English 9058B

Postmodernism(s) and the End of Everything (?)

Instructor: Professor A. Lee
Winter Half Course.

Few cultural moments have met their deaths so frequently and as spectacularly as Postmodernism. Even a brief survey of criticism will discover that Postmodernism died with the election of Obama (2008), with the tragedy of 9/11 (2001), and with the death of JFK (1963). The 2009 Tate Triennial exhibition, "Altermodern," proclaims "Postmodernism is Dead" in the first line of its Manifesto. Only the Facebook group, "Death to Postmodernism" suggests that there might be sufficient life in the term to prompt ongoing murderous thoughts. Even during its brief life, Postmodernism was the subject of apocalyptic pronouncements by critics who found it guilty of the deaths of certainty, tradition, politics, history, the subject, literature and good taste. Most recently, Jordan Peterson has pronounced it "a rehashing of the Marxist claim of eternal and primary class warfare," and it has been blamed for apparent complicity in "alternative facts."

From (approximately) the 1960s until (approximately) the 1990s, however, the term "postmodernism" was ubiquitous. From architecture to zoology, as Thomas Docherty notes, "there is hardly a single field of intellectual endeavor which has not been touched by the spectre of 'the postmodern'" (1993).  In many of these fields, it was hailed initially as revolutionary, progressive, demystifying, avant-garde, self-reflexive and, in Lyotard’s famous phrase, as "incredulity toward metanarratives" (1979).

Postmodernism, then, is messy; it is everything and nothing, ghostly and ghastly, the beginning and the end.  The aim of this course will be to engage with the theory and practice of postmodernism as an aesthetic style and as a political and cultural reality in order to determine why it has been subject to such extremes.  We will focus largely on literature, but will also consider architecture, film and visual art in addition to fields and subjects that arise from the readings.