A Postmortem on Postmodernism

[Back in 2014, I organized a workshop here at Williams College on Theory After Postmodernism. Having gotten The Myth of Disenchantment off my desk, I’ve returned to my manuscript project (“Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory after Postmodernism“) which directly focuses on that subject. Although my comments from the workshop probably won’t make it into the new manuscript, I thought my opening remarks were worth posting here for those interested. I’ve made just a few modest changes.]

In Die Krisis der europäischen Kultur (The crisis of European culture), the German philosopher Rudolf Pannwitz described what he saw as a catastrophe afflicting European intellectual and cultural life, and he argued that global capitalism, shallow materialism, and conflicting nationalisms had produced an ethical vacuum. Moreover, he faulted the European philosophical academy for its inability to produce a sufficiently robust moral philosophy to resist the relativizing onslaught. Strikingly, Pannwitz suggested that this collective zeitgeist had spawned a new type of person, stating: “The postmodern man is an encrusted mollusk, a happy medium of decadent and barbarian swarming out from the natal whirlpool of the grand decadence of the radical revolution of European nihilism.” While the prose is rather florid, Pannwitz might seem to be describing our contemporary epoch, especially by connecting the postmodern with nihilism and a pervasive ethical disaster, and it is not hard to find thinkers who use similar terms to describe the current era as being in a “postmodern crisis.”[i]

The problem is that Pannwitz wrote this account in 1917, not 1987, much less 2017. The appearance of this text and even its term postmodern a century ago allows us to see that the postmodern condition is far from new. Nor was Pannwitz the only one. The first English book with “Postmodernism” in its title came out in 1926. Indeed, like the almost imperceptible tremors that anticipate a major earthquake, tantalizing references to the “postmodern” or “postmodernists” (Sp. postmodernista) began appearing more than a half century before the term would attain common currency in the 1970s.[ii]

Criticizingpostmodernism” is far from novel. On strictly philological grounds, what these examples show is that the term “postmodern” became lexically available shortly after 1901 when variants on the term “pre-modern” appeared and came into common usage in a number of European linguistic repertoires.[iii] By becoming the quintessential periodization, “modernity” was read as a fundamental rupture from the past, but accordingly it became possible to imagine its future eclipse.

I have another project [“The Myth of Disenchantment”] that challenges notions of “modernity” as rupture,[iv] but what I’d like to do this morning is talk about the function of “postmodernism” in the contemporary Euro-American academy. So while you eat your bagels and drink your coffee, I want to warm up our workshop by sorting through a host of terminology—from deconstruction to poststructuralism to postmodernism and then gesturing toward a simple argument—that no matter how you consider it, the “postmodern” period is over and the central theoretical commitments we associate with “postmodernism” have collapsed. In this respect, I’d like to begin with an autopsy to figure out what postmodernism was, which should help us think about where we should be heading.

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