The Uses of Postmodernism


Plywood mural covering earthquake-damaged building, by Michael Hewson (Christchurch, New Zealand).

Postmodernism might seem dreadfully passé, but my new essay and the special issue of which it is a part argue that it still has its uses. My article on “The Uses of Postmodernism” is online here, and below I reproduce its conclusion. In his eloquent summary of the special issue, Brian McHale questions my emphasis on “the disparities among different national postmodernisms.” (I discuss Chinese, US, Russian, and New Zealand postmodernism.) For McHale, despite their differences, all these postmodernisms share a “space-clearing gesture” in their respective contexts. However, rather than expressing “discontent with the malleability of period concepts” or “national disparities,” I have aimed in my essay to show how the disparities and temporal and spatial hierarchies in the uses of postmodernism reflect not so much a space-clearing as a space-contesting gesture, specifically the contestation of local, national, and global space.

We might date the death of postmodernism as a term that is used, rather than merely mentioned, in literary studies in English to around the year 2000. Its demise is marked, for instance, by the publication of Susan Stanford Friedman’s “Definitional Excursions: The Meanings of Modern/Modernity/Modernism” in 2001 and Marjorie Perloff’s 21st-Century Modernism the following year. Both Friedman and Perloff articulate and contribute to the turn away from postmodernism in the Anglo-American academy and both do so through an expanded account of modernism. Friedman and Perloff argue that modernism encompasses everything supposedly associated with postmodernism, including the “embrace of chaos…the crisis of representation, fragmentation, alienation…indeterminacy, the rupture of certainty – material and symbolic” (Friedman, “Definitional Excursions” 494). A few years later, in attempting to make the case for the term’s ongoing usefulness, Brian McHale would nevertheless accept this understanding of postmodernism – already present in Hassan’s and Antin’s essays from the early 1970s – as merely another form of modernism: “ ‘postmodernism’ signifies the full range of possibilities…available before a normalizing modernism had made its choices, and which became available again after normalized modernism had run its course” (x).

As the titles of these works by Friedman and Perloff suggest, the decline of interest in the postmodern in the early 2000s was matched by the rise of what Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz dubbed the “new modernist studies.” The new modernist studies offered an expanded sense of modernism that appeared to render postmodernism irrelevant. Why do we need postmodernism when we can just as easily call it twenty-first-century modernism, as Perloff asked over a decade ago?

My proposal to reexamine the uses of postmodernism in literature and literary studies draws on the kind of historicizing and comparative work that has made modernist studies such a dynamic field over the past couple of decades. These historicizing and comparative approaches suggest that postmodernism deserves a place in any literary and cultural history of the last seventy years.

Seen historically and comparatively, postmodernism is the sum of its uses or misuses. One might argue that these uses bear an underlying common conceptual form – a wave that is diffracted as the concept passes through different places and cultural conditions at different times and is inflected by local contexts. But this would be to accept too easily the constraining habits of periodization: the center-periphery model of originality and belatedness through which postmodernism itself was frequently imagined. Amongst other things, such a model posits the existence of a relatively stable wave of meaning that undergoes change as it passes through various cultural contexts. When we consider the widely various uses of postmodernism even in the small sampling surveyed here, no such stability exists.

Nevertheless, some common threads emerge in the uses of postmodernism. First and most obviously, postmodernism was used to attack diverse versions of modernism. Second, postmodernism was used negatively as a proxy term for globalization. Third and somewhat contradictorily, postmodernism was used positively as a term to mark a work’s, a country’s, or, and especially, a theorist’s up-to-date position vis-à-vis the global literary and cultural marketplace. Postmodernism was a term through which one could assert theoretical sophistication in the period of literary theory’s ascendance and the up-to-date-ness of the literary culture of an individual or country.

These contrary uses – along with postmodernism’s association with anti-universalism – enabled the term to embody both sides in the unfolding tension between globalization and localism. Postmodernism could be used to claim an advanced position in the global cultural field and to dismiss nationalisms and other localisms as hopelessly theoretically naive or outdated. Yet it could also be deployed to assert cultural relativism and so the singularity of a national or local culture.

The story of postmodernism’s uses describes no coherent theory or period but rather illuminates the struggle to come to grips with changes both local and global in the final decades of the twentieth century. While postmodernism might indeed be useless as a theoretical concept or periodization, it remains a key term in the history of twentieth-century thought.


About Jacob Edmond

Jacob Edmond is associate professor in English at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He is the author of Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media (Columbia University Press, 2019), A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (Fordham University Press, 2012), and of numerous essays, which have appeared in journals such as Comparative Literature, Contemporary Literature, Poetics Today, Slavic Review, and The China Quarterly.
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