Commentaries Education

Ihab Hassan: Notes by Alex Hall and Caleb Berkemeier

(Note: These two entries were chosen as the two Best Journal Responses in my Graduate course on Postmodernism and are posted here with the authors’ permission. This entry should be read in conjunction with Postmodernism: Introductory Notes” and the  earlier entry on Ihab Hassan)

By Alex Hall

In “Toward a Concept of Postmodernism,” from Ihab Hassan’s /The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture/ (1987), Hassan attempts to outline a concept of postmodernism “by putting forth certain queries” (class handout 1), which are articulated in the very first paragraph of Hassan’s essay. To paraphrase the interests of each query, we might say that Hassan is interested in 1) the perceivable contrast between modernism and postmodernism, 2) whether the very term “postmoderism” is an apt title for that which comes after modernism, 3) whether we can even hope to coherently describe that which we then call “postmodernism,” 4) how postmodernism relates to high modernism, and 5) the complications inherent in an attempt to define postmodernism.

In a somewhat playful way, Hassan demonstrates the fragmentary nature of postmodernism by compiling a long list of names that might be associated with it, concluding that such a list hardly helps to organize the postmodern debate. Nevertheless, he does attempt to determine the history of the term, pointing to various uses he has discovered in history. Still, as Hassan notes, the very naming of a phenomenon such as postmodernism might be an attempt to apprehend its fragmentation—a taming of the beast akin to the power wizards have over the natural world in Ursula Le Guin’s /Earthsea/ novels. This brings up Hassan’s discussion of the “will and counter-will to intellectual power” (class handout 2), which is challenged by that inherent fragmentary nature of postmodernism to which I keep returning. If the phenomenon itself contains a fragmentary nature that we acknowledge while we discover our own failure to apprehend the “intellectual power” via reification of term/concept, then this brings up a chief component of postmodernism, which Hassan points out: self-reflexivity.

Hassan attempts to outline ten “conceptual problems that both conceal and constitute postmodernism itself” (class handout 3), which are thus linked to the self-reflexivity of postmodernism. I will not paraphrase them all here, for I am not summarizing the article so much as attempting to draw attention to some of its fundamentals. However, I do want to bring up a point that has struck me several times since class began. At the University of Arkansas, where I earned my Master’s degree, my advisor, Professor M. Keith Booker (who has between thirty and forty books in print on everything from science fiction and postmodern pop culture to African literature and Vargas Llosa), used to say (and this may have been him paraphrasing someone else) that any attempt to DO modernism would necessarily result in POSTmodernism. The reason I bring this up here is because Hassan is referring in the ten conceptual problems to self-reflexivity, and even notes that some authors may write both a modern and postmodern work. In one sense, he is referring to Joyce’s ability to sort of cross over. Still, I cannot help but wonder if there is some validity to the idea that an attempt to write a “modern” fiction would result in its inherent postmodernity precisely because of the self-reflexive intent?

In any case, Hassan next moves to outlining “three modes of artistic change in the last hundred years” (class handout 5)—avant-garde, modern, and postmodern—which leads him to the famous binary division chart between modernism and postmodernism that, while potentially problematic by its very binary nature, is at least useful as a start to thinking about the differences between the two. Still, Hassan sees it as necessary to explain his neologism—”indetermanence”—the tendency of which is the tendency of postmodernism (class handout 6). The term is explained as the fusion or “interplay” of two postmodern “tendencies”—”indeterminancy” and “immanence” (class handout 7). These two tendencies are explained to an extent by Hassan, but we might be well served to discuss them in class.

In the end, it seems that Hassan is as unsure about postmodernism as is everyone, though he does have some concrete ideas.

Works Cited

Hassan, Ihab. /The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture/. Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State University Press, 1987. Print.

By Caleb Berkemeier

In his brief yet illuminating essay “Toward a Concept of Postmodernism”, Ihab Hassan takes on the definitional problem of postmodernism—what is it, when did it begin, is it a disinterested and autonomous movement, or is it an interested construction of its adherents and practitioners? On the first page we are presented with a formidable list of these practitioners, many of whom differ widely with one another in theme and purpose and who, collectively, could not by name and particular theory alone constitute a postmodern paradigm. But what they can do is “evoke a number of related cultural tendencies, a constellation of values, a repertoire of procedures and attitudes” (1). This is the basic intent of Hassan’s essay—not to find a coherent articulation of postmodernism in the summation of particularized theories about postmodernism, but to demonstrate what he calls a “seachange” in the collective theme of those particularized theories that indicate a new paradigm.

A shift in paradigm is deeply historical in that it depends on what occurred or is occurring to determine what will occur. Hassan’s initial theory of history is that it “moves in measures both continuous and discontinuous” (1); that is, if postmodernism is in fact a reality of our social existence, this does not mean that institutions and traditions of the past cease to affect the present. In this practical sense, postmodernism is not ahistorical—it ranges over all literary and historical periods, appropriating what it finds in the past and, in the words of Linda Hutcheon, uses and abuses those modes in order to subvert the present system. And by this very act postmodernism proves its sense of history—if the past no longer functioned as a formative force in postmodernity, the postmodern appropriation and interested use of the past would be utterly irrelevant.

Major schools of thought and intellectual movements are subject to change or revision by posterity. If this were not so then, Hassan points out, history would be endlessly repetitive, lacking that essential quality of change that makes it history (1). The articulation of this revision takes us back to Hassan’s definitional problem of postmodernism, the question of its coming into existence as a result of interested construction. He says that there is a “will to power” in the articulation of postmodernism that depends on the “psychopolitics of academic life” that includes all of the arbitrary boundaries erected by those in power, all of the inclusive or exclusive theory and practice that is a support for and a manifestation of the current academic and social culture (2). Perhaps this might be a shocking revelation to some, that a literary or social movement could be an interested construction of those in power. But to assert this is not to revert to a childish vision of conspiratorial manipulation by a secretive oligarchy. Rather, it is to lay bare the workings of power and its pervasiveness, especially in scholarly fields where the assumption is that what is articulated is automatically disinterested. This is the project of theorists like Michel Foucault and Edward Said who insist that any intellectual product “must be situated. . . within the enunciative act itself, and. . . within the broader historical, social, and political (as well as intertextual) context implied by that act and in which both theory and practice take root” (Hutcheon 75). The questioning and undermining of the enunciative act and what it inaugurates is a staple of postmodernism. This is precisely why Hassan includes the politics of the postmodern movement in the essay—postmodernism itself cannot be exempt from this “situating” act. If it were exempt, Hassan points out, then its much vaunted self-reflexivity would be an empty, hypocritical concept.

But even beyond the initial politics of the movement itself, there are questions of postmodernism’s constitution that remain highly ambiguous or contentious—at least, there were in 1987 when Hassan wrote the essay. He says that opinions among scholars on the constituent elements of postmodernism remain diverse (e.g., postmodernism is the neo-avant-garde or an extension of modernism). But perhaps what was certainly true two decades ago is becoming less significant. After all, postmodernism is now an established field in the academic world; it has its own curriculum, its own anthologies. Even the binaristic list that Hassan provides (which we are not supposed to take literally) is an example of how postmodernism—or any literary movement—receives an official definition (problematical as it may remain), as well as a sense of normalization within the acceptable parameters of standard theory and pedagogical practice. The fact that there are now people who are looking for the next movement, a “post-postmodernism” in a sense, demonstrates the actual level of normalization that has occurred within postmodernism and that allows for this kind of speculation, marginalized though it may be.

Whatever postmodernism’s official standing is among scholars at present, some of the other problems that Hassan points out are still relevant. Hassan notes that the naming of this movement is peculiar because, unlike previous antagonistic movements like romanticism and classicism, the word ‘postmodernism’ carries within it the sign of its enemy, ‘modernism’. This sharing of the root word, although it can be seen as another manifestation of postmodernism’s logic of appropriation and subversion, does raise uncomfortable questions about postmodernism’s autonomy and legitimacy as an independent movement with its own, stand-alone artistic sensibility. Hassan says elsewhere that fixed boundaries between literary movements are always illusory, yet there still remains a nagging suspicion that there is something inauthentic about postmodernism. Again, this may be attributable to its own internal logic, and postmodernism would question the very grounds upon which a charge of inauthenticity is made, but Hassan considers it an obstacle, nonetheless.

Another problem is that of periodization, not just the placement of boundaries but the fact that any boundary that one might place on a literary movement is always inadequate to the task of creating a system of perfect confinement. This is because a “period” is both diachronic and synchronic; a single author can write a modernist work and postmodernist work within their lifetime (4). It is equally possible for the temporal order of modern and postmodern production to be reversed. Hassan gives the example of an older author like Kafka who produces a postmodern text while a younger one like Updike can produce a modernist text. Examples like this are enough to explode a simple view of postmodernism as a “period” which is why Hassan is always seeking to complicate the mode. His reconciliation of the high amount of diffusion across literary “boundaries” is “a four-fold vision of complementarities, embracing continuity and discontinuity, diachrony and synchrony” (4). This is, again, Hassan’s perspective on history that can yield transformations of institutions, systems, and traditions from both diachronic and synchronic registers. History and, therefore, literary movements do not have to develop exclusively from one or the other, from the past or present. Its development is heterogonous and can overcome the rigid logic of “periodization”.

From the problems of postmodernism, Hassan turns to what the essay is truly about—putting forth his own definition of what postmodernism is. He begins with a justification and a loose periodization of his own that, in his words, gratifies “the desire to apprehend our historical presence in noetic constructs that reveal our being to ourselves” (5). He makes a distinction between three artistic movements that have existed in the last one hundred years: the avant-garde, modernism, and postmodernism. The avant-garde are designated as “those movements that agitated the earlier part of our century” (5), including Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, etc. Hassan says these movements were an anarchic attack on the bourgeois social order, furious and politically engaged. In contrast, modernism was “more stable”, “aloof”, “hieratic”, and its literary products were “Olympian” in nature (5). In contrast to modernism comes postmodernism which is “playful, paratactical, and deconstructionist” (5). According to Hassan, the postmodern shares a common purpose with the avant-garde but is distinct in its aesthetic techniques and style.

Hassan’s primary constituent elements of the postmodern are indeterminacy and immanence, both of which are closely related and mutually reinforcing. Indeterminacy is a concept of “unmaking”, subsuming within itself all of the terms that denote a falling apart, “deconstruction”, “disintegration”, “displacement”, “decreation” (7). Applied to the various logics of an earlier historical and literary moment, these processes “[affect] the body politic, the body cognitive, the erotic body, the individual psyche-the entire realm of discourse in the West” (7). In the realm of literature the consequences are severe, bringing into question everything once held to be stable. Entities like the author, audience, book, and genre no longer have a determined meaning or value, and the presuppositions, conclusions, and methodology of writing and critical theory are no longer closed systems. A further consequence of the destruction of universalized values is a reorientation of our “noetic structures” away from a transcendent world to an immanent one. Immanence is “the capacity of mind to generalize itself in symbols” (7), a way in which we can think about ourselves and our world without turning to models that exceed our materiality. Hassan explains it as a way of becoming according to our environment (7).

In a fitting conclusion, Hassan ends with a contradiction in the postmodern condition. On the one hand, postmodernism is characterized by an open and playful method and tone, even in its subversion of its appropriated forms and contents. And yet there seems to be an “antithetical movement” within postmodernism that sustains “pervasive procedures, ubiquitous interactions, immanent codes, media, languages” (8). Our world—while undergoing what Hassan calls “planetization” and “transhumanization”—is simultaneously experiencing a move toward “sects, tribes, [and] factions of every kind” (8). Again, we have come to a conclusion about postmodernism that is paradoxical, but it is a paradox with a positive signification since (according to Hassan, Hutcheon, and Cahoone) it is in the contradiction itself that postmodernism finds its highest value. And, indeed, there is value to be found in the deconstruction of rigid moral systems that are founded on exclusionary theory and practice. But what if the deconstruction of those systems does not provide enough compensation for what it might be secondarily destroying—the solidarity of the human race? This question is an allusion to the Marxist critique and, up to this point, remains unsatisfied.

Works Cited

Hassan, Ihab. The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture. Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State University Press, 1987.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Poetics of Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1988.


Postmodernism: Reading Notes by Caleb Berkemeier

By Caleb Anthony Berkemeier

(Note: This was chosen as the Best Journal Response in my Graduate course on Postmodernism and is posted here with the author’s permission. This entry should be read in conjunction with Postmodernism: Introductory Notes“)

Presently, it would be hard to find a more contentious topic of discussion than the meaning of postmodernism and its value. In his introduction to the anthology From Modernism to Postmodernism, Lawrence Cahoone attempts to bring clarity to a debate that seems to all too easily deteriorate into extreme positions. Postmodernism, for those who exist on the periphery, is a way in which the centers of power can be disrupted, overthrown, and replaced by new centers that come from the margins of a given community. For its ardent detractors, postmodernism is an empty rhetorical game that seeks to obliterate the fundamental principles and standards of all modes of knowledge, e.g. scientific, philosophical, aesthetic, cultural, theological, or political—an attack on civilization itself. Amidst these hyperbolic generalizations there exists a more intellectually modest (and effective) way of defining postmodernism that does not betray the very system it is trying to describe. It is a contextualized view that defines postmodernism as “the latest wave in the critique of the Enlightenment, the critique of the cultural principles characteristic of modern society that trace their legacy to the eighteenth century, a critique that has been going on since that time” (Cahoone 2).

And so, as a primarily intellectual critique, postmodernism is setting itself in opposition to a mode of epistemology that is itself marked by contradiction in that its principles of rationality and liberal humanism are disclosed as problematical in their exclusionary origin and practice. After all, what good is humanism if one excludes most of the peoples of the world and considers them only fit for colonization; and what good is rationality if it is casuistically used to reinforce that exclusive position of power? In this sense, critics of postmodernism who would probably identify strongly with the principles of the Enlightenment are in danger of continuing its history of exclusion. And, in the same way, those who uncritically praise postmodernism as a mere reversal of the binaries of power are in danger of recapitulating the exclusions of the Enlightenment but from new positions of power. Thus, these two perspectives on postmodernism are revealed to be two heads on the same beast. Where we can find a true alternative to both of these positions is in Cahoone’s (and many others’) position that postmodernism is an ongoing critique of systems of power that use rationality, normativity, and the cult of common sense to maintain binaristic power relations.

Cahoone gives a historical synopsis of what preceded postmodernism and how these earlier ways of thinking brought about a shift in perspective. He begins with developments in France where the structuralists were pursuing the “human sciences” from the position of culture and with techniques of scientific rigor. It was a discipline that one could use to study humanity without being reduced to the level of the natural sciences while at the same time maintaining an appearance of objectivity as opposed to the subjective science of existentialism, phenomenology, and psychoanalysis (5). In reaction to structuralism, the poststructuralists (notably Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, and Deleuze) continued the direction of this study but rejected the scientific pretentions of objectivity (the sciences are also a product of human invention). In the British/American sphere of philosophy, the positivism that was supposed to usher in an ultimate philosophy of logic was encountering problems such as the difficulty in translating experiential data into interpretive models (6-7). Also, the decline of Marxism beginning in the 1970s after the exposure of the failure of Stalinist socialism (as infamously recorded by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago) led to a “turn to the right” and the disillusionment of many who relied on the Marxist philosophy of history for their sense of purpose in life (10). What developed from these increasingly untenable systems of thought were a new and radical questioning of the presuppositions of absolute truth upon which these systems were founded.

Cahoone identifies some of the most important and well-known forms of criticism that one encounters in postmodernist texts. There is a critique of the notion that presence is of primary importance in the accumulation of knowledge, that the way in which one interprets or theorizes an experience is of secondary importance—less “real”. The postmodernist questions this common sense view and asserts that representation and construction are as important to understanding the world (14). The notion of origin is another object that has about it an aura of importance. Cahoone says that “postmodernism is intentionally superficial, not through eschewing rigorous analysis, but by regarding the surface of things, the phenomena, as not requiring a reference to anything deeper or more fundamental” (15). Thus, the postmodernist does not engage in a futile search for origins while what can be readily analyzed is ignored.

Similarly, the idea that there is such a thing as unity and that it can be theorized is a vain pursuit. Postmodernists believe that “[e]verything is constituted by relations to other things, hence nothing is simple, immediate, or totally present, and no analysis of anything can be complete or final” (15). And, finally, there is the notion of transcendence or ideal, normative concepts (i.e. truth, beauty, justice) that are disconnected from the objects and processes of judgment. The postmodernist rejects this transcendence of evaluative concepts, instead seeing those concepts as “the product of the social relations that it serves to judge” (15). This means that the evaluative concept (and the one who uses it) is not disinterested—the concept is “dependent on a certain intellectual and social context” (15) and is a manifestation of a particular historical period and position. The strategy by which postmodernists expose these objects of criticism is by focusing on a suppressed “otherness” that those in power use to define themselves (16). By refusing to accept the given or what is plainly stated in the text, the postmodernist goes to what is hidden behind the text to find what is absent, who is excluded, and how the authoritative voice constitutes its others.

Cahoone also gives us a useful categorization of the different kinds of claims that various postmodernists make. One is the historical postmodernist that claims Modernity has come to an end and that we are now in a fundamentally different political and cultural formulation of society. Then there are the methodological postmodernists who are interested in looking at the truths and beliefs of a given society and exposing their contradictions and special interests. It is a purely negative form of critique and is antirealist because “knowledge is made valid not by its relation to its objects, but by its relation to our pragmatic interests, our communal perspectives, our needs, our rhetoric” (17). Thus, a theorist like Derrida might not be as radical as one might suppose since he admits that there is no escaping logocentrism, as flawed as it might be (17). Directly opposed to this form of critique is “positive postmodernism” that does not stop at a deconstruction but goes further to offer an alternative order. Cahoone says that all three have a right to the name of postmodernist, but it is important that we know the distinctions for the sake of clarity.

In conclusion, Cahoone deals with perhaps the most overused criticism of postmodernism, that postmodernists undermine their own inquiries by claiming that there is no basis for absolute truth or objective knowledge. Cahoone says that this criticism, although valid, is a weak one because it presupposes that inquiry must follow the “normal” or “traditional” forms (21). It is a purely negative position and does not deal with the important critiques that have come from postmodernism, as if one could ignore the fact that one’s house is on fire simply because the one who alerts him to this fact is also in possession of a burning house. What we can take away from Cahoone’s introduction is a more complex definition of postmodernism as a radical critique of the existing order, a critique that has been ongoing since the time of Socrates (21). Our response to postmodernism should not be to blindly ignore its criticisms solely because they come from a paradoxical position. No matter what our personal view may be, there is much to be learned from postmodern inquiry, if we are intellectually honest.

About the Author:

Caleb Anthony Berkemeier is a graduate student of literature in the English Department of Kent State University.


Review: Time and the River

Time and the River, Heinemann/Harcourt, 2007, By Zee Edgell

Published in 2007, Time and the River is by far the most intriguing and enlightening work by the Belizean author Zee Edgell, author of highly acclaimed novel Beka Lamb. In the literary circles of United States, the slave narrative is an established form of writing that is read and discussed in the academia as well as in the popular sphere. What makes Time and the River an amazing tour de force is the complex thematic foci mobilized to enlighten us about the nature, functioning, and consequences of the Belizean slave economy.

Based on real-life figures from Belizean history, the novels three main characters–Leah, Will, and Sharper–teach us not just the nature of human existence under oppression but also about the destructive power of slavery as an institution and its undeniable connection to the rise of early mercantile capitalism.

Leah, the main character, is probably the most complex character in the novel: she grows up as a slave and eventually, through her marriage to a slave owner, ends up inheriting more than three hundred slaves. Edgell, using court records and other archives, reconstructs for us the experiences of a female gendered subject who does earn her freedom but is not free enough to exercise her full agency as she does not free her slaves until after her death. Leah perplexes the readers as she defies our basic hope that when the oppressed are free of oppressors, they will not become oppressors themselves. But through her we learn the all-important lesson: slavery does not end simply because it is abolished or if one has gained one’s freedom. Instead, true human freedom arrives only when the structures of the material culture that underwrite slavery are altered and restructured.

Another important aspect of the novel is that it teaches us about a different kind of slavery: that of timber extraction instead of plantation slavery. The entire edifice of Belize’s colonial economy was built around the extraction and export of mahogany. The slaves were employed to locate, cut, and move the trees to the harbor for export to Europe. This mechanism involved housing slaves in forest encampments and created a hierarchy of jobs performed by the slaves: highest on this graded scale was the role of the spotters who located suitable mahogany trees in the thick forest. Thus, the slaves were not as closely monitored as their counterparts in the Caribbean cane economy or as those in the cotton fields of American south. The slaves were also free to move about in the towns and could also learn a trade and purchase their freedom. None of this implies that their experience of slavery was any less dehumanizing than that of their counterparts elsewhere.

Will and Sharper are two characters whose real historical names are used in the novel. Edgell’s reason, as shared with me in an email: “I kept the names Will and Sharper because a number of young people would know about them from one of their elementary history books, in which Will and Sharper  are listed as Belizean heroes of the last known slave revolt in Belize,
in 1820.”
Will and Sharper also represent two different slave subjectivities: that of a captured slave and of the one who was born as a slave respectively. Will, the perpetual fighter, was captured in Africa when he was twelve and thus retains a part of his cultural memory of his free life. Throughout the novel, during all his revolts, he struggles with the loss of his cultural memory as he slowly starts forgetting the faces of his family, even that of his mother. His story then is also a personalized account of loss of a self through the process of slavery informing us what happens when a people are deracinated and thrown into a new world without any connection to their primary culture or a bank of narratives and stories essential to articulating an individual and collective identity.

On the whole, Time and the River is a fascinating exploration of selfhood, heroism, and traumas of slavery and a fitting tribute to the resilient spirits of those who never gave up their quest for freedom no matter what the circumstances. The novel also teaches us another important lesson: slavery is not over and continues in the form of wage slavery all over the world and that like Will and Sharper,  we all must come together, even when the odds are impossible, to fight oppression wherever it exists.