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  • Approaching Postmodernism: Papers Presented at a Workshop on Postmodernism
  • Walter B. Kalaidjian
Douwe Fokkema, and Hans Bertens, eds. Approaching Postmodernism: Papers Presented at a Workshop on Postmodernism. Utrecht Publications in General and Comparative Literature 21. Philadelphia: Benjamins, 1986. 300 pp. $40.00 cloth; pb. $17.00.

Ever since Frederico de Oníz coined the label "postmodernismo" in 1934, its increasing appeal for criticism has led to a certain terminological inflation. A password in architecture, the visual arts, film, communications, music, and literature, it stands variously as a generic, typological, period, and cultural designation. Writers as widely diverse as Randall Jarrell and Jacques Derrida have been lumped under the rubric of postmodernism. Not surprisingly, such a popular usage is, for some, highly suspect on its face. Like other controversial and contested terms such as "deconstruction" or "feminism," postmodernism names at once a critical carnival, labyrinth, and minefield.

Fortunately, the recent University of Utrecht festschrift Approaching Postmodernism provides an indispensable map of the postmodern terrain. The volume comprises essays in theory and practical criticism by twelve contributors to a 1984 workshop on "Postmodernism" sponsored by the International Comparative Literature Association. Especially useful, Hans Bertens's exhaustive introduction surveys the evolution of the postmodern epistème from 1934, taking into account its links to American counterculture in the mid-1960s and existentialist thought in the 1970s. By the 1980s, Bertens explains, the postmodern Weltanschauung in America underwrites a vast field of literary, critical, and cultural discourses. Quarreling with critics such as Frank Kermode who join modern and postmodern writings, Brian McHale uncouples them. Theorizing a fundamental "change of dominant," McHale defines modernism as essentially an epistemological mode whereas postmodernism is ontologically grounded in existence and the projection of fictive worlds. For his part, Douwe Fokkema argues that postmodernism functions rhetorically to oppose modernism's penchant for hierarchic orders of meaning and value. Building on the work of critics such as Hassan, Lodge, and others, Fokkema provides a detailed semantic and syntactic analysis of postmodern discourse.

Applying recent theory, Approaching Postmodernism also features several essays in practical criticism such as Richard Todd's literary analysis of Anthony Burgess, Iris Murdoch, and Muriel Spark. Similarly, Elrud Ibsch traces out the philosophical influences of Popper and Wittgenstein on German writer Thomas Bernhard, reading his novel Korrektur as a postmodern answer to Robert Musil's Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften. Extending the volume's international scope, Ulla Musarra offers a reading of the narratological structures of duplication and multiplication in three novels of Italo Calvino, while Herta Schmid looks at postmodernist elements in the Soviet drama of Vampilov, Amalrik, and Aksënov. Working with contemporary [End Page 391] American fiction, Gerhard Hoffmann shows how such authors as John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Robert Coover playfully transform tragic, comic, absurd, and existential traditions. In a comparative reading of postmodern literature and the visual arts, Theo D'haen points to overlapping stylistic techniques that signal the "abandonment of humanistically oriented world views": abstract expressionism; "flatness" of surface; collage and eclecticism; conceptual and environmental aesthetics; junk, pop, and other commercialized references.

Tempering such studies, several contributors to Approaching Postmodernism dispute the accuracy and value of how the term is presently employed. For example, Helmut Lethen's essay on the Avant-garde views the standard modern/postmodern polarity with suspicion. Similarly, Matei Calinescu argues against the habit of much recent criticism that casually uses postmodernism as a period term. In particular, Calinescu prefers Lyotard's eclectic historicism to both the diachronic and synchronic period schemes he critiques in Barthes and Foucault. Like Calinescu, Susan Suleiman has reservations about postmodernism's reductive and arbitrary definitions of modernism. Suleiman would defend playful masterpieces such as Finnegans Wake and Tender Buttons against what she sees as both the "flattening out" and "simplification" of modernism in critics such as Fiedler, Hassan, Lodge, and Spanos, as well as Jameson's cultural destructions of the modernist canon.

Although readers will find much to admire in Approaching Postmoderism, the volume would benefit from broader interdisciplinary discussions of postmodern cultural theory, architecture, and film. Moreover, the collection will seem somewhat formal and narrowly focused on literary criticism when compared to the more "worldly" approaches of such recent collections...


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