RT:What Was Postmodernism?

【This is a perspective of looking at Postmodernism by contrasting postmodernism's canonization with critical constructions of modernism.】

What Was Postmodernism?



Let me begin by quoting from a novel written by a friend of mine, Raymond Federman. Raymond will turn 80 in 2008. Though his name is much less recognizable today than it once was, back in the ’70s Federman was relatively famous, or notorious, at least in some literary circles, as a member of the first generation of American postmodernists. By a great irony of history, Federman’s writing is better known today in Europe, especially in Germany, than it is in the States. Though I call Federman a postmodernist, Raymond himself preferred to call the kind of writing he did surfiction, a coinage that never really caught on. Let me quote from his novel, Aunt Rachel’s Fur (2001). The premise is this: an aspiring novelist, obviously a version of Federman himself, returns to his native country, France, 10 years after he has left it to emigrate to the United States. Internal evidence indicates that the year is 1958, but somehow the Federman character knows all about the rise and fall of postmodernism, which wouldn’t happen until decades later. This isn’t the only deliberate anachronism in this novel; in fact, deliberate anachronism is one of the features that marks it as a postmodernist novel. At one point, the Federman character unleashes a tirade against the assistant editor of a French publishing house, named Gaston, who has just turned down the manuscript of Federman’s first novel because it is “too postmodern” – a term that wasn’t yet current in 1958. The Federman character says:

So you find my novel too postmodern, wrong again Gaston, you’ve arrived too late, we are already beyond postmodernism, it’s dead, dead and gone, don’t you know, it’s been buried, where have you been, and that’s precisely the problem for literature today, now that postmodernism is dead, writers don’t know how to replace it, the disappearance of postmodernism was devastating for the writers, but it was not surprising, it was expected to happen for some time, the last gasp happened the day Samuel Beckett changed tense [Dec. 22, 1989 – BMcH] and joined the angels, I can give you an exact date if you want to, postmodernism died because Godot never came…


It was sad to see postmodernism disappear before we could explain it, I kind of liked postmodernism, I was happy in the postmodern condition, as happy if not happier than in the previous condition, I don’t remember what that was called but I was glad to get out of it, and now here we are again faced with a dilemma, what shall we call this new thing towards which we are going, this new thing I haven’t seen yet, did you see it Gaston, what can we call it, postpostmodernism seems a bit too clumsy, and popomomo not serious enough, I thought of calling this new condition The People’s Revolution Number Four […] but I’m afraid that Gallimard or some other big bookseller already has these names under copyright, in any case I think the name of this new condition that’s about to descend upon us should have the word new in it, what do you think, Gaston…


How about The New Novelty […] or maybe The Postnovelty, or better yet The New Post-future, somebody suggested Avant-Pop, I find that too familiar, you see the difficulty, if we must name that beast looming in front of us […] we better hurry, otherwise it’ll be too late and we’ll already have reached the next new post-condition, the one that will follow what we are unable to name… (245-46)

I don’t know whether Raymond is right about postmodernism being “dead and gone.” I’m not even sure whether he’s serious about this; or rather, I’m sure that he isn’t serious, but I’m not sure in what way. But Raymond is certainly right about one thing: it would be sad to see postmodernism disappear before we tried to explain it. Continue reading