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Critical Overview

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The exact date Postmodernism began can never be known. It was first mentioned in a text by Federico de Onís in 1934. This use was not widely known and received little attention by the wider community of writers. The word was used by Arnold Toynbee in 1954 in his Study of History, Volume 8. But it did not move into mainstream thought and criticism until 1959 with the publication of the article “What is Modernism” by Harry Levin.

Postmodernism then took the form of a theoretical concept as a discussion point in university classrooms. These discussions were directed at the state of the development of various art forms including literature, painting, music—and particularly, how these were changing.

In literature, writers like Vonnegut and Barthelme were experimenting with new ideas of how to create their novels. Poets like Reed, Allen Ginsburg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were also experimenting with new poetic ideas.

In painting, major shifts were occurring as painters were moving from the cubist styles into some of the less formal styles exemplified by the works of Jackson Pollack. For Pollack and others, art shifted from an intellectually driven pursuit of an intended result to a kind of art that just happened. The drip and splash paintings of Pollack show this very well. Other types of art forms to emerge included the collage and the pastiche forms of representation. In both of these the artist used items already made and combined them into a single artistic statement. The works of Andy Warhol are prime examples of these practices, including his 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans and the multiple images of Marilyn Monroe.

In music the introduction of electronically generated sounds created a shift in the course of music development. Vladimir Ussachevsky’s first experiments with electronic sound seem very primitive to today’s audience, but in 1951 these creations were stunningly different. They were not always welcomed, and the more mainstream composers dismissed these efforts as insignificant and unimportant. The works of John Cage are also important to this new era, including his “composition” for several radios on stage, each tuned to a different station.

Similar events happened in the course of language discussions, especially with the presentation of two works by Derrida, Of Grammatology and Writing and Difference. The combination of these two works established a new philosophic approach to the study of language and knowledge (the search for truth) called deconstruction. Basically this is an approach that reveals the instability of language and says that a stable meaning of a text is indeterminate. The author does not determine the meaning of the text because there are contradictions within the text that alter the meanings of the text in an unending cycle of text/meaning, followed by new text/meaning, and so on.

This concept and the ramifications of it have been the subject of much concern. On one end of the critical spectrum, Derrida and deconstruction have been accused of trying to destroy Western civilization. On the other end of the spectrum, he and deconstruction have been hailed as heroes by showing the difficulties of communication because of the underlying instabilities and uncertainties of language. Despite the attacks, condemnations, and praise, deconstruction has shaken the whole area of epistemology to its core. Whether the critic embraces or denies the concepts of deconstruction, he or she must begin with an acknowledgment of its Scene from the film adaptation of Beloved written by Toni Morrison existence and either build an argument on it or build an argument from a position opposing it.

In recent years the concept of Postmodernism has been widened to include discussions of social, economic, recreational, and other aspects of contemporary life. Just as deconstruction examined the relationship between language and meaning, postmodernist concepts in these areas examine the relationship between the different facets of cultural life.

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Essays and Criticism