Reflections on “postmodernism” upon the death of Professor Ihab Hassan

Though perhaps only of interest to students of American literature, the death this past week of former UW-Milwaukee English professor Ihab Hassan made news because he is credited for creating the term “postmodernism” to describe a style of thinking and writing prominent in the latter half of the 20th century, say after the trauma of World War II.

To be “postmodern” is essentially to be, as I understand it, an artist or thinker without a firm rational or intellectual or moral foundation, to create in a kind of celebration of chaos or perhaps a literary sort of extreme inclusion: even the kitchen sink. If modernism was an attempt to recover or discover meaning in an “age of anxiety” and the lapse of religious belief, postmodernism was/is a more nihilistic denial of general meaning and all cultural foundations– “art for art’s sake.” Extreme individualism is another way to describe the postmodern way of writing. In terms of style, a fictional narrative can now be wildly wobbly and disconnected and poems can drop meter and rhyme and discursive making of sense. Postmodern, mainstream journalism tends to veer away from humanistic judgement as it seeks some scientific notion of objectivity, sometimes known as the political “center.”

A vacuum demands to be filled, and once the cultural foundations of mainstream American culture began to erode, it was replaced by what scholar Frederic Jameson called “the cultural logic of late capitalism,” the logic of which did not impress him. What we postmodernists lost, says Jameson, is our sense of history and tradition, which sounds conservative but is merely a defense of the humanities. For what replaced our cultural/religious foundations was/is a high-octane capitalistic ethos (“greed is good”?) uninformed by the past: the present is the ultimate good (“buy it now!”), and the future will be even better. (There is perhaps no better evidence of Jameson’s thesis than the current crop of Republican presidential candidates.) Deep culture and religion survive but in muted form; today “pop culture” and religious fundamentalism are the dominant forms of seeking meaning. So to be a Jameson sort of postmodernist is to be a writer without much depth or sense of history or sense of public responsibility beyond going along for the hopefully rich and famous literary ride.

Of course, not all writers can be lumped into a general literary shift just because professors create terms and categories. Some very prominent writers and poets in recent years have not operated under the postmodern or even modernist umbrella. We could call them pre-modernists or un-modernists, I suppose, or not bother to categorize at all.

And where are we today, literarily speaking? Some say we’ve reached a post-postmodernism which is really just more of the same, or an intensification of it. Perhaps a true post-postmodernist is someone like Jameson who critiques the capitalist ethos and, most importantly, offers alternatives, even some found in the past.

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