The commonplaces about postmodernism are themselves burdensome commonplaces. They evacuate nuance and historical understanding, and to notice their performance in spheres both popular and academic is to cringe. (The "there is no truth" line is a prime example; other examples include the equation of "postmodernism" with intensive "irony," as if irony didn't exist until the twentieth-century. Then there is the converse, which is the casual, unelaborated bashing of terms like "humanism"--or even "totality"--seen to be postmodernism's opposite.) (1) If postmodernism's urgency as a category of analysis--as a condition (Jameson), or as a poetics (Hutcheon)--no longer carries the same relevance it did even ten years ago, then specificity, a modicum of precision, is yet enormously important, even if describing, as Bill Brown points out, a cultural logic "that evacuates or eradicates essence" (736). Looking through PMLA which is, after all, the official organ of our field--I discovered only three essays published with the words "postmodernism," "postmodernity," or "postmodern" in their titles since the turn of the twenty-first century: two in 2005, one in 2007. The shift this thinness represents (compared to seven essays overall in the period from 1989-1999) is typical of a shift away from postmodernism as appellation, its apparatus as nomenclature. This is a shift I can also track in my own work, which is about a subject many take as transparently "postmodern"--comics. (The form of comics is, broadly speaking, obviously relevant to postmodernism in that it is, unlike, say, the novel, itself an approximately twentieth-century form, and an inherently self-reflexive one that mixes high and mass modes.) (2) Yet if "postmodernism" dropped out of my primary critical vocabulary, central concepts and hermeneutics it sponsors or opens up, especially for exploring contemporary forms like comics, remain indispensable. What remains after anxieties about and even interest in taxonomy shed themselves? What is not exhausted even if we are not heralding it as "postmodernism" anymore?
I was keenly interested in postmodernism in graduate school. I began graduate study in 1999, year of the millennial panic and The Matrix; one year before the traumatizing 2000 national election and two years before 9/11. All of my favorite courses had "postmodernism" in their titles. There was--from three different professors--"The 60s and Postmodernism," "Postmodern/Postsecular," and "Postmodern Theater and Performance." These courses shaped my thinking profoundly (then and to this day). In my Twentieth-Century Interest Group, of which I was the nominal organizer, we read and debated College English's "Twentieth-Century Literature in the New Century" (2001)--a special issue explicitly motivated by the matter of the usefulness of and connections between the categories "modern" and "postmodern." (3) When Orals came around, my methodology list, on feminist theory, had a subsection on "Postmodern Locations" that included works such as "Postmodern Blackness" (bell hooks), "Feminism and Postmodernism: In Lieu of an Ending" (Susan Suleiman), "The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism" (Craig Owens), books like Doing lime: Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture (Rita Felski), and critical volumes such as Feminism/Postmodernism (ed. Linda Nicholson), which operated like a bible for me. My dissertation was heavily engaged with postmodernism, manifest in deep critical engagements with Linda Hutcheon and Fredric Jameson, among other famous articulators of postmodernism. It was about innovative narrative forms whose subject is history--specifically, it is about the possibilities of the medium of comics in this area and I remember thinking, ashamedly, to myself about Hutcheon's A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (1988), that I wished my dissertation could simply argue that contemporary comics are "historiographic metafiction," Hutcheon's compelling assessment of what constitutes the poetics of postmodernism. (Why hadn't she included a text like Art Spiegelman's Maus along with her analyses of J. M. Coetzee's Foe and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, I wondered with honest surprise). (4) My adviser, with consummate politeness, told me I was being too "dutiful." I struggled to reduce the number of footnotes referring to A Poetics of Postmodernism.
But when my first book came out, four years later, the word "postmodern" appears in an actual sentence of mine only once. (Discussing a Lynda Barry book, I noted it is "a print reproduction of an artists' book, a specifically populist, postmodernist rendering of that form" (Graphic Women 112). It appears once further, in a quotation, and only twice, briefly, in the footnotes of the 297-page study) And I wasn't even trying to avoid it. Its elision had been seamless. What happened? I never thought in a million years I would write a book based on my dissertation that has no index entry for "postmodernism" and does have one for "fellatio."
It's not only that I became a better critic in the four years. The twenty-first-century shift in my lexicon is not atypical. As an identifying, naming category, designating loosely grouped aesthetic and cultural movements, enabled by "late capitalism" (if you will), postmodernism has lost its critical urgency. (5) And to enumerate how something is postmodern or postmodernist, as I had the urge to do, is no longer possible as a relevant critical insight. (Realizing this is like the moment a professor tells you that concluding a text is "subversive" can never be your takeaway It can maybe be in your first paragraph.) It could be the first step, or an implicit aspect of an argument, as it wound up being in my Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. However, this reduction in taxonomic urgencies signals the success of postmodernism (as a logic, ethic, movement). Postmodernism has expanded the range of objects of analysis, and the way we talk about them, so successfully that it has enacted its own critical disappearance. But is what I study not postmodernism? No. I'll point out briefly how postmodernism has shaped what I study and how I study it--profoundly.
Comics and postmodernism
Largely, my scholarship has explored the medium of comics, a narrative word-and-image form that often identifies itself as modernist, but which is, rather--at least in its contemporary flourishing, an expansion and creation of new literary spaces--deeply enabled by postmodernism. (Stylistically, it is my view that literary modernism and postmodernism are very similar.) In cartoonist Art Spiegelman's "Afterword" to his Breakdowns, a 1978 small-press anthology republished by Pantheon in 2008, Spiegelman writes, referring to composing the work collected in the book during the era of the comics undeiground: "He was on fire, alienated and ignored, but arrogantly certain that his book would be a central artifact in the history of Modernism" (n. pag). (6) Comics, however anachronistically, had its high modernist phase in the 1960s and '70s--the era of R. Crumb's "Abstract Expressionist Ultra Super Modernistic Comix" (1968) and Spiegelman's densely anti-narrative Breakdowns pieces. "It did feel like this must have been what the cubists were going through," Spiegelman remarks. "All the magic of being in Paris for the post-Impressionist moment did feel somehow like being in San Francisco in the early 1970s" ((qtd. in Rosenkranz 4). Stylistically and formally, comics were modernist.
Underground comics were sell-consciously, explicitly "avant-garde" in their approach to narrative possibility, pushing on temporal and spatial constraints of comics form. In the underground, the form was refigured as experimental, in the sense of deliberately and productively obstructing "normal reading." But even during this reshaping as avant-garde (from the realm of the putatively childish) comics self-consciously aimed to address itself to the largest possible number of readers; it nevertheless recognized itself as a mass media form, and in this way itself furthered and helped to define the "egalitarian mixing" that is now such a recognizable feature of aesthetic and cultural postmodernism (DeKoven 17). Cartoonist Justin Green, the creator of what is widely considered the first autobiographical comic, the 44-page Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, which directly laid the groundwork for today's serious book-length work, comments, "[We] all held to the ideal of reaching a common audience while reinventing the formal boundaries that defined the medium. Like any utopian experiment, ideals were challenged and rewritten in the face of the daily grind" (Rosenkranz 4, italics mine). Not coincidentally, Binky was published in 1972, a year that many attach to the beginning of postmodernism. (7)
Green's statement highlights the features I argue define the propensities of the comics medium in, actually, all of its various generic twentieth-century manifestations (as early newspaper comic strips, mid-century comic books, '60s-era "comix," and graphic novels, whose rise from the '70s onward is confluent with historical postmodernism): an awareness and appreciation of comics as a reproducible mass medium, combined with an oppositional, political, rigorous attention to form and experimentation. This productive contradiction is, for me, the defining feature of comics. And it is one that postmodernism's critical ethic makes intelligible. This tension existed before historical postmodernism (whether one dates a beginning to the late '50s, '60s, or early '70s), but postmodernism's lexicon helps articulate it. Further, the context of postmodernism allowed comics to flourish, and vice versa, directly shaping today's expanded field of "the literary" Indeed, that Justice Antonin Scalia, in his majority opinion in the June 27,2011 decision on violence and video games, identified their "literary devices" and even referred to video games as a "medium" is a sign of the democratic expanding of categories within the fold of the literary. Today this contradiction has generated a reorientation toward new modalities and forms of the popular accomplished (slowly, and over time) by the logic and poetics of postmodernism. Without this, we would not have the late twentieth- and twenty-first-century comics field that is thriving, happily and conspicuously, in all sorts of differently marked spaces, elite and popular and in between. (It is worth noting, though, how anxiety about "high/low" dichotomies still endures apart from the modernism-postmodernism axis. For instance, my PA/ILA essay "Comics as Literature?" was accused of re-inscribing a high/low divide within comics studies because it analyzed single-author, non-genre comics texts. Rifts, especially methodological ones, can persist within subject areas that themselves have become widely accepted.) (8)
To this reader, there is little formal difference, as will have been dear by now, between the stylistic features of modernism and postmodernism. The key difference, and this is not something to take lightly, is in the refiguration of the "popular," a heterogeneity of aesthetic and cultural practices, what Marianne DeKoven identifies in Utopia Limited as the "free mixing of previously distinct modes of cultural practice and form," in which "popular culture, vehicle and expression of postmodern egalitarianism, is no longer meaningfully distinct from either high culture or from consumer culture" (17). Comics may have features of high visual and literary modernism, yet the crucial difference with comics is that it resides in the field of the popular. (9) As such, deeply experimental comics--even ones that name themselves "avant-garde"--are less truly "avant-garde" than they are "postmodern."
Comics is, further, a literary location in which we notice the critical importance of postmodernism's emphasis on space. 10 Comics is often said to be a form that "turns time into space." Its grammar is composed of panels, drawn, that are meant to represent punctual moments--or, "boxes of time," as Spiegelman puts it--that exist in meaningful spatial relationship to one another. Comics spatializes narrative on the page, juxtaposing panels with the white space of the gutter. It is a site-specific form: unlike, say, Ulysses, which can be set in various typefaces and trim sizes, comics cannot be "re-flowed." (11) Comics traffics heavily--mainly--in what I think of as architected space; its pages are built. (And Spiegelman reminds us that his favorite definition of "story" is from the Medieval Latin "historia": a "row of windows with pictures on them.") In David Mazzuc-chelli's acclaimed 2009 graphic novel Asterios Polyp--which the Times, incidentally, hailed as a work of modernism--the joke of the novel is that the protagonist is a "paper architect," a term that refers to architects who only create works on paper--which is to say, it is a highly self-reflexive book about a cartoonist.
The few important articles that have been published in our field the past few years on the broad subject of postmodernism remind us that architecture is one of the key objects--and instantiations--of postmodernism (say, for example, Brown's "Dark Wood of Postmodernity"). Postmodernism has given us--in part through critical attention to architecture, directional orientation, and subjectivity--an emphatic awareness of space as a perceptual modality. Comics, then, in the realm of the literary, places the reader within the space of a narrative, amplifying postmodernism's concern with location, boundaries, depth, and mapping. It returns us, in the arena of literature, to a site of cultural production invested in textuality and print that yet is premised on the spatial--in its construction and in the act of meaning-making on the part of the looker and viewer. If Joseph Frank called attention to spatial form in modern literature in his classic 1945 essay of the same name, he was, in W.J.T. Mitchell's words, actually calling attention to a general experience of reading literature, in any time period. (12) But comics intensifies and makes conspicuously necessary the spatial experience of literature; it is a form that is itself a procedure of mapping (mapping time into space; providing orthogonal views). Comics's narrative typology is a spatial architectonics. It keeps a focus on architecture and cognition, but it is invested, on a fundamental narrative level, in architecture of the page.
I may not have had "postmodernism" in my book index, but I did have multiple entries for "cognitive mapping"--a term associated with Jameson (who derives it from Kevin Lynch's The Image of the City) The importance of a focus on mapping generally has made possible the flourishing of a theoretical glossary--however in flux--for comics. (13) might also add that Jameson's focus on the cognitive in 1991 was prescient, as the domain of the cognitive is practically along with studies of affect, the emergent or even now dominantly fashionable analytic in our field.) Without the sophisticated focus on space, evinced in the enduring power of terms such as "cognitive mapping" and the entry into architecture proposed to students of literature by postmodernism, the critical language for comics wouldn't have had the chance to aerate the way it has; to find proportionate and analogical possible critical and theoretical vocabularies. The language of space and architecture conies from cartoonists themselves; it is not inherited from postmodernism's critical lexicon. (When Todd Gitlin praised Maus as "trenchant postmodernism" in a 1988 essay in the New York Times, Spiegelman told interviewer Andrea Juno he was flattered but did not know what postmodernism was.) Yet I want to suggest here that comics have helped postmodernism to expand the range of its object of inquiry and that the context of postmodernism has allowed comics culture, particularly as it expands the rubric of "literature," to flourish (could I be a professor of English who studies comics otherwise?).
I was searching recently through 2010s Critical Terms for Media Studies--a collection that we can consider the fruition, in a sense, of postmodernism. "Postmodernism" appears very few times in the book--the index entry for the term has only a handful of references. Unsurprisingly, there is no chapter heading for "Postmodernism" (as there was earlier for the same series' Critical Terms for Art History), but there is one for "Time and Space," which perhaps stands in for such. With its entries for "Biomedia," "Cybernetics," "New Media," "Hardware/Software/Wetware," "Net-works," and "Systems," among others, this book could not have existed without postmodernism. That the discourse has outgrown its name is a sign of its efficacy.
Brown, Bill. "The Dark Wood of Postmodernity (Space, Faith, Allegory)." PMLA 120.3 (2005): 734-50.
Chute, Hillary. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. New York: Columbia UP, 2010.
College English. "Twentieth-Century Literature: A Symposium." Ed. Andrew Hoberek, et al. National Council of Teachers of English 64.1 (2001). 9-33.
Crumb, R. "Abstract Expressionist Ultra Super Modernistic Comix." Apex Novelties: San Francisco, Zap #1, 1968.
DeKoven, Marianne. Utopia Limited: The Sixties and the Emergence of the Postmodern. Durham: Duke UP, 2004.
Drucker, Johanna. "Visual Performance of the Poetic Text." Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word. Ed. Charles Bernstein. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998: 131-61
Felksi, Rita. Doing Time: Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture, 2000.
Gitlin, Todd. "Hip Deep in Postmodernism." New York Times 6 Nov 1988. 1 July 2011.
Green, Justin. Bulky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary. San Francisco: Last Gasp, 1972.
Hansen, Mark B. N., and W.J.T. Mitchell, eds. Critical Terms for Media Studies. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010.
hooks, bell. "Postmodern Blackness." Postmodern Culture 1.1 (1990). 1 March 2012.
Hutcheon, Linda. "Literature Meets History: Counter-Discursive 'Comix,'" Anglia 117 (1999): 5-14.
--. The Poetics of Postmodernism: History Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.
--. "Postmodern Provocation: History and Graphic' Literature." La Torre 4-5 (1997) 299-308.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.
--. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.
Liptak, Adam. "Justices Reject Ban on Violent Video Games for Children." New York Times 27 June 2010. 1 July 2011.
Mazzucchelli, David. Asterios Polyp. New York: Pantheon, 2009.
McCloud, Scott. "Scott McCloud." Interview by Hillary Chute. Believer April, 2007.4 May 2012.
McHale, Brian. "1966 Nervous Breakdown, or, When Did Postmodernism Begin?" Modern Language Quarterly 69.3 (2008): 391-413.
Mitchell, W.J.T. Excerpt from "Spatial Form in Literature: A General Theory." Critical Inquiry 6.3 (1980). July 1 2011.
Nicholson, Linda, ed. Feminism/Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Owens, Craig. "The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism." The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983. 57-82.
Rosenkranz, Patrick. Rebel Visions: the Underground Comix Revolution, 1963-1975. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2002.
Saunders, Ben, and Hillary Chute. "Diyisions in Comics Scholarship." Forum. PMLA 124.1 (2009): 292-95.
Spiegelman, Art. Breakdowns/Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!. New York: Pantheon, 2008.
Suleiman, Susan. "Feminism and Postmodernism: In Lieu of an Ending." Subversive Intent: Gender Politics and the Avant-Garde (1990). 181-206.
Zizek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert (lithe Real. London: Verso, 2003.
(1.) Of course, Fredric Jameson--one of the primary explicators of postmodernism--defends "totality" as a concept. See The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, in addition to Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, among other of his texts.
(2.) In this way, if not formally, comics shares a certain positionality with film; both developed as narrative forms around the turn of the nineteenth century and ascended as mass media in the twentieth century.
(3.) That this issue is dated September 2001, but thus was surely composed previously, is particularly interesting; would the issue look different a half a year later? Some, such as Slavoj Zizek, have suggested that 9/11 was in some way an ending for postmodernism (see Desert).
(4.) Later, Hutcheon did write about comics--specifically, Art Spiegelman's Mans--in "Postmodern Provocation: History and 'Graphic' Literature," La Torre 4-5 (1997), which was published in a somewhat different form as "Literature Meets History: Counter-Discursive 'Comix,'" in Anglia 117 (1999).
(5.) Further, even as I worked on my dissertation in the earlyish years of the twenty-First century the question of how to frame postmodernism had already shifted away from its location in the previous decade's burning debates (perhaps exemplified by the Alan Sokal/Social Text affair of 1996). As Marianne DeKoven, writing in 2004 in her important study utopia Limited: The Sixties and the Emergence or the Postmodern, puts it, "I prefer to synthesize the useful elements ... in order to produce a comprehensive, syncretic understanding of the postmodern phenomenon rather than enter into the postmodernism debates that are, moreover, no longer critically urgent, having peaked a decade ago" (10, italics mine).
(6.) During the movement many called the "underground comix revolution," mainstream publication and distribution outlets were shunned in favor of self-publishing, collectives, and the left-wing press.
(7.) McHale surveys different attempts to fix the beginning of postmodernism in his "1966 Nervous Breakdown: or, When Did Postmodernism Begin?," one of very few recent articles of note addressing postmodernism as such. He details the cases made for 1972, and 1973, focusing on architecture, literature, and music, before arguing for 1966. DeKoven, as McHale notes, offers the "responsible" account of the emergence of postmodernism in the "long sixties," 1957-1973 (39-1).
(8.) See Saunders and Chute.
(9.) The bond between material form and visual performativity enacted on the page, for instance, is evident in English Vorticism, Anglo-American modernism, Futurism, and Dada, and, today, to name just one location, in contemporary language poetry See Drucker.
(10.) As Brown and others point out, space was also a focus in modernism, but I agree with Susan Stanford Friedman's sense that the dominant rhetoric of modernism may be temporal, while the dominant rhetoric of postmodernism, riveted to boundary crossings and the like, is spatial.
(11.) For more on 44 re-flow" see McCloud.
(12.) "The burden of proof. ... is not on Frank to show that some works have spatial form but on his critics to provide an example of any form that does not" (Mitchell, from "Spatial Form in Literature").
(13.) "Cognitive mapping" as a productive rubric feels so basic to my thinking that I was shocked to hear it described as a "canonical" concept at a conference recently, as if it's a stodgy mainstay.…