Literary criticism in the 21st century : theory renaissance - Vincent B. Leitch 2014
I’ve been surprised to see a spate of books and articles on postmodernism published in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Following its highpoint in the 1990s, marked by the publication of Fredric Jameson’s landmark book, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), interest in this topic has gradually waned only to come back now. It’s a question of survivance. This return has me wondering what is living and what is dead in theories of postmodernism?
Earlier segmentations into “early” and “late” postmodernism feel very dated and crude now. Oddly, much recent work on postmodernism finely segments the era but without saying so. My argument in this chapter is not only that we still reside in the postmodern era with no end in sight, but also that we need to sharply segment the period for it to be more explanatory, relevant, and useful.
The term “postmodern” has long been employed in three different yet overlapping ways—as a style, a philosophy or movement, and a period. It’s not unusual to encounter talk of postmodern architecture, painting, or cuisine backed up with a list of distinctive stylistic features. The canonical trait of postmodern architecture is pastiche, of postmodern painting appropriation, of postmodern cuisine fusion. Historical recycling and remixing are the primary cultural modes. For philosophers, however, postmodernism signifies French poststructuralism, mainly works by Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, and Jean-François Lyotard, with special emphasis on the transformation of reality into images, floating signifiers, and simulations disseminated by ever more ubiquitous media screens and spectacles. For their part, cultural critics construe postmodernism as a period spanning from the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s up to the present (or alternatively ending in the 1990s) distinguished by, for example, the dramatic erosion of the traditional high/low cultural distinction, the implosion of disciplinary autonomies, the rise of numerous innovative new social movements, and the global spread of extreme laissez-faire economics. In the latter scenario, postmodern times describe an eclectic postindustrial era of pluralism and disaggregation, of hybrids and fusions, accompanied unsurprisingly by nostalgia, retro currents, and backlashes. The period concept has long encompassed postmodern style and postmodern philosophy following Jameson’s widely accepted broad usage. Very often the term “postmodernity” serves as a synonym for “postmodernism.”
What is missing now is a sense of the distinct phases of the postmodern period. In retrospect, the years 1973, 1989, 2001, and 2011 stand out as important turning points. The first, 1973, designates the establishment of a new global monetary regime of floating currencies marking a shift away from Keynesian Welfare State economics. From this moment on, postmodern financialization characteristic of late capitalism takes off. The second, 1989, involves the dissolution of the USSR and the advent of the New World Order with the attendant redrawing of maps and alliances. It’s a moment of triumphant globalized consumer capitalism and Empire. The third, 2001, signals the onset of Empire’s endless global war on terror accompanied by ubiquitous surveillance as well as the spread of anti-globalization movements, progressive and regressive. With its many Occupy movements and its many worldwide national street-incited revolutions, 2011 inaugurates a fourth phase of the postmodern era characterized by growing demands for political freedom, social justice, and economic fairness. Modernity spanned 200 years so why shouldn’t postmodernity exceed the few decades often hastily allotted to it?
As a period concept, postmodernism continues to do useful work today. In its absence contemporary history appears haphazard, chaotic, and atomized. This period framing foregrounds significant patterns and themes, both positive and negative. In the event, it most famously highlights, for example, the promotion of difference over sameness as in ongoing multicultural and diversity projects; the decentering of identity into multiple subject positions and the increasing volatilization and plasticity of the body; plus the interactions and tensions between micro and macro narratives and phenomena such as electrified national fences against immigrants versus borderless global flows of money, information, and goods. Well-known and still pertinent keywords depicting the postmodern era over the decades include “heterogeneity,” “uneven development,” “dissensus,” “incommensurability,” “hybridity,” and “deregulation.” By common agreement, the dominant aesthetic form of the period remains assemblage. Social constructionism is the dominant epistemology. On one hand, the postmodern age is a time of widespread dehierarchizations and disaggregations; on the other, it displays unifying patterns and themes captured in the paradoxical master term “heterogeneity.” The periodizing concept continues to facilitate cognitive mapping and cultural generalizations particularly in this case of postmodernism where disorganization is the main mode of its cultural logic.
I am aware that some critics in certain fields, such as architecture and fiction, believe postmodernism came to an end during the 1980s and 1990s. They have sought to name what comes after—for example, altermodernism, cosmodernism, digimodernism, metamodernism, transmodernism—with little success and less agreement. To them, I would say try treating postmodernism not as an ephemeral vanguard style but an ongoing historical period characterized precisely by a panoply of styles, old, new, and mixed.
When we turn to recent works on the postmodern era, what do we find? To begin with, it’s a moment of consolidation and taking stock rooted in a strong sense of postmodernism’s continuing relevance as a discrete historical period. This buttressing, however, very much divides the history of postmodernization by area and field. Not surprisingly, it’s a matter of assembled and aggregated micro histories such as one finds in The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, Third Edition (2011), edited by Stuart Sim. This casebook is a representative conspectus by many hands covering in a dozen and a half chapters separate domains that range from postmodern politics, religion, and postcolonial studies to art, architecture, and cinema to fiction, theory, and popular culture to technoscience, organizational theory, and international relations to feminism, sexuality studies, and lifestyles to music, television, and performance studies, with philosophy receiving pride of place yet equal time. This historical account, I note in passing, omits postmodern poetry, cuisine, and globalization studies, not to mention many other areas of culture and society. But the proliferation of micro narratives and petits récits illustrates both the continuing pertinence of the postmodern concept and its characteristic disorganized form. It also suggests the enduring heuristic power of the concept. Nowadays the argument that postmodernism is over strikes me as an unconvincing countercurrent troubled by the absence of anything to take its place, even though I realize many critics are bored with the concept and wish for something new.
When confronting the question about how things stand now with postmodernism, literary and cultural critic Ihab Hassan, a pioneer on postmodernism, offers the following reply in his essay “Beyond Postmodernism” published in 2010: “What lies beyond postmodernism? In the larger scheme, postmodernity looms, looms with its multiple crises of identity, with its diasporas and genocides, with its desperate negotiations between local practices and global procedures” (138). According to Hassan, there is no end to postmodernism. However, in recent years it has undergone dire globalization and a name change to postmodernity. For him, globalization represents a key, yet undated turning point linked clearly to the new century’s global wars of terror. Late in his career, Hassan turns to ethics and to spirituality in response to what he continues to identify as postmodern culture, a surprisingly indispensible historical frame, he admits.
Another pioneering scholar of postmodernism, Charles Jencks, observes in the first sentence of his Story of Post-Modernism (2011): “Since the Millennium Post-Modernism, in all but name, has returned as a major movement in the arts” (9). On his opening page he discusses “re-emergent themes” that have evolved over 50 years of this “resurgent tradition.” In addition, to map the history and phases of postmodern architecture, he offers a detailed evolutionary chart that identifies on a timeline from 1960 to 2010 dozens of trends, major works, leading figures, plus key locations (48—49). In his setup to the map, Jencks notes that postmodernism “has enjoyed a most surprising burst of strength since the year 2000” (47). The problem with Jencks is that he limits postmodernism to the arts.
Realizing that he can neither scrap the postmodern concept nor name a new period, Jeffery Nealon symptomatically portrays recent times in the wake of some other critics as a “post-postmodern” era. How is it described and how do things stand here with postmodernism? According to Nealon’s Post-Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism (2012), “Postmodernism is not a thing of the past, any more than the 1980s are, precisely because it’s hard to understand today as anything other than an intensified version of yesterday” (8). Indeed. As Nealon notes, today we have more capitalist commodification, more multinational corporatizations, and more speculative financial instruments like derivatives (swaps, options, futures). If this intensification surprises and upsets you, argues Nealon, you’re postmodern, but if you’re clued into this hyperreality you’re post-postmodern. In any event, Nealon does not dump the postmodern concept, quite the opposite.
What characterizes post-postmodernism for Jeffrey Nealon are not only intensification of postmodernism, but also attitude adjustment from shock to cool, yet still critical, pragmatic acknowledgment. Nealon’s perception of post-postmodernism as really hyperpostmodernism, to give it a more accurate name, reflects a preference for change within rather than outside or against the system. In elaborating his argument, he memorably depicts the post-postmodern corporate university and the role of theory in unexpectedly positive ways. Why? There’s no sense being upset or cynical at this late point; it’s better to work for change within the terms of the system. What distinguishes Nealon’s post-postmodernism is pragmatism more equable than the 1980s engagé neopragmatism of Richard Rorty or the cynical version of Stanley Fish. Here’s a telling example. The post-postmodern English Department should reimagine and market itself as what it has already become, argues Nealon in a self-consciously practical way, a diversified corporation with multiple investments beyond its core businesses and with an innovative R&D wing (theory). The department is very much in sync with the times unlike the broader corporate university, which is anachronistically overstuffed with managers and needs downsizing in those ranks.
Where does theory stand? For Nealon its fostering of critical thinking, problem solving, and innovation will insure a thriving future. The postmodern corporate university, after all, “has been very, very good to theory, feminism, gender studies, cultural studies, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, African American studies, visual culture, and the like … ” (81—82). Furthermore, the post-postmodern corporate university promises a better future for theory and English studies given that innovation is its prime directive. However, argues Nealon, theory and the English Department need to jettison some particular baggage from the past.
As long as anyone can remember, theory in English Departments has focused on and justified its existence by interpreting cultural artifacts, uncovering textual meanings, and sharpening hermeneutic approaches, that is, close reading. Certainly that was the case at the outset of the postmodern period, but the tide started going out on this narrow mission in the fin de siècle marked especially by the spread of cultural studies. Nowadays the focus on interpretation, warns Nealon, is “the road to nowhere” (124). Admonitions follow. Beware theorists. Give up looking for the next big approach or method linked to interpretation. Get over your funk and posttheory malaise. “And if there’s no ’next big thing’ coming down the theory pike, it’s precisely because such a notion of the ’next big thing’ (like feminism, deconstruction, or new historicism in their day) has tended to mean the arrival of a new interpretive paradigm. The primary reason there’s no dominant post-postmodern interpretive paradigm on the horizon is not so much because of the exhaustion of theory itself (I can immediately think of a dozen underexplored interpretive models or theorists), but because the work of interpretation is no longer the primary research work of literature departments” (133). The way Nealon convincingly construes matters all talk of “posttheory,” “after theory,” and “theory exhaustion” marks not the end of postmodernism or of theory but the dramatic swerve away from texts to their contexts. Although misunderstood, this turn is a good change, insuring a future for theory and for English departments provided there’s no backsliding to the paradigm of textual interpretation and the consequent reduction of theory to interpretive approaches. The project to resuscitate exclusive close reading is a wrong turn.
Oddly, Jeffrey Nealon makes no mention of the many recent calls to return to close reading. He does parenthetically highlight the theory renaissance underway. But where Nealon himself goes wrong with his admonitions is in advocating a stark modernist either/or instead of a postmodernist both/and choice when it comes to interpretation versus contextualization (see Hutcheon 2007 on both/and as paradigmatically postmodern). It would be a mistake to rule out the projects of interpretation, of contextualization, or of theoretical speculation. Multitasking and heterogeneity distinguish contemporary conditions in English departments.
I have another criticism of Nealon. While I concur that the university has accepted theory and its many wings from feminism and ethnic studies to postcolonial theory and cultural studies, I need to register a serious reservation. Most universities to this day underfund gender and ethnic studies, relying on part-time staff, donated labor, and inadequate facilities for interdisciplinary studies. The typical organizational form is the program not the department. Programs lack full-time faculty, ample office space, and substantial budgets. Despite such programs’ successes with students and faculty, there are very few departments as opposed to many programs of, for instance, women’s studies or cultural studies. The program form offers not only flimsy infrastructure, but also dirt-cheap recognition from the twenty-first-century corporate university.
Without saying so, Nealon’s work underscores two key phases of postmodernism that impact theory: the 1990s turn away from textual interpretation to cultural studies and the early twenty-first-century intensification of the corporate university. Both of these phenomena involve the repurposing of theory. It’s good news for theorists purportedly. However, Nealon plays down while admitting crucial facts on the ground, specifically faculty downsizing, student indenture, and the rise of critical university studies (a new energetic branch of institutional critique). And again, he ignores the many disparate calls to return to close reading, seemingly a new phase of long-standing antitheory countercurrents.
To sum up, Jeffrey Nealon twists himself into productive knots in trying to answer the question what comes after postmodernism. To his considerable credit, he doesn’t stop at the usual dismissive “postmodernism is over.” It has morphed into post-postmodernism, which is hyperpostmodernism. There is no after postmodernism.
In a similar case, Christian Moraru in his Cosmodernism: American Narrative, Late Globalization, and the New Cultural Imaginary (2011) argues at length for labeling the period from 1989 to the present cosmodernism, but symptomatically he has trouble jettisoning postmodernism. On his final page he observes astutely: “Nor is postmodernism ’over’” (316).
A parallel line of argumentation is very plainly stated by Hutcheon and her coauthors in the opening sentence of the updated entry on postmodernism in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Fourth Edition (2012): “The definition and history of postmodernism have both been highly contested; postmodernism was declared dead shortly after it came into being, yet it appears to be still with us” (1095). The entry enumerates and discusses without hesitations salient features of postmodern poetry. At the outset it carefully notes the existence of different as well as uneven developments across the arts and sciences and within each area. The upshot is that plural poetries constitute postmodern poetry. In my terms, the postmodern disaggregation of the poetry field persists well into the twenty-first century. This claim is especially borne out across the thousand pages of Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, 2nd edition (2013), edited by Paul Hoover, who concludes his introduction: “We should not imagine that a single style rules the period, such as language poetry, conceptual poetry, or the postlanguage lyric. It is all of the above” (lvi). Where the encyclopedia’s account comes up short is in not explicitly considering phases or key turning points in the fifty-year history of postmodern poetry. For example, it skirts the 1970s emergence of LANGUAGE poetry in the wake of confessional poetry’s dire expressivism. Nor does it mention the 1980s and 1990s rise of popular poetries such as slam and rap pitched against the background of the academic Creative Writing establishment and its official verse culture. Nothing is said about the maturation of born-digital electronic poetry in the twenty-first century nor its archives online with the Electronic Literature Organization.
Here is an additional parallel case study but from another field, art history. When he comes in 2011 to characterize the sphere of contemporary painting and particularly twenty-first-century work, leading art critic Barry Schwabsky labels it very persuasively a “pluralist era” (11). Not surprisingly, he initially sets the contemporary period against the earlier high modernist programs of aesthetic purification propounded by dogmatic postwar advocates of abstract art so famously contested by 1960s pop artists and fellow travelers. Thus Claes Oldenburg over against Ad Reinhardt marks for Schwabsky the onset of postmodern painting. Helpfully, he depicts three turning points in postmodern history, yet without naming them as such. One is the 1960s and 1970s shift away from art for art’s sake to everyday life in its political, erotic, and mystical configurations, a transformation that persists today. The second is the continuous yet intensifying impact on figurative painting of our changing visual culture most notably film, television, video, photography (analogue and digital), and the Internet. Here representation and simulation become increasingly entangled, when not indistinguishable. The third is the recent crowd sourcing involved in Phaidon’s publication of the landmark Vitamin Series, particularly Vitamin P (2002) and Vitamin P2 (2011), both of which tomes Schwabsky had a hand in. With an introduction by Schwabsky, Vitamin P2 contains from three to five color plates by 115 newly prominent international painters nominated by 77 art critics and historians. It displays a staggering array of styles from abstract to figurative to conceptual to multimodal painting. This is postmodern pluralism writ large. It answers definitively the recurring contemporary question “Is painting a dying art?” Not incidentally, the twenty-first-century Vitamin Series consists of four additional parallel tomes on today’s drawing, photography, sculpture and installation, plus design and architecture, all similarly focused on contemporary work and all crowd sourced. It’s a postmodern project par excellence without the label. It encompasses many incompatible styles within separate areas of the arts, testifying to twenty-first-century proliferation as well as disaggregation in the arts.
What characterizes postmodernism yesterday and today is a persistent disorganization of culture into separate spheres and the ubiquitous interaction, sometimes convergence, of the fields. It has been going on long enough that we can and should distinguish phases of development in each domain. At the same time there are culture-wide phenomena affecting the separate spheres in particular ways. I have in mind the well-attested worldwide intensification, transformation, and spread of media, popular culture, democracy movements, religious awakenings, and wars as well as free-market fundamentalism. It’s a matter of scale, that is, of globally interacting micro and macro narratives, plus uneven developments and convergences, operating often simultaneously. On one hand, we experience the mishmash of world music and cuisines and, on the other, uniformities of globalization and Empire popping up everywhere like Coca-Cola and reality TV subgenres. The postmodern concept captures these cultural motions and scales effectively in a way that no contending notion does. Still, I believe we need more systematic and explicit analyses of phases given the unanticipated longevity of the period.
Part of rehistoricizing postmodernism involves critiques of postmodernity as well as modernity. Critical histories, early and numerous, have come from every conceivable spot on the spectrum of cultural politics with more doubtlessly to come. Key instances and insightful criticisms against postmodern society and culture include nonstop critiques of the shortcomings and depredations of late capitalism; the cannibalizations and ironic mashups of cultural histories (treated as supermarkets); the posthumanist divisiveness stemming from identity politics and multiculturalism; the fragmentations of contemporary antinomian micropolitics and new social movements; the degeneration of standards in the celebration of popular culture and assemblage aesthetics; the ecological damages due to unregulated technosciences; plus the dominant intellectual combination of cultural relativism—social constructionism—standpoint epistemology that undermines truth. This list could be lengthened, to be sure. As a historical concept, postmodernism includes critiques not just celebrations and impartial descriptions of it. One last point against recurring homogenization—the onset, configuration, and critical reception of the postmodern era differ from one nation to another, as published studies of postmodern China, Japan, Russia, and the United States make clear.
During the contemporary period, theory came into its own as a distinct academic postmodern field. In my view, it has gone through five phases. First, theory was initially institutionalized beginning in the late 1960s and into the 1970s through a remarkable proliferation of theory-designated journals and the establishment of the School of Criticism and Theory. Second, many academic theory programs and curricular tracks emerged during the 1980s while university and commercial presses started churning out numerous theory books. This decade also witnessed a boom in the academic theory job market and an upsurge of antitheory sentiments. From then on academics in the humanities and social sciences felt it necessary to add to their professional profiles an explicit theory component. Third, beginning in the 1990s, theory innovations had less to do with major schools and movements—as they did throughout the twentieth century—and more to do with the creation of dozens of semiautonomous subfields such as trauma studies, body studies, and whiteness studies. This is the moment some critics labeled “posttheory” to separate it from the previous decade of “grand theory.” As my map of the Twenty-First-Century Literary and Cultural Theory Renaissance illustrates, theory in the new century is a disaggregated field loosely organized around key topics, some perennial, some contemporary. In this sense, it has a distinctively postmodern form, as I have argued throughout this book. Fourth, the continuing spread in the new century of the corporate university, home to theory, has generated symptomatic responses, positive and negative, ranging from the formation of critical university studies to retrenchment to close reading to the defensive consolidation of the field via monumentalizing textbooks like the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism and others. Fifth, the major accomplishments of earlier phases of development continued into the second decade of the new century. More or less thriving, for example, are theory journals and book publications, the School of Criticism and Theory, academic theory courses and programs, and the requirement of adding a theory designation to one’s professional identity. And the proliferation of new subfields gives no signs of petering out.
The postmodern upsurge of theory continues. The calls for close reading and textual interpretation coming recently from prominent theorists appear less as hostile antitheory groundswells and more as defensive returns to critical approaches and methods long steeped in the history of Western criticism and theory from the ancient Greeks to the present. A sixth phase of postmodern theory is emerging. Textbooks, teaching, and publications have very recently started to reach beyond European traditions to African, Arabic, Chinese, Persian, South Asian, and other traditions of theory. Postmodernism lives on and continues to evolve. Sure to come, its end is not yet in sight.