The Problem of Names

Why We Don’t Like the Word “Postmodernism”

Nobody likes the word Postmodernism. It’s a terrible word. It sounds silly, for one thing. For another, it refers to a specific literary period, from around the 50s to the 80s—the so-called “postmodern moment.” We’re not looking for work exactly like that, but rather work that comes after that period & is informed by it. Which means we’d have to call ourselves Post-Postmodern, and if there’s anything sillier-sounding than Postmodernism, it’s that.

When we sent out our original call for submissions, it included the lines:

We do not believe that postmodernism need or ought be heartless. But neither do we require that every story wear its heart on its sleeve.

Soon after, we got an email from a would-be contributor who, along with his submission, included a lengthy explanation of why “postmodernism” was a vacuous philosophical stance, and one we should disassociate ourselves from ASAP. Now, clearly there was some miscommunication, and I tried to explain as much when I responded to his email: we weren’t interested in postmodernism as a philosophy, really, but instead were using the term to indicate a certain tradition of literature, non-realist, interested in the materiality of the text, paying attention to the possibilities of form without being strictly formalist. “Postmodernism” functioned, we hoped, as a sort of shorthand for a set of (specifically literary & aesthetic) concerns.

But it’s still a pretty terrible word.

Why We Don’t Like the Word “Experimental”

The temptation is to say that names don’t really matter, that one should focus on the work itself. And that’s fine up to a point. But we’re interested in pushing a certain aesthetic tradition, and we need to be able to, if not name it, at least describe it. The problem is, most of the names and descriptions for this tradition are problematic. Take “experimental.” We’re listed in Duotrope as interested, among other things, in experimental work. Which we are. Or at least, we’re interested in work that often gets labeled experimental. But we have misgivings. We doubt, in our heart of hearts, whether the work we’re looking for is truly experimental. Certainly there is some experimental work out there—particularly in new media, where experimentation is necessary to figure out how to make a given medium work in the first place. But the work we’re interested in is actually part of a long tradition, has a history reaching back, according to some, to the BCE.

We worry, too, about the inordinate value placed on novelty by terms like “experimental,” “avant-garde,” “innovative fiction,” etc. Don’t get us wrong: we like novelty just fine. But literature doesn’t develop the same way that science does. The “experimental” techniques of as avant-garde a writer as William Burroughs, for example, go back at least as far as the 4th century. If we have to chose between novelty and passionate virtuosity, we’re going to take the latter.

What We Like

Right now, we’re fans of the Oulipian term “potential literature.” Not that we believe that all literature must be based on formal constraint. But a form establishes the potential for the creation of certain literary works. A set of aesthetic concerns, or a certain tradition, can likewise establish this potential. “Potential” implies something as-yet unmade, something that, in the best of cases, will be surprising in its realization, but, unlike “experimental” or “avant garde,” doesn’t require a constant novelty. One can return to old forms and create new works, or one can create new forms and see where they lead (with passionate virtuosity, in either case).

We’re not totally settled on this term though, particularly since it’s so linked to the Oulipo, and, while we like seeing Oulipian work in our submissions pile, we’re not strict Oulipians. If you’ve got ideas for what to call what we’re looking for, we’re open to suggestions.

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6 responses to “The Problem of Names

  1. Hitting you up here, too:

  2. Thank you for this!I find my head nodding vigorously. "Potential literature" has helpful connotations, as you’ve mentioned.I also like "verisimilar" as a description for work that apes truth (or beauty) without exactly getting in the cage. It’s truth/beauty-similar. It resembles it. Asking for truth is too much (given the freight we can’t help but put on that word now) but a complete disregard for it only leads, I think, into incommensurability utterly, and isolation. Saying something someone else can — with her lenses — spectralize, adumbrate: that’s verisimilar!Of course, I haven’t written the essay or conscripted the zealots. So for now, it’s just my awkward coinage.I’m haunted by postmodernism, by the way, given how little I properly know about it. (But lots by osmosis.) It’s classic love/hate. I bring up the word in several poems so that I can slam it from various angles. I’ve titled a poem "Post-postmodernism" (it makes me gag, too, is the point) and my poem "Modernity," if NYQ ever gets around to publishing it (they accepted it a year ago), is totally a not-so-veiled middle finger to postmodern meaning-freedom.

  3. Tadd, I tried to follow up on this at Big Other:http://bigother.com/2010/06/03/postmodernisms-abundance/Cheerio,Adam

  4. maybe ‘explorative literature,’ that is to say, literature that explores all the possibilities open to it, whether already realized in a certain form, such as in the lineage and the bifurcating traditions of its own field or crossing over to appropriate from another field (such as the sciences, psychology, marketing, etc. etc.), or using previous constellations as springboards in order to explore a particular device to its logical extreme or leap-frog it into unexpected territories and unforeseen conclusions. which should not be confused with an anything-goes mentality, but with an awareness that there is a wealth of possible routes, almost an over-abundance of such, to explore creative expression, and that there are so many possible things that one could investigate at this point, because anything is acceptable (in terms of what is valid within the artform) given the fact that the perceived boundaries between art and non-art have been broken down by those before us; and with that awareness comes the deradicalization of novelty, the unconventional is distinct from but now occupies the same sphere as the conventional; and yet there are so many avenues open to a writer that one could spend years exploring them all individually or in different combinations and orders of saturation. all the interesting walls have been torn down but it seems that many discriminating eyes have realized that the sprawling land has yet to be thoroughly surveyed, and so much surveying there is to be done that in some ways the internet has become a morphogenic farm.

  5. HYPER/ADD/+MODERNISMbetter believe.

  6. Wow. Some good comments here.Christopher: I love the idea of "aping truth without necessarily getting in the cage." I’m not sure, though, that I would agree that a disregard for truth (at least in literature) leads "into incommensurability utterly, and isolation." I’m thinking of what I would consider successful, engaging formalist works, like Christian Bök’s book Eunoia, or the David Silverstein "dictionary poems" from our first issue. I’m not sure what truths either of these get at, unless it’s something like "the truth of language" or "the truth of aesthetic feeling"–but if we’re willing to stretch "truth" that far, I’m afraid almost everything has some claim to truth.Keith: I do like "exploratory literature," though I’m concerned that it might cover a broader field than the stuff we’re trying to push–for example, it seems likely that most good mimetic fiction (which we like, but isn’t what we publish) would probably fall under "exploratory literature."Adam: Great post over at Big Other. It occurs to me that the wall of videos that comprise your post creates something like what Fredric Jameson calls "the postmodern sublime."Joel: Awesome.Shane: We believe! We do!

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