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European Postmodernism: The Cosmodern Turn

From: Narrative
Volume 21, Number 3, October 2013
pp. 271-283 | 10.1353/nar.2013.0019

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European Postmodernism:
The Cosmodern Turn

Postmodernism was the hottest item in literary studies—at least in the West, although it also made a considerable stir in China, for instance—for approximately two decades, roughly speaking from 1970 to 1990, but has been far less debated, as far as literature is concerned, since the end of the 1990s (D’haen, “(No) Postmodernism”). In many ways, it seems to me that Hans Bertens’ The Idea of the Postmodern, the first edition of which appeared in 1995, marks the end of the debate on postmodernism as a vitally alive and culturally dominant literary movement or current. Since then, multiculturalism and postcolonialism, and latterly world literature, have taken center stage in discussions of current literature. This is not to say, though, that postmodern narrative techniques, or at least techniques usually associated with forms of postmodern writing as practiced in the movement’s heyday between—say—1960 and 1990, do not continue to be used by contemporary writers. In fact, the same Hans Bertens (“Postmodern Humanism”) just recently wrote an essay in which he argues precisely such continuation, but in which he also indicates that these techniques are now being put to different ends than was the case earlier. To stay within Bertens’ own terminology as established from his earliest writings on postmodernism (1986), these same “postmodern” techniques now give expression to a different Weltanschauung. In what follows I will demonstrate as much with regard to two recent European novels, one a [End Page 271] very well-known work in English, now turned into a major motion picture, Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell, the other a little-known work by a Flemish author, Paul Verhaeghen, published in Flemish in the same year as Mitchell’s novel, and translated by the author himself into English in 2007 with the same title as the original Flemish version: Omega Minor.

To begin with, we should note that no single narrative technique has ever been branded as unique to postmodernism. Rather, what has come to define postmodernism, according to contemporary critical movements such as post-structuralism, is a combination of any number of techniques that were seen as innovative and perhaps even transgressive, especially with regard to all forms of referentiality, be it reference to some “real” reality as in realism or to a “psychological” reality as in modernism. Drawing on discussions by Leslie Fiedler (1975), Ihab Hassan (1971, 1975, 1980, 1987), Douwe Fokkema (1984, 1986), Allen Thiher (1984), Linda Hutcheon (1988), Brian McHale (1987), David Lodge (1977), Alan Wilde (1981), and others, and simplifying matters a great deal, I would argue, then, that the following features are generally regarded as marking postmodernism: self-reflexiveness, metafiction, eclecticism, redundancy, multiplicity, discontinuity, fragmentation, indeterminacy, intertextuality, parody, the dissolution of character and narrative instance, the erasure of boundaries—especially between high and low, but also between genres—and the de-stabilization of the reader. If the list of works from which I have culled this enumeration by now seems rather dated, this is because after 1988, the publication date of Hutcheon’s Poetics of Postmodernism, there have hardly been any new “technical” discussions of postmodernism. Rather, following Fredric Jameson’s 1984 “Post-modernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”—itself largely dependent upon Jean-François Lyotard’s La condition postmoderne (1979) and Jürgen Habermas’s subsequent reaction to Lyotard in his 1980 Frankfurt lecture, “Modernity versus Postmodernity” (published as “Modernity—An Incomplete Project” in 1981)—critical attention with regard to postmodernism has been directed to, precisely, the Weltanschauung or worldview supposedly linked to this particular combination of techniques. Jameson, following Habermas, and in contrast to Lyotard, evaluates this worldview entirely negatively, denying it any “critical” purchase on the world because of the supposedly “free play” of language—sometimes also labeled “anything goes”—to which it subscribes. For Jameson, postmodern literature serves as a symptom of the disease afflicting our era: it is representative of contemporary society to the degree it represents the gap that obtains between reality and representation. In addition, postmodern literature is complicit in the creation and perpetuation of this society: as it does not succeed in re-connecting the reader to...