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Ihabhassan.com.Cioffi Interview Ihab Hassan

Ihabhassan.com.Cioffi Interview Ihab Hassan



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Ihab Hassan
Postmodernism, Etc.:*
an Interview with Ihab Hassan
by Frank L. Cioffi
Princeton University

I first met Ihab Hassan in 1982, when I participated in his NEH Summer Seminar,
\u201cModernism, Postmodernism, and the Question of the Text.\u201d It was there that
I discovered Hassan was more than just a writer and critic; he was a teacher of
extraordinary ability and power. In the intervening years we have kept in touch, and
I find I have been influenced as much by Hassan\u2019s pedagogy and stance as by his

The following interview was assembled from November, 1998, through January,
1999, and done by telephone, e-mail, and postal mail.
Your major works of criticism that engage the idea of the postmodern--
The Dismemberment of Orpheus, Paracriticisms, The Right Promethean
Fire, The Postmodern Turn, and many essays--have had an enormous
impact on literary culture and theory. Can you briefly characterize and
account for this impact?
HASSAN:Did they have an \u201cenormous impact\u201d? My impression is that

their impact is enormously spotty. Some like Charles Jencks or Linda
Hutcheon or Hans Bertens will mention the work. Others--especially neo-
Marxists--will have a very different attitude toward it, a magical or
apotropaic attitude, as if to ward off a bad spell; or else they ignore it in
audible silence. There are exceptions, of course, like Bernard Smith, whose
roots are in historical materialism, and whose recent essay, \u201cThe Last Days
of the Post Mode,\u201d shows remarkable poise and maturity of judgment. But
all this is quite familiar to writers throughout history.

Well, you coined the term \u201cpostmodern\u201d in reference to a certain kind of literature; indeed, you helped define a literary movement--or do you not want credit for this?

HASSAN:No, I didn\u2019t coin the term. Some claim that a British painter

called John Watkins Chapman used the term casually in the 1870s. Since
then, Federico de Onis, Bernard Smith, Dudley Fitts, Arnold Toynbee,
Charles Olson, Irving Howe, and Harry Levin have all used the term
variously--with diverse meanings and degrees of insistence--before I did.
But I guess I did stick with the term, and I did try to clarify for myself an
emergent movement.

What do you think of as the relationship among Romanticism,
Modernism, and Postmodernism? At a public lecture at Princeton,
I recently asked Robert Storr (of the Museum of Modern Art) to define
\u201cPostmodernism,\u201d and he said he was always confused by the meaning
of the term. Do you think many people are likewise confused?

HASSAN:Ah, as it happens, this is the topic of something I\u2019ve been

working on, a lecture to be given at some universities in Germany and
Austria this spring. I call the lecture \u201cRomanticism, Modernism,
Postmodernism: Three Isms in Search of a Concept.\u201d

Let\u2019s start with Romanticism: it has become as contested a category as
Postmodernism. Modernism is perhaps less contested because the sheer
density of writing about it has given it a certain gravity, a certain weight and
stability--note two recent, magisterial tomes, Bernard Smith\u2019sModernism\u2019s

History (about painting) and Peter Conrad\u2019s Modern Times (about culture),
both preceded by Christopher Butler\u2019s Early Modernism and William R.
Everdell\u2019s The First Moderns, and that\u2019s just the cr\u00eame de la cr\u00eame.

Now, as you know, for some critics like Harold Bloom, Romanticism
has never ended--we are all just \u201cbelated\u201d Romantics, like himself. What is
clearer to me, however, is that we have projected the ironies and insecurities
and indeterminacies of Postmodernism back onto Romanticism; we have
reinvented the Romantics into our own image (which, incidentally, is the
other side of the \u201canxiety of influence\u201d--I mean absorption, assimilation).

Certain topics or problems or figures, however, do run from
Romanticism, through Modernism, to Postmodernism, mutating all the
while. For instance, Romantic Imagination becomes Modernist

Consciousness becomes Postmodernist Language--from Imagination to
Language, as master tropes. And the Romantic Self becomes the Modernist
Ego becomes the Postmodernist empty Subject, itself a Discourse. But these
are largely French conceits: try to tell the Self or the Ego or the Subject or
your child, for that matter, that its imperious needs are a form of absence,
dissemination, or deferral.

But are you also confused, as Robert Storr says he is, by
HASSAN:Well, yes and no. I accept the instability of the term in the

age of hype and media. I accept its labile, shifting, conflictual character, in a
time of ideological wars. And, increasingly, I ignore it because my own
interests have drifted away from it toward the possibilities of a spirituality
that addresses all the issues of the postmodern turn.

This said, I still remind myself that when Charles Jencks talks about
postmodern architecture or Fredric Jameson about the \u201ccultural logic of late
capitalism,\u201d something real, not just hyperreal, is being discussed.

Once, I coined the term Indetermanence (indeterminacycum
immanence) to describe the ethos or impulse or style of Postmodernism.
This was an insufficient description because, in the geopolitical context,
Postmodernism does not only involve Indetermanences in Western cultures
but also new relations between centers and margins, margins and margins,
centers and centers, nowheres and nowheres (utopias?) of every kind. That\u2019s
the emergent and tortuous syntax of localization/globalization.

But what about Modernism itself in all this?
HASSAN:Well, once I also tried to characterize Postmodernism by

contrasting it with Modernism, since the human brain is compulsively
contrastive. This was in an essay called \u201cToward a Concept of
Postmodernism,\u201d reprinted as the \u201cPostface\u201d of the second (1982) edition of

The Dismemberment of Orpheus. This essay has often been reprinted,
especially a few pages listing some contrasts between Modernism and
Postmodernism in two vertical columns.

Now, this table proved very popular, especially with those who wished
to criticize it. Invariably, they all ignored my explicit caveat: that \u201cthe
dichotomies this table represents remain insecure, equivocal. For differences

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