Introduction: After Postmodernism
Hoberek, Andrew, Twentieth Century Literature
The essays in this issue of Twentieth-Century Literature propose new models for understanding contemporary fiction in the wake of postmodernism's waning influence. By now, as Jeremy Green notes, declarations of postmodernism's demise have become a critical commonplace (19-24). The intellectual historian Minsoo Kang provides a usefully succinct example, dating "the death knell of postmodernism in the US" on "June 18, 1993," the date that the John McTiernan-directed Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Action Hero brought "the standard [postmodern] devices of self-reference, ironic satire, and playing with multiple levels of reality" to the multiplex. "[I]n the US," Kang wryly notes, "there's no surer sign of an intellectual idea's final demise than its total appropriation by mass culture." In this formulation, postmodernism was done in by its own success. Postmodern writers had enjoyed a notorious and wild ride of radical challenge to institutionalized art and its generic categories in the 1970s and 1980s, but their ironic, skeptical, and knowing (yet celebratory) juxtapositions of high and low, and their rejection of objective (or political) reality as a significant object or limit for representation, no longer worked by the 1990s. Mass culture itself had appropriated the aesthetics of postmodernism, which--now playing monotonously on everyone's television and computer screens--turned out to be as reproducible as its creators had contemptuously said all previous art was.
At least that's one way to tell the story. But while there are good reasons, as the contributors to this issue show, for arguing that contemporary fiction is no longer adequately described as postmodern, this particular narrative of postmodernism's decline has three interrelated problems. First and perhaps most obviously, it perpetuates a hierarchical view of culture that confuses aesthetic questions about literary form with sociological ones about the constituencies for such form. This tendency to locate postmodernism's decline not in the waning of its forms but in their successful cultural diffusion points to a second problem with this narrative: its reproduction of the characteristically modernist investment--by and large carried over into high postmodernism--in difficult formal innovation as the defining characteristic of serious literature (Steiner 427-28). This is not to condemn formally challenging fiction in the name of some transparent realism, as Tom Wolfe, Dale Peck, and Jonathan Franzen have done, (1) but rather to criticize the elision of a certain modernist brand of self-conscious technical innovation with literary form in general. Wolfe, Peck, and Franzen ironically reproduce this elision in their own understanding of realism as opposed to, rather than a product of, authors' formal choices. Moreover, as I will suggest below, their polemics--while interesting as a symptom of postmodernism's waning influence--also participate in the inherently progressive and conflictual understanding of literary history that is the third problem with our story of postmodernism's decline. Although these authors champion a premodernist realism, that is, they evince a modernist understanding of literary change as grounded in periods of sweeping innovation that set aside their now-outmoded predecessors. While this model of literary history has been carried over into and codified in postmodernism, it in fact obscures the messy circumstances of postmodernism's own emergence and the parallels between this process and the contemporary state of fiction.
Kang, for instance, sees the current post-postmodern period of becalmed anticipation or "lull" as radically different from earlier periods of Western intellectual history characterized by intense conflict between dominant and emergent paradigms. But this assessment, while having some purchase in the field of cultural theory that spurs Kang's remarks, mischaracterizes the history of post--World War II American fiction. …