From the late 1980s onwards, novelists, artists, critics and art historians have foreseen the death of postmodernism. Linda Hutcheon, in the second edition of The Politics of Postmodernism (2002), declared: “it’s over”. The contemporary period – starting with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and gathering momentum throughout the 1990s and beyond – is often said to have a distinct intensity, and thus feels like a moment in which, in the words of the narrator in Ben Lerner’s novel 10.04, we find “the world rearranging itself”.
Postmodernism has taken various guises and, accordingly, there is no absolute consensus on what constituted it in the first place. Fredric Jameson characterized it in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism as the loss of historicity, a lack of depth and meaningfulness and a waning of emotional affect, while Brian McHale in Postmodernist Fiction (1987) argued that postmodernism is defined by its fascination with the ontological. Taken together, postmodernism seems essentially to involve a questioning of the real, both in terms of the actual world, and in the representational efficacy and fidelity of fiction.
The forces that once drove postmodernism seem now to be depleted, however. Postmodernism rejected grand narratives, including those of religion, the concept of progress and of history itself. Angela Carter’s fiction, and particularly The Bloody Chamber, provides a clear example of the typical postmodernist impulse: in rewriting traditional fairy-tales she subverts grand narratives of gender, sexuality and female subjectivity. In contrast, in today’s cultural climate there appears to be a renewed engagement with history and a revival of mythic meaning-making that the arch-postmodernists would have abhorred. Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being (2013), for example, relates interconnecting histories – among them the story of a Japanese Kamikaze pilot in the Second World War and the 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan, contextualizing both in a history of ideas, by reflecting throughout on the principles of Zen Buddhism.
Postmodernism refracted reality into endless language-games, with authors such as Paul Auster making appearances in the fictional universes of their novels or, as is the case in Julio Cortázar’s short story “The Continuity of Parks”, with characters reading stories only to find the embedded story bleeding back into their level of representation. At first glance, today’s writers demonstrate a similar impulse to blur the lines between fiction and reality, as David Shields advocates in his book Reality Hunger (2010). Yet when authors, or other real elements, appear in fiction now – as Ben Lerner does in 10:04 – their presence is intended to signal realism, rather than to foreground the artifice of the text. Indeed, in place of postmodernism’s cool detachment, its anti-anthropomorphism, realism is once again a popular mode. Emotions, furthermore, are again playing a central role in literary fiction, as authors insist on our essential relationality – our connectedness as humans to one another in the globalizing world and with fictional characters as representations of our selves.
It seems then, that a new dominant cultural logic is emerging; the world – or in any case, the literary cosmos – is rearranging itself. This process is still in flux and must be approached strictly in the present tense. To understand the situation, we have to pose a number of questions. The first, and most dramatic, is “Is postmodernism dead?”; quickly followed by “If so, when did it die?”. Critics – such as Christian Moraru, Josh Toth, Neil Brooks, Robin van den Akker and Timotheus Vermeulen – repeatedly point to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the new millennium, the 9/11 attacks, the so-called “War on Terror” and the wars in the Middle East, the financial crisis and the ensuing global revolutions. Taken together, these events signify the failure and unevenness of global capitalism as an enterprise, leading to an ensuing disillusionment with the project of neo-liberal postmodernity and the recent political splintering into extreme Left and extreme Right. The cumulative effect of these events – and the accompanying hyper-anxiety brought about by twenty-four hour news – has made the Western world feel like a more precarious and volatile place, in which we can no longer be nonchalant about our safety or our future.
It seems fitting to me that Oxford Dictionaries chose the politically-charged “post-truth” as their word of the year for 2016. The prevalence of the word – associated particularly with the current political climate (Trump, Brexit, personality politics in general) – is symbolic of contemporary attitudes towards the concept of truth. It can help us to think about the radical cultural shifts that are underway. While modernism was ultimately founded on a utopianism that upheld certain universal truths, postmodernism rejected and deconstructed the notion of truth altogether. The prefix “post-” paradoxically ends up drawing into closer focus the very concept it seeks to reject. The two elements of the word therefore form a kind of metonym for the current stance; “post” reflects a lingering postmodernist distrust, while “truth” remains an important touchstone.
There are many terms for this new supplanting cultural logic, this shift in the ruling belief system: to name a few – altermodernism, cosmodernism, digimodernism, metamodernism, performatism, post-digital, post-humanism, and the clunky post-postmodernism. There are convergences and divergences between these conceptualizations; they complement each other as much as they compete. Even so, consistent across these formations is a legacy of modernist and postmodernist stylistic practice, and a rehabilitated ethical consciousness. Lerner’s 10.04 provides an illustrative case. In one episode, the narrator Ben has just finished his monthly shift at Park Slope Food Co-op. Ben, like many members of the Co-op, simultaneously exhibits pride in its eco-friendly, anti-capitalist ethos and disdain at its inflexibility in accommodating his own extensive travel plans in the working rota. While bagging dried mangoes, Noor, a fellow member, reveals that she is not biologically related to the man she thought was her father. This has significant repercussions for her sense of self, particularly since her Arab-American identity has been founded on her father’s Lebanese heritage.
Despite the intensely personal and affecting nature of Noor’s story, it is punctuated with interruptions. The narrator repeatedly interjects with reporting clauses and narratorial intrusions, such as “Noor said, although not in these words”. The device is postmodern, recursively framing and foregrounding the story in a story, yet it serves not as a self-reflexive affectation; but rather as a way of showing the hermeneutic function of stories in our memories, in our narratives of self and in our relationships with others. There is a narrative interruption too, when Ben is called away from the mangoes. Not yet knowing how Noor’s story ends, Ben wrongly jumps to the conclusion that the story is about Islamophobia. This judgement made by Lerner’s narrating character, self-righteous but flawed, is seen as emblematic of widespread Western social hypocrisy and made more poignant precisely because readers are supposed to interpret the character as a textual proxy for the author. Again, what seems like postmodern metatextuality – the character of the author in the fiction – is not used to postmodern effect. The typically postmodern appearance of the author reduced him or her to a linguistic sign by the ontological impossibility of their presence in the fiction. Contrastingly, Lerner’s author is precisely at home in the fiction.
Later reflecting on Noor’s story, Ben wishes there had been a way to comfort her “without it sounding like presumptuous co-op nonsense”. Ben contemplates his own feelings: “my personality dissolving into a personhood so abstract that every atom belonging to me as good as belonged to Noor, the fiction of the world rearranging itself around her”. In 10.04, this rearrangement of the world turns on an axis of human subjectivity, conceived as intimately and ethically relational.
10.04 is just one example of contemporary fiction that articulates a sentiment beyond the postmodern. It can be categorized as autofiction, a genre that integrates the autobiographical into fiction, and that has blossomed alongside the so-called memoir boom. The genre, at first glance, may seem strictly postmodern, dealing as it does with the fragmentation of the subject and the blurring of the fact–fiction ontological boundary. Yet contemporary autofictions narrativize the self not as a game, but in order to enhance the realism of a text and tackle the sociological and phenomenological dimensions of personal life. Édouard Louis’s The End of Eddy (2017) is a case in point, detailing within a work of fiction the author’s own experiences as an effeminate young man in a small working-class village in Northern France.
Other recent literary trends, such as the popularity of historical fiction, the revival of realism and fiction’s increased engagement with visual and digital culture are also emblematic of this shift. While David Foster Wallace is often cited as the literary figure who issued a call-to-arms against ironic postmodern pop-culture, many other contemporary writers appear to be mounting the offence: among them Ben Lerner, but also Jennifer Egan, Dave Eggers, Joshua Ferris, Jonathan Franzen, Sheila Heti, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ruth Ozeki, Ali Smith, Zadie Smith and Adam Thirlwell. Thirlwell’s Kapow! (2012), for instance, engages with the revolutions of the Arab Spring, interrogating their historicity and significance, through comparison with the French Revolution. In the process, the self-conscious narrator mixes high and low cultural references, emphasizes the relay of the media’s reportage of world events, and considers the appropriateness of writing his own Arabic novel.
At the same time, our culture retains many of the themes and concerns that exercised writers of earlier generations; there is little sign of a radical literary avant garde sweeping away the old to make way for the new. Postmodernism might not be as emphatically over as some critics like to claim, but it does seem to be in retreat. Its devices have become so commonplace that they have been absorbed into mainstream, commercial and popular culture. Postmodernism has lost its value in part because it has oversaturated the market. And with the end of postmodernism’s playfulness and affectation, we are better placed to construct a literature that engages earnestly with real-world problems. This new literature can, in good faith, examine complex and ever-shifting crises – of racial inequality, capitalism and climate change – to which it is easy to close one’s eyes.
Alison Gibbons is Reader in Contemporary Stylistics at Sheffield Hallam University and an editor of Notes on Metamodernism