- “The Shibboleth of Liberation”: Calinescu’s Postmodernism
The first issue of William V. Spanos’ journal boundary 2 (1972–73)published two ground-breaking essays distinguishing between modernism and postmodernism—David Antin’s often reprinted “Modernism and Postmodernism: Approaching the Present in American Poetry” and Charles Altieri’s “From Symbolist Thought to Immanence: The Ground of Postmodern American Poetics.” Both made the case for a “new” poetics substantively different from the neo-modernist work of poets like Robert Lowell and W. D. Snodgrass, Randall Jarrell and John Berryman. Altieri’s essay suggests that the generically symbolist mode characteristic of modernism—the mode whereby a given image or cluster of images in a poem pointed to something outside itself in the “real” world, was being replaced by a poetics of presence, of immanence, the old relationship between signifier and signified having broken down.
I myself was very taken with this argument. Antin demonstrated with great wit and energy that Lowell’s “history collage” poems were attenuated versions of T.S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s collage—a collage that, in the post-World War II era, had lost its original impetus. La Condition postmoderne, as Jean-François Lyotard called it in his 1979 book by that name, seemed to describe perfectly the loss of faith in some form of essentialist truth and the decline of the great metanarratives of modernity. In the various art forms of the seventies and eighties, “postmodern” became the adjective of choice to define the New. I was writing, in those days, about “postmodern lyric” from Zukofsky and Oppen, to O’Hara and Ashbery, to the Language poets, the antagonist being, not the great modernists, but the Establishment poets of mid-century who followed in their wake—poets who wrote as if the vast upheavals that characterized the early twentieth century had never occurred.
In the seventies, Ihab Hassan was producing his famous tables juxta-posing a modernist column to a postmodernist one: the City versus the Global Village, Closure versus Openness, Transcendence versus Immanence, Hierarchy versus Anarchy, and so on. Stravinsky was a modernist, Cage a postmodernist; Bauhaus aesthetic was modernist, Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas (1977) postmodernist. Thinking in postmodernist terms allowed for a seemingly “new” radical art. Ironically, however, David Antin’s great exemplar of “postmodernist” aesthetic was not a contemporary like Jackson Mac [End Page 277] Low or Jerome Rothenberg, but Gertrude Stein, whose Tender Buttons, which Antin discusses in his essay, dates from 1914. Altieri’s model twentieth-century poet was and remains Wallace Stevens, and I myself traced what I called “the poetics of indeterminacy” (originally I called it “the other tradition”) back to Rimbaud, Pound, and Stein.
Indeed, from the vantage point of 2010, what so many of us called “postmodernism” was really the “other” modernism—and not wholly other either, since, as the decades have turned, Baudelaire seems more “modern” (and hence postmodern?) than ever, and Eliot, the whipping boy of the early postmodernists, who saw him as an elitist, conservative, and retro poet, is once again very popular. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land: has the modernism of these poems been surpassed in the English-speaking world? And the John Ashbery I had somewhat glibly placed among the poets of the “other tradition” had obviously learned a great deal from Eliot.
It was one of the great merits of Matei Calinescu’s Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, and Kitsch (1977), the seminal study to which, for the second edition (1987), the author somewhat reluctantly added a post-chapter called “On postmodernism,” to have understood, all along, that “Postmodernism” was a problematic term. Or rather—and here Calinescu was especially prescient—he understood that there are “two conflicting and interdependent modernities—one socially progressive, rationalistic, competitive, technological; the other culturally critical and self-critical, bent on demystifying the basic values of the first” (Faces 265). Self-declared postmodernists set themselves against the “autonomy” of the second, not really taking into account their own relationship to the first. Thus, as Calinescu says with fine irony,
Such an optimistic apocalyptic interpretation of the term postmodern [as Charles Olson’s...