What is postmodernism?

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Postmodern literature is a form of literature which is marked, both stylistically and ideologically, by a reliance on such literary conventions as fragmentation, paradox, unreliable narrators, often unrealistic and downright impossible plots, games, parody, paranoia, dark humor and authorial self-reference. Postmodern authors tend to reject outright meanings in their novels, stories and poems, and, instead, highlight and celebrate the possibility of multiple meanings, or a complete lack of meaning, within a single literary work.

Postmodern literature also often rejects the boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms of art and literature, as well as the distinctions between different genres and forms of writing and storytelling. Here are some examples of stylistic techniques that are often used in postmodern literature:

  • Pastiche: The taking of various ideas from previous writings and literary styles and pasting them together to make new styles.
  • Intertextuality: The acknowledgment of previous literary works within another literary work.
  • Metafiction: The act of writing about writing or making readers aware of the fictional nature of the very fiction they’re reading (The continuity of parks, Cortázar; Poe Posthumous: or The Light-House/EDickinsonRepliLuxe, Oats).
  • Temporal Distortion: The use of non-linear timelines and narrative techniques in a story.
  • Minimalism: The use of characters and events which are decidedly common and non-exceptional characters.
  • Maximalism: Disorganized, lengthy, highly detailed writing.
  • Magical Realism: The introduction of impossible or unrealistic events into a narrative that is otherwise realistic (100 years of Solitud, García-Márquez).
  • Faction: The mixing of actual historical events with fictional events without clearly defining what is factual and what is fictional (The Kite Runner, Hosseini).
  • Reader Involvement: Often through direct address to the reader and the open acknowledgment of the fictional nature of the events being described.

Many critics and scholars find it best to define postmodern literature against the popular literary style that came before it: modernism. In many ways, postmodern literary styles and ideas serve to dispute, reverse, mock and reject the principles of modernist literature.

For example, instead of following the standard modernist literary quest for meaning in a chaotic world, postmodern literature tends to eschew (avoid), often playfully, the very possibility of meaning. The postmodern novel, story or poem is often presented as a parody of the modernist literary quest for meaning. Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern novel The Crying of Lot 49 is a perfect example of this. In this novel, the protagonist’s quest for knowledge and understanding results ultimately in confusion and the lack of any sort of clear understanding of the events that transpired.

Postmodern Philosophy

Postmodern literature serves as a reaction to the supposed stylistic and ideological limitations of modernist literature and the radical changes the world underwent after the end of World War II. While modernist literary writers often depicted the world as fragmented, troubled and on the edge of disaster, which is best displayed in the stories and novels of such modernist authors as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Albert Camus, Virginia Woolf and Thomas Mann, postmodern authors tend to depict the world as having already undergone countless disasters and being beyond redemption or understanding.

For many postmodern writers, the various disasters that occurred in the last half of the 20th century left a number of writers with a profound sense of paranoia. They also gave them an awareness of the possibility of utter disaster and apocalypse on the horizon. The notion of locating precise meanings and reasons behind any event became seen as impossible.

Postmodern literary writers have also been greatly influenced by various movements and ideas taken from postmodern philosophy. Postmodern philosophy tends to conceptualize the world as being impossible to strictly define or understand. Postmodern philosophy argues that knowledge and facts are always relative to particular situations and that it’s both futile (useless) and impossible to attempt to locate any precise meaning to any idea, concept or event.

Postmodern philosophy tends to renounce the possibility of ‘grand narratives’ and, instead, argues that all belief systems and ideologies are developed for the express purpose of controlling others and maintaining particular political and social systems. The postmodern philosophical perspective is pretty cynical and takes nothing that is presented at face value or as being legitimate.

Adapted from:

The continuity of parks, Julio Cortázar

HE HAD BEGUN TO READ THE NOVEL a few days before. He had put it aside because of some urgent business, opened it again on his way back to the estate by train; he allowed himself a slowly growing interest in the plot, in the drawing of characters. That afternoon, after writing a letter to his agent and discussing with the manager of his estate a matter of joint ownership, he returned to the book in the tranquility of his study which looked out upon the park with its oaks. Sprawled in his favorite armchair, with his back to the door, which would otherwise have bothered him as an irritating possibility for intrusions, he let his left hand caress once and again the green velvet upholstery and set to reading the final chapters. Without effort his memory retained the names and images of the protagonists; the illusion took hold of him almost at once. He tasted the almost perverse pleasure of disengaging himself line by line from all that surrounded him, and feeling at the same time that his head was relaxing comfortably against the green velvet of the armchair with its high back, that the cigarettes were still within reach of his hand, that beyond the great windows the afternoon air danced under the oak trees in the park. Word by word, immersed in the sordid dilemma of the hero and heroine, letting himself go toward where the images came together and took on color and movement, he was witness to the final encounter in the mountain cabin. The woman arrived first, apprehensive; now the lover came in, his face cut by the backlash of a branch. Admirably she stanched the blood with her kisses, but he rebuffed her caresses, he had not come to repeat the ceremonies of a secret passion, protected by a world of dry leaves and furtive paths through the forest. The dagger warmed itself against his chest, and underneath pounded liberty, ready to spring. A lustful, yearning dialogue raced down the pages like a rivulet of snakes, and one felt it had all been decided from eternity. Even those caresses which writhed about the lover’s body, as though wishing to keep him there, to dissuade him from it, sketched abominably the figure of that other body it was necessary to destroy. Nothing had been forgotten: alibis, unforeseen hazards, possible mistakes. From this hour on, each instant had its use minutely assigned. The cold-blooded, double re-examination of the details was barely interrupted for a hand to caress a cheek. It was beginning to get dark.
Without looking at each other now, rigidly fixed upon the task which awaited them, they separated at the cabin door. She was to follow the trail that led north. On the path leading in the opposite direction, he turned for a moment to watch her running with her hair let loose. He ran in turn, crouching among the trees and hedges until he could distinguish in the yellowish fog of dusk the avenue of trees leading up to the house. The dogs were not supposed to bark, and they did not bark. The estate manager would not be there at this hour, and he was not. He went up the three porch steps and entered. Through the blood galloping in his ears came the woman’s words: first a blue parlor, then a gallery, then a carpeted stairway. At the top, two doors. No one in the first bedroom, no one in the second. The door of the salon, and then the knife in his hand, the light from the great windows, the high back of an armchair covered in green velvet, the head of the man in the chair reading a novel.

Translation: David Page


Postmodernism and postmodernity, Introduction

The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodern Fiction – Bran Nicol

Postmodernism is a notoriously slippery and indefinable term. It was origi- nally coined in the 1940s to identify a reaction against the Modern movement in architecture

Theorists have tended to portray modernity (i.e. from early to mid-twentieth century) as increasingly industrialized, mechanized, urban, and bureaucratic, while postmodernity is the era of the ‘space age’, of consumerism, late capitalism, and, most recently, the dominance of the virtual and the digital. Such generalized portraits of modern and postmodern society have been paralleled by similar comparisons of the specific aesthetic styles which have dominated in these periods. Where modernist art forms privilege formalism, rationality, authenticity, depth, originality, etc., postmodernism, the argument goes, favours bricolage or pastiche to original production, the mixing of styles and genres, and the juxtaposition of ‘low’ with high culture. Where modernism is sincere or earnest, postmodernism is playful and ironic.
In the period following the Second World War, the first two stages of cap- italism, ‘market capitalism’ and ‘monopoly (or imperialist) capitalism’, were superseded by ‘postindustrial’ or ‘late’ capitalism. In effect late capitalism sees the accumulative logic of capitalism extend into every possible area of soci- ety, and into every corner of the globe, eliminating any remaining pockets of ‘precapitalism’. It means that areas of society which were previously unaf- fected by the logic of the market, such as the media, the arts, or education became subject to the laws of capitalism (i.e. requiring growth, profits, and business models) and the advance of what we now call the ‘globalization’ of consumerism. The result of this is a cultural eclecticism, as summarized in a much-quoted sentence from the philosopher Jean-Franc ̧ois Lyotard: ‘one lis- tens 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’ (Lyotard, 1984, 76)
Technology has been crucial for the postmodern era. More than acquiring tangible objects, we have learnt to feel satisfied by the mere idea of possessing virtual images or symbolic representations of reality.

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