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John McGowan

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The term "postmodernism" was first used in reference to architecture as early as 1947

The term "postmodernism" was first used in reference to architecture as early as 1947, spurring a fruitful debate among architects that has not disappeared (Jencks). Literary critics, most notably Harry Levin, Irving Howe, Leslie Fiedler, Frank Kermode, and Ihab Hassan, began to use the term in the 1960s to distinguish the post-World War II experimental fiction of Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, and others from the classics of high modernism. From the start, postmodernism spurred skepticism (had not James Joyce, Franz Kafka, and the various avant-gardes already performed all the tricks now called postmodern?) and antagonistic evaluation. The Old Left (Howe) and the critical establishment (Levin) deplored the new writers' lack of high seriousness; their apparent contempt for the well-made, unified literary work; and their addiction to popular culture. The linchpin of modernism, according to critics of the 1950s and 1960s, was art's autonomy from the sordid daily concerns of a bourgeois, commercial culture. The artist (almost always male in this modernist vision of heroic alienation) exiled himself from ordinary life to create a useless, disinterested art object. This art was potentially revolutionary in the purity of its contempt for the given and in its creation of alternative worlds ex nihilo. Only the distance afforded by exile and autonomy maintained art's critical and oppositional edge. Postmodern art seemed to capitulate to the dominant culture, which was itself now designated postindustrial or postmodern by various writers. Thus, discussions of postmodernism considered not only changes in artistic style but also the extent to which society itself had changed and the fact that the contemporary artwork's relation to politics was problematic in new ways.

Fiedler's slogan "Cross the border, close the gap" (17) exemplified the determination of postmodernism's champions to pull art back into the maelstrom of daily life. Literary criticism, as well as its new colleague literary theory, began to explore the complex relations between the artwork and its social contexts. Generally speaking, the formal analysis of the artwork in isolation yielded to an exploration of the social determinants of the work and to the ideological impact the work had on its audience. (This shift took some twenty years, with 1965-85 the key period of transition.) The postmodernists argue that the belief that intellectuals and artists can enjoy an autonomy from capitalism is both illusionary and sterile artistically and politically: illusionary because the very materials of their work (language, images) come from the culture and because, even more radically, the individual creator is permeated with, even constituted by, that culture; sterile because the purity of the alienated artist forecloses access to the energies and disputes that are lived in the culture while also severing any connection to an audience beyond the artistic elite. The modernist artist is left high and dry.

A cultural politics accompanied this shift in critical paradigms. Against the traditional Marxist emphasis on economic issues and the liberal concern with legally guaranteed equality, the New Left and the liberation movements it inspired (feminism, gay and lesbian activism, post-Civil Rights racial politics) insisted that cultural practices--common linguistic usage, media images, educational curricula and techniques, for example--were crucial sites of oppression and of potentially transformative struggle. The playful and anarchistic "street theater" of May 1968 in Paris and of the Yippies in America was linked to similar antics (parody, hyperbole, disruptive narrative techniques) in postmodern novelists. The exuberant valuing of heterogeneity over unity in 1960s radicalism foreshadowed postmodern theory's later concern with "difference." The new art and the new politics ignored the old distinction between high and low art. (The universal love of rock music by the young contributed greatly to this embrace of the popular.) Postmodern art aspired to use the affective power of images much as popular culture does. And this postmodern populism opened the door to heterogeneous voices, mixed genres, and other breaches of decorum.

The rise of literary theory, particularly of theory inspired by Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, and Michel Foucault, brought postmodernism from the streets and from the novel into the academy. At first, these French theorists were not associated with postmodernism, but the publication of Jean-François Lyotard's Postmodern Condition (1979) made the two nearly synonymous. (The accuracy of this labeling is still a matter of dispute.) Lyotard emphasizes the antifoundational and antiholistic aspects of French theory, as well as its hostility to eternal, metaphysical truths or realities and to grand narratives (theories that provide totalizing explanations). "I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives," Lyotard writes (xxiv). He proposes a postmodern world in which decisions are made on the basis of local conditions and are applicable only in that limited context. Individuals participate in a multitude of such localities and the lessons, beliefs, and practices of one site are not transferable to any other. Lyotard celebrates this multiplicity of "language games" (xxiv) and offers ceaseless experimentation in all these games as the highest good.

Jürgen Habermas and Fredric Jameson led the counterattack against Lyotard's celebration of postmodernism in ways reminiscent of Levin's and Howe's earlier worries. Habermas insists that a complete immersion in the local gives us no way to judge it and is thus doomed to accommodation with the given. (He offers "the model of unconstrained consensus formation in a communication community" [295] as the normative criterion for such judging.) Jameson similarly laments a lack of distance between postmodern art and theory and the late capitalist society that generates it. While Habermas believes we must retain modernity's (the Enlightenment's) dream of emancipation through reason, Jameson argues that we need an art capable of representing the complex realities of a global economic order that exploits the vast majority. The debate here focuses on the political consequences of French theory, whether it actually disrupts Western society by advocating local, varied, heterogeneous "difference" against the unifying, identity-obsessed practices of the massive states and bureaucracies that characterize the contemporary West. What the French writers and their leftist critics (Edward W. Said and Terry Eagleton, as well as Jameson and Habermas) share in common is a conviction that language, images, and other cultural phenomena are as central, if not more central, to the production and maintenance of contemporary social order as economic or political processes. The French sociologist Jean Baudrillard has argued that we enter a postmodern world once it is the production of images and information, not the production of material goods, that determines who holds power. This "linguistic turn" in social and literary theory explains the centrality of art to all current versions of an oppositional politics. But the leftist critics of French theory almost always accuse it of having no model of political action beyond anarchistic linguistic play, and their work continues to struggle with the Brechtian question how to move from art to collective action.

Given this contested relation of postmodern (French) theory to politics, relations between feminism and postmodernism have been wary. The male theorists have paid little explicit attention to the issues raised by feminist theory. Many feminists have been impatient with the abstruse philosophical arguments surrounding epistemological foundations and have concentrated instead on more historically informed studies of the social conditions and biases of particular knowledge claims. Yet such work ultimately derives from French theory, as does feminism's appropriation of Derrida's account of Western thought's hostility to and fascination with the other, Foucault's work on the social constitution and discipline of sexual identity, and Lacan's account of female sexuality. However, feminists, like members of the Left, usually want to preserve some kind of distance from the dominant culture, a distance that French theory often denies is achievable.

Discussion during the 1980s of postmodernism in the arts focused on issues of style and of periodization. Critics such as Ihab Hassan, Hal Foster, Charles Jencks, Linda Hutcheon, and Brian McHale attempt to describe the stylistic hallmarks of postmodernism. Artists and critics influenced by Baudrillard show a concern with the images in circulation in the culture and their recoding, reuse, and recycling in art. Unlike the heroic modernist, who created works out of pure imagination, the postmodern artist works with cultural givens, trying to manipulate them in various ways (parody, pastiche, collage, juxtaposition) for various ends. The ultimate aim is to appropriate these materials in such a way as to avoid being utterly dominated by them. The photographer Sherrie Levine's "appropriations" exemplify this art most vividly, but these terms have also proved useful in criticism of such novelists as Salman Rushdie, Gabriel García Márquez, Kathy Acker, and Angela Carter.

Jameson and David Harvey try to link these stylistic features of contemporary art to a more general account of the current social order, adopting a fairly traditional Marxist notion that art reflects the material realities of the day. But as Jameson acknowledges and as Andreas Huyssen's work makes dramatically clear, the widespread use of the term "postmodern" has led to a crisis in the whole notion of historical and artistic periods. Every distinguishing feature of postmodernism can be located in an era prior to our own. Periodization begins to seem a rhetorical creation, a way of constructing a historical "other" that allows us to define a desirable present by contrasting it to a past (or to denigrate the present for being inferior to a past). Within such a view, what is distinctive about postmodernism is not something new but our attention to and interest in features of the past that until recently were most often ignored. Postmodernism, then, is just part of the very complex rereading of history taking place in the current climate of a critical questioning of the Western tradition. Paradoxically, most of the materials for a radical questioning can be found in the tradition itself if we look in different places (noncanonical works) or with new eyes at familiar places. But there is also a concomitant interest in non-Western voices that offer different perspectives on the West's image of itself and its past.

In sum, postmodernism is best understood as marking the site of several related, but not identical, debates among intellectuals in the last four decades of the twentieth century. These debates revolve around the relation of artworks to social context, the relation of art and of theory to political action and to the dominant social order, the relation of cultural practices to the transformation or maintenance of society in all its aspects, the relation of the collapse of traditional philosophical foundations to the possibility of critical distance from and effective critique of the status quo, the relation of an image-dominated consumer society to artistic practice, and the future of a Western tradition that now appears more heterogeneous than previously thought even while it appears insufficiently tolerant of (open to) multiplicity. At the very least, postmodernism highlights the multiplication of voices, questions, and conflicts that has shattered what once seemed to be (although it never really was) the placid unanimity of the great tradition and of the West that gloried in it. --John McGowan, Copyright © 1997 The Johns Hopkins University Press. http://www.press.jhu.edu/books/hopkins_guide_to_literary_theory/postmodernism.html [Jun 2004]

Notes and Bibliography Jean Baudrillard, Simulacres et simulation (1980, Simulacra and Simulations, trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman, 1983); Leslie A. Fiedler, What Was Literature? Class Culture and Mass Society (1982); Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (1983), Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics (1985); Jürgen Habermas, Der Philosophische Diskurs der Moderne (1985, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick G. Lawrence, 1987); David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Inquiry Into the Origins of Cultural Change (1989); Ihab Hassan, The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture (1987); Susan J. Hekman, Gender and Knowledge: Elements of a Postmodern Feminism (1990); Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (1988), The Politics of Postmodernism (1989); Andreas Huyssen, After The Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (1986); Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991); Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977, 4th ed., 1984); Jean-François Lyotard, La Condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir (1979, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, 1984); John McGowan, Postmodernism and Its Critics (1991); Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (1987); Linda J. Nicholson, ed., Feminism/Postmodernism (1990); Christopher Norris, What's Wrong with Postmodernism? Critical Theory and the Ends of Philosophy (1990).--Copyright © 1997 The Johns Hopkins University Press. http://www.press.jhu.edu/books/hopkins_guide_to_literary_theory/postmodernism.html [Jun 2004]

Postmodernism and Its Critics (1991) - John McGowan

Postmodernism and Its Critics (1991) - John McGowan [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

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