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Introduction to Focus: Thirteen Ways of Passing Postmodernism

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 4, May/June 2013
pp. 3-4 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0054

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Imagine you are driving down the interstate in the right lane. Long overdue for a tune-up, your early-1990s Mustang is also low on gas, practically running on fumes. You would rather not speed. Truth be told, you have grown comfortable with limits. A hazy memory now, your past transgressions have become mainstream. You find this quite flattering, actually, and you are slowing down a bit more so you can enjoy this feeling. But as you do so, other cars are passing you. You are not troubled by their disregard for said limits and rules—they exist to be snubbed, although not necessarily by you…not any more. You are not taking it personally either. After all, their self-aggrandizing bumper stickers speak an all-too-familiar language (“Save the ales!”). What annoys you, though, is the inconsistent style with which they zoom by. Some do signal their intent to pass, their blinkers flashing out elaborate messages encoding claims to the road ahead; others, not so much. Some appear faster than you (even the orthopedic-shoe-looking hybrids do). Others do not. Some accelerate as they overtake you, while others crawl into your lane and then drag themselves along, forcing you to tailgate. Their engines are not peppier. Neither is their design smarter than yours. And yet they are keen on leaving you in the dust.

Contrived as it may be, the automotive parable conveys the ongoing predicament of postmodernism as well as of the historian of post-Cold War literary-aesthetic traffic, interchanges, and overall sociocultural change in the U.S. and elsewhere. Indeed, many would suggest that, for some time now, we have been witnessing the weakening, if not the “passing,” of postmodernism (The Passing of Postmodernism is the title of a 2010 book by Josh Toth). The question or questions remain, however: if this passing equals a neatly demarcated exit and thus the end of an era; if the cohort of hot rods and fancy imports so eager to leave the postmodern behind—digimodernism, performatism, globalism, cosmodernism, planetarism, hypermodernism, altermodernism, etc.—are sufficiently marked stylistically, thematically, and otherwise; if the ironic, parodic, manifestly intertextual, and cross-generic discursive signals they send as they pick up speed on the highway of aesthetic and cultural history allow for an effectively individualizing profile; if authors who have driven previous shifts in taste and form and still are central to the postmodern, postcolonial, and multiethnic canons in the U.S. and abroad—from Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Chang-rae Lee, Junot Díaz, and Mark Z. Danielewski to Zadie Smith, Michel Houellebecq, Haruki Murakami, Orhan Pamuk, and Roberto Bolaño— can be cavalierly enlisted in a Paradigmenwechsel argument plausibly geared toward the supplanting of postmodernism; if, more specifically, a writer like DeLillo can be postmodern in White Noise (1985) and post-postmodern in Point Omega (2010) (whose whole point—no pun intended—is an echo to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s “point Omega” from Le Phénomène humain); if the decoupling of the postmodern and the poststructural has really occurred; if the digital, Internet-based experiments of style, format, and venue à la Jennifer Egan will ever reach critical mass or will ever amount to more than a digitalization of the postmodern; and if the much-advertised return to realism, new eclecticism, new “earnestness” or “sincerity” (and to “new weirdness” too), along with the comeback of the empathic, the ethical, and the metaphysical, and the temptation of the “post-identitarian” and of the “grand narratives” will prove enough to set off a well-configured, epoch-making paradigm shift away from postmodernism and to something else labeled truly, if awkwardly, post-postmodern.

Jeffrey T. Nealon’s Post-Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism (2012) is only the latest, Fredric Jameson-derived installment in a series of inquiries clustered around the “what comes after postmodernism?” dilemma. For a real dilemma it is, and again, one that is hardly recent. Initiated by postmodern critics themselves, disputes around postmodernism’s limitations and obsolescence started, significantly enough, at the end of the Cold War, probably with John Frow’s 1990 landmark contribution “What Was Postmodernism?” to Ian Adams and Helen...

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