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  • Postmodernism, Ethnicity and Underground Revisionism In Ishmael Reed
  • David Mikics

I. Ish and Ism

Ishmael Reed is a postmodern writer; he is also an African-American writer. The purpose of this essay is to reflect on the conjunction between these two roles in Reed’s work—and the somewhat surprising fact that they are in conjunction more than in conflict. Postmodernism, with its definition of the contemporary world as a realm of fragmentation, disassociation, and the post-personal, seems to dissolve the cultural continuities of community and individual ego to which earlier artistic eras remained loyal. Postmodernism, in other words, declares the death of cultural authenticity. African-American literature, by contrast, often seems to value cultural authenticity as a means of ensuring communal and individual self-assertion in the black diaspora.1 Reed’s work suggests how African- American tradition, which generally—not always, but generally—wants to depict the survival of a people and a culture in its original, authentic strength, can be reconciled with postmodernism, which destroys the notions of origin, authenticity and tradition itself.

Since the African-American tradition is posited by Reed as a definitive cultural value often repressed or distorted by modern mass culture, a value that can in some sense act as a critique of capitalist modernization, an allied question (one subject to much recent debate) will be whether Reed’s postmodernism damages the critical capacity of his project.2 Can postmodern techniques be the vehicle for a cultural critique, or must they be “affirmative,” acquiescing in the deterioration of art and political speech into commodities under late capitalism?

I have found the theory of Jurgen Habermas useful in posing these questions. In particular, Habermas’ distinction between a “lifeworld” of everyday experiential practice and a systemic, administrative complex that embodies the managerial necessities of late capitalism, and continually encroaches upon or threatens the lifeworld, seems to be replicated in Reed’s distinction (in his novel The Terrible Twos) between African-American subcultural experience and a destructive mass culture ruled by the commercial system. Habermas’ work is a sustained attempt to seek a means of resuscitating the lifeworld that has been impoverished by the managerial priorities of the welfare state (priorities that Reed aptly sees encoded in the pacifying, tepid character of many mass cultural forms).3 In this attempt, Habermas champions aesthetic modernity, with its emphasis on the unique, autonomous individual, as a more helpful lifeworld response to modernization processes than the postmodern dissolution of the individual as a category.

For Habermas, postmodernism is “affirmative”: that is, it tends to mimic the purely negative dispersal of subjective freedom enforced by modernization (the ability to consume what one wants) instead of asserting the critical potential implied by the more positive side of such modernization (the ability to think what one wants). Modernization’s corrosive effect on traditional cultural continuities also entails a democratic emphasis on individuality within intersubjective relations, and therefore, Habermas claims, any critical response to modernity must capitalize on its positive aspect, the promise of more intellectual autonomy for the individual, who now judges culture and its prejudices from a distance. According to Habermas’s argument, criticism within aesthetic modernity takes its most legitimate and useful form when it secures the rights of the individual subject to reevaluate and revise culture in a way that champions the power of the lifeworld while acknowledging the lifeworld’s confrontation with the social rationalization process. The need to acknowledge the effects of rationalization and modernization means that this advocacy of the lifeworld must not take the neoconservative form of an attempt to revive a cultural tradition in an unreconstructed way, for such an attempt would have to ignore the dangerous effects that modernization has already had on the lifeworld, its destabilizing of tradition.4

As I will suggest, Reed is certainly in accord with Habermas’ idea of a critically self-revising tradition, in Reed’s case African-American tradition, as the necessary form of an effective contemporary invocation of the lifeworld. But his work challenges Habermas’ assumption that such critical use of tradition must be coupled with the assertion of an autonomous modernist self. Reed suggests a subcultural rather than an individualist answer to the destructive...

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