Postmodernism has come a long way from its early employment as a term of disapprobation in Irving Howe's famous "Mass Society and Post-Modern Fiction" (1959). From the Utne Reader's recent cover story, "Postmodernism and Beyond" (July/August 1989), to Todd Gitlin's "Hip-Deep in Post-modernism" (NYTBR 6 November 1988), what Harold Rosenberg once called "the more modern modern" has become so fashionable a notion that I was only a bit surprised to see the term applied recently to a new rock ban in the pages of a Cleveland entertainment weekly not known for its sophistication or perspicacity. Talk about immanence! Yet the concept remains troublesome, difficult to delimit let alone access, its meaning fluctuating with each effort at definition.
Enter Jerome Klinkowitz, who has for some time been a forceful advocate of postmodern fiction and who has written before on the connections between this fiction and postmodernism in the visual arts. Here, Klinkowitz seeks to characterize "the postmodern habit of thought" by apprehending its emerging aesthetic (posited against a flagging modernism) in the work of three "working critics," each a central theorist and exemplar of the postmodern. Such an approach, Klinkowitz argues, should yield a "more profitable" because "more palpable" and hence "more practical body of beliefs" than any elaboration of "the fully abstract system of an age's thought." It is a wise decision; wise too are the selections of Rosenberg, Barthes, and Hassan, diverse thinkers who nevertheless reach many similar conclusions, as Klinkowitz demonstrates. This is so [End Page 861] because what is at issue for each is "a new way of looking," one that finds that "signifiance is a quality not of the thing itself but of the human activity taking place around it." And with this perceptual shift, the recognition that all sign systems are "the result of a human activity" intent on "surrounding the world with meaning," comes a privileging of action over representation, process over product, and Barthesian significance over signification—along with a reconceptualization of the roles of both general audience and critic. Moreover, as it reaches beyond art to encompass all of reality and therefore the understanding of what it means to be human, this emerging aesthetic finds not only articulation but enactment in the work of Rosenberg, Barthes, and Hassan, whose texts are methodologically founded on fragmentation, suspended judgments, digressions, and shifts of perspective—"all as a way of putting the new aesthetic in motion."
Readers do not need me to tell them in detail what Klinkowitz tells us of what Hassan tells us of what Beckett or Henry Miller may or may not be telling us/doing to or with us. In brief, the Rosenberg chapter takes off from the redefinition of art as act; the Barthes chapter explores his dismantling of social codes and the far-reaching implications of writing seen as an intransitive verb; and the Hassan chapter confronts this critic's revisioning of art, criticism, and humanism "into something we must helplessly call posthumanism." (I might add that each chapter, although focused elsewhere, offers enough stimulating comment on modern fiction to warrant this book's review in MFS's discriminating pages.)
Rosenberg/Barthes/Hassan is in no sense a primer. Intended for those already conversant with the postmodern debate, it is a difficult book, what Barthes would call a "text of bliss": "the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader's historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language." With many points readers will want to quarrel, and at times the most syntactically straightforward assertion will, koanlike, bring one up short. For some, such passages will seem provocative aporiae; for other, less sympathetic readers the book will often exemplify the intentional obfuscation they object to in current critical prose. What I believe Klinkowitz has produced is a book manifesting just those qualities he applauds in the work both of his subjects and of the writers (and artists) they admire...