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  • Postmodernism:A Self-Interview
  • Ihab Hassan

The following interview did not take place in Ihab Hassan's study in Milwaukee, with a view of Lake Michigan, rippling turquoise, blue, and mauve under a sky of fluffy paratactical clouds.

Interviewer: You are sometimes known as the Father . . .

Hassan: Please! At most, the Godfather of Postmodernism, though I don't know who the Godmother is. Maybe Madam Hype?

I: Why hype?

H: Because postmodernism began as a genuinely contested idea and is fading as a form of media hype.

I: Can you define it, however tentatively?

H: I would prefer not to. In fact, I cannot, no more than I can define romanticism or modernism in a sentence or paragraph. Such definitions are best left to some onomastic genius. Once, I offered a table of features contrasting modernism with postmodernism. Once is quite enough.

I: Why is that?

H: Because it was as widely cited as pounced upon, nearly everyone ignoring my pointed disclaimer: "Yet the dichotomies this table represents remain insecure, equivocal. For differences shift, defer, even collapse; concepts in any one vertical column are not all equivalent; and inversions and exceptions, in both modernism and postmodernism, abound."

I: Well, if we can't define postmodernism, how can we talk about it? [End Page 223]

H: The way we talk about everything else: say, freedom, justice, love, spirit, happiness. . . . We talk about postmodernism by using the word in various verbal contexts—Wittgenstein would have said "language games"—and seeing what happens.

I: What happens?

H: Some discussions engage postmodernism and clarify it in certain perspectives, without actually defining it: for instance, the works of Hans Bertens, Charles Jencks, Andreas Huyssen, even Fredric Jameson. . . .

I: Why even Jameson?

H: Because Marxism has a tenuous relation to contemporary reality, as everyone knows except some Western academics.

I: Some would say that the entire phenomenon of postmodernism is an exercise of Western academics.

H: That's a bit of a non sequitur but true enough, true up to a point. Remember, the phenomenon has overflowed its theoretical origins to become a kind of ironic cultural awareness, a mode of historical reflexivity—if you wish, a perpetually anxious exercise in self-definition.

I: But Western, always Western, right?

H: Japan has contributed vigorously to postmodernism, especially in art and architecture. So, instead of saying "Western," let's say high-tech, mass-media, omni-consuming societies.

I: That, in effect, excludes four fifths of the world, wouldn't you say?

H: Yes—and no. You see, cultural postmodernism has mutated into geopolitical postmodernity. By the latter, I mean both globalization with its thousand faces (multinational capitalism, cyber technology, cultural imperialism, "Americanization"), and counter-globalization with as many masks (local knowledge, old cultural traditions, postcolonial ideologies, anti-Western resentments). It's the monster phenomenon of our time.

As I have written a good deal about this phenomenon, most recently in Angelika, I won't repeat myself here. The point, however, is that postmodernity is a planetary process, postmodernism is not.

I: That suggests a political dimension, which some say you have slighted in your work. How would you respond to that criticism?

H: Writing in the late sixties and early seventies about postmodernism, I lacked the benefits of hindsight. For instance, I focused on high culture, Beckett and Borges and Nabokov and Barthelme and Barth. I did not foresee then that postmodernism would become a media phenomenon, involving pop and kitsch. And I recognized the emergent process of globalization only in the Seventies, in Paracriticisms (1975).

But I "slighted" the political only in the sense that I did not give it [End Page 224] priority, did not make it an "absolute horizon." In fact, I believe that a primary emphasis on politics flattens, impoverishes our lives. The current paradigm in the humanities ignores the inner cost of "politics."

I: Forgive me, but that's another example of what some colleagues in the profession perceive as your contrary or cross-grained character. Can you explain why politics impoverishes our lives?

H: Conformists—remember Harold Rosenberg's quip about "the herd of independent minds"?—are quick to discover perversity everywhere. But never mind that. The gravamen is that politics...


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