The Postmodern

An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016

The Postmodern

Since this book does not attempt to introduce different critical schools or historical periods of literature, it might seem odd to include a chapter on the postmodern. In the following pages, however, we wish to suggest that this topic provides us with an invaluable set of terms for thinking about literary and other cultural texts. People nowadays use the word ’postmodern’ all over the place (there are books about postmodern dance, postmodern winemaking, even postmodern saints): however, as we hope to show, this term can help us to develop a clearer critical understanding of ways of thinking that are unavoidable in the twenty-first century.

The word ’postmodern’ itself seems odd, paradoxically evoking what is after (’post’) the contemporary (’modern’). How can something be after the contemporary? In this respect, in as much as they are confronting the importance of paradox in relation to the contemporary study of literature, other chapters in this book are also dealing with the postmodern. But this paradox of the time of the postmodern also points to the fact that, strictly speaking, the postmodern should not be thought of as a term of periodization: the postmodern challenges our thinking about time, challenges us to see the present in the past, the future in the present, the present in a kind of no-time.

No doubt all periodizing terms (the Renaissance, the early modern period, the Romantic period, and so on) resist definition, but there is perhaps something additionally resistant, peculiar and (for many) maddening about the ’postmodern’. Indeed, the postmodern appears to welcome and embrace a thinking of itself in terms of multiplicity. It resists the totalizing gesture of a metalanguage, the attempt to describe it as a set of coherent explanatory theories. Rather than trying to explain it in terms of a fixed philosophical position or as a kind of knowledge, we shall instead present a ’postmodern vocabulary’ in order to suggest its mobile, fragmented and paradoxical nature.

A postmodern vocabulary


Undecidability involves the impossibility of deciding between two or more competing interpretations. As we point out in Chapter 23, classical logic is founded on the law of non-contradiction: something cannot be both A and not A at the same time. The postmodern gives particular emphasis to ways in which this law may be productively questioned or suspended. A classical example of this is the Cretan liar paradox. If someone says ’I am a liar’, how can we tell if that person is lying or not? The statement would seem to make him or her both a liar and not a liar at the same time. Our ability to make a decision about the validity of such a statement is, at least temporarily, suspended. According to classical logic, the Cretan liar paradox is an isolated and particular instance of a paradoxical statement. For the postmodern, by contrast, the suspension of the law of non-contradiction is endemic. In the postmodern, all absolute values — such as the traditional values of God, Truth, Reason, the Law and so on — become sites of questioning, of rethinking, of new kinds of affirmation. The postmodern, that is to say, does not simply reject the possibility of making decisions. Rather, it gives new attention to the value of the undecidable. What the new critics of the middle of the twentieth century called ambiguity or paradox is now considered in terms of undecidability. The difference is that, for the new critics, literary texts tended to exploit the polysemic potential of language to create a unified whole in which ambiguity produced an enriching of the text’s final unity. For postmodern critics, by contrast, undecidability radically undermines the very principle of unity: these critics celebrate multiplicity, heterogeneity, difference. Undecidability splits the text, disorders it. Undecidability dislodges the principle of a single final meaning in a literary text. It haunts. As Derrida puts it, there is no decision, nor any kind of moral or political responsibility, that is not haunted by the ’experience and experiment of the undecidable’ (Derrida 1988, 116).

A new enlightenment

Theorists of the postmodern are drawn into that exhilarating as well as terrifying ’play’ of a text thrown up by its forms of undecidability. For those nervous of the postmodern, this is deemed to amount simply to nihilism and chaos. But for postmodernists it is precisely those monolithic, unthinking assumptions about a fixed grounding for political, ethical and textual decisions that lead to abhorrent results. It is the belief in a transcendent explanatory system — such as God, national identity or historical materialism, to name just three — which leads to terror, persecution and oppression. In each case, there is a transcendental value (God, the nation-state, a certain reading of the writings of Marx) which can justify any excess. Postmodernists suggest that reason itself has been used to justify all sorts of oppression. Reason may be said to lie behind the Stalinist terror, for example, in the form of a rational or ’scientific’ development of Marx’s thinking. Alternatively, in the science of eugenics, ’rational’ argument or so-called empirical science helped to justify the Jewish holocaust on grounds of racial difference. This is why, writing in 1944, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer argue, ’Enlightenment is totalitarian’ (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002, 4). ’Enlightenment’ here can be understood very generally as a way of characterizing Western thought since the seventeenth century. Put very simply, the notion of the Enlightenment entails the assertion of the power of reason over both superstition and nature, the belief that a combination of abstract reason and empirical science will lead to knowledge and eventually to political and social progress. By contrast, the postmodern is sceptical about claims of progress in history, not least because of the necessary marginalization (of the apparently non-progressive) that it entails.

A common misunderstanding of the postmodern is that it involves simply an assertion and celebration of the irrational. The postmodern can more helpfully be understood, however, as a suspension and deconstruction of the opposition between the rational and the irrational. Irrationalism in itself is only another form of rationalism because it is dependent for its definition on its opposite (only someone who is rational could conceive of someone or something as irrational and the irrational can only be defined in opposition to the rational). The postmodern could be seen as concerned rather with what Jacques Derrida calls ’a new enlightenment’ (Derrida 1988, 141) concerned to explore the value and importance of ways of thinking that cannot be reduced to an opposition between the rational and the irrational.

Fragmentation, dissemination

Postmodern resistance to totalizing forces such as rationalism or irrationalism means that its characteristic form is fragmentary. Fragmentation, in fact, is commonly associated with the Romantic and Modernist periods: poems such as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ’Ozymandias’ (1818) from the Romantic period and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) from the Modernist period are crucially concerned with the notion of the fragment. In this sense, fragmentation is not unique to the postmodern. But the postmodern entails a new kind of critique of the very ideas of fragment and totality. This has taken the form of, among other things, a fundamental questioning of the notion of originality and correspondingly a new kind of emphasis on citation and intertextuality, parody and pastiche. In this respect, originality, which has been of particular importance as an aesthetic value since the eighteenth century, is seen as a kind of ideological fetish, rather than the overriding criterion in aesthetic judgements. Moreover, we might remark a significant difference between notions of fragmentation in the postmodern and those in Romanticism and Modernism: fragmentation in the postmodern does not depend on the possibility of an original ’unity’ that has been lost. The Romantics and Modernists, by contrast, tend to figure fragmentation in terms of the loss of an original wholeness. Another way of thinking about postmodern fragmentation is in terms of dissemination. Dissemination involves a sense of scattering (as in a scattering of seeds or ’semes’), a scattering of origins and ends, of identity, centre and presence. Postmodern fragmentation is without origins, it is dissemination without any assurance of a centre or destination.

Little and grand narratives

One of the best-known distinctions in the postmodern is that made by Jean-François Lyotard concerning what he calls ’grand’ narratives and ’little’ narratives. ’Grand narratives’ such as Christianity, Marxism, the Enlightenment attempt to provide a framework for everything. Such narratives follow a ’teleological’ movement towards a time of equality and justice: after the last judgement, the revolution, or the scientific conquest of nature, injustice, unreason and evil will end. Lyotard argues that the contemporary ’world-view’, by contrast, is characterized by ’little narratives’. Contemporary Western discourse is characteristically unstable, fragmented, dispersed — not a world-view at all. ’Little narratives’ present local explanations of individual events or phenomena but do not claim to explain everything. Little narratives are fragmentary, non-totalizing and non-teleological. Lyotard claims that, in the West, grand narratives have all but lost their efficacy, that their legitimacy and their powers of legitimation have been dispersed. Legitimation is now plural, local and contingent. No supreme authority — Marx, Hegel or God — can sit in judgement. In his provocatively titled book The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1995), for example, Jean Baudrillard offers an analysis of the way that the first Gulf War (1990—91) was as much a function of televisual and other media representations as of anything else. Despite the controversial nature of his title, Baudrillard is not so much suggesting that there was no war as that in an unprecedented way its very actuality was and remains indissoluble from media representations.

The phenomenon described here has also been described by the phrase ’legitimation crisis’, borrowed from the German thinker Jürgen Habermas. Habermas uses this phrase to denote a situation in which all ’master codes’ or grand narratives, all conventions, institutions, final authorities have been put into a state of crisis. And in the last century or so, the announcements of the death of God, ’man’ and the author have successively dramatized this dissolution of authority.


The Western philosophical tradition of aesthetics has relied heavily on a distinction between the real and its copy. This goes back at least as far as Plato, who argued that painters, actors, dramatists and so on, all produce representations or ’imitations’ of the real world. (In fact, Plato argues that even a bed is an imitation of the concept or idea of a bed, so that a picture of a bed is a second-degree copy of an essential but unobtainable bed, the essence of bedness.) This way of thinking has given rise to a hierarchical opposition between the real and the copy. And the hierarchy corresponds to that of nature and fabrication, or nature and artifice. The postmodern, however, challenges such hierarchies and shows how the set of values associated with these oppositions can be questioned. As the film Falling Down (1993) starring Michael Douglas makes clear, the photograph of the hamburger in the fast-food restaurant is infinitely superior to the rather sad and surprisingly expensive artifact that you have just bought. Even nature, in this postmodern reversal, is subject to improvement. To adopt Umberto Eco’s words, ’technology can give us more reality than nature can’ (Eco 1993, 203). Films such as The Truman Show (1998) and the Matrix trilogy (1999—2003) demonstrate a postmodern fascination with the technologies of virtual reality. In the first a man unwittingly lives his life in the fabricated studio world of a 24-hour-a-day soap opera, while in the second humankind has been enslaved by robots who feed off their energy, keeping them subservient by plugging them into a virtual world, the matrix.

Another way of thinking about this phenomenon is to use Jean Baudrillard’s term ’simulation’ (or ’the simulacrum’). Simulation is contrasted with representation. The latter works on the basis that there is a distinction between what the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure calls the signifier and the signified, between a word or ’sound-image’, and the idea or the ’mental concept’ that it represents. In classical terms, there is an absolute distinction between the word ’hamburger’ and what that word represents. Similarly, common sense tells us that there is a clear and necessary distinction between a photograph of a hamburger and a hamburger. Simulation, by contrast, short-circuits such distinctions. Saturated by images — on computers, TV, advertising hoardings, magazines, newspapers and so on — the ’real’ becomes unthinkable without the copy. In other words, simulation involves the disturbing idea that the copy is not a copy of something real; the real is inextricable from the significance and effects of the copy. That hamburger that looks so tempting is far more delicious than any you could ever taste. But, paradoxically, when you taste your hamburger, you are at the same time tasting what is created by advertising images of hamburgers. If Coke really is it, then it is because our experience of drinking Coca-Cola cannot be disengaged from the seductive lifestyle images of its advertising, from those insidious effects of the brand name, whereby the desirability of a given product is in a sense branded into our consciousness and unconscious. This leads to the world of what Jean Baudrillard calls the hyperreal, in which reality is fabricated by technology. As Baudrillard puts it: ’[S]imulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality; a hyperreal… Henceforth it is the map that precedes the territory’ (Baudrillard 1988, 166).


Another way of talking about simulation or the simulacrum is in terms of depthlessness. If one governing opposition for Western thought has been between the real and the copy, between nature and artifice, another has been between surface and depth. An obvious example of this would be the notion of ’expression’, which involves the idea that the words which we write or speak express something ’inside’ our heads (thoughts and feelings). The words are the surface, whereas our thoughts or consciousness represent depth. Similarly, the idea of the self, the very possibility of being human, has conventionally relied on such an opposition: the subject or self is constituted as a relation between surface and depth, inside and outside.

Fredric Jameson provides a useful account of four depth models that, he argues, have dominated the West in the twentieth century (Jameson 1993, 70):

· 1. Marxism: Marxism crucially depends on the notion of ideology. Put simply, this involves the idea that we do not see the underlying reality of the world around us but only the surface that we have been indoctrinated into seeing.

· 2. Psychoanalysis: Freud’s theories are based on the distinction between the conscious and the unconscious, whereby the unconscious is held to be the truth behind or beneath the distorted representation that we call consciousness.

· 3. Existentialism: in its various forms, existentialism relies on a distinction between, on the one hand, authentic existence and, on the other hand, inauthenticity: authenticity is the truth of selfhood underlying the distortions effected by a state of inauthenticity.

· 4. Semiotics: as we have seen, Saussurean notions of language presuppose a distinction between the signifier on the one hand and the signified on the other. The word or sound-image indicates an underlying idea or mental concept.

In each case, the authentic or real is understood to be hidden or disguised, while the surface phenomenon, the façade, is an inauthentic distortion or arbitrary offshoot of the underlying truth. With the postmodern, all of these surface—depth models are shaken up. The postmodern suspends, dislocates and transforms the oppositional structures presupposed by such major Western modes of thought as classical Marxism, psychoanalysis, existentialism, semiotics.


Jameson also distinguishes between parody and pastiche. Both rely on imitation of earlier texts or objects. In parody, there is an impulse to ridicule by exaggerating the distance of the original text from ’normal’ discourse. The postmodern, however, no longer accepts the notion of ’normal’ language: pastiche is ’blank’ parody in which there is no single model followed, no single impulse such as ridicule and no sense of a distance from any norm (see Jameson 1992, 166—7). Postmodern architecture, for example, borrows elements from various earlier periods of architecture and puts them in eclectic juxtaposition. In what the architectural critic Charles Jencks has termed ’radical eclecticism’ (Jencks 1993, 283), there is no single stable reference. Similarly, a Madonna video parodies, for example, film noir, Marilyn Monroe, contemporary pornography, avant-garde erotic art and Catholic icons, in an apparently random dissonance of combination. Rather differently, the music of contemporary ’Bollywood’ films supplies a potent mix of classical and folk music from the Indian subcontinent with the so-called ’Western’ rhythms and sounds of soul, jazz, rock’n’roll, pop, disco, 1970s blaxpoitation funk, trip hop, techno, ambient and house music. It is just such a sense of eclecticism that distinguishes contemporary culture for Lyotard:

Eclecticism is the degree zero of contemporary general culture: one listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald’s food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and retro clothes in Hong Kong; knowledge is a matter for TV games. (Lyotard 1992, 145)

This hybridization, a radical intertexuality mixing forms, genres, conventions, media, dissolves boundaries between high and low art, between the serious and the ludic. Genre becomes explicitly unstable, especially in such texts as Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1963), which mixes up a poem with a literary-critical analysis and political thriller; John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), which uses history textbooks to tell a love story; D.M. Thomas’s The White Hotel (1981), which exploits the genres of poetry and psychoanalytic case-study; or Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), which infuriatingly resists our desire to categorize it as either autobiography or novel (’Based on a true story’, the book proclaims on its cover). Two of the most creative and powerful television drama series of the 1980s and early 1990s are exemplary in this respect: David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990) mixed up the detective story with forms such as horror, avant-garde or art-house movies, soap opera and so on, while Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective (1986) dissolved the borders between the detective story, Hollywood musicals, psychological dramas and the Bildungsroman. More recently, TV series such as The Office, Green Wing, The Hills, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and True Detective similarly take up and meddle with a plurality of styles, discourses, genres.

The unpresentable

Since the postmodern challenges the distinction between mimesis or copy and the real, it contests the modes of its own representation, of representation itself. Thus it paradoxically defines itself in terms of liminal phenomena which defy both categorization and, finally, expression — the unpresentable, or in some of its other formulations, the sublime (Lyotard), the abject (Kristeva), the unnamable (Beckett). Thus Samuel Beckett’s writing, for example, may be said to be constituted by the paradoxical impossibility and necessity of discourse — ’I can’t go on, I’ll go on’ (The Unnamable, 418).

If in ’going on’ there are no clear rules of representation, mimesis, temporality, then the artist is working within the terms of the radically undecidable, or the yet to be decided, as Lyotard remarks:

The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself: that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable … the artist and the writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done. Hence the fact that work and text have the characters of an eventPost modern would have to be understood according to the paradox of the future (post) anterior (modo). (Lyotard 1992, 149—50)

The unpresentable is an effect, not least, of a disturbance of temporality, of the linear progression of time. The postmodern is grammatically specified as inhabiting the future perfect, what will have been. There is no pure present on the basis of which re-presentation may take place.


Everything that we have said in this chapter may be summarized in terms of the notion of decentring. The postmodern challenges the ’logo-centric’ (the authority of the word, the possibility of final meanings or of being in the presence of pure ’sense’). It challenges the ethnocentric (the authority of one ethnic ’identity’ or culture — such as Europe or ’the West’ or Islam or Hinduism). It challenges the phallocentric (everything that privileges the symbolic power and significance of the phallus and therefore of masculinity). As Ihab Hassan remarks, the postmodern may be summarized by a list of words prefixed by ’de-’ and ’di-’:

deconstruction, decentring, dissemination, dispersal, displacement, difference, discontinuity, demystification, delegitimation, disappearance. (Hassan 1989, 309)

In place of the centre, but not in its place, there is alterity, otherness, a multiplicity and dispersal of centres, origins, presences.

Further reading

Two excellent introductions to postmodernism are Christopher Butler’s Post-modernisn: A Very Short Introduction (2002) and Ben McHale, The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism (2015). Good collections of essays include Michael Drolet’s The Postmodernism Reader (2003) and Steven Connor’s The Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism (2004); see also Stuart Sim, ed., The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism (2004). Bertens and Natoloi, eds, Postmodernism: The Key Figures (2001) provides useful entries on the key thinkers. Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1984) is, by now (paradoxically), a classic text to start with — ’Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?’ (1992) is particularly useful. His subsequent Postmodern Fables (1997) offers a series of brief, elliptical and often enigmatic essays on postmodern topics. Jameson’s ’The Politics of Theory’ (1988) and Linda Hutcheon’s books A Poetics of Postmodernism (1988) and The Politics of Postmodernism (1989) provide strong, politicized accounts of the postmodern. Steven Connor offers an excellent overview of the postmodern in his Postmodernist Culture (1997); on literature in particular, see Ian Gregson, Postmodern Literature (2004). For two accounts of the postmodern specifically in the context of literary narrative and narrative theory, see Andrew Gibson, Towards a Postmodern Theory of Narrative (1996) and Mark Currie, Postmodern Narrative Theory (1998). Readings and Schaber, eds, Postmodernism Across the Ages (1993) is a useful collection of essays which seek to challenge the common assumption that postmodernism is a period term referring to the current time.