Introduction to Postmodernism

A Beginning

Postmodernism in literature can only be understood in relation to Modernism. We could call it a continuation of Modernism by other means, but this would only address its style, and not its substance. At its core, Postmodernism rejects that which Modernism champions, a resting upon the bedrock of Enlightenment ideas.

A Refresher - Enlightenment Ideas

Here's a summary list of core Enlightenment values and beliefs:

  1. There is a stable, coherent, knowable self. This self is conscious, rational, autonomous, and universal-- no physical conditions or differences substantially affect how this self operates.
  2. This self knows itself and the world through reason, or rationality, posited as the highest form of mental functioning, and the only objective form.
  3. The mode of knowing produced by the objective rational self is "science," which can provide universal truths about the world, regardless of the individual status of the knower.
  4. The knowledge produced by science is "truth," and is eternal.
  5. The knowledge/truth produced by science (by the rational objective knowing self) will always lead toward progress and perfection. All human institutions and practices can be analyzed by science (reason/objectivity) and improved.
  6. Reason is the ultimate judge of what is true, and therefore of what is right, and what is good (what is legal and what is ethical). Freedom consists of obedience to the laws that conform to the knowledge discovered by reason.
  7. In a world governed by reason, the true will always be the same as the good and the right (and the beautiful); there can be no conflict between what is true and what is right (etc.).
  8. Science thus stands as the paradigm for any and all socially useful forms of knowledge. Science is neutral and objective; scientists, those who produce scientific knowledge through their unbiased rational capacities, must be free to follow the laws of reason, and not be motivated by other concerns (such as money or power).
  9. Language, or the mode of expression used in producing and disseminating knowledge, must be rational also. To be rational, language must be transparent; it must function only to represent the real/perceivable world which the rational mind observes. There must be a firm and objective connection between the objects of perception and the words used to name them (between signifier and signified).


Modernity is fundamentally about order: about rationality and rationalization, creating order out of chaos. The assumption is that creating more rationality is conducive to creating more order, and that the more ordered a society is, the better it will function (the more rationally it will function). Because modernity is about the pursuit of ever-increasing levels of order, modern societies constantly are on guard against anything and everything labeled as "disorder," which might disrupt order. Thus modern societies rely on continually establishing a binary opposition between "order" and "disorder," so that they can assert the superiority of "order." But to do this, they have to have things that represent "disorder"-- modern societies thus continually have to create/construct "disorder." In western culture, this disorder becomes "the other"-- defined in relation to other binary oppositions. Thus anything non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-hygienic, non-rational, (etc.) becomes part of "disorder," and has to be eliminated from the ordered, rational modern society.


Let's begin with a few definitions:

Meta-Narratives and Grand Narratives

These two terms, coined by Francois Lyotard, are stories a culture tells itself about its practices and beliefs. A "grand narrative" in American culture might be the story that democracy is the most enlightened (rational) form of government, and that democracy can and will lead to universal human happiness. Every belief system or ideology has its grand narratives, according to Lyotard; for Marxism, for instance, the "grand narrative" is the idea that capitalism will collapse in on itself and a utopian socialist world will evolve. You might think of grand narratives as a kind of meta-theory, or meta-ideology, that is, an ideology that explains an ideology (as with Marxism); a story that is told to explain the belief systems that exist. Lyotard argues that all aspects of modern societies, including science as the primary form of knowledge, depend on these grand narratives.


Jacques Derrida, the progenitor of what is now referred to as Deconstruction, sought to explode the notion that there is any necessary, a priori, transcendent "center" of any structure. The notion of structure is, for Derrida, "as old as Western science and Western philosophy." Derrida announces an event which he terms a "rupture" in the concept of structure. "Up to the event which I wish to mark out and define, structure . . . has always been neutralized or reduced . . . by a process of giving it a center . . . . The function of this center was not only to orient, balance, and organize the structure . . . but above all to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the play of the structure."

What is this center? The center is a function of the way we perceive and organize the data of the sensuous manifold (the universe). We think, and in so doing, we organize. We posit structure. We posit order and rationality. We create god and the cosmos in our own image.

Derrida takes this concept—the absence of any transcendentally conceived, determined, and imposed center—and runs with it. "The concept of centered structure is in fact the concept of a play based on a fundamental ground, a play constituted on the basis of a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude, which is itself beyond the reach of play." This fundamental immobility has been traditionally conceived of as the Divine, the Unmoved Mover, the God who is eternal and whose attributes do not change. The reassuring certitude has been the human feeling of security grounded in a dependent and protected relationship with this fixed, unmoveable, and permanently reliable transcendent figure.

When the center vanishes, that is when the presence of metaphysics is revealed to be missing by Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger, then everything becomes discourse, everything becomes an operation of language, in short, play.


According to Jean Baudrillard, what has happened in postmodern culture is that our society has become so reliant on models and maps that we have lost all contact with the real world that preceded the map. Reality itself has begun merely to imitate the model, which now precedes and determines the real world: "The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra—that engenders the territory" ("The Precession of Simulacra" 1). When it comes to postmodern simulation and simulacra, “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real” ("The Precession of Simulacra" 2). He is not merely suggesting that postmodern culture is artificial, because the concept of artificiality still requires some sense of reality against which to recognize the artifice. His point, rather, is that we have lost all ability to make sense of the distinction between nature and artifice. To clarify his point, he argues that there are three "orders of simulacra":

  1. in the first order of simulacra, which he associates with the pre-modern period, the image is a clear counterfeit of the real; the image is recognized as just an illusion, a place marker for the real;
  2. in the second order of simulacra, which Baudrillard associates with the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, the distinctions between the image and the representation begin to break down because of mass production and the proliferation of copies. Such production misrepresents and masks an underlying reality by imitating it so well, thus threatening to replace it (e.g. in photography or ideology); however, there is still a belief that, through critique or effective political action, one can still access the hidden fact of the real;
  3. in the third order of simulacra, which is associated with the postmodern age, we are confronted with a precession of simulacra; that is, the representation precedes and determines the real. There is no longer any distinction between reality and its representation; there is only the simulacrum.
Modernism and Postmodernism

While postmodernism seems very much like modernism in many ways, it differs from modernism in its attitude toward a lot of these trends. Modernism, for example, tends to present a fragmented view of human subjectivity and history, but presents that fragmentation as something tragic, something to be lamented and mourned as a loss. Many modernist works try to uphold the idea that works of art can provide the unity, coherence, and meaning which has been lost in most of modern life; art will do what other human institutions fail to do. Postmodernism, in contrast, doesn't lament the idea of fragmentation, provisionality, or incoherence, but rather celebrates that. The world is meaningless? Let's not pretend that art can make meaning then, let's just play with nonsense.

Mary Klages, Department of English, University of Colorado

Characteristics of Postmodern Writing

Irony, playfulness, black humor

Though the idea of employing these in literature did not start with the postmodernists (the modernists were often playful and ironic), they became central features in many postmodern works. In fact, several novelists later to be labeled postmodern were first collectively labeled black humorists. It's common for postmodernists to treat serious subjects in a playful and humorous way.


To combine, or "paste" together, multiple elements. In Postmodernist literature this can be an homage to or a parody of past styles. It can be seen as a representation of the chaotic, pluralistic, or information-drenched aspects of postmodern society. It can be a combination of multiple genres to create a unique narrative or to comment on situations in postmodernity.


Interdependence of literary texts based on the theory that a literary text is not an isolated phenomenon but is made up of a mosaic of quotations, and that any text is the "absorption and transformation of another". One literary text depends on some other literary work.


Metafiction is essentially writing about writing or "foregrounding the apparatus", making the artificiality of art or the fictionality of fiction apparent to the reader and generally disregards the necessity for "willful suspension of disbelief". It is often employed to undermine the authority of the author, for unexpected narrative shifts, to advance a story in a unique way, for emotional distance, or to comment on the act of storytelling.

Temporal distortion

This is a common technique in modernist fiction: fragmentation and non-linear narratives are central features in both modern and postmodern literature. Temporal distortion in postmodern fiction is used in a variety of ways, often for the sake of irony.

Technoculture and hyperreality

Fredric Jameson called postmodernism the "cultural logic of late capitalism". "Late capitalism" implies that society has moved past the industrial age and into the information age. Likewise, Jean Baudrillard claimed postmodernity was defined by a shift into hyperreality in which simulations have replaced the real. In postmodernity people are inundated with information, technology has become a central focus in many lives, and our understanding of the real is mediated by simulations of the real. Many works of fiction have dealt with this aspect of postmodernity with characteristic irony and pastiche.


The sense of paranoia, the belief that there's an ordering system behind the chaos of the world is another recurring postmodern theme. For the postmodernist, no ordering system exists, so a search for order is fruitless and absurd.


Dubbed maximalism by some critics, the sprawling canvas and fragmented narratives of many writers have generated controversy on the "purpose" of a novel as narrative and the standards by which it should be judged. The postmodern position is that the style of a novel must be appropriate to what it depicts and represents, and polytropic novels are one way of reflecting the postmodern world.


Literary minimalism can be characterized as a focus on a surface description where readers are expected to take an active role in the creation of a story. The characters in minimalist stories and novels tend to be unexceptional. Generally, the short stories are "slice of life" stories. Minimalism, the opposite of maximalism, is a representation of only the most basic and necessary pieces, specific by economy with words. Minimalist authors hesitate to use adjectives, adverbs, or meaningless details. Instead of providing every minute detail, the author provides a general context and then allows the reader's imagination to shape the story.


Fiction which is based on and combined with fact. Think Roots.


A term used to describe the anti-novel. It involves allegory, verbal acrobatics and surrealistic effects.

Magic Realism

Literary work marked by the use of still, sharply defined, smoothly painted images of figures and objects depicted in a surrealistic manner. The themes and subjects are often imaginary, somewhat outlandish and fantastic and with a certain dream-like quality. Some of the characteristic features of this kind of fiction are the mingling and juxtaposition of the realistic and the fantastic or bizarre, skillful time shifts, convoluted and even labyrinthine narratives and plots, miscellaneous use of dreams, myths and fairy stories, expressionistic and even surrealistic description, arcane erudition, the element of surprise or abrupt shock, the horrific and the inexplicable.

Some Attributes of Postmodernist Literature

"Postmodernism" is a broad range of
  1. Responses to modernism, especially refusals of some of its totalizing premises and effects, and of its implicit or explicit distinction between "high" culture and commonly lived life.
  2. Responses to such things as a world lived under nuclear threat and threat to the geosphere, to a world of faster communication, mass mediated reality, greater diversity of cultures and mores and a consequent pluralism.
  3. Acknowledgments of and in some senses struggles against a world in which, under a spreading technological capitalism, all things are are commodified and fetishized (made the object of desire), and in which genuine experience has been replaced by simulation and spectacle.
  4. Resultant senses of fragmentation, of discontinuity, of reality as a pastiche rather than as a weave.
  5. Reconceptualizations of society, history and the self as cultural constructs, hence as rhetorical constructs.
However, there are "postmodernisms" even more than there were "modernisms," and not all postmodernism partakes of all of the following attributes:
Lye, John. "Some Attributes of Post-Modernist Literature." Department of English Language and Literature, Brock University.