Postmodernism is an outgrowth of Modernism just as Modernism itself was an outgrowth of the Enlightenment project of the nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century, authors, composers, architects, and other intellectuals rebelled against the strictures of older forms and ways of doing things. Architects began creating more functionally oriented buildings; composers created different methods of organizing musical sounds to create new music; authors felt similarly constricted and reacted against old styles and formats of poetry and fiction. Out of this came the likes of the Bauhaus architects, Arnold Schoenberg and Anton von Webern in music, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound in poetry, and Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, and James Joyce in literature.
In the years following World War II, a new impetus in the arts and philosophy emerged that eventually resulted in Postmodernism. Writers were reluctant to fall into similar traps of conventionalization against which the modernists rebelled a generation before. They felt that the modern movement had now, through canonization, become the “old guard” and they wanted something different, more invigorating. Fiction writers like Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. began to experiment in their novels. Poets like Ishmael Reed wrote in new forms and created new poetic styles. Composers like John Cage experimented with new forms of and approaches to music-making, often using new sound-generating techniques. Along with this came a dissatisfaction with the old ways of looking at the issues of reality, language, knowledge, and power.
Derrida is likely the most important and controversial of the postmodern critics. His two 1967 works, Writing and Difference, and Of Grammatology, laid the groundwork for the concept known as deconstruction. Another French philosopher, Michel Foucault, presented his first...
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An important aspect of Postmodernism in literature and entertainment media is the relaxation of strict time lines, sometimes called discontinuous time. Often an author will construct a sequence of events that have no time relationships to each other. In literature this requires the reader to create a time line, which the author may upset later in the story. In some TV shows this is particularly important when the time line would have two things happening at the same time. Therefore, the writers show one event, then show another that happened at the same time as the first. This kind of temporal disruption is called “schizophrenia” by Jameson.
Some authors introduce a single character into several different works. Vonnegut does this with Kilgore Trout and Tralfamadorians, who appear in several of his novels.
Irony is a specialized use of language in which the opposite of the literal meaning is intended. Its former use often had the intent to provoke a change in behavior from those who were the object of the irony. But for the postmodernist the writer merely pokes fun at the object of the irony without the intention of making a social (or other kind of) change.
Occasionally an author will speak directly to the audience or to a character in the text in the course of a work—not as a character in the tale but as the writer. Vonnegut does this in several of his novels, including Breakfast of Champions.
Many literary works make comments about the works themselves, reflecting on the writing or the “meaning” of the work. These...
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As might be expected in a relatively new philosophic movement, there are a variety of different understandings, proposals, and approaches reflecting on the particular interests of writers and contributors to that new philosophy. Postmodernism’s origin in the aftermath of World War II was not a universally scripted event. By the time Derrida and others were presenting their major papers on the basics of Postmodernism, many others were already approaching these concepts in individual ways. Additionally, as time moved on and Postmodernism developed as an accepted area of discussion, the basic ideas of Postmodernism were branching off into many facets of contemporary life. Among these variations are Marxism and political studies, Poststructuralism, feminism and gender studies, and Gay/Lesbian studies.
Feminist readings in Postmodernism were initiated as a way to consciously view and deconstruct ideas of social norms, language, sexuality, and academic theory in all fields. Feminist theorists and writers (and they were not all women, e.g., Dr. Bruce Appleby, Professor Emeritus of Southern Illinois University, is a long-standing contributor to feminist writings and theory) were concerned with the manner in which society assumed a male bias either by direct action—for example, paying women less for doing the same job; or by inaction—using the term “man” to mean all of humankind. In either case, the female segment of society had been excluded. Even the modernist penchant for binary sets for discussions, good/bad, white/black, established an unspoken hierarchy that made the first of the set more important than the second. In that way the “male/female” set defined the female half as being less important or inferior to the male half of the set. This was not acceptable to the feminist writers and to those in the subsequent feminist movement. Feminist writers and theorists attempted to separate the ideas of sex (which is biological) and gender (which is a social construct), and use those ideas as a lens through which to deconstruct language, social mores and theories, economic policies, and longstanding historical policy.
It is not much of a stretch to move the discussion of gender discrimination into a discussion of class discrimination, which is the focus of many of the Marxist critics. While some issues are different, it is easy to see that bias based on gender is just as destructive as the elitism in a society based on class differences.
Political Marxism is a topic that engenders strong...
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Compare and Contrast
1920s–1930s: The modernist philosophic paradigm can be expressed as the following: search for the truth.
Today: The postmodernist philosophic paradigm is expressed in the following way: there is no identifiable truth.
1920s–1930s: Modernists believe that the artist is not the preserver of the culture; rather the artist is the creator of culture. The art of the modernist is experimental, innovative, and formally complex. Art is a unique object and a finished work authenticated by the artist and validated by agreed-upon standards. “The Photograph never lies.”
Today: Art is repetitive and uses familiar or ready-made objects, or mechanical reproductions of objects. The artist does not believe that art or the artist occupies a special place apart from the rest of society. Art is a process, a performance, a production, using combinations of media. There are no agreed-upon standards. In the postmodern world, with digital imaging, photos and video can be altered completely or created completely, leaving the question, “What is reality?”
1920s–1930s: Writers are very conscious of the act of writing and try to leave a permanent result in the reader’s mind with their product. The novel is the dominant form of fiction writing. The author determines the meaning of the novel for the reader.
Today: Postmodern writers become aware that language is not as permanent as...
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Topics for Further Study
How have the ideas of disintegration, instability, and/or textual uncertainty (in the postmodern use of these terms) had an effect on you? Describe the issues and put into your own context a narrative describing how you perceive things to be different because of these ideas. Speculate on how things might have been different had these ideas not made an impact on you.
Take your favorite piece of literature and deconstruct it. Show, to the best of your understanding, what the author might have meant in the text. Then show how that meaning might be quite a different thing. Use a short text for this exercise.
Take a standard text and do a “special” reading of it. For example, examine a text from a feminist...
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When Fredric Jameson said, in “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” that postmodern society has reached the end of its awareness of history, he stirred up a great controversy. Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved (1987) asks a similar question about the postmodern society’s understanding of history.
Beloved is the story of one ex-slave’s relationship with her children, herself, and the world around them. There are two considerations about the historical accuracy of the novel. The first is the use of contemporaneous accounts of slavery and the second, Morrison’s imaginative recreation of the slave society. The conflict between these two arises from the concern...
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Conjure: Music for the Texts of Ishmael Reed sets the poetry of Ishmael Reed to music. The selections are from Reed’s collection of poetry published in 1972. This adaptation has received high acclaim by reviewers from Absolute Sound and the Philadelphia Enquirer.
Morrison’s Beloved was adapted as a film by director Jonathan Demme in 1998.
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What Do I Read Next?
Barbara Creed, the author of “From Here to Modernity: Feminism and Postmodernism” connects feminist theory with Postmodernism in her short essay in Screen. She compares the writing of two authors, Alice Jardine and Craig Owens, seeking a solution to the problem of the intersection of feminist and postmodern theories. Creed points out that while both authors come at this topic from different points of reference, both they and Creed agree that there is a common ground and a legitimate intersection of these theoretical philosophies. Her conclusions are that these philosophies are important, relevant, and connected but that they should not try to explain everything in a “totalizing theory.”
Ads, Fads, and...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Anderson, Perry, The Origins of Postmodernity, Verso, 1998, pp. 4–5.
Barthelme, Donald, Overnight to Many Distant Cities, Penguin, 1983.
Best, Steven, and Douglas Kellner, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations, Guilford Press, 1991, pp. 20–21.
D’Andrade, Roy, “Moral Models in Anthropology,” in Current Anthropology, Vol. 36, No. 3, p. 402.
Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.
Doctorow, E. L., “Four Characters Under Two Tyrannies,” in New York Times Book Review, April 29, 1984, p. 1.
Duras, Marguerite, The Ravishing of Lol Stein, translated...
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