The Popularity of Postmodernism

By Chute, Hillary | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall-Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

The Popularity of Postmodernism


Chute, Hillary, Twentieth Century Literature


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. …

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