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.

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, 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":

  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.

  • Whereas Modernism places faith in the ideas, values, beliefs, culture, and norms of the West, Postmodernism rejects Western values and beliefs as only a small part of the human experience and often rejects such ideas, beliefs, culture, and norms.
  • Whereas Modernism attempts to reveal profound truths of experience and life, Postmodernism is suspicious of being "profound" because such ideas are based on one particular Western value systems.
  • Whereas Modernism attempts to find depth and interior meaning beneath the surface of objects and events, Postmodernism prefers to dwell on the exterior image and avoids drawing conclusions or suggesting underlying meanings associated with the interior of objects and events.
  • Whereas Modernism focused on central themes and a united vision in a particular piece of literature, Postmodernism sees human experience as unstable, internally contradictory, ambiguous, inconclusive, indeterminate, unfinished, fragmented, discontinuous, "jagged," with no one specific reality possible. Therefore, it focuses on a vision of a contradictory, fragmented, ambiguous, indeterminate, unfinished, "jagged" world.
  • Whereas Modern authors guide and control the reader’s response to their work, the Postmodern writer creates an "open" work in which the reader must supply his own connections, work out alternative meanings, and provide his own (unguided) interpretation.


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

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Resultant senses of fragmentation, of discontinuity, of reality as a pastiche rather than as a weave.
  • Reconceptualizations of society, history and the self as cultural constructs, hence as rhetorical constructs.

There are "postmodernisms" even more than there were "modernisms," and not all postmodernism partakes of all of the following attributes:

  • A reaction to, refusal and diffusion of, the elements of modernist thought which are totalizing: which suggest a master narrative or master code, i.e. an explanatory cohesion of experience; the result may be:
    • a sense of discontinuity, of the world as a field of contesting explanations none of which can claim any authority,
    • parodies of all sorts of meta-narrative and master-code elements, including genre and literary form,
    • the challenging of borders and limits, including those of decency,
    • the exploration of the marginalized aspects of life and marginalized elements of society.

      (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?)

  • A sense that life is lived in a world with no transcendent warrant, nothing to guarantee or to underwrite our being as meaningful moral creatures. Life just is. We no longer look for a pattern. We live between the 1's and the 0's, in the interstices of meaning; we live on the bleak terrain of an endless uncreated happenstance universe. We may celebrate its specificity, its immediacy; or not. Postmodernism goes different directions here.
  • The writing of reflexive or meta-fiction: fiction which is in the first instance aware of itself as fiction and which may dramatize the false or constructed nature of fiction, on the one hand, or the inevitable fictionality of all experience, on the other.
  • A reaction to, refusal of, the totalizing of modernist form-- of the dominance in modernism of form and of the idea of the aesthetic, which concept created a "special world" for art, cut off from the variety and everydayness of life (a negative judgment on this "refusal" is that postmodernism simply aestheticizes everything; see the next point)
  • An attempt to integrate art and life-- the inclusion of popular forms, popular culture, everyday reality; Bakhtin's notion of "carnival," of joyous, anti-authoritarian, riotous, carnal and liberatory celebration, makes sense in this context and adds a sense of energy and freedom to some post modern work
  • The notion of carnival, above, is taken to the limit in the idea of transgression, the idea that to live and think beyond the structures of capitalist ideology and of totalizing concepts one must deliberately violate what appear to be standards of sense and decency but are (if the truth were known) methods of social and imaginative control. A more benign conception than transgression is the concept of the paralogical: a revelation of the non-rational immediacy of life (considered thus to be implicitly revolutionary, liberating); as with ideas such as carnival and transgression, the paralogical gives access to the energy of the world, and allows us to experience outside of the strictures of the grand narratives which form our usual sense of our reality.
  • The use of paradox, of undercutting, of radical shifts, in order to undercut any legitimization of reality, subject, ontological ground
  • A refusal of seriousness or an undercutting of or problematizing of seriousness-- achieved through such things as the above-mentioned notion of carnival, of the turning upside-down of everything, and through the use of parody, play, black humour and wit; this refusal and these methods of undercutting seriousness are associated as well with fragmentation, as traditional notions of narrative coherence are challenged, undone. The "problem" with seriousness is that is has no room for the disruptions necessary to expose the oppressions and repressions of master narratives, in fact seriousness tends almost inevitably to reinforce them and hence the ideologies they support; to attack seriousness does not mean, in this context, to abandon conviction or good intentions.
  • A crossing or dissolving of borders-- between fiction and non-fiction, between literary genres, between high and low culture
  • A sense that the world is a world made up of rhetoric-- of language and cultural constructs and images and symbols, none of which have any necessary validity
  • A move away from perspectivism, from the located, unified "subject" and the associated grounding of the authority of experience in the sovereign subject and its processes of perception and reflection (see the next point)
  • A fragmentation of the self (the unified, located subject), or a disappearance or flatness-- the self, or subject, is no longer a "psychological" reality but henceforth a cultural construction, located rhetorically (in terms of the kinds of language used, the subject matter, the situation), differently configured in different situations
  • The dramatization to a world in which there are no depths, in which there is nothing "under" appearances
  • A greater emphasis on the body, on the human as incarnate, as physical beings in a physical world. This is tied to postmodernism's distrust of rationalism and of the ideology of the Enlightenment. This emphasis on the physicality of our being leads in several directions, including
    • an emphasis on chance and contingency as fundamental conditions of our being and
    • a positing of aesthetics rather than rationalism as guide to truth, hence ultimately as the ground for ethics.
  • A rethinking of modernism's break with history. There are (at least) two directions in which this rethinking may go:
    • a greater awareness of history as a narrative, that is, a human construct; history is accessible to us, but only as text-- its documents are texts, its institutions are social texts. This does not mean that history did not happen; it means that what we know as history is known to us only through what is configured for our understandings by language, by narratives with their own shaping forces, by figures of speech.
    • an insistence of the incarnate and the contingent, human life as located, specific, grounded in the body and in circumstance.