Introduction: Postmodernism, Then

By Gladstone, Jason; Worden, Daniel | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall-Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Postmodernism, Then


Gladstone, Jason, Worden, Daniel, Twentieth Century Literature


From our contemporary vantage point, a case can certainly be made for the predictive or, perhaps, programmatic power of David Foster Wallace's 1993 essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction." In this essay, Wallace posits a shift away from the postmodern irony of authors such as Don DeLillo, Mark Leyner, and Thomas Pynchon and towards a literature of sincerity that would be pioneered by a younger generation of writers raised with television. (1) And, indeed, in contemporary US literary culture, one can locate a shift away from "ironic watching" and towards the embrace of "single-entendre principles" almost everywhere: McSweeney's Quarterly Concern's emo-sincerity the ethnic bildungsroman's emphasis on multicultural identity as upward mobility, Jonathan Franzen's social realism, n+1's enthusiastic recuperation of "high" cultural critique, novelists such as Michael Chabon's heartfelt embrace of genre fiction, and the memoir's ascension of best-seller lists, to name a few (Wallace 81). At the same time, alongside this concerted, professional abandonment of postmodernism's signature affective stance in recent North American literary enterprises, postmodernism has begun to drop out of academic discourse as well. While at least since 9/11 critics have been routinely declaring that postmodernism is, now, over, in the last five years an increasing number of critics have also begun to question whether postmodernism was ever a significant aspect of postwar American literary culture. It is these contemporary abandonments of postmodernism that provide the occasion for this special issue of Twentieth-Century Literature: the position papers and essays that compose Postmodernism, Then take the partial if not total eclipse of postmodernism in both contemporary American literature and literary criticism as the condition of possibility for returning to the category of the postmodern. In so doing, this special issue explores how postmodernism means, when it can be thought of as not only the present but also the recent past, not only a synonym for the postwar condition but also an instituted critical fiction, not only what conies after the close of high modernism but also as a strain of modernism, not only a unifying category that contains all late twentieth-century literature but also one aesthetic among many.

As Andrew Hoberek notes in his introduction to the After Postmodernism special issue of Twentieth-Century Literature, declarations of the decline of postmodernism have become enough of a critical commonplace that it has now become something of a critical commonplace to even cite this fact (233-34). And, as Brian McHale elucidates in "1966 Nervous Breakdown; or, When did Postmodernism Begin?," declarations and interrogations of the actual start-date of postmodernism have become equally commonplace (391-93). Of course, the expression of uncertainty about the beginning or end of postmodernity has been a standard feature of periodizing accounts of postmodernism at least since David Harvey prefaced his foundational The Condition of Postmodernity by asserting that "it does not matter whether postmodernism is or is riot on the way out" (ix). Indeed, as Bill Brown suggests in "The Dark Wood of Postmodernity (Space, Faith, Allegory)," this recursive process of relocating the periodizing breaks that define postmodernity can, itself, be understood as part of the logic of postmodernism (734-35). (2) And, accordingly, the infinite revisability of postmodernism as a periodizing concept can then be understood as an iteration of the malleability of a postmodernist aesthetic--an aesthetic that underwrites those studies that Ursula Heise describes as ones in which "certain sets of postmodern theories and philosophical perspectives (usually, but not always, influenced by one of several strains of French poststructuralism) ... are brought to bear on texts and artworks not necessarily associated with [the post-1960] period" (966). From this perspective, the contemporary eclipse of postmodernism might, then, register as its ultimate triumph, as methods of reading or aesthetics once thought to be specifically tied to the postmodern era are now disseminated as reading practices in many, even all, historical periods, and as standard reference points for contemporary art and literature.

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