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  • The Afterglow of Postmodernism in Recent Dutch and Flemish Fiction
  • Hans Bertens

The reports of postmodernism’s death are greatly exaggerated, as Mark Twain might have put it, and as a quick look at the Bibliography compiled and published under the auspices of the American Modern Language Association will confirm. The Bibliography is more in general an extraordinarily useful tool, but for those with a special interest, or perhaps simply curiosity, it has the added attraction of providing information on the frequency with which terms and phrases, literary or otherwise, occur in the periodicals and books that it searches and indexes. If you want to know how often the terms “postmodernism” and “postmodern” were used over the past thirty-five years, the Bibliography has the answers. In the 1980s (1980-89), “postmodernism” was used 732 times and “postmodern” 562 times. The next decade, 1990-99, was a bad one for those scholars and critics who sought to defend the literary-critical tradition against the onslaught of French-inspired revolutionary notions. For “postmodernism,” the counter stops at 3190, and for “postmodern,” at 2240. The new millennium did not make much of a change, at least not initially: 2000-09 has 2945 instances of “postmodernism” and 2250 instances of “postmodern.” It is only in the last five years that interest finally seems to flag, even though “postmodernism” and “postmodern” still belong to the most frequently used terms in the Bibliography’s corpus (923 and 838, respectively, but in what is only half a decade).

It must be said, though, that those figures may be misleading. Let us have a quick look at the frequencies of the related terms “poststructuralism” and “poststructuralist.” In their best decade, 1990-99, “poststructuralism” achieves a rather disappointing score of 466 and “poststructuralist” does a lot worse with a score of 218. And in the current decade, “poststructuralism” clocks in at 98 and “poststructuralist” at 69-in other words, since 2010, the Bibliography has counted fewer than 35 mentions a year for the pair. It is not far-fetched to assume that “postmodernism” or “postmodern” [End Page 426] often stand in for “poststructuralism” and “poststructuralist.” However, even if that is the case, we have every reason to believe that the critical discussion of postmodernism is far from over.

What these figures do not tell us is how postmodernism has fared and still fares in that discussion. But it is not a secret that right from the start, postmodernism and the postmodern have been highly controversial, more often than not associated with intellectual nihilism, and even with a loss of historical awareness and of genuine emotion. There have also been voices defending postmodernism-associating it with feminism, the empowerment of ethnic minorities, and other more hopeful sociocultural developments of the later twentieth century-but that defense mostly ignored the metafictional, self-reflexive postmodern fiction of the 1970s and 1980s and pointed to fiction that explicitly dealt with political issues (Bertens, “Close Encounters”). It is only more recently that a revaluation of postmodernism tout court has got underway. Almost twenty years ago, arguing that metafictional strategies do not necessarily exclude emotion, I claimed with youthful enthusiasm that “[t]he logic of postmodernism demands emotion, raw and public emotion, an emotion that crackles in front of an audience that virtually spans the world” and suggested that postmodernism “demands a contemporary equivalent of Molly Bloom in the Oprah Winfrey show, with a Leopold sitting dubiously in the front row and later, somewhat sheepishly, joining her on the stage, together with an updated version of Blazes Boylan” (Bertens, “Why Molly” 25-26). I originally presented these statements in a conference whose call for papers had opened with the claim that “[i]t is hardly surprising that displays of emotion appear to be absent from postmodernism art and postmodern discourse” (25), a claim that perfectly summarizes what at the time was almost a consensus, but which to me seemed utterly mistaken. And in a follow-up article, entitled “Close Encounters of the Wrong Kind: Poststructuralism and the Postmodern,” I suggested that that mistake was because postmodernism was almost invariably seen through a poststructuralist lens, blinding its critics to the fact that postmodern fiction was...


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