By Alan Kirby
I have in front of me a module description downloaded from a British university English department's website. It includes details of assignments and a week-by-week reading list for the optional module 'Postmodern Fictions', and if the university is to remain nameless here it's not because the module is in any way shameful but that it handily represents modules or module parts which will be taught in virtually every English department in the land this coming academic year. It assumes that postmodernism is alive, thriving and kicking: it says it will introduce "the general topics of 'postmodernism' and 'postmodernity' by examining their relationship to the contemporary writing of fiction". This might suggest that postmodernism is contemporary, but the comparison actually shows that it is dead and buried.
Postmodern philosophy emphasises the elusiveness of meaning and knowledge. This is often expressed in postmodern art as a concern with representation and an ironic self-awareness. And the argument that postmodernism is over has already been made philosophically. There are people who have essentially asserted that for a while we believed in postmodern ideas, but not any more, and from now on we're going to believe in critical realism. The weakness in this analysis is that it centres on the academy, on the practices and suppositions of philosophers who may or may not be shifting ground or about to shift – and many academics will simply decide that, finally, they prefer to stay with Foucault [arch postmodernist] than go over to anything else. However, a far more compelling case can be made that postmodernism is dead by looking outside the academy at current cultural production.