- The Tribe of Pyn: Literary Generations in the Postmodern Period by David Cowart, and: The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism by Brian McHale
As was to be expected, the free-for-all triggered by the late 1990s-early 2000s exaggerated reports on postmodernism's death after the end of the Cold War is becoming better structured and more plausible critically speaking once the recognized authorities on the phenomenon—on its literary component in particular—are getting into the fray more methodically. Recent books by David Cowart and Brian McHale are a good case in point. Linda Hutcheon and McHale have already joined the controversy with short interventions, but such a thorny matter can be sorted out neither in articles nor in essay collections. We need the monographs. But we [End Page 332] need them, I would suggest, also, if not especially, from those critics already intellectually—and perhaps sentimentally also—committed to that on which others have been writing solely obituaries.
The Tribe of Pyn: Literary Generations in the Postmodern Period and The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism are two of such books. One learns from them, among other things, what it means to make balanced, lucidly historicized arguments in a sense that does justice to that objective or, rather, objectual history, that is, the history of the object itself, as well as to a more subjective history, which splices up the history of postmodernism and the professional narrative of the post-modern critics themselves. To be sure, this raises the deontological issue of a scholarly conflict of interest of sorts: if you have built a nationally and internationally acclaimed career by writing about postmodernism as Cowart and McHale certainly have, and if, in so doing, you have admittedly "identified" with what you have been attending to so successfully, then how prepared are you to certify its demise? My hunch is that both critics must have confronted this question one way or the other. In fact, the conscientious effort to elaborate with detachment on postmodernism and its waning is as obvious in their 2015 volumes as conspicuous is how hard others jockey for position on the critical scene so as to beat the odds in what McHale appropriately calls the "name-that-period sweepstakes" (176). Otherwise, naming said period, the "new thing" "supplanting the postmodern," as the title of a 2015 Bloomsbury volume of essays reads, need not necessarily mean rushing to name it or scrambling to brand something that may well fit comfortably under available classifications, denominations, and paradigms. "Trivial" (175) to the extent the name-giver assumes or hopes the success of his or her critical undertaking hinges on the novelty of the onomastic venture and, more broadly, of the cultural period or model he or she feels compelled to discover and introduce us to, the will to name and even to copyright the new label remains understandable and descriptively important, as McHale himself recognizes.
Not only is this probably truer of postmodern and contemporary studies than of other fields, but, in this area, it also makes for a bigger challenge insofar as toiling in the bowels of the immediate present deprives one of the clarifying distance and sense of balance required when one is willy-nilly invested either in what has been (and hopefully still is) or, alternatively, in that which must come about now and must be radically different from what has been so that one can dissertate with panache, make a splash, perchance a career. This is why the quickly expanding literature around postmodernism's last gasp is, roughly speaking, polarized around offhand denial and wishful thinking, with some opportunistic interpellations coming from the left field of (new) modernist studies, which have added to the "post-postmodern" brouhaha the notion that the postmodern's twenty-first-century [End Page 333] exit is just another proof that postmodernism has never been more than a blip on the modernist radar, an epistemological fluke for critics who just...