There is a specter haunting postmodernism, and in Postmodernism—Local Effects, Global Flows, Vince Leitch makes it visible with remarkable clarity. Threading his way through the critical borderland where universal suspicion meets cultural studies, Leitch’s lucid analysis takes the reader into the labyrinth of postmodernism’s rigorous suspicion of all master narratives; but instead of merely documenting suspicion, he has [End Page 1080] the critical acumen to articulate the productive possibilities of postmodernism’s supposedly “corrosive cultural moment.”
In “Poststructuralism Disseminated,” the first of two sections, Leitch rounds up the usual poststructuralist suspects to make a convincing case that postmodernism is in effect poststructuralism writ large at the level of culture. Indeed, a key aspect of this section and all of the readings in Postmodernism is the proposition that poststructuralism is neither ahistorical nor apolitical (as has often been charged), but strategically necessary for understanding and, more importantly, for intervening in institutional networks of knowledge and power. Using Barthes, Derrida, Baudrillard, Miller, Gilbert and Gubar and others, his analysis in this section explores a wide variety of poststructuralist approaches that, to a greater or lesser degree, link the strategies of poststructuralist textual analysis, not to the demonstration of aporias in meaning but to the constructions of history, culture, and political economy. Not everyone comes off well here. J. Hillis Miller’s brand of deconstruction comes in for considerable criticism as promoting, in spite of itself, a “heroic conservatism” that ultimately ignores the ideology of gender, class, and race. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (“GG”) get criticized as “pragmatists and institutional players” who utilize French feminism, yet end up requiring “an integrated perspective, a grand narrative, a unified front” of ersatz feminist unity. Barthes, Baudrillard, and Derrida receive informed and detailed criticism as well, though Derrida gets a finally supportive treatment, for his work is crucial for understanding the move “from text to textual system as historically constructed.” Leitch acknowledges Derrida’s own tireless efforts to situate institutions as well as texts within political and historical networks of meaning that constitute and regulate social life. Perhaps the specter that shimmers behind this section of Postmodernism is that much of contemporary cultural studies owes an unacknowledged debt to, or is in some cases uncomfortably haunted by, the strategies of poststructuralism.
In his second section, “Postmodernism Pluralized,” Leitch moves from poststructuralist theory to cultural history, taking up the question of postmodernism’s critical potential. Here his analysis ranges widely but remains focused on the social and political: the Finnish poet Pentti Saarikoski figures as an exemplary postmodernist whose work leaves [End Page 1081] aside the refined and distanced seriousness of modernism for the “engaged body tangled in a heterogeneous social field”; the plate paintings of Julian Schnabel serve, in part, as a way into a critical discussion of the problem of pastiche; and pastiche leads into Leitch’s cultural histories of Linda Hutcheon and Fredric Jameson. At this juncture, Leitch defends the notion of pastiche from those who see it as “history at a hollow third remove,” seeing instead that “to deplore postmodern pastiche wholesale is to risk reinvigorating dubious principles of decorum and . . . to indulge in nostalgia for a lost authenticity.” In a similar vein, his critique of Jameson’s “ambivalence” produces a nuanced engagement of Jameson’s methodological gestures—e.g., cognitive mapping—as a way of framing as postmodern Jameson’s apparently totalizing insistence on global systems. Throughout this section, which also includes a section on postmodern pedagogy as examined by Aronowitz and Giroux and a final meditation on political economy, Leitch argues convincingly for the critical power within postmodernism.
Yet all through Postmodernism Leitch weaves in an awareness that the critical power of postmodern art and criticism has a spectral presence hovering in the background. The problem that postmodern discourses embody is that they explicitly attempt to resist or denounce totalization of all kinds, but at the same time they speak most often in the name of the values of a leftist/liberal cultural politics. These implied values, liberal or not, produce a problem for postmodern discourse, which is...