There has lately been something like an arms race in literary studies to name whatever comes after postmodernism. Post-postmodernism, cosmodernism, digimodernism, automodernism, altermodernism, and metamodernism rank among the more popular prospects. Each of these terms ostensibly describes a new mode of literary production after the alleged death of postmodernism. Yet the push to name a new period necessarily raises two important questions that should cause us to look back even as we squint toward the horizon:
- What is an -ism?
- Do we need periods at all?
If there is some kind of shift happening, if something new is taking place, if metamodernism, for instance, is supplanting postmodernism, then we implicitly assume that this new thing is new in contrast to the old thing that came before. In other words, to name a new -ism requires us to set the previous -ism in stone. But is, or I guess I should ask, was postmodernism ever an -ism at all?
In literary studies, we often use -isms to describe dual phenomena: historical periods that also seem to have their own unique philosophies of art. Now, of course things are never as neat and tidy as an -ism like romanticism seems to make them. Nearly all scholars would agree that romanticism does end on Tuesday, April 11, 1861, and they would agree it didn’t spring forth fully formed from a particular writer or literary work. Nevertheless, we use these historical-philosophical categories to make an otherwise unwieldy history a little more, well, wieldy. Literary historians have theorized and developed these -isms over time to better understand these writers, works, and time periods. We have also used these -isms to make these writers, works, and time periods more accessible to students. Such categories make it much easier to hold a lot of information in our heads.
Did postmodernism represent a return to some earlier literary form or was it an entirely new practice?
But there has never been the kind of consensus about postmodernism that there has been about romanticism, realism, or modernism. That’s not to say that there’s no scholarly agreement, but it is to say that postmodernism has not been nearly as easy to presume in our attempts to name whatever comes next. After all, what was postmodernism? Was it an architectural aesthetic? Was it a philosophy? Was it a culmination of modernism or its antithesis? Did postmodernism represent a return to some earlier literary form or was it an entirely new practice?
The problem is the particular form of the -ism as a historical marker. An -ism, according to the OED, is “a form of doctrine, theory, or practice having, or claiming to have, a distinctive character or relation.” Platonism is a good example. Plato’s philosophy can be defined by a system of orthodoxies that, taken together, make up Platonism. When we use the -ism to periodize, however, we necessarily tend to treat what should be a story as a system. We treat history as doctrine. We treat what should be narrative as a list of principles. We conflate history and aesthetics, or maybe history and philosophy.
The question, “what is an -ism?” can thus prepare us for the question, “do we need periods at all?” In short, we need periods. Fredric Jameson says it this way: “we cannot not periodize.” The late Jacques LeGoff puts it like this: “So long as humanity is unable to predict the future with exactitude, the ability to organize a very long past will not lose its importance.” Periodization helps us account for changes in history; it helps us retain information; it makes the past more manageable. But there are many different ways to periodize. The -ism is only one approach. After all, we haven’t always used -isms this way. If literary historians must periodize, then perhaps the next question to consider is: should we continue to use the -ism to do so?
Featured image credit: The juxtaposition of old and new, especially with regards to taking styles from past periods and re-fitting them into modern art outside of their original context, is a common characteristic of postmodern art by Petri Krohn. CC ASA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.