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356Philosophy and Literature Irony and the Discourse ofModernity, by Ernst Behler; viii & 168 pp. Seatde: University of Washington Press, 1990, $20.00. The argument of this book is based on two interrelated claims: (1) that postmodernism is an integral part of our self-reflective modern consciousness, and (2) that the structure ofthe discourse in which such consciousness articulates itself is necessarily paradoxical: "Postmodernity therefore reveals itself as an ironic notion communicating indirecdy, by way of circumlocution, configuration , and bafflement, the necessity and impossibility of discussing the status of modernity in a straightforward and meaningful manner" (p. 5). It follows from these premises that we must give up the hope of ever conceptualizing postmodernity as a distinct historical "period." But precisely Behler's reluctance to construe the relationship between modernity and postmodernity in terms of a simple historical chronology enables him to situate the discourse of postmodernity within a tradition reaching as far back as the verybeginnings ofmodernity. Focusing on the Lyotard/Habermas controversy, the introductory chapter presents a lucid exposition ofthe complex issues involved in the current debates on postmodernism, thus setting the stage for an argument designed to debunk the Habermasian concept of modernity as a "desperate effort to reaffirm the modern position of rational enlightenment" (p. 23). Like Habermas in his Philosophical Discourse ofModernity, Behler presents a historical narrative in order to explore "the status of our modernity, and our relation to the tradition" (p. vii), and both authors locate the postmodern turn at the point where modernity becomes self-reflexive. But whereas Habermas is driven by the desire for a "new metanarrative" that would overcome modernity's repeated failures to ground itself, Behler explicitly aligns himself with those thinkers whom Habermas disavows for having betrayed modernity's emancipatory potential: Nietzsche, Derrida, and Friedrich Schlegel. The result is a narrative that insists on the close interrelation between the rise of modernity and the emergence of a literary modernism in the context of European romanticism. As Behler argues in his second chapter, the notion of modernity commonly associated with Bacon and Descartes does not develop into a "fully developed sense of modernism" (p. 39) until the battle between the ancients and the moderns has been decided in the field of romantic literature and criticism. And no sooner has modernity come into its own than it gives rise to the emergence of an ironic, subversive counter-discourse "that implies a critique of any straightforward type of modernism " (p. 59). It is the central thesis of this book that the postmodern radicalization of this critique constitutes a continuation rather than a break with the romantic literary tradition, a tradition based on the discursive mode of irony. This provocative claim—both Nietzsche and Derrida avoid the term irony precisely because of Reviews357 its "romantic" connotations—becomes less puzzling, however, in light of the two final chapters of the book. While the third traces the genealogy of the concept of irony from its origins in classical antiquity to the point where it becomes "almost coextensive with literature itself" (p. 73), the closing chapter explores the relationship between irony and self-referentiality through a detailed analysis of Derrida's writings. What unites the Derridean strategy of writing "under erasure" with the fragmentary discourse of Friedrich Schlegel and Nietzsche's notorious play with masks is an irony that no longer indicates a figure ofspeech but a common rhetorical strategy, the signature ofa discourse that has accepted the charge of self-referentiality as an inescapable condition of our modern/postmodern consciousness. By reformulating the question "What is postmodernism?" in terms of the concept ofirony, Behler provides an intriguing perspective on the "Postmodern Condition" (Lyotard) although, or perhaps precisely because, he never squarely answers the question. Instead, he ends with an ironic note that blurs the boundaries between modernity and postmodernity to the point of total oblivion by proclaiming Plato as the "initiator of the postmodern epoch" (p. 150). A conclusion of this sort may be somewhat unsettling, but those who contest it would have to carry the burden of proof that it is indeed possible, to paraphrase Friedrich Schlegel, to speak about irony without irony. Indiana UniversityEva M. Knodt The Politics of Being: The Political Thought of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 356-357
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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