Commentaries Culture Politics

Auctoritas, Potestas, and the Talibanistic Imaginary (Part 1-6)*

(This is a provisional summary of what I have written on this topic so far)

In discussing the complex concept of the “State of Exception” Georgio Agamben traces the origin of current normative and central role of the State of Exception through a discussion of the two competing Roman concepts of Auctoritas and Potestas.

Auctoritas, in the sphere of private law, Agamben explains, “is the property of the auctor, that is, the person sui iuris (the pater familias) who intervenes . . . in order to confer legal validity on the act of a subject who cannot independently bring a legally valid act into being” (76).  The term, Agamben further suggests, “derives from the verb augeo: the auctor is is qui auget, the person who augments, increases, or perfects the act–or legal situation–of someone else” (76).

Having discussed the term itself, Agamben asks the following important questions: “But where does the ‘force’ of the auctor come from? And what is this power to augere? His answer provides the most important explanation of auctocritas as a signifier of a specific juridical power. He suggests that auctocritas has “nothing to do with representation” (77) nor is the “auctor’s act” “founded upon some sort of legal power vested in him to act as a representative” (77). This power to augere, Agamben suggests, “springs directly from his condition as pater” (77). Important also to note is that Agamben argues that “auctoritas is not sufficient in itself” (76), its very existence also depends on an “extraneous activity that it validates” (76). Thus the act of the auctor reaches fruition only when it, in concert with an other, completes a perfect act by validating the act itself. That is why Agamben goes on to define the perfect act as follows:

It is, then, as if for something to exist in law there must be a relationship between two elements (or two subjects): one endowed with auctoritas and one that takes the initiative in the act in the strict sense. If the two elements or two subjects coincide, then the act is perfect. However, if there is a gap or incongruity between them, the act must be completed with auctoritas in order to be valid. (76)

Thus the role of the auctor is to fill the gap between the two parties, or elements, by adding his legal weight in order to erase the inequality that might make the transaction imperfect.  The auctor, whose power is inherent to his person, thus erases the deficit in a contractual act simply by inserting his will into the act itself: like the father giving consent to marry or the teacher providing an answer. This discussion is still only pertinent to the function of auctoritas in the sphere of private law. The next part of Agamben’s discussion touches upon the role of auctoritas in public law. But before I discuss that it is important to dwell on potestas. Generally speaking, while auctocritas deals with the anomic aspects of the law, potestas deals with the laws normative functions and in Roman law both are supposed to function in a sort of dialogic embrace.

Generally speaking, while auctocritas deals with the anomic aspects of the law, potestas deals with the law’s normative functions and in Roman law both are supposed to function in a sort of dialogic embrace. Traditionally in the Roman sphere of public law, potestas was the legal power vested in the magistrates who exercised it within  the law. Imperium, military power, was the highest form of potestas. Thus, while auctoritas (the anomic aspect of the law) performed the private function of the law and was associated with all those who could claim the status of pater, potestas (the normative aspect of the law) was always related to the magistracy and could not be claimed by virtue of one’s social status. A healthy and dialogic tension between the two was necessary to maintain the social order.

Agamben further complicates the discussion of these two concepts by re-reading the interpretations of yet another Roman practice: Iustitium. Agamben explains: “The term iustitium. . . literally means ‘standstill’ or ‘suspension of the law’.” (41). In most modern assessments of the term, the term is interpreted as an act of public mourning, but Agamben explains the term against this much traversed terrain of explication. First, he explains the material circumstances within the Roman history when an iustitium was proclaimed:

Upon learning of a situation that endangered the Republic, the Senate would issue a senatus consultum ultimatum [final decree of the Senate] by which it called upon the counsels . . . and even, in extreme cases, all citizens, to take whatever measures they considered necessary for the salvation of the state. (41)

Agamben also suggests that such a decree was contingent upon a real situation that could qualify as tumultus: like an invasion or internal resurrection. So how does this practice, Agamben asks, come to be understood as public mourning? Here is what he writes about the usual readings of the term:

Indeed, with the end of the Republic, iustitium ceased to mean the suspension of law in order to cope with a tumult and the new meaning replaced the old one so perfectly that even the memory of this austere institution seems to have entirely vanished.  . . . But how did this term that was used in public law to designate the suspension of law in situations of the most extreme political necessity come to assume the more anodyne meaning of a funeral for a death in the family? (65)

While discussing several misreading and explanations of the concept as mourning, Agamben finally suggests a particular explanation of this transformation of meaning of the term from a concept related to tumult to a concept signifying a public mourning. Agamben explains this subtle meaning by discussing Augustus’s conflation of auctoritas and potestas into one person, the figure of Caesar Augustus.  By having combined the private function of auctoritas and by absorbing the public aspects of potestas unto himself, Augustus had become the very body of the law. As Augustus had made auctoritas public by ascribing to himself the role of the pater of the nation and had arrogated to himself the powers of the magistracy, in him then, the anomic and normative functions of the law are made to reside in one person and the state of exception becomes the law. His, death, therefore, is also the death of law, the death of the state of exception, as the law resides in him. Agamben describes this, while discussing Agustus’s death, as follows:

The correspondence between anomie and mourning becomes comprehensible only in the light of the correspondence between the death of the sovereign and the state of exception. The original nexus between tumultus and iustitium is still present, but the tumult now coincides with the death of the sovereign, while the suspension of the law is integrated into the funeral ceremony. (68)

In a way, then, Agamben explains, by appropriating all powers and by making exception the norm the sovereign becomes “living law”, “nomos empushkos” (69) and thus can assert himself to be above law (69). Thus, the reason isutitium is read as public mourning is because literally the death of the sovereign itself becomes a tumult as law has died.

For Agamben this conflation of the normative and anomic aspects of the law and the creation of a permanent state of exception is a dangerous combination, and he asserts:

But when they [auctoritas and potestas] tend to reside in a single person, when the state of exception, in which they are bound and blurred together, becomes the rule, then the juridico-political system transforms itself into a killing machine. (86)

With this discussion of the state of exception, auctoritas, and potestas, I will now move on to discuss the sort of juridico-political world created by what I call the Talibanistic imaginary.

First, a brief explanation of what I mean by Talibanistic imaginary. Talibanistic imaginary is a worldview constructed within modernity, is shaped by the material, cultural, and political conditions, and relies on a literalist, reductive, and exclusionary definition of tradition. A Talib, the subject of this particular imaginary, views modernity itself as a threat to the body and soul and attempts to alter modernity by attempting to overwrite it with a premodern explanation of the real.

Though I use the term Talib and Taliban, I do not use it in its reductive usage from the US media as a signifier specific for the Afghan/Pakistani Taliban movement. In my theorization, the term signifies the Talibanistic trends on both sides of the global division of labor. With this brief explanation of the term, I will now discuss the Talibanistic imaginary as it develops on two opposite ends of the global division of labor: Afghanistan/Pakistan and the United States.

The term Taliban entered the metropolitan vocabulary in the mid nineteen-eighties, and it is only apt to first dwell on this term itself with a reference to its place of origin, Afghanistan. Taliban as a linguistic unit is plural of “Talib,” which literally means a seeker or a student in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu. The pluralization, Taliban, however, is in Pashto. Thus as a signifier, the term Taliban is overloaded with its semantic origins but also with the traces of the Pashtun culture and politics. The term Taliban used in the popular vocabulary specifically tends to signify the kind of politics and worldview practiced by the followers of the Taliban movement, but I intend to stretch its usage to cover a particular countermodern imaginary and praxis that defies any regional locus and explanation.

The Afghan Taliban movement, I suggest, is an apt example of the conflation of auctoritas and potestas under a perpetual iustitium, and I will now elaborate on this claim by dwelling a little on the rise of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan in the mid nineteen-eighties. There is an important passage in Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban where the author touches upon the popular myths about the rise of Taliban, and that particular passage is the starting point of my argument. Rashid writes:

There is now an entire factory of myths and stories to explain how Omar mobilized a small group of Taliban against the rapacious Kandhar warlords. The most credible story, told repeatedly, is that in the spring of 1994 Singesar neighbours came to tell him that a commander had abducted two teenage girls, their heads had been shaved and they had been taken to a military camp and repeatedly raped. Omar enlisted some thirty Talibs . . . and attacked the base, freeing the girls and hanging the commander from the barrel of a tank. (Rashid 25)

This is the moment when Mullah Omar, a teacher and a pater to his students, is approached by the community simply because he possesses a form of auctoritas in the private sphere. His help is sought in the face of a permanent state of iustititum caused by the post-Soviet-Afghan war internal strife. His act to enter the political arena can also be read as his assumption of the regulatory responsibilities by instituting a state of exception in which auctoritas and potestas are conflated in one person, and, by extension in his followers. The purpose of their actions: to seek justice at a time when law is at a “stand still.”

The rise of the Taliban cannot just be attributed to the Qur’an and the Islamic texts, for after all these texts had been there for centuries without spawning something such as the Taliban. The rise of the Taliban is inherently connected to the material conditions and the perpetual state of tumult that existed in Afghanistan in the mid-eighties.

When the Taliban finally oust their opponents and capture Kabul, the final phase of the conflation of auctoritas and potestas is completed. The way in which Mullah Omar defines his official position is analogous to that of  Octavian declaring himself “Augustus.” Mullah Omar takes on the title of Ameer-ul-Mominin, the leader of the faithful. Traditionally, this title was designated for the early caliphs of Islam. By declaring himself the leader of the faithful, Mullah Omar can conflate his private role as an auctor with that of the “law-giver”, thus creating a perfect and perpetual state of exception in which his person becomes the law. This title also makes him into a supranational figure, for by declaring himself the leader of the faithful he becomes the leader of all those Muslims willing to join his cause regardless of their national or cultural origin.

But the situation is further aggravated also by a perpetual state of tumult in which each of his followers is given imperium to regulate life. This imperium is granted to them under the rules of behavior governed by the tradition of “Am’r bil ma’roof wa nahi anil munkar–to encourage the correct actions and to stop the wrong actions.” In the streets of Kabul, this guiding formula gives the Taliban foot soldiers the power to regulate and punish all actions that may not fit their particular definition of “right” and “wrong.” Thus, just when the law is at a stand still, a permanent state of exception is established in the shape of a power to regulate life through a popular imperium granted by the authority of the “Ameer” in whom the law has become embodied in one person. The result of this conflation of auctoritas and potestas, amidst a perpetual tumult, of course, is the creation of a “death world.”

It is no wonder, then, that the Taliban rule in Afghanistan is inextricably linked with a permanent state of iustitium as the country, for so many reasons, was and is in a perpetual tumult. Furthermore, since the Taliban had mobilized a purist past in order to cope with the present, their entire political philosophy is linked with this perpetual tumult of modernity that, in their view, threatens their world view. The result:  a system of law in which the state of exception is the norm. Thus, the anomic aspects of law are conflated with the normative functions of the law to create a stable but anomic legal order, an order in which even the foot-soldiers have, in some ways, an absolute imperium over their fellow citizens.

Furthermore, since the Talibanistic imaginay is connected to this permanent tumult, even in absence of a material danger to their rule, an ideological tumult–modernity, corrupting influences, deviations, must be constantly invoked to create a state of ideological siege in which the state of exception can no longer  be erased but becomes a permanent system of law. In fact, under such a scenario, maintaining a permanent state of tumult is a perfect strategy to continue the Taliban rule. The actions of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan these days are a perfect example of this strategy: they do not have a viable long-term plan but their immediate goal is to alter the ground realities in a way that both Pakistan and Afghanistan  either stay in or transition into a permanent tumult. And it is here that the policies grounded in the American Talibanistic imaginary come to play the most crucial role in, probably unintentionally, maintaining the material conditions ideally suited for the Taliban movement. [More later]

* (All citations are from Georgio Agamben’s State of Exception. Chicago, U of Chicago P, 2005).


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Commentaries Education

Ania Loomba’s Colonialism/ Postcolonialism: A Candid Discussion With My Students

Today we concluded our discussion of Ania Loomba’s introductory book to postcolonial studies in my undergraduate class. Toward the end of our class session, I asked my students if they had trouble reading, understanding, and consuming this text. Not surprisingly, quite a few of them had some interesting and quite aptly critical things to say about the book. Their comments can be summed up in the following few sentences:

  • The chapters are too long; it would have been better if the author had organized her chapters in short [thematic] sections.
  • She mentions a lot of authors we do not know about [Fanon, for example] without providing us any details about them.
  • She jumps from one topic to another, sometimes without giving us a warning or a hint.
  • The sentences are too long and the authors tends to repeat herself a lot.
  • She does not give us any precise definitions.

Needless to say, I agree with some of my students concerns: the book is, at times, hard to read, especially for undergraduates. Having said that, I disagree with their expectations of the text. I feel that the author cannot write an academic book–especially one that is introducing a complex field of study–purely from the point of view of making it accessible to its readers. The author has the liberty of presupposing a certain degree of theoretical knowledge on the part of students, especially those studying literature. I do think the book could have been better organized in terms of its chapters; maybe shorter, more focused chapters would have been helpful.

But again, coming back to my students side of the story, their comments also made me aware of the kind of consumer culture that structures their subjectivities. In a way, in my view, the book was also a product for their consumption that they as consumers had found “defective.” While most of them admitted that they did get something out of the book, the book was troubling to them as it did not provide a linear and reductive narrative that all of us have come to expect in our lives as consumers.

Personally, I had chosen the book after having read quite a few other readers on the subject. My main reason in choosing the book, surprisingly, was its very ambiguous and inconclusive discussion of postcolonialism as a field of study. I guess I have to do a better job of rendering the book more accessible to my students without simplifying things too much. I am, however, pleased that my students read a wonderfully complex book, took notes, and came back with their questions. Did I mention, I really like my students:))

Commentaries Education

Thoughts on my Last Class at Kent State

Yesterday was the last day of my summer graduate seminar on Postmodernism and also my last day of teaching at Kent State University. I came to Kent State in the fall of 2006 immediately after finishing my Ph.D. at Florida State. Looking back at my three and a half years at Kent as a full-time faculty member, I have, in a very unpostmodernist way, as sort of nostalgic reaction to my relationship with Kent State. While I may not have much to say about the department or the university, I will certainly miss my students from Kent.

In my time at Kent, I found majority of my students to be extremely dedicated, curious, and engaged in their studies. Going to class was never really a chore but rather an exhilarating experience as I entered the class not only to teach but also to learn from my students.I will certainly miss my students from Kent State.

Teaching is an interesting vocation, for the very value of your practice depends upon the gaze of the other, upon a tacit understanding between the teacher and the student that the teacher does not have all the answers and that learning is complex, interactive, and, at times, confusing.

My last summer course at Kent had all the ingredients of an interesting pedagogical experience: an illusive subject (postmodernism), an engaged and dedicated group of students, and the fast pace of a summer course. I am not a postmodernist by training, so teaching this course was also a way of co-learning with my students. And I am happy to declare that by the end of the course not only my students had grasped the major debates of postmodernism but that the experience had also enabled me to build my own repertoire of teaching strategies that worked for this course and that I would incorporate in my future courses.

As I get ready to leave for UNT, I would like to thank all my students from Kent for being an important part of my life. Thank you, for you all have taught me so much.

Commentaries Education

Linda Hutcheon: Reading Notes for Chapters 1 & 2

By Alex Hall and Caleb Berkemeier

(Reading Notes for Linda Hutcheon’s A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction)

Chapter One:

In this first chapter, entitled “Theorizing the Postmodern: Toward a Poetics,” Linda Hutcheon informs the reader that the purpose of this book is to attempt a thorough definition of “postmodernism”—a concept that she claims is often under-theorized by both its supporters and its detractors. To this end, she reveals her primary argument, that “postmodernism is a contradictory phenomenon, one that uses and abuses, installs and then subverts, the very concepts it challenges” (3). If nothing else, this is the core idea that one should take away from the reading of this book: postmodernism is not a total or transcendent rejection of the past, nor is it an uncritical acceptance of the present—postmodernism is a provisional, contingent, complex, and even playful way of viewing past and present from a wholly immanent position. The transcendental position—the notion that one can critique a system without at the same time being implicated in that system—has been overthrown and is no longer the most sophisticated way of understanding the world. Therefore, the only way in which one can critique the present order is from within its logic, to “use and abuse” the concepts that the present order offers.

In order to elaborate on what she thinks postmodernism is, Hutcheon relies heavily upon literary texts as manifestations of postmodernity. The most amenable literary genre for this task is what she calls “historiographic metafiction” which includes novels that “are both intensely self-reflexive and yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personages” (5). According to Hutcheon, the study of postmodernism is directed at either literature, history, or theory and is narrative in all three. Historiographic metafiction, therefore, is the best source for understanding postmodernism because it “incorporates all three of these domains. . . . its theoretical self-awareness of history and fiction as human constructs. . . . is made the grounds for its rethinking and reworking of the forms and contents of the past” (5). Some theorists (such as Fredric Jameson) have misinterpreted this focus on the past “as a negative. . . . imprisoning of the text in the past through pastiche” (11), but Hutcheon counters this criticism by characterizing the explicit revisiting of history as “liberating” in its challenging of “a definition of subjectivity and creativity that has for too long ignored the role of history in art and thought” (11).

A common criticism of postmodernism is that it is ahistorical since it is preoccupied with the idea that history can only be known through text. This has led many to believe that postmodernism’s revisionary project is an assault on history rather than what it truly is: an examination of how we come to know history and everything that knowledge implies. Hutcheon says that history is “being rethought. . . . as a human construct” and that “in arguing that history does not exist except as text, it does not stupidly and “gleefully” deny that the past existed, but only that its accessibility to us now is entirely conditioned by textuality” (16). History is a real object (not just language as some radical semioticians claim), but it is impossible to recover the “real story” because history is always mediated through texts that, for all their pretensions to coherence and unity, cannot free themselves from the very history they record.

One of the important literary techniques (along with self-reflexivity) that is used to critique the rationalist historical view is that of ironic parody. It is what Hutcheon calls a “perfect postmodern form” because “it paradoxically both incorporates and challenges that which it parodies” (11). This is one of the more difficult ideas to grasp about postmodernism—that it uses what modernism has to offer but is not modernism itself since postmodernism is a critique of that logic. Modernism’s “discarding or recuperating of the past in the name of the future” (19) is what postmodernism opposes; the transcendent position of modernist art in its search for pure truth is turned into the parodic as postmodern art reenacts the past but without losing its self-conscious connection to the historical present. Through postmodern parody “ironic discontinuity. . . . is revealed at the heart of continuity, difference at the heart of similarity” (11).

But postmodern parody is no mere exercise in literary technique. Its purpose is ambitious and vitally important because it forces a reevaluation of the foundations of unquestioned narratives that are problematical in their exclusionary logic. Hutcheon says that “[p]ostmodern culture. . . . has a contradictory relationship to what we usually label our dominant, liberal humanist culture. It does not deny it, as some have asserted. . . . it contests it from within its own assumptions” (6). What this means is that the grand narratives of human reason and progress that have functioned as a cover for so much irrationality and regression are no longer untouchable. To question the truths of liberal humanism (or any other meta-narrative) is not to default to impoverished relativism; it is to say that truth is provisional and contingent. People can still believe in certain truths, but what they can no longer do is believe those truths uncritically and without the contextualizing process of self-reflexive consciousness. What Hutcheon wants to make clear is that “there are no natural hierarchies . . . only those we construct” (13).

Finally, Hutcheon is concerned with constructing a particular way in which we can talk about postmodernism, not a rigid theoretical framework but what she calls a “poetics.” The function of this poetics is to “offer, as provisional hypotheses, perceived overlappings of concern . . . reading literature through its surrounding theoretical discourses rather than as continuous with theory” (14). She demonstrates what she means by this in a lengthy passage where she accuses Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson of basing their arguments against postmodernism in abstract, theoretical terms that do not touch the world of practice. She goes through some of Eagleton’s criticisms of postmodernism and gives her own textual examples that seem to defy his claims. While at first this tangent seems too divergent, it soon becomes clear that what is most important about this deviation is not necessarily the particular counter-arguments against Eagleton—what is important is that Hutcheon is using products of postmodern practice in conjunction with abstracted theory. She is putting into practice her definition of a poetics of postmodernism that is constantly engaging both theory and practice, a poetics that does not “place itself in a position between theory and practice . . . but rather . . . seek[s] a position within both” (17).

Chapter Two:

Hutcheon’s second chapter, entitled “Modelling the Postmodern: Parody and Politics,” begins by first reiterating what she has already said about postmodern art: that it is “art marked paradoxically by both history and an internalized, self-reflexive investigation of the nature, the limits, and the possibilities of the discourse of art” (22).  Parody, she further suggests, is actually that which can relate the “aesthetic . . . to the political and the historical” (22).  With this in mind, Hutcheon proceeds to outline her intent in the chapter, which is to focus on what she believes “offers the best model for a poetics of postmodernism: postmodern architecture” (22).  According to Hutcheon, postmodern architecture is “the one art form in which the label [postmodern] seems to refer, uncontested, to a generally agreed upon corpus of works” (22).  Backtracking, Hutcheon again cites the historical and political, pointing out that postmodern works are both “precisely because they are formally parodic” (23).  Hutcheon takes this idea a bit further by suggesting that the parody that results in the historical and political aspects of postmodern art actually “use and abuse, install and destabilize convention in parodic ways, self-consciously pointing to both their own inherent paradoxes and provisionality and, of course, to their critical or ironic re-reading of the art of the past” (23).  This to say that postmodern art can simultaneously participate in and critique the system under which it is produced, including by bringing history to bear on the present.  One place where this process can be recognized quite distinctly is in architecture—but Hutcheon will come back to this.  First she is concerned with contextualizing her argument within intellectual discourses on postmodernism, showing that many critics have condemned postmodernism as something that is bereft of critical potential (she specifically points to the conceptions of postmodernism put forth separately by Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson).  For Hutcheon, however, there is critical potential in postmodern works because their use of parody, as she has said, causes the works to be both historical and political, the former of which directly contradicts the ideas about postmodernism according to Jameson.  She further shines her postmodernism through the lens of structuralism/poststructuralism “in an extension of the meaning of ‘language’” (25) which finally brings her to the subject of architecture.

Architecture is suggested as the way that identity was reestablished in Europe following the Second World War, and the use of historical architectural forms helped with that reestablishment.  Now, under postmodernity, “parodic revisitations of the history of architecture interrogate the modernist totalizing ideal of progress through rationality and purist form” (25).  Still, there is some suspicion that this kind of parody relegates postmodern architecture to the so-called “mass culture of late capitalism” (25), which is code for “low culture,” a level of distinction that postmodern art seems to subvert, if not simply ignore.  Thus, architecture, though it had began to look quite distinct from the high modern architecture around the 1970s, began to parody high modernism even as it utilized new styles (26).  At this point, Hutcheon sees the need to define her use of the word “parody,” that is, “repetition with critical distance that allows ironic signalling of difference at the very heart of similarity” (26).  This is to say, parody does not ridicule, but in fact allows for critique, once again because parody causes postmodern art to be both historical and political.

In the next section of the chapter, Hutcheon is interested in discussing how modernism in architecture actually sought to control the “users of the buildings” (27).  After all, as she points out, architecture is fundamentally social.  A loss of faith in this attitude, according to Hutcheon has produced that which we see in postmodern architecture.  Still, the parody inherent in postmodern architecture can challenge this loss (29-30).  In so doing, this period of architecture actually contains what might be characterized as utopian potential, for, as Hutcheon puts it, it “open[s] things up to the possibility of the new” (31).  One way this is evident is by the fact that postmodern architecture “urges us to be active, not passive, viewers” (32).

In the final section of the chapter, Hutcheon continues her discussion of how parody can ascribe critical potential to postmodern architecture.  Still, this potential can be “élitist, if the codes necessary for its comprehension are not shared by both encoder and decoder” (Hutcheon 34).  For this reason, architects might be preoccupied with assuring decoders are in the know, and they try to meet such an assurance via the parodying of classical forms of architecture that are familiar.  To conclude, Hutcheon writes that “postmodern architecture seems . . . to be paradigmatic of our seeming need, in both artistic theory and practice, to investigate the relation of ideology and power to all of our present discursive structures,” which is why she uses it throughout the book (36).

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.