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c. 1950

Postmodernism is the name given to the period of literary criticism that developed toward the end of the twentieth century. Just as the name implies, it is the period that comes after the modern period. But these are not easily separated into discrete units with specific dates as centuries or presidential terms are limited. Post-modernism came about as a reaction to the established modernist era, which itself was a reaction to the established tenets of the nineteenth century and before.

What sets Postmodernism apart from its predecessor is the reaction of its practitioners to the rational, scientific, and historical aspects of the modern age. For postmodernists this took the guise of being self-conscious, experimental, and ironic. The postmodernist is concerned with imprecision and unreliability of language and with epistemology, the study of what knowledge is.

An exact date for the establishment of Post-modernism is elusive, but it may be said to have begun in the post-World War II era, roughly the 1950s. It took full flight in the 1960s in the face of global social and political unrest. In 1968 it reached an early zenith with the intense student protests in the United States and France, the war for independence in Algeria, and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The beginning of space exploration with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, culminating in the 1969 landing of men on the moon, marks a significant shift in the area of science and technology.

At the same time, Jacques Derrida presented his first paper, Of Grammatology (1967), outlining the principles of deconstruction. The early novels of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Alain Robbe-Grillet were published; Ishmael Reed was writing his poetry. The Marxist critics, Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton, who saw a major shift in the social and economic world as a part of the postmodern paradigm, were beginning their creative careers. As time progressed, more and more individuals added their voices to this list: Julia Kristeva, Susan Sontag, and, in popular culture, Madonna. (In her openly sexual music and music videos she broke down the limits of sexuality and femininity. Still, while some believe that her career is a setback for feminist movement, others believe that she opened the doors to a wider acceptance of female and human sexuality.)

In a speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4, 1994, Vaclav Havel, then president of the Czech Republic, said:

The distinguishing features of such transitional periods are a mixing and blending of cultures and a plurality or parallelism of intellectual and spiritual worlds. These are periods when all consistent value systems collapse, when cultures distant in time and space are discovered or rediscovered. They are periods when there is a tendency to quote, to imitate, and to amplify, rather than to state with authority or integrate. New meaning is gradually born from the encounter, or the intersection, of many different elements.

This state of mind or of the human world is called postmodernism. For me, a symbol of that state is a Bedouin mounted on a camel and clad in traditional robes under which he is wearing jeans, with a transistor radio in his hands and an ad for Coca-Cola on the camel's back.

This speech outlines the essence of Postmodernism in all its forms: the mixing, the disintegration, and the instability of identities.


Donald Barthelme (1931-1989)

Donald Barthelme Jr. was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on April 7, 1931. In 1949 he enrolled at the University of Houston as ajournalism major and worked on the staff of the Daily Cougar as an editor. After spending time in the U.S. Army he returned to Houston where he worked for several newspapers. In 1962 he went to New York where he had articles and stories published in New Yorker magazine. He won many honors and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Book Award, National Institute of Arts and Letters Zabel Award, Rea Short Story Award, and the Texas Institute of Arts and Letters Award. Barthelme died of throat cancer July 23, 1989, at the age of fifty-eight.

Barthelme has been characterized as an avant-garde or postmodernist who relies more on language than plot or character. He is well known as a short story writer, novelist, editor, journalist, and teacher. His publications include: Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964, City Life, 1970; Sixty Stories, 1981; and The King, 1990.

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

Jacques Derrida was born in El Biar, Algeria, on July 15, 1930. He earned several undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Paris, Sorbonne. He also did graduate study at Harvard University from 1956 to 1957. He taught at many of the finest universities in the West: University of Paris, Sorbonne; Johns Hopkins University; Yale University; University of California at Irvine, Cornell University, and City University of New York.

His work beginning in the 1960s effected a profound change in literary criticism. In 1962 Derrida first outlined the basic ideas that became known as deconstruction. The publication was a lengthy introduction to his 1962 French translation of German philosopher Edmund Husserl's Origin of Geometry. The full strategy of deconstruction is outlined and explained in his difficult masterwork, Of Gram-matology, published in English in 1967. It revealed the interplay of multiple meanings in the texts of present-day culture and exposed the unspoken assumptions that underlie much of contemporary social thought. Derrida was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003 and died in Paris, France, on October 8, 2004. He continued to write and publish up until his death.

Terry Eagleton (1943-)

Terence Eagleton was born on February 22, 1943, in Salford, England. He attended Trinity College, Cambridge, from which he received a bachelor of arts in 1964. He earned his Ph.D. from Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1968. He has taught at Cambridge and at Oxford and served as a judge for poetry and literature competitions.

As one of the foremost exponents of Marxist criticism, Eagleton is concerned with the ideologies found in literature, examining the role of Marxism in discerning these ideologies. His early publications include: Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës, 1975; Marxism and Literary Criticism, 1976; Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory, 1976, among others. His later publications include: The Gatekeeper: A Memoir, 2001; After Theory, 2003; and How to Read a Poem, 2007. His concise Marxism and Literary Criticism, 1976,discusses the author as producer, and the relationships between literature and history, form and content, and the writer and commitment. He is a leading advocate of the inclusion of social and historical issues in literary criticism.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Michel Foucault was born in Poitiers, France, on October 15, 1926, and received a diploma in 1952 from École Normale Superieure and the University of Paris, Sorbonne. He taught philosophy and French literature at the universities of Lille, Uppsala, Warsaw, Hamburg, Clermont-Ferrand, Sao Paulo, and the University of Tunis between the years 1960 and 1968. Foucault taught at the University of Paris, Vincennes, France, from 1968 to 1970. From 1970 until his death in 1984, he was chairman of History of Systems of Thought at College de France. The best known of his publications are The History of Sexuality, 1976; The Use of Pleasure, 1985; and The Care of the Self, 1987.

Foucault used what he called the archaeo-logical approach in his work to dig up scholarly minutia from the past and display the "archaeo-logical" form or forms in them, which would be common to all mental activity. Later he shifted this emphasis from the archaeological to a genealogical method that sought to understand how power structures shaped and changed the boundaries of "truth." It is this understanding of the combination of power and knowledge that is his most noteworthy accomplishment.

Foucault died of a neurological disorder on June 25, 1984, in Paris, France.

Fredric Jameson (1934-)

Fredric Jameson was born on April 14, 1934, in Cleveland, Ohio. He attended Haverford College and Yale University and received a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1956 and his Ph.D. in 1959. He taught at Harvard University; the University of California, San Diego; at Yale University; at the University of California, Santa Cruz; and at Duke University. He received many awards and fellowships, including Rotary Fellowship, Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, Fulbright Fellowship, two Guggenheim Fellowships, Humanities Institute Grant, and the William Riley Parker Prize.

Jameson is the leading exponent of Marxism in the United States. In Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, he raises concerns about the way contemporary culture is constructed. His 1983 article, "Postmodernism and Consumer Society," provides basic groundwork for much of his version of Marxist criticism.

Julia Kristeva (1941-)

Julia Kristeva was born in Silven, Bulgaria, on June 24, 1941. Her formal education began in French schools in Bulgaria, where she earned her diploma at the Université de Sofia, and ended in 1973 at the University of Paris VII, where she received her Ph.D. After that, she taught at several universities and established a private psychoanalytic practice in Paris. She received both the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres and the Chevalier de l'Ordre du Merite. Kristeva received the Holberg International Memorial Prize in 2004 and the Hannah Arendt Award for Political Thought in 2006.

Kristeva is renowned as a writer, educator, linguist, psychoanalyst, and literary theorist and is also considered one of the most influential thinkers of modern France. Kristeva bases her work on two components of the linguistic operation: the semiotic, which expresses objective meaning; and the symbolic, the rhythmic and illogical aspects of meaning. What she calls "poetic language" is the intertwining of these elements. It is these same tenets that form the basis for postmodern criticism. She has been embraced by many feminist writers because of her writings on social issues, but Kristeva's relationship to feminism has been one of ambivalence. Two of her most important publications are Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art (published in 1969, translated in 1980) and New Maladies of the Soul (published in 1993, translated in 1995), a collection of essays. She has also written several novels, one of which is Murder in Byzantium (2006).

Toni Morrison (1931-)

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wof-ford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, to a black working-class family. She studied humanities in college, obtaining her bachelor of arts in 1953 from Howard University (a distinguished black college) and her master of arts from Cornell University in 1955. Morrison married Harold Morrison in 1958 and the couple had two sons before divorcing in 1964. Morrison has worked as an academic, an editor, a critic, and continues to give lectures.

After the publication of her first novel in 1970, Morrison's writing quickly came to the attention of critics and readers who praised her richly expressive style and ear for dialogue. She received the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for her novel Beloved (1987) and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

Morrison has written novels, plays, and non-fiction essays, including The Bluest Eye (1969); Sula (1973); Song of Solomon (1977); Tar Baby (1981); Dreaming Emmett (1986, play); Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, (1992); Book of Mean People (2002); and AMercy (2008). Morrison has also edited and/or collaborated on several volumes with other authors.

Thomas Pynchon (1937-)

Thomas Pynchon was born May 8, 1937, in Glen Cove, Long Island, New York. He served two years in the U.S. Navy before graduating from Cornell University in 1959 with his bachelor's degree in English literature. While at Cornell, Pynchon began to write short fiction, publishing his first story immediately after graduation. Pynchon's first novel, V., was published in 1963 and won an award for best first novel from the William Faulkner Foundation. Gravity's Rainbow (1973), Pynchon's third novel, is one of his most acclaimed and is often held up as a major work of postmodernism. Pynchon won a 1974 National Book Award for Gravity's Rainbow and narrowly missed winning a Pulitzer. Other novels by Pynchon include Mason & Dixon (1997) and Against the Day (2006). He writes about history, mathematics, imperialism, and religion, although his books range even further afield in theme and subject matter. Pynchon is a reclusive person who eschews public appearances or interviews; even his residence is unknown.

Ishmael Reed (1938-)

Ishmael Reed was born on February 22, 1938, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He attended State University of New York at Buffalo from 1956 to 1960. Reed has written numerous novels, short stories, poetry, fiction, nonfiction, essays, literary criticism, and history, and he has been accorded many honors and awards, including the nomination for Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1973 for Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970. He has taught at many colleges and universities and at prose and poetry workshops across the United States.

His novels include: The Free-Lance Pall-bearers, 1967; Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, 1969; Mumbo Jumbo, 1972; The Last Days of Louisiana Red, 1974; Flight to Canada, 1976; The Terrible Twos, 1982; Reckless Eyeballing, 1986; The Terrible Threes, 1989; and Japanese by Spring, 1993.

He has written much poetry, including catechism of d neoamerican hoodoo church, 1970; Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970, 1972; Chattanooga:Poems, 1973; A Secretary to the Spirits,1977; and New and Collected Poems, 1988.

His poetry captures the rich texture of the novels in its combinations of street and academic languages and dialects and slang. Reed includes many references to mythologies and to cultures apart from his own.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1922-2007)

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on November 11, 1922. He attended Cornell University, Carnegie Institute of Technology (later Carnegie-Mellon University), and the University of Chicago where he earned his master of fine arts degree in 1971. From 1942 to 1945 he was in the U.S. Army, Infantry, including some time as a prisoner of war (he received the Purple Heart).

He worked as an editor for the Cornell Daily Sun, 1941 to 1942; as a police reporter in 1947 for the Chicago City News Bureau; in the public relations department of the General Electric Company, Schenectady, New York, 1947 to 1950; and as a freelance writer beginning in 1950.

Vonnegut taught at Hopefield School in Sandwich, Massachusetts; the University of Iowa Writers Workshop; Harvard University; and at the City College of the City University of New York. In 1986 he was a speaker at the hearing of the National Coalition against Censorship briefing for the attorney general's Commission on Pornography.

He has received many honors and awards. He is the author of many novels, essays, and other writings, including plays and articles for magazines and journals. His novels include: The Sirens of Titan, 1959; Mother Night,1961; Cat's Cradle, 1963; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; or, Pearls before Swine,1965; Slaughterhouse Five; or, The Children's Crusade, 1969; and a collection of short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House, 1968. Subsequent novels include Jailbird, 1979, and Timequake,1997. Acollectionof essays AMan without a Country was published in 2005.

His writing is filled with biting satire and irony. Many of his characters find their way into several of the novels. Kilgore Trout appears in Breakfast of Champions, Slaughterhouse Five, as well as others; the Tralfamadorians show up in Sirens of Titan and in Slaughterhouse Five. He frequently quotes from Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.


  • 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.
  • Many of Vonnegut's stories have been made into movies. The most famous is the cult classic Slaughterhouse-Five (1972). It was directed by George Roy Hill and stars Michael Sacks. It wonaHugo Awardin1973 forBestDramatic Presentation. As of 2008, this movie was available on DVD from Universal Studios.
  • Morrison's novel Beloved was made into a major motion picture of the same name in 1998. It was directed by Jonathan Demme and stars Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. As of 2008, Beloved was available on DVD from Walt Disney.

Vonnegut died on April 11, 2007, from brain injuries after a fall a few weeks prior. A posthumous novel, Armageddon in Retrospect, was published in 2008.



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 that the version of slavery written by the ruling white class is flawed and that a fictional story is by definition unreal.

Two events in the novel raise this issue: the first is the moment Paul D sees the newspaper clipping of Sethe and remarks, "That ain't her mouth." If the news reports are not accurate, including the pictures, then the novel has relied on flawed data and it is thereby flawed.

The second incident is the scene in which Beloved lures Paul D into the shed to have sex. There is a stack of newspapers in the shed, a symbolic juxtaposition of the real and the imagined. The poststructuralist view that reality is a function of discourse is challenged in these scenes. The sources of discourse are unreliable (newspapers, photos, fictional accounts of events) and that leads to the conclusion that there is no reliable explication of "reality" present in these scenes and, by extrapolation, in the novel itself.

Cat's Cradle

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is one of those authors who defy easy categorization, though it might be appropriate to call him an eclectic postmodernist. But the difficulty of identifying him or his works within a trend or movement remains. If one work is representative of his philosophy, it is his 1974 book Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons (Opinions). (These concepts are also found in Cat's Cradle, 1963.) This collection of opinion is not his best or most important, but it locates in its title the three most important aspects of his writing. Wampeters are objects around which the lives of otherwise unrelated people revolve, for example, the Holy Grail or the National Championship (in college football). Foma are harmless comforting truths such as "Prosperity is just around the corner"; "There's a light at the end of the tunnel"; and "Everything's going to be all right!" Granfalloons are a proud and meaningless association of human beings, for example "The Veterans of Future Wars" or the "Class Colors Committee."

In many of his works Vonnegut pokes fun at the quirkiness of normal life and the grand institutions of society. He infuses his novels with a sense of humor, with the exception of Slaughterhouse Five, which is based on the bombing of Dresden during World War II.

Cat's Cradle is a humorous and sharp-edged novel that takes major institutions of society to task for their vapidity and shallowness: religion, the military, and science. Jonah lives in the Caribbean where the only religion tolerated is Bokononism. It is based on the teachings and songs of Bokonon, most of which are in a Caribbean dialect and sung to a calypso beat.

Jonah finds out about a corrupted production of crystals at a chemical plant that changed the way ice crystals are formed. Instead of forming ice at 32 degrees Fahrenheit (called ice-one), the process was transformed eventually creating ice-nine that freezes (crystallizes) at 130 degrees. The book tackles the problems of science gone awry, a military that saw an opportunity for a doomsday weapon, and the religion that tried to make some philosophic sense of it all.

The chief image in this novel comes from its title, a cat's cradle, the finger game played by two people with a loop of string that can become twisted and tangled and end of the game. But if the game is played correctly, it will return to its original form and "All will be well" (a Foma!).

Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970

Reed's 1972 book of poetry contains prose poems, didactic poems, and short poems offering comments on very specific incidents such as the poem "Report of the Reed Commission" which reads:

    i conclude that for
    the first time in
    history the practical
    man is the loon and the
    loon the practical man
    a man on the radio just
    said that air pollution
    is caused by jellyfish.

Not all of his poetry is this transparent and humorous. Some, for example, "catechism of d neoamerican hoodoo church," explore what he sees as the oppressive nature of the American society in which he lives. His reference to "Hoodoo" (which is a variation of Voodoo) is a common theme in most of his writings. It combines aspects of conjuring, magic, and Voodoo, which he claims will help African Americans and people in the Third World rid themselves of the oppressive nature of contemporary western civilization.

The opening paragraph includes a statement confronting established value systems. "i refused to deform d works of ellison and wright." In this refusal he raises concerns about social demands and instructs others in ways to confront similar demands.

Throughout these poems he uses a kind of written language that more completely approximates the language of common people. In "catechism" stanza 1, he writes: "we who hv no dreams permit us to say yr name/ all day. we are junk beneath yo feet." The look on the page may seem unusual or even wrong, but if the line is said aloud the normal sounds of everyday speech result. Another technique in the poems in Conjure is repeated lines, phrases, or words to emphasize the passage. These repetitions derive from an oral tradition of storytelling, learning scriptures, and hymns.

Of Grammatology

The beginnings of deconstructionism are found in Derrida's introduction to his 1962 French translation of German philosopher Edmund Husserl's Origin of Geometry, and were later expanded in two major works, Of Grammatology (1967) and Writing and Difference (1967). Of Grammatology is a difficult book that contains the basis for deconstructive analysis of language. Two of the more important issues raised in the book are: logocentrism of language; and the use of binary oppositions (sets) in western culture.

Logocentrism gives precedence to the spoken word over the written word. Derrida says that philosophies that claim that speech is a more natural form of language give speech the position of primacy. By doing so, writing is reduced to a secondary position. His argument is not that writing is not secondary but that speech is not primary, a tricky way of equalizing these two components of language without setting up another binary set.

Some may claim that writing is merely recorded speech, but Derrida argues the opposite: speech is a form of unrecorded script. Here again he makes a careful argument to avoid the establishment of new hierarchies. The specific concern that he raises in this discussion is what he calls "centering," the process of giving one term (the first of a set) more importance than another.

He shows that any text, no matter what kind, can be read in ways different from what it seems to be saying, which is the central proposition in his book. Communication is an unending series of textual meanings that arise and are subverted within themselves. Then the process repeats. The result of these repeated subversions of meaning is that no text is ever stable. Any stability in a text is merely illusory.

The basis of his discussion is the signifier/signified relationship that comes from structuralism. He raises the specter of the difficulties of interpreting the relationships between the signifier (the word) and the signified (the object). This is the problem of writing, where a written word represents a spoken word that in turn represents the object. The movement from the one to the other is the structure of the meaning, but because this movement conceals and erases itself during the very act of movement, it remains unstable. He says: "There is not a single signified that escapes, even if recaptured, the play of signifying references that constitute language." Hence, since a text has so many different meanings, it cannot have one single meaning. This is the basic conundrum of deconstruction: The very act of deconstruction is unstable and the results are indeterminate.

Gravity's Rainbow

Pynchon's postmodern novel, Gravity's Rainbow (1973), is set at the end of World War II and tells the story of a quest to find the Schwarzgerät, an unknown device that will be installed in a special rocket. Gravity's Rainbow is considered a difficult book to read because of its unconventional approach to plot, its cast of more than 400 characters, and its use of specialized scientific knowledge. It has attracted both admiration and criticism: It won the National Book Award in 1974, but its recommendation for a Pulitzer Prize in literature was vetoed by the Pulitzer board and Pynchon's novel narrowly missed winning.

Overnight to Many Distant Cities

Barthelme is a noted minimalist fiction writer. In his collection Overnight to Many Distant Cities (1983) are several notable short stories. "Cortes and Montezuma" shows the minimalist character of Barthelme's writing style. Minimalism is a style that uses a small amount of text to create the tale. Much of this story consists of short rapid-fire sentences, some of which have only three words, giving the reader a sense of urgency. In this manner, Barthelme retells the history of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, using themes of trust and breaking trust.

Another story from the same collection, "The first thing the baby did wrong . . . ," is a humorous parable about the difficulties of living with immutable rules. A family of three has a rule that the child will be confined to its room for four hours for every page that is torn out of a book. This rule backfires because the child tears pages out at every chance the child gets. Eventually, the child owes the parents eighty-eight hours. The narrator says, "If you made a rule you had to stick to it." This points to the absurdity of a society that lives by rules that are not understood or well thought out before they are enforced.

"Postmodernism and Consumer Society"

In his 1983 essay "Postmodernism and Consumer Society," Frederic Jameson explains his idea of Postmodernism, its basic principles, and what caused it to occur. He discusses what he calls pastiche and schizophrenia as they relate to "the emergent social order of late capitalism." Pastiche is the loss of personal identity, which may be the result of capitalism and bureaucracies that place no importance on the individual. Another aspect of this loss of identity lies in the possibility that there is no way for writers and artists to create new styles because "they've already been invented." The other focus of the essay, schizophrenia, is the clash of narratives resulting from the combination of the past and future in the present. Throughout this essay and others, Jameson takes considerable notice of the impact of capitalism on the course of social progress and current artistic expression.

Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art

Julia Kristeva introduces gender politics into the postmodern discussion in Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, first published in French in 1969 and translated into English in 1980. She proposes that unconscious drives are major factors in communication and language. She explains that in creating a text by writing, the author releases unconscious selves and destroys the former notion of a solid, traditional, logical self. She considers the formative possibilities of a feminine voice that can result.

Kristeva looks at this issue of the feminine voice in the context of the dissolution of binary sets discussed by Derrida. She asserts that if customary language usage privileges one sex over another, as in the male/female set, it opens up the possibility of the marginalized sex eventually being eliminated from all discussions, though, at the same time, it provides means for women to raise their concerns if they use their status outside the mainstream.



Deconstruction, the term, was created by Derrida, and it defines the basic premise of Post-modernism. It does not mean destruction, but rather it is a critique of the criteria of certainty, identity, and truth.

Derrida says that all communication is characterized by uncertainty because there is no definitive link between the signifier (a word) and the signified (the object to which the word refers). Once a text is written it ceases to have a meaning until a reader reads it. Derrida says that there is nothing but the text and that it is not possible to construe a meaning for a text using a reference to anything outside the text. The text has many internal meanings that are in conflict with themselves (called reflexivity or self-referential) and as a result there is no solid and guaranteed meaning to a text. The text is also controlled by what is not in it (referents outside the text are not a part of its


  • 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 perspective or from a Marxist perspective or from another special point of view of your own choosing.
  • Critique your favorite television program showing the postmodern features of an individual show or of a series of shows. To ensure analytical accuracy, videotape the shows you examine. Be specific in your discussion, explaining in detail how the chosen features are postmodern and how they contribute to the success (or failure) of the show or shows in question. You might want to consider how the ads that splice the program offer multiple commentaries on the program, or how it might be true that the discourse within the program is amplified or complicated by the ads it contains.
  • Postmodernism has had an important role in the development of the MTV phenomenon. Select some music videos and describe them in terms of a postmodern aspect (e.g., social/economic influence, feminism, instability of texts regarding meaning, blurred lines between the "real" world and the "fictive" world in the video). Videos from the very early days of MTV might be compared with those now being broadcast, showing the postmodern trends in the development of videos. In your discussion be specific in the conclusions you derive from your study. Put these conclusions into theoretical terms.
  • Rent the movie Full Frontal, released by Miramax Films in 2002 and starring Julia Roberts, and analyze it as a work of Post-modernism. You might care to focus on the way the movie plays with viewers' expectations of frame, the line between what is the film and what is not the film; or when is an actor an actor playing someone else and when is an actor playing himself; or the way disruptions in the timeline affect the various meanings action can be understood to have. Movie buffs may enjoy exploring the ways the film comments on other films.

meaning). The consequence of this position is that there can be no final meaning for any text, for as Derrida himself says: "texts are not to be read according to [any method] which would seek out a finished signified beneath a textual surface. Reading is transformational."

He comments on issues of identity in Western civilization that derive from the reliance on binary oppositions. These are sets that establish a hierarchy that privileges the first over the second. He calls them "violent hierarchies," and states that they give precedence (called centering) to the central term (the first) and they marginalize the remaining term. In a set "up/down" the implication is that "up" is preferable to and is better than "down." In more significant ways the "centering" in the man/woman set establishes the first as the most important and marginalizes the second. This result has important ramifications in social constructs.

The last of these three concepts that he addresses is the nature of truth. Because he doubts the ability of language to convey any absolute meaning, there results an impossibility of language to establish a "transcendental universal" or a universal truth. It is this notion that is often misunderstood as a statement of his rejection of a God. Rather it is a statement that simple languages are incapable of identifying God linguistically.


One of the main outgrowths of Postmodernism is the disintegration of concepts that used to be taken for granted and assumed to be stable. These include the nature of language, the idea of knowledge, and the notion of a universal truth. The application of deconstruction to the understanding of language itself results in disintegration of that very language. Even these words are not stable in the sense that they cannot convey an unalterable message. The consequence of this is that once language is destabilized the resultant knowledge that comes from that language is no longer a stable product. The end result therefore is that there can be no universal truths upon which to base an understanding or a social construct.

In literary works, authors often disrupt expected time lines or change points of view and speakers in ways that disrupt and cause disintegration in the very literature they are writing. Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon is a good example of this technique.

In contemporary entertainment, television in particular, there has been a disintegration of the line that separates reality from fiction. Recent fictional dramas have included responses to the terrorist attacks from September 11, 2001. In other television shows from the last quarter of the twentieth century, contemporaneous events have been included in the story lines. Discussions of the political and social events of the Nixon years were a mainstay of the show All in the Family and during the 1992 presidential campaign there was a generous use of material from the Murphy Brown Show in real political conversation. In these and other situations the reality/fiction line was blurred significantly.

Cultural Studies

One major impact of Postmodernism on the structure of college and university courses is the introduction of multiculturalism and cultural studies programs. These are sometimes directly related to specific areas on the planet (Far Eastern studies, South American studies, or conglomerate areas such as Pan-African studies) and sometimes to specific-focus groups (Gay/Lesbian studies, Women's studies, Chicano studies). Often these are not limited by political concerns and boundaries but are economically and socially organized, a major concern expressed in the writings of Jameson, Eagleton, and other Marxist critics.


Another aspect of multiculturalism is combining specific interest areas into one area of study. This aspect of Postmodernism broadens the experiences of college students through the study of literature and history of peoples from other parts of the world. Classes whose structures combine sometimes disparate elements are found in these new departments. For example a study of prisons and prison literature might be combined with literature from third world countries under the broad label of Literature of the Oppressed. Cultural studies may also include topics such as Arab-American studies or Women in European Literature.



An important aspect of Postmodernism in literature and entertainment media is the relaxation of strict time lines, sometimes called discontinuous time. Often an author constructs 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 disrupt later in the story. In some TV shows this is particularly important when the time line would have two events 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.

Recurring Characters

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.

Authorial Intrusion

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 works are said to be self-conscious. In some instances the work will make a comment about itself in a critical way, making a self-reflexive comment on the whole process of writing, reading, or understanding literature.


This style is characterized by an often random association of dissimilar objects without any intentional connection between them or without a specified purpose for these associations. For example, the rapid presentation of bits and pieces from old news tapes that are often used at the beginning of news programs is a collage. While it intends to introduce the news, it is not the news nor is it any hint of the news to come.

Prose Poetry

This idea seems to be a contradiction in terms but it is an effective style of writing. The passage looks like a paragraph of prose writing, but the content is poetic in language and construction. Rather than being a literal statement, the language in this paragraph is more figurative.

Parody and Pastiche

Oftentimes writers will take the work of another and restructure it to make a different impression on the reader than that of the original author. Some writers lift whole passages from others, verbatim, resulting in something quite different from the original writer's material.

Parody is the imitation of other styles with a critical edge. The general effect is to cast ridicule on the mannerisms or eccentricities of the original.

Pastiche is very much like parody but it is neutral, without any sense of humor. It is the imitation or a pasting together of the mannerisms of another's work, but without the satiric impulse or the humor. Jameson says that because there is no longer a "normal" language system, only pastiche is possible.


The term simulacra comes from Plato and means "false copy" or a debased reflection of the original that is inferior to the original. Author Jean Baudrillard claims that a simulacrum is a perfect copy that has no original. The postmodernists use this technique of copying or imitating others without reservation or hesitation. They treat it as just another process in their creative effort.

Many science fiction movies deal with simulacrum characters. In Alien, one of the crew members, Ash, is an android, but one of such high quality that it is only revealed when he/it is cut and the blood is a white liquid. The "replicants" from Blade Runner are simulacra who desire a longer life. Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation is a simulacrum character with many human traits, but one who wants to have human emotions, too.


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. Post-modernism'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 feminism and gender studies, Marxism and political studies, and Poststructuralism.


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, for example, Bruce Appleby, professor emeritus of Southern Illinois University, was a longstanding 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 was 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 pattern was not acceptable to many 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 long-standing 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 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 causes strong emotional opinions, especially among those who see it as a threat to Western political systems. However, the basic issues that drove Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to formulate their theories in the nineteenth century remain valid in a discussion of literature and art and the relationship between class and the arts in a society. Marxist critics assert that the products of artistic endeavors are the results of historical forces that are themselves the results of material and/or economic conditions at the time of the creation of the art.

Art then becomes the product of those who control the economic and the intellectual production of the society. Therefore, the nature of the description of an era in human history is the product of the dominant class at the time the description is given. The late twentieth-century era called postmodern is so labeled by the dominant class. (It is important to note that since the that era has not as of the early 2000s come of age, the eventual naming of it may shift if the dominant class also shifts. What that shift may be is unknown at this time.) This concept has been reduced to the simple statement that the victor writes the story of the battle.

An enlightening example concerning this process is The Wind Done Gone. This novel is a retelling of the story of the American Civil War through eyes of the African-American slave in the southern United States. It tells Margaret Mitchell's story Gone with the Wind from another perspective. Granted this is a pair of novels, but the factual basis behind each is the history of the Civil War. For Mitchell it is history through the eyes of the white southerner; for Alice Randall it is through the eyes of the slave in that same southern society.


Poststructuralism is a term often used interchangeably with Postmodernism. While these two terms share a number of philosophic concepts, there are some differences that need to be explained. Structuralism is rooted in a theory of language that was derived from the teachings of Swiss-born linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, which were published as the Course in General Linguistics (in 1913 in French; in 1966 in English). These publications are a set of reconstructions of his teachings from the class notes of many of his students. As the label of the philosophy indicates, it is concerned with the underlying structures of language and meaning. The structuralists "confined the play of language within closed structures of oppositions," according to Steven Best and Douglas Kellner in their book, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. Saussure posited that language functions in a self-referential manner and has no "natural" relation to external reality. This movement also believes, according to Claude Levi-Strauss, that texts are universal (even if the meanings of the texts are indeterminate) and that texts are found in all activities. This is construed to include the personal life histories of individuals, which are called their "texts."

The main technique used by the structuralists in their investigations of language is the study of semiology, or the study of signs and symbols. They say that all language is arbitrary and that the culture determines the relationship between the signifier (a word) and the signified (the object). The word book is arbitrary and does not have any direct and irrefutable relationship to the object it is used to signify. That relationship comes from the culture alone. Additionally, the structuralist examines the underlying construct of language and is concerned with determining what is called the meta-structure, a universal structure that could be found in all language systems.

The poststructuralist responds to these investigations with the Derridean concept that there is not a universal structure and that the structures of language are indeterminate, just as the language (text) itself is. They give the signifier primacy over the signified, which opens the door to the indeterminacy of other postmodern considerations.


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 such as Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. began to experiment in their novels. Poets such as Ishmael Reed wrote in new forms and created new poetic styles. Composers such as 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 Post-modernism 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, for example, I Love Lucy,and thevariety show, such as 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 such as All in the Family and Laugh In. Also at this time


  • 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 the modernists believed and that their product is not a stable one. As Derrida claims, speech is more secure than written language because the producerofthetextispresenttogiveitimmediate meaning. Since meaning is indeterminate, the meaning of a novel is unknown.

  • 1920s-1930s: Art is created to shock the audience. The cubism of Picasso and the risqué novels of James Joyce are examples of these shocking creations. Once art is completed, it is a stable work of art.

    Today: Art is less shocking and more an incomplete artifact of the artist. "Performance art" is an example: People " live" in a store window or in a glass walled house revealing their everyday life to a passing public.

  • 1920s-1930s: Work in factories is for the husband; home life is for the wife who keeps the house and raises the children.

    Today: Men and women work at the same tasks, including firefighting and construction work; however, pay scales for women are not equalized in all areas.

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 forces of suspicion, disintegration, and uncertainty led to the emergence of the postmodern world. World social situations are visited with a mouse click; economic pressures by individuals demanding specialized products have reduced the "target consumer" to ever smaller units. As Vaclav Havel noted, seeing a Bedouin on a camel in typical Arab dress, wearing jeans beneath, listening to a CD through an ear piece and drinking a soft drink is no longer odd or unexpected. The fragmented nature of the postmodern world has created a new culturally diverse and, at the same time, culturally mixed world. Television brings war into viewers' living rooms. It shows the horror of collapsing buildings; on reality shows, it gives the consumer a window to the most intimate and tender moments in a person's life, and it reduces all of this to a slickly packaged product for the purpose of getting higher ratings and more profits through advertising.


The exact date Postmodernism began may 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 such as 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 audience in the early 2000s, 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 existence and either build an argument on it or build an argument from a position opposing it.

In the early 2000s, the concept of Postmodernism widened to include discussions of social, economic, historical, political, recreational, and other aspects of contemporary life, as argued by Kimberly Chabot Davis in her study of Morrison's novel Beloved. 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.


Carl Mowery

Mowery holds a Ph.D. in composition and literature from Southern Illinois University. In this essay, Mowery examines narrative techniques in postmodern fiction.

One facet of Postmodernism that sets it apart from Modernism is the attitude that post-modern authors bring to fiction. While the modernist was concerned with precision both in language and presentation, the postmodernist breaks with these established practices. Time lines are often disrupted, leaving it to the reader to determine the order of events. At other times narrative expectations are upset as the author either contradicts the narrative or intrudes deliberately into the story line.

The way an author tells a story is through a narrator. Generally the narrator is not the author but a created persona with a personality, a behavior pattern and special reasons for telling the story in the manner it is being told. For example, the narrator of the Edgar Allan Poe story "The Tell Tale Heart" desperately tries to convince the reader that he is not crazy.

These narrators fall into one of the following categories: first person narrator; third person omniscient narrator; third person limited narrator; dramatic narrator (a phenomenological narration that makes no comment on or judgments about any of the actions or scenes in the tale); and in some circumstances the stream of consciousness narration (a specialized narration in the first person through the mind and thoughts of that person). However, there are notable variations to these types. In "A Rose for Emily" Faulkner used a first person plural ("we") narrator. In this story the townspeople tell the tale.

The only contact a reader has with a tale is through "the act of its being told (or retold)" by the narrator, according to Henry McDonald in "The Narrative Act: Wittgenstein and Narratology." Therefore, the reader must have a sense of the narrator's reliability. If the narrator is lying or telling the story in a slanted fashion, the reader must then come to grips with that fact and make a


  • 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 Consumer Culture: Advertising's Impact on American Character and Society (2000), by Arthur Asa Berger, contains information that will facilitate a study of the advertising world. He examines the cross-pressures between advertisements and various social, economic, and cultural factors. His deconstruction of the now famous 1984 Macintosh TV ad is included in this text.
  • The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, by David Rabe, startled the theatergoing public in 1971. This postmodern play is a story of a naïve recruit's initiation into war. It won Rabe an Obie and was hailed by the New York Times as "rich in humor, irony and insight." It is both brutal and hilarious, making intense critical comments on the Vietnam War and the military establishment in general. It is published along with Sticks and Bones by Grove Press in the 1972 volume The Vietnam Plays. Rabe won a Tony for his 1995 play Hurlyburly.
  • The Magus, by John Fowles, was published in 1966 after the author worked on it for twelve years; it was revised and republished in 1977. The novel explores subjects of mysticism and psychoanalysis, which were particularly popular when the novel was first published. The Magus was made into a film in 1968, directed by Guy Greene and starring Michael Caine. The film was a famous failure.

judgment about the story from that vantage point. This does not mean that a story cannot be understood even if the storyteller is lying; it means that the reader must reconcile knowing about a lying narrator with the information that the narrator presents. Ludwig Wittgenstein said, "The difficulty is to realize the groundlessness of our believing." Therein lies the task of the perceptive reader: to locate and to understand the nature of the fictive world and to recognize the "truth" of that fictive world and to separate it from an unreliable presentation of it. The reader must determine the grounds for identifying that "truth."

An important aspect of the narrative presence is the structure it takes. In "The first thing the baby did wrong . . . ," by Donald Barthelme, the narrator tells his story in monologue style. In the story the father describes his baby's behavior in a first person continuous narrative that describes how she is punished for tearing pages out of books. The monologue uses a familiar tone, referring to the audience as "you" to create a sense of intimacy ("She got real clever. You'd come up to her where she was playing.") and to request sympathy for the parents' dilemma with the baby's actions. As the baby seems to enjoy her punishment, the father's narrative reveals frustration and a resolve to maintain rules set by the parents. In this story the narration is a simple one drawing the audience into the family circle and asking for sympathy.

Sometimes the narrative gives the reader a sense of being a part of the story as it unfolds. In the story "Montezuma and Cortez," Barthelme


uses the continuous present to tell the story. It opens: "Because Cortez lands on a day specified in the ancient writing, because he is dressed in black, because his armour is silver . . . Montezuma considers Cortez to be Quetzalcoatl." The remainder of the story maintains this use of present tense, which gives the reader a sense of immediacy and an eye-witness-to-history feeling about the tale. The reader is not told the story after the fact, but as it happens—like a live television show narrated by an announcer.

Other narrative structures include epistolary novels (novels that use a series of exchanged letters to report the story), diaries, or outline forms. The latter two are adopted by Barthelme. "Me and Miss Mandible" uses the diary format, taking the reader through the events of the story day by day. "Daumier" is in an outline form, with occasional topics indicated to tell the reader what the next section of the story will be about.

In these short story examples, the reliability of the narrator is kept at a high level. Also the author remains outside the story. But for many stories, this is not the case. Two novels that contain examples of authorial intrusions and that raise questions about the narrator's truthfulness and thereby the truth of the story itself are The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera and The Ravishing of Lol Stein by Marguerite Duras.

Authors often deliberately disturb the comfortable expectations of the reader. In many post-modern works the authors make direct statements to the reader, at times confronting the characters in the novel. Wendy Lesser, in her essay "The Character as Victim," wrote that among contemporary writers "the prevailing idea appears to be that authors and their characters are in direct competition." This notion is at odds with previous approaches to fiction, which keep the author out of the story. But for the postmodern writer these intrusions have become more normal. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera writes, "Tomas saw her jealousy . . . as a burden . . . he would be saddled with until not long before his death." The foreshadowing shows the author's knowledge of the mortality of his own character. This phrase ends a longer passage during which Tomas has become jealous of Tereza's success as a photographer. Kundera interrupts the passage by telling the reader that Tomas will die soon. This comment seems also a kind of jealous reaction: Kundera is jealous of his own character's successes and deflates that success by telling the reader of Tomas's impending death. Lesser confirms this by stating that "the author knows too clearly and powerfully what he wants to say. Nobody else . . . has a chance to say otherwise." Nobody has the opportunity to be too successful or to be too important. Kundera will not allow it.

Kundera also makes repeated comments that are outside the context of the story line. These authorial intrusions are often comments on various aspects in the novel. For example, in chapter 16 of Part Five, he writes, "Several days later, he was struck by another thought, which I record here as an addendum to the preceding chapter." The "I" in this sentence is Kundera, who has intruded into his story, telling the reader that he will make comments about an occurrence in the previous chapter.

In this self-reflexive way Kundera refers directly to the novel itself. He writes: "And once more I see him the way he appeared to me at the very beginning of the novel." Later he comments, "In Part Three of this novel I told the tale of Sabrina." These interruptions by the author do what E. L. Doctorow claims is "the author deliberately [breaking] the mimetic spell of his text and [insisting] that the reader should not take his story to heart or believe in the existence of his characters." This act of destroying what has just been created occurs often in the works of postmodern authors.

Knowledge of the identity of the narrator assists the reader in making a connection with the story. The narrator in Barthelme's "The first thing the baby did wrong . . . " is the father, identified only as "I." But nothing further is needed. The narrator in Lol Stein is Jack Hold, who is reluctantly identified late in the novel. At the end of one section Duras has written: "Arm in arm they ascend the terrace steps. Tatiana introduces Peter Breugner, her husband, to Lol, and Jack Hold, a friend of theirs—the distance is covered—me." In this hesitant, circuitous way, the narrator is identified, in the third person by himself!

In Kundera's novel the narrator is never identified, leaving the reader to wonder if there is one or if the author himself is really telling the tale. But as Maureen Howard says, "Whoever the narrator may be, he's an entertaining fellow, sophisticated, professional, very European." Even though the reader does not know his identity, enough of his personality is present so his name does not matter.

Whoever the narrator is, it is imperative that the reader understands whether or not that narrator is telling the truth. Jack Hold, Duras's narrator, tells the tale of Lol but without a sense of certainty, saying things like, "I seem to remember," or "I doubt it," or "I can't say for sure." This imprecision (or indecision) leaves the reader without a sense of knowing what is really going on. Adding to the reader's uncertainty are additional phrases like: "My opinion," "I invent," and "I no longer know for sure." An additional complication to this is the fact that these imprecise statements have no effect on the narrator's attitude to story telling. He does not apologize for these lapses but ignores them after admitting them.

The most disturbing aspect of Jack Hold's narration is his admission, "I'm lying." Another passage includes the line, "I desperately want to partake of the word which emerges from the lips of Lol Stein, I want to be a part of this lie which she has forged." Further confusing the reader is the contradictory statement: "I didn't lie." In this story the narrator does not evade the issue of lying; he takes notice of it and moves ahead with the story.

In his novel, Kundera taxes the reader with the following statement: "The way he rushed into his decision seems rather odd to me. Could it perhaps conceal something else, something deeper that escaped his reasoning?" This is an admission by Kundera (the one asking the question here) that he does not know what is going on with a character of his own creation. How could a character's behavior seem odd to the author who has created that character? This asks the question: If the author does not know what is going on in the story, how can the reader expect to know? Recalling the earlier notion that Kundera confronts his own characters, in this instance the character seems to have won.

By the end of such statements the reader has no stable basis upon which to establish the veracity of the story. No "truth" can happen in the tale in which the narrator does not know what is going on, the author does not know what is going on, or where the narrator of the story admits to lying. The reader does not know what to believe. Here is the uncertainty of Wittgenstein's "groundlessness of believing." The reader does not know where to base an understanding of the fictional world the author has created.

A consequence of the self-reflexive aspects of these novels is that the reader is constantly being reminded that "it is a fiction," according to Terry Eagleton in "Estrangement and Irony." These reminders disturb the reader's ability to make the mental leap called the suspension of disbelief, which allows a reader of fiction to become immersed in the story and to care about the characters and their condition. Without this leap, the reader is more willing to dismiss both the tale and the characters.

These are just some of the manifestations of postmodernist concerns about the nature the truth in fiction. Jacques Derrida has noted that since language is unable to convey an absolute meaning, there results the impossibility for language to establish an absolute "truth." In fiction that "truth" is the creation of the author. Because postmodern authors disrupt their stories, intrude in them, and in some cases confront their own creations, there can be no "truth" in that fictional world.

Source: Carl Mowery, Critical Essay on Postmodernism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Kimberly Chabot Davis

In the following essay, Davis asserts that Morrison's novel Beloved is a seminal postmodern work combining fiction, history, and social protest.

When they asserted that our postmodern society has reached the "end of history," theorists Fredric Jameson, Jean Baudrillard, and Francis Fukuyama launched a compelling debate that has persisted for over a decade. They argue that we no longer believe in teleological metanarratives, that our concept of history has become spatial or flattened out, and that we inhabit a perpetual present in which images of the past are merely recycled with no understanding of their original context. In short, they think that postmodern culture has lost a sense of historical consciousness, of cause and effect. Jameson, in particular, sees literary postmodernism as a by-product of this new worldview. Such a controversial stance has, of course, provoked numerous antagonists to speak out. Linda Hutcheon, for example, has written two studies of "historiographic metafiction," suggesting that much of postmodern fiction is still strongly invested in history, but more importantly in revising our sense of what history means and can accomplish. My project is to examine how Toni Morrison's acclaimed historical novel Beloved (1987) enacts a hybrid vision of history and time that sheds new light on issues addressed by Jameson and Hutcheon in their theories of the postmodern—topics such as the "fictionality" of history, the blurring of past and present, and the questioning of grand historical metanarratives. I argue that while the novel exhibits a


postmodern skepticism of sweeping historical narratives, of "Truth," and of Marxist teleological notions of time as diachronic, it also retains an African American and modernist political commitment to the crucial importance of deep cultural memory, of keeping the past alive in order to construct a better future. Morrison's mediations between these two theoretical and political camps—between postmodernism and African American social protest— enable her to draw the best from both and make us question the more extremist voices asserting that our postmodern world is bereft of history.

Since the term postmodern has been at the center of many highly charged cultural debates, I am aware that describing Beloved as such, even as a "hybrid" postmodern novel, is a gesture that might draw criticism. Clearly, the novel's status as part of the African American tradition of social protest, and Morrison's investments in agency, presence, and the resurrection of authentic history, seem to make the novel incompatible with poststructuralist ideas at the root of post-modernism. Morrison herself has spoken out against a postmodernism that she associates with Jameson's terms. In my view, however, Morrison's treatment of history bears some similarity to Hutcheon's postmodern "historio-graphic metafiction," but her relationship to this discourse is affected by her aim to write "black-topic" texts. Morrison acknowledges that history is always fictional, always a representation, yet she is also committed to the project of recording African American history in order to heal her readers. Instead of a playful exercise in deconstructing history, Morrison's Beloved attempts to affect the contemporary world of the "real." While the novel should not simply be assimilated into the canon of post-modernism, Morrison's work should be recognized as contributing a fresh voice to the debates about postmodern history, a voice that challenges the centrism and elitism of much of post-modern theory. Beloved reminds us that history is not "over" for African Americans, who are still struggling to write the genealogies of their people and to keep a historical consciousness alive.

The relationship of African American writers and their work to the discourse of postmodernism has been hotly contested, and there has unfortunately emerged a dichotomy that I would like to question. This relationship has become even more vexed since the Nobel Prize committee bypassed postmodern guru Thomas Pynchon to select Toni Morrison as their 1993 literature winner. Morrison claimed her prize as a victory particularly for African Americans. Black critics such as Barbara Christian continue to argue that Morrison's work must be understood as an expression of African American forms and traditions, and are concerned that "the power of this novel as a specifically African American text is being blunted" as it is being appropriated by white academic discourse (Christian 6). I too share her suspicion of the increasingly popular move to read Morrison's fiction through the lens of postmodernism, poststructuralism, or "white" academic theory, a tactic that underestimates the crucial importance of Toni Morrison's black cultural heritage to any interpretation of her works. While we must question the tactics of critics like Elliott Butler-Evans, who simply and somewhat blindly plot poststructuralist and postmodernist theory onto Morrison's "black-topic texts," we should be equally wary of concluding that postmodernism is a "white" phenomenon. Any claim that the lives of black people have nothing to do with postmodernism ignores the complex historical interrelationship of black protest and liberal academic discourse. As Andreas Huyssen, Kobena Mercer, and Linda Hutcheon have noted, racial liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s (as well as the feminist movement) contributed to the loosening of cultural boundaries that is seen as characteristically postmodern. White liberal theorists of postmodernism and African American critics often share an oppositional relationship to the bourgeois state or to the universalizing "objectivity" of some humanist intellectuals. A rigid demarcation between postmodern texts and African American texts merely perpetuates a false dichotomy of academic theory and social protest, ignoring that they emerged in response to a similar set of lived conditions.

I do not seek simply to join the fray of critics who unequivocally claim Toni Morrison's novel Beloved for one side or the other (postmodernist or "antipostmodernist" social protest) while leaving the text's ambiguities and ambivalences unexplored. Deborah McDowell argues that the theory/practice hierarchy equates theory with men and marginalizes black women to the realm of social protest, and she calls for a "counterhistory . . . [that] would bring theory and practice into a productive tension that would force a reevaluation of each side" (256). I am attempting here to enact that counterhistory, to investigate how Morrison's fiction speaks to postmodern theory and, more importantly, allows us to reevaluate this discourse. I do not aim to measure Beloved against the authority of postmodern theorists, but rather to examine how each has represented the spectre of history differently, and to suggest the difference that race can make.

In her novels, interviews, and essays, Toni Morrison has expressed opinions and agendas that resound with the concerns of both critical camps—both postmodernist theorists and African American and feminist critics seeking social agency. Feminist and African American critics have often dismissed postmodernism's philosophical questioning of foundationalism and essentialism as being incompatible with their sociopolitical criticism (Fraser 20-21). Morrison herself acknowledges and occasionally reifies this rift by defining herself in interviews as an antipostmodernist author of black-topic texts, written to pass on agency to her black readers ("Living Memory" 11). Certainly, Morrison's works seem to be defined by the prefixes "pre" or "re" rather than "post"; in Beloved, she is more concerned with origins, cycles, and reconstructing agency than with decadence and self-parody. Both Beloved and her novel Jazz are set in time periods of birth and regeneration—the age of Reconstruction after the Civil War and the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

Despite her reluctance to associate her work with postmodernism, I believe that Morrison has produced the kind of hybrid cultural work that socialist feminist Donna Haraway calls for. In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, Haraway writes:

Feminists have to insist on a better account of the world. . . . So, I think my problem and "our" problem is how to have simultaneously an account of radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects, a critical practice for recognizing our own "semi-otic technologies" for making meanings, and a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a "real" world. (187)

Haraway underscores the urgent need for new and better "her-stories" that might empower women but that are still informed by poststructuralism's denaturalizing critique, and for narratives that attempt to approximate "true history" while remaining aware of the limits and impossibility of truth or of any historical metanarrative. Morrison's work can be compared to Haraway's in its recognition of this dual process; although Morrison demystifies master historical narratives, she also wants to raise "real" or authentic African American history in its place. She deconstructs while she reconstructs, tapping the well of African American "presence." As Anthony Hilfer has suggested, Morrison's novels offers a "both-and," dialectical, indeterminate character, a doubleness that Linda Hutcheon would argue is itself a distinctly postmodern strategy (Hilfer 91).

Despite the indeterminacies of her fiction, Toni Morrison's Beloved can be read as an overt and passionate quest to fill a gap neglected by historians, to record the everyday lives of the "disremembered and unaccounted for" (274). Rejecting the artificial distinction between fiction and history, Morrison considers artists to be the "truest of historians" ("Behind the Making" 88). In "Site of Memory," Toni Morrison explicitly describes the project of writing Beloved as one of fictional reconstruction or "literary archeology" (112), of imagining the inner life of the slave woman Margaret Garner, her source for Sethe. While working on The Black Book (1974), a collection of cultural documents recording African American "history-as-life-lived," Morrison discovered a newspaper clipping about Garner, a runaway slave who had murdered her children at the moment of capture. Like Denver's efforts to reconstruct the past through storytelling, Morrison's narrative has succeeded in "giving blood to the scraps . . . and a heartbeat" to what had been merely an historical curio (Beloved). The desire to uncover the historical reality of the African American past fuels Morrison's fictional project of literary archeology: "you journey to a site to see what remains were left behind and to reconstruct the world that these remains imply" ("Site" 112). Working to fill in the gaps left by the constrained slave narrative genre, she attempts "to rip the veil drawn over 'proceedings too terrible to relate"' in order "to yield up a kind of a truth" (110, 112).

Although this last phrase suggests that Morrison pursues authenticity in her historical renderings, I will argue that she accepts the poststructuralist critique of the idea of a single totalizing Truth or History. While she sees herself as a creative historian who reconstructs, Morrison also works to deconstruct master narratives of "official history" in Beloved. Mae Henderson describes the novel as a counternarrative to the "master('s) narrative" (79), one example of which is the newspaper account of Margaret Garner's deed, a document that reappears in the novel as a harsh official alternative to Sethe's emotional interpretation of events. In this novel, the appearance of the newspaper clipping is one of the few intrusions of the dominant culture's process of historical documentation. Morrison drops only a few references to historically recognizable "encyclopedia" events of the period; for example, the Fugitive Slave Bill, the historical fact that provokes Sethe's infanticide, is mentioned only in parentheses. Even more striking is her rendering of the Civil War, the apocalypse of American national history, as a minor, inconsequential event in the lives of these former slaves. As Denver lovingly remembers the gift of Christmas cologne she received as a child, she mentions casually and offhandedly that she received it during "one of the war years." Paul D's haunting memory of the chain gang in Alfred, Georgia, outweighs the significance of his participation in the war, of which we learn only in the last few pages of the book. The private realities of persecution and daily survival matter more to Sethe and Paul D than any dates or public documents worthy of note in a history textbook. Paul D recognizes that prejudice and racism certainly did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation or the surrender of the Confederate Army: "The War had been over four or five years then, but nobody white or black seemed to know it." Marilyn Sanders Mobley suggests that the fragments of recognizable history in Beloved "punctuate the text and . . . disrupt the text of the mind which is both historical and ahistorical at the same time" (196). While I agree that these historical facts appear as interruptions, I would argue that the minds of Sethe and Paul D are never "ahistorical." Rather, Morrison attempts to redefine history as an amalgamation of local narratives, as a jumble of personal as well as publicly recorded triumphs and tragedies.

Morrison's commitment to historical remembering arises from her concern about the ignorance of and even contempt for the past that she sees in both contemporary African American and postmodern culture. In an interview in 1988, she remarked: "the past is absent or it's romanticised. This culture doesn't encourage dwelling on, let alone coming to terms with, the truth about the past" ("Living Memory" 11). While working on The Black Book in the early 1970s, Morrison expressed disdain for the Black Power movement's creation of new myths and their retreat to ancient African myths of the "far and misty past" ("Behind the Making" 87). More relevant to the process of liberation, she felt, was knowledge of the 300-year history of African Americans. In the 1988 interview, Morrison applauded the emergence of a new body of historical fiction by black writers, and she found it ironic "that black writers are descending deeper into historical concerns at the same moment white literati are abolishing it in the name of something they call 'post modernism.' . . . History has become impossible for them" (11). Morrison seems here to accept Fredric Jameson's negative portrayal of post-modernism—a definition contested by Hutcheon and others—as historical "depthlessness" and "a consequent weakening of historicity, both in our relationship to public History and in the new forms of our private temporality" (New Left Review 58). Back in 1974, Morrison also expressed concerns that would be echoed by Jameson, a concern that real history was being replaced by historicism—the textualizing of time as a mere representation, as a simulacrum (to use Jean Baudrillard's formulation). Sounding rather Marxist, Morrison bemoaned the "shallow" myths of the black liberation movement's Afrocentrism, "because our children can't use and don't need and will certainly reject history-as-imagined. They deserve better: history as life lived," which Morrison was attempting to record in The Black Book ("Behind the Making" 88).

Although in 1974 Morrison sounds like a Jamesonian precursor, criticizing contemporary literature's historical travesties, in Beloved she has offered a different conception of the relationship between history and fiction, acknowledging that all history is "imagined," and that all knowledge of the past is derived from representations, such as Beloved itself. As Donna Haraway seeks better scientific stories, Morrison attempts to draw a historical portrait closer to "life lived," but she recognizes that no totalizing truth can ever be reached. Morrison's fictional works offer a different theory of "postmodernist history" than does Jameson, and critics who try to read Morrison's work through Jameson's lens end up mis-reading the novels. Elliott Butler-Evans uses scanty textual support to argue that Tar Baby is postmodern (in Jameson's definition) because it offers "a displacement of history by 'historicism,' in which the past is reread and reconstructed in the present" (152). As Linda Hutcheon has pointed out, the fundamental problem with Jameson's formulation is his rigid distinction between authentic history and inauthentic historicism. Jameson describes our postmodern society as one "bereft of all historicity, whose own putative past is little more than a set of dusty spectacles . . . the past as 'referent' finds itself gradually bracketed, and then effaced altogether, leaving us with nothing but texts" (New Left Review 66). For Morrison, history and "historicism" are one and the same, and her work offers a necessary correction to Jameson's theories, precisely because she questions the assumption that there is a knowable reality behind the inauthentic simulation or representation.

Moments of self-reflexivity in her text remind the reader that Morrison is also constructing a textual representation of the past, just as historians did before her. When Paul D is confronted by the newspaper account of Sethe's deed, the reader is made aware that textual documents often—or always—fail to capture life exactly as it is experienced. Although he cannot read, Paul D finds the representation of Sethe's face to be inauthentic: "that ain't her mouth." While Paul D is wrong in denying the truth of Sethe's infanticide, his reaction to the picture of Sethe makes the reader aware of the difference between a real-live original and any simulation, either photographic or textual. At the same moment, however, the possibility of distinguishing between the real and the reproduction is rendered unstable, and the very concept of authenticity is put into question as Paul D doubts both the white culture's representation and his own knowledge of the real woman, Sethe. In this scene, Morrison seems to be revising her previous belief that the documents collected in The Black Book could offer authentic history as life lived; now she suggests that a fictional account of the interior life of a former slave might be more historically "real" than actual documents, which were often written from the perspective of the dominant culture. While Morrison reminds us of the slippage between signifier and signified in the scene with the newspaper clipping, she also calls attention to the fact that the past is only available to us through textual traces, such as Beloved and The Black Book. Newspapers—as a figure for discourse itself—make one other appearance in the novel. They are stacked in a pile in the woodshed, the pivotal space in which Sethe kills her baby, and where the resurrected Beloved lures Paul D to have sex; the printed words of the newspapers are metaphoric spectators to the "real" action of this fictional story. This metaphor allows Morrison simultaneously to point out the gap between representation and reality and to suggest that we can only know the past through discourse. She seems to concur with the poststructuralist view that reality is a function of discourse, yet does not let this point pacify her into accepting the representations that exist—the voyeuristic news accounts and the constrained slave narratives. I would argue that Morrison's sociopolitical project is the idea that new representations can change our perceptions of historical reality.

Morrison's choice of epigraphs also reflects her dual response to the representation/reality dialectic. Hutcheon argues that the inclusion of paratextual materials, such as epigraphs, serves both to "remind us of the narrativity (and fictionality) of the primary text and to assert its factuality and historicity" (Politics 85). Morrison's choice of two epigraphs underscores this dialectic; one points to the historical "fact" of the Middle Passage, the other to a text (the Bible) that has often been received as fact. While the Scriptures themselves blur the boundary between fact and fiction, the "60 million and more" statistic is an estimation gleaned from historical records. Although the Middle Passage was a horrific historical reality, the estimated number is not a verifiable fact because the deaths of slaves were often deemed unworthy of recording. All the lives lost can never be accounted for, because our access to history is always limited by words and by those who have control of textual production. Thus, in beginning her novel with these epigraphs, Morrison seems both to ground her fictional work in historical reality and also to question the possibility of ever finding the historical referent outside of or preceding representation.

As an artist, Morrison places a great deal of faith in the power of representation to determine our perceptions of reality. For her, the character of Beloved has become a piece of living history—words made into flesh. According to Morrison, she drew Beloved as a composite of the dead child of Margaret Garner, and of a "dead girl" from a Van der Zee photograph—a girl who had been murdered by a jealous ex-lover ("A Conversation" 583-84). Morrison remarked passionately in an interview:

bit by bit I had been rescuing her from the grave of time and inattention. Her fingernails might be in the first book; face and legs, perhaps, the second time. Little by little bringing her back into living life. So that now she comes running when called . . . she is here now, alive.

("A Conversation" 593)

Morrison's commitment to resurfacing the dead and paying tribute to black Americans of previous generations has made her works particularly poignant to African American readers. With the novel's newly acquired place in the canon of American literature, Morrison's representation has helped to contribute to the historical consciousness of Americans, just as the television miniseries Roots did in the 1970s. The popularity of Beloved and the healing power of its representation may have enlarged our culture's understanding of black women's history and of the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction era.

To ground my argument that Morrison's fiction has much to contribute to a postmodern theoretical debate about history and representation, I will turn to a close reading of the novel and suggest that its thematic interest in temporality relates to larger concerns about history. If Morrison's career reveals both a desire for "authentic" history-as-life-lived and the postmodernist realization that history is a fictional construct, the plot of her novel Beloved is marked by a parallel dialectic: the mind's struggle between remembering and forgetting the past. Beloved is a novel about the traumas and healing powers of memory, or "rememory" as Sethe calls it, adding a connotation of cyclical recurrence. Sethe's ambivalent relationship to her cruel past creates a kind of wavelike narrative effect, as memories surface and are repressed. On the one hand, "Sethe worked hard to remember . . . as close to nothing as was safe. Unfortunately her brain was devious," offering her memories of the beauty of Sweet Home rather than of her children. Painfully aware that she lacks control of her memory, Sethe also attempts to repress, to "start the day's serious work of beating back the past." The ghost child Beloved represents the "return of the repressed" past that demands to be worked through and not forgotten. Although the novel proves Sethe wrong in her belief that "the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay", the text also contends that neither must the past consume us. With Beloved's entrenchment at 124 Bluestone, Sethe's life begins to ebb away, her strength sapped by the swelling ghost daughter, a figure for the threatening past. Morrison suggests that dwelling on one's own past, or the collective past of the slaves, can strangle your present as Beloved nearly strangles Sethe in the Clearing.

Toni Morrison's novel endorses neither a Marxist obsessive, teleological historical remembering nor a "postmodernist" forgetting of the past, and suggests instead that both processes are necessary to move into the future. The simultaneity of remembering and forgetting is evident in Sethe's state of mind after Beloved's return: "her mind was busy with the things she could forget." At the end of the novel, the ambiguity of the repeated phrase "It was not a story to pass on" also enacts the simultaneity of moving forward and looking back, since "passing on" has two meanings: sharing the tale with future generations and walking on by and forgetting the story. Thus, although Morrison promotes a delving into the historical past, she realizes that the past must be processed and sometimes forgotten in order for one to function in the present and to "pass on" to the future. Her earlier statements, when working on The Black Book, about the crucial need for knowledge of recent history have been qualified in Beloved, which teaches that a historical memory also has its costs, resulting often in the reopening-rather than the healing—of old psychic wounds.

One way to free oneself from the horrors of the past is to reenact and reconfigure the past in the present, as Sethe does with an icepick at the end of the novel, attacking not her own children this time but the white man Bodwin, whom she perceives as a reincarnation of her slave master Schoolteacher. Mae Henderson argues that this reconfiguration of the past delivers Sethe, who "demonstrates her possession of rather than by the past," and thus exorcizes Beloved (Henderson 80). While Henderson rightly asserts the importance of a "mediation between remembering (possession) and forgetting (exorcism)," she seems to grant more subversive powers of agency to Sethe than the close of the novel actually suggests (82). After this attempt to reenact "the Misery," Sethe is hardly healed, whole and "reborn," as Henderson argues, but has resigned herself to die rather than live as a "bleak and minus nothing" (Beloved). Sethe admits that "something is missing . . . something more than Beloved." While Henderson celebrates her as a subversive heroine and revisionist historian who has achieved the power to change the past, she ignores the fact that Sethe is still haunted by her complicity with whites at the end of the book, as she recalls that she compliantly "made the ink" that allowed Schoolteacher to delineate her "animal" characteristics. Morrison, I believe, presents a more balanced and postmodernist view by acknowledging both Sethe's complicities and her subversions, and recognizing that Sethe has limited power to revise or erase the past.

Many critics have read the ending (and the expression "pass on") as an indication that Sethe is healed and Beloved put back in her place, but I find that the last chapter denies such a simplistic closure. Morrison ends the novel with the word "Beloved," suggesting that the past is a lasting presence, waiting to be resurrected: "Down by the stream in back of 124 her footprints come and go, come and go . . . should a child, an adult place his feet in them, they will fit." Although the ending suggests partial healing, the spectre of the past remains, waiting to resurface. I find Beloved ending similar to Hutcheon's description of the postmodern historiographic novel: "the past is not something to be escaped, avoided, or controlled . . . the past is something with which we must come to terms and such a confrontation involves an acknowledgment of limitation as well as power" (Politics 58).

While Henderson's analysis is often insightful, I find her view to be one-sided, because she ignores the novel's postmodernist suspicion of coherent and logical historical narratives that attempt to smooth over the disorder of lived experience. I disagree with her suggestion that this novel creates coherence out of the lives dismembered by slavery. She writes: "If dismemberment deconstitutes the whole . . . then re-memory functions to re-collect, re-assemble, and organize into a meaningful sequential whole through . . . the process of narrativization" (71). Henderson uses words like "cohesive" to describe Sethe's narrative, an adjective that seems inappropriate for a novel that rejects closure and facile narrative solutions. In opposition to Henderson, Emily Miller Budick cogently argues that gaps left by a tragic past are not easily filled or smoothed over in this work: "recovering the missing [child] . . . reconstituting in the present what was lost in the past, will not, this book insists, restore order and logic to lives that have been interrupted by such loss" (131).

I would argue along with Budick that Morrison's novel does not aim to fill in all the gaps of the historical past; the result of her literary archeology is not a complete skeleton, but a partial one, with pieces deliberately missing or omitted. Because the reconstruction is not total, the reader is engaged in the process of imagining history herself. Although Morrison's historical project is to unveil the "unspeakable thoughts, unspoken" (Beloved), many things nevertheless remain inaudible or buried in the novel, and these gaps can be read as characteristically post-modern. When Paul D confronts Sethe with the newspaper clipping about the murder of her child, Sethe is unable to give voice to the unspoken: "she could never close in, pin it down for anybody who had to ask." Of course, she continues to try to pin it down throughout the rest of the novel, but rather than a complete and seamless product, the process of putting some of her memory into words is stressed here.

Rather than the "meaningful sequential whole" that Henderson finds, I see a text with many holes and gaps, a testament to the incoherence of "life lived," especially the life of a freed slave. For example, the novel begins with Howard and Bugler, but we never learn their fate, or that of their father Hale. Who was the girl whose red ribbon Stamp Paid finds attached to a raft? This novel never forgets or underestimates the difficulty of representing the lives of the disremembered and unaccounted for, "the people of the broken necks, of fire-cooked blood and black girls who had lost their ribbons." The Middle Passage, in which "sixty million and more" slaves died, is another significant gap that looms on the horizon, and can only be obliquely alluded to in the novel's epigraph, in Sethe's buried memories of her mother's story, and in Beloved's postmodern fragmented narrative that blends the historical past and present. Beloved's disjointed narrative, composed of phrases with no punctuation, calls attention to the visual spaces on the page, a metaphor for the gaps in the storytelling. In Beloved 's narrative, "it is always now", and Morrison combines imagined scenes of life on the slave ships with details from Beloved and Sethe's stories:

the little hill of dead people . . . the men without skin push them through with poles the woman [Sethe] is there with the face I want the face that is mine . . . the woman with my face is in the sea her sharp earrings are gone.

Barbara Christian has written of Beloved as a novel giving voice to this "unspeakable event" of the Middle Passage, an event almost erased from American cultural memory (6). Although I agree that Morrison has attempted to imagine this "terrible space" in American history, the gap cannot be completely bridged, and the psychic trauma on the slave ships can only be narrated elusively.

Unlike a traditional novelistic development of teleological, "sequential and meaningful" narration, Toni Morrison's narrative technique stresses the fact that black Americans, particularly freed slaves, did not experience time or history as an ordered and linear sequence of events. Morrison's narrative techniques are echoed in the novel by Denver, who weaves stories, constructing "out of the string she had heard all her life a net to hold Beloved" (76). Both Morrison and Denver weave a porous net with their storytelling, leaving gaps to allow some of the mysterious and unspeakable past to escape narration, to flow on through. Morrison both recognizes the important healing powers of narration, yet understands the limits of representation and of the storytelling process. Hutcheon finds this dual response to narration to be postmodern:

A plot, be it seen as a narrative structure . . . is always a totalizing representation that integrates multiple and scattered events into one unified story. But the simultaneous desire for and suspicion of such representations are both part of the postmodern contradictory response to employment.

(Politics 68)

This indeterminacy and double movement contribute to the richness of Morrison's text, enabling it to engender a plethora of critical interpretations, often at odds with one another.

As I have suggested, Linda Hutcheon clearly finds Morrison to be a postmodernist writer with a dialectic quality and a deconstructive political project—to write new "ex-centric" definitions of history from the margins. Working with a more generalized concept of postmodernism than does Hutcheon, Anthony Hilfer presents an important warning to critics who view Toni Morrison's work as a response to, or derivative of, academic postmodernism: "Morrison derives her indeterminacies not from French postmodernism nor from the new, oddly dematerialized forms of Marxism but from the center of African American culture . . . jazz" (93). In an interview with Nellie McKay, Morrison remarked: "Classical music satisfies and closes. Black music does not do that. Jazz always keeps you on the edge. There is no final chord. And it agitates you . . . I want my books to be like that" (McKay 429). Although it is significant that Morrison finds the sources of her indeterminacies in jazz, and not theories of the postmodern developed by white academics, their similarities arise out of shared conditions of urbanity and the chaos of modern life. Toni Morrison herself acknowledges this similarity: "Black women had to deal with 'post-modern' problems in the nineteenth century and earlier . . . certain kinds of dissolution, the loss of and the need to reconstruct certain kinds of stability" ("Living Memory" 11).

Although Morrison seems to stand against postmodernism and poststructuralism by claiming to write an "authentic" African American history of slavery that aims to reconstruct a stable sense of self for her characters, Morrison's narrative strategies nonetheless share some affinities with postmodern fiction, as described by Linda Hutcheon. But I do not mean to suggest that Morrison's work can be grouped comfortably alongside postmodern writers such as Milan Kundera or Thomas Pynchon. Hutcheon herself is guilty of marginalizing African American writers in her books; after extended readings of texts by white men, she merely refers to Morrison and Ishmael Reed as participants in the same post-modern historiography. Elliott Butler-Evans runs into this problem when he simply attempts to graft Jameson's criteria for postmodern fiction onto Morrison's novel Tar Baby, which he claims exhibits "pastiche and collage as structuring devices; the emergence of a schizophrenic textual structure; a displacement of history by 'historicism"' (152). Although Morrison's work contains strong doses of irony, Beloved's overwhelmingly serious tone and overt political project make it difficult to describe as parody or playful pastiche. Nothing less than the reconstruction of the erased history of the African American people motivates Morrison, rather than playful exercises in form, however politically subversive these aesthetic innovations may be. In my view, race signifies more than Butler-Evans and Hutcheon acknowledge. Hutcheon locates the politics of postmodernism in its aesthetics but ignores agency and the subversive political content that Morrison and other African American novelists aim for. I argue that the politics of Toni Morrison's texts can be found both in her aesthetic strategies and in the kind of historical consciousness that her characters enact as they struggle with their own temporality.

The critical commentary about Morrison's decision to develop a circular, nonlinear narrative technique offers a useful case study of the competing trends in the critical reception of Beloved. Many critics cite the following passage, in which Sethe's concept of time becomes clear as she evades Paul D's questions about the newspaper clipping:

Sethe knew that the circle she was making around the room, him, the subject, would remain one. That she could never close in, pin it down for anybody who had to ask. . . .Because the truth was simple, not a long-drawn-out record of flowered shifts, tree cages, selfishness, ankle ropes and wells.

Deconstructionist critics read this passage as a rejection of "long-drawn-out" linear and teleological historical narratives, in favor of a circular experience of time without a center. For example, Catherine Rainwater argues that Morrison's circular patterns are postmodern because they are never completed (Sethe "could never close in") and thus deny traditional narrative closure (101). Barbara Hill Rigney has found Morrison's circular narrative to be an example of Julia Kristeva's concept of "woman's time" as circular (nonphallic) and cyclical, reflecting the natural cycles of reproduction and the seasons (76). In answer to poststructuralist critics, Barbara Christian notes that in African cosmology, time is nonlinear, and thus Morrison's and Sethe's circling finds root in an ancestral worldview rather than in the work of Derrida (13). Feminist and poststructuralist readings that celebrate the nonlinear narrative forget that circles are also laden with ominous symbolism in an African American context, since they recall the circles of iron (and nooses) surrounding the necks of slaves, particularly the "neck jewelry" that Paul D was forced to wear. Thus, while all of these critics agree that Toni Morrison uses a circular narrative technique to subvert a linear reading of time and history, each accounts for her motives differently.

Placing questions of authorial intent aside, I believe that the text itself portrays circularity in both a positive and a negative light, as both an accurate reflection of the mind's "rememory" process and as a treadmill from which one must escape in order to move forward in time. Rejecting a linear time-consciousness, Sethe expresses her belief that time is spatial and operates like a wheel, and that past events are waiting to recur:

I was talking about time. It's so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. . . . Places, places are still there. . . . The picture is still there and what's more, if you go there—you who never was there—if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again.

The belief that "nothing ever dies" haunts Sethe as she tries desperately to protect Denver from reliving the events of her past. Sethe attempts to subvert this recurring cycle by creating a kind of "timeless present" in her home, where she hopes the past can no longer hurt Denver or Beloved. Sethe wants to "hurry time along and get to the no-time waiting for her" at 124, where her infanticide has been erased by the miraculous return of Beloved. Morrison accompanies Sethe's discovery of Beloved's true identity with a textual shift from the past tense (which dominates the novel before this point) to the present tense: "this day they are outside." Although Sethe hopes that her timeless world has put a stop to the cycle in which the past can return to haunt, 124's no-time represents a different kind of vicious circle—with the past, present, and future collapsed into one.

Both Sethe's concepts of a timeless present and the spatial time from which she wants to escape are echoed in Fredric Jameson's discussion of postmodernism. In an interview, Jameson summed up the thesis of his book Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism with the remark that "time has become a perpetual present and thus spatial" in postmodern culture (Stephanson 46). Retaining a Marxist desire for teleology and linearity, Jameson regrets the postmodern flattening of time, arguing that it deprives people of a "true" sense of history, of cause and effect, of "deep phenomenological experience" (Postmodernism134). He is nostalgic for "the great high modernist thematic of time and temporality, the elegiac mysteries of duree and memory [found in the works of Faulkner] . . . we now inhabit the synchronic rather than the diachronic" (Postmodernism 16). Morrison is more willing than Jameson to entertain the possibility of spatial time as an authentic experience rather than a loss or a mere "simulacrum." In her essay "The Site of Memory," she uses the metaphor of the archeological site to refer to memories of the past, as if they were a place that one could visit to mine for bits of history. As Mobley has argued, Beloved's narrative, lacking punctuation, suggests the "seamlessness of time, [and] the inextricability of the past and present, of ancestors and their progeny" (196). The concept of history in Beloved is not flattened but rather takes on extra volume to contain the cultural memories of ancestors, to which we can have access only through imagination.

Rather than exhibiting "historical depthlessness," Morrison's works may be seen as modern-ist (in Jameson's terms) because they respect the importance of deep memory and explore the relationship between the past and the present. On the other hand, her novels also exhibit a postmodern skepticism of teleological narratives and of the modernist myth of forward progress espoused by Marxists. Because she rejects a modernist diachronic view of history, Morrison explores the idea of a more synchronic, spatial experience of time. Her spatial sense of time can be read not only as a postmodern form of temporality, but it could also be viewed as an expression of the temporal experiences of African Americans, who are often denied a future and are therefore haunted by or retreat to the past. Sethe is clearly frustrated and "boxed in" by time; she cannot construct an ordered timeline of her life, so she attempts her experiment of living only in the present, as do many hopeless inner-city youth.

Although Morrison embraces a more synchronic concept of time than does Jameson, she concurs with him in rejecting the timeless world of 124 Bluestone, a timelessness that both identify—wrongly, I think—with postmodernism. While she suggests that time need not be perceived as linear, it nevertheless must be respected and dealt with. From his experience on the chain gang, Paul D learned that living only in the present moment is like not living at all, because life means "caring and looking forward, remembering and looking back." Although Sethe believes she has created an idyllic no-time at 124, Stamp Paid finds the house to be encircled by strange "voices that ringed 124 like a noose". The timeless circle must be broken or Sethe and Denver will be strangled, their future erased. I disagree with Mobley, who reads the last dialogue in which the voices of the three women merge as the final word and concluding message of the text, a message that "the past, present, and future are all one and the same" (Mobley 196). This reading of time as wholly synchronic ignores the text's attempt to preserve some temporal boundaries (however permeable) and to prevent the swirling eddy around 124 from turning into a black hole. Morrison's theoretical conception of temporality is best expressed through the figure of the wheel—of a circle rolling forward (or occasionally backward) through time, while continually kicking up the dust of the past. Although wheels are circular, I do not believe that Morrison pursues a sense of wholeness that her circular narrative strategy might suggest, because the circles are never completed, the center never reached, and the "rememory" process always unfinished. The figure of the wheel can instead be translated into a progressive temporal strategy for a postmodern society—a strategy of learning from the past but not being paralyzed by its lessons, of forging a loose and flexible synthesis out of the fragments of history, of reaping the benefits of both a diachronic and a synchronic sense of time.

The lessons about history and temporality offered by Toni Morrison in her masterwork should and must be critically discussed in relationship to academic discourses about postmodernism. Postmodern theories need to be modified to accommodate texts like Beloved with an overt political agenda of social protest, and to recognize these fictions as contributions to a theoretical discourse of contemporary life. As bell hooks argues in her essay "Postmodern Blackness," there is a crucial need for black-topic texts to be read in light of poststructuralist and postmodernist theory and its indeterminacies, while maintaining attention to the texts' specific messages for black readers. Like hooks, I believe that such a culturally powerful discourse as postmodernism should not be left in the hands of the elite few. Although many postmodern theorists emphasize "difference," the literary category is often used by critics to refer to a sealed set of texts, usually produced by white men. I would like to see post-modernism continue to be a site of contestation for meaning, cultural power, and political change. Beloved poses a challenge to neat theories because it balances on the cusp between two worldviews, subverting the dichotomy between African American social protest (based on a modernist ideology) and a postmodernist questioning of metanarratives about history and time. It is precisely the ambivalences of this novel that make it "beloved" by so many critical groups, but these indeterminacies themselves seem to resist the many and varied critics who have tried to claim Morrison for their very own. I believe that it is more important to explore what her representations have to offer to all of us, simultaneously.

Source: Kimberly Chabot Davis, "'Postmodern Blackness': Toni Morrison's Beloved and the End of History," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 44, No. 2, Summer 1998, pp. 242-60.

Larry McCaffery

In the following introduction excerpt, McCaffery discusses Postmodernism's precursors and origins.


As I've already suggested, there is no sharp demarcation line separating modernism and post-modernism, and the alleged differences between the two become especially difficult to pinpoint if one is examining the development of fiction in a global context and not just focusing on what has been occurring in the United States. (The impulses behind the experimentalism of, say, Latin American or Eastern European fiction are clearly different from those that motivated U.S. authors in the 1960s.) In the United States what occurred in the postmodern outburst of the 1960s seemed very radical in part because fiction in the United States during the previous 30 years had seemed, for the most part, conservative aesthetically. This is not to say that experimenting wasn't taking place in the United States at all during this period—some of the great innovators of the previous generation continued to explore new forms (Faulkner, Stein, Fitzgerald), and a few newcomers with an experimental bent appeared (Djuna Barnes, Kenneth Patchen, Nathaniel West, John Hawkes, Jack Kerouac); but for the most part, U.S. authors during this period were content to deal with the key issues of their day—the Depression, World


War II, existential angst—in relatively straightforward forms. The reasons behind this formal conservatism are certainly complex, but part of its hold on writers has to do with the way the times affected many writers, especially the sense that with such big issues to be examined authors couldn't afford the luxury of innovative strategies. At any rate, for whatever reasons in the United States from the period of 1930 until 1960 we do not find the emergence of a major innovator—someone equivalent to Beckett or Borges or Alain Robbe-Grillet or Louis Ferdinand Céline—except in the person of perhaps post-modern fiction's most important precursor, Vladimir Nabokov, who labored in obscurity in this country for 25 years until the scandal of Lolita made him suddenly very visible indeed (though for all the wrong reasons). As a result, by the late 1950s the United States was just as ripe for an aesthetic revolution as it was for the cultural revolution that was soon to follow. The two are, of course, intimately related.

Much of the groundwork for the so-called postmodern aesthetic revolution had already been established earlier in this century in such areas as the theoretical work being done in philosophy and science; the innovations made in painting (the rejection of mimesis and fixed point perspective, the emphasis on collage, self-exploration, abstract expressionism, and so on); in theater in the works of Pirandello, Brecht, Beckett, Genet, even Thornton Wilder; the increasing prominence of photography, the cinema, and eventually television, which coopted certain alternatives for writers while opening up other areas of emphasis. And if one looks carefully enough, there were many modernist literary figures who had called for a complete overhaul of the notion of representation in fiction. It is a commonplace to note that Tristram Shandy is a thoroughly postmodern work in every respect but the period in which it is written, and there are dozens of other examples of authors who explored many of the same avenues of experimentalism that postmodern writers were to take: for instance, the surreal, mechanically produced constructions of Raymond Roussel; the work of Alfred Jarry, with its black humor, its obscenity, its confounding of fact, fiction, and autobiography, its general sense of play and formal outrageousness; André Gide's The Counterfeiters, with its self-reflexiveness and self-commentary; Franz Kafka's matter-of-fact surrealistic presentation of the self and its relationship to society (significantly, Kafka's impact on American writing was not strong until the 1950s); William Faulkner, with his multiple narrators and competing truths, and whose own voice is so insistently foregrounded throughout his fiction as to obliterate any real sense that he is transcribing anything but his own consciousness; and, looming over the entire literary landscape, is the figure of James Joyce, the Dead Father of postmodern fiction, who must be dealt with, slain, the pieces of his genius ritually eaten and digested.

The wider social and political forces that galvanized postmodern writers and provided a sense of urgency and focus to their development were similar, in some ways, to those that provided such a great impetus to artistic innovation during the 1920s. In both Cases, an international tragedy—World War I for artists in the 1920s, and Vietnam (along with a host of more diffused insanities, like the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the ongoing destruction of the environment) for postmodern American writers—created the sense that fundamental reconsiderations had to be made about the systems that govern our lives. Such systems included the political, social, and other ideological forms that had helped lead us to the position we were in, and also the artistic forms through which we could express a sense of ourselves and our relationship to the world around us. Thus, World War I was a global disaster of such unprecedented proportions, and had been produced by the very features of society that were supposed to ennoble and "civilize" us (reason, technology), that artists were forced to rethink the basic rationalistic, humanistic principles that had formed the basis of Western art since the Renaissance. One predictable response to the view that reality had become a fragmented, chaotic "Wasteland" was to turn to art as a kind of last retreat, a last source of reason, stability, and harmony. (One thinks of the magnificently ordered private systems of Joyce, Yeats, Pound, Proust, and Hemingway.) Another tactic was to develop art that turned its back on the barbarism and entropy of reality and explored instead the more abstract, rarified realm of art itself; here was a place where poets could examine language without regard to referents, where painters could explore the implications of lines, shapes, textures, and colors freed from outer correspondences. A third possibility was the development of artistic strategies that affirmed rather than denied or ignored the disorder and irrationalism around it, that joined forces with the primitive, illogical drives that Freud claimed lay within us all—the strategy of the dadaists and surrealists in painting and poetry, and of a few fiction writers as well (AnaïsNin,Céline, Robert Desnos, Michel Leiris). Interestingly enough, all three tendencies would be evident in postmodern fiction 40 years later: the huge, intricately structured work (Pynchon, William Gaddis, Barth, Don DeLillo, Coover, Joseph McElroy, Alexander Theroux); the work that concerns only itself, its own mechanisms, the pure relationship of symbol and word (in William H. Gass, Richard Kostelanetz, Robert Pinget, Coover, Steve Katz, Barthelme); and the fractured, delirious text whose process mirrored the entropy and fragmentation outside (William S. Burroughs, Barthelme, Raymond Federman, Kathy Acker). The difference between the two periods, then, is finally one of degree—the degree to which contemporary writers have turned to these strategies, the degree to which they have moved away from realistic norms (even in elaborately ordered works), especially in the degree to which artifice, playfulness, and self-consciousness—features not so common to the innovative fictions of the 1920s—have been consistently incorporated into the fabric of postmodern fiction.

It probably seems initially peculiar that postmodernism emerged in the 1960s rather than in the years that immediately followed World War II. It may be that the war, with its Hitlers and Mussolinis, its Hiroshimas and Normandy Beaches and Dresdens, its other unthinkable horrors (the concentration camps, collective suicides, and so on), was too dreadful or overwhelming to be directly confronted. In any case, the great innovators of the 1940s and 1950s tended to be, at least at first glance, nonsocially conscious writers. Beckett, Borges, and Nabokov—the three authors from this period who were to have the most direct impact on post-modern writing—all appeared to turn their backs on the world outside in favor of a movement inward, toward the world of language, dream, and memory, to examine the nature of subjective experience, of the way words beguile, mislead, and shape our perception, of the way imagination builds its own realm out of symbols. I emphasize the word "appear" in these three cases because all three of these authors were, in fact, very much political writers in a very basic sense, for each was profoundly aware of the importance that language plays in shaping the world around us, the way power-structures use this world-building capacity of words, the way that reality and commonsense are disguised versions of ideologies that are foisted on individuals by institutions that profit from the popular acceptance of these illusions. From this perspective, the postmodern emphasis on subjectivity, language, and fiction-making is hardly as irrelevant, self-indulgent, and narcissistic as many unsympathetic critics have charged. Indeed, many of the most important postmodern works, for all their experimentalism, metafictional impulses, self-reflexiveness, playfulness, and game-playing, have much more to say about history, social issues, and politics than is generally realized.

Another writer very aware of the need to examine the role of language within larger contexts was George Orwell, whose 1984 remains the most famous fictional treatment of political language manipulation. 1984, which grew out of science fiction's dystopian tradition and which was specifically influenced by Yevgeny Zamiatin's remarkable experimental novel, We (a "post-modern" novel published in 1920), points to another important tendency in postmodern fiction: the increasing attention being paid by serious, highly sophisticated authors to paraliterary forms such as science fiction and detective fiction—forms that proved attractive to the post-modern spirit partly because mimesis was never their guiding concern to begin with. Such genres were thus free to generate forms and conventions that were entirely different from those of traditional fiction, and that proved to be surprisingly rich and suggestive. Developments in these para-literary forms need to be examined more thoroughly by scholars—there are fertile areas of investigation into, for example, the use of pornographical conventions by Acker, Coover, Samuel Delany, and Clarence Major (not to mention Nabokov); or the appropriation of detective novel forms by many postmodern writers (Nabokov, Stanislaw Lem, Michel Butor, Robbe Grillet, William Hjortsberg, McElroy). But the most significant evolution of a paraliterary form has been that of science fiction. Long respected in Europe and never as clearly separated from literature there as it has been in the United States (cf. the European tradition of H.G. Wells, Zamiatin, Karel Čapek, Olaf Stapledon, Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Arthur C. Clark, J.G. Ballard), SF emerged in the United States from its self-imposed "ghetto status" into a major field of creative activity during the 1960s. Although many literary critics remain suspicious of and condescending toward SF, it is obvious today that a number of the most significant postmodern innovators have been SF writers. This is certainly the case with Philip K. Dick, a writer misunderstood both inside and outside his field. Because his publishers forced him onto a treadmill of rapid-fire production, Dick's novels are always plagued by a certain amount of sloppiness, lack of verbal grace, and two-dimensional character portrayals. Nevertheless, Dick had a brilliant fictional imagination capable of inventing plots of considerable intricacy and metaphorical suggestiveness. In his best works—The Man in the High Castle, Martian Time-Slip, Ubik, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—he devised highly original central plot structures that deal with many of the same issues common to postmodernism: metaphysical ambiguity, the oppressive nature of political systems, entropy, the mechanization of modern life.

Similarly, other major SF figures—including Ursula LeGuin, Delany, Gene Wolfe, John Varley, Lem, Roger Zelazny—have been creating complex, ingenious fictional forms that tell us a great deal about the fantastic world around us but that do so with structures whose conventions and language differ fundamentally from that of "mundane fiction" (as Delany refers to it). Indeed, one indication of the richness and diversity of this field can be seen in the number of "mainstream" authors who have turned to SF—Doris Lessing, Anthony Burgess, Italo Calvino, Marge Piercy, Thomas Berger, Nabokov, Raymond Federman, and dozens of others.

There were, of course, other developments occurring before 1960 that would influence the direction of postmodernism. One of the most important of these has been the rapid emergence of the cinema and television as major artistic forms. It is probably no accident that postmodern experimentalists were the first generation of writers who grew up immersed in television, or that many of these writers were as saturated with the cinema as their forefathers had been with literature. The specific influences of television and the movies on postmodern fiction are diffuse, generalized, difficult to pinpoint, but obviously an awareness of the process through which a movie is presented—its rapid cutting, its use of montage and juxtaposition, its reliance on closeups, tracking shots, and other technical devices—is likely to create some deeply rooted effects on writers when they sit down at their collective typewriters. (The process is also symbiotic: Eisenstein's theory of montage had a profound effect on an entire generation of writers, but so did Flaubert's use of montage in the famous "country-fair" scene in Madame Bovary affect filmmakers.) And as important as movies and television were in suggesting to writers what could be put in to their works was the example they supplied for what could be left out profitably. Not only did writers quickly realize that television and the cinema could deal with certain narrative forms more effectively than fiction (photography had similarly made certain forms of painting instantly obsolete), but a number of cinematic shorthand devices proved useful in fiction as well. Audiences trained in the conventions of the nineteenth-century novel may have required certain connections, certain details and transitions, but cinematic directors quickly discovered that many of these could be eliminated once the audience became acquainted with a different set of conventions. (Consider a typical cinematic juxtaposition of a man walking up a street and a shot of him sitting in the interior of a house—there's no need to supply the sights he saw on his walk, a view of the house approaching, the pause while knocking on the door or inserting the key, and so on.) Similarly, the pacing of television—and of television commercials, whose significance is also substantial in this regard—is directly apparent in many postmodern works (one thinks of Slaughterhouse-Five, Ragtime, of Coover's and Barthelme's short fiction, of Manuel Puig and Jonathan Baumbach). The more specific influences of individual directors cannot be discounted: Jean-Luc Godard probably had as much impact on the imaginations of writers during the 1960s as any literary figure; and in various ways, movies like 8, Blow Up, Belle de Jour, Repulsion, 2001, Dr. Strangelove, and a host of other innovative films, have deeply imprinted themselves in the body of postmodern fiction.


The early 1960s saw the publication of a number of fictional works that indicated that American fiction was heading in some very different directions than it had been during the preceding 25 years. Signaling this change in aesthetic sensibility was the appearance within a relatively short period of time (1960-1965) of a number of major works that decisively broke with the traditions of conventional realism. These key works included John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) and Giles Goat-Boy (1966), Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961), Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire (1962), Thomas Pynchon's V. (1963), Donald Barthelme's Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964), and Robert Coover's The Origin of the Brunists (1965). These works were all produced by young, obviously ambitious writers (Nabokov is an exception, in terms of age). This fiction owed its unusual effects to a wide variety of sources, such as the absurdist theater (which had been flourishing in New York's Off-Broadway scene during the late 1950s), jazz and rock and roll, pop art, and other developments in the avant-garde art scene, the growing appreciation of Kafka and other experimenters (many of whom were first being translated during this period: Céline, Robbe-Grillet, and the other French New Novelists, Jean Genet, Borges, Günter Grass), the energy and hot-wired delirium of the Beats. The result was a peculiar blend of dark humor, literary parody, surrealism, byzantine plots full of improbable coincidences and outrageous action, all presented in a dazzling variety of excessive styles that constantly called attention to themselves. Postmodern fiction had arrived.

What was to characterize the direction of postmodern fiction during the rest of the decade—the push to test new forms of expression, to examine conventions and solutions critically and seek new answers, to rethink so-called natural methods of organizing perception, expose their ideological origins, and pose new systems of organization—was hardly born in an ivory-towered, academic vacuum. The art of the 1960s, including the postmodern fiction, reflected the basic ways in which the ideologies on which the U.S. order had traditionally relied, together with the cultural values by which it rules, were in deep turmoil. Fiction reflected the sense, shared by many of our most thoughtful and articulate citizens, that we had been led (and misled) into the age of nuclear nightmare, into Vietnam, into ecological apocalypse, into political oppression, and into an insane and immoral sense of values that devalued human beings by glorifying abstractions and the inanimate—all this in the name of certain labels and covert ideologies that badly needed overhauling. A natural extension of this feeling was the desire to tear down the ruling ideologies (political, sexual, moral, social, aesthetic, all of which proved to be remarkably integrated) and reveal them for what they were: arbitrary structures imposed as a result of various complex, historical, and economic forces, instated into societies as natural and commonsensical, all of which served, in one way or another, to reinforce the status quo and insure the continued world view (and hence the continued power) of those who established these ideologies. Thus, the aggressive, radicalized poetics of postmodernism was an extension of a larger sense of dissatisfaction and frustration. "Don't trust anyone over 30" was an expression commonly heard among young people in the 1960s who were fed up with the content and structure of their lives. A similar distrust of one's "elders" was equally apparent in postmodern fiction writers.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, a new generation of writers had firmly established itself. During this period experimental fictions appeared by authors who were eventually characterized by critics as being postmodern in outlook: William Gass' In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, Jerzy Kosinski's Steps, Robert Coover's Universal Baseball Association and Pricksongs and Descants, John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, Peter Handke's The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Steve Katz's The Exagggerations of Peter Prince, Donald Barthelme's City Life, Snow White, and Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America, Tom Robbins' Another Roadside Attraction, Raymond Federman's Double or Nothing, Rudolf Wurlitzer's Nog, Nabokov's Ada, and Joseph McElroy's ASmuggler's Bible. The point is not that these authors approached the issue of fictional innovation in a fundamentally unified fashion. Rather, quite the opposite was true: writers were busy exploring a host of innovative strategies, many of them very different in intent and effect. (One can hardly imagine, for example, two works so opposed in aesthetic orientation as, say, Federman's Double or Nothing and Gass' "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.") What these experimentations did share, however, was a general sense that fiction needed to acknowledge its own artificial, constructed nature, to focus the reader's attention on how the work was being articulated rather than merely on what was happening. Distrustful of all claims to truth and hypersensitive to the view that reality and objectivity were not givens but social or linguistic constructs, postmodern writers tended to lay bare the artifice of their works, to comment on the processes involved, to refuse to create the realist illusion that the work mimics operations outside itself. In the ideology of realism or representation, it was implied that words were linked to thoughts or objects in essentially direct, incontrovertible ways. On the other hand, postmodern authors—operating in an aesthetic environment that has grown out of Saussaurian linguistics, Wittgenstein's notion of meaning-as-usage, structuralism, and deconstructive views of language—tend to manipulate words as changeable entities determined by the rules of the particular sign-system (the fiction at hand). Hardly a translucent window on to an object (the world, reality) or a mind, the language in many postmodern texts becomes "thickened," played with and shown off, and frequently becomes just another element to be manipulated by a self-conscious author.

Other conventions of the realist narrative were challenged. The notion of the unified subject living in a world of stable essences (one of the cornerstones of traditional fiction) was one such notion that was frequently mocked by postmodern authors, either by so obsessively emphasizing the schizophrenic, subjective nature of experience as to obliterate the distinction between subject and reality (as in Philip Dick or Jonathan Baum-bach or Federman) or by creating characters with no definable personality or who changed from scene to scene (as with Ronald Sukenick's figures who change "like a cloud," or Ron Silliman's prose experiments in which narrator and setting disappear into the process of language selection). The commonsensical distinction between fact and fiction, author and text, also became increasingly difficult to make. "Real" authors began making increasingly common excursions into their fictional worlds (as Vonnegut did in Breakfast of Champions and Fowles did in The French Lieutenant's Woman, or as Sukenick and Federman and Katz did in nearly all their works); fragments of real events, real reportage, and news often became incorporated into works, collage-fashion, making it impossible to untangle what was being made up from what had really happened. (Here one thinks of Barthelme, Burroughs, Vonnegut, Harold Jaffe, Coover, and William Kennedy.) This tendency to break down the seam between the real and the invented, or to deny the relevance of this distinction altogether, was also evident in the writing of the New Journalists, like Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Hunter Thompson. These authors, along with other writers who blurred the fact/fiction dichotomy (Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Maxine Hong Kingston in The Woman Warrior and China Men, Peter Handke in ASorrow BeyondDreams,V. S. Nai-paul in In a Free State, and so on), not only employed various conventions borrowed from fiction to heighten a sense of drama and plot development, but they also thrust their own subjective responses into the forefront of their works rather than making claims that their texts were objective. Likewise, the distinction between poetry and prose was also often dissolved, not just by fiction writers who emphasized poetic qualities in their prose (Gass, Barry Hannah, Stanley Elkin, Nabokov, Hawkes), but also by poets who began to explore longer forms of prose. (See Ron Silliman's discussion of this important phenomenon in this volume.) Even the familiar "look" of books—the conventions of typography, pagination, and other visual elements that actually govern the process of reading itself—was freely tampered with, in works of such visual ingenuity as Federman's Double or Nothing,Katz's The Exagggerations of Peter Prince, Gass' Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, Julio Cortázar's Ultimo Rundo, Barthelme's City Life,or Butor's Mobile. In short, virtually all of the elements that make the reading experience what it is were being reexamined by postmodern experimenters during the 1960s. Not surprisingly, many of the experiments proved to be dead ends or were rapidly exhausted and then discarded. This seems to be the case with the New Novel experiments and with a lot of the typographical experimentation, for example. But even these innovations were useful in that they suggested avenues that writers need no longer explore.


As should be evident from the focus of the two critical articles dealing with postmodern criticism and from the critics I selected to be included in the individual author entry section, I have tried to emphasize critical thought that shares features of postmodern thought rather than focusing on criticism that deals with postmodern fiction. Indeed, it seems evident to me that many of the same principles and tendencies that were shaping the direction of postmodern fiction are central to the development of the most important critical schools of the past 25 years: structuralism, deconstruction, and Marxist-oriented criticism. (For a good overview of this interaction, see Charles Caramello's Silverless Mirrors: Book, Self & Postmodern American Fiction.) For example, the Marxist and structuralist emphasis on the constructedness of human meaning is similar to postmodern fiction's sense that reality is not given and that our way of perceiving it is hardly natural or self-evident. Terry Eagleton's fine summary of the chief tenets of structuralism in his survey of critical thought, Literary Theory helps clarify the interrelationship between structuralism and postmodern aesthetics very clearly. Structuralism, he notes, emphasizes that:

Meaning was neither a private experience nor a divinely ordained occurrence: it was the product of certain shared systems of signification. The confident bourgeoisie belief that the isolated individual subject was the fount and origin of all meaning took a sharp knock: language predated the individual, and was much less his or her product than he or she was the product of it. Meaning was not "natural," a question of just looking and seeing, or something eternally settled; the way you interpreted your world was a function of the languages you had at your disposal, and there was evidently nothing immutable about these. Meaning was not something which all men and women everywhere intuitively shared, and then articulated in their various tongues and scripts; what meaning you were able to articulate depended on what script or speech you shared in the first place. There were the seeds here of a social and historical theory of meaning, whose implications were to run deep within contemporary thought. It was impossible any longer to see reality simply as something "out there," a fixed order of things which language merely reflected.

For structuralism, then, reality and our experience of reality need not necessarily be continuous—a view that is intimately connected with postmodern fiction's refusal to rely on fixed notions of reality, its emphasis on reproducing the human being's imaginative (subjective, fictional) responses to what is "out there" rather than trying to convince the readers that they are experiencing a transcription of reality unfiltered by a mediating process. Roland Barthes' early ventures into structuralist criticism produced a notion that also bears some striking relevance for what would develop in fiction during the 1960s. For example, Barthes' analysis of the healthy sign is directly applicable to what postmodern authors suggest about healthy fiction: in both cases the artifact is healthiest which draws attention to itself and to its own arbitrariness—one that makes no effort to pass itself off as natural or inevitable but that, in the very act of conveying a meaning, communicates something of its own relative, artificial status as well. Thus, very much like postmodern fiction writers, Barthes rightly perceives that one of the functions of ideologies and power-structures of all sorts is always to convert culture into nature—to make it appear that conventions, signs, and social realities are natural, innocent, common-sensical. The obvious literary analogy to this natural attitude can be found in realist fiction, which implies that it possesses the means (a natural language) to represent something else with little or no interference with what it mediates. Such a realist sign is for Barthes—and for the postmodern authors of the 1960s—essentially unhealthy, foritproceedsbydenyingitsown status as asign in order to create the illusion that we are perceiving reality without its intervention.

Deconstruction and poststructuralism, as developed by Derrida, Paul de Man, Barthes, and others, was essentially an attempt to topple the logic by which a particular system of thought (and behind that, a whole system of political structures and social institutions) maintains its force. By demonstrating that all meaning and knowledge could be exposed as resting on a naively representational theory of language, poststructuralism provided still another justification for postmodernism's emphasis on the free play of language, of the text-as-generating-meaning. The later Barthes (as in The Pleasure of the Text, 1973) suggested that only in writing (or in reading-as-writing) could the individual be freed momentarily from the tyranny of structural meaning, from ideology, from theory. As Eagleton notes, one product of this emphasis on the unnaturalness of signs was admittedly the tendency by some poststructuralists (and some fiction writers) to flee from history, to take refuge in the erotic play of writing/reading, and conveniently to evade reality and all political questions completely:

If meaning, the signified, was a passing product of words or signifiers, always shifting and unstable, part-present and part-absent, how could there be any determinate truth or meaning at all? If reality was constructed by our discourse rather than reflected by it, how could we ever know reality itself, rather than merely knowing our own discourse? Was all talk just talk about talk? Did it make sense to claim that one interpretation of reality, history or the literary text was "better" than another?

Such questions cut to the heart of the debate that was to rage during the mid-to late 1970s about the moral responsibility of fiction—a debate most famously summarized in the series of public discussions between the late John Gardner, whose study On Moral Fiction sparked considerable public interest in this issue, and William Gass, whose eloquent defense of fiction's irrelevancy to conditions outside the page (in Fiction and the Figures of Life) became a seminal aspect of postmodern aesthetics. (The Gass-Gardner "Debate" in Anything Can Happen)The outline of this debate centered on Gardner's claim, echoed by a number of other critics (perhaps most effectively in Gerald Graff's Literature Against Itself), that postmodern experimentalism, with its willful artifice and subjectivity, its metafictional impulses and emphasis on the play of language, is fundamentally trivial, vain, self-absorbed, and narcissistic. Gass, on the other hand, took essentially the familiar art-for-art's-sake position but developed his views with considerable rigor, supporting them with theories of language and aesthetics formulated by Wittgenstein and Max Black (both of whom Gass had studied under at Cornell), Paul Valéry, and Gertrude Stein. Words, said Gass, are the writer's chief concern, for the writer's final obligation is to build something (a world of language, with its own rules and systems of transformations), not to describe something. One senses in Gass a longing for a safe and human refuge in this world of language, a place controlled and purified, an escape from an ugly, petty reality in which history becomes a destructive monument to human greed, in which discourse has been degraded into instruments of commerce, politics, and bureaucracy. Paradoxically, then, although Gass's emphasis on fiction as an interaction of signifiers had a liberating effect on the formal concerns of post-modern authors, there was also a potentially troubling elitism about his position, with its emphasis on formal complexity and beauty, and its lack of self-irony and play. This tendency is also obvious (and troubling) when one examines the important Yale School of Critics (Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, de Man, and, with some reservations, Harold Bloom). These latter critics have argued, often brilliantly, that literary language—indeed, all forms of discourse—constantly undermines its own meaning. But in their tendency to view all elements of reality, including social reality, as merely further texts to be deconstructed as being undecidable, there emerges the sense that one has found a means to demolish all opinions without having to adopt any of one's own. Perhaps the key factor that needs to be emphasized in this regard is that, as Derrida and Barthes, among others, have demonstrated, there is no fundamental opposition between a fiction that emphasizes its unnaturalness, its arbitrariness, that reveals (and revels in) its différances, and one that deals with history, politics, and social issues in a significant fashion. Indeed, by opening up a radical awareness of the sign systems by which men and women live, and by offering exemplars of freely created fictions that oppose publicly accepted ones, postmodern fiction contains the potential to rejoin the history which some claim it has abandoned. Thus, although most critics have been largely blind to the political thrust of postmodern experimentalism, it will surely soon be recognized that the fiction of Barthelme, Coover, Sukenick, Federman, Gaddis, Barth, Pynchon, DeLillo, Silliman, and other innovators of postmodernism is very much centered on political questions: questions about how ideologies are formed, the process whereby conventions are developed, the need for individuals to exercise their own imaginative and linguistic powers lest these powers be coopted by others.


If a single work may be said to have provided a model for the direction of postmodern fiction of the 1970s and 1980s, it is probably García Maárquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, a work that admirably and brilliantly combines experimental impulses with a powerful sense of political and social reality. Indeed, Márquez's masterpiece perfectly embodies a tendency found in much of the best recent fiction—that is, it uses experimental strategies to discover new methods of reconnecting with the world outside the page, outside of language. In many ways, One Hundred Years of Solitude is clearly a non-realistic novel, with its magical, surreal landscape, its dense reflexive surface, its metafictional emphasis on the nature of language and how reality is storified from one generation to the next, its labyrinthine literary references, and other features. Yet for all its experimentalism, One Hundred Years of Solitude also is a highly readable, coherent story, peopled with dozens of memorable characters; and it also urgently speaks to us about political, historical, and psychological realities that are central to our experience. It thus becomes an emblem of what postmodernism can be, being self-conscious about its literary heritage and about the limits of mimesis, developing its own organic form of experimentalism, yet managing to reconnect its readers with the world around them. When one examines some of the major works that have appeared since 1975—Barth's Letters, for example, or Gaddis' JR,or Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children,or William Kennedy's Ironweed—one can see a similar synthesis at work.

This synthesis between experimentalism and more traditional literary concerns is explainable on many levels. Partly it has to do with the predictable, dialectical process that seems to govern most revolutions (aesthetical and otherwise), with the radicalism of one era being soon questioned, reexamined, and then counterattacked by more conservative attitudes. If the public spirit of rebellion, distrust, and unrest was reflected in the disruptive fictional forms of the 1960s, so, too, has the reactionary, conservative political and social atmosphere of the late 1970s and early 1980s inevitably been manifested in the literature of this period. This is not to say that experimentalism has dried up completely, but certainly it is obvious that authors today are less interested in innovation per se than they were ten or fifteen years ago—especially innovation in the direction of reflexive, nonreferential works. And, of course, the source of this shift in sensibility lies beyond the political climate alone. For one thing, the experimental fervor that seemed to sustain post-modernism for several years has been subjected to repeated counterattacks by authors and critics (one thinks of Gardner, Carver, Gore Vidal, and Graff). More significantly, we find authors simply exploring new grounds, different methods of innovation, redefining notions like realism and artifice in much the same way that, for example, photo-realists did in painting. This is a familiar scenario: so-called artistic revolutions have a natural life span, and they are inevitably succeeded by a new artistic situation, with its own demands and needs, its own practitioners who do not share the enthusiasms of the previous group and who are anxious to define themselves as individuals in their own way. Thus, when we examine a number of the highly regarded writers who have emerged since 1975—authors like Ron Hansen, Ian McEwan, Frederick Barthelme, William Kennedy, Toni Morrison, Jayne Anne Phillips, Stephen Dixon, Raymond Carver, or Ann Beattie—we discover a very different aesthetic sensibility in their work than that which characterized earlier postmodern writers, a sensibility that seems interested in what I would term experimental realism. (Note that Professor Jerome Klinkowitz presents a different notion of this term in his article in this volume.) By experimental realism I mean fiction that is fundamentally realistic in its impulses but that develops innovative strategies in structure (the nonendings of Beattie, Carver, Barthelme, the absence of character and plot in Silliman), language (the poetic prose of Phillips or Maxine Hong Kingston or Marilynne Robinson, the collage-assemblage of Silliman), the use of unusual materials (as with the use of "found" materials in Beattie, the manipulations of legend and history in Hansen, Kennedy, Leslie Silko, and Kingston), and so on. Of course, some of the sense of the decline of experimentalism results from our greater familiarity with the innovative strategies that once seemed so peculiar and difficult. Because later fiction which uses these experimental strategies seems more familiar and hence less threatening, its subsequent appearance is less likely to be remarked on—it is, in fact, no longer considered to be experimental at all. To take an obvious example, it might not occur to most readers or critics to discuss John Irving's The World According to Garp as an experimental novel, although it obviously employs many of the same metafictional techniques—the book-within-a-book, the interweaving of fiction and reality, playful self-references to its author's previous works—that other, more radical texts were using back in the 1960s. This isn't to say that Irving's book isn't experimental or metafiction—it clearly is; it just may seem beside the point to label it as such.

Much the same point can be made about many of the best works of fiction that have appeared in the United States from 1975 to 1984. Books like Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato, Alexander Theroux's Darconville's Cat, John Barth's Sabbatical, Ann Beattie's Falling in Place, Kurt Vonnegut's Jailbird, ToniMorrison's Song of Solomon, William Kennedy's Albany trilogy, and John Calvin Batchelor's The Further Adventures of Halley's Comet (to give just a sampling) incorporated postmodern experimental strategies into their structures so smoothly that they have often been seen as being quite traditional in orientation. Naturally, more radical experimental works continue to be written, but with a few notable exceptions—most of the books published by the Fiction Collective, the remarkable prose experiments of Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, Barrett Watten, and Charles Bernstein, Joseph McElroy's Plus, Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew, Kathy Acker's "punk novels," Walter Abish's works—most of the important, vital fiction of the last decade were neither exclusively experimental in an obvious, flamboyant manner, nor representational in a traditional, realist sense. Again, this situation recapitulates what we see in the other arts, in which the advances and new directions adopted by artists of one period (say, the break with representation and fixed perspective in painting) are gradually assimilated by artists of succeeding generations until a new period of stagnation arises which subsequently produces a new revolution. Thus, like the operations that are endlessly forming and transforming the nature of reality itself (and the nature of our lives within this flux), the transformations of art will surely continue, heedless of the desires of critics for clear patterns, unassailable definitions, and useful labels.

Source: Larry McCaffery, "Introduction," in Postmodern Fiction: A Bio-Bibliographical Guide, edited by Larry McCaffery, Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. xiv-xxviii.


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.

Davis, Kimberly Chabot, "'Postmodern Blackness': Toni Morrison's Beloved and the End of History," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 44, No. 2, Summer 1998, p. 242.

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 by Richard Seaver, Pantheon Books, 1966.

Duyfhuizen, Bernard, and John M. Kraft, "Thomas (Ruggles) Pynchon, (Jr.)," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 173, American Novelists Since World War II: Fifth Series, edited by James R. Giles and Wanda H. Giles, Gale Research, 1996.

Eagleton, Terry, "Estrangement and Irony," in Salmagundi, No. 73, 1987, pp. 25-32.

Grentz, Stanley, A Primer on Postmodernism, Eerdmans, 1996, pp. 5-6, 146.

Havel, Vaclav, "The Need for Transcendence in the Post-modern World," July 4, 1994, (accessed May 25, 2008).

Howard, Maureen, "Fiction in Review," in Yale Review, Vol. 74, No. 2, January 1985, pp. xxi-xxxiii.

Jameson, Fredric, "The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," in Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press, 1991.

———, "Postmodernism and Consumer Society," in Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology, edited by Paula Geyh, Fred G. Leebron, and Andrew Levy, Norton, 1998, pp. 656-57.

Kandell, Jonathan, "Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74," in New York Times, October 10, 2004.

Klages, Mary, "Structuralism/Poststructuralism," at Lecture Notes, revised September 18, 2001, (accessed April 25, 2002).

Kristeva, Julia, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, Columbia University Press, 1980.

Kundera, Milan, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, translated by Michael Henry Heim, Harper and Row, 1984.

Larson, Susan, "Awaiting Toni Morrison," in the Times-Picayune, April 11, 2007.

Leffel, Jim, and Dennis McCallum, "Postmodernism and You: Religion," at the Crossroads Project, 1996, http:// (accessed May 25, 2008).

Lesser, Wendy, "The Character as Victim," in Hudson Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 3, Autumn 1984, pp. 468-82.

Levin, Harry, "What was Modernism?" in Refractions: Essays in Comparative Literature, Oxford University Press, 1966, p. 292.

McDonald, Henry, "The Narrative Act: Wittgenstein and Narratology," in Surfaces, Vol. 4, 1994, (accessed May 25, 2008).

McGowan, John, Postmodernism and Its Critics, Cornell University Press, 1991, p. 91.

Morrison, Toni, Beloved, New American Library, 1987.

Reed, Ishmael, Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970, University of Massachusetts Press, 1972.

Rosenau, Pauline, Postmodernism and Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions, Princeton University Press, 1992, p. 81.

Sarup, Madan, An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism, 2nd ed., University of Georgia Press, 1993, pp. 33, 164.

Smith, Dinitia, "Kurt Vonnegut, Novelist Who Caught the Imagination of His Age, Is Dead at 84," in the New York Times, April 12, 2007, p. 1.

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Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr., Cat's Cradle, Dell, 1963.

———, Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons: Opinions, Dell, 1974.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, On Certainty, translated by Danis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe, HarperCollins, 1972.


Geyh, Paula, Fred G. Leebron, and Andrew Levy, eds., Post-modern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology, Norton, 1997.

Postmodern American Fiction is a collection of some of the major works of literature and criticism from the postmodern era. These works are excerpted but they maintain their postmodern essence and are worthy representatives of the literature.

Grentz, Stanley J., Primer on Postmodernism, Eerdmans, 1996.

This short text explains in simple terms some of the major aspects of Postmodernism. It is easily accessible to the interested student of postmodern thought.

Hoover, Paul, ed., Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, Norton, 1994.

The selections in Postmodern American Poetry are arranged in chronological order by the birth date of the author. There is a section of writings by many of the authors in which they explain their philosophy of writing poetry and their poetics.

Natoli, Joseph, and Linda Hutcheon, eds., Postmodern Reader, SUNY Press, 1993.

This is a collection of critical writings, some excerpted, by the major authors and critics in the postmodern movement. These are the original works and they do not have guides or explanations accompanying.

Schmidt, Kerstin, The Theater of Transformation: Post-modernism in American Drama, Rodopi, 2005.

Schmidt examines issues of race, gender, ethnicity, class, and the media in the context of dramatic texts and their performances, focusing on works by playwrights ranging from Jean-Claude van Itallie to Suzan-Lori Parks.


views updated May 29 2018






Ever since its ideas first took hold in the 1980s, postmodern theory has had a significant influence on the social sciences. At the time, social theory imported certain theoretical concepts from literary criticism, including deconstruction and other discourse-based theories of textual interpretation. It is best, however, to refer to a postmodern turn within contemporary social science, because many academics influenced by these intellectual trends abjure the term postmodernism. Nevertheless, many contemporary social scientists acknowledge a debt to deconstructive methods of textual interpretation and to deconstructions (or poststructuralisms) rejection of teleological theories (or grand narratives) and the concept of a coherent, fixed human subject.

Judith Butlers writings on the unstable and constructed nature of both sex and gender identities played a crucial role in transmitting postmodern concepts into social theory and the social sciences. Yet Butler herself rejects the term postmodernist, claiming only to deploy deconstructive techniques to better discern the discursive construction of identity. Postmodern conceptions of the hybrid, plural, and inconstant nature of identity have had their greatest influence in the areas of cultural, gender, and postcolonial studies, though they have also influenced anthropology (e.g., James Clifford) and international relations theory (e.g., James Der Derrian).

Many people working in these areas reject behavioral, structural, and hermeneutic interpretations of the relationship between individuals, groups, and social structure, favoring instead analyses of the decentered, local, and fragmented nature of social phenomena. Postmodern social theory rejects traditional social sciences goal of discerning causal relationships among social phenomena. It also rejects social science aspirations to discern superior or parsimonious interpretations of human behavior. In the postmodern conception, no readerly interpretation of a text can be more truthful than another. In fact some postmodernists refer to the concept of truth as terroristic, for the truth can only defend itself by repressive exclusion.

Postmodernism represents both a sensibility in regard to social science research and a normative critique of modernity. According to postmodernism, the Enlightenments search for rational understanding that could ameliorate the human condition engendered ideological or false grand narratives of history, which are based on essential-ist, universal, and fixed conceptions of human nature. Drawing upon Jean-Francois Lyotards analysis in The Postmodern Condition (1984), postmodernists reject the Enlightenments search for totalizing theories that offer universal narratives of human motivation and experience. Building on the work of Michel Foucault, postmodern theory claims that these grand narratives underpinned the Enlightenments efforts to normalize human beings through the bureaucratic and repressive institutions of governance (e.g., both state and nonstate organizations, such as the asylum and the hospital) that categorize human beings.


According to postmodernists, social theories that claim to represent reality fail to comprehend that humans have no unmediated access to reality. Human conceptions of reality are, unavoidably, a product of subjective interpretation. Modern media and technology deny people the ability to discern the original author or to distinguish the original from the imitation. In 1936 Walter Benjamin argued that in an age of mechanical reproduction it is nearly impossible to distinguish the original from a copy. Following this lead, postmodern theorists such as Jean Baudrillard have contended that reality itself is a simulacrum (a copy of a copy). In a world of corporate image production and virtual realities, one cannot determine what is authentic or inauthentic, real or fake. When computers allow people to live in cyberspace, the very concepts of reality, time, and space are contestable and destabilized. Thus attempts to interpret the essence or true nature of social phenomena deny the reality that the world is a constantly shifting image.

Postmodern social theory draws heavily upon Jacques Derridas and deconstructions critique of structuralism. Claude Levi-Strausss structural anthropology and Louis Althussers structural Marxism (which investigated the structural role that class played within capitalist economics and ideology) dominated French intellectual life in the 1960s. Both of these theorists drew upon the early twentieth-century structural linguistics of Ferdinand Saussure. Saussure held that the meaning of a particular speech or language (la parole ) is structured by the underlying structure of grammar (la langue, the structured relationship between signifier and signified that yields the meaning of a sign). But Derrida in Marges de la philosophie (1972) held that the relationship between signifier and signified is inherently unstable. For Derrida, meaning includes both identity (what is) and différance (what is not). Thus postmodernists argue that any attempt to fix meaning will yield repressive attempts to eliminate the ineluctable other of human reality.

To avoid eliminating the play of différance, postmodern-influenced social science rejects the binary oppositions that allegedly ground Western philosophy: subject-object, man-woman, reality-appearance, reason-emotion, and speech-writing. In this view, the very effort of representation and causal analysis excludes and devalues the inferior part of the binary term that is traditionally denigrated as being irrational or emotional. This rejection of binary oppositions as repressive and norming has had a profound influence on contemporary feminist and critical race theory, which warn against essentializing identities of gender and race. These studies of identity focus upon the socially constructed, hybrid, and ever-shifting nature of individual and group identity.

Given the absence of a stable referential relation between subject and object, postmodernists argue that social theory should focus upon the way subjects are constructed by discourse itself. The postmodern conception of how the subject is a product of language and thought draws heavily upon philosophical traditions deriving from Friedrich Nietzsche. In addition, Martin Heideggers critique of Western philosophys ineluctable search for a fixed conception of Being, and of its attempt to dominate nature in the name of the human, informs postmodern analysis. Postmodern social science frequently draws upon Foucaults conception of power-knowledge discourses to examine how subjects are produced by discourse. While Foucaults earlier archaeological work on how epistemes (or systems of thought) norm and exclude has influenced postmodern analysis, it is his later genealogical analysis of power as productive and enabling (rather than as primarily coercive) that has most influenced postmodernisms critique of agency. As Butler holds, the conception of a coherent, rational, human individual who exercises conscious agency ignores the reality that human identities are continually being reconfigured through performative self-inscriptions of dominant norms and discourses.


Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffes Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) represents a highly influential poststructuralist critique of the use of grand narrative in the social sciences. Rejecting a determinist Marxism that drew from the workers structural position in production of the teleological necessity of a revolutionary consciousness, Laclau and Mouffe asserted the discursiveand opennature of social consciousness. In the determinist Marxist view, both social democracy and authoritarian communism believed that capitalisms interdependent division of labor would inevitably yield (whether through gradual self-organization or via a revolutionary external agent) a self-emancipating working-class movement for democratic control of the interdependent capitalist mode of production. In contrast to the Marxist tradition, Laclau and Mouffe held that one cannotand should not mechanistically determine a subjects objective, true consciousness from the subjects alleged structural position in society. Rather, consciousness itself is discursively produced and represents a contested arena for politics.

In this view, much of the emancipatory impulse for democracy has come from the new social movements of racial, gender, and sexual identity. The consciousness of these identity-based groups cannot be deduced from their objective social role in society. Thus social theorists had to abandon privileging the old movement of the working class and construct a new, plural, and democratic theory that would unite (without homogenizing) the liberatory discourses of the new social movements. Laclau and Mouffes work has had a great influence on both social movement theory and postcolonial studies.


The postmodern turn in social science has generated considerable controversy, some of it finding its way into the mass media. Most visible has been the neoconservative critique that postmodernist analysis dominates the humanities and social sciences, imparting to students a dangerous, nihilist critique of American democracy. Ironically, this critique conflates postmodernism with Marxism, despite postmodernisms hostility to macrostructural and teleological forms of social analysis, including Marxism. Some left-leaning social theorists concur with the postmodern analysis that the marketing of images and lifestyles partly supplants the production and sale of physical goods in late capitalism. But these analysts of late capitalism (such as the geographer David Harvey and the cultural theorist Frederic Jameson), in contrast to postmodernists, offer macrostructural and analytic explanations for the emergence of these phenomena. They locate the production of images-as-commodities within the global corporate conglomerates of the infotainment, media, and publishing industries.

The postmodern rejection of the realist conception that economic and social institutions constrain the choices of individuals has occurred at a time of rapidly increasing global violence and economic and material inequality, and some critics have pointed out the ironic element in the timing of this development. Postmodernists often explain their critique of fixed, linear conceptions of time and space by metaphorical references to chaos theorys rejection of periodicity and to the finding of quantum mechanics that mass, force, and acceleration cannot be independently determined. This postmodernist rejection of even an unrepresentative realist conception of an external reality independent of theoretical interpretation helped engender the Sokal affair. Alan Sokal, a physicist (and materialist Marxist) at New York University, submitted a paper to the postmodern journal Social Text in 1996. The article cleverly deployed postmodern concepts while making alleged scientific references that any physics undergraduate could readily deem to be ludicrous. After the essay was published, Sokal revealed that it was a hoax aimed at revealing postmodernisms ignorance of both science and the nature of material reality. The story made the front page of the New York Times.

Some leftist theorists note that the postmodern turn arose at the very moment that conservative political dominance decreased the prestige of leftist theory and practice. A crude sociology of knowledge of the postmodern turn might contend that, absent mass social movements contending for state power, left-wing academics retreat into the realm of pure theory. The rejoinder to this might be that postmodernisms insistence on the relevance of the particular, local, and hybrid has had a salutary effect on limiting the imperial claims of grand narratives. Either way, analytic attempts of macrostructural and historically oriented social theorists to discern the interaction between social agency and social structure are likely to remain a major theme within social science. And the postmodern concern with the fate of marginalized groups would seem to push the discussion ethically beyond postmodernisms emphasis on the local and particular. The quasi-universal concepts of citizenship and global human rights may not have an irrefutable, a priori basis in a fixed human nature, but if human beings cannot develop shared understandings and values that bridge their differences, it is unlikely that the emancipatory, democratic project embraced by many postmodern theorists will ever be realized.

SEE ALSO Critical Theory; Enlightenment; Ethics; Foucault, Michel; Hegemony; Knowledge; Modernism; Multiculturalism; Paradigm; Positivism; Power; Relativism; Social Constructs; Universalism


Best, Steven, and Douglass Kellner. 1991. Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. New York: Guilford.

Brown, Wendy. 1995. States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Clifford, James. 1988. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Der Derian, James, and Michael J. Shapiro. 1989. International/Intertextual Relations: Postmodern Readings of World Politics. Lexington, MA: Lexington.

Derrida, Jacques. 1976. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 19721977. New York: Pantheon.

Laclau, Ernseto, and Chantal Mouffe. 1985. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1984. The Postmodern Condition. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Rosenau, Pauline Marie. 1992. Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Joseph M. Schwartz


views updated May 11 2018


Few terms in the contemporary critical lexicon have been as vociferously debated and as persistently unstable in meaning and use as postmodernism and its various avatars, such as postmodernity. In spite of this instability, postmodernity may be defined as a broad category designating the culture that historically extends from the late 1960s to the early twenty-first century, and that is economically determined by postindustrial capitalism. Postmodernism would refer, more narrowly, to the characteristic intellectual and aesthetic currents and practices of that era, reflected, for example, in certain philosophical ideas or works of literature and art.

The terms postmodernity and postmodernism also suggest a break, respectively, with modernity, determined economically by capitalism and culturally by humanism and the Enlightenment, and with Modernism, the literary and aesthetic movements of modernity in the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. While the distinction between modernity and postmodernity can be made without much difficulty, the distinction between modernism and postmodernism is more complicated. Some early critics argued that postmodernism was not really "post" at all, but simply "late" modernism. It quickly became apparent, however, that, despite its continuities with modernism, postmodernism does represent a definitive break from its predecessor, as well as a broader overall phenomenon, which includes in particular postmodernist theory.

Arguably the single most crucial conceptual determinate of the postmodern era and of postmodernism, defining this break, is an uncontainable and irreducibly de-centered multiplicity of coexisting cognitive and cultural paradigms, without any one of them being uniquely dominant or central. This postmodern de-centering, however, is defined not by the absence of all centrality, but by multicentering as the emergence of many centers and claims upon one or another centrality, including by previously marginalized fields and groups. Multiculturalism and related trends may be best seen as reflections of this situation, whose cultural and political implications, however, have a much greater scope.

Conceptual Postmodernism and Postmodernist Theory

The roots of conceptual postmodernism may be found in the ideas of some of the major figures of modernity and modernism, ideas that set in motion profound challenges to and changes in our thinking about the world and in the status of knowledge itself. Friedrich Nietzsche, in particular, initiated a radical critique of the Enlightenment ideals of absolute truth, universal morality, and transhistorical values, which he replaced with a radically multicentered or, in his terms, perspectival understanding of human knowledge, morality, and culture. It is primarily through Nietzsche and related figures, such as Sigmund Freud and Martin Heidegger, that the genealogy of postmodernist thinking is connected to Poststructuralism, one of the most important conceptual revolutions of postmodernism. Several parallel scientific revolutions took place throughout twentieth-century science, especially in physics (relativity and quantum theory) and biology, and in literature and art, and these revolutions also contributed to postmodernist conceptuality and epistemology.

These changes culminated in the postmodern crisis of, in Jean-François Lyotard's terms, legitimation of knowledge. "The postmodern condition" itself, responsible for this crisis, was famously defined by Lyotard as "an incredulity toward metanarratives," especially the "grand narratives" that seek to provide a single, all-encompassing or teleological framework for understanding the world. Lyotard's key example is the Enlightenment grand narrative of the progress of civilization through reason and science. He, however, extends this critique to other grand narratives of modernity, including Hegelianism, Marxism, and Freudianism. The collapse of the grand narratives has left us with no hope of a single conceptual system or discourse through which we might attempt to understand the totality of the world. Instead we have a plurality of frequently incommensurable worlds and often mutually incompatible systems of language and thought through which to comprehend them.

Cultural and Political Postmodernism

The cultural formations and aesthetic movements of postmodernism are intricately bound up with both the ideas of conceptual postmodern ism and the economic, technological, and political transformations of postmodern ity. A dramatic example of this entanglement is the relationship between "the disappearance of the real," which is an epistemological conception, and media culture. Jean Baudrillard observed that by the late twentieth century, media technologies in their roles as technologies of reproduction and representation, had become so advanced that images or copies have become "simulacra," reproductions sufficiently powerful that they first obscure, then displace, and ultimately replace and function as "the real." This instability in the distinction between reality and representation is an abiding theme and hallmark of postmodern culture and art.

Postmodern technologies are also transforming other fundamental concepts and categories through which people understand the world and themselves. As postmodern bioengineering and genomic technologies erode the distinction between human and machine, humans and their conceptions of themselves are being reshaped and reimagined to an unprecedented degree. Technologies of transportation and communication are creating the "spatialization of experience" and the concomitant disappearance of the temporal, which are linked to a postmodern subjectivity that is fragmented and contingent, an intersection of fluctuating "positions." This spatialization of experience and the loss of a sense of history accompanying it, Fredric Jameson argues, impair the ability of postmodern subjects to "cognitively map" their positions in relation to the increasingly complex political and economic systems of global capitalism.

For Lyotard, postmodernity potentially offers a new and better ground for the practice of democracy and justice. He argues, against Jürgen Habermas, that de-centered postmodern heterogeneity makes obsolete the Enlightenment ideal of consensus, which all too frequently required the suppression of minority dissent. Postmodernity, with its heterogeneous interests and worldviews, allows previously oppressed or marginalized groups to make claims upon justice, and upon a position of centrality, even in the absence of majority consensus concerning such claims.

The status of knowledge is altered as societies enter what is known as the postindustrial age and cultures enter what is known as the postmodern age. Postmodern knowledge refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable.

source: Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.

By contrast, Jameson defines postmodernism as "the cultural logic of late capitalism," for him an inherently unjust formation. The material structures of postmodern technologies, local and international politics, and global capitalism, he argues, ultimately determine our experience of postmodernity and the nature of postmodernist culture and art, and thus put justice in conflict with postmodernity.

Most current views of postmodernity and postmodernism may be positioned between these two visions, between the justice of the heterogeneous and the "cultural logic" and unbridled power of global capitalism. If, however, one combines the views of Lyotard and Jameson, cultural postmodern ism embodies two competing and conflicting drives arising from capitalism and democracy defining postmodern ity. Globalization, in its positive and negative aspects, comes with postmodernity, and together they give rise to conceptual, cultural, and political postmodernism across the geopolitical landscape of both hemispheres.

Postmodernism in Literature and Art

In considering postmodernist aesthetic practices in parallel with the postmodern lack of political consensus, Lyotard invokes "the lack of consensus of taste." Instead these aesthetic practices are characterized by an affirmation of their multiplicity. None needs to be defined by any given form, however multiple or fragmented, as was the case in modernist aesthetics, and as would be demanded from art by the consensus of modernist taste. By contrast, postmodernist aesthetic practices may adopt any form, outlook, or agenda, new or old, and allow for other (than postmodernist) practices and alternative approaches. The postmodernist aesthetic is thus defined by the (political) sense of this multiplicity of practices.


Continuing the narrative experiments of the modernists, the first generation of postmodernists, American and British writers of the 1960s and 1970s "metafiction" (Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, John Fowles, and Angela Carter), produced texts that simultaneously questioned and violated the conventions of traditional narrative. Similarly the postmodernist Language poets (Lyn Bernstein, Charles Hejinian, and Bob Perelman), inspired by the linguistic experiments of modernism and the new ideas of poststructuralism, deployed a fractured, systematically deranged language aimed at destabilizing the systems (intellectual, cultural, or political) constructed through language. The fragmentation, intertextuality, and discontinuity that characterize so much of experimental modernist and postmodernist literature find a kind of fulfillment in the inherently fragmented, intertextual, and discontinuous form of "hypertext," a computer-generated Web text with multiple branching links.

Another hallmark of postmodern literature, and of postmodern art in general, is the erosion of the boundaries between "high," elite, or serious art and "low," popular art, or entertainment. Decidedly serious literary works now make use of genres long thought to belong only to popular work. A related phenomenon is the development of numerous hybrid genres that erode the distinctions, for instance, between literature and journalism, literature and (auto)biography, and literature and history.

The emergence and proliferation of feminist, multiethnic, multicultural, and postcolonial literature since the 1970s is, however, the most dramatic and significant manifestation of the de-centering and de-marginalization defining both postmodernity and postmodernism. In the 1970s and 1980s, American and European literature underwent an immense transformation as writers who had traditionally been excluded from literary canonswomen and ethnic and racial minoritiesmoved from the margins to the centers of the literary world. There are counterparts to this phenomenon in history and anthropology, which have seen a proliferation of histories from below and outsidehistories of women, of children, of the working class. Postmodernism has gone from History with a capital H, to histories, small h.

Visual art.

With the institutionalization of "high modernism" in the mid-twentieth century and the increasing commercial appropriation and commodification of artworks, the modernist ideal of an artistic avant-garde, standing apart from mainstream culture, became increasingly obsolete. Postmodernist art has been, since its beginnings in the movements of the 1960sPop art, Fluxus, and feminist artart that was inherently political and simultaneously engaged with and critical of commercial mass culture. All these movements are linked to the development of multimedia performance art and conceptual art, a term that designates art that is neither painting nor sculpture, art of the mind rather than art of the eye. The logical extension of this definition (following Marcel Duchamp) is that nearly anything, properly "framed" or designated as such, might be thought of as art. One of the most distinctive characteristics of postmodernist art is the dissolution of traditional categories of art and artworks, and the proliferation of new and hybrid forms that have broadened these categories to an unprecedented degree, even greater than encountered in literature.

The feminist art of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s challenged the institutionalized male bias and sexism of the art system in a wide-ranging critique that extended from the writing of art history and criticism, to museums and art galleries, to the predominance of the "male gaze" and the objectification of women in visual media throughout history, to definitions of art that excluded such traditionally female forms as quilts and weaving.

No doubt the logic of the simulacrum, with its transformation of older realities into television images, does more than merely replicate the logic of late capitalism; it reinforces and intensifies it.

source: Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.

Other strains of postmodernist art (from the 1980s to the early twenty-first century), which one might call "the art of simulacra," focus on the prevalence of the image (particularly the media image), technologies of reproduction, and strategies of appropriation of already existing works. It encompasses the work of a broad range of artists and movements, from the video and performance art of Nam June Paik, Laurie Anderson, andBruce Nauman, to the photography of Cindy Sherman and the graphic art of Barbara Kruger.


While reflecting many general aspects of postmodernism, the phenomenon and concept of postmodernist architecture have a particular specificity and complexity, in part because the term postmodernist architecture was given a specific meaning very early in the postmodern period. What characterizes postmodernist architecture most, however, is its diversity in spirit and in style, and the ways it defines itself, in each movement and project, in relation to this diversity.

For some, the quintessential expression of postmodernist architecture is the shopping mall, an enclosed city in which spatial disorientation seems to have been a deliberate, structural intention. Elsewhere this disorientation also takes on a temporal, historical form, as architects combine disparate elements from previous architectural eras and styles in the same building, an incongruous mixing that initially gave rise to the term postmodernist architecture. Philip Johnson's AT&T headquarters in New York City, an austere, International-style skyscraper sporting a baroque Chippendale pediment, would be a postmodernist building in this earlier sense. For some architects, postmodernism was defined by the abandonment of modernist utopianism and a validation of vernacular architecture, as in Robert Venturi's celebration of the "decorated shed" of commercial architecture. New computer-assisted design and computer-assisted manufacturing (CAD/CAM) technologies and high-tech materials have made it possible to break from the traditional architectural forms and create more free-form and sculptural edifices, such as Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Music and dance.

Although not as widespread or influential as other art forms, postmodern music and dance have nevertheless developed many of the key traits of postmodernism, sometimes in their most radical aspects, both building upon and working against such modernist figures as Arnold Schönberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Pierre Boulez in music, and George Balanchine, Martha Graham, and Merce Cunningham in dance. Radically experimental postmodernist composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, and György Ligeti have gone beyond modernism in dislocating the classical harmonies and replacing them with ever more complex, nearly unmusical, sounds and noises.

The same formal experimentation can often be found in postmodernist dance. Postmodernist dance is, however, particularly characterized by the collapse of boundaries between "high" dance (classical ballet and modern dance) and "popular" dance (jazz dance, folk and tribal dance, ballroom dancing, break and line dancing, and Broadway musical choreography), as choreographers fused their various styles and movements. Among the most prominent representatives of the postmodern dance scene are Bill T. Jones, Twyla Tharp, and Mark Morris. Some choreographers have gone even farther afield, incorporating movements from the martial arts, sports, acrobatics, mime, games, and even the mundane physical activities of everyday life. These trends are found in postmodernist (classical) music as well, from the usage of elements of jazz and rock and roll to the incorporation of street or elevator noises.

Dance, however, became quite literally more a part of the world, as choreographers developed architecturally inspired, site-specific works. At the same time, dance increasingly became a part of the broader forms of performance art and multimedia art, as choreography was linked to political concerns and combined with video, text, and other media. One might say that the choreography of postmodern dance is the choreography of postmodernism itself, its aesthetics and its politics, including its politics of aesthetics defined by the lack of a single consensus of taste.

See also Modernism ; Structuralism and Poststructuralism .


Amiran, Eyal, and John Unsworth, eds. Essays in Postmodern Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Baudrillard, Jean. Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Edited by Mark Poster. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988. A defining treatment of the problematic of reality and representation in postmodernity.

Geyh, Paula, Fred G. Leebron, and Andrew Levy, eds. Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1989. A comprehensive and authoritative study of modern and postmodern spatiality.

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. An important treatment of the relations between elite and mass culture in modernism and postmodernism.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991. The most influential Marxist treatment of postmodernism.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. An important assessment of the state of culture after postmodernity.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington, and Brian Massumi. Vol. 10 of Theory and History of Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. A seminal study defining the problematic of postmodernity.

Phillips, Lisa. The American Century: Art and Culture 19502000. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art in association with W. W. Norton, 1999.

Paula E. Geyh


views updated May 29 2018


The word "postmodernism" means many things to many people. To some it describes a fad or a personal style, to others, a theory of society, a philosophy of human significance (or its lack thereof), a historical epoch, a phase of capitalist development, or a curious feeling of personal weightlessness in a world of synthetic pleasures and meanings. Unlike most "isms," postmodernism has no stock tenets or creeds to fall back on, relying instead on a general attitude of misgiving for all things "modern." The foundational assumptions that undergird modern personal and social beliefs, even the belief in "reality" itself, are, for postmodernists, canon fodder in a relentless "ungrounding" assault waged on modernity. This essay will assess the relevance and achievements of the postmodern critical enterprise (which are significant), while exercising a healthy skepticism about some of postmodernism's more lofty assertions. Postmodernism will be understood for what it is—a product of an academic "idea" industry, meant to describe an awkward period in the history of western society. In this way, postmodernism, the academic fad, will be explained via the use of postmodernism, the critical "ungrounding" of cultural assumptions and beliefs.

To call postmodernism an intellectual fad is neither disparaging nor inaccurate: all cultures are subject to fads, and intellectuals, as any postmodernist would assure you, are no exception. Postmodernism has its origins in the erudite practices of the academic and scholarly world, where new ideas are generated regularly, contested and advanced through the commerce of publishing, hobnobbing at academic conferences, power politicking at faculty meetings and on department budget committees—all processes which are driven by academics' desire to expand personal influence by thinking of something new to say. Beginning in the early 1980s, postmodernism began to emerge as a vanguard movement in the idea market, with all the equipment for a successful intellectual coup—its own fancy vocabulary, a cryptic set of canonical texts, and a seemingly inexhaustible ability to come off cleverer than any of its challengers. Indeed, the ability of the postmodern rhetorician to inflate the significance of familiar issues by describing them with thick jargon has proven a fruitful intellectual stratagem for postmodernists, one whose success rivals that enjoyed by structural functionalist sociologists of the 1950s who, under the leadership of Talcott Parsons, stormed American sociology in a whirlwind of technical sounding lingo.

By the 1990s, the term "postmodern" had crept into the vernacular of American cultural commentary, in much the way that such terms as "existential angst," "mass culture," and "the medium is the message" once held sway over their own distinct periods, promising the key theoretical and rhetorical tools for unlocking the social and cultural mysteries of their time. Of course, fads are never arbitrary: they only catch on because they seem meaningful to people and offer some help in the interpretation of their real lives and the conditions under which they live. For America in the 1980s, many confusing social changes seemed to lend themselves to a postmodern analysis: a new Reagan era emphasis on media theatrics over political realities; a deepening permeation of TV, home videos, and MTV into the most intimate recesses of personal and everyday life; the waning of the promise of left social movements; and the failure in the 1970s of any cultural movements capable of countering the hegemony of consumerism and its seductive culture of images. All suggested a society that had to be fundamentally rethought. In addressing these conditions, postmodernism provided an anti-foundationalist theory for a society struggling with its slipping grasp on any founding reality or system of its own.

To understand postmodernism, we must first understand what postmodernists mean when they speak of "modernity" (a broad term that includes a sweeping host of thinkers and artists from Descartes and Darwin to Jackson Pollock and Mick Jagger). "Modern" thought defines an outlook that grounds human history, social organization, and the human condition in certain essential personal qualities which are, happily, perfecting themselves over time. Modernism proposes that the human capacity for reason, justice, and enlightened knowledge about the world is gradually becoming clearer and more defined, and with those changes, modern society is becoming an increasingly pleasant place to live: modern governments are fairer; technology more capable; capitalist systems, though prone to hard times, are better and more efficient than the older ones they replace; and scientific knowledge is superior to superstition, mysticism, and bunk. Modernists also assume that the greatest share of progress in the development of those personal qualities and the social products they engender has fallen on the shoulders of the Occidental West, and in particular, its ruling elites. It is thus the duty of those elites to inspire progress elsewhere in the world as best they can. Though this is not an easy task, it is nonetheless a burden modern nations must undertake, even (as critics say) if it means establishing huge colonial empires, stigmatizing and exploiting women, minorities, and other less modern types, and making oneself very rich and influential in the process. In fact, the myth of "progress" provided an immense carpet under which all voices of discontent emanating from the less modern quarter could be quickly and easily swept. In short, modernists maintain that being modern is a fundamentally good and desirable thing for anyone who wants to perfect their innate cognitive and moral potentials (which everyone does, whether they realize it or not).

This is, in short, the modern doctrine of progress: one day, everyone will be perfect, rational, and modern (like us). It is against this doctrine that postmodernists have released their most penetrating, anti-foundationalist critique. Postmodern thought is in many ways quite simple: it repudiates any belief in the foundations that are thought to support various modern institutions and ideologies. The implicit justice and reasonableness of the human character, the moral potential of human social organization, and the bright outlook and optimism supplied by "modernist" apostles of progress is exposed by postmodernists as a fiction of Western civilization. Postmodernists cut away at the foundations of everything, revealing the loftiest of modern principles as silly fetishes, or worse, tools of Western domination. The view of the universality of human reason that led the philosophers of the enlightenment to criticize the teachings of the church as "unscientific" is, for postmodernists, just another quaint European superstition. The vision of universal justice that inspired the democratization of Europe and America is disclosed as another form of social organization, no better or worse than the despotic regimes they opposed. Postmodernists are decidedly relativistic, and their assertion of the ultimate relativity of all values is arrived at by exposing all the great principles of modern thought—science, justice, reason, egalitarianism—as carefully orchestrated shams.

But there is more at stake than the abstract "groundedness" of modern principles: postmodernists use these questions to rethink fundamental questions of contemporary society, from sexuality to racism to social movements to popular culture. Having repudiated the foundational principles that bound modern society, all the fragments of contemporary society have to be somehow collected and pieced back together again. This presents postmodernists with a set of deeply troubling questions: How do you accuse the media of deception without presuming some sort of "truth"? How do you insist that something is unfair without presuming a foundational human morality? How do you separate popular culture from high culture with no objective standard of beauty? And most importantly, how do you think of the historical present and plan for a better future without a modern vision of progress to explain social change? Postmodern relativism has demanded that everything be considered anew, without the help of overarching principles. To understand how postmodernists got to this position, we must consider the connection between modernism's foundational assumptions and its optimistic view of historical development.

From a postmodern perspective, the modernist vision of progress is already in tatters, and has been for years. Perhaps since the Holocaust, perhaps since Dada, or perhaps since the recession of the early 1970s, the rosy modern story or "meta-narrative" of progress has encountered increasing challenges from the many voices it had to silence in order to remain credible. Whether the dream of progress died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz or in the tract homes of Orange County, this meta-narrative is no longer believable, no longer able to sweep the many unique "irrational," unmodern voices under the carpet of its universal assumptions of rationality and progress.

In light of the unravelling of modern historical consciousness, postmodernism greets a rudderless society, adrift in a sea of fragmented ideas, symbols, and ideologies, where the refuse of history has come unglued. No longer "obsolete" (an idea that depends on a belief in "progress"), figments from the past collide with a contemporary world that no longer thinks of itself as "new"—as evidenced by the barrage of retro-nostalgic films and fads that have characterized consumer culture since the early 1980s. With hierarchies of taste no longer separating high from low, symphony orchestras play an evening of Warner Brothers' cartoon classics, and prominent art museums feature "The Art of the Motorcycle." With ideologies of ethnic difference no longer holding sway, take-out sushi and Kraft guacamole spread become staples of the American diet. In short, postmodernism announces a world in fragments. Where modernity's narrative of progress used to tell us what belonged where, in a postmodern society everything, past, present, and future intertwines in a pastiche of difference and contrast. A typical feature of postmodernism is its intermixing of reality and representation: Peter Seller's character in Being There is often cited in this respect, a man who carries a remote control with him through the streets, trying unsuccessfully to change the channels to remove himself from various situations.

For postmodernists, this fragmenting of society is, in many ways, a good thing: the past presents itself to us like a painter's pallet, offering a range of historical styles for the taking. The blurring of the line between old and new, so troubling to the avant garde 1960s, and the breakdown between real and fake, so troubling in the "authentic" culture of the 1970s, is a source of campy joy to the postmodernist, who sees infinite possibilities in the production of new combinations: Why burn a real Christmas log when you can rent a video of a picturesque fireplace burning perfectly for hours? Why buy real flowers when plastic ones are in every way superior? Or even more postmodern: Why try to find your own words to express feelings and sentiments when you can just drop clichés from popular television shows? Indeed postmodernism's assessment of a society without a foundation is always two-sided, sometimes apocalyptic and foreboding, dwelling on the "death of the subject," the "end of history," and the "disappearance of the social," while at other times celebrating the "multiplicity of meanings" and the "carnivalesque" qualities of a society freed of all foundational obligations.

This perspective has led postmodernists to read culture and society in a unique way, uncovering many subtle dimensions of culture and society that had escaped others. Where modernists saw people as fundamentally reasonable things, postmodernists see people as infinitely shaped by their cultural environments, "socially constructed" by the spaces, roles, clothing, and consumer goods they make part of their lives. Gender, for example, is more the product of advertising and fashion than any essential human quality. Revolutionary leaders are not to be found among heroic resistance movements, but rather on TV and in the record store; for instance, volumes have been written by feminist theorists on Madonna for her unapologetic assertion of women's sexuality, and her ability to shift identities by changing her hair color. Though postmodernists were certainly not the first ones to claim to have discovered the social construction of things we usually take to be natural (sociologists have been studying the "social construction of reality" since the 1960s), postmodernism launched a new study of everyday life in consumer society, where language, consumer culture, the body, and the structuring of physical space were understood as the "sites" where people acquired identities, shaped "discourses," and formed communities. For this reason, postmodernism's new vocabularies seem justified: naming things that have never been spoken of before (like the effect a TV commercial for lipstick might have on a woman's sense of her body as "feminine") required a new critical terminology, and postmodern critics were quick to spin off volumes of innovative terms—"identificatory structures," "liminal sites of resistance," "multiplicity of subject positionalities"—and to pour them thickly in a jargon saturated prose that sent spell-checks reeling, and quickly became the postmodern signature style. The lipstick commercial, rather than "influencing" the woman's "sense" of her body, "inscribes" her body with the "normative structures" of "gender signification." To understand why postmodern writing takes on the style it does, how it galvanized such support throughout the 1980s and raised so much ire in the 1990s, we must reach back to the theoretical traditions from which postmodernism developed, and the peculiar understanding of language, writing, and argumentation postmodernists inherited from their intellectual forbearers: the French poststructuralists.

In the 1950s, another intellectual fad, structuralism, swept the French scene. Parisian intellectuals, bored with Jean Paul Sartre's existentialist diatribes that grounded modern angst in the lonely subject of existential philosophy, felt the need for a new, more dispersed "structural" take on the individual and its significance. Following Claude Levi-Strauss and Roland Barthes, "structuralism" emerged with the model of an individual caught in a fixed network of signs and symbolic relations. Structuralism cut the ground from the under the crucible of the modern subject that had adorned French philosophy textbooks since Descartes, a marvelous and bold gesture that soon drew the admiration of readers across the Atlantic. But structuralism would have to suffer its own ungrounding before it could serve as the theoretical keystone for postmodernism: by the late 1960s, a few French intellectuals (most prominent among them were Jacques Derrida, Jean Francois Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, and Michel Foucault) undertook a harsh critique of structuralism's own grounds, its assumption that all meanings and social relations could be understood in terms of elements connected in fixed and limited symbolic structures.

The stability of Levi-Strauss's systems of signs was to give way to "poststructuralism," an approach that liquidated assumptions not only about the unique properties of the individual subject, but also the inherent structure of signs and meanings, which included writing and traditional forms of argumentation and explanation. Poststructuralism argued that all structures, which included equally the structures of the human psyche, social institutions, the modern economy, the structures of texts and signs, and the structure of such ideological systems as modernism and its great narrative of progress, always depend on a certain unstated exclusions. Something, some meaning or some voice, had to be pushed to the outside or swept under a carpet if any established meaning or "foundation" was to be achieved. Every modern structure, poststructuralists maintained, was premised on a troubling, concealed element, which was never entirely banished, but could be detected lingering at its margins or flickering on its periphery. Reason could never quite escape its nemesis, madness, just as democratic capitalism could never quite come to terms with its history of slavery. From the poststructuralist position, this extra element in every structure never has a "position" of any kind—positions are concrete structures in themselves—but is always present as a thing excluded, something ghostlike in its absence. Applying the poststructuralist critique of the destabilizing, outside element to the structure of modern thought, postmodernists pried back the face of modernity to see what outside elements, what ghostlike absences, it had swept under its rug. And of course, modernity's grand narrative of progress was revealed to harbor a whole range of "subordinated" narratives and outside voices: those of women, slaves, gays and lesbians, and other "subalterns" who had haunted the confidence of modern narratives, deemed too irrational to be modern.

In both France and America, poststructuralism couldn't have come at a better time: a Paris student population, disappointed with the results of the uprisings of 1968, met with a splintered American left looking for something to replace the stodgy Marxism and worn-out feminism of their campus years. The new poststructuralism, promising to make criticism sexy again, quickly found space on the bookshelves of American and French academics. Moreover, what made the writings of many poststructuralist authors so enticing was their sense that their own criticism itself should take up that same outside "subordinate," ghostlike relation that poststructuralism had uncovered lurking at the edges of every modern text. To take a position, to speak the language of direct argumentation, or to tell someone in a straightforward manner what postmodernism was all about would be to incorporate oneself into the structure of the argument itself. Poststructuralists like Derrida believed in the importance of elusiveness in their writing, of avoiding taking "positions" in the structure of a text and staying evasive, vague, and irritating. Derrida's philosophy of deconstruction uses indeterminate, multiple meanings in order to keep the poststructuralist's "voice" on the outside of the structure of the debates in which he or she engages, avoiding clarity, producing a style of scholarly writing that insists on remaining open to different readings, with the belief that purposefully unclear and ambiguous writing undermines or "ungrounds" the foundations of writing—and reasoning—itself.

The purposeful ambiguity that postmodernists inherited from poststructuralism and deconstruction and applied to cultural and social commentary has both exasperated its critics while drawing droves of inspired followers to the "critical theory" shelves of university bookstores. Following the poststructuralist lead, the postmodern author stands outside of all structures and systems: permanently defiant, elusive, and clever, remaining faithful to the groundlessness she takes as her only ground, and refusing to explain her evasions for fear she might turn "evasion" into a position, and thus become simply one more element in the structure of its own argument. In reality, of course, postmodern evasiveness has become precisely that: a familiar position, a clearly identifiable style practiced by a group of identifiable postmodern authors. These techniques are by now quite familiar: placing parts of words in (paren)theses so as to suggest double meanings; linking homophones with a backslash, "the body is the cite/site of inscription," or in triplet, "the apparatus of visuality defines the body as the cite/site/sight of inscription"; and the relentless pluralizing of terms, so as to invite, without confirming other meanings—feminism(s), consumerism(s)—and so on. These devices make it appear that one's own position eludes the limitations of language and argumentation that one's opponent remains within. Postmodern argumentation often casts the opposing position as a micro police-state of (modernist) discursive order, converting any effort to sustain a point as an effort to "police the boundaries" of meaning. This move, familiar in discussions between modernists and postmodernists, is a neat trick: it portrays the frustration of the modernist as an anxious response to the destabilization of his own argumentative structure in the face of the subversive instabilities unleashed by the postmodernist's evasive techniques. As the modern-ist becomes impatient, the postmodernist says "told ya so." By the late 1990s, postmodernism, or "pomo" in academic parlance, had become common fare in college classrooms (thus betraying the spirit of linguistic subversion poststructuralists had in mind.)

No proponent of postmodernism did more to seduce American critical audiences than Jean Baudrillard, whose seemingly bleak pronouncements on the "death of subjectivity" in the postmodern age inspired zealous loyalty and fierce opposition. Baudrillard's expeditions through the dregs of American consumerism took him through Las Vegas, Disneyland, and Los Angeles, where he discovered the European's fantasy of the vulgar (if alluring) American: a nation of crass media addicts whose grip on anything more than the TV's remote was tenuous at best. In America, Baudrillard discovered a new relationship to reality: a simulated "hyper-reality" in which the individual self and all of its experiences were disappearing into a deluge of reproducible copies. Everything, Baudrillard argued, was reproduced in some image or another. In fact, part of what it means to be real, in the postmodern age, is to be copied in one form or anther, either on television or in print. His message was not just critical, it was apocalyptic: it announced an end to reality itself, to criticism, to politics, and to all personal experience, leaving only the mesmeric effects of reproduced images. His dense elliptical terminology and his vague, portentous inflection took American art criticism and downtown bookstores by storm, and soon shaped a new genre of chic cultural commentary. Moreover, Baudrillard's books stung the American left with declarations that politics had "disappeared," been rendered "fictional," lost in a maze of representations. Among his most provocative claims was his assertion in 1992 that "the Gulf War didn't happen," a statement that drew a group of angry anti-war activists to one of his lectures, bearing signs insisting that "the Gulf War DID happen" after all.

No account of postmodernism would be complete without some mention of the events of 1996, and the stunt perpetrated by New York University professor of physics Alan Sokal that did more to draw public attention to the goings on of the scholarly world than any other event in years. Though not a postmodernist himself, Sokal pieced together an essay stuffed with postmodern verbiage, which he titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," and submitted it to Social Text, a prominent journal of cultural studies with, at times, strong postmodern tendencies. To his surprise, his lark was accepted and published in the spring/summer 1996 issue. When the piece came out, Sokal went public with an article in Lingua Franca, the People Magazine of the academic world. While the editors of Social Text were stunned, Sokal gloated through a firestorm of controversy, touting his essay as the smoking gun that exposed the sham of the entire poststructuralist critical tradition. Though Sokal lacked theoretical savvy, the incident launched his career as a chief critic of the French intellectual oeuvre, and brought Social Text, postmodernism, and the "Sokal scandal" to the front page of the New York Times. It seems a shame that postmodernism, whose chief theoretical asset has been its unique ability to expose the charade of expert narratives, was so lazy about questioning its own emperor's new clothes, leaving the job instead to Sokal. Sokal's lark provided a clear testament to the routinization of postmodern prose and commentary, and if nothing else, the event may have closed or at least tempered what may be remembered as the halcyon days of postmodern rhetorical flourish.

—Sam Binkley

Further Reading:

Baudrillard, Jean. America. London, Verso, 1988.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Postmodernity and Its Discontents. New York, New York University Press, 1997.

Best, Steven, and Douglas Kellner. Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. New York, Gilford Press, 1991.

Connor, Steven. Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary. New York, Blackwell, 1996.

Derrida, Jacques. "Différance." In Margins of Philosophy, translated by Allan Bass. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity. Cambridge, Blackwell, 1989.

Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, Duke University Press, 1991.

Kroker, Arthur, and David Cook. The Postmodern Scene: Excremental Culture and Hyper-Aesthetics. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1986.

Lyotard, Jean François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis, Minnesota University Press, 1984.

Natoli, Joseph P., and Linda Hutcheon, editors. A Postmodern Reader. New York, State University of New York Press, 1996.

Powell, Jim. Postmodernism for Beginners. New York, Writers & Readers Publishing, 1998.

Sokal, Alan, and Jean Bricmont. Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1998.


views updated Jun 11 2018



It is now a truism to say that the term postmodernism has been stretched to the breaking point. Defining postmodernism has often proved a messy task because of the sundry ways in which the term has been used in application to an astounding diversity of sociocultural phenomena. Building facades, gallery artwork, political and advertising campaigns, historical periods and sensibilities, and philosophies are referred to as indicative of postmodernism. To add to the confusion, some thinkers consider postmodernism as a symptomatic appearance or strategy found in some or many recent cultural products, while others regard our very age as intrinsically postmodern. In approaching the concept, then, it is best to look at how the term has been used and how it differs from the "modern," and which features of recent and current filmmaking, film theory, and film reception might be identified as postmodern. In brief, postmodernism may be thought of as an attitude which eschews an essential, transcendent subject, rejects teleology and historical destiny, and discredits faith in totalizing grand narratives. In art, specifically film, this postmodern attitude has been described as having precipitated (negatively or positively, respectively) either the exhaustion or the playfulness that produces intertextuality, self-referentiality, pastiche, a nostalgia for a mélange of past forms, and the blurring of boundaries between "high" and "low" culture.


Vis-à-vis film, postmodernism has not led to a particular school or method of theoretical analysis, as for example psychoanalysis, Marxism, or structuralism have. This is unsurprising: writers on the postmodern see life and Vis-a society as fractured and recycled circulations no longer able to be summarized into unified theoretical frameworks. Theorists of the postmodern have much more so contributed to our understanding of film by unsettling the assumptions and certainties of earlier theories that underpinned how film has been conceptualized.

It is on these terms that Jean-François Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition (1984) addresses our society. Lyotard designates the postmodern as a questioning attitude to the "metanarratives" of Western thought. By "metanarratives" Lyotard means the hegemonic paradigms for human organization and behavior, such as Marxism, Christianity, science, fascism, or language. In this basic sense his work is aligned with the fundamental tenets of poststructuralist thought. Furthermore, Lyotard's definition of the postmodern suggests that he understands the modern to be the Enlightenment project of system, reason, order, and symmetry found in the philosophies of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Voltaire (1694–1778), and John Locke (1632–1704), rather than the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century artistic modernism typified by the architecture of the Bauhaus school or classic narrative cinema. Since "postmodern" has become to some extent a negative epithet used to describe naïve, ahistorical cultural products, it is important to note the attitude theorists of the postmodern take towards their object of inquiry. Lyotard, for example, views the postmodern condition as fundamentally ambivalent. He does not suggest that we are experiencing a postmodern age that has neatly superseded the modern one; for him, the postmodern does not signify the end of modernism but rather a new thinking in relation to modernism.

Unlike Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, another important theorist of the postmodern, sees its development as decidedly negative. He bemoans above all the way in which media images and signs have usurped real experience for the modern subject. Although Baudrillard focuses on television as the distribution nexus for these images, his critique of the circulated image does have bearing on the postmodern and cinema. Baudrillard reads twentieth-century history as the transition from a manufacturing-industrial society to an order based upon communication and the circulation of signs. Baudrillard claims that not only is our world cluttered with these images, but also, crucially, that these signs have become our reality. In this capitalist "hyperreality" of simulations, referentiality has dissolved; images no longer have any connection to what they are supposed to represent; signs are more real than reality itself. By this logic, Baudrillard claimed in 1991 that the Gulf War (1990–1991) did not take place. With night-vision images of bombings in Iraq and Kuwait, for Baudrillard the Gulf War was little more than a virtual video game consumable in bite-sized doses.

According to Fredric Jameson, postmodernism is characterized by its emphasis on fragmentation. Fragmentation of the subject replaces the alienation of the subject, modernism's calling card. Unlike Lyotard, Jameson sees postmodernism as the successive stage to the high-art modernism of the early twentieth century. Postmodernist works are often characterized by a lack of depth, which has been replaced by a surfeit of surface. Also distinctive of the late capitalist age is its focus on the recycling of old images and commodities. Using examples from cinema, Jameson catalogs key features of postmodern culture: self-referentiality, irony, pastiche, and parody (Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 1991). He takes to task Hollywood films which pillage film history and thereby create a flat kind of spatialized temporality. Jameson refers to this cultural recycling as historicism—the random cannibalization of various past styles. For example, Jameson argues that a neo-noir film such as Chinatown (1974) simulates the past through references to older films in a way that erases historical depth—with stylistic gestures without deeper meaning—and thus fails to recreate a "real" past. The actual organic tie of history to past events is thus lost. Many are careful to call Jameson a "theorist of the postmodern" rather than "postmodern theorist" because of the clear "metanarrative" that informs his thinking: Marxism. Adopting a stance on postmodernism, so Jameson argues, means taking a position on multinational capitalism.


Before addressing the postmodern features of individual films—by far the more common approach to the post-modern in film that scholars have employed—one should take note of the postmodern nature of technology and distribution in the film industry today. In Hollywood's golden age, a typical film was shot on 35mm celluloid by one of a handful of studios. The cast and crew were under contract to that studio. When the film was finished, prints were copied and sent out to cinemas, which then projected the film for customers who paid a fixed price to see it, typically as part of a larger program. Today the situation is much different. Films are often shot on a digital format by the major studios (now subsidiaries of multinational corporations), but also by independent studios, independent filmmakers, or even amateurs (The Blair Witch Project [1999]). Stars are no longer bound to long-term contracts with the major studios. They, and also most of a film's cast and crew, have agents who negotiate rates per feature, not to mention publicists who try to generate press for them so as to elevate their prestige among fans and in the industry and thereby their salaries. Today studios bombard cinemas with prints according to saturation-release strategies. Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith (2005) opened with a staggering 18,700 prints around the world, including 9,700 in 3,700 North American theaters. Some studios will only provide prints to multiplexes who agree to show the film a certain number of times per day. With the transfer to digital technology, it has been predicted that in the near future "prints" will be e-mailed or beamed via encoded satellite channels directly to cinemas—assuming cinemas will exist in the future. It is now much more likely that one will watch a given film on DVD, video, TV, in an airplane, or downloaded (legally or illegally) via the Internet. Films are now shown with a number of advertisements before the film and, increasingly, in the film itself. The famous sequence from Wayne's World (1992), when Wayne overtly holds a Pepsi and intones that it is the "choice of a new generation" with a wink and a nod, is doubly postmodern. First, it is an example of product placement—the (usually) discreet integration of a name, product, packaging, or logo into a film—advertising, entertainment, and "art" are merged. Second, it cannily responds to the increasing cynicism vis-à-vis such marketing ploys, letting the audience in on the joke even while the film still benefits financially from it.

This portrait of the current film industry provides several entry points into a discussion of the postmodern, including the transition from celluloid to digital filmmaking. In classic film theory, the ontological basis for cinema—that is, how many film theorists accounted for its existence—was the celluloid format: light (and actors, trees, a set, or whatever stands before the camera) hits the film stock filtered through a lens and is recorded on the celluloid. André Bazin called this process the unveiling potential of film, the possibility to depict reality. For Siegfried Kracauer, another realism theorist, by recording and exploring physical reality, film "redeems" reality. What then, does the digital format, which depends on the transformation of light information received through the lens into combinations of 0s and 1s and can be recorded and copied without data loss, mean? For Baudrillard, this new configuration would surely serve as an example of how film has become pure simulacra: the distinction between original and copy is lost. The digital age of cinema represents its introduction into hyperreality. For theorist Paul Virilio, the digital revolution signals the further substitution or displacement of reality, in which a technological or virtual reality replaces the human one and the distinction between factual and virtual becomes meaningless.

In addition to the postmodern features of film as an industry and medium, how might individual films themselves be postmodern? Intertextuality, self-referentiality, parody, pastiche, and a recourse to various past forms, genres, and styles are the most commonly identified characteristics of postmodern cinema. These features may be found in a film's form, story, technical vocabulary, casting, mise-en-scène, or some combination of these.

b. Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, 28 February 1956

Guy Maddin's films contain uncanny worlds that, at once strange and familiar, are archives of film and culture references from high to low. Born and raised on the Canadian prairies, Maddin is the best-known exponent of "prairie modernism," which developed around the Winnipeg Film Group.

Aesthetically, Maddin betrays a fondness for black-and-white cinematography and a silent-film look lit from a single source. But color footage often intrudes at unlikely places, accompanied by intentionally discordant music and ambient sounds. Errors in continuity or film equipment in the shot are par for the course in Maddin movies, which have been filmed in abandoned warehouses, a grain elevator, a foundry turned garbage depot, or in his mother's beauty salon. Capturing the essence of a Maddin film is difficult. Archangel (1990), for example, takes place in the Russian city of the title during World War I and involves several cases of mistaken identity. The plot is conveyed with visual references to F. W. Murnau and Josef von Sternberg, aged film stock, crackling soundtrack, and strange breaks in the action. All suggest a film that appears to be a relic from the 1920s, but with 1990s irony. The Saddest Music in the World (2003) is a fable set in 1933 Winnipeg: a brewing magnate with beer-filled glass legs announces an international contest to perform the world's most sorrowful song. Part imaginary (film) history, part madcap musical melodrama, The Saddest Music in the World is an offbeat film that is unmistakably postmodern.

In interviews, as in his films, Maddin refers to influences as diverse as Pablo Picasso, the film director Douglas Sirk, the punk group the Ramones, Mexican wrestling movies, hockey star Mario Lemieux, the 1933 musical Footlight Parade, Euripides, and Mary Pickford. His short The Heart of the World (2000), commissioned for the 2000 Toronto International Film Festival as part of its Preludes series by ten Canadian directors, is perhaps his masterpiece. In a mere six minutes he perfectly captures the style and tropes of Soviet montage cinema of the 1920s.


Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), Archangel (1990), Careful (1992), Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), The Heart of the World (2000), Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2001), The Saddest Music in the World (2003)


Losier, Marie. "The Pleasures of Melancholy: An Interview with Guy Maddin." Cineaste 29, no. 3 (2004): 18–25.

Maddin, Guy. From the Atelier Tovar: Selected Writings. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2003.

Vatnsdal, Caelum. Kino Delirium: The Films of Guy Maddin. Winnipeg, Canada: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2000.

Mattias Frey

Perhaps the most renowned postmodern director is Quentin Tarantino. The dialogue of films such as Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) rely heavily on seemingly meaningless chatter about TV shows, pop music, B movies, and celebrity gossip. In Jackie Brown (1997) Tarantino cast the actress Pam Grier, relying on her past image as a sex symbol in 1970s

blaxploitation films such as Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974) in order to channel that legacy into his own film. This postmodern casting move has also been used famously by directors such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, who in his Mamma Roma (1962) cast Anna Magnani as the title character, consistently quoting and twisting the iconic image she acquired in Roberto Rossellini's Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945). Jean-Luc Godard's casting of Fritz Lang as the director in Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963) is similar. Tarantino has made it a hallmark of his cinema, drawing on former stars such as John Travolta in Pulp Fiction and Darryl Hannah in the Kill Bill films (2003–2004).

Tarantino's casting is an example of postmodern intertextuality—a work's quoting, plagiarizing, or alluding to other films or cultural artifacts—a phenomenon that abounds in postmodern cinema. For example, in the first few minutes of Lola rennt (Run Lola Run, 1998), Lola (Franka Potente) receives a phone call from her boyfriend Manni that he needs money desperately. Lola throws up the telephone receiver, which director Tom Tykwer films in slow motion, alluding to the famous cut from the bone to the space station in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). She then lets out a glass-shattering scream, just like Oskar's in Volker̈ndorff's Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1979). The two sentences at the beginning of the film, "the ball is round" and "the game lasts for ninety minutes," are famous quotations from Sepp Herberger, a well-known German soccer coach. Finally, the painting which hangs over the casino scene is of Kim Novak's back, alluding to the painting in Vertigo (1958) that Novak's character obsessively stares at in the museum.

The system of allusion and quotation such as that found in Run Lola Run—which mixes both "high" art and "low" popular cutlture from various time periods and cultures—is a typical feature of postmodern cinema, and is often referred to as pastiche. For Jameson, parody refers to the use of various styles, genres, or texts for a critical purpose, while pastiche is a blank form of parody, blithely mimicking past forms without an underlying critical perspective. This distinction may be construed as problematic, however, since whether a film engages in parody or pastiche with its intertextuality is largely a matter of interpretation. Does Jackie Brown meditate on the legacy of blaxploitation films in the presence of Pam Grier, or does she merely constitute an in-joke for the initiated? Is Run Lola Run an attempt to come to terms with (German) film history, or are the allusions empty gestures of an exhausted film industry? The answers to these questions are hardly clear-cut.

Many argue that the postmodern has also infiltrated the narrative form of many films. Unlike in Hollywood's heyday, when the plot was transmitted in the most seamless fashion possible, many twenty-first century films, both Hollywood and independent, strive for a narrative that defies linear logic. Run Lola Run presents three different scenarios for Lola's quest to save her boyfriend, and she seems to learn from the past attempts, a narrative configuration that some have likened to the logic of a video game rather than a typical feature film. Likewise, films such as Blind Chance (1987), Sliding Doors (1998), and Melinda and Melinda (2004) present alternative stories. Rashomon (1950) and Jackie Brown are films in which a single story is told from several different perspectives, but Jackie Brown parodies Kurosawa's canonical modernist experiment in Rashomon by relocating these point-of-view sequences from the epic landscapes of a Japanese forest and ruined temple to the banal setting of a nondescript US shopping mall. Other films use postmodern intertextuality as the sine qua non of their narratives. Forrest Gump (1994) is unthinkable without the fictional Forrest's postproduction insertion into documentary footage of real US presidents and celebrities; Woody Allen's imaginary history Zelig (1983) works along similar lines. These films function by blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction, history and story. Finally, some see the blockbuster's "narrative" to be a consequence of the postmodern. Schlo

Rather than functioning as a cause-and-effect story, the blockbuster often organizes itself as a series of attractions (special effects, explosions, car chases) that spectators anticipate and enjoy. What the film is "about" becomes inconsequential or, at best, secondary, to a string of shocks designed to overload the senses.

The matter of style is another tricky question in the context of postmodern cinema. Is the "machine-gun" editing in Darren Aronofsky's Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000), Guy Maddin's The Heart of the World (2000), and MTV music videos necessarily or equally post-modern? How are these projects different stylistically from early Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein's Stachka (Strike, 1925), Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), and Oktyabr (Ten Days that Shook the World and October, 1927)? The question of intention, taboo in poststructuralist thinking, might nonetheless help us here. Whereas the modernist Eisenstein made his films as propaganda tools aimed to garner support for a metanarrative (Leninism), Maddin is much more interested in evoking the mood or style of Soviet montage filmmaking, but with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Finally, production design is often cited as a yard-stick of postmodern cinema. Whereas the modernist architecture of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus school called for a marriage of form, function, and social utility, examples of postmodern architecture might mix elements reminiscent of the Renaissance, baroque, neoclassical, Gothic, and modernist in the same facade. So too, for example, does Bo Welch create Gotham City in Tim Burton's Batman Returns (1992), which pays homage to several German expressionist films along with art deco and other stylistic touches. The dystopic Los Angeles of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) has often been cited as the postmodern cine-city par excellence. The film's production design cites numerous historical influences including, most obviously, film noir. As Giuliana Bruno has noted, the city in Blade Runner is not a vision of ultramodern skyscrapers and orderly, mechanized interiors, but rather a hodgepodge aesthetic of recycled decay ("Ramble City").

It is ironic that in spite of theorists' desire to proclaim the end of grand narratives in the age of post-modernism, there is the tendency in their writings to generalize and universalize the postmodern nonetheless. But the generation of Lyotard, Jameson, Baudrillard, and Virilio, which diagnosed the postmodern largely as an inevitable symptom of cultural exhaustion or capitalistic excess, is giving way to a younger generation of theorists less eager to predict doomsday scenarios. D. N. Rodowick, for example, has outlined a philosophy of the transition from analog to new media technologies which acknowledges the new ontological basis for digital films without claiming that this new basis must signify the end of referentiality, as Baudrillard has.



Baudrillard, Jean. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Translated by Paul Patton. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

——. Simulations. Translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Phillip Beitchman. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.

Bazin, André. What Is Cinema? 2vols. Edited and translated by Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Bruno, Giuliana. "Ramble City: Postmodernism and Blade Runner." October 41 (1987): 61–74.

Denzin, Norman. Images of Postmodern Society: Social Theory and

Contemporary Cinema. London: Sage, 1991.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991.

Kracauer, Siegfried. Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960. Revised edition, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Rodowick, D. N. Reading the Figural, or, Philosophy After the New Media. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.

Virilio, Paul. The Vision Machine. Translated by Julie Rose. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Mattias Frey


views updated May 21 2018


In 1959, C. Wright Mills speculated that "the Modern Age is being succeeded by a post-modern period" in which assumptions about the coherence of the Enlightenment values of scientific rationality and political freedom were being challenged (1959, p. 166). Critical theorists had earlier speculated about how the revolutionary potential of the urban laboring classes of the nineteenth century was co-opted by the shift to a postindustrial twentieth-century society, a society characterized by mass consumerism and war economies. The characteristics of postindustrial societies were explored more recently in Daniel Bell's analysis of contemporary capitalism (1976). In the modern information societies, Bell argues that the class forces that drove nineteenth-century social change have been replaced by new processes. Under welfare capitalist states, scientists, technicians, managers, and bureaucrats formulate social tensions as administrative and technical issues based on political consensus. For Bell, postindustrial societies with their information bases hold the key to social harmony and the end of misery.

Alain Touraine's view (1984) is different. He also stresses how class antagonism has changed under welfare capitalism, but for Touraine the information managers, guided by technological thinking, tend to "steer the entire social order toward the perfectly programmed society, the ultimate technocratic prison" (Baum 1990, p. 5). Touraine also writes that the categories of basic sociological analysis have become out of touch with changes in contemporary societies. In particular, he rejects the modernist supposition of evolutionary progress over time, culminating in what he calls "the impoverishing homogeneity of modern civilization" (Touraine 1984, p. 38), the sociologist's conception of the national states as units of analysis, and the gradual expunging of the cultural diversity of traditional societies. The collapse of modernism arises from a failure of sociology to keep abreast of the developing autonomy of cultural products, the globalization of capital, and the rise of new forms of social control and of public resistance to them. In this analysis, "the crisis of modernity . . . is not all-encompassing . . . the crisis in modernity is not considered to be total or terminal but limited in scope, if deep" (Smart 1990, p. 408). Though Bell and Touraine have been associated with critiques of postindustrial societies, the meaning of "postmodernism" has become far more radical, and draws on earlier sources.

De Saussure's "structural" theory of linguistics (1959) distinguished the "sign" from the "signified" and developed a science based on the discovery that symbolic systems might have formal properties that were unrelated to the meanings of the objects they signified but that might hold across different systems of symbols. The system for describing, for example, the animal kingdom and the protocols for siting teepees might reflect the same logic—without any inherent equivalence to the things they described or organized (Giddens 1987). "Poststructuralism" deepened this disinterest in the signified objects by dismissing any link binding words/symbols to things. Things were only the hypostatizations of language. All analysis was "deconstruction," or unmasking of phenomena in terms of their underlying rhetorical conventions. For poststructuralists, texts only pointed to other texts. The world was viewed as an intertwining of systems of representation without any derivation from or basis within "terra firma." Everything became text—including violent speech and violent symbolic acts such as incest, war, or spousal abuse.

The postmodern twist is the application of the linguistic implications of poststructuralism to the three core principles connecting contemporary civilizations with the project of the Enlightenment: scientific knowledge (Truth), aesthetics (Beauty), and morality (the Good). The Enlightenment project—"modernism"—refers to the rise of the Age of Reason. It was characterized by the gradual shift away from religious sensibilities and to scientific objectivity, the rational exploitation of nature for human needs, the perspectival representation of nature in art and humanistic truth in fiction, and the struggle for a humane society. Modernism was realist in its epistemology and progressive in its politics. Truth could be attained—particularly with scientific advances. Beauty could be distinguished from trash. Humanism could nurture moral conduct and decent conditions of life. And history was purposive and progressive.

Postmodernism is the sensibility that arises when the credibility of these "master narratives" is questioned. The postmodern period, as described by Lyotard (1984) and Baudrillard (1983), is the one we now confront. Though it is often dated as a creature of the post–World War II period, it is thought only to have become generalized with mass consumerism in the age of electronics and to have been initiated by dramatic changes in contemporary capitalism. Capitalism has ushered in global communication and exchange, and has created a self-sustaining cybernetic system that almost completely transcends the ability of individual governments to control their directions and objectives. As a result, postmodernity is sometimes referred to as posthistorical society in the sense that the mission or sense of purpose that guided nation-states in the past through events such as the French Revolution has been overtaken by global consumerism. The view of history as a struggle for the gradual liberation of humanity and progressive evolution of more humane societies is dismissed by Lyotard as mythic. In addition, the transcendence of communities by electronic representations makes the idea of "the social" purely illusory (Bogard 1990). The objectivity of societies, nation-states, communities, and history is viewed only as "narratives" or "simulacra" (Baudrillard 1983). Referents disappear in favor of a world of simulations, models, performatives, and codes—in short, "information" (broadly conceived), which becomes the predominant phenomenon of exchange among the masses through the mass media.

One of the important theoretical aspects of the postmodernist position is its explicit rejection of Marxism in general and Habermas' theorizing about creating a rational society through communicative competence. Where Habermas (1973, p. 105) speculates that a rational community might be able to "arrive at the conviction that in the given circumstances the proposed norms are 'right,"' Lyotard rejects the myth of reason behind the Habermasian project. The project implies that there is a correct moral and scientific standard to which communities ought to aspire. Enforcement of such standards valorize conformity and, as witnessed in the fascist European states in the 1920s and 1930s, promote terrorism to extract it. This introduces a tension within postmodernism that has not been worked through (Frank 1990). On the positive side, the supposition of "multivocality" in scientific and moral discourse promotes the "excavation" of minority voices and minority experiences which have been occluded in "master" modernist ways of thinking. Every point of view can be heard, none can be privileged. On the other side, postmodernism seems ill equipped to distinguish between any particular moral or objective position and any other, including the fascist discourse that is associated with modernism. Choosing between Holocaust history and Holocaust denial would seem in principle to be a matter of rhetorical preference—which is clearly nihilistic. When we move away from epistemology to postmodernity's impact on art and architecture, the situation is different. Postmodernism celebrates a rejection of hegemonic traditions and styles by mixing elements from competing schools and by bringing the rim of representation into focus as an organic element of the depiction. Novels exploit the discontinuities in perspective and the fragmentations in contemporary society. In architecture, postmodernism represents a repudiation of high-density ("efficient") functionality based on centralized city planning with an emphasis on no-frill construction. Decentralized planning emphasizes collage and eclecticism and the development of spaces to heighten aesthetic possibilities (Harvey 1989). The globalization of experience encourages such exchanges and experimentation. However, the replacement of "efficient" spaces like public housing, with their brutalizing side effects, with more particularistic designs is part of the emancipatory interest of modernity—so that at least here, postmodernity is still part and parcel of the Enlightenment. This raises three questions.

First, to what extent has the case been made that the changes in capitalism during the past two decades have been so profound as to represent a destruction of modernist society and a disappearance of history and "the social" (i.e., real face-to-face community)? Some critics dispute the claim (Baum 1990); others point out that Baudrillard's evidence is unconvincing since his own postmodern manner of exposition is self-consciously rhetorical, inflationary, and, consistent with the idiom, only one possible reading of recent history (Smart 1990). Second, if we have no careful (i.e., modernist) analysis of the factors that have contributed to the demise of our confidence in the "master narratives" of modernism, would it not seem to be impossible to discern which ones have been shaken, and how seriously our confidence in them has been eroded? Skepticism is insufficient. Finally, under these circumstances, is it not predictable that there is no consensus about the meaning of postmodernism? Arguably this dissensus is inherent in the perspective. For Baudrillard (1983), postmodernism spells the end of sociology (and other modernist subjects); for Bauman (1988), it is simply a new topic—a sociology of postmodernism, but not a postmodern sociology. For Brown (1990), it is an opportunity to rethink the continuing relevance of the role of rhetoric in politics and science in order to employ knowledge in guiding human conduct. Under these circumstances, the proclamation of the death of modernism would seem premature.

Over the past decade two debates have emerged which raise questions about the postmodern project and which deal respectively with the issues of (1) epistemology, or the postmodern struggle with truth and the special standing of the natural sciences, and (2) of morality and the struggle to define and achieve the "good society" within democratic politics.

The first issue is raised by the famous hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, professor of physics at New York University, a left-leaning radical who taught math in Nicaragua under the rule of the Sandanistas. His "transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity" was a spoof of the pretentious claims about science running through the leading figures of the French intellectual establishment—Derrida, Lacan, and Lyotard—spiked, according to Sokal, with the usual nonsensical and impenetrable jargon and buzzwords (Sokal 1996b). The parody was published in a special issue of Social Text designed by the editors to rebuke the criticisms of their antiscientific agenda by leading scientists. Sokal published an exposé at the same time in Lingua Franca (1996a). The hoax ignited a storm of criticism on both sides which some have referred to as "the science wars" (Natoli 1997, pp. 115 ff.; Kingwell 1999). The hoax continues to provoke debate today (see Although Sokal abused the good faith of the editors of a journal in a humanities discipline, he justified his behavior by reference to the naïveté of those editors, whose credentials could scarely permit them to draw the conclusions about the purely rhetorical foundations of science or to discredit centuries of scientific progress. Yet in neither side was the "demonstration" definitive. The validity of the scientific method is neither established by the hoax, nor rubbished by what Richard Dawkins writing in Nature dubbed "the vacuous rhetoric of montebanks and charlatans" on the Left Bank (1988, p. 141). Nor is it undermined on this side of the Atlantic by Steven Seidman's claims in Contested Knowledge that the scientific community in eighteenth-century Europe prevailed over aristocracy and the Church because it provided the forces of liberalism with a convenient but essentially vacuous cudgel with which to rout the older order: "Is the claim that only science ensures true knowledge . . . not merely another ruse on the part of a rising social elite wishing to legitimate their own aspirations for privilege? . . . [S]cience, just like religion, rests upon a series of assumptions that cannot be scientifically proven . . . Enlightenment science is as weak a guarantor of truth as religion." (1994, p. 24). Science for Seidman and the other postmodernists is just faith in a secular vein without any special epistemological leverage. The proponents of the Enlightenment were simply replacing priests with scientists, and religion with another form of superstition. Sokal and Bricmont's Fashionable Nonsense (1998) calls the postmodernists' bluff on such charges. At this point, it is premature to draw conclusions about the future of this controversy. Suffice it to say for the time being that poetry and physics should be cataloged separately.

On the issue of morality and everyday politics, John O'Neill's The Poverty of Posmodernism takes a similarly critical view of "the academic trendiness" of advocates of cynicism and fragmentation who have forsaken humanism and the critique of social injustice as part of the postmodern turn. "Today we are told to jettison the old-fashioned belief in unique values . . . we are wholly ruled by prejudice and politics . . . we are asked to believe that human beings are now so speciated by gender and race—though we are silent about class—that there can be no universal knowledge, politics, or morality." As O'Neill stresses, "these ideas have not grown up among the masses who have sickened of the injustices and exploitation that grinds their life . . . it is not these people who have abandoned idealism, universalism, truth and justice. It is those who already enjoy these things who have denounced them on behalf of the others" (1995, p. 1)—the new "illiterati" of the simulacrum, the Disney World theorists and the esthetes of the radically chic. "Too much of the world still starves, dies young and is wasted by systematic greed and evil for anyone to write the obituaries of philosophy, ideology and humanism" (p. 196). O'Neill argues that there are good philosophical foundations in the phenomenology of everyday life, the transcendental instinct of reason to fasten on the contradictions of existence, and commonsense scepticism to keep alive the distinction between truth and falsity, freedom and slavery, and justice and injustice. The idea that political discourse has been reduced to mere perspective, that there is nothing outside language or that there is no "extratextuality" deny the vision of history and community, and exhaust culture with cultural industry, communication with fashion. "The claim that there are no longer any grand stories capable of under-writing common sense . . . gives comfort only to those who lack community at any level of society other than intellectual fashion" (p. 198). O'Neill's own inspiration for criticizing the antirationalism of postmodernism is founded on what he describes as the tension between language and vision, between elites and masses, between reality and possibility. The static linguisticality of postmodernism is a trap, an illusion. The current celebration of relativism by what used to be the progressive left is not only ill founded but politically nihilistic. It valorizes only minoritarianism while leaving unexamined the consequences of globalization and the dismantling of the welfare state by the political right. That state, with all its blemishes, has been an achievement in which civic democracy took root, in which politics was driven in part for reasons other than naked self-interest. In his vision, O'Neill says that postmodernism undermines our sense of cultural debt to the past and removes the duty which each generation has to pass on what it has learned to the future. "Those of us who own knowledge, who enjoy literacy, health, self-respect and social status have chosen to rage against our own gifts rather than to fight for their enlargement in the general public. We have chosen to invalidate our science, to psychiatrize our arts, to vulgarize our culture, to make it unusable and undesirable by those who have yet to know it. We honour no legacy. We receive no gifts. We hand on nothing" (1995, p. 2). Yet if O'Neill's critique of antirationalism is sound, all this changes and his self-flagellation is premature.

The moral and epistemological concerns of O'Neill and Sokal are quite different from the critiques of commodity esthetics in George Ritzer's The McDonaldization of Society, which provides a useful point of comparison. Following Weber's insight about the intrusiveness of rationalization, Ritzer shows how the McDonald fast-food franchise led to a widespread adoption of commodity production and consumption based on standardization, efficiency, leveling of tastes, and the stifling of worker experiences that has come to set the model for our individual relationships with the market, if not the world generally. But McDonaldization calls forth that critical posture which Veblen labeled "the instinct of craftmanship" ([1899] 1962, p. 75), without which waste and conspicuous consumption would be unbridled. Like Veblen, Ritzer applauds the resistance to such trends; but his perspective is Weberian and transcendental. By contrast, for students of postmodernism, scientific truths and emancipatory projects are merely further commodities, fashions, or fictions caught up in the McDonalization of empirical truth and the social good. Sokal and O'Neill represent the opening of serious dialogues on these engaging issues.

(see also: Popular Culture; Postindustrial Society; Social Philosophy)


Baudrillard, Jean 1983 In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities. New York: Semiotext(e).

Baum, Gregory 1990 "The Postmodern Age." CanadianForum (May):5–7.

Bauman, Z. 1988 "Is There a Postmodern Sociology?" Postmodernism, special issue of Theory, Culture andSociety 5(2–3):217–238.

Bell, Daniel 1976 The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. New York: Basic.

Bogard, William 1990 "Closing Down the Social: Baudrillard's Challenge to Contemporary Sociology." Sociological Theory 8(1):1–15.

Brown, Richard H. 1990 "Rhetoric, Textuality, and the Postmodern Turn in Sociological Theory." Sociological Theory 8(2):188–197.

Dawkins, Richard 1998 "Postmodernism Disrobed." Nature 394(9 July):141–143.

de Saussure, Ferdinand 1959 Course in General Linguistics. C. Bally and A. Sechehaye, eds., Wade Baskin, trans. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Frank, Arthur 1990, "Postmodern Sociology/Postmodern Review." Symbolic Interactionism 14(1):93–100.

Giddens, Anthony 1987 "Structuralism, Post-structuralism and the Production of Culture." In A. Giddens and J. Turner, eds., Social Theory Today. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Habermas, J. 1973 Legitimation Crisis. Boston: Beacon.

Harvey, David 1989 The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell.

Kingwell, Mark 1999 "Peace in the Science Wars?" Globeand Mail (May 29). (Review Essay, Toronto.)

Lyotard, Jean-Francois 1984 The Postmodern Condition: AReport on Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Mills, C. Wright 1959 The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Natoli, Joseph 1997 "Postmodernity's War with Science." In A Primer on Postmodernity. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.

O'Neill, John 1995 The Poverty of Postmodernism. New York: Blackwell.

Ritzer, George 1996 The McDonaldization of Society. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge.

Seidman, Steven 1994 Contested Knowledge: Social Theoryin the Postmodern Era. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.

Smart, Barry 1990 "On the Disorder of Things: Sociology, Postmodernity and 'The End of the Social."' Sociology 24:397–416.

Sokal, Alan D. 1996a "A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies." Lingua Franca 6(4):62–64.

——1996b "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." Social Text 14(1, 2):217–252.

——, and Jean Bricmont 1998 Fashionable Nonsense:Post Modern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science. New York: St. Martin's.

Touraine, Alain 1984 "The Waning Sociological Image of Social Life." International Journal of ComparativeSociology 25:33–44.

Veblen, Thorsten (1899) 1962 The Theory of the LeisureClass. New York: Mentor.

Augustine Brannigan


views updated May 23 2018


Postmodernism is an abstract, theoretical term and should be distinguished from postmodernity, which describes a sociological or cultural climate. The term postmodernism was coined in the late 1940s by British historian Arnold Toynbee, but used in the mid-1970s by the American art critic and theorist Charles Jencks to describe contemporary antimodernist movements like Pop art, Concept Art, and Postminimalism. Jean-François Lyotard, in his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), was one of the first thinkers to write extensively about postmodernism as a wider cultural phenomenon. He viewed it as coming both before and after modernism, the reverse side of it. As such, postmodern moments have subsequently been discerned in thinkers as various as the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Characteristics of the postmodern

For Lyotard, the postmodern is characterized by an incredulity towards metanarratives. By metanarratives he means the appeal to explanatory principles that presume to tell the story of the ways things are. Metanarrratives are accounts of the origin, foundations, and formations of the various forms of human knowledge: for example, motion (Isaac Newton), the mind (René Descartes and Immanuel Kant), history (George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel), the economy (Karl Marx), psychology (Sigmund Freud), and society (Emile Durkheim). Metanarratives assume the world and human activity within it can be known as a whole because it is rational and organized according to certain universal and verifiable laws or principles. Postmodernism announces a radical scepticism towards such universalism and the objectivity or view from no where that is presupposed in investigations into and accounts of these foundational laws or principles. Postmodernity, then, would describe a cultural situation in which such scepticism was culturally dominant. In such a time, the postmodern would not just be a theoretical critique of modernity's rational understanding of the world and the universalism of that reasoning. The postmodern would be an attempt to rethink and experience the world according to that antifoundationalism and the turn towards local knowledges or views from a specific standpoints: gendered knowledges, ethnic knowledges, religious knowledges, for example.

The postmodern world is composed of little other than grand narratives, accounts of knowledge that are aware they are partial in nature, refracted through a certain cultural perspective and constructed. Their constructedness is important, specifically when attempting to assess the impact of postmodernism on religion, science, and the debates between them. The constructedness of knowledge challenges the foundational realism of the empirical sciences in which language is simply viewed as transparently communicating the world as it is, mediating between mind and matter. When knowledge of "what is" is understood as constructed, then reality is soft, pliable, and ultimately open to endless interpretation and reinterpretation. Language no longer simply mediates or acts like a clear window on the world. Language creates, fashions what people see and what they understand by what they see. The universal concepts governing thinking in both the human and natural sciences in modernitytruth, nature, reality, historyare viewed as unstable. The instrumental thinking that accumulated "neutral" data, measured it, calculated the options, and arrived at general statements through an inductive reasoning is seen, at best, as just one form of rationality. Explanation becomes a mode of interpretation. Time (as a sequence of present moments), space (as that which either contains or is the extension of things), matter (as composed of atomized particles) all are refigured by the nonrealism and antifoundationalism of the postmodern. Attention to the constructed nature of representing the world leads to an emphasis upon the metaphoric, the symbolic, the allegorical, the theatrical, and the rhetorical. Rather than a world of inert entities, passive before objective enquiry, in the postmodern all things signify, entities are expressive. The real is an aesthetic effect so that belief in the literal is exactly that, a belief. The literal, the transparency of modernity's understanding of the meaning behind language, becomes an ideology.

Postmodern science and religion

While Silicon Valley scientists were establishing both themselves and cyberspace, the postmodern condition was producing its own understanding of virtual reality. And while astrophysicists were exploring the collapse of stars and the creation of black holes, the postmodern condition was producing its own understanding of the implosion of secular modernity and the sacredness of the void. The parallelisms between what the empirical sciences term "discoveries" and the cultural sciences in postmodernity would call "inventions" are not felicitous but inevitable. If knowledge is produced rather than found within a particular cultural milieu, then such parallelism will necessarily occur. Mary Hesse had already demonstrated this in her book Revolution and Reconstructions in the Philosophy of Science (1980). Paul Feyerabend had taken cultural pluralism right into the heart of the empirical sciences with his Against Method (1975).

At the same time, the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault was developing his genealogies and "archaeologies" of clinics, economics, madness, punishment, and sexuality, and extending the thesis that the way the world is understood and organized is governed by discursive acts of power and practical disciplines in which the body becomes the prisoner of the soul (or the way mind conceives the world to be). A sociology of knowledge led to a sociology of scientific knowledge. New histories were written that countered modernity's "progress" model of scientific discovery. New epistemologies and methodologies were sought, like the feminist standpoint work of Sandra Harding and Helen Longino, which examined abduction or the choices made in scientific research prior to and governing inductive reasoning.

At the same time, a new marriage was emerging between the mythological and the technological. In modernity, as the sociologist Max Weber's "disenchantment thesis" taught, the job of science was to demystify the world, and the various technological revolutions were the practical outworking of this rigorous demythologizing. The success of science was measured by progress in terms of human control over the world. Everything could be explained; science would provide the answers, and technology would harness the answers in order to liberate human beings from the drudgery of labor for the pursuit of civilized living. The supernatural was for the superstitious and the ignorant; religion was for those needing private consolation. Stripped of its liturgies, stories, and priestcraft, religion expressed human ideals of the good life. The priest at the altar was replaced by the scientist in the laboratory as religion, among the enlightened, was viewed as mythological clothing for human aspirations, fears, and projections. As such, modernity's dreams were often secularized religious ones: a new Jerusalem of technological efficiency as intellectually hygienic as it was biologically controlled. The "disenchantment" of the world, cultivated by technological progress, was a fundamental tool in the secularization of the sacred. All values were to be found in this world, not beyond it, and human beings were capable of realizing the very highest of these values themselves, through rationalization and forward planning.

The emergence of the postmodern condition, in critiquing the grand narratives of explanation and pointing up the ideologies of control, appealed to what lay outside of the secular worldview. From the mid-1970s there has been revival of romantic thinking. The gothic imagination flourishes again in popular culture, not only in terms of vampires, warlocks, angels, dungeons, dragons, and fascination with the psychotic, but in terms also of a renewed interest in all things medieval. The mythopoetic was revived, and the character of that revival can be estimated by comparing the Narnia Chronicles of C. S. Lewis to Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy or J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. For Lewis, Narnia was a separate realm reached only through the wardrobe in a professor's rambling Oxfordshire home. But in Dark Materials, the supernatural world is not distinct from the natural world, there is neither one nor the other.

Popular science (promoted in part by various governments wanting to interest the young in the technological and nurture a new generation of scientists and technicians) and science fiction assist now in the re-enchantment of the world. With the spread of home computers, the developments in telecommunications, digital graphics, and cinematic special effects, science promotes the bending of modernity's understanding of the real. Virtual reality is now not standing alongside some naturalistic prototype, virtual realities (plural) confuse any boundary between the natural and the supernatural. Science now promotes the transcendence of the human.

Two important thinkers have helped us to understand this postmodern science: Bruno Latour and Michel Serres. Latour's best known book, We Have Never Been Modern (1993), points out how modernity aspired to a transparency that separated one thing clearly from another. Modernity was committed to distillation. What it feared and policed was hybridities. As such, modernity produced and fostered a series of dualisms: the objective and the subjective; the body and the mind; the public and the private; the organic and the mechanical; the natural and the cultural. But the production and fostering of such dualisms required mediating agencies. The postmodern world is witnessing the return of the hybrid, as the mediating agencies can no longer cope with the infiltration of one category into another. The vampire, the cyborg, and the angel all figure this transcendence of the human, the instrumental, the calculated, and the rational in contemporary culture. The priest and the scientist are, as they often were in the mediaeval world, the same person.

Michel Serres book Angels: A Modern Myth (1993) expounds this new world-view in which postmodern science and religion fuse. Sketching a profound interrelatedness of all things, Serres denies material things are inert. All things communicatethe waves of the sea, weather systems, rock formations, human beings. The world is caught up in endless relays and interchanges of messages. As angels have traditionally been conceived as the purest of messengers, so the world can be viewed as participating in an angelic intercommunication that transcends this particular person or that particular object. Global telecommunications become an expression and development of this participation in a complex, discursive interconnectedness which, ultimately, for Serres, sings a doxology to the Most High. Serres practices the hybridity Latour informs us is the state of things, relating it specifically to a theological (in fact specifically Christian and sacramental) worldview.


The postmodern condition announces the collapse of secularism, but it also announces a new dialogue between religion and science. In premodernity, scientific enquiry submitted itself to religious judgement. In modernity, religion was deemed outdated, if not pathological, by the rise of the new sciences. In postmodernity, neither the oppositions nor the hierarchies pertain. And so the character of the debates between religion and science will change also. The earlier debates concerned themselves with attempting to show that there was no incompatibility between scientific discoveries and the religious perspective. They were conducted frequently by scientists with religious commitments, in an attempt to integrate two divergent views of the world. They constituted a form of liberal apologetics in which science offered the vision of what was, and religionists showed how that did not conflict with a theological worldview. The metaphysics of empiricism and positivism remained firmly in place, dictating the terms of the struggle and the attempts at détente. Postmodernism, having challenged those empiricisms and positivisms, having announced a contemporary incredulity in such foundationalism, will usher in a round of new debates between religion and science that will demonstrate a shift in cultural power, a reciprocal learning, a new respect. Serres's work shows the way, but religionists have recently appealed also to the work of the Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose who, in a different way, endorses an indeterminacy between the brain and the world such that both the material and the immaterial are caught up in complex informational processes. The various alliances between new age religions and concerns with ecology are also significant indicators of cultural change. The basis for the new discussions is an emphasis upon interconnectedness and attention to participating within open-ended informational systems in which the psychic and the material are not distinct but inseparable, mutually informing dimensions.

See also Nonfoundationalism; Postfoundationalism; Postmodern Science


harding, sandra. "rethinking standpoint epistemology 'what is strong objectivity?'" in feminist epistemologies, eds. linda alcoff and elizabeth potter. london: routledge, 1993.

latour, bruno. we have never been modern, trans. catherine porter. cambridge, mass.: harvard university press, 1993.

latour, bruno, with michel serres. conversations on science, culture and time, trans. roxanne lapidus. ann arbor: university of michigan press, 1995.

longino, helen. "subjects, power and knowledge." in feminist epistemologies, eds. linda alcoff and elizabeth potter. london: routledge, 1993.

lyotard, jean-françois. the postmodern condition: a report on knowledge (1979), trans. geoff bennington and brian massumi. manchester, uk: manchester university press, 1984.

poovey, mary. the history of the modern fact: problems of knowledge in the sciences of wealth and society. chicago: university of chicago press, 1998.

serres, michel. angels: a modern myth, trans. francis cowper. paris: flammarion, 1993.

shapin, steven. a social history of truth: civility and science in seventeenth century england. chicago: university of chicago press, 1994.

shapin, steven, and schaff, simon. leviathan and the air-pump. princeton, n.j.: princeton university press, 1985.

taylor, mark c. about religion: economies of faith in virtual culture. chicago: university of chicago press, 1999.

ward, graham. cities of god. london: routledge, 2000.

graham ward


views updated May 14 2018


POSTMODERNISM. In the 1970s, "postmodernism" became a descriptive reference for certain changes occurring in American social, intellectual, and cultural life. The term had an elusive quality about it, and scholarly efforts to give it greater precision abounded. Post-modernism also yielded a critical literature as intellectuals pondered its political and ideological significance. Like "modernism," "postmodernism" conveyed different notions in the different categories in which the word was used. Examining the postmodern phenomenon in those categories does, however, suggest parallel meanings that paint a larger picture of American life in the late twentieth century. Causal interconnections are by no means self-evident, but common themes and motifs do appear.

Economic Affiliation

Postmodernism concurs with the emergence of postindustrialism. In the mid-1970s, the United States became, statistically, a service economy, with more workers employed in that category than in industrial jobs. Longstanding landmarks of the industrial era—steel, auto-mobiles—declined and service businesses—hotels, travel agencies, restaurants, medical and health care organizations, sports, health clubs, real estate—provided the growth sectors of the American economy. These outlets serviced the greater leisure and discretionary time available to many Americans. Family patterns and gender roles were changing and greater personal choice produced a "lifestyle" revolution. Postindustrialism also connoted an "information age." Communications, the television medium, research and development, and the dissemination of knowledge in all forms attained higher prominence and importance. By the century's end personal computers had become common household items and computer functions proved indispensable to virtually every business function in the postindustrial economy. The information age, with its ever-accelerating pace, compelled Americans to process data and symbols in a new sensory environment.

Social critics perceived the change. The futurist Alvin Toffler's Future Shock, a best-selling book of 1970, described the new "feel" of the "super industrial economy." The rapid pace of change, the accelerated mobility of the business world, the "throwaway society" of the consumer market, Tofler asserted, all created the transient and impermanent sense of life in the new era. Human relations became more ad hoc as older social structures dissolved, Toffler believed. Christopher Lasch, in The Culture of Narcissism (1979) lamented the triumph of a hedonistic culture. Reflecting on the "political crisis of capitalism," Lasch recounted the emergence of a "therapeutic sensibility" and Americans' pervasive quest for psychic well-being. According to Lasch, Americans knew only the overwhelming present of the capitalist marketplace; self-preoccupation, indiscriminate hedonism, and anarchic individualism had become the normative social impulses of American life.

Postmodern Intellect

Impermanence, pluralism, dissolution, and the decay of authority constituted thematic emphases in the intellectual dimensions of postmodernism. The major influence, in the fields of language and literary theory, came heavily from the French. In the late 1960s, American students began to hear of thinkers like Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and others. They provided the leads in the redirection in American literary studies, "the linguistic turn" that would have influence in many academic disciplines. Influenced by the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, the French thinkers sought to deflate the pretensions of the logocentric, or word-focused, culture of Western civilization. Literary and intellectual texts, they asserted, always, when under close examination, yield both multiple and contradictory meanings. They "deconstruct" themselves. They do not produce truth systems; they confront us only with an endless chain of signifiers. Meaning always recedes, and eludes the reader. Western thinking, the poststructuralists maintained, had always been a quest for metaphysical comfort—a quest for the Absolute. But the efforts, they asserted, collapse from their very excesses. Poststructuralists such as those associated with the Yale School of academics in the 1970s deprived literary texts of subject authority ("the disappearance of the author"), coherence (texts are "de-centered"), and social reference ("there is nothing outside the text"). On the other hand, in poststructuralism, loss of authority also signified the positive alternative of reading as personal freedom ("re-creation"); Barthes wrote of the "pleasure of the text." In the Yale School, Geoffrey Hartman urged that the very indeterminacy of language empowered a creative criticism that broke the shackles of univocal meaning.

Postmodernism in its poststructuralist mode challenged the European and American left. In France, it replaced a Marxism that had dominated in the universities into the 1960s. In the United States, a sustained attack came from the literary scholar Frank Lentricchia in his 1980 book After the New Criticism. Leftist scholars, and particularly Marxists, had long insisted that literature, like all culture, reflected the hegemony of the dominant classes in capitalism; thus it always had a social connection and a historical foundation. Lentricchia saw in the American poststructuralists merely a formalist and hermetic approach to literature, depriving it of social and political context. "Pleasures of the text" conveyed to Lentricchia only the habits of aesthetic indulgence in bourgeois appropriations of culture, in short, a familiar recourse to hedonism. The linguistic turn to this extent, he believed, registered the most damning aspects of American capitalist culture, dissevering literature from the class struggle and rendering it a decorative and therapeutic device that invites us to take our pleasure as we like it.

In philosophy, Richard Rorty moved in a similar postmodernist direction. His Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) sought, like the poststructuralists, to deflate the pretensions of his discipline. Western thinking, he insisted, had gone awry in its long-standing efforts to secure a foundational epistemology, to make mind the mirror of nature. Rorty faulted the ahistorical character of this quest. Philosophy became defensive, he charged, freezing reality in privileged forms or essences. Appealing to the American pragmatist John Dewey, Rorty wished to return philosophy to the problematical aspects of ordinary life. In this era of "post-" and "neo-" labeling, Rorty called for a "post-Philosophy" that abandons pursuit of the conditioning groundwork of all thinking; instead, philosophy should be a form of hermeneutics. Post-Philosophy, for Rorty, had a relaxed and playful manner; it becomes an aspect of conversation, rooted in social and historical conditions. Here, too, a therapeutic quality stands out: philosophy helps us cope.

Postmodernism had a major social voice in the brilliant writings of the French thinker Michel Foucault. Though a voice of the political left, Foucault represents the postmodernist diminution of Marxism. To many post-structuralists like Foucault, Marxism conveyed traditional Western habits of logocentrism and notions of totality, from Hegel and onto "Western" Marxist humanism in the twentieth century. Foucault added to textual analysis the ingredient of power and saw language systems and intellectual discourse as vehicles of control. Foucault, however, read society like poststructuralists read literary texts, as decentered systems. In contrast to Marxists, he described power not as hegemony but as multiplicities, localities of activities, spaces, in which resistance and subversion are always at work. Foucault faulted Marxism as an intellectual residual of nineteenth-century ideology. Postmodernists like the French critic Jean-François Lyotard, in his influential book The Post-Modern Condition (1979), distrusted all holistic theorizing and "metanarratives." Absolutism in thought, he believed, led to totalitarianism in the political realm, the Gulag.

Postmodernist Arts

Postmodernism had specific references to the visual arts and redefined trends in painting and architecture. In the 1960s the reign of modernism in painting weakened. Nonrepresentational forms, of which the most often highlighted was abstract expressionism, gave way to stark contrasts, as in pop art. New styles proliferated: photo-realism, pattern and decorative art, high-tech art. Although some new genres—such as feminist and performance art—often suggested a subversive intent, generally commentators saw that postmodernism took painting away from the critical edge and alienated mood of modernism. They found in the newer varieties a relaxed posture. And against the arctic purity of modernism, its successor forms invited a sensual indulgence, not only in the marketplace of suburban America, but also in older art forms obscured or discredited by the modernist imperium. Museums sponsored revivals and retrospective exhibits of all kinds.

Architecture saw a similar shift. Sleek, glass rectangular skyscrapers, born of the severe rationalism of the Bauhaus school decades previously, had long dominated the main streets of America's large cities. Revolting against this restrictive formalism of modernist architecture, Robert Venturi led a postmodernist protest. His book Learning from Las Vegas (1972) celebrated the "ordinary and ugly" buildings of that American playground. Then in 1978, Philip Johnson, a noted practitioner of modernism, surprised the critics in revealing his design for the new AT&T building in New York City. Johnson affixed to the top of the slender rectangular slab a 30-foot-high pediment, broken in the center by a circular opening, an orbiculum that capped the building with a stylistic crown. It looked to some like the crest of an old grandfather clock. Almost overnight, it seemed, Johnson's "Chippendale" effect gave architects a license to appropriate freely from any and all older mannerisms. Post-modernist architecture signified a pervasive and playful eclecticism.

These directions raised more critical voices, mostly on the cultural left. The Marxist scholar Fredric Jameson provided the most trenchant attack in his Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). Everywhere postmodernism signified to Jameson the loss of critical distance, the triumph of "kitsch," the collapse of all signs and symbols under the global marketplace of international capitalism. Under postmodernism, he said, historicity dissolved. The past presented itself only as commodifiable pastiche. Postmodernism, in Jameson's account, meant the flattening out of all historically conditioned realities that constitute the vehicle of social reconstruction. It leaves only the reign of simulacra, the therapeutic salve, the pseudo-reality of a dehumanized civilization.

Postmodernist culture reflected the proliferating diversity of American life in the late twentieth century. It fostered a mood of acceptance and democratic tolerance. Some resented its anti-elitism and found it meretricious and too comfortable with the commercial nexus. The postmodernist era brought a politics of diversity and group identity—in women's rights, gay liberation, black, Indian, and Chicano ethnic movements. Here, too, postmodernism broke down prevailing norms and idealizations of American life. Some saw in the effects a healthy, democratic tolerance. Others wondered whether there remained any unifying force or any center in American life.


Bertens, Hans. The Idea of the Postmodern: A History. London: Routledge, 1995.

Hoeveler, J. David, Jr. The Postmodernist Turn: American Thought and Culture in the 1970s. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.

Kellner, Douglas, ed. Postmodernism: Jameson Critique. Washington, D.C.: Maisonneuve Press, 1989.

Silverman, Hugh J., ed. Postmodernism: Philosophy and the Arts. New York: Routledge, 1990.

J. DavidHoeveler

See alsoPost-structuralism .


views updated May 23 2018


The term "postmodernism" first emerged in the 1950s to describe new architectural and literary movements that opposed commonly accepted canons regarding the unity and coherence of narratives and artistic styles. Sociologists, meanwhile, have used "postmodernism" to indicate discordant trends such as the parallel growth in cosmopolitan globalization and parochial traditionalism. The term has also been appropriated by mainly French and German philosophers to designate a criticism of reason, regarded as a universal and certain foundation for knowledge and morality, and of modern culture, understood as a progressive unfolding of knowledge and morality. An examination of the works of these philosophers shows that many of the postmodern themes regarding the fragmentation (or deconstruction) of the rational subject and its object can be explained from the standpoint of conceptual tensions implicit within post-Kantian philosophy, which remains the main target of postmodern criticism.

A true son of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant defended reason as a universal faculty whose untrammeled exercise irresistibly leads to questioning all dogma and all authority, and from there leads to the complete emancipation of all individuals from the fetters of tradition. Faith in reason as it is deployed in science and morality fuels faith in the interminable progress of humanity. However, as postmodernists like Michel Foucault point out, the very reason that develops modern culture disintegrates under its own self-critical gaze, thereby issuing in oscillating and often discordant trends between absolutism and nihilism, totalitarianism and anarchism, humanism and multiculturalism, and universalism and parochialism. The end of rational idealism in turn spells the end of the subject as an autonomous, self-identifying, and self-determining locus of agency.

Ironically, it was Kant himself who initiated the critique of reason that later inspired postmodern philosophy. Kant observed that reason recognizes no limits in questioning the ultimate metaphysical grounds underlying reality, but that any answer it gives in response to its own questions entails contradiction. Rational inquiry must therefore be limited to phenomena within everyday experience. Kant's critique of pure, experience-transcending reason already anticipated postmodern skepticism regarding the completeness of our knowledge of things in their totality, while rejecting such skepticism with regard to our knowledge of things in their experiential finitude. Kant's rejection of this latter form of skepticism, whose main exponent is David Hume, requires that reason be seen as a synthetic power that infuses experience of objects with causal necessity as it imposes rational identity on the experiencing subject. However, to reconcile the causal necessity of the world with the uncaused freedom of the moral subject, Kant had to divide reason into two opposed deploymentstheoretical and practicalonly one of which was a source of knowledge (he later added a third, aesthetic deployment to mediate between the moral and the theoretical). Subsequent postmodernists continued to divide reason into an indefinite number of context-specific applications, thereby undermining any certain belief in a common reason, a common world, and a common humanity.

Also postmodern is Kant's view that reason questions even its own authority as a certain foundation of knowledge. As G. F. W. Hegel astutely noted, this self-referential (or reflexive) use of reason is paradoxical. By limiting the valid deployment of cognitive reason to natural science, critical philosophy undermines its own claim to validity as a nonscientific form of reflective knowledge. Conversely, by grounding natural science in a nonnatural form of transcendental subjectivity, it unwittingly shows natural science and its object to be partial and superficial forms of cognition and reality, respectively.

According to postmodernists, Hegel's system marks the last great attempt to resolve the crisis of reason bequeathed by Kantian philosophy. It does so by affirming what Kant had denied: reason's infinite demand to know the infinite totality. As noted above, this demand issues in contradiction. However, Hegel thought that this was true only if philosophical reflection did not completely grasp all possible metaphysical categories in a manner that showed how each implied all the others. Hegel's circular reasoning would show that the apparent contradictions implicit in metaphysical reasoning ultimately establish a closed system of resolved complementarities. In contrast, any attempt to found one kind of belief deductively on another in a noncircular way, as Kant had proposed, must issue in unresolved contradiction.

Postmodernists question whether reason can establish a complete and coherent system of thought. From Hegel's thought they retain his dialectical view that the fundamental reasons that define, categorize, and ground our beliefs about things effectively refer to properties that are thought to be external or opposed to these things. Thus, while logic (analytic reason) seeks to establish categorical distinctions between self and other, nature and society, reason and unreason, philosophical reasoning about logic undermines these distinctions. Postmodernists therefore conclude that nothing is certain and definite, not even our certainty that we as rational subjects exist.

The undermining of categorical distinctions has an important bearing on the meaningfulness of language. Postmodernists point to the futility of trying to ground the meaning of concepts in empirically verifiable objects or in what is immediately given in experience. As Ludwig Wittgenstein noted in his Tractatus Logico-philosophicus, the logical and philosophical metalanguage that is supposed to ground the meaningfulness of the object language in immediate experience is not itself an object language referring to immediate experience. Citing similar self-referential paradoxes made famous by Bertrand Russell, Kurt Gödel, and Werner Heisenberg, Jean François Lyotard has argued that epistemic and logical indeterminacy, incompleteness, and uncertainty necessarily infect any scientific or philosophical metanarrative that claims to be all-encompassing. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the common acceptance by philosophers of language that meaning is relative to context and usage and yet is underdetermined by them has led philosophers as diverse as Donald Davidson and Jacques Derrida to suggest that meaning is at the very least an indefinite project of textual interpretation, if not, as Lyotard and Foucault argue, an anarchic war of contesting and inventing.

For postmodernists, acknowledging the uncertainty, ambiguity, and loss of identity that comes with the demise of rationalism, humanism, and idealism need not commit us to nihilism. On the contrary, as Friedrich Nietzsche observed, by insisting on impossible norms of certainty, clarity, and identity, we end up devaluing those common unfathomable and uncanny modes of moral and religious experience that open us up to novelty, fantasy, and vulnerability. Worse, by insisting on these impossible norms, we become arrogant and drunk on our own "will to power." It was in the name of pure reason, after all, that "enlightened" Europeans sought to eliminate or assimilate to themselves the "unenlightened" peoples of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Genuine postmodern responsibility, by contrast, endeavors to promote an active, nondomineering receptivity to the other, no matter how different it may appear.

See also Art, Interpretation of; Art, Value in; Foucault, Michel; Language; Lyotard, Jean François; Rationality.


Best, Steven, and Douglas Kellner. The Postmodern Turn. New York: Guilford Press, 1997.

Derrida, Jacques. Margins of Philosophy. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. New York: Pantheon, 1970.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Translated by Frederick G. Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Translated by John Cumming. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.

Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Translated by Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Lyotard, Jean François. The Postmodern Condition. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Lyotard, Jean François. The Postmodern Explained: Correspondence, 19821985. Translated by Julian Pefanis and Morgan Thomas. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Lyotard, Jean François. Toward the Postmodern. Translated by Robert Harvey and Mark S. Roberts. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1993.

Natoli, Joseph, and Linda Hutcheon, eds. A Postmodern Reader. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Silverman, Hugh J., ed. Postmodernism: Philosophy and the Arts. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Vattimo, Gianni. The End of Modernity. Translated by Jon R. Snyder. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

David Ingram (2005)


views updated Jun 11 2018



Since the late 1960s, when literary critics brought the term into circulation, postmodernism has been employed in what appears at first sight to be rather different contexts. Initially referring to a loosely defined set of innovations in practically all artistic disciplines, including architecture, it later came to include a new perspective on language, knowledge, even the idea of reality itself. In hindsight, we can see that the postmodern impulse first surfaced in the 1950s, well before American literary and cultural critics such as Ihab Hassan and Susan Sontag began to identify it as such. In the United States we find it in, for instance, the collages of Robert Rauschenberg (b. 1925), the ironic borrowings from popular art in the work of Roy Liechtenstein (1923–1997), the musical experiments of John Cage (1912–1992), the "happenings" of the late 1950s, and other developments that remind of us the continental European avant-gardes of the early decades of the twentieth century. We find echoes of Dada, but without its deliberately offensive political edge, and of surrealism, but without surrealism's belief in the role Sigmund Freud assigned to the "unconscious."


In its earliest phase, this American version of post-modernism was a mostly playful revolt against the solemnities, anxieties, and hierarchies of the 1950s and against the high seriousness and lofty moral purposes of much of its art. We find the same appreciation of playfulness and popular art forms in Robert Venturi's early 1960s reappraisal of the architecture of the Las Vegas Strip. In France we find a similar turning away from the concerns of an earlier generation, strongly marked in this case by the still recent experience of Nazi totalitarianism. Initially limited to literature, the postmodern reaction to the insistent moral seriousness of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and others was one of formal experiment and of self-reflexivity, as in the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet (b. 1922), in which character, theme, and so on are secondary to an exploration of the formal possibilities that the novel as an art form offers.

This is not to say that we do not find playfulness in French postmodernism or that its American counterpart does not go in for formal experiment and self-reflexivity. In fact, as postmodernism developed and became resolutely international, playfulness, formal experiment, and the intense consciousness that accompanies self-reflexivity became virtually inseparable, as in the following questionnaire that the unsuspecting reader suddenly encounters in Donald Barthelme's Snow White (1967):

  1. Do you like the story so far? Yes () No ()
  2. Does Snow White resemble the Snow White you remember? Yes () No ()
  3. Have you understood, in reading to this point, that Paul is the prince figure? Yes () No ()
  4. That Jane is the wicked stepmother-figure? Yes ()No()
  5. In the further development of the story, would you like more emotion () or less emotion ()?


By the 1970s postmodernism had developed its own seriousness. While in postmodernism's early stages this seriousness was less than obvious, partly because of its apparently willful superficiality, partly because of its interest in formal display, it now was pervasively present in novels such as Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973) or Robert Coover's The Public Burning (1977), providing a moral framework for their wild improbabilities, displays of self-reflexivity, unsettling asides to the reader, and general authorial zaniness.

It would, in fact, be fair to say that postmodern art, in one way or another, has been serious all along. Its borrowings from popular culture, its array of anti-interpretive strategies (disruptions, intentional incoherence, refusal to provide closure, apparent lack of artistic control, deliberate shallowness), its self-reflexivity, its confusing hybridity (as in landscape art or installations) and mixing of styles (as in postmodern architecture), serve an ultimately political purpose. Such typically post-modern features question the politics—based on a specific view of art, the artist, and art's social function—that dominated the postwar art world and its institutions. They reject the ideals of coherence (dominant in modernist literary criticism) and of purity (central to our understanding of modernism in the visual arts and to the modernist architecture of Bauhaus and its followers). They also call into question the uniqueness of the artistic object, the artist as hero, and the transcendence of art itself, that is, its status as the refuge of eternal aesthetic values in a commercialized world.

Postmodern art is thoroughly skeptical, first of all about art, but also about the role of the institutions, such as museums, that embody such ideals, and even about deeply entrenched humanist convictions concerning the uniqueness and autonomy of the individual. In the course of the 1970s, that skepticism, influenced by postmodern theory, was extended to all social structures, including gender roles, class and race relations, even capitalism itself. To put this differently, since its emergence in the 1950s postmodern art has of course, like all art, drawn our attention to itself, but also to an ever-widening social context. It has tried to make us ask questions such as: What is art? Who decides the answer—and why? Who is excluded by this definition? Who controls art's institutions? How are they funded?


Postmodern theory, which in the later 1970s began to exert enormous influence, especially in the humanities, has its basis in France. It is best seen as an amalgam, the exact mixture depending on the theorist in question, of ideas and arguments derived from the writings of the Marxist sociologist Louis Althusser (1918–1990), the philosophers Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) and Jean-François Lyotard (1925–1998), the historian Michel Foucault (1926–1984), and the literary critic Roland Barthes (1815–1980). In all of its many versions, however, it is resolutely antihumanist and sees everything as inevitably partaking in relations of power. What distinguishes postmodern theory from other antihumanist perspectives that claim to have a sharp eye for the workings of power—such as Marxism—is its focus on language and on the way language constructs the world we (think we) live in.

For Derrida, language is inherently elusive and unstable. It is a centerless system of ultimately arbitrary signs that is never unequivocally anchored in reality and that never allows stable meaning—that is, truth—to emerge. As a result, language facilitates the emergence of false truths and a false order through oppositions (white versus black, masculine versus feminine, rational versus irrational, Western versus Oriental) in which one pole is routinely "privileged," that is, accorded superiority. For Foucault, language creates order through what he calls "discourses": networks of interlocking statements that have evolved over time and that determine what counts as relevant and even true within the fields they control. Foucault discusses a limited number of discourses—medical, legal, sexological—but obviously there is a discourse for every imaginable field. It is these discourses, seemingly without origin and belonging to nobody, that effectively constitute reality as we know it and that embody and perpetuate power and confer it on those who can participate in them. To be outside discourses—where women and non-whites have found themselves over much of Western history—means to go unheard and to be powerless.

Postmodern theory aims to bring to light how texts and other forms of communication—including works of (literary) art—try to establish truths by privileging certain positions. It then goes on to "deconstruct" them by exposing their ambiguities and internal contradictions. Alternatively, it may show how those positions derive from one or more discourses that have no authority apart from their own insistent claims. In both cases, postmodern theory seeks to demonstrate that language—or, for that matter, any sign system—cannot accurately represent the world. It shows that it is language that creates our world and it alerts us to the fact that we are constantly duped into accepting as given, as natural, what is in fact fundamentally ungrounded.

The postmodern attack on language and, more generally, on all our conceptual systems, leads inevitably toward skepticism and relativism. For postmodernists, there is no such thing as truth; there are only positions that can always be traced back to the metaphoric play of language. For radical postmodernists, even the claims of science derive their authority only from the discourse within which they are presented. Needless to say, such views are highly controversial. More generally, postmodernism's skepticism with regard to individual agency, its resolute antirealism, and its suspicion of reason—which it tends to see as a repressive force—have generated widespread criticism. It should be said that postmodern theory is indeed not characterized by intellectual rigor, an attitude that can partly be blamed on its suspicion of reason, partly on sheer mischief, and partly on the fact that it took form in a literary rather than a philosophical environment. In spite of that, it has played an enormously important role by insisting on the ubiquitousness of power and the inevitability of politics and by constantly trying to do justice to the historically marginalized. Without postmodernism's groundbreaking radical questioning, new fields of study such as postcolonial or queer studies would not have emerged. Even new forms of political activism such as identity politics and single-issue politics would not have taken the shape they have.

See alsoArchitecture; Derrida, Jacques; Foucault, Michel; Lyotard, Jean-François.


Bertens, Hans. The Idea of the Postmodern: A History. London, 1995.

Butler, Christopher. Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, U.K., 2002.

Connor, Stephen. Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary. 2nd ed. Oxford, U.K., 1997.

Hassan, Ihab. The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture. Columbus, Ohio, 1987.

Jencks, Charles. What Is Postmodernism? Rev. ed. London, 1996.

Hans Bertens