Postmodernism – Just as modernity is the period after the Middle Ages, so is postmodernity the period of modernity after modernity’s global (but incomplete) ascendancy—after the exhaustion of the modern and its turn toward severe self-awareness. Generally, we talk about postmodernity as beginning after World War II.

The style or movement in art, thought, and literature that came out of the transition from modernity to postmodernity is called Postmodernism. Sometimes capitalized, sometimes hyphenated, sometimes abbreviated (pomo), the term is hotly disputed, at every level of meaning. Some hate the word and wish to “skunk” it (retire it, replacing it with something new—protomodern, amodern, nonmodern), but for whatever reason, the word has staying power.

This entry will focus on Postmodernism as a literary style, examining both expression (form, method, structure, medium) and content (philosophical trend, discourse, genre).

The Postmodern style of expression is fragmented, often made up of any number of other, older styles put together. This is called pastiche—an intentional return to an older form. Examples of famous pastiches include the Romantic bluster of Melville, the cowboy genre as a whole, the 1950s Americana love story as seen in the 1980s romantic movie/Back to the Future, the slasher (which, as a genre, hearkens back to Poe for many of its basic conventions), the Renaissance fable (a return to the Greeks), the Enlightenment picaresque (the Odyssey, lived again to illumine some post-Rousseau Protestant moral).

The Postmodern style of content is purposefully wide open to new meanings—with the world, which constantly varies in both content and expression. Kafka and Beckett are seen as the last Modernists and first Postmodernists. Their traditions broke the final barriers of narrative center and arboreal writing; Kafka’s stories are darkly comic ambiguities which fit into the world as opposed to masking it or removing it to the gallery of the idea. Beckett’s game of stones is a perfect machine for making meaning. It has several immediate meanings, and it opens itself into the world.

Because styles were blown apart “completely” by Modernism, and “every” idea was iterated out extensively (these are gross exaggerations, to make a quick point), in Postmodernism, every work must be quotational—ironic—aware of the works that prefigure it.

Self-awareness extends to both style and content. I cannot write a story about China without thinking of Kafka, of Chinese authors I have read, of the condition of an American man writing about China. In terms of mode, a text often in some way references its own text-ness. Wythe writes an email about Wythe writing an email… Morrison “interviews” her fictional subjects, etc.

Postmodern works, being in the world and not representations of the world, intersect strongly with society. The most critically studied Postmodern threads today include feminism (how should men and women related, now that the world is massively aware of gender disparities/trying to undo those disparities? in what new language, asks philosopher Hélène Cixous, should women write?—lots to discuss, we can do so in class), queer studies (in a world in which gender-identity and increasingly even biological sex are mutable?), and postcolonialism, which in many ways addresses the fragmentation and pastiche, recapitulating it at the level of story. The great novels are increasingly postcolonial, aware of history, aware of the history of literature, aware of other literatures, aware of the play of minorities and minor languages upon/into majorities and major languages.

Other threads include the neo-fabulist tradition of magical realism (Cortázar, Marquez, etc.), as well as the conceptual traditions of the OULIPO and the classic American Postmodernists, including Coover, Barthelme, and the now hugely and deservedly popular George Saunders.

Kafka is, with Samuel Beckett, both the definitive final Modernist and the first Postmodernist. He was writing in a Modernist mindset, or trying to, but his works ultimately jumped the shark on the positivist project of Modernism, allowing its skepticism toward the future (read esp.: skepticism toward the positivism of the Third Reich) to restructure and ultimately efface both the past and the self:

The Postmodern turn is one away from a definite past that can be mined, using the techniques of the Enlightenment (science) and with the vigor of Romanticism (belief in self), in order to plan a better future. In Postmodernism, the past (definiteness) finally takes on the qualities of the future (possibility), in the same way that, until the World Wars, the future was imbued in the East and West with a predictability and definiteness that led to grand projects (culminating in the machine-state, in Stalinism)—projects we call (now derisively) Utopias.

In Postmodernism writing and thought, the opposite occurs: Projects are deconstructed, shown to contain within themselves the seeds of their own pre-construction impossibility. The project of writing the ultimate experience of the human consciousness on the page (seen in Woolf, Joyce, Faulkner, Wright, Tanizaki, Mishima), is show to be futile and in fact misleading: Consciousness, just like the greater world: It is not presentable via representation. Consciousness alone cannot be “signed.” It is the thing that coordinates signs and therefore escapes even the genius of, say, Woolf, to leak it onto the page.

Consciousness can only be verbed, be made to be felt; the words themselves, in Beckett, in late Joyce (Finnegan’s Wake), and first and especially in my man Kafka (The Castle), must finally not be things-that-mean-other-things (signifiers leading to “meanings” somewhere beyond the text), but things themselves. This is triumph, in prose, of the idea of Being that Heidegger and others defined in philosophy and, first, Pound et al called for in poetry. With Kafka, we have an end to the story, meaning the tale about a thing in a represented world: We have the beginning of the story that is itself a world, a story that stories, a machine that encompasses, in fact, our world, and is plugged back into it, or envelops it…

Postmodernist poetry, an example: Read Ashbery’s, “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape.” This poem has it all: It’s a sestina (pastiche); it’s about an American pop cartoon (high/low); it’s funny; it’s sad. Ask yourself, how does it merge with you as you read, as opposed to presenting another reality? It’s a cartoon, sure, but part of our watching of cartoons is our, easy suspension of disbelief. We identify with ridiculous characters…

Here, Ashbery uses this postmodern (low) art to strengthen his own (high) artistic machine. He gives us a machine for making meanings about ourselves, our relationships to one another, our relationships to art (to cartoons, to poetry), and finally our understandings of the purely poetic (words-in-themselves) effect of this particular machine. Never is Ashbery trying to represent the real world. His art instead joins the world in challenging us.

Other seminal postmodernists include short-story innovators Queneau, Calvino, Barthelme, and Mathews.

A great quotation that may help you understand postmodernism, emphasis mine:

Postmodernism is essentially a reaction to utopianism, the intellectual disease of the future that infected the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. The future was thought to be definite, attainable and realizable; in other words, it was given the attributes of the past. Postmodernism, with its aversion to Utopias, inverted the signs and reached for the past, but in so doing, gave it the attributes of the future: indeterminateness, incomprehensibility, polysemy, and the ironic play of possibilities. The phases of time have been castled.

—Mikhail Epstein, “A Future After the Future

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