Ihab Hassan: “Toward a Concept of Postmodernism”

(These are my notes on the second handout for my summer course on postmodernism. You can find the handout on the course website)

Information on Ihab Hassan.

This handout has been excerpted from Ihab Hassan’s book The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture, a book I highly recommend to all those seriously interested in theoretical debates about postmodernism. If you read my Introductory Notes on postmodernism you might find this essay to be much too simplistic and binaristic. obviously, Hassan, the first of the major theorists of postmodernism, is attempting to define here something that works against the very practice of defining. It is important to note that Hassan’s approach, at least in this essay, is fairly comparative and that he is attempting to provide a path toward defining and explaining postmodernism with reference to modernism. This, however, should not be read as the ultimate explanation of postmodernism, for, as we will learn, there are other more complex and more nuanced attempts at grasping the postmodern.

Questions: Hassan begins his discussion with the following questions:

  • “Can we really perceive a phenomenon . . . that needs to be distinguished from modernism, needs to be named” (1).
  • “If so, will the provisional rubric ‘postmodernism’ serve?” (1).
  • “Can we then . . . construct of this phenomenon some probative scheme, both chronological and typological, that may account for its various trends and counter-trends, its artistic, epistemic, and social character” (1).
  • “And how would this phenomenon . . . relate itself to such earlier modes of change as turn-of-century avant-garde or the high modernism of the twenties?” (1).
  • “What difficulties would inhere in any such act of definition, such a tentative heuristic scheme?” (1).

Of course, all these questions are important, but the first question sets the stage for the other concomitant questions: The need to distinguish postmodernism from modernism and the act of naming it. We must remember that Hassan is writing at a time where this ‘naming’ has not yet been settled. He is, thus, in a truly postmodernist sense creating the very vocabulary needed to address the question of the postmodern. So, if we can agree on naming this “phenomenon,” he asks, would postmodernism do as a possible name for it. Now, if the name is tentatively agreed upon can we then, Hassan asks, trace its rise and existence in terms of a timeframe (diachronically) but also in terms of its wider characteristics (synchronically). And if we do define it and chart its chronology and a typology, how would it connect or interact with the past and other phenomena around it in the present. The final question, self-refelxively, deals with the problems that such an excercise of naming, explaining, and defining might entail. The rest of the essay, in a way, attempts to deal with all these probing questions.

While not sure that he himself can answer these questions fully, Hassan does offer his answers as provisional and speculative. In the second paragraph he also provides two important statements about the postmodern: 1) The “prevalence of postmodern today” he writes “does not suggest that ideas of institutions of the past cease to shape the present”; 2) postmodernism may appear as a significant revision, if not an original episteme, of twentieth century Western societies” (1). Thus, we can construe from this that he does see the “presence of the past” within the contemporary and while postmodernism may not be an episteme in itself, it seems , that it still ahs the potential to revise and reshape the current episteme.

Catalog of Practitioners: Hassan then provides a long list of prominent contemporary figures from all fields of inquiry and practice. His argument: “These names are far too heterogenous to form a movement, paradigm, or school” (1). What makes them postmodern? “A number of related cultural tendencies, a constellation of values, a repertoire of procedures and attitudes” (1). He then goes on to provide a brief history of the term itself, which we have already covered throughly in my Introductory Notes
to postmodernism, but his reference to Leslie Fiedler and his own earlier work is very important. Fiedler, Hassan suggests, “had it in mind toe challenge the eliticism of the high modernist tradition in the name of popular culture,” (2) while Hassan himself “wanted to explore the impulse of self-unmaking which is part of the literary tradition of silence. Pop and silence, or mass culture and deconstruction. . .” (2).

Psychopolitics of Academic Life and Postmodernism

Hassan points out that one could understand the response to the term postmodern by understanding, what he terms, the “psychopolitics” or “psychophathology of academic life” (2). What this implies is that whenever a new concept is introduced it is offered against a contested terrain of varied interests, disciplinary boundaries and the loyalties of the practitioners to their chosen fields and periods and an understanding of this psychopathology is important in understanding the debates about postmodernism. Thus in Hassan’s words “the reception or denial of postmodernism . . . remains contingent on the psychopolitics of academic life–including the various dispositions of people and power in our universities, of critical factions and personal frictions, of boundaries that arbitrarily include or exclude” (2).

Conceptual Problems that Conceal and Constitute Postmodernism: Other than the problem of the context and psychopolitics in reception of the term, the term postmodern itself has certain inherent problems and ambiguities and Hassan describes ten of these problems:

  1. As modern is part of the term postmodernism, the term, then “contains its enemy within” (3).
  2. It suffers from a “semantic instability” and no clear “concensus about its meaning exists among scholars” (3).
  3. There is a lot of slippage in the term especially when it comes to differentiating the modern from the postmodern. (3)
  4. A lot of overlap between modernism and postmodernism and we all occupy several spaces in this temporal marking simultaneously. (3)
  5. Postmodernism contains a double view: It can be viewed both in terms of continuity and discontinuity, sameness and difference, unity and rupture, filiation and revolt. (3)
  6. Thus, “a period is generally not a period at all; it is rather both a diachronic and synchronic construct.” The reason we continually keep finding “antecedents” of postmodernism is because “we have created in our mind a model for postmodernism . . . and proceeded to ‘rediscover’ the affinities of various authors and different moments with the model” (4).
  7. A definition of postmodernism requires a “four-fold visions of complementarities, embracing continuity and discontinuity, diachrony and synchrony” (4). Its “defining traits are dialectical and also plural” (4). [preterites, noetic].
  8. What kind of theory of change does the postmodern apply?
  9. Is it only “an artistic tendency or also a social phenomenon, perhaps even a mutation in Western humanism?” (4).
  10. Is the term postmodern used as “an honorofic term” to valorize the authors we prefer or “a term of opprobrium and objurgation?” (5).

A Provisional Scheme for the Postmodern: Hassan’s attempt at defining the postmodern takes into consideration “three modes of artistic change in the last hundred years” (5). He calls these modes: “avant-garde, modern, and postmodern” (5).

  • Avant-garde: Movements that “agitated the earlier part of”  twentieth century: Pataphysics, Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Supermatism, Constructivism [and] de Stiji” (5). Hassan asserts that these movements have “all but vanished now” but these were the movements that had “assaulted the bourgeoisie with their art, their manifestos, their antics” (5) but their “activism could also turn inward” and become “self destructive” (5).
  • Modernism:For Hassan, modernism proved “more stable, aloof, hieratic, like the French Symbolism from which it derived” (5). It commanded “high authority” among its practitioners.
  • Postmodernism: Strikes us “as playful, paratactical, and decosntrutionist” (5). In a way it carries the “irreverent spirit of the avant-garde” while still being “far less aversive to the pop, electronic society of which it is a part, and so hospitable to kitsch” (5).

Schematic Differences Between Modernism and Postmodernism: Based on his discussion of the above cited three movements, of which postmodernism is one, Hassan provides a list of provisional schematic differences between modernism and postmodernism as a start for further inquiry.

Modernism                                                                          Postmodernism

Romanticism/ Symbolism                                                       Pataphysics/ Dadaism

Form (conjunctive, closed)                                                      Antiform (disjunctive, open)

Purpose                                                                                        Play

Design                                                                                          Chance

Hierarchy                                                                                     Anarchy

Mastery/ Logos                                                                          Exhaustion/ Silence

Art object/ Finished work                                                       Process/performance/happening

Distance                                                                                      Participation

Creation/ Totalization                                                             Decreation/ Deconstruction

Synthesis                                                                                     Antithesis

Presence                                                                                      Absence

Centering                                                                                    Dispersal

Genre/ Boundary                                                                      Text/ Intertext

Semantics                                                                                   Rhetoric

Paradigm ——————————————————Syntagm

Hypotaxis —————————————————–Parataxis

Metaphor                                                                                    Metonymy

Selection                                                                                     Combination

Root/ Depth                                                                               Rhizome/ Surface

Interpretation/ Reading                                                          Against Interpretation/ Misreading

Signified                                                                                      Signifier

Lisible (Readerly)                                                                      Scriptible/ Writerly

Narrative/ Grand Histoire                                                       Anti-narrative/ Petitie Histoire

Master Code                                                                                Ideolect

Symptom                                                                                      Desire

Type                                                                                               Mutant

Genital/ Phallic                                                                           Polymorphous/ Androgynous

Paranoia                                                                                       Schizophrenia

Origin/ Cause                                                                              Difference-Differance/ Trace

God the Father                                                                             The Holy Ghost

Metaphysics                                                                                  Irony

Determinancy                                                                               Indeterminancy

Transcendence                                                                             Immanence


Hassan does not offer the above table as a final point of arrival; it is offered as an unstable and provisional schema toward understanding postmodernism. Hassan finally offers a neologism as his attempt at theorizing the postmodern: Indetermanance. Combining indertminacy and immanence into on word, Hassan also points out these two tendencies [of postmodernism] are “not dialectal . . . nor do they lead to a synthesis” (7). Thus, both these terms (indeterminancy+imanennce) combined in one word are supposed to convey, in their collective possibilities, a sort of concept for capturing and defining postmodernism.