From Postmodernism to Postmodernity:
the Local/Global Context*

by Ihab Hassan

What Was Postmodernism?

What was postmodernism, and what is it still? I believe it is a revenant, the return of the irrepressible; every time we are rid of it, its ghost rises back. And like a ghost, it eludes definition. Certainly, I know less about postmodernism today than I did thirty years ago, when I began to write about it. This may be because postmodernism has changed, I have changed, the world has changed.

       But this is only to confirm Nietzsche’s insight, that if an idea has a history, it is already an interpretation, subject to future revision. What escapes interpretation and reinterpretation is a Platonic Idea or an abstract analytical concept, like a circle or a triangle. Romanticism, modernism, postmodernism, however, like humanism or realism, will shift and slide continually with time, particularly in an age of ideological conflict and media hype.

       All this has not prevented postmodernism from haunting the discourse of architecture, the arts, the humanities, the social and sometimes even the physical sciences; haunting not only academic but also public speech in business, politics, the media, and entertainment industries; haunting the language of private life styles like postmodern cuisine--just add a dash of raspberry vinegar. Yet no consensus obtains on what postmodernism really means.

       The term, let alone the concept, may thus belong to what philosophers call an essentially contested category. That is, in plainer language, if you put in a room the main discussants of the concept--say Leslie Fiedler, Charles Jencks, Jean-François Lyotard, Bernard Smith, Rosalind Krauss, Fredric Jameson, Marjorie Perloff, Linda Hutcheon, and, just to add to the confusion, myself--locked the room and threw away the key, no consensus would emerge between the discussants after a week, but a thin trickle of blood might appear beneath the sill.

       Let us not despair: though we may be unable to define or exorcise the ghost of postmodernism, we can approach it, surprising it from various angles, perhaps teasing it into a partial light. In the process, we may discover a family of words congenial to postmodernism.

       Here are some current uses of the term:
  1. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (Spain), Ashton Raggatt McDougall’s Storey Hall in Melbourne (Australia), and Arata Isozaki’s Tsukuba Center (Japan) are considered examples of postmodern architecture: they depart from the pure angular geometries of the Bauhaus, the minimal steel and glass boxes of Mies van der Rohe, mixing aesthetic and historical elements, flirting with fragments, fantasy, and even kitsch.

  2. In a recent encyclical, titled “Fides et Ratio,” Pope John Paul II actually used the word postmodernism to condemn extreme relativism in values and beliefs, acute irony and skepticism toward reason, and the denial of any possibility of truth, human or divine.

  3. In cultural studies, a highly politicized field, the term postmodernism is often used in opposition to postcolonialism, the former deemed historically feckless, being unpolitical or, worse, not politically correct.

  4. In Pop culture, postmodernism--or PoMo as Yuppies call it insouciantly--refers to a wide range of phenomena, from Andy Warhol to Madonna, from the colossal plaster Mona Lisa I saw advertising a pachinko parlor in Tokyo to the giant, cardboard figure of Michelangelo’s David--pink dayglo classes, canary shorts, a camera slung across bare, brawny shoulders--advertising KonTiki Travels in New Zealand.

       What do all these have in common? Well, fragments, hybridity, relativism, play, parody, pastiche, an ironic, anti-ideological stance, an ethos bordering on kitsch and camp. So, we have begun to build a family of words applying to postmodernism; we have begun to create a context, if not a definition, for it. More impatient or ambitious readers can consult Hans Bertens’ The Idea of the Postmodern, the best and fairest introduction I know to the topic.

       But now I must make my second move or feint to approach postmodernism from a different perspective.


       I do so by making a distinction I did not sufficiently stress in my earlier work: between postmodernism and postmodernity. This is the distinction that constitutes the main thrust of this statement, and to which I will later return.

       For the moment, let me simply say that I mean postmodernism to refer to the cultural sphere, especially literature, philosophy, and the various arts, including architecture, while postmodernity refers to the geopolitical scheme, less order than disorder, which has emerged in the last decades. The latter, sometimes called postcolonialism, features globalization and localization, conjoined in erratic, often lethal, ways.

       This distinction is not the defunct Marxist difference between superstructure and base, since the new economic, political, religious, and technological forces of the world hardly conform to Marxist “laws.” Nor does postmodernity equal postcolonialism, though the latter, with its concern for colonial legacies, may be part of the former.

       Think of postmodernity as a world process, by no means identical everywhere yet global nonetheless. Or think of it as a vast umbrella under which stand various phenomena: postmodernism in the arts, poststructuralism in philosophy, feminism in social discourse, postcolonial and cultural studies in academe, but also multi-national capitalism, cybertechnologies, international terrorism, assorted separatist, ethnic, nationalist, and religious movements--all standing under, but not causally subsumed by, postmodernity.

       From what I have said, we can infer two points: first, that postmodernism (the cultural phenomenon) applies to affluent, high-tech, consumer, media-driven societies; and second, that postmodernity (the inclusive geopolitical process) refers to an interactive, planetary phenomenon wherein tribalism and imperialism, myth and technology, margins and centers--these terms are not parallel--play out their conflictual energies, often on the Internet.

       I have said that I did not stress enough the distinction between postmodernism and postmodernity in my earlier work. But in fairness to the subject--and perhaps to myself--I should note that an internal distinction I made within postmodernism itself points to a crucial characteristic of postmodernity in its planetary context.

       In an essay titled “Culture, Indeterminacy, and Immanence: Margins of the (Postmodern) Age” (1977), I coined the term “indetermanence”--that is, indeterminacy combined with immanence--to describe two disparate tendencies within postmodernism: that of cultural indeterminacy, on the one hand, and that of technological immanence, on the other. These tendencies are contrastive rather than dialectical: they ensue in no Hegelian or Marxist synthesis. (I can think of no one less postmodern than either.)

       By indeterminacy, or better still, indeterminacies, I mean a combination of trends that include openness, fragmentation, ambiguity, discontinuity, decenterment, heterodoxy, pluralism, deformation, all conducive to indeterminacy or under-determination. The latter concept alone, deformation, subsumes a dozen current terms like deconstruction, decreation, disintegration, displacement, difference, discontinuity, disjunction, disappearance, de-definition, demystification, detotalization, delegitimation, decolonization. Through all these concepts moves a vast will to undoing, affecting the body politic, the body cognitive, the erotic body, the individual psyche, the entire realm of discourse in the West. In literature alone, our ideas of author, audience, reading, writing, book, genre, critical theory, and of literature itself, have all suddenly become questionable-- questionable but far from invalid, reconstituting themselves in various ways.

       These uncertainties or indeterminacies, however, are also dispersed or disseminated by the fluent imperium of technology. Thus I call the second major tendency of postmodernism immanences, a term that I employ without religious echo to designate the capacity of mind to generalize itself in symbols, intervene more and more into nature, act through its own abstractions, and project human consciousness to the edges of the cosmos. This mental tendency may be further described by words like diffusion, dissemination, projection, interplay, communication, which all derive from the emergence of human beings as language animals, homo pictor or homo significans, creatures constituting themselves, and also their universe, by symbols of their own making. Call it gnostic textualism, if you must. Meanwhile, the public world dissolves as fact and fiction blend, history becomes a media happening, science takes its own models as the only accessible reality, cybernetics confronts us with the enigma of artificial intelligence (Deep Blue contra Kasparov), and technologies project our perceptions to the edge of matter, within the atom or at the rim of the expanding universe.

       No doubt, these tendencies, I repeat, may seem less prevalent in some countries than others like America or Australia, Germany or Japan, where the term postmodernism has become familiar both in and outside the university. But the fact in most developed societies remains: as a cultural phenomenon, postmodernism evinces the double tendency I have dubbed “indetermanence”--its forms cognate to labyrinths, networks, the rhizomes of Deleuze and Guattari.

       The earth, however, is larger and more significant than Planet Hollywood, Deutsche Bank, or Mitsubishi. Hence the relevance of Postmodernity. For the indetermanences of cultural postmodernism seem to have mutated into the local-global conflicts of postmodernity, including the genocides of Bosnia, Kosovo, Ulster, Rwanda, Chechnya, Kurdistan, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Tibet…. At the same time, cultural postmodernism itself has metastasized into sterile, campy, kitschy, jokey, dead-end games or sheer media stunts.

       Here, then, are some new terms to add to our family of words about postmodernism: indeterminacy, immanence, textualism, networks, high-tech, consumer, media-driven societies, and all the sub-vocabularies they imply. Have we nudged the ghost of postmodernism toward the light?

       Perhaps we need to nudge it further by raising a different question: isn’t the statement of this essay, so far, a mark of historical introspection? Doesn’t it suggest that the postmodern mind inclines to self-apprehension, self-reflection, as if intent on writing the equivocal autobiography of an age?

The Equivocal Autobiography of an Age

       In 1784, Immanuel Kant published an essay called “Was Ist Aufklärung?” (“What is Enlightenment?”). Some thinkers, especially Michel Foucault, have taken this essay to be the first time a philosopher asks self-reflexively: who are we, historically speaking, and what is the meaning of our contemporaneity? Certainly, many of us wonder nowadays: Was ist Postmodernismus? But as Foucault fails to note--he fails in other respects too--we ask the question without Kant’s confidence in the possibilities of knowledge, his historical self-assurance.

       Children of an equivocal Chronos, versed in aporia, suspicion, incredulity, votaries of decenterment and apostles of multiplicity, pluralist, parodic, pragmatic, and polychronic, we could hardly privilege postmodernism as Kant privileged the Enlightenment. Instead, we betray an abandon of belatedness, a seemingly limitless anxiety of self-nomination. Hence the weird terms and nomenclatures surrounding postmodernism, terms like classical postmodernism, high, pop, po-mo, revisionary, deconstructive, reconstructive, insurrectional, pre-, and post-postmodernism--neologisms suggesting an explosion in a word factory.

       In any case, we can hardly imagine any other epoch agonizing so much about itself, only to devise so clunky a moniker, so awkward a name as postmodernism. (In this, I share the blame.) Perhaps, after all, postmodernism can be “defined” as a continuous inquiry into self-definition. This impulse is by no means restricted to the so-called West. The more interactive the globe, the more populations move, jostle, and grapple--this is the age of diasporas--the more questions of cultural, religious, and personal identity become acute--and sometimes specious. In still another transposition of postmodernism into postmodernity, you can hear the cry around the world: “who are we? who am I?”

       So, once again, here are some more words accruing to our family of words about postmodernism: historical and epistemic self-reflexivity, anxiety of self-nomination, a polychronic sense of time (linear, cyclical, sidereal, cybernetic, nostalgic, eschatological, visionary times are all in there), massive migrations, forced or free, a crisis of cultural and personal identities.

Brief History of the Term

       This attempt at self-apprehension--what I called the equivocal autobiography of an age--appears reflected in the erratic history of the word postmodernism itself, a history, nonetheless, that helps to clarify the concept currently in use. I must be ruthlessly selective here, particularly since Charles Jencks and Margaret Rose have given detailed accounts of that history elsewhere.

       It seems that an English salon painter, John Watkins Chapman, used the term, back in the 1870’s, in the sense that we now speak of Post-Impressionism. Jump to 1934, when Federico de Onís uses the word postmodernismo to suggest a reaction against the difficulty and experimentalism of modernist poetry. In 1939, Arnold Toynbee takes up the term in a very different sense, proclaiming the end of the “modern,” Western bourgeois order dating back to the seventeenth century. Then, in 1945, Bernard Smith employs the word to suggest a movement in painting, beyond abstraction, which we call Socialist Realism. In the fifties in America, Charles Olson, in conjunction with poets and artists at Black Mountain College, speaks of a postmodernism that reverts more to Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams than to formalist poets like T. S. Eliot. By the end of that decade, in 1959 and 1960, Irving Howe and Harry Levin, respectively, argue that postmodernism intimates a decline in high modernist culture.

       Only in the late sixties and early seventies, in various essays by Leslie Fiedler and myself, among others, does postmodernism begin to signify a distinct, sometimes positive, development in American culture, a critical modification, if not actual end, of modernism. It is in this latter sense, I believe, changing masks and changing faces, that postmodern theory persists today.

       Why do I make such a seemingly self-serving claim? Consider the sixties for a moment, all the openings and breaks that occurred in developed, consumer societies (we are speaking of postmodernism). Andreas Huyssen called that decade, straddling the sixties and seventies really, the “great divide.” Within ten or fifteen years, the United States experienced an astonishing succession of liberation and counter-cultural movements: the Berkeley Free Speech, Vietnam Anti-War, Black Power, Chicano Power, Women’s Lib, Gay Pride, Gray Panther, Psychedelic, and Ecological Movements, to mention but a few. Street theatre, happenings, rock music, aleatory composition, concrete poetry, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E group, pop art, and multi-media events spread, blurring the borders of high and popular culture, art and theory, text and metatext and paratext (my Paracriticism, for instance). Hippies and Yippies, Flower Children and Minute Men, Encounter Groups and Zen Monks crowded the landscape. Elitism and hierarchy were out, participation and anarchy, or at least pseudo-anarchy, were in. The forms of thought and art shifted from static to performative, from the hypotactical to paratactical--or so it seemed. Not Heidegger but Derrida; not Matisse but Duchamp; not Schönberg but Cage; not Hemingway but Barthelme--and again, most visibly, not Gropius, Mies, or Le Corbusier, but Gehry, Renzo Piano, and Isozaki in architecture, among countless others. (Note, however, that postmodernism in the various arts is not necessarily homologous, as I will later discuss.)

       In this climate of cultural “indetermanence” and social “delegitimation” (this latter, Lyotard’s term), postmodernism grew, assuming its latest guise. Grew and I think died, though its specter still haunts Europe, America, Australia Japan…. But that specter may now find a new life and a new name. Clicking “Postmodernism” in a search engine, my cybermaven colleague Cam Tatham assures me, yields 92,000 links in .06 seconds.

Conceptual Difficulties

       The specter still haunts, but it does so ineffectually; for it is conceptually flawed, and time’s wingless chariot awaits no one. Since the theoretical difficulties of postmodernism are themselves revealing, I will mention at least five:

  1. The term postmodernism is not only awkward; it is also Oedipal, and like a rebellious but impotent adolescent, it can not separate itself completely from its parent. It can not invent for itself a new name like Baroque, Rococo, Romantic, Symbolist, Futurist, Cubist, Dadaist, Surrealist, Constructivist, Vorticist, and so on. In short, the relation of postmodernism to modernism remains ambiguous, Oedipal or parasitical if you wish; or as Bernard Smith remarks in Modernism’s History, it remains a conflictual dialogue with the older movement, which he would rather call “Formalesque”--a term with problems of its own.

  2. Postmodernism, misnamed, Smith would insist, relates itself to a modernism no longer modern; for the latter can no longer describe the high cultural achievement of the years, say, between 1890 and 1940. That is because the term modern, in its typological sense, keeps moving forward at the cutting edge of history, and has done so from the Abbot Suger and Shakespeare, who both used the word, to our time.

  3. The term postmodernism, triply inadequate, seems very un-postmodern because postmodern, specifically poststructuralist, thought rejects linear time, from past to present to future as the prefixes pre- and post- imply. Postmodern time, I have said, is polychronic. As such, it avoids categorical and linear periodization: for instance, in English literary history, that useful and familiar sequence of Elizabethan, Jacobean, Neoclassical, Romantic, Victorian, Edwardian, Modern, Postmodern.

  4. More importantly, postmodernism can not serve simply as a period, as a temporal, chronological, or diachronic construct; it must also function as a theoretical, phenomenological, or synchronic category. Older or dead writers, like Samuel Beckett or Jorge Luis Borges or Raymond Roussel or Vladimir Nabokov, can be postmodern, while younger ones, still alive like John Updike or Toni Morrison or V. S. Naipaul, may not be postmodern (the distinction carries no literary value judgments). And so, we can not claim that everything before 1960 is modern, everything after, postmodern. Beckett’s Murphy appeared in 1938, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake in 1939, both, in my view, preeminently postmodern. Nor can we simply say that Joyce is modern or postmodern. Which Joyce? That of Dubliners (pre-modern), Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (modern), Ulysses (modern shading into postmodern), Finnegans Wake (postmodern)?

    All this is to say that a persuasive model of postmodernism requires a constellation of particular styles, features, attitudes, placed in a particular historical context. Anyone of these features alone--say parody, self-reflection, or black humor--may find antecedents a hundred or a thousand years ago, in Euripides or Sterne. But together, in their present historical context, these features may cohere into a working model of the phenomenon called postmodernism.

  5. Having constructed such a model, does postmodernism develop along the same lines in every artistic or cultural field? Does it manifest itself identically in architecture, painting, music, dance, literature--and in the latter alone, in poetry, fiction, drama, the essay? What are the correspondences and symmetries, but also disjunctions and asymmetries, in various artistic genres, indeed in distinct fields like science, philosophy, politics, popular entertainment? Obviously, the challenges to a comprehensive model of postmodernism are daunting. Do we need such a model? Do we still need the word?

Postmodernism as Interpretive Category

       At this point, we might as well ask--whether in Cairo, Sydney, Milwaukee, or Kuala Lumpur--why bother with postmodernism at all?

       One answer, I have suggested, is that postmodernism mutates into postmodernity, which is our global/local condition. I will shortly return, and indeed conclude, with this theme. But there is another, more immediate answer: postmodernism has become, consciously or unconsciously, for better or for worse, an interpretive category, a hermeneutic tool. As such, it impinges on our business as students of culture, literature, the arts.

       Why is that? More than a period, more even than a constellation of artistic trends and styles, postmodernism has become, even after its partial demise, a way we view the world. Bernard Smith may be right in saying that postmodernism amounts to little more than a struggle with the modernist “Formalesque.” But this dialogue or struggle also becomes a filter through which we view history, interpret reality, see ourselves; postmodernism is now our shadow.

       Every generation, of course, reinvents, reinvests, its ancestors--this, too, is hermeneutics. And so we look back on Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-1767) and say, here is an instance, or an antecedent, of postmodernism. We can say the same of Franz Kafka’s The Castle (1926) or Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1938) or James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939). But all this simply means that we have internalized some of the assumptions and values of postmodernism and that we now reread the past--indeed, re-appropriate it--in their terms.

       This tendency, inevitable perhaps and sometimes enabling, can become offensive when postmodern ideologies cannibalize the past, incorporating it wholly into their flesh. Put more equably, we need to respect the otherness of the past, though we may be condemned to revise it even as we repeat it. In this, as in literary studies generally, postmodern theory, at its best, can prove beneficial: it can become a heightened mode of self-awareness, self-critical of its own assumptions, its own bleached myths and invisible theologies, and tolerant of what is not itself. But this calls for pragmatism, to avoid the extremes of dogma and skepticism. For the latter, as T. S. Eliot said in his Notes Toward a Definition of Culture, can be a highly civilized trait, though when it declines into pyrrhonism, it becomes a trait from which civilizations can die.

Postmodernism and Pragmatism

       Here I must make an excursus on philosophical pragmatism, one more crucial word to add to our growing verbal family.

       By 1987, when I published The Postmodern Turn, I had begun to wonder, like others, how to recover the creative impulse of postmodernism without atavism or reversion, without relapse into enervated forms or truculent dogmas, without cynicism or fanaticism. Facile skepticism lacked conviction; ideological politics was full of passionate mendacity. I turned then to the philosophical pragmatism of William James and returned to the artistic pragmatism of John Cage. Both allowed a place for belief, indeed for unabashed spirituality, in works like The Will to Believe and A Year from Monday.

       Philosophical pragmatism, of course, offers no panacea. But its intellectual generosity; its epistemic or noetic pluralism; its avoidance of stale debates (about mind and matter, for instance, freedom and necessity, nurture and nature); and its affinities with open, liberal, multicultural societies, where issues must be resolved by mediation and compromise rather than dictatorial power or divine decree--all these make it congenial to postmodernism without acceding to the latter’s potential for nihilism, its spirit of feckless and joyless “play.”

       But the virtues of Emersonian and Jamesian--far more than Rortian--pragmatism affect literary studies generally, not only postmodern theory. (The topic warrants a monograph in itself.) Perhaps, in anticipation of my conclusion, I can say simply this: such virtues are inward with reality. They resist the hubris of theory, the impatience of ideology, the rage of our desires and needs--in short, they nurture that “negative capability” Keats considered essential to great literature.

       As for Cage, that genius of postmodern avant-gardes in music, dance, the visual arts, literature, he carried negative capability to the thresholds of non-discrimination. A pragmatist, a descendant of American Transcendentalism withal, a disciple of Zen, Cage’s sacramental vision of dispossession, of egolessness, perfuses his work from first to last. Who has not heard rise from his aleatory pages--often composed by chance operations applied to the I Ching--Cage’s happy, open-mouthed laugh, echoing the practical hilarity of holy fools in times past as well as the robust, expansive amiability of William James?

       That is the sound of pragmatism, I submit, whose cadences may calm and inspire us all, especially in cultural and postcolonial studies.

Beyond Postmodernism: An Inconclusion

       Throughout this paper, the latent question has been: what lies beyond postmodernism? Of course, no one really knows. But my tacit answer has been: postmodernity, pulsing on the Internet. This is no cause to cheer.

       Realism teaches us that historical crises do not always come to happy resolution; we need to learn what history can and can not teach. Still, though inequities and iniquities of existence may be indurate, they are not all irremediable in the particular forms they take.

       Two factors aggravate the ordeals of postmodernity in our time: the glaring disparities of wealth among and within nations, and the furies of nationalism, collective identity, mass feelings. About the first subject, crucial as it may be, I will say little: it engages the dismal sciences of economics and geopolitics, beyond my reach. About the second, I will hazard a few remarks.

       Much is said about difference, about otherness, and much of that is in the hortatory mode. But those who demand respect for their kind do not always accord it to other kinds. The fact is that the human brain exploded mysteriously into evolution a million or so years ago, devising hasty strategies for survival, which include the distinction between Self and Other, We and Them.

       The division is manifest in the biological world, not only interspecies (between different species), but also intraspecies (between individuals of the same species). That is the miracle of our immune systems which distinguish immediately, electro-chemically, between home bodies and “invaders.” Such systems, though, can be fooled sometimes into attacking friends and ignoring foes--but that is another story. The division between Self and Other is also manifest in nearly all our languages, in the deep structures of grammar and in the vocabularies of the different pronouns. Hence the distinctions we make between I and You, Us and Them, We and They, and so forth. Furthermore, the division is active in the layers of the psyche, as Freudians and Lacanians know, in the distinction between Ego Instincts (self-centered) and Object or Erotic Instincts (centered on others), as well as in Lacan’s Mirror Stage and Symbolic Order. Most pertinent to our topic, however, the division is clear in the evolutionary and historical development of the family, the group, the tribe. Human beings would have perished long ago in the struggle for evolution--to faster, stronger, fiercer animals like the saber-toothed tiger--were it not for the human brain, human languages, and human social organizations. Hence the profound instinct of tribalism, which develops into nationalisms of different kinds, including ethnic, religious, cultural, and political nationalism.

       This instinct is primal--but also primitive. The Bulgarian Nobelist Elias Canetti wrote, in Auto-da-Fé, about the “mass-soul in ourselves,” which foams like a huge, wild, full-blooded animal. More soberly, the great biologist, E. O. Wilson, describes, in Consilience, the “epigenitic rules” governing the practices of kinship, cooperation, and reciprocal altruism in human societies.

       Now, the mass-soul, the herd or tribal instinct, may be primal. But so is imagination, so is love, so is the power of sympathy--in short, the power to vault over distinctions and identify with others. Moreover, though the division between Self and Other may have been once essential to survival, it may be less so now, may need to assume different shapes, in our interactive, interdependent, cybernetic, and “glocal” age--this hideous neologism can be used only once--the age of postmodernity.

       Still, I do not think that divisions between Self and Other, Us and Them, will soon vanish, especially if the discrepancies of wealth and power persist in their flagrant forms. But I do think that, instead of wishing or talking the distinction away, we can make it more conscious of itself in our lives. This requires absolute candor, the courage to speak the truth to ourselves and not only to others. Beyond that, we need to cultivate a keener, livelier, more dialogical sense of ourselves in relation to diverse cultures, diverse natures, the whole universe itself. And we need to discover modes of self-transcendence, especially for the “wretched of the earth,” that avoid blind identification with collectives premised on exclusion of other groups. This, I realize, is far easier said than done, especially for the mass-minded in every clime. Still, I would maintain, that is the spiritual project of postmodernity, a project to which literature and all the arts remain vital.

       Of course, we can define the project of postmodernity simply in political terms as an open dialogue between local and global, margin and center, minority and majority, concrete and universal--and not only between those but also between local and local, margin and margin, minority and minority, and further still, between universals of different kinds. But there is never surety that a political dialogue, even the most open, will not erupt into violence.

       To this ancient stain of human violence, I have no remedy. But I wonder: can postmodern pragmatism serve us in a small way? Can the imagination serve us in larger ways? Will spirit become the ground from which new ecological and planetary values spring? Can the Internet--more conjunctive than disjunctive despite current parodies of a noetic, holistic apprehension of reality, which I called in Paracriticisms “the new gnosticism”? This I know: without spirit, the sense of cosmic wonder, of being and mortality at the widest edge, which we all share, existence quickly reduces to mere survival. Something we need to release us from the prison-house of tribal identity, and from the terrible grip of self-concern. That is spirit.

       In this universe, not all the music is of our own making.


*Variants of the essay have appeared in: Artspace (Sydney), Critical Issues Series No. 3 (2000) and Philosophy and Literature 25, 1 (Spring 2001).

Works Cited

Bertens, Hans. The Idea of the Postmodern: A History. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

Cage, John. A Year From Monday. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967.

Canetti, Elias. Auto-d-Fé. Tr. C. V. Wedgwood. New York: Seabury Press, 1979.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. Rhizome. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1976.

Eliot, T. S. Notes Toward the Definition of Culture. London: Faber and Faber, 1948.

Foucault, Michel. Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Ed. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Hassan, Ihab. Paracriticisms: Seven Speculations of the Times. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1975.

Hassan, Ihab. The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1987.

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloominton, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986.

James, William. The Will to Believe and Other Essays. New York: Dover, 1956.

James, William. Pragmatism. New York: Meridian Books, 1955.

Jencks, Charles. What Is Postmodernism? Fourth Edition. London: Academy Editions, 1996.

Kant, Immanuel.“Was Ist Aufklärung?” Berlinische Monatschrift, November 1784.

Keats, John. The Selected Letters of John Keats. Ed. Lionel Trilling. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Young, 1951.

Lyotard, Jean-François. La Condition postmoderne. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1979.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Ed. Walter Kaufmann, tr. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Random House, 1967.

Rose, Margaret. The Post-Modern and the Post-Industrial. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Smith, Bernard. Modernism’s History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.

Wilson, E. O. Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge. New York: Random House, 1998.

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