Postmodernism

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Historical Context

(Literary Movements for Students)

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 major paper on the subject, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, in 1966. These men were followed by the Marxist critics Jameson and Eagleton, both of whom saw Postmodernism in terms of its social and economic ramifications.

Also coming out of the 1950s and the 1960s was a new approach to popular cultural arts. Among those artists who made significant impact on their art form were the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and The Rolling Stones. These rock groups experimented with new sounds, combinations of entertaining lyrics, and lyrics with some political or social implications. In the 1960s and early 1970s folk rock performers like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Pete Seeger led the way with their passionate political lyrics. In films, attitudes shifted and the role of the film changed from a more purely entertainment function to a medium with social or political emphases. These genres, including the “art film” and the sexually explicit film, reacted to the old requirement for a continuous narrative and abandoned it in favor of more disjointed and nonlinear presentations.

At the same time, television was emerging from the shadows of being “radio with pictures” to being an important medium on its own. The 1950s saw the introduction of the situation comedy, i.e., I Love Lucy, and the variety show The Ed Sullivan Show. But by the end of the 1960s these were giving way to less formal programs and moving into the beginnings of postmodern television with programs like All in the Family and Laugh In. Also at this time news became more entertaining with the introduction of the news magazine show, 60 Minutes.

Through all of these innovations and introductions of new approaches to old idioms, there occurred a disintegration of the separation of reality and fiction. Television entertainment began to include deliberate references to current events; rock songs took on the role of political commentary; and fiction became less narrative and more obscure, less realistic and more intellectually fantastic (not to be confused with children’s fantasy worlds).

The combination of...

(The entire section is 5,459 words.)