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Post-modern literature often attempts to question assumptions as to the nature of our own consciousness and assumptions. This is done through challenges to our cultural beliefs (vis a vis statements of cultural relativity, human equality in the vein of post-colonialism, etc.) and challenges to our views on the integrity of self (vis a vis broken narratives, unreliable narrators, and stylistic reflections of the contingent nature of the self and knowledge, e.g. deconstructionism).
On the political side, one of the major elements of post-modernism has been to challenge notions of privilege. Who gets to define “truth” and who gets to define “normative” or “normal” experience? Is there a single meta-cultural center to these ideas or might we be better off looking at all cultures and sub-cultures as having their own valid points of view, norms, and modes of interpretation and story-telling? Also, given the rapid shifts in scientific theory in the 20th century, the rapid shifts in the global economy and in local morals, can we still look at the self as a static existential entity? Might we be better off recognizing the changes and the shifting nature of personal identifiers within culture if we want to understand and articulate an accurate view of post-modern life?
These are obviously not the only questions the post-modern literature poses. They also do not represent the only way to interpret the central ethos of what we call post-modernism. The notions of questioning and challenging are, however arguably, the most compelling and important elements of this artistic movement.
Here are a few ideas for thesis topics to explore relating to post-modern, American literature. If any of these work for you as starting points, you would, of course, want to develop a list of key terms/concepts to anchor and substantiate your essay plan.
One of the hallmarks of post-modern literature is referentiality (or the quality of being referential). Writers like Toni Morrison represent a specific and significant methodology of this referentiality in literary works that utilize references to folk stories (and folk culture) along with references to the depiction of minorities in American literature and references to historical texts in such a way that the “center of reference” is often shifted to the minority experience.
This approach to narrative story-telling essentially aligns post-modern writing with post-colonial writing by bringing into question assumptions of cultural primacy/subordination and challenging claims to “experiential privilege” that may have formerly gone unchallenged.
The Bluest Eye and Paradise may be good texts to look at for a paper on this topic that focuses on Morrison.
"In The Bluest Eye, Morrison works with many themes, among them impoverishment, destructive mythologies, gender relations, and loss of innocence" (eNotes).
2. Writers like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon often explore the ways in which individuals define themselves within a cultural context and demonstrate the contingency of individual identity.
In White Noise, DeLillo examines many facets of American identity and takes a pointed look at how commercialism/consumerism penetrates American life to the very core. In Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon seems to suggest that the American mind is bent, utterly, by its dependency on expectation (and our expectations are largely founded on superficial and pop-cultural concepts). We believe in advertisements, in the significance of corporate logos, etc., to the point where when these expectations fail us, Pynchon suggests, we can enter into a state of meaninglessness or chaos.
The idea that people rely on advertisements in order to establish a sense of cosmic order is wide-spread in post-modern American literature and reflects the central tenets of post-modernism, as it were, which relate to questioning cultural assumptions and challenging the status quo. Often the questions and challenges are aimed at what we might call “capitalist culture.”
Often, finding the right question to pose is the key to discovering a thesis. Here are a few ideas related to those above that might help you to think of some new other questions that align with your own literary/authorial interests.
- How does this text/author challenge accepted views of race, racial superiority or cultural primacy in ways that are stylistic but also present in the content of the work(s)?
- In what ways does this text/author utilize references to other texts or to its own nature as a text (i.e.., meta-fiction) in order to illuminate the contingency, arbitrariness or qualified character of its own “truth”?
- How does this text/author attempt to question the integrity of self in a contemporary or 20th century setting? How does the text/author do this stylistically and how does the text/author do this with the content of the work(s)?
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