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Among the first and remaining one of the best critics of what he has variously called the literature of silence or of unmaking, Ihab Hassan in The Postmodern Turn offers in ten chapters a retrospective of his "complicity with postmodernism," its attributes, development and future, relation to theory and to the "current academic milieu," and literary/cultural/geopolitical/gnostic significance. All but the last of the ten essays have seen print before (the earliest in 1967), six as parts of the author's previous books. A kind of greatest hits collection, this Hassan reader is nonetheless a useful summary of his thoughts and an obvious point of departure for readers new to his work.
In its complexity and richness, The Postmodern Turn resists paraphrase, each of its essays silently crying, "No, do not understand me too easily." But in brief: following a short, substantive introduction that locates postmodernism's importance in its being "an act of self-apprehension by which a culture seeks to understand itself," Hassan organizes his ten selections topically and, for the most part, chronologically in four sections. The first, a single chapter on "The Literature of Silence," traces postmodernism's roots to mannerism, romanticism, and modernism, and it designates the silence of outrage and apocalypse as contemporary avant-gardism's salient characteristic. Section Two, "Concepts of Postmodernism," contains three chapters that chart postmodernism's development and differentiate it from modernism and other manifestations of the avant garde; offers a history of the concept and its difficulties; and posits immanence and indeterminacy as postmodernism's "ruling tendencies" with an eye toward disclosing thereby "coherent hints of a posthumanist culture." The four chapters of Section Three, "Postmodern Literature and Criticism," explore critical theory "because theory, puissant with new abstractions, has clearly shaped postmodernism, a postmodernism [End Page 370] wherein literature and criticism constantly blend." Toward this end, Hassan offers an examination of Finnegans Wake as a "monstrous prophecy of our postmodernity"; considers the relation of criticism to "the imperatives of innovation"; "implicates criticism—as desire, reading, writing/acting—in the critic's passional life"; and places current critical pluralism in a "postmodern perspective." Finally, Section Four, "Postlude to Postmodernism," turns in two chapters to an appraisal of postmodernism, then away to ask, "What next?" (Hassan would like to see a return to Jamesian pragmatism) and "What really is at stake?" A carefully chosen bibliography closes the book.
Scattered throughout its pages The Postmodern Turn offers, like a critical Bartlett's, the fragments of the most thorough, nuanced, and provocatively wide-ranging definition of postmodernism one might reasonably desire, although its diffused density may render it less satisfying to some than the more readerly formulations of, say, John Barth. Additionally, Hassan's typographically lively "paracritical" style, which characterizes several of the essays, may prove off-putting to readers not used to prose bent on moving defiantly beyond "linear 'reasoned discourse' . . . to express the full measure of human awareness." Such difficulties, however, must not be allowed to obscure the real importance, beyond critical cant, of the concerns this book explores, a significance that can perhaps be suggested by Hassan's summary of the overall pattern his book renders, "a pattern that many others have also seen: a vast, revisionary will in the Western world, unsettling/resettling codes, canons, procedures, beliefs—intimating a posthumanism?
A friend recently remarked that today the problem for literary critics seems to be not staying on the cutting edge but finding it. What Hassan demonstrates throughout The Postmodern Turn is that it is not possible to be intellectually/emotionally/spiritually alive today without finding oneself, willy-nilly, already on the edge. In this respect, the book is exactly what its author announces it to be: "a short history of our epoch" as well as a persuasive plea for criticism possessing, beyond the urge to clarify, the "wisdom of the senses and of the spirit": criticism willing, like literature, to "endanger itself." Meant "less to consolidate any statement on postmodernism than to review its questions, moot...