Beginning with Postmodernism

By Kelly, Adam | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall-Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Beginning with Postmodernism

Kelly, Adam, Twentieth Century Literature

In the epilogue to the 2002 reprint of her influential study The Politics of Postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon remarks that "the postmodern may well be a twentieth-century phenomenon, that is, a thing of the past. Now fully institutionalized, it has its canonized texts, its anthologies, primers and readers, its dictionaries and its histories" (165). Hutcheon's claim about the pastness of postmodernism has gained support in the years since she made it, as a body of criticism has emerged which takes a determinedly revisionist and historicist perspective on many of the canonical postmodernist texts to which she alludes. Novels such as Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Don DeLillo's White Noise (1985), now monuments in the American postmodern landscape, have produced a spate of recent readings in this vein. Aspects of these texts that can seem peripheral on a first reading--such as the role of Mexico in Pynchon's novel, or the impact of the Vietnamese and Iranian conflicts in DeLillo's--have been alighted upon as offering an underappreciated historical situatedness to the poetics of postmodernism. (1) In addition, the previously submerged role played by various institutions and class interests in the historical formation of postmodernist styles and forms has become the focus of important interventions in the field. (2) Much of this critical work retains the analytic and taxonomic category of the postmodern, even as the accepted dominance in the texts being read of traditionally postmodern themes and aesthetics is often questioned (whether from a descriptive or political viewpoint). (3) In other work, "postmodernism" itself is undermined as a useful critical designation, in favor of terms such as "long modernism" or "technomodernism." (4) In her short essay "On the Period Formerly Known as Contemporary," something of a manifesto for the recently-formed Post-45 group of literary critics who are carrying out much of the work cited above, Amy Hungerford remarks on "the solid dominance of historicism" that informs contemporary critical practice, a dominance that "now scents less a critical movement than a simple assumption about literary-critical work," best figured as "not a wave but a tide, or even just the water we all swim in" (416). And it seems that what we can term the new postmodernist studies has been firmly constituted by this historicist turn, which reacts against the "disabling commitment to theory" that marked the work of scholars of a previous generation. (5)

At the same time as this revisionist work on postmodernism has begun to emerge, another prominent critical trend has seen a burgeoning interest in the fiction of a younger generation of American literary writers, those who are taken to follow "in the wake of postmodernism's waning influence" (Hoberek, "Introduction" 233). Whether, in classifying the fiction that began to sui face in the late 1980s and 1990s and has continued into the new millennium, critics favor "hybrid fiction" (Grassian), "American literary globalism" (Adams), "cosmodernism" (Moraru), "late postmodernism" (Green) or "post-postmodernism" (Burn), it is clear that the narrative of "postmodernism, then" is already under construction in the critical stories told about recent American literature. In this scholarship there is understandably little questioning of the validity of postmodernism as a useful historical and aesthetic category: the story being told requires, in the main, that there be a relatively clear postmodern model in fiction which later writers can internalize and react to. Depending on which younger writers each critic is most concerned with, the canon of their postmodern forerunners will shift slightly, but only within certain bounds. The primary interest is in identifying the predominant styles and concerns of the new generation, in naming what it is these new writers are doing in their fiction, and in articulating how they build upon and depart from their canonical postmodern forebears. …

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