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  • Positions on Postmodernism

What follows is a written exchange among the editors about the contents of the first issue of Postmodern Culture. It is called a “postface” because it is meant to be read after the other items in the issue; we hope it will serve as a preface to discussion among other readers.


Several of the works in this issue imply that there is a dynamic relationship between the decentered individual or event generally celebrated by postmodernity and some governing ideal, a hidden ground that operates through these texts. Kipnis, for instance, argues finally not only that the body is a text, or that intellectual history has a body, but also that there are “moments in the social body”— intellectual constructs which organize history as an idea, more than just the sum of its parts. She shows an interest in “TRANSITION,” and not just in particulars, and those transitions—which are explicitly staged in her medium—imply some organizing principle.


I find it provocative to consider whose bodies, and what relationships between them, are represented in these essays. For example, Kipnis’s narrative movement back and forth from Marx to his maid Helene to late twentieth century teenage girls suggests, to me at least, a feminization of Marx’s body (feminists have argued that women’s bodies are sites for masculine writing, but here, Marx’s body, like the anorectic’s, occupies the position of tablet for cultural text).


I’d agree that Kipnis is making a connection between particular male bodies and particular female bodies as “tablets for cultural text,” but I’m not sure the movement between particulars amounts to the projection of a “governing ideal, a hidden ground” that Eyal sees here. It strikes me that many of these writers (Acker, English, Kipnis, even Yudice) emphasize the rude eruptions and crude particulars of the body in a way that is anything but idealizing. And while I agree with the idea that Kipnis, and others in this issue, want to see history as having a meaning, I don’t think this necessarily involves each of these authors in a commitment to an “ideal,” or to a teleology. I think that Kipnis, Ross, hooks, and others try to establish a context, rather than a ground, for the particular.


That may be what they would say. It’s a popular position—and one that Larsen takes to task. He writes that Marxist thought criticizes Enlightenment values by offering “particular universals” (15): reason is time-bound, but it is universal at any point in time because of “the social universality of the proletariat” (6). Larsen uses this claim to indict postmodernism— which he reads much as you do here, John—as promoting contexts that are not grounds; he charges that postmodernists appeal to irrationalism instead of recognizing the claims of Marxist universals, and their irrationalism then allows them to deflect the charge against capitalism (7, 9).


As a feminist reader responding to these essays, I find myself struggling with the very tension we are talking about—between attention to the particular and a yearning, to use hooks’s word, for a transcending idea, a narrative which helps me evaluate what I read. hooks begins her essay by telling us that she is a black woman at a dinner party (which one other black person is attending). This is certainly a context, but in the end when she tells us about talking with other black people about postmodernism, context attains a kind of transcendence—hooks’s “authority of experience.” Likewise, Yudice’s focus on bulimia seems driven by a desire to understand the body’s participation in larger designs and meanings.


There is a similar impulse in several of these works. Yudice moves from class and gender to “the mystic” (5); hooks returns to “yearning” as the common condition (9); Schultz finds in Bernstein’s poem an “elegiac tone” (10); and Acker says that she is a romantic and projects that romanticism in her stand as artist- against-the-dead-world.


Acker does sound like an idealist when she asks whether “matter moving through forms [is] dead or alive,” and she sounds romantic when...

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