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.
Here's a summary list of core Enlightenment values and beliefs:
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, seeks 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":
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.
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.
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.
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.
"Postmodernism" is a broad range of
There are "postmodernisms" even more than there were "modernisms," and not all postmodernism partakes of all of the following attributes:
(The "problem" with grand narratives is that they bring all of experience under one explanatory and one implicitly or explicitly regulative order, and hence are potentially (some would say, inevitably) totalitarian and repressive; the problem of trying to live without them is that without their explanatory frame there is no way in which acts can be validated (once one tries, one uncovers a hidden grand narrative) other than through the validation of pleasure or pain, some would say beauty or ugliness. It comes down to what one believes: is living without grand narratives an act of courage and freedom in the face of inevitable doubt and instability, or merely an opening of oneself to the worst forces of the libido and an abandonment of necessary principles?)