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Reviewed by:
  • Exploring Postmodernism
  • Bruce Robbins
Mattei Calinescu and Douwe Fokkema,. eds. Exploring Postmodernism. Utrecht Publications in General and Comparative Literature No. 23. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1987. 269 pp. $50.00.

Exploring Postmodernism is not a book for adventurous souls set on blazing a trail through our culture's most difficult, least charted terrain. What is meant by postmodernism in these thirteen papers from the International Comparative Literature Congress of 1985 is not the unmapped freshness of the present cultural moment as addressed, for example, in E. Ann Kaplan's Postmodernism and its Discontents (Verso, 1988) and Andrew Ross's Universal Abandon? (Minnesota, 1988) but a disenchantingly familiar string of academic topoi : period (where does surrealism really belong?), genre (is the antidetective novel the canonical postmodern form?), technique (the intrusive narrator). Of the book's moribund title metaphor, all that remains alive is a whiff of the cosy, colonial atmosphere of an old explorers' club. The editors, who clubbishly omit to translate French and German quotations, have fixed to the wall the usual stuffed heads—Hawkes, Lowry, Nabokov, Beckett, Eco, Handke—so that no hint survives of the rapid, risky hunting these specimens once performed. The mild definitional anxiety that many essays share serves only to generate academic quibbles.

One major problem emerges from Ihab Hassan's listing of postmodernism's distinguishing features: the concept's inclination to become inclusive of everything, hence good for nothing. Add to this flaccid inclusiveness Hassan's declared "distaste for ideological rage," and you get a term disengaged from any moral or political imperative that might set it in productive tension within or outside itself. Such issues as the political function of avant-garde art in socialist Europe, or how a concept stretched to cover "the whole Western world" has been defined against and in terms of its non-Western Other—which is related in turn to the lingering Eurocentrism of "comparative" literature itself as a discipline—are thus missed opportunities. Another is the confrontation between the book's frequendy dismissive references to Marxism and Marjorie Perloffs sparkling analysis of "language poetry," which might be considered a politicized postmodernism.

There are bright spots, however, like the discussions of Michel Leiris and Alasdair Gray. Breon Mitchell's impatience with the period game is a gust of fresh air, as is Stefano Rosso's exposition of Italian "weak thought," in particular the effort to think postmodernism not as the newest modernity but as a "dissolution of the pathos of the categories of 'innovation,' of the 'new,' and of 'progress.' " It would be interesting to pursue further the links between this effort and the tendency of postmodernism's playful inconclusiveness (Hassan refers to "my inconclusion") to come full circle via such figures as Jung and Heidegger, into "archaic or pre-rational values" and full-blown spirituality.

The book's Preface declares that the attempt to describe and explain postmodernism will soon come to a "provisional conclusion." The conclusion declares, on the other hand, that "there is a future for research with regard to Postmodernism." On the basis of this collection, neither prospect is very reassuring. [End Page 372]

Bruce Robbins
Rutgers University


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