Renewing Black Intellectual History: The Ideological and Material Foundations of African American Thought

By Adolph Reed Jr.; Kenneth W. Warren et al. | Go to book overview

9
The Postmodern Moment
in Black Literary and
Cultural Studies

Madhu Dubey

It is difficult to write about late-twentieth-century U.S. culture without taking on the term postmodernism, which, without clear consensus about its meaning, circulates widely as a periodizing concept. Generally dated from the 1970s, postmodernism is believed to mark a decisive break from the modern era at the cultural, epistemic, and socioeconomic levels. In most theories of postmodernism, the modern period is identified with industrial capitalism, although its successor is variably characterized as a postindustrial society or a new stage of capitalism. No account of which I am aware makes a convincing case for seeing the postmodern as a socioeconomic order radically discontinuous from the modern, although certain significant changes—such as greater global integration of capital or the spread of advanced information technologies—have undoubtedly occurred. At the cultural and epistemic levels, the novel elements associated with postmodernism, such as philosophical and aesthetic antirealism, heightened consciousness about representation, refusal of totality and closure, or fragmented and unstable subjectivity, have been persuasively shown to have modernist antecedents.1

Regardless of whether the term postmodernism has any decidable referent, it has become a cultural fact, given that artists and intellectuals across a broad spectrum in the United States believe in the reality of a decisive shift that has thrown the category of the modern into crisis. Trying to account for this sense of crisis in the field of African American literary and cultural studies is one of my main intentions in this chapter. But I also use postmodernism in a stronger sense—as a content-laden term—to refer to a cluster of socioeconomic developments that have occurred since the 1970s and are

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