it. (21)

Meanwhile anti-postmodernists use the metaphor to defend literalist interpretation of ancient manuscripts:

Postmodernist theory is much like postmodernist knitting. You begin to make a sock, but having turned the heel you continue with a neckband; then you add two (or three) arms of unequal length, and finish not by casting off but simply by removing the needles, so that the garment slowly unravels. Provided you don’t want to wear a postmodern garment, nothing could be more entertaining. But when the knitter tell us that garments don’t really exist anyway, we should probably suspend our belief in postmodernist theory, and get back to our socks.
– -’Reading the Old Testament: Method in Biblical Study’ , John Barton

… which I think demonstrates a wilful misunderstanding of form and function in modernism – a rather crafty little straw manikin, perhaps…