POSTMODERNISM IN THE 1970S AND 1980S
Huyssen claims that postmodernism as a concept only gained currency in the 1970s, although he maintains that the critical element within postmodernism can only be fully understood if the 1950s are seen as the starting point of the ‘mapping of the postmodern’. He maintains that the general atmosphere of political and economic disillusionment of the 1970s led to an ‘emerging cultural scene which seemed much more amorphous and scattered than that of the 1960s’ (Huyssen 1986:196). Huyssen describes this period as characterised by a mixing of mass culture and modernism set against the challenges raised by a number of social movements demanding ‘a voice’. In powerful summary of the cultural climate, Huyssen notes that
It was especially the art, writing, film-making and criticism of women and minority artists with their recuperation of buried and mutilated traditions, their emphasis on exploring forms of gender – and race-based subjectivity in aesthetic productions and experiences, and their refusal to be limited to standard canonizations, which added a whole new dimension to the critique of high modernism and to the emergence of alternative forms of culture.. .Women’s criticism has shed some new light on the modernist canon itself from a variety of different feminist perspectives. Without succumbing to the kind of feminine essentialism which is one of the more problematic sides of the feminist enterprise, it just seems obvious that were it not for the critical gaze of feminist criticism, the male determinations and obsessions of Italian futurism, Vorticism, Russian constructivism, Neue Sachlichkeit or surrealism would probably still be blocked from our view.
While acknowledging the integral role of women’s art, literature and criticism to the emergence of a postmodern culture in the 1970s and 1980s, Huyssen comments on the absence of feminist critics within the modernism/postmodernism debate. Morris (1988) has commented on the limitations of Huyssen’s perspective, and in a somewhat dismissive commentary on Huyssen, she (1988:12) contends that the real question is not whether feminists have or have not written about postmodernism but rather ‘under what conditions women’s work can “figure” current in such a debate’.
Huyssen’s (1986:214) engagement with feminist ‘interventions’ is limited to Julia Kristeva’s work. He maintains that for Kristeva the question of postmodernism is the question of how anything can be written in the twentieth century and how we can talk about this writing. Kristeva argues that postmodernism is ‘that literature which writes itself with the more or less conscious intention of expanding the signifiable and thus the human realm’.1 Huyssen (1986:214) notes that Kristeva’s is a ‘fascinating and novel approach to the question of modernist literature and one that understands itself as a political intervention. But it does not yield much for an exploration of the differences between modernity and postmodernity.’
He goes on to argue that postmodernism cannot be regarded simply as a sequel to modernism. He maintains that postmodernism is different from modernism in that it raises the question of cultural tradition ‘in the most fundamental way as an aesthetic and a political issue’ (Huyssen 1986:216). However, he notes that ‘postmodernism is far from making modernism obsolete’. On the contrary, Huyssen claims that postmodernism casts new light on modernism and ‘appropriates many of its aesthetic strategies and techniques, inserting them and making them work in new constellations’ (ibid.).
Huyssen comments that modernism’s critique of mass culture and ‘the avant – garde’s attack on high art as a support system of cultural hegemony always took place on the pedestal of high art itself (Huyssen 1986:218). He goes on to note that neither high art nor high culture occupies the privileged space that it used to. He makes the point that the more diffuse and fragmented nature of culture has made it ‘harder to contain [culture] in safe categories or stable institutions such as the academy, the museum or even the established gallery network’ (Huyssen 1986:219).
Despite the limitations of his analysis of feminist interventions into postmodernism, Huyssen makes a number of interesting points which anticipate some of the issues raised by post-colonial and feminist critics espousing ‘the politics of difference’ in the 1980s and 1990s. He maintains that the emergent postmodernism will ‘have to be a postmodernism of resistance’. He goes on to comment that this resistance ‘will always have to be specific and contingent upon the cultural field within which it operates’ (Huyssen 1986:220-221).
In his essay ‘Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism’s Other’ (1986), Huyssen explores the notion, which he argues gained ground during the nineteenth century, that ‘mass culture’ is somehow associated with ‘woman’, while real authentic culture remains the prerogative of men. Huyssen cites Stuart Hall in his observation that the hidden subject of the mass culture debate is ‘the masses’.2 However, Huyssen goes further in developing the point made by Hall to argue that there was yet another hidden subject in the debate. As Huyssen (1986:47) notes, in the age of socialism and the growth of the first major women’s movement in Europe, the masses were not simply the working class, they were also women challenging the bastions of male-dominated culture:
It is indeed striking to observe how the political, psychological and aesthetic discourse around the turn of the century consistently and obsessively genders mass culture and the masses as feminine, while high culture, whether traditional or modern clearly remains the privileged realm of male activities.
Huyssen notes that the conceptual and ideological shift away from the term ‘mass culture’ to concepts such as ‘the culture industry’ as developed by the Frankfurt School reflects changes in critical thinking, and he notes that ‘mass culture’ theories have largely abandoned ‘the explicit gendering of mass culture as feminine’ (Huyssen 1986:48).3
He explores the idea of women as representative of mass culture in relation to dominant trends within modernism, and claims that the gendering of an inferior mass culture as feminine is linked with the emergence of ‘a male mystique in modernism (especially in painting)’ (ibid.). Huyssen (1986:49) argues that this was manifested in ‘the powerful masculinist and misogynist current within the trajectory of modernism, a current which time and again openly states its contempt for women and for the masses and which had Nietzsche as its most eloquent and influential representative’. He contends that attempts to theorise modernist writing as feminine ignore this fact, and criticises developments within French critical theorising and writing to ‘claim the space of modernist and avantgarde writing as predominantly feminine’. Such a ‘deconstructivist’ approach, embodied in the work ofJulia Kristeva, is highly problematic, as Huyssen notes, because it threatens to ‘render invisible a whole tradition of women’s writing’. Huyssen cites the work of Teresa de Lauretis (1985), who he claims has criticised ‘this Derridean appropriation of the feminine by arguing that the position of woman from which Nietzsche and Derrida speak is vacant in the first place, and cannot be claimed by women’ (Huyssen 1986:49).4
Huyssen goes on to consider the relationship of postmodernism to mass culture and its gender inscriptions. He argues that one of the few widely agreed upon features of postmodernism is ‘its attempt to negotiate forms of high art with certain forms and genres of mass culture and the culture of everyday life’ (Huyssen 1986:59). He maintains that it is probably no coincidence that such merger attempts occurred more or less simultaneously with the emergence of feminism and women as major forces in the arts, and with ‘the concomitant reevaluation of formerly devalued forms and genres of cultural expression (e. g., the decorative arts, autobiographic texts, letters, etc.)’.