The academic “stars” of criticism and theory cannot agree, it seems, about this term we are already trying to use to name a period, a strategy, a mindset, a paradigm, an ambiance, a style. That very disagreement, and the epic dimensions it assumes in one of the profession’s more enduring space operas, is itself the issue. To put it bluntly, we persist in a muddle about “postmodernism” because, at not even so deep a level, we desire this word to preserve a protective confusion. We are, quite predictably, ourselves confused tangles of self-difference, our allegiances and dependencies distributed more widely and contradictorily than our conscious belief systems attest. We are decent, humane, liberal subjects who need the state and its allowances-its webs of permissions, its dole, its infantilization, in a word, the type of individualization it offers. We are also hurt, distracted, intellectual, and oppositional to what menaces our licenses and privileges-that is, both our empowerments and our “private” pleasures: sometimes the state, sometimes the op-ed media, sometimes ourselves. If we did play a game in which all the pieces of “The Postmodern” were free to play, we wouldn’t want to roll the dice, turn the spinner, read the action cards; we sneak from a different game the book of spells by which to cast confusion.
We like “postmodern” in all its confusion because it retains historical progress (post as after), it retains periodization (post as boundary [End Page 165] marker), it allows us to publish (post as postering or notifying) and to retain our positions (post as duty station) and power (post as military base), to ride out the end of the century and its radical social changes (post as the bobbing motion of the equestrian), it allows us to balance our crooked books on cultural history (post as in recording a transaction in the account books). We post our letters off into the past, into the present, without having to face what our verbal trickery veils with misdirection. We have our ways of “fixing” the game of Definition. When we want to refurbish Eliot’s shoring of cultural fragments against what looked like cultural ruin to him, we cite architectural postmodernism as our data sample-it pastiches quotations from the full history of architecture’s collusion with money and power to refurbish classic humanistic values. When we want to critique the commodification of culture and validate limited and local forays of safe “activism,” we instead cite 80s graffiti art and performance. When we want to preserve our humanistic selves, we work the purveyors of individual consciousness and formal mastery as our fiction database. When we want only a contained risk in our language theory, we scour the poetry lists for fellow academics who stretch without breaking the rubber band around our word-base.
One might contrast these moves with the persistence of denial. I just returned from a lecture by a Habermasian colleague at our Center for Science and Technology Studies, a lecture called “Postmodernism” to a roomful of faculty and Ph.D. students who chorused their first-timer status with the terms “postmodern” and “poststructuralism,” desperately hoping for a good clear working definition for their footnotes and badinage. Colleagues closer to home practice textual studies, archival recovery, biography, and formalist studies unchanged from the practices of thirty years ago. Every two to three years a major review journal proclaims the final expiration of poststructuralism (this fall it was the turn of The New York Review of Books, I am told). Attacks from “out there” are even worse, and more telling (“why do they keep writing so that only they can understand what they’re talking about?”). But, really, no point in contrasting moves of confusion with those of denial: if only in one sense, they are versions of the same attitude. Keep “me” out of it, in both senses. 2
Postmodern(TM) is the only game in which the Word applies both to the Evil Empire (Capital, Normalization, Spectacle, Boredom-some latitude [End Page 166] in specifying one’s enemy is permissible; the crucial element is that its form be darthvaderish) and also...