“Postmodernism” is so firmly established as a term designating a change in the domain of arts and letters that it appears to be self-explanatory. This, however, is not the case. On the contrary, the term has spawned such a welter of explanations that even the first part of the compound has become ambivalent. Does “post” mean a development of or a reaction against “modernism”? If it is something new, why is it linked to what it has superseded? Small wonder that the term has been lumped under all the various “Postisms” for the purpose of exposing it to ridicule. Even what is current in the domain of arts and letters cannot be equated with the hallmarks of high modernism. To call it postmodernism raises the question whether such a concept—if it is a concept at all—expresses a predicament or is just an old-fashioned way of marking off periods of cultural development from one another. It appears to express a predicament insofar as it tends to indicate what it is not, and it is old-fashioned insofar as a break from what has gone before is conceived as a period in its own right. Why should one stick to the old classification of cultural epochs, if there is to be total liberation from the cultural past?
This may be one of the reasons why postmodernism has become a partisan issue, dividing those who maintain that it is nothing but a shift within modernity itself from those who see it as the death knell of modernism. What makes this issue even more controversial is the question whether postmodernism—considered to be a cultural event that exceeds the bounds of culture altogether—is a global or a specifically American phenomenon.
Heide Ziegler’s book represents an illuminating intervention into various aspects of the current debate as to how postmodernism is to be conceived. She provides a framework to highlight the salient features of postmodernism and their intimate connections with modernism, as well as the way in which the former gains its profile by revealing what lay dormant in the latter. As indicated by the title of the book—which is a quotation from the German Romantic Friedrich Schlegel—she takes the ironic mode as the overriding concern both of modernism and of its successor. Consequently, modernity and postmodernism [End Page 486] are no longer conceived along antiquated guidelines as period concepts in the development of arts and letters, but rather as different forms of consciousness of which the periods in question are nothing but fields of observation. If irony has been the hallmark of literary and artistic activities since 1800, then the diversified forms of its articulation in literature become an umbrella concept relegating the period concept to something subsidiary.
Such a focus has one definitive advantage: it is freed from the awkward necessity of listing the various features by means of which modernism may be separated from what came after. Period concepts, as a rule, are fleshed out by taxonomic inventories—a task which becomes all the more arduous when the period concerned can only lay claim to transcending and yet harking back to what has happened before. The very dependence of postmodernism on what it has separated itself from makes it all the more plausible that it should be conceived as a stage at which, as Ziegler contends, irony bodies forth a different form of consciousness.
Friedrich Schlegel’s dictum that irony is obligatory entails on the one hand the dismissal of irony as a rhetorical trope and on the other the commitment of the subject to self-reflection. Thus irony has become the all-pervading mode of writing since 1800, and its shifts and turns distinguish a lingering romanticism from modernity and postmodernism. The periods, then, are only ways of punctuating the variegated course in which irony as an exploratory device brings out an endless self-mirroring of subjectivity which, in what is termed postmodernism, continually undercuts itself. Through this device an all-out assault is launched against any form...