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Philosophy and Literature 25.1 (2001) 1-13

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From Postmodernism to Postmodernity: The Local/Global Context

Ihab Hassan


What Was Postmodernism? What was postmodernism, and what is it still? I believe it is a revenant, the return of the irrepressible; every time we are rid of it, its ghost rises back. Like a ghost, it eludes definition. Certainly, I know less about postmodernism today than I did thirty years ago, when I began to write about it. This may be because postmodernism has changed, I have changed, the world has changed.

But this is only to confirm Nietzsche's insight, that if an idea has a history, it is already an interpretation, subject to future revision. What escapes interpretation and reinterpretation is a Platonic Idea or an abstract analytical concept, like a circle or a triangle. Romanticism, modernism, postmodernism, however, like humanism or realism, will shift and slide continually with time, particularly in an age of ideological conflict and media hype.

All this has not prevented postmodernism from haunting the discourse of architecture, the arts, the humanities, the social and sometimes even the physical sciences; haunting not only academic but also public speech in business, politics, the media, and entertainment industries; haunting the language of private life styles like postmodern cuisine--just add a dash of raspberry vinegar. Yet no consensus obtains on what postmodernism really means.

The term, let alone the concept, may thus belong to what philosophers call an essentially contested category. That is, in plainer language, if you put in a room the main discussants of the concept--say Leslie Fiedler, Charles Jencks, Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard, Bernard Smith, Rosalind Krauss, Fredric Jameson, Marjorie Perloff, Linda Hutcheon and, just to [End Page 1] add to the confusion, myself--locked the room and threw away the key, no consensus would emerge between the discussants after a week. But a thin trickle of blood might appear beneath the sill.

Let us not despair: though we may be unable to define or exorcise the ghost of postmodernism, we can approach it, surprising it from various angles, perhaps teasing it into a partial light. In the process, we may discover a family of words congenial to postmodernism. Here are some current uses of the term:

1. Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (Spain), Ashton Raggatt McDougall's Storey Hall in Melbourne (Australia), and Arata Isozaki's Tsukuba Center (Japan) are considered examples of postmodern architecture. They depart from the pure angular geometries of the Bauhaus, the minimal steel and glass boxes of Mies van der Rohe, mixing aesthetic and historical elements, flirting with fragments, fantasy, and even kitsch.

2. In a recent encyclical, titled "Fideset Ratio," Pope John Paul II actually used the word postmodernism to condemn extreme relativism in values and beliefs, acute irony and skepticism toward reason, and the denial of any possibility of truth, human or divine.

3. In cultural studies, a highly politicized field, the term postmodernism is often used in opposition to postcolonialism, the former deemed historically feckless, being unpolitical or, worse, not politically correct.

4. In Pop culture, postmodernism--or PoMo as Yuppies call it insouciantly--refers to a wide range of phenomena, from Andy Warhol to Madonna, from the colossal plaster Mona Lisa I saw advertising a pachinko parlor in Tokyo to the giant, cardboard figure of Michelangelo's David--pink dayglo glasses, canary shorts, a camera slung across bare, brawny shoulders--advertising KonTiki Travel in New Zealand.

What do all these have in common? Well, fragments, hybridity, relativism, play, parody, pastiche, an ironic, anti-ideological stance, an ethos bordering on kitsch and camp. So, we have begun to build a family of words applying to postmodernism; we have begun to create a context, if not a definition, for it. More impatient or ambitious readers can consult Hans Bertens' The Idea of the Postmodern, the best and fairest [End Page 2] introduction I know to the topic. But now I must make my second move or feint to approach postmodernism from a different perspective.


Postmodernism/Posmodernity. I make this move by...


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