The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Postmodernism: A movement spanning the creative arts and other areas, including architecture, criticism, and philosophy, that is generally said to have arisen after World War II; embraces radically experimental approaches; and questions Western conceptions of knowledge, including claims to objective reality and truth. Postmodernists, who take a skeptical view of abstract principles and systems of thought, challenge basic Enlightenment tenets concerning reason, science, and the inevitable progress of humankind. They also critique Western institutions, generally with an eye to ideology, hegemony, and power relations. For postmodernists, everything is a social construct, a matter of interpretation; consequently, they tend to be relativistic.

Postmodernism is distinguished from modernism, which generally refers to the revolution in the creative arts that occurred during the period 1910 through the 1930s, particularly following the disillusioning experience of World War I. However, the postmodern era, with its potential for mass destruction and its shocking history of genocide, has evoked a continuing disillusionment similar to that widely experienced during the Modern Period. Postmodernists frequently stress that humans desperately — and ultimately unsuccessfully — cling to illusions of security to conceal and forget the void over which their lives are perched.

In literature, postmodernists, like modernists, have aimed to break away from traditions through experimentation with new devices, forms, and styles. While preserving the spirit and even some of the themes of modernist literature (the alienation of humanity, historical discontinuity, etc.), postmodernists have rejected the order that a number of modernists attempted to instill in their work through patterns of allusion, symbol, and myth. For instance, while modernists such as T. S. Eliot perceived the world as fragmented and represented that fragmentation through poetic language, many also viewed art as a potentially integrating, restorative force, a hedge against cacophony and chaos. Postmodernists, by contrast, often imitate — or even celebrate — that same fragmentation, rejecting narrative coherence and the very possibility of understanding reality.

Postmodernist literature is characterized by a number of features, including the use of nonlinear narratives, stream of consciousness, temporal distortion, and unreliable narrators. Postmodernist works tend to be intertextual and metafictional, reflecting a self-consciousness about writing. They are also often playful and humorous, if darkly so, using absurdity, black humor, irony, paradox, and pastiche.

Because postmodernist works frequently combine aspects of diverse genres, they can be difficult to classify, at least according to traditional schemes of classification. Revolting against a modernist tendency toward elitist “high art,” postmodernists have generally made a concerted effort to appeal to popular culture. Cartoons, music, “pop art,” and television have thus become acceptable and even common media for postmodernist artistic expression. Postmodernist literary developments include such genres as the Absurd, the nouveau roman, magic realism, Language poetry, and other forms of avant-garde poetry written in free verse and challenging the ideological assumptions of contemporary society. What postmodernist theater, fiction, and poetry have in common is the view (explicit or implicit) that literary language is its own reality, not a means of representing reality.

Postmodernist critical schools include deconstruction, whose practitioners explore the undecidability of texts; cultural criticism, which erases the boundary between “high” and “low” culture; and queer theory, which critiques gender and sexuality as they are commonly conceived in Western culture. The foremost theorist of postmodernism was French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, best known for his book La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge) (1979). In “On Nihilism” (lecture 1980; published 1984), French sociologist Jean Baudrillard described postmodernity as “the immense process of the destruction of meaning, equal to the earlier destruction of appearances. Whoever lives by meaning dies by meaning.” Other noted postmodernist theorists include French philosophical historian Michel Foucault (Les mots et les choses [The Order of Things] [1970]), notwithstanding his rejection of the postmodernist label, and Frederic Jameson (Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism [1991]), an American literary critic and Marxist theorist.

The postmodernist critique also extends to modern science. In journals such as Social Text, postmodernist theorists have sought to “demystify” science, arguing that it is: (1) a cultural construct whose privileged status among means of arriving at knowledge is undeserved; and (2) a tool of repressive ideologies that have favored the health, welfare, and interests of whites and males over people of color and females. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), American historian of science Thomas Kuhn argued that what science tends to reveal is the prevailing scientific paradigm (which is subject to shifting). Since then, some scientists have been less attached to the idea that they are producing objectively verifiable truths and more willing to speculate about “realities,” the reality of which will probably remain unprovable.

Beginning in the last decade of the twentieth century, some theorists and critics began to question whether postmodernism was reaching or had reached its end. For example, in After Postmodernism: An Introduction to Critical Realism (2001), editors Garry Potter and José López argued that postmodernism had “gone out of fashion,” noting that “postmodernism’s most radical propositions no longer seem outrageous; most now have a clichéd ring to them.” Subsequently, in “The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond” (2006), Alan Kirby argued that “the emergence of new technologies re-structured, violently and forever, the nature of the author, the reader and the text, and the relationships between them,” creating a “pseudo-modernism” that “fetishizes the recipient of the text to the degree that they become a partial or whole author of it.” Some have also spoken of a “post-postmodernism” or a “metamodernism,” a term Timotheus Vermuelen and Robin van den Akker introduced in “Notes on Metamodernism” (2010), pointing to “the democratization of digital technologies, techniques and tools” as causing “a shift from a postmodern media logic … towards network culture.” Most observers, however, would likely say that postmodernism continues to flourish in the twenty-first century.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Postmodernist poets include John Ashberry, Maxine Chernoff, Jori Graham, Richard Howard, James Merrill, and Maureen Owen. Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming (1965) and Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women (1994) are examples of postmodernist theater. Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach (1979) has been called a postmodernist opera. Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories are generally characterized as postmodernist, though many of them, such as “The Library of Babel” (1941), predate the end of World War II.

Postmodernist novels include William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959), a series of vignettes that Burroughs said could be read in any order; Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961); Donald Barthelme’s Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964); John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse (1967); Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), a science-fiction representation of a world inhabited by people with no fixed gender; Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969); Thomas Pynchon’s Gravitys Rainbow (1973); Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979); Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979); Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985); Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985); Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy (1985—86), often described as postmodern detective fiction; Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994—95); David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996); and Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless (1988), which includes the statement: “Get rid of meaning. Your mind is a nightmare that has been eating you: now eat your mind.”

In a 1997 New York Times review, T. Coraghessan Boyle referred to Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (1997) as a postmodernist historical novel, explaining that “if the traditional historical novel attempts to replicate a way of life, speech and costume, the post-modernist version seeks only to be just that, a version.” Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (serialized 1980—91; published in two volumes 1986, 1991), a Holocaust story in comic strip form, is often called a postmodernist text; a blend of memoir and fiction, it includes a frame story in which the author interviews his father about his Holocaust experiences; represents those historical experiences in an interior story; and depicts Jews and non-Jewish Germans and Poles as mice, cats, and pigs, respectively.

More contemporary postmodernist works include Lemony Snicket’s (Daniel Handler) children’s books A Series of Unfortunate Events (13 vols., 1999—2006), Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000), Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated (2002), Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (2004), Aleksander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project (2008), China Miéville’s The City and the City (2009), Giannina Braschi’s The United States of Banana (2011), and DeLillo’s Zero K (2016).