"The End"

"The End"

Brian McHale

Dunedin, home of the University of Otago, facing the Pacific on the southeast corner of the South Island of New Zealand, used to be far from everywhere - if not exactly the end of the world, then (as they say) you could it see from there. Nowadays, of course, it is as close to everywhere as anywhere else, and much closer than some places, wired into the world-wide web and served by online forums of intellectual life such as the ebr. No longer “peripheral” relative to the metropolitan “centers” (if it ever was), no longer out of synch, lagging behind intellectual developments in the metropoles (if it ever did), Dunedin is as likely a place as any to produce timely reflection on the present condition of postmodernism worldwide, and perhaps even to pronounce on its end.

What did we conclude, back in June 2015 in Dunedin, about postmodernism? Nothing. But we did find ourselves circling around several gnarly, perhaps irresolvable questions that, if they prevented us from concluding, also prevented us from concluding prematurely. Let me pick three of them.In some of what follows, I have plagiarized from myself in The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism (2015).

Singular, multiple

Was postmodernism one or many? One unexpected take-away from Simon During’s exercise in intellectual autobiography is his reluctant admission that postmodernism was, after all, and contrary to what he once thought, one and the same thing everywhere. Returning to New Zealand in 1984 - high-water mark of postmodernism elsewhere in the world - and witnessing the surprising revival of indigenous Maori traditions, During concluded that postmodernism was not, as analysts like Fredric Jameson claimed, the irresistibly global cultural logic of late-capitalism, but that in some regions, at least, it could be outflanked by postcolonial developments. Anyway, that’s the way it looked to him then. Looking back, he’s forced to concede that the indigenous renaissance that so surprised and impressed him upon his return was itself after all enabled by those same global forces of which postmodernism was the cultural arm. “Late capitalism,” Jameson’s preferred term for those global forces, was perhaps a slight (optimistic) misnomer; better to call it, with David Harvey and others, “neo-liberalism.” Still with us today.

Jacob Edmond takes an opposite tack. Employing his enviable expertise in Chinese and Russian, Edmond demonstrates that postmodernism was not the same everywhere - in fact, it wasn’t the same anywhere (not even, arguably, in its heartland, the post-industrialized West). As Roman Jakobson said of modernism (and Edmond quotes approvingly), “It depends on who writes it and at what moment!” I could not agree more, though I don’t fully share Edmond’s apparent discontent with the malleability of period concepts.

Edmond clears up some of the talking-at-cross-purposes that any of us who have tried to discuss postmodernism across cultures has encountered, for which we all owe a debt of gratitude. But I am less troubled by the disparities among different national postmodernisms than he seems to be. For one thing, disparity among multiple postmodernisms was endemic even in its North American birthplace. For another, all the far-flung postmodernisms, Chinese and Russian included, share a characteristic that Kwame Anthony Appiah once identified - and that, in his account, postmodernism also shared with postcolonialism - that of accomplishing a space-clearing gesture. The encumbrances that needed to be cleared away were markedly different in different places - different in China or Russia than in North America - but the space-clearing gesture was the same.


Holly Phillips insists that “even in the non-synchronous world of postmodern history, we must be careful not to read history backwards.” It seems to me, on the contrary, that we have little choice but to do so. The implicit reference here is surely to Borges’ little thought-experiment, “Kafka and His Precursors,” a paradoxical model for postmodern historiography, where he traces a strange genealogy for Kafka that could only be detected retrospectively, reading backwards from Kafka: “if Kafka had not written we would not perceive [the Kafka strain in his precursors]; that is to say, it would not exist” (108). I think Beckett, Phillips’ example, goes Kafka (and Borges) one better: he seems to know that history can only be read backwards, and in his research into medieval nominalism he seems actively, knowingly, to be fabricating a genealogy for himself. We may all be nominalists now (as, Phillips reminds us, Borges said in a different place), but Beckett isn’t so much delving for the roots of our modern nominalism as inventing, in reverse perspective, a family tree in which he could fit. There’s something distinctly Oedipal about his project (or maybe Harold-Bloomian). Instead of accepting the paternity that he has been saddled with by literary history - Joyce the father, Beckett the son languishing in his shadow - he sets out to identify an alternative origin, one perhaps less threatening to his autonomy.

I think we can detect the same reverse-genealogy being worked out (though authorized by Lyotard instead of Borges) in Lynley Edmeades’ account of Gertrude Stein’s precocious postmodernism. Looking backwards from the poetics of “present-ness” of contemporaries like Caroline Bergvall, we more readily recognize the same “present-ness” in Stein’s modernist-era poetics. Bergvall, Edmeades writes, is “a kind of great-granddaughter” of Stein’s. No doubt; but if so, it is the great-granddaughter who turns out to be the mother of the Mother of Us All.

I even wonder if Simon During’s masterful grand narrative of Western modernity doesn’t have something of the history-in-reverse dynamic about it. Isn’t the history of modernism that he traces forward from medieval nominalism (the same origin point as Phillips) through reformation, humanism, enlightenment, revolution and modernism, down to modernism’s exhaustion in postmodernism, really animated and shaped, after all, by the acuteness of his consciousness of where the story ends? Call it (pastiching Borges) “Postmodernism and Its Precursors.” If we started from a different end-point - not postmodernism, or maybe not this postmodernism - might we not tell a different story, with a different point of origin, passing through different stages? Just asking.


The name-that-period sweepstakes for what comes next after postmodernism has already been underway for some time, and a number of contenders have already taken the field. Of them all, the least felicitous, post-postmodernism, might also be the least objectionable because, as Jeffrey Nealon says, its very ugliness prevents us from mistaking it for some brand-spanking-new cultural artifact, and forces us to acknowledge the way the post-post repeats (albeit with a difference) the post that preceded it (ix). The struggle over naming rights is complex, carried out on more than one front. On the one hand, there are struggles for control of one and the same term: Alexandra Dumitrescu’s metamodernism is not the same as the metamodernism of David James and Urmila Seshagiri, who associate it with the self-conscious reversion in early 21st century writing to the dissident, defamiliarizing strain in modernist writing of a century before. Their metamodernism has much in common with Marjorie Perloff’s “21st century modernism,” but much less in common with Dumitrescu’s metamodernism.

There is also a struggle, related but distinguishable, to match up one and the same period concept with the “right” name. The period concept that Dumitrescu calls metamodernism, while it has little enough in common with James and Seshagiri’s concept, shares much in common with what others have called cosmodernism (Moraru) or planetarity (Spivak, Heise) or even relationality (Bourriaud and others). Perhaps in the long run the concept that will end up subsuming all of them is the one that Damien Gibson evokes at the beginning of his article, associating it with Jeannette Winterson’s The Stone Gods: the anthropocene. (Hilary Dannenberg, one of the founders of the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present, which continually and inconclusively struggles with the scope of the “present,” recently suggested to me that the association’s name should be changed to “Arts of the Anthropocene,” the better to reflect our current understanding of our own epoch. The idea has merit, though it would wreck the acronym.) Whichever term and associated concept finally surges ahead of the pack, its emergence and acceptance will, as Neil Vallelly pertinently reminds us, coincide with the onset of its own disappearance. He captures, in his account of disappearance, something that was deeply ingrained in postmodernism from its very outset: its sense of its own historicity and transience, of being stamped, right from the beginning, with a “sell-by” date.

David Ciccoricco, in his introduction to this cluster of papers, specifies what postmodernism has disappeared into. One of his four scenarios for postmodernism’s relationship to the contemporary mediascape - which we have grown accustomed to calling, somewhat opaquely, “technology” - is the one where postmodernism culminates in “technology,” by which he means that the former is subsumed by the latter: postmodernism disappears into the mediascape. But that’s not the only way we could understand culmination. My own preference is to see in postmodernism’s disappearance into the mediascape, from the 1990s on, not so much a subsuming as a convergence: the Internet, and digital culture in general, was what postmodernism had been anticipating and aspiring to all along; it’s what postmodernism wanted to be when it grew up. The virtually limitless rhizomatic connectedness of the online world is the ultimate (“culminating”) expression of postmodern aesthetics.

Is there life beyond disappearance? I find Vallelly’s question, “How can we keep [postmodernism’s] disappearance alive?” exceptionally moving, not least because I knew personally some of the cultural figures whose personal disappearance - like Beckett’s disappearance according to Raymond Federman (who meanwhile has himself disappeared) - anticipated and paralleled the disappearance of the era with which they were associated.

I close, and why not, with a few sentences from Ronald Sukenick, first-generation American postmodernist - Federman called him a surfictionist - and founder of the American Book Review, print forerunner of the ebr.The two journals have collaborated actively, for example in special issues titled The Electronic Muse (1995) and Cognitive Fictions: Cognitition Against Narrative (2010). Another special, on Corporate Fictions, is planned for early 2017. Sukenick, who died of a muscle-wasting disease in 2004, was already severely disabled when he was evacuated on the morning of September 11, 2001 from his flat in Battery Park City; it wasn’t the end of the world, but he could see it from there. Sukenick ends his early, still-astonishing novella “The Death of the Novel” (published in a volume by the same name, 1969) with a passage of pseudo-diaristic writing, dated “Saturday, January 20, 1968”:

Let’s take a walk. I put on my boots. I walk out the door. The thaw is on. I walk through slush, melting ice and snow. I walk down the road …. And here’s the bend in the road. I start around it. In a minute I’ll be out of sight. But before I disappear, I lift my red wool cap … a gesture of goodbye, as if to say, in fact to say, I’m happy folks, and I wish you luck. I disappear around the bend. So long. End of story. (101-102)

Works Cited

Appiah, Kwame Anthony Appiah. “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?” Critical Inquiry 17 (Winter 1991): 336-57.

Borges, Jorge Luis, “Kafka and His Precursors.” In Other Inquisitions 1937-1952, trans. by Ruth L. C. Simms. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964.

Nealon, Jeffrey. Post-Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalis. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012.

James , David and Urmila Seshagiri. “Metamodernism: Narratives of Continuity and Revolution.” PMLA 129 2014: 87-100.

Sukenick, Ronald. The Death of the Novel and Other Stories. New York: The Dial Press, 1969.

Joe Tabbi:

The two journals have collaborated actively, for example in special issues titled The Electronic Muse (1995) and Cognitive Fictions: Cognitition Against Narrative (2010). Another special, on Corporate Fictions, is planned for early 2017.