Postmodern Period in English Literature

Postmodern age in English literature

The Postmodern Period, which began in the middle of the 20th century, is characterized by a radical shift in literary and cultural paradigms. Its departure from the Modern Period was what made it distinctive, and it did so in response to the enormous societal, technological, and political developments. Postmodernism, which is characterized by its skepticism towards grand narratives and its embracing of intertextuality and fragmentation, reflects the complexity and ambiguities of the Post-World War II age. It was a period of unprecedented cultural change, technical growth, and a growing awareness of the global interconnectedness of societies. The change from the Modern to the Postmodern periods was characterized by an intensive reevaluation of conventional literary forms and the introduction of new storytelling techniques that questioned traditional ideas about reality and identity.

Table of Contents

Cultural and Historical Background

The decades that followed World War II and the start of the Cold War significantly influenced the cultural and historical backdrop of the Postmodern Period. The terrible effects of the war on a worldwide level caused a general feeling of disappointment and existential doubt, which was reflected in the literature of the time. The Civil Rights Movement , which fought against racial injustice and segregation, and feminist movements, which promoted women’s rights and gender equality, occurred at the same time as other key social and political upheavals. These social movements, along with the larger counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, encouraged literary activism and social critique.  

Read More: Modern Period in English Literature

Additionally, the rapid growth of technology, especially the introduction of television and subsequently the internet, changed how information was shared and narratives were consumed, impacting storytelling styles. These developments changed how information was transmitted and narratives were consumed. Finally, the philosophical foundations of postmodernism, with intellectuals like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault challenging the nature of language, truth, and knowledge, had a significant influence on the arts and literature, leading to the adoption of intertextuality and metafiction in literary works. In essence, the Postmodern Period’s cultural and historical context was one of complexity, unpredictability, and a persistent reevaluation of social conventions, all of which profoundly influenced the literature of the time.

Literature of the Postmodern Period 

The literature of the Postmodern Period is distinguished by a drastic departure from conventional narrative forms often referred to as “metafiction,” . By deliberately bridging the borders between fiction and reality, this approach undermines traditional storytelling. This approach is seen in the works of well-known authors like Salman Rushdie and Thomas Pynchon. Many of Pynchon’s novels, like “Gravity’s Rainbow” and “The Crying of Lot 49,” are known for their convoluted stories and intricate web of characters which capture the turmoil and paranoia of the post-World War II era.

Read More: Philip Larkin as a movement poet

In a similar way, Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” and “The Satanic Verses” make use of magical realism and intertextual connections to challenge readers’ perceptions of the limits of story and the nature of truth. In postmodern literature, storytelling develops into a self-aware, frequently lighthearted activity that invites readers to actively interact with the text, encouraging a feeling of ambiguity and intellectual curiosity.

Postcolonial Literature

The postmodern era marked the emergence of postcolonial literature as a key and defining feature. This genre explores the intricacies of postcolonial identity while giving light on the stories and experiences of nations that had been colonized by European powers. Through novels like “Things Fall Apart,” authors like Chinua Achebe addressed the cultural conflicts and changes that took place when colonial forces established their rule. Salman Rushdie expertly tackled issues of postcolonial identity and hybridity in works like “Midnight’s Children” and “The Satanic Verses,” utilizing magical realism and intertextuality to successfully negotiate the challenging terrain of cultural displacement and reclamation. A more inclusive and diversified literary environment emerged during the Postmodern Period as a result of postcolonial literature, which questioned the Eurocentric viewpoints of the past and provided a forum for voices that had long been marginalized.

Read More: Seamus Heaney as a modern poet

Magic Realism

A key element of Postmodern writing is magic realism, which intentionally blurs the line between truth and fiction. This narrative approach makes it possible for the mystical and mundane to coexist in a single story, frequently in a matter-of-fact way. Through novels like “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” writers like Gabriel Garcia Márquez infused their stories with supernatural aspects that were considered as commonplace in the story’s setting. Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” uses magic realism in a similar way to weave a tapestry of supernatural incidents into the fabric of daily life. By using this technique, authors enthrall readers with a sense of wonder while delving into deep issues and cultural complexity. Magic realism is a prime example of the Postmodern Period’s tendency for unorthodox narrative and its capacity to capture the surreal nature of modern life.

Experimental Drama

Experimental theater during the Postmodern Period challenged conventional theatrical rules by pushing the limitations of what could be explored on stage. Playwrights like Samuel Beckett defied conventional narrative frameworks and character motives in ground-breaking plays like “Waiting for Godot,” leaving audiences wrestling with existential issues and uncertainty. Plays by Tom Stoppard, such as “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” recreated well-known stories from fresh perspectives, questioning the very nature of existence. This dramaturgical innovation paralleled the Postmodern Period’s more general themes of fragmentation, alienation, and a continuous quest to subvert established norms.

Read More: Waiting for Godot as an absurd play

Key Themes and Characteristics

Metafiction and intertextuality.

Metafiction and intertextuality have become defining characteristics of postmodern literature. The writers of this time period played with literary conventions and texts, weaving dense webs of allusions and connections to earlier works. They merged the worlds of fiction and reality, allowing readers to explore a self-aware literary environment where tales were continually interacting with the canon. In addition to highlighting the depth of literary legacy, this intertextual technique pushed the limits of narrative authority and established storytelling conventions. It promoted a sense of literary inquiry and intellectual engagement by encouraging readers to take an active role in the process of meaning production.

Read More: Theatre of Absurd

Cultural Hybridity and Identity

Identity and cultural hybridity started to dominate Postmodern literature. Reflecting a world characterized by growing globalization and connection, authors struggled with the complications of diversity and the experiences of diaspora. This literature challenged rigid identities and narratives by showing people negotiating the fluid and changing landscapes of race, culture, and belonging. Works like Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” and “Midnight’s Children” by Salman Rushdie depicted the blending of many cultural components, defying preconceived ideals of authenticity and purity. In a world where identities are continually changing and where barriers between cultures are transparent and dynamic, postmodern authors praised the hybrid, the in-between, and the interrelated.

Parody and irony

Irony and parody were important literary devices used by Postmodern writers to critique social norms and customs. Irony was a literary device utilized at this time to show the absurdity of modern life and subvert expectations. Postmodern literature frequently had satirical elements, enabling them to expose the fallacies and hypocrisies of society. Authors like Kurt Vonnegut used a mix of dark humor and irony in novels like “Slaughterhouse-Five” to subvert the conventional accounts of war and time. The absurdities of the modern world were celebrated in postmodern literature, which also used irony and parody as powerful tools for examining society and cultural criticism.

Fragmentation and Hyperreality

Hyperrealism and fragmentation were key elements of postmodern writings. In order to reflect the fragmented nature of modern life, authors of this time used fragmented storylines and nonlinear storytelling techniques. These storytelling strategies made readers work to make sense of the mosaic of fragmented storylines, reflecting the bewildering effects of a society flooded with information and media. Works like Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49” and Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” are examples of this disconcerting narrative style and provide readers a look into the hyperreal world of postmodern existence. A distinguishing feature of the Postmodern Period, the blurred lines between the real and the simulated were explored through the fragmentation of both the narrative and reality itself.

Notable Figures of the Postmodern Period

A number of great writers helped to transform the field of contemporary literature throughout the Postmodern Period. Thomas Pynchon, known for his complicated plots and sarcastic examinations of modernity, questioned traditional storytelling in works like “Gravity’s Rainbow.” The landmark works “Midnight’s Children” and “The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie explored diversity and the difficulties of identity. Gabriel Garcia Márquez, a genius of magic realism, captivated readers with his vivid stories, such as “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” John Ashbery, a significant figure in American poetry, infused his writings with an avant-garde sensibility. The absurdism of the time was best encapsulated in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Lastly, Toni Morrison delved deeply into issues of race, identity, and memory in works like “Beloved.” These authors not only embraced the postmodern attitude of experimentation, but they also offered deep insights into the complex structure of modern life.

Read More: Waiting for Godot as a tragicomed y

In conclusion, English literature and culture underwent a major transition during the Postmodern Period. This time period pushed the limits of literary expression by engaging with literary traditions in a playful manner, exploring cultural hybridity and identity, using irony and parody liberally, and fragmenting narratives. Authors of the postmodern era struggled with the difficulties of living in a quickly evolving world that was characterized by interstate wars, technical advancements, and a culture that was flooded with information. Their works continue to resonate as mirrors reflecting the complexities and tensions of contemporary existence. The relevance of the Postmodern Period has persisted because of its lasting impact on literature and society, which encouraged later writers and philosophers to analyze, dissect, and rewrite the stories that define how we view the world.

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3.1.1: Modernism and Postmodernism as Literary Movements

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  • Bonnie J. Robinson
  • University of North Georgia via University of North Georgia Press

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Modernism as a literary movement was influenced by thinkers who questioned the certainties that had provided support for traditional modes of social organization, religion, morality, and human identity, or the self. These thinkers included the socialist Karl Marx (1818-1883); Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), whose philosophical studies encouraged accepting concepts as occurring within (and therefore defined by) perspectives, and that critiqued Christianity; Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), who founded psychoanalysis; and Sir James Frazer (1854- 1941), who examined mythology and religion syncretically.


Although Victorian themes and authors influenced writers like William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), James Joyce (1882- 1941), Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), and D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), modernism defined itself against Victorianism. Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) in his Eminent Victorians (1918) punctured Victorian stuffiness and pretensions to moral and cultural superiority by critically examining such revered Victorian figures as Henry Edward Manning (1808-1892), a Roman Catholic Cardinal; Florence Nightingale (1820- 1910), the founder of modern nursing; and General Charles George Gordon (1833- 1885), who quelled the Taiping Rebellion. A prominent feature of modernism was its interest in the avant-garde; as Ezra Pound (1885-1972) directed, modernists wanted to make it new.

Victorian realism gave way to obviously artificial structures. To the modernists, the visible, space, and time are not reality; rather, they are modes through which we apprehend reality. When reviewing Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), T. S. Eliot lauded Joyce’s mythical method in using the paradigm of Ulysses’ journey from Troy to his home in Ithaca to give shape and significance to modern futility and anarchy as Leopold Bloom travels through Dublin. Through this mythical method, writers could be realistic in portraying modern chaos while also suggesting, through psychological insights, a continuing “buried life” (to use Arnold’s phrase) that rises in mythic or archetypal patterns, patterns that express the meeting of mind with nature.

The sense of the individual’s place in the world became tenuous, especially through what modernists identified as the dissociation of the mind and body. Modernists examined this dissociation through such themes as the inorganic and artificial, alienation, and estrangement. While some modernists, like Lawrence, suggest strategies for reintegrating the body and mind, others, like Woolf, face this dissociation with a sense of tragedy and overwhelming despair. Another dissociation that modernists pointed to was that between the perceived and the “real” self, between an autonomous self and one created by society and the world. Some writers, like Joyce, indicated ways to develop a strong individuality that rejected old values and created new ones; others suggested that such a strong individuality can make a world of itself and claim universality; and still others suggested that “real” individuality ceased to exist at all. Such writers considered how individuals could develop “honest” relationships with the world around them.

Modernism itself gave way to a post-modernism that even further questioned narrative and verbal structures through fragmentation and unreliable narrators, among other methods. Writers’ intentions were called into question, as literary texts came to be seen as dependent on both the author and the reader. The idea of a critical fallacy, where the author may not even know what they are writing, moved away from the subjective/objective view of art toward more of an emphasis on the work itself and the reader’s response to it. Textual unity, even through use of the mythic method, was not integral to the text but instead imposed on it, and readers work through textual indeterminacy, fragmentation, and unreliability to derive meaning, if any meaning is available at all.

Postmodernism destabilized the relationship among author, text, and reader by highlighting fictive methods through metafiction, when a work deliberately draws attention to its artificiality; the sprawl, excess, and fragmentation of maximalism; and the stripping to the bone of minimalism. It also made no distinction between so-called high and low culture through pastiche, parody, and intertextuality, with texts commenting upon each other and existing within their own literary continuum.


In his plot-less dramas configuring cultural fatigue and individual alienation, Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) rejected structural elements of both the drama and society. As the individual’s place in the world came to be seen as an artificial construct, the artist’s place in the world became more and more remote. The loss of a “center” on which writers could depend became increasingly apparent with the influx of colonial and postcolonial writers like Doris Lessing (1919-2013) and Anita Desai (1937 - ). Diversity in literature, of races, voices, viewpoints, and more, became the hallmark of the twentieth century and beyond.

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In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Postmodernism

Introduction, general overviews and reference.

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Postmodernism by Tim Woods LAST REVIEWED: 22 August 2023 LAST MODIFIED: 22 August 2023 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0048

“Postmodernism” has been a notoriously difficult term to define, and it has had a complicated history across various disciplines. Nevertheless, the idea largely emerged in the late 1950s in the humanities to indicate a sense that modernism had been superseded by a new cultural, aesthetic, and critical agenda. Some theorists have treated “postmodernism” as an epochal or historical term, while others have regarded it as an aesthetic or formal characteristic that is not limited to a particular era. Initially, it found its principal purchase in cultural philosophy, literature, architecture, art, and cultural theory, but it has subsequently affected and influenced debates across a wide range of disciplines, including international politics, psychology, law, history, sociology, and even town planning and medicine. As its concepts and ideas found purchase within intellectual debates, many saw in postmodernism an emancipation from the institutional straitjacketing of culture, while others, in turn, regarded postmodernism as an abandonment of social and intellectual responsibility that was symptomatic of a cultural decline with the ascendancy of late capitalism. Despite this wrangle over its political and ideological implications, in broad philosophical terms postmodernism tends to focus on reconceptualizing notions of subjectivity and gender, concepts of temporality, history, space, and place, and the relationships of power between races, ethnicities, and different cultural spheres of influence across global communities. The advent of postmodern thought has been a story of uneven development across various disciplines. This has meant that in certain disciplines where postmodern theory arrived early, there has been little recent theoretical development of postmodern ideas, while some disciplines have seen major theoretical discussions emerging since around 1990. However, since postmodernism has been around in intellectual debates since the 1960s, we have reached a stage where a history of postmodernism can now be written. Furthermore, it would be fair to say that more recently, across disciplines like literature, art, and history, the debate has switched from discussing the opportunities opened up by postmodern ideas to considerations of whether it has had its day and what its trajectory and future legacy to theoretical and cultural concerns might be.

The difficulties in unraveling the nuances and explaining the refinements of the concept of postmodernism have led to numerous attempts to illuminate the term. Ranging between approving and fiercely skeptical tones, such introductory books are nevertheless useful springboards for diving into more detailed investigations. Appignanesi and Garratt 1995 is part of a longstanding series that seeks to offer cultural explanations through the medium of the cartoon and is very accessible for that reason. Silverman 1990 and Tester 1993 offer sets of essays on the impact that postmodernism has had on a variety of disciplines. Although most of the overviews are introductory by nature, Taylor and Winquist 1998 seeks to provide a thorough coverage of the different fields influenced by postmodernism, stretching to four volumes of extracts, manifestos, and key essays. Generally, these books are best read in conjunction with others, and Taylor and Winquist 2001 is a very helpful short-entry companion that can act as a supplementary aide to most overviews on the subject. One major source of research discussion that has rapidly become the standard journal for the cultural concept is Postmodern Culture , whose very digital medium facilitates debates about the innovative formal and experimental styles of postmodern literature and culture. Madsen 1995 and McCaffery 1986 between them provide excellent specialist bibliographical sources to support the bibliographies found in most reference books and general introductions.

Appignanesi, Richard, and Chris Garratt. Postmodernism for Beginners . Cambridge, UK: Icon, 1995.

Offering the series’ familiar cartoon-style approach to intellectual concepts and ideas, this book covers postmodernism across art, theory, and history in an approachable and humorous fashion.

Madsen, Deborah. Postmodernism: A Bibliography, 1926–1994 . Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995.

DOI: 10.1163/9789004647282

An exhaustive bibliographical list of articles and books that engage with postmodernism.

McCaffery, Larry, ed. Postmodern Fiction: A Bio-bibliographical Guide . Westwood, CT: Greenwood, 1986.

The scope of the work is broad, with European and Latin American influences well represented. Recommended for research that emphasizes fiction of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

Postmodern Culture . 1990–.

Postmodern Culture has become the leading electronic journal of interdisciplinary thought on contemporary cultures. As an entirely web-based journal, PMC publishes still images, sound, animation, and full-motion video as well as text.

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

A range of readable essays, in which the first part raises general theoretical questions about the language and politics of postmodernism, and the second part focuses on some particular “sites”—architecture, painting, literature, theater, photography, film, television, dance, fashion. Contains a helpful bibliography of books, articles, and journals on postmodernism.

Taylor, Victor E., and Charles E. Winquist, eds. Postmodernism: Critical Concepts . 4 vols. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

Seeking exhaustive coverage of the whole range of the humanities and some social sciences, this is a monumental multivolume collection of key essays and theorists. The four volumes are organized into “Foundational Essays,” “Critical Texts,” “Disciplinary Texts: Humanities and Social Sciences,” and “Legal Studies, Psychoanalytic Studies, Visual Arts and Architecture.”

Taylor, Victor E., and Charles E. Winquist, eds. Encyclopedia of Postmodernism . London: Routledge, 2001.

Organized alphabetically, this is a thorough coverage of the ideas that led up to postmodernism, its key concepts, key theorists, major works, and targeted supplementary reading lists. Written in dictionary-style short entries, it is also helpfully cross-referenced.

Tester, Keith. The Life and Times of Postmodernity . London: Routledge, 1993.

DOI: 10.4324/9780203216989

This book offers an introductory albeit skeptical appraisal of postmodernism as a “great transformation.” It regards postmodernism as a reflection of the problems of modernism, focusing on issues of identity, nostalgia, technology, responsibility, and the other.

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This website is dedicated to English Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, English Language and its teaching and learning.


Etymology and Meanings of “Postmodernism” Literary Theory

Etymologically, postmodernism comprises two words, post- and modernism. Here the post is a prefix added to modernism to create a cultural notion that exists after the passing of modernism. The term came into use in the decade of the 70s, though its first use is traced to John Watkins Chapman. However, he used it for painting, avoiding using the French Impressionistic style. It happed in 1870. Since then, the term has been used repeatedly by different people for different reasons.  

Definition of “Postmodernism” Literary Theory

Based on its meanings, the term, postmodernism literary theory or postmodernist literary theory could be defined as a style in fiction, novel, and poetry writing that demonstrates a leap forward from modernism. It is characterized by the conscious use of different earlier writing styles, norms, and literary conventions used by the writers in their modern words mixing them into one another.

Origin of “Postmodernism Literary Theory

Postmodernism, in literature, started around the decades of the 80s and 90s and emerged out of modernism. It instantly hit the literary world. Yet, it is uncertain when the first postmodern literary piece appeared on the scene, for several literary pieces are simultaneously modernist and postmodernist. Rather, modernism imperceptibly gave way to postmodernism which started replacing it. Soon postmodernism pervades all other fields of culture such as linguistics, sociology, art, and architecture. It is also linked to other theoretical perspectives in criticism such as deconstructionism and post-structuralism.

Despite its broad usage in art, architecture, philosophy, and social theory, postmodernism is also a critical theory, encompassing a type of literature that shows postmodern traits such as skepticism toward general and accepted trends or rejection of them. Literature that invades the universal real of accepted truths such as hierarchies, morality, truth, human nature, reason, scientific inquiry, social development, and social norms is postmodern literature.

Principles of Postmodernism Literary Theory

  • Postmodernism critiques the past movements and tears them apart and sees that the past movements, tenets, and conventions do not hold validity in the postmodern culture.
  • It rather presents an amalgamation of low and high art, or culture and shows a mosaic of all elements considered vulgar, or pure.
  • Postmodernism uses parody and irony to criticize modernistic literature, or art and even goes to the extent of using black humor and comedy to view tragic aspects of life such as Catch-22 , a novel by Joseph Heller, paints the grim picture of WWII in a comedic manner.
  • Postmodernism shows that time and space are not as coherent and linear as the modernists and realists show in their works. It is non-linear and fragmented like the reality itself. Therefore, the postmodernism has experimented with time, space, reality, and narratives, presenting fragment ontological aspects of the postmodern culture.
  • Postmodernism also presents a metanarrative that means to present a narrative about the narrative in a self-conscious manner, showing that text is also conscious of commentary on its artistic effects such as Italo Calvino’s novels.
  • Despite being the tenet of modernism, absurdity, Theatre of Absurd, existentialism, and distortion of belief systems, postmodernism shows its different strands pervading in postmodern literary pieces.
  • Postmodernism also attacks the existing canons of literary narratives, literary poetics, poetry, and even cultural conventions, showing that the issues of identity, sovereignty, culture definitiveness, and individual liberty do not hold merit now.
  • There is no valid narrative or grand narrative in existence. All narratives spread on the basis of some assumptions that postmodernism lays bare.
  • Postmodernism is contrary to all modernist ideas such as romanticism is Dadaism, form is disjunctive, design is a chance, purpose is a play, hierarchy is an anarchy, metaphor is metonymy, centre is an anarchy, and transcendence is immanence, etc.
  • Meaninglessness, paranoia, subjectivity, multi-narrative, and a sense of the loss of time and space are some other tenets of postmodernism.

Criticism Against Postmodernism Literary Theory

  • The collapse of narratives in postmodernism is in itself a grand narrative.
  • Postmodernism is itself a product of late capitalism in the words of Frederick Jameson. Therefore, consumerism is its foundation rather than a product.
  • Postmodernism is not a product, but an effect of consumerization and commodification of the culture in which different classes experience postmodernism in a different ways.
  • Postmodernism is relevant to some social structures in the world that it may not hold any validity in the third-world proletariat social classes.
  • Simulacra or hyperreality does not mean that reality has become unreality or that it is not a reality.

Examples of Postmodernism Literary Theory

Example # 1

From “Post-Modernism” by James Galvin

Example # 2

From “Thinking I Think I Think” by Charles Bernstein

. . .The man the man declined to be, appraised at auction at eighty percent of surface volume. Cube steak on rye amusing twist on lay demo cells, absolutely no returns. Damaged goods are the only kind of goods I ever cared about. The lacuna misplaced the ladle, the actor aborted the fable. Fold your caps into Indians & flaps.

Almost every line of this poem has a different thematic strand, different subject matter, and different linguistic nuances. This shows that the poetic conventions followed in the postmodernism do not seem valid for Charles of Bernstein in this stanza of his poem. It shows clearly from its verses which have broken almost all the rules of poetic conventions, too. Therefore, it becomes an excellent example of postmodern poetry.

Example # 3

From Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

I went back there with an old war buddy, Bernard V. O’Hare, and we made friends with a taxi driver, who took us to the slaughterhouse where we had been locked up at night as prisoner of war. His name was Gerhard Müller. He told us that he was a prisoner of the Americans for a while. We asked him how it was to live under Communism, and he said that it was terrible at first, because everybody had to work so hard, and because there wasn’t much shelter or food or clothing. But things were much better now. He had a pleasant little apartment, and his daughter was getting an excellent education. His mother was incinerated in the Dresden fire-storm. So it goes.

This passage shows the authorial intervention in the very beginning which points to the truth and its validity in the postmodern era. However, this intervention of the author at this point, and that too in the work of fiction points to how much the author feels free to twist and turn facts which also hold the same legitimacy as the author himself whose major point in this fiction is “So it goes.” This is a point of the mini-narrative, a feature of postmodern fiction.

Example # 4

From “The Circular Ruins” by Jorge Luis Borges

No one saw him disembark in the unanimous night, no one saw the bamboo canoe sink into the sacred mud, but in a few days there was no one who did not know that the taciturn man came from the South and that his home had been one of those numberless villages upstream in the deeply cleft side of the mountain, where the Zend language has not been contaminated by Greek and where leprosy is infrequent. What is certain is that the grey man kissed the mud, climbed up the bank with pushing aside (probably, without feeling) the blades which were lacerating his flesh, and crawled, nauseated and bloodstained, up to the circular enclosure crowned with a stone tiger or horse, which sometimes was the color of flame and now was that of ashes.

This passage occurs in the short story of Borges “The Circular Ruin.” Although this passage shows an unusual character, the end of the story shows that this unusual character is not even a character. He is rather a shadow who thins out in the air as he has descended on this ruin. This shows the postmodern trait of the fiction as having no specific character, no specific features, no specific mannerisms, and no specific setting. In other words, postmodern fiction also breaks all narrative conventions.

Example # 5

From “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” by Italo Calvino

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice—they won’t hear you otherwise—”I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.

This passage occurs in the novel of Italo Calvino in which he shows more conventions of narratology and narratives broken here. Not only he himself appears in this passage, but also he points out what type of novel he is going to write and what the reader is expecting from him, or doing with his fiction. This is an unusual narrative method, using the second person. This shows an excellent use of a postmodern feature of fiction writing.

Keywords in Postmodernism Literary Theory

Fragmentation, rejectionism, deconstructionism, sub-culture, simulacra, commodification, consumerization, micropolitics, hyper culture, hyper reality, avant-garde, grand recits , petit recits, metanarrative, totality

Suggested Readings

Bertens, Hans. Literary Theory: The Basics . Routledge, 2012. Print.

Childs, Peter. Modernism . Routledge, 2016. Print.

Quinones, Ricardo J. Mapping Literary Modernism . Princeton University Press, 2014. Print.

Hassan, Ihab. The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature . Univ of Wisconsin Press, 1982. Print. Bertens, Hans, and Douwe W. Fokkema, eds. International Postmodernism: Theory and Literary Practice . John Benjamins Publishing, 1997.

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The Oxford Handbook of English Literature and Theology

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11 Postmodernism

pg xivKevin Hart is Edwin B. Kyle Professor of Christian Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at The University of Virginia.

  • Published: 02 September 2009
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Any general consideration of postmodernism must begin with more than a ritual bow to Jean-François Lyotard, whose The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge extended and accelerated the circulation of the word. Lyotard uses ‘postmodern’ to denote the impact of twentieth-century cultural transformations ‘in the context of the crisis of narratives’, and thereby brings literature onto centre stage in discussion of the postmodern. In treating English literature and theology from the perspective of postmodernism, one can do more than reflect on fiction influenced by cultural postmodernism that also touches on religious matters, and theology marked by postmodernism in one or another sense. One also needs to take account of attempts in Britain to make ‘literature and theology’ into a discipline in its own right and assess the ways in which that has been shaped by postmodern concerns.

Any general consideration of postmodernism must begin with more than a ritual bow to Jean-François Lyotard whose The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1984) extended and accelerated the circulation of the word inside and outside the academy. Right at the start of his book, Lyotard notes that in the United States the word is already used by sociologists and critics and that ‘it designates the state of our culture following the transformations which, since the end of the nineteenth century, have altered the game rules for science, literature, and the arts’ (p. xxiii). If one looks hard enough, one can find ‘postmodern’ as far back as the 1870s, and only if one plugs one's ears can one avoid hearing it today. As the word is used in more and more contexts, its meanings multiply, migrate, adapt to new environments, and cross-fertilize one another. Confusion can be kept to a minimum, at least to begin with, by clarifying what the word means in The Postmodern Condition before encountering its more exotic senses. Lyotard uses ‘postmodern’ to denote the impact of twentieth-century cultural transformations ‘in the context of the crisis of narratives [ récits ]’ (ibid. p. xiii ), and thereby brings literature—both narrative practice and reflection on that practice—onto centre stage in discussion of the postmodern.

‘Narrative’ includes a good deal more than fiction, however, as is made plain no later than the second paragraph of Lyotard's introduction. What interests him is science—knowledge in general rather than the hard sciences in particular—and its disdain for narrative, which it tends to discount as fable. Science has needed to legitimate itself, Lyotard says, and has done so by producing a metadiscourse called philosophy. Modern sciences are those that attempt to justify themselves and that seek universality for their claims by appealing ‘to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth’ (ibid. p. xxiii). The postmodern, by contrast, is signalled by ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’ (ibid. p. xxiv), a stance that has arisen partly because the sciences have had so much success they no longer seek legitimation outside themselves and partly because people no longer look for or even expect to find reliable metaphysical grounds for anything. Nowadays we find ourselves in a world constituted by many regional language games—descriptive, denotative, and prescriptive, as well as narrative—in which we participate and which do not add up to being a ‘world’ in quite the unified and solid sense that was assumed as recently as the Victorian age.

Several positions and problems that have become characteristic of debate about the postmodern are apparent in Lyotard's opening remarks on the topic. First, the modern is associated with science, and consequently with clarity and rigour as necessary conditions of discourse, whereas the postmodern is a suspicious attitude towards the ways in which science has legitimated itself. If postmodernists produce arguments to support their views, these are subsidiary to the sceptical stance towards origins and ends that sets them apart from the moderns. The postmodernist will be a pragmatist, although not always of the card-carrying kind. One difficulty generated by the contrast between science and pragmatism is that some writers, widely regarded as central to postmodernism, reach their positions by closely following a train of reason. If the Jacques Derrida of Glas (1974; trans. 1986) does not fit the bill, the author of Speech and Phenomena (1973) does. Second, although ‘modernity’ is often used to name a historical period, Lyotard commends it as a mode of thought and sensibility. St Augustine is modern, as are Descartes and Proust, while Montaigne is postmodern, as are Sterne and the later Wittgenstein. A dualism inhabits much talk of the postmodern, then, regardless of whether that talk is polemical or philosophical; and the structure is called into question when people invoke the pre-modern or make finer discriminations (as in talk of late modernity and para-modernities, for example). To Lyotard's credit, there is no question at least of cleanly dividing the modern from the postmodern or of rigidly determining the modern in history. The postmodern is not what succeeds the modern but is the modern ‘in the nascent state’ which Lyotard ( 1984 : 79) insists is a constant situation. At the start of the modern, the postmodern will already have been at work.

Such is the strange logic of the future anterior. Lyotard's fleshing out of this logic in the vocabulary of modern transcendental philosophy has been highly influential. ‘The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable’ (ibid. 81). The postmodern is therefore to be approached by way of the sublime as formulated by Kant yet disengaged from the specific moment of the Critique of Judgement (1790) and distributed across the centuries. To be sure, Aristotle, Longinus, and Burke explored the sublime before Kant put pen to paper yet, for Lyotard, Kant best identifies and diagnoses its contradictory flavour and justifies avant-garde activity. Subtle and interesting as the point is, people regularly recur to the commonsense meaning of ‘postmodern’ as coming after the modern, the sense that was already in use by the American sociologists and critics whom Lyotard acknowledges at the start of his book. If nothing else, the practice is evidence of the power that the modern still holds over us, for temporal succession—including cause and effect, growth and decline—is one of the habits of perception we call ‘modern’.

Kant is not one philosopher among others for Lyotard. His aesthetic of the sublime is the very place where ‘modern art (including literature) finds its impetus and the logic of avant-gardes finds its axioms’ (ibid. 77). Other French philosophers of the same generation had said much the same thing about the same time. Yet Lyotard relies on Kant more heavily, and adapts him more thoroughly, than they do. Several things need to be brought to light in the Frenchman's use of the critical philosophy. The first is that no incredulity is expressed towards the Kantian metanarratives: that Enlightenment properly comes only when we learn to live within the limitations of thought and focus on ethical action, and that genius proceeds without reference to concepts. We might wonder if The Postmodern Condition urges a metanarrative of the rise of the avant-garde, a privileged history of artistic practice and theory passing from the third Critique to Jena Romanticism to the New York School (Lyotard 1991: 98). The second point is related to this concern, for a relationship seems to be assumed between postmodernism and the avant-garde. Third, and more obscurely, there is a correlation implied between the Romantic sublime and the death of God that had already been hinted in the definition of the postmodern in the words ‘nostalgia for the unattainable’ (ibid. 81) and in the choice of the word ‘paganism’ to evoke the postmodern condition (Lyotard and Thébaud 1985: 16).

For many critics, the idea of the avant-garde is tied to the modern, and with the exhaustion of modernism and the expression of doubts about the linear literary history on which it relied, there comes the diminution of the avant-garde, its last flourishing being the New York School and its last literary figure of stature being John Ashbery. Rejecting this consensus, Lyotard maintains that the avant-garde remains alive and well, and its vitality is to be found in its relentless investigation of the presuppositions of the modern. In its own ways, he says, this inspection of what makes and unmakes modernism is a form of what Freud called Durcharbeiten (Lyotard 1992: 93). Just as the patient works through the meanings of his or her neurosis in order not to repeat it, so the avant-garde labours in rethinking the assumptions, trajectories, and destinations of the modernist project. It will quickly be seen that the analogy works only within a narrow range of contemporary writing and does so best in the projects that are usually styled ‘experimental’: language poetry, sound poetry, and so on. Not all the literature that invites being called postmodern is also avant-garde. There is no coercive reason to think that a critical inspection of modernism's assumptions will always result in a direct path to avant-garde writing. The lessons that Roy Fisher has learned from Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot are not the same as those that Peter Riley has taken to heart in reading his masters from the same period, and the same could be said of the different modernist heritages prized by prose writers such as Zadie Smith and D. M. Thomas. It must also be said that, especially in Britain, much recent writing that identifies itself as avant-garde shows little or no sign of the analytic labour that Lyotard values. The poetry of Jeremy Prynne, for example, is more than likely to strike the reader schooled in modernism as mandarin and fatigued rather than energized and exciting.

At any rate, to understand the postmodern as Lyotard promotes it we must first grasp the Kantian doctrine of the sublime. And to do that, we need to distinguish the sublime from the beautiful. Neither word denotes properties in nature or art; each refers to a judgement about one or the other. Rather than yielding theoretical knowledge about anything, which would enable us to prove the aesthetic value of a natural scene or a poem, aesthetic judgements point to the subjectivity of the judge although not always to the uniqueness of his or her taste. As is well known, for Kant we get to know the world about us by bringing our intuitions of it into line with the categories of the understanding. Analogously, when judging a particular object to be beautiful, the imagination apprehends the form of what is intuited and refers it to the understanding. There is a free accord between the two faculties. Since only form is apprehended, no determinate concept is at issue and consequently no cognition takes place: there is solely a pleasure that enhances life. This delight can be communicated, and it is reasonable to expect that others will come to agree that something is beautiful. With each judgement of beauty there is a community to come.

No such balance or presumptive agreement is found in judgements of the sublime, however. For here the relevant faculties are judgement, imagination, and reason, the last faculty being incommensurate with the first two. Ideas of reason—God, freedom, and immortality—have no counterpart in experience, Kant tells us, and he adds that a feeling of the sublime occurs when such an idea is presented to the imagination. The totality of something unlimited cannot be thought by the imagination and that faculty is consequently overwhelmed by what has presented itself. With beautiful objects, which are always bounded, the imagination could freely enter into play with another faculty. Now it finds itself forced to obey an alien law: the unpresentable idea brings forth the utmost seriousness in the one to whom it is presented. Lacerated by the presentation of the idea, the imagination recoils in self-sacrifice, and is rewarded with what Kant calls ‘negative pleasure’, an expansion of the soul that comes when the imagination realizes that it can only represent the unpresentability of a presentation. This feeling of contradiction, pain and pleasure together, is, as Kant learned from Burke, the signpost of the sublime.

There is no sublime experience without the feeling of self-sacrifice, Kant argues. ‘The astonishment amounting almost to terror, the awe and thrill of devout feeling, that takes hold of one when gazing upon the prospect of mountains ascending to heaven, deep ravines and torrents raging there, deep-shadowed solitudes that invite to brooding melancholy, and the like—all this, when we are assured of our own safety, is not actual fear. Rather, it is an attempt to gain access to it through imagination’ (Kant 1952 : 120–1). On Lyotard's reading, there is no sublime experience without an awareness of death. Where Kant envisages a recovery of selfhood to follow the act of self-sacrifice in sublime experiences, Lyotard sees only the loss of the subject. More broadly, he takes the ‘retreat of regulation and rules’ to imply ‘the death of God’ (Lyotard 1986 : 11). He might have quoted Barnett Newman, the American abstract expressionist whose art he admires. In his essay, ‘The Sublime is Now’, Newman ( 1948 : 53) states, ‘We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man or “life,” we are making them out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.’ Now if Lyotard is correct, the reader of postmodern literature might think that he or she will not only experience a feeling of contradiction but will also be exposed to a withdrawal of the law which would lead to his or her becoming an atheist. Clearly, there would be very high stakes in deciding whether to read Virginia Woolf or Graham Swift. But are things quite so straightforward or so dire?

The moralist at least need have no fear of people reading postmodern literature as conceived by Lyotard. Seriousness is produced by an encounter with the sublime, as we have seen, and Kant tells us that there is an essential relation between the sublime and Sittlichkeit , morality. Yet the religious person who reads Kant will recall that the adoption of the moral law removes God from the theatre of human action, so that morality is de facto although not de jure co-ordinate with the death of God. We are to act as if God were not there to help us. Believers might also be concerned that attention to the sublime serves to replace the practice of religion. The accent is removed from worship and placed firmly on sublime feelings and ethics. Kant himself would be chary of suggestions that the former can have religious significance. Not all those influenced by him would agree, however. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries provide us with ‘religion within the limits of art’ as well as ‘religion within the limits of reason’ (Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy 1988: 77). Only those postmodernists wedded to ‘religion without religion’, in which the way to God goes solely by way of ethics, remain faithful to Kant's suspicion that, considered by itself, worship is at best empty and at worst a distraction from what religion actually asks of us. Others take the sublime, and indeed the category of feeling, to be the peculiarly modern way in which we are religious.

One index of the sway that the sublime holds on postmodern men and women would be a tendency to iconoclasm. Here it might reveal itself in a prizing of social justice over and above religious ritual, or in a desire to think of a God beyond metaphysics. Another index would be a taste for the fragmentary. The postmodern sublime would point us to literary and spiritual works that elaborate themselves by denying us the satisfaction of form. Pascal's Pensées would supply us with a powerful example from the past, while Simone Weil's notebooks and Edmund Jabès's Le Livre des questions (1963–73) would speak to us in related ways in the present. In terms of the visual arts we recall that, iconoclastic as they are, Barnett Newman's most demanding works probe spiritual impulses from positions unfamiliar to most overtly committed Christian artists. ‘Genesis’, ‘Abraham’, ‘Covenant’, ‘Joshua’, and, above all, ‘Stations of the Cross’, are cases in point.

Orthodox Christians will object to Lyotard that a retreat of rules and regulations does not imply the death of God, although it might indicate the closure of a certain metaphysical notion of the deity. They will also say that God cannot adequately be discussed in terms of the sublime, and that two quite different senses of ‘transcendence’ are in play when talking of God and the sublime. The objection invites us to consider whether there is, as Lyotard seems to assume, just the one postmodernism, an attitude of derision that extends to the dominion of God as well as philosophical metanarratives. A unitary understanding of postmodernism would be an odd thing. For there is no ‘concept’ of the postmodern as Lyotard conceives it. Modern science, largely based on experiment, generates philosophy to legitimate it, thereby calling forth the scepticism of postmodern men and women. Similarly, one might say, the avant-garde, with its total reliance on the experimental, gives rise to a theory of culture (‘modernism’) at the risk of being subject to a postmodern winking at the desire for legitimation. When literary historians tell us that the greatest poetry is always avant-garde we should look at them with suspicion and charge them with holding a naive linear view of literary history, one that, in any case, has reached its limit in postmodern times when the marginal is routinely incorporated into the dominant culture. Or one might say, more technically, that postmodernists do not secure their theory at the level of second-order discourse reflecting on first-order texts. For them, distinctions between first- and second-order discourses, or, if you wish, between theory and practice, can be shown to be divided and equivocal.

There are British novels that grapple with the religious and that can be plausibly called postmodern. Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses (1989) begins with angels and the death of God, and belongs in the world of Islam, although how close to the margins of that world is open to dispute (ibid. 16, 30). Graham Swift's novel Waterland (1983) works off the Christian story by brooding throughout on Mary Metcalf's ‘liaison…with God’ (ibid. 100–3); Jim Crace's Quarantine (1998: 193) focuses on a mad Jesus who, dying, becomes ‘all surface, no inside…a dry, discarded page of scripture now’; and Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10 1\2 Chapters (1989) develops a cheeky rereading of the legends of Noah's Ark and Jonah in the whale, and offers a new, disenchanted interpretation of heaven. Yet affirmations of a vigorous Christianity can be found in postmodern writing in Britain. Radical orthodox theologians John Milbank, Graham Ward, and Catherine Pickstock are postmodern both by virtue of criticizing modernity (in its elevation of space over time, in its nihilism, and in its culture of death) and by addressing many of the themes, from the city to cyberspace, that preoccupy secular postmodernists. Could it be that the only site in which the postmodern and theology vigorously engage one another in Britain is in the work of theologians? I will return to the question.

Nothing would be gained by simply tagging the British novelists named above as ‘postmodern’ and then moving on. In fact, most of what makes them interesting would be lost, and we would be in danger of misrepresenting them and rendering postmodernism as a homogenous movement. If Swift, Rushdie, Crace, and Barnes use any of the standard equipment of postmodern writing—a subversion of representation, a prizing of surfaces over depths, a disposition towards lightness rather than seriousness, a love of the intertextual, a taste for the non-functional—they do so in a cautious and reserved manner. To compare these writers with their older French contemporaries, people such as Philippe Sollers and Louis-René des Forêts, would result in more perplexity than clarity about defining the postmodern. The ways in which history and politics figure in postmodern British narrative writing help to separate it from its French counterpart. Speaking very generally, one might say that the French postmodernists are drawn to question le politique (the political) when they write, and that they therefore involve themselves in philosophical questions, and, further, that they do so even when they are addressing la politique (politics). The British, by contrast, are more likely to respond to the lessons of geography, society, and history as directly experienced. One of Barnes's narrators might say, ‘We all know objective truth is not obtainable, that when some event occurs we shall have a multiplicity of subjective truths which we assess and then fabulate into history, into some God-eyed version of what “really” happened’ (1989: 243), but the reader never feels that the rug is being pulled completely from under his or her feet. Look outside the door: the butcher's shop is still across the road, the postman is turning round the corner, and the newspaper is on the step. Yet when Michel Foucault ( 1967 , 189) tells us that ‘there is nothing to interpret…for fundamentally everything is already interpretation’, we know that for him there is no rug, and no floorboards either, despite the glittering array of facts offered in his histories.

Even if we restrict ourselves to Lyotard's understanding of the postmodern, we would want to say that the British novelists I have named participate in the postmodern without ever quite belonging to it. Nor do the French or the Americans, of course, but a Michel Deguy or a Charles Bernstein participates more fully than his British counterparts, the one participating also in the echoes of surrealism and the other in the aftershocks of the Black Mountain School. I take the distinction from Derrida's essay ‘The Law of Genre’ (1992: 230) where he is concerned to show that every text participates in one or more genres but never belongs to any one genre in the sense of having a continuous and uninterrupted border around it. Only the most naive epigones could be accused of treating the postmodern as a genre —of art, philosophy, or anything. Yet we might say that Barnes, for example, participates in postmodernism in that he treats Judaeo-Christianity as an archive of stories that can be put together in new ways, without worrying about the whole, yet does not belong to it in any thoroughgoing way, if only because his conception of religion as myth places him in the company of exemplary moderns such as Feuerbach, Strauss, Frazer, and Bultmann. Even here, though, there is a need for nuance and shading. Barnes is perfectly capable of twisting ‘myth’ around to make it more postmodern, as in his reflections on Jonah. ‘For the point is this,’ he says, ‘not that myth refers us back to some original event which has been fancifully transcribed as it passed through the collective memory; but that it refers us to something that will happen, that must happen. Myth will become reality, however sceptical we might be’ (1989: 181). To that bold claim, only a hardened and shameless postmodernist could demur by distinguishing between l'avenir and à venir , a future present and what is to come, and insisting that thinking in terms of any present is characteristic of the modern mindset.

To reflect on the contemporary British theologians I have named, along with others such as Oliver Davies, Laurence Hemming, Joseph O'Leary, and even Denys Turner, would be to doubt whether Lyotard's sense of the postmodern is sufficiently large to accommodate what they do and how they do it. They are less concerned with finding a ‘stronger sense of the unpresentable’ than with doing other things that a taxonomist might consider postmodern. John Milbank ( 1998 : 131–56) refigures the postmodern as the post-secular, and argues that it involves a half-turn towards the pre-modern: hence his fascination with St Augustine. Oliver Davies dreams of a theological language that no longer relies on ousia ; Laurence Hemming, who actively seeks a philosophy of being, is concerned to examine the ways in which the sublime and the divine have been braided together; Joseph O'Leary thinks of faith as a deconstructive principle that can be used to overcome Western metaphysics, especially as found in St Augustine; while Denys Turner gingerly appropriates the language of deconstruction in his consideration of mysticism. Certainly the word ‘postmodernism’ itself can be traced to another source than the one that Lyotard supplies. When Bernard Iddings Bell published his Postmodernism and Other Essays in 1926, he was not placing himself in a Kantian heritage or under the sign of modern atheism but subscribing to something far older, that, when fully re-emerged from the obscurity to which it had been banished by Schleiermacher and Feuerbach, would be opposed to both: an orthodox theological stance that had found religious liberalism or modernism intellectually reductive and spiritually unsatisfying. Few theologians today have heard of Bell. Even so, in the work of contemporary theologians with a traditionalist bent—Denys Turner and John Webster, for example—the word ‘postmodernism’ can refer to something that troubles theological as well as cultural modernism.

So we must be very careful talking of postmodernism when religion is in the air. Strange cross-fertilizations might have occurred that are not immediately apparent to the eye or the ear. On the one hand, the word might denote a theological position in accord with at least some attitudes, desires, or conclusions associated with postmodernism as usually understood. Such would be the case with work that commends approaching God by way of serving the other person, or talking of ‘God without being’, or considering the various strategies of apophaticism, or reflecting on the constitutive inadequacy of our response to the divine call, or imagining doing theology in cyberspace. On the other hand, to talk of postmodernism in the context of religion could mean a post-liberalism in either its narrow sense (as proposed by George Lindbeck) or the broader sense of Chalcedonian orthodoxy that Bell had in mind and that is affirmed from different positions by Milbank and others.

In treating English literature and theology from the perspective of postmodernism we can do more than reflect on ( a ) fiction influenced by cultural postmodernism that also touches on religious matters, and ( b ) theology marked by postmodernism in one or another sense. We need to take account of attempts in Britain to make ‘literature and theology’ into a discipline in its own right and to assess the ways in which that has been shaped by postmodern concerns. Positive interest in the field becomes apparent in the Victorian age, in Matthew Arnold's Literature and Dogma (1873) and Stopford Augustus Brooke's Theology in the English Poets (1880). Negative interest is heavily underlined in William Empson's Milton's God (1961). Only with Helen Gardner's Religion and Literature (1971) are questions posed and considered in an intelligent modern way by a critic of standing. Postmodern concerns might be seen to begin with Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending . Here Kermode ( 1967 : 28) proposes that apocalyptic writing provides a source from which we derive both literary fictions and our sense of historical crisis: ‘changed by our special pressures, subdued by our scepticism, the paradigms of apocalypse continue to lie under our ways of making sense of the world’. If Kermode drew on religion to help him understand narrative in all the complexities that postmodernism saw there, he was to become more interested in biblical criticism. The Literary Guide to the Bible (1987), edited by Kermode and Robert Alter, bypasses the postmodern. Indeed, when the Bible and Culture Collective produced their volume, The Postmodern Bible (1995) they excoriated Alter and Kermode for excluding ‘feminist, ideological, psychoanalytic, deconstructive, or Marxist approaches’, dominant concerns of poststructural and postmodern criticism. ‘We are convinced’, the Collective added, ‘that the critical practices explicitly excluded from Alter and Kermode's account will be increasingly vital to a biblical scholarship responsive to a postmodern culture’ (Bible and Culture Collective 1995 : 7). Certainly those practices were felt strongly, first in the United States and then in Britain, in the final years of the twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first century.

Postmodern interests in literature and religion are evident in the journal Literature and Theology , published by Oxford University Press, from its inception in 1987 to the present day. The journal's founding editor, David Jasper, has been intrigued by the postmodern for many years. His most decisive involvement with it, however, is The Sacred Desert (2004) in which he declares that he sees ‘“religion” as a defining characteristic of post-modernity’ and that it is only on a journey through the desert—inner as well as outer—that ‘theology and its language can find new life’ (ibid. 4). Like the radical orthodox theologians, Jasper is sharply critical of modernity; it has ‘failed to understand anything about the desert except as a place to be wearily traversed by one or two brave souls in the service of Empire’ (ibid. 57). Unlike them, he looks for inspiration to Thomas J. J. Altizer and Don Cupitt, two Godless theologians whose work Milbank and company would regard as anaemic liberalism of the very worst kind. Desert Fathers such as Paphnutius and Sarapion would find little to celebrate in Jasper's desert spirituality. Then again, the Desert Fathers were not interested, as Jasper certainly is, in the literature of the desert. A closer companion on the journey is Edmond Jabès, although the tutelary spirit is the American postmodern theologian Mark C. Taylor.

Another worthy in the British world of theology and literature is George Steiner whose Real Presences (1989), inflated and imprecise though it sometimes is, made a significant contribution to debate. For Steiner, the questions ‘What is poetry, music, art? How can they not be? How do they act upon us and how do we interpret their action?’ are ‘ultimately theological questions’ (ibid. 227). In itself the claim is far from new. St Bonaventure elaborated it, in a quite different context and style, in his De reductione artium ad theologiam : all debates in the humanities can be traced back to theological issues. Yet the claim is worth making again, and a Christian could explore it while keeping in mind Erich Pzywara's (1929: ii. 667) notion of reductio in mysterium , the leading back from the particulars of our lives to the divine mystery that supports life itself. Steiner's constant target is deconstruction, one of the two or three crucial movements in the higher intellectual reaches of postmodernity. Like Derrida, however, Steiner ( 1989 : 3) proposes a transcendental argument, ‘that any coherent understanding of what language is and how language performs, that any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God's presence’. In fact, Steiner deviates from this argument the more deeply he gets into his subject. First, he allows the felt absence of God to be just as effective as the divine presence in supporting ‘certain dimensions of thought and creativity’ (ibid. 229). And second, he passes from assuming that God is present to pretending that he is. ‘We must read as if ’ (ibid.), he says, meaning, I take it, that we must wager that there is a God—or regret there is no God—if we are to read at the highest level.

On hearing Steiner's injunction, we are likely to recall Wallace Stevens ( 1954 : 486) talking of ‘the intricate evasions of as’ and be less than willing to follow the directive to read as if . Also, we might remember a French writer whom Stevens loved, Maurice Blanchot, who argues in L'Espace littéraire (1955) that literature is linked to a sense of the sacred (H. Stevens 1972 : 879). Blanchot ( 1982 : 243), however, acknowledges, with a backwards glance to Hölderlin and Heidegger, that the gods have departed, and that the last vestige of the sacred that remains to us is the approach of what he calls le Dehors , the Outside, ‘a suffocating condensation where being ceaselessly perpetuates itself as nothingness’. One may well doubt whether we need the hypothesis of the Outside in order to read Mallarmé, Rilke, and Kafka, the authors who most intrigue Blanchot in this book. Yet we may be pleased that Blanchot does not ask us to pretend to believe in or to care about a deity he and many of his readers find incredible. To have faith in God is a wholly good thing, but to pretend to believe in God in order to read or write better is bad, and to ask people to do so is even worse.

Like several other critics of stature, including Harold Bloom and Christopher Ricks, Steiner points to Geoffrey Hill as the finest of contemporary British poets. His ‘dramatization of the Christian condition’ is, as Steiner puts it in an endorsement for Canaan , a part of his poetic strength. That Hill is postmodern would not be a judgement likely to be offered by Steiner, perhaps for very good reasons. After all, it is often unclear when critics declare ‘ X is postmodern’ whether the predication is descriptive or evaluative or both. Are we illuminated about the work when told that Browning is Victorian or that Petronius is modern? Scarcely; and ‘postmodern’ is, as we have seen, far less clear than either judgement. So when Vincent Sherry ( 1987 : 243) tells us that ‘Hill is postmodernist in his openness to the processes of his art, his situating the traces of the language as they crisscross his poems’ we are likely to be nonplussed. To begin with, to say that Hill is postmodern ist rather than postmodern misses the mark, for there is nothing in his poetry or his criticism that leads us to think he subscribes to views associated with Lyotard or with any other theoretician of the postmodern. Nor does the formulation distinguish avant-garde from postmodern practice: one might well be postmodern yet write very differently from aficianados of the avant-garde such as Emmanuel Hocquard or Lyn Hejinian. And what does it mean for someone to be open ‘to the processes of his art’ or to situate ‘the traces of the language’? Neither formulation is at all clear.

The Geoffrey Hill of Tenebræ (1978) is not Christian but is intently concerned with diagnosing the religion's ascetic practices and his own reluctance to make an act of faith despite an almost overwhelming desire to do so. ‘That Hill takes Christianity seriously’, Sherry ( 1987 : 156–7) says, ‘may in itself be offensive to contemporary critics’. It is hard to know what to do with such a sentence. Could anyone have written ‘That Jabès takes Judaism seriously…may in itself be offensive to contemporary critics’ or ‘That Rushdie takes Islam seriously…may in itself be offensive to contemporary critics’? Not even a critical study hostile to Le Livre des questions or The Satanic Verses would call forth such a sentence. And if it did, the study's assumptions would be put to the question. Yet the sentence prompts the question whether a poet can address Christianity, as a believer or not, and still be postmodern. The sonnets of ‘Lachrimæ’, for instance, show no interest in affirming surfaces instead of depths, they seek to understand rather than debunk, and there is no attempt to make form overflow content. At first blush, then, there is nothing postmodern about them. Their very form, the sonnet, implies content, it might be said: the way in which they organize a world of feeling and intellect is at odds with postmodernity. A postmodern sonnet, if there is such a thing, would look more like something in Ted Berrigan's The Sonnets (1964) than anything as polished as ‘Lachrimæ’.

Yet these are not the only or even the most suitable criteria to bring into play. Some people sympathetic to Milbank's understanding of the postmodern might read ‘Lachrimæ’ and observe that the sequence is post-secular, that its half-twist towards the pre-modern indicates a deep discontent with the modern, that it contests transparency of language, and that it perpetually exceeds the project of modernism in learning, with equal attention, from the Mallarmé of ‘Plusieurs Sonnets’ and the Lope de Vega of the religious lyrics. A second reading will give appropriate shading to ‘post-secular’, for the sequence addresses the relations of poetry and religion, registering the ways in which art and incarnation double each other, and how religious devotion becomes at once drawn out and perverted by representation. For example, the court of James I, as evoked in ‘The Masque of Blackness’, the second of the ‘Lachrimæ’ cycle, might well resemble ‘Midas’ feast' but so too does the church, at least when it comes to icons and liturgical vessels. That there is an admiration and a questioning of modernism in Hill is beyond doubt, yet because the working through of the modernist heritage does not lead to poems that square with the poetics of Tom Raworth or Denise Riley should not make us conclude that the work is therefore not postmodern. Durcharbeiten tends towards psychic health; it has no necessary end in avant-garde poetics. Hill questions modernism, to be sure, but also he puts pressure on art and the artist in general, not to mention their honourable and dishonourable relations with art as religion and religion as art. No postmodernist has presented a more savage attack on representation than the one that readers will find in Hill.

Tenebræ testifies that in Britain theology and the postmodern engage one another in poetry as well as in theology. ‘Lachrimæ’ is not centred in a faith seeking understanding but in a sensibility that seeks to understand oneself and others in order perhaps to have faith. If at times self-reflection frays into self-admiration for maintaining a delicate balance between belief and disbelief, and moving questioning decays into arid intellectualism, at other times the poetry has a powerful simplicity. That is never more so than in the final poem of the sequence, ‘Lachrimæ Amantis’, a translation of a sonnet by Lope de Vega (‘¿Qué tengo yo qui mi amistad procuras?’). It is telling that in the original Spanish, written of course by a Catholic—and one who finally entered holy orders but without finding serenity—the poet suggests that he will never actually wake to welcome Jesus who knocks on his window each night. He will do so tomorrow, he says, only to say the same thing the next day and every other day. With Hill it is different. His speaker drowses ‘half-faithful for a time | bathed in pure tones of promise and remorse: | ‘tomorrow I shall wake to welcome him’. Maybe he will not, maybe he will.

By the time of Canaan (1996), Hill is in communion with the Episcopal Church, and is writing lyrics that are less anguished about the act of faith and are more formally iconoclastic than those in Tenebræ . Consider ‘Of Coming into Being and Passing Away’:

Rosa sericea: its red spurs  blooded with amber each lit and holy grain the sun  makes much of as of all our shadows— prodigal ever returning darkness that in such circuits reflects diuturnity        to itself and to our selves        yields nothing finally—  but by occasion visions of truth or dreams as they arise—       to terms of grace where grace has surprised us— the unsustaining       wonderously sustained            (Hill 1996 : 4)

A reader devoted to Lyotard's understanding of the postmodern would celebrate the ‘stronger sense of the unpresentable’ that is evident here compared with ‘Lachrimæ’, and would point to the breaking of form, the bristling ambiguities, the raiding of literary history in gestures if not in content (the lyric places itself in the heritages of Emily Dickinson and Paul Celan). Here, the reader might say, is the postmodern sublime, with the retreat of rules and regulations, the exposure to death (‘yields nothing | finally—’), from which the poet pulls back at the last moment in his acceptance of being surprised by grace (rather than by sin, as in Stanley Fish's Paradise Lost ).

Yet the poem seeks to give us not so much an idea of reason as the ‘terms of grace’, conditions and limits that must be accepted: life in a familiar world of shadows, and roses near the end of the season. One can be reconciled to Christianity, the poem implies, not because it embodies nostalgia for the unattainable but because it speaks of a God who sustains the world in being. To decide to affirm that God is, as one theologian puts it, ‘a miraculous experience, one not deducible from experiences already had’ (Jüngel 1983 : 33). In the wake of that decision visions and dreams of truth can be translated into the peculiar language of theology (the ‘terms of grace’). That they are visions or dreams lets doubt intrude and longing emerge. Hill might hope that the poem clasps faith and style in its one movement. Elsewhere, he tells us that he prizes those moments when ‘grammar and desire are miraculously at one’ (Hill 2003 : 118). Cant postmodernism, as he would see it, goes in the opposite direction, seeking a divergence between the two and eschewing any possibility of the miraculous. Even if we set aside Hill's reflections as a critic, to call a lyric such as ‘Of Coming into Being and Passing Away’ postmodern pure and simple would be to yield to the demands of the insistent and tedious taxonomist. The poem does not evince a sceptical attitude towards metanarratives; it is uninterested in them. Nor does it develop a play of surfaces or delight in devices that exceed the poem's economy. If it invites being called ‘postmodern’, it does so in another sense of the word, one that neither leads ineluctably to the avant-garde nor discounts an articulation of literature and theology.

Works Cited

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Derrida, Jacques . 1973 . Speech and Phenomena: And Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs , trans. and intro. David B. Allison, pref. Newton Garver. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. First published 1967.

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Foucault, Michel . 1967 . ‘ Nietzsche, Freud, Marx.’ Colloque de Royaumont, Nietzsche . Paris: Minuit.

Hill, Geoffrey . 1996 . Canaan . London: Penguin.

——— 2003 . Style and Faith . New York: Counterpoint.

Jasper, David . 2004 . The Sacred Desert: Religion, Literature, Art, and Culture . Oxford: Blackwell.

Jüngel, Eberhard . 1983 . God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One in the Dispute between Theism and Atheism , trans. Darrell L. Guder. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Kant, Immanuel . 1952 . The Critique of Judgement , trans. James Creed Meredith. Oxford: Clarendon.

Kermode, Frank . 1967 . The Sense of an Ending . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lacoue‐Labarthe, Philippe, and Nancy, Jean‐Luc . 1988 . The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism , trans. Philip Barnard and Cheryl Lester. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Lyotard, Jean‐François . 1984 . The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge , trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. First published 1979.

——— 1986 . ‘Complexity and the Sublime’, ICA Documents 4: Postmodernism , ed. Lisa Appignanesi . London: Free Association.

——— 1991 . ‘The Sublime and the Avant‐Garde’, in The Inhuman: Reflections on Time , trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

——— 1992 . The Postmodern Explained to Children: Correspondence 1982–1985 , trans. Julian Pefanis and Morgan Thomas. Sydney: Power Publications.

——— and Thébaud, Jean‐Loup . 1985 . Just Gaming , trans. Wlad Godzich, afterword by Samuel Weber. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Milbank, John . 1998 . ‘The Sublime in Kierkegaard’, in Phillip Blond (ed.), Post‐Secular Philosophy: Between Philosophy and Theology . London: Routledge.

Newman, Barnett . 1948 . ‘ The Sublime is Now ’. The Tiger's Eye 6.

Pzywara, Erich . 1929 . ‘Katholizismus’, in Ringen der Gegenwart . 2 vols. Augsburg: Filser.

Rushdie, Salman . 1989 . The Satanic Verses . New York: Viking.

Sherry, Vincent . 1987 . The Uncommon Tongue: The Poetry and Criticism of Geoffrey Hill . Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Steiner, George . 1989 . Real Presences: Is There Anything in What We Say? . London: Faber & Faber.

Stevens, Holly (ed.). 1972 . Letters of Wallace Stevens . New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Stevens, Wallace . 1954 . Collected Poems . New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Swift, Graham . 1983 . Waterland . New York: Poseidon.

Further Reading

Davies, Oliver . 2001 . A Theology of Compassion: Metaphysics of Difference in the Renewal of Tradition . London: SCM.

Hart, Kevin . 2004 . Postmodernism: A Beginner's Guide . Oxford: Oneworld.

Hemming, Laurence . 2002 . Heidegger's Atheism: The Refusal of a Theological Voice . Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press.

——— and Lacoue‐Labarthe, Philippe . 1997 . Retreating the Political , ed. Simon Sparks . London: Routledge.

Lyotard, Jean‐François . 1986 . ‘Defining the Postmodern’, ICA Documents 4: Postmodernism , ed. Lisa Appignanesi . London: Free Association.

Nancy, Jean‐Luc . 1976 . ‘Tout le reste est literature’, in Le Discours de la syncope , i. Logodaedalus . Paris: Aubier‐Flammarion.

O'Leary, Joseph S.   1985 . Questioning Back: The Overcoming of Metaphysics in Christian Tradition . Chicago: Winston.

Turner, Denys . 1995 . The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Postmodernism in Literature: Key Themes & Techniques

What is postmodernism in literature, theme of absurdity, theme of metafiction, technique of pastiche, technique of parody, theme of time and space, theme of deconstruction, technique of magical realism, theme of identity and individualism, technique of inter-textuality.

Do you know that feeling when you read a book and it seems like the author is playing games with you? Maybe they're messing around with the way the story is told, or maybe the characters in the book are aware they're in a book. Sounds wild, doesn't it? Welcome to the world of postmodernism in literature. In this blog, we'll do some exploring postmodernism in literature, diving into its key themes and techniques. So, let's get started, shall we?

Postmodernism in literature is a style of writing that came to prominence after World War II. It's like a funhouse mirror—distorting and challenging our perceptions of what literature should be. It's a reaction against established forms, structures, and ideas, often poking fun at them and turning them on their head.

Imagine you're building a sandcastle, but instead of a traditional design, you mix together different architectural styles, make the walls curve in weird ways, and maybe put a dragon on top just for fun. That's kind of what postmodernism in literature is like. The authors are playing with our expectations, using innovation and experimentation to give us a fresh way of looking at the world.

When you're exploring postmodernism in literature, you'll notice it features a number of themes and techniques. Here are a few you're likely to encounter:

  • Absurdity: This is when things happen in the story that just don't make sense. It's like the author is reminding us that this is all make-believe.
  • Metafiction: This is when a book is aware it's a book. The characters might talk about being in a novel, or the author might interrupt the story to comment on it.
  • Pastiche: This is when an author mixes together different styles and genres. It's like a literary collage.
  • Parody: This is when an author makes fun of other works of literature, or of common literary conventions.

So, if you're up for an adventure—exploring postmodernism in literature is like going on a literary treasure hunt. You never know what you're going to find, but you can be sure it'll be interesting.

Let's kick things off with an exploration of the theme of absurdity in postmodern literature. Now, absurdity doesn't mean the writing is silly or pointless—far from it. Instead, the absurd in postmodern literature is all about challenging our assumptions and making us question what we think we know. It's like a magic trick that makes the impossible seem possible.

Imagine you're reading a story where a man wakes up to find he's turned into a giant bug. Sound bizarre? Well, that's exactly what happens in Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," a classic example of the absurd in literature. The idea of a man-bug might seem crazy, but it's used to explore serious themes like alienation, guilt, and the human condition.

So, when you're exploring postmodernism in literature and you come across something absurd, don't dismiss it as nonsense. Instead, ask yourself: What is the author trying to say? What assumptions are being challenged? How does this make me see the world differently?

By doing this, you'll be digging into the true spirit of postmodernism, where the absurd is used to make us think, question, and see the world with fresh eyes. So, the next time you see a man-bug, don't run away—embrace the absurdity!

Alright, moving on to our next stop in exploring postmodernism in literature: metafiction. What is metafiction, you ask? Well, in simple terms, it's a story that knows it's a story. It's a book that winks at you from the page and says, "Hey, I know I'm just words on paper, but let's have some fun with that."

For example, in "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler" by Italo Calvino, the novel starts with you, the reader, reading the book. You're not just a passive observer—you're an active participant. The book talks about you reading it, comments on its own structure, and even has false starts where narratives begin and then abruptly end. It's a wild ride!

So why do postmodern authors use metafiction? Well, it's a way to explore the nature of storytelling itself. It makes us question why we tell stories, how we tell stories, and what those stories say about us. It's like holding up a mirror to the act of reading and writing.

So, as you continue exploring postmodernism in literature, don't be surprised if the book starts talking back to you. That's just metafiction doing its thing—making us think about the stories we tell and the ways we tell them.

Ever watched a movie that was a mix of different film genres? Or listened to a song that combined various music styles? If yes, then you've encountered pastiche, another key element we come across when exploring postmodernism in literature.

Pastiche is somewhat like a collage. It's when an author mixes different styles, genres, or characters from various sources into one story. But unlike parody, there's no mocking or satirical intent behind it. It's all about celebrating diversity and complexity.

One of the best examples of pastiche in literature is "The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot. This poem borrows heavily from different cultures, languages, and literary works. It's like a literary jigsaw puzzle!

Why do authors use pastiche? It's a way of reflecting our complex, diverse world. Our lives are a mix of different experiences, cultures, and influences, and pastiche captures that beautifully. So next time you're reading a book and it feels like the author has thrown everything but the kitchen sink into it, you're probably looking at pastiche. It's a bit messy, a bit chaotic, but also a whole lot of fun.

So, remember, when exploring postmodernism in literature, don't be surprised if you see a samurai in a Western or a detective in a fantasy novel. That's just postmodernism's pastiche way of saying life is diverse, complex, and wonderfully unpredictable.

Now, let's talk about parody, another technique you'll find when exploring postmodernism in literature. Unlike pastiche, parody is all about humor and satire. It's like a playful jab at something—be it a genre, a character, or an idea—through imitation.

Parody takes something we know well and twists it in a way that makes us laugh or think. It's a bit like seeing a famous painting but with funny mustaches drawn on all the characters. The aim is not to offend, but to make us question and re-evaluate what we know.

One of the famous examples of parody in literature is "Don Quixote" by Miguel de Cervantes. This novel makes fun of chivalric romances that were popular during Cervantes' time. Instead of a noble, heroic knight, we get Don Quixote, a delusional man who thinks windmills are giants. It makes you chuckle, but it also makes you question the idea of heroism.

So, why do authors use parody? Well, it's a fun way of challenging our beliefs and expectations. It's also a way of poking fun at the seriousness and pretentiousness of traditional literature. When you're exploring postmodernism in literature, you'll find that it doesn't take itself too seriously, and parody is a big part of that.

So, grab your favorite book, add a bit of humor and irony, and what do you get? A postmodern parody that's guaranteed to make you laugh and think. Now, isn't that a fun way to explore literature?

As you delve deeper into exploring postmodernism in literature, you'll stumble upon the fascinating theme of time and space. This isn't about rocket ships and time machines, but rather how authors play with the concepts of time and space in their storytelling.

In traditional literature, stories usually follow a straightforward timeline and a consistent setting. However, postmodern authors love to mix things up. They might tell a story backwards, jump between different time periods, or even set a story in multiple places at once.

Take Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" as an example. The story bounces around from the protagonist's experiences in World War II, to his regular life as an optometrist, and even to his time spent on an alien planet. It's a wild ride that completely redefines our understanding of time and space in a narrative.

Why do postmodernists do this? It's all about showing that reality isn't as fixed and stable as we might think. It challenges our perception of the world and invites us to see things from a new perspective.

So, next time you're exploring postmodernism in literature, see if you can spot how authors play with time and space. It's like a literary game of hide-and-seek, and you're it!

Another interesting stop on our journey exploring postmodernism in literature is the theme of deconstruction. Now, before you start picturing sledgehammers and wrecking balls, let's clarify what we mean by deconstruction in this context.

Deconstruction in postmodern literature isn't about demolishing buildings, but about tearing apart ideas and assumptions. It's about questioning the 'truths' that we take for granted, and showing that they might not be as solid as we think.

For instance, imagine a story where the hero doesn't save the day and the villain isn't really evil. This kind of plot shakes up our expectations and makes us question the traditional roles of heroes and villains. That's deconstruction in action.

A prime example of this is "Watchmen" by Alan Moore. It's a graphic novel that deconstructs the superhero genre by portraying superheroes as flawed and human, rather than idealized symbols of justice. It's a bold move that challenges the reader's perception of what a superhero should be.

So, as you continue exploring postmodernism in literature, look out for this theme of deconstruction. It's a thought-provoking tool that really makes you question everything you thought you knew.

As we continue our journey exploring postmodernism in literature, let's dive into a magical world, a world where the ordinary meets the extraordinary. This is the realm of magical realism.

Magical realism is a technique where magical elements are blended into a realistic atmosphere in order to access a deeper understanding of reality. These magical elements are presented in such a way that they feel normal, even mundane. It's like walking down a familiar street and suddenly seeing a unicorn grazing in your neighbor's garden. It sounds crazy, but in the world of magical realism, it's just another Tuesday.

Take Gabriel García Márquez's novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude" as an example. In this book, a girl ascends to heaven while doing laundry and a man lives for over a hundred years. These events are described in the same matter-of-fact tone as a trip to the grocery store. The magic is woven into the fabric of everyday life.

So, when you're exploring postmodernism in literature, keep an eye out for these moments of magical realism. They're a way of seeing the world from a fresh perspective, a reminder that there's more to life than what meets the eye.

When you think about exploring postmodernism in literature, the theme of identity and individualism is one you will surely bump into. It's a theme that deals with questions like: Who are we? Do we have a fixed identity or do we change as we go along?

Postmodern literature often shows characters who are struggling with their identity, who are trying to understand themselves and their place in the world. These characters could be anyone — like you, me, or the person sitting next to you on the bus.

Let's take a look at the novel "Fight Club" by Chuck Palahniuk. The main character, who remains nameless throughout the book, creates a fictional alter ego named Tyler Durden. This reflects his struggle with his own identity — he's torn between who he is and who he wants to be.

In many ways, the theme of identity and individualism in postmodern literature mirrors our own struggles. We all have moments when we question our identity, our individuality, and our place in the world. So, as you continue exploring postmodernism in literature, remember to reflect on your own journey of self-discovery. You might find that you have more in common with these characters than you think.

As you're exploring postmodernism in literature, you'll quickly notice that these works love to talk to each other. They're like a group of friends at a party, each trying to outshine the other with witty remarks. This is where the technique of inter-textuality comes in.

Inter-textuality is a fancy way of saying that a piece of literature references another work. It can be a subtle nod to a famous line or a bold retelling of a classic tale. It's like when you spot an Easter egg in a movie that references another film — it makes you feel like you're in on a secret.

Take a look at "The Hours" by Michael Cunningham. This book is a clear example of inter-textuality as it weaves together the lives of three women, including Virginia Woolf, and uses Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" as a central theme. This book doesn't just reference "Mrs. Dalloway"; it explores and reinterprets it, making the original story part of its own narrative.

So, as you continue your journey in exploring postmodernism in literature, keep an eye out for these connections. They can add a whole new layer of meaning to the story and make your reading experience even more enjoyable.

If you're intrigued by postmodernism in literature and want to explore its themes and techniques further, check out the workshop ' Navigating Life VI ' by Rabih Salloum. This workshop will provide you with a deeper understanding of postmodernism and its impact on contemporary literature, helping you navigate its complexities and appreciate its artistic value.

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Post-Modernism in Literature

The 20th-century literature in its stylistic and ideological variety is non-comparable to the literature of the 19th century, where it was possible to allocate only three or four leading movements. At the same time, modern literature has not given more great talents, than the literature of the 19th century.

The previous century appeared as the richest in the variety of literary movements, including directions such as the literature of the absurd, Angry Young Men, Harlem Renaissance, Magic realism, Modernism and etc. One direction that should be specifically outlined is post-modernism. In this research post-modernism as a literary movement will be presented as an analysis of the historical background, writing style, and remarkable authors.

European and American post-modernism have developed in the late sixties and the beginning of the seventies. Unlike classical modernism with its cult of aesthetic novelty and the high aesthetic form, and also gravitation to a system in outlook, postmodernism was based on the cultivation of the art citation, the unoriginal plot, and the simplified language was oriented on simpler taste. The movement has occurred, having in its basis the philosophy of the end of human history, the philosophy of the natural person who is giving in to the dictatorship of psycho-physiological requirements.

The problems of postmodernism’s occurrence, functioning along with their theoretical judgment became the object of consideration of scientists since the sixties of the 20th century. Postmodernism can be considered, as a peculiar level of knowledge in the most developed societies. As it is known, this level of knowledge shows the cultural totality, which can be conditionally called tradition. Postmodernism, as defined by Jean-François Lyotard, represents the position of culture after the transformations which influenced the rules of scientific, artistic, and literary games, since the end of the 19th century. (Lyotard).

It was the end of the 19th century when society experienced a peculiar crisis connected with the formation of utopian ideals of modernism which should have become “a new, unprecedented era”. (Berman 3) Modernism as an aesthetic phenomenon became a tradition antonym. Modernist literature could be characterized by its depth, but postmodern writers aimed at depicting the truth of real-life without trying to make it better or to hide what could arouse resentment in readers.

However, modernism could not achieve its primary goals in the literature: the validation of science and scientific knowledge through the story and the creation of an original set of morality, capable to create as much accepted consensus variant as possible between the author and the reader. Therefore it was obvious, that society and literature were at a new step in the development of thinking and perception, where postmodernism has become such a step.

Postmodernism in the literature started to take a shape in the sixties and the seventies of the 20th century and, as well as modernism, promised salvation. This salvation and social release were imposed on the public in a rather aggressive way. The announcement of the death of the author, the novel, the story, and true art became the main installations of postmodernism. As stated by Federman, one of the theorists of a postmodernism and the author of six novels in such style, “Post-modern fiction experimented with death, or rather with its own death ” (Federman).

Literary postmodernism can be called quotation literature. Playing with citations can be considered as a form of inter-textuality. According to Barthes, it “cannot be reduced to a problem of sources and influences; it is a general field of anonymous formulas whose origin is seldom identifiable, of unconscious or automatic quotations, given without quotation marks.” (Love) In other words, it only seems to the author that he creates, in reality, the culture creates the works using the author as a tool.

In the postmodernism theory, similar literature began to be characterized by the term “the death of the author”, identified by Barthes. (Barthes) It means, that each reader can tower to the author’s level, receive the legitimate right to recklessly finish the work, and attribute to the text any meanings, including the ones initially not assumed by the author. Despite such criticism, the postmodernism literature introduced several notable authors that can be representative of such movements.

One of such authors as Jorge Luis Borges. Jorge Luis Borges – born in Buenos Aires, Argentina on August 24, 1899, is an Argentinean prose writer, poet and a publicist. Borges is known for the laconic prosaic imaginations which are often masking reasoning on serious scientific problems or taking the form of adventure or detective stories. The effect of the authenticity of fictional events is reached in Borges’s works by introducing a narration of episodes of Argentina’s history and names of contemporary writers, and the facts of own biography. (Ruch) This helps to convince the readers that the events depicted in the work are real, not invented because it is named for the unhidden truth that some readers valued post-modern literature.

When considering Borges as another post-modern writer, it should be mentioned that he, in fact, did not refer to the post-modern era. It is just that some of his works possessed the features characteristic of postmodernism. In regards to the death of the author, in Borges’s works, it is rightfully to talk not about the disappearance of the author as is, but about the change of the quality of the author’s consciousness. The author’s truth is dissolved in the multilevel dialogue of the points of view. As a result, the occurring model of the world looks paradoxical even against modernist paradoxes.

A characteristic example is Borges’ poetry, where Borges’ world consists more likely of texts than from objects and events. In that sense, his story “The Library of Babel” represents not as much dreadful phantasmagoria, as a sufficiently exact model of this world, which is “made of infinite spiraling shelves and staircases endlessly reflected in numbered mirrors.” (Bertens, Bertens and Natoli 3) The word “Babylon” in the name of the story did not mean the ancient city, but apparently, for the author, it was a generality synonym, as well as in “The Lottery in Babylon”, where all population of the fictional city was involved in the lottery. The story was written in Borges’ usual fictional essay form, therefore, practically there was no narration, describing a special, created by the author’s imagination, library-universe.

Another notable author is Thomas Pynchon. Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Jr. is an American writer, one of the founders of the school of black comedy, and a leading representative of the postmodernist literature of the second half of the 20th century. He is the winner of the William Faulkner Foundation Award for the best first novel of the year in 1963, and the winner of the National Book Award in 1974. (Daw)Born in 1937 in Glen Cove, Long Island, New York, Pynchon has “most exhaustively covered the hyperreal terrain mapped by postmodern prophet Jean Baudrillard.” (Bertens, Bertens and Natoli 265).

Right from the first acquaintance with Pynchon’s creativity, it shows the number of obstacles that should be overcome to come nearer to understand them. Reading Pynchon, readers incessantly get into traps and are compelled to observe how soon the built logic designs collapse in their eyes. The created system of references, allusions, and mutual reflections, the informational capacity of which is as the capacity of a powerful computer, has made Pynchon a favorite object of academic researches. In “Vineland” for example “Pynchon pays considerable attention to master narratives. He points out the foolishness of such belief systems by undermining the reasoning behind them; he accomplishes this through Sister Rochelle’s anecdotes, Zoyd’s wedding memories, and his own invention of the Thanatos.” (Sullivan).

Last but not least, one of the most famous representatives of literary postmodernism, along with Thomas Pincher, is John Barth. John Barth was born in 1930 in Maryland. After leaving school he studied in one of the most prestigious the Juilliard School of Music, after which he went to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore where the future writer majored in Journalism. After finishing University, John Bart was engaged in teaching activities. His first novels, “The Floating Opera” and “The End of the Road “, were published in 1957 and in 1958. The popularity of Barth was brought by the book “The Sot-Weed Factor” after the publishing of which is 1960, the public opinion included the author in the list of the greatest American writers of the 20th century. In 1965 after “Giles Goat-Boy, or, The Revised New Syllabus” had been published, John Barth was considered as one of the top American writers. For the following book, the trilogy “Chimera” (1972), the writer has been awarded the prestigious National Book Award. His subsequent books “Letters”, “The Tidewater Tales “, and the collection “The Friday Book” were considered as classics of postmodern literature. (Mahoney).

As an example of his postmodern books, “Letters” is a bright example of such works. The novel consists of letters that are issued according to strict English rules of etiquette. Each letter has not only a reference, an address, and a date, but also instructions concerning what aspect the message is bearing. Through the characters’ letters, Barth recreates his thoughts, aspirations, and experiences concerning the literature. Therefore epistles differ in a fanciful and mysterious psychological analysis by the means of which, the processes of formation of thoughts, feelings, and author’s intentions are reproduced. (Bertens, Bertens and Natoli 35-38) Embodying his own postmodernist feeling, Barth creates a book about the present’s new and historical reality of the US. Reflecting by the means of images from the “LETTERS”, Barth as a critic acts in the novel as a philosopher and as an art theorist, analyzing literary tendencies which were appearing and disappearing during American history.

Discussing the works of writers who were created in the period of postmodernism, it can be stated that all of them strongly influenced the movement. They affected the essence of literature, its primary goals, and some components which used to characterize the preceding literary tendencies. Firstly, postmodern writers changed the subject depicted in their works. Whereas modern literature was aimed at seeking meaning in the chaotic world, postmodernists only imitated this seeking. The works created in this period of time are the parody of questing the meaning with the writers’ denying its possibility in a playful and sometimes humorous way.

What’s more, postmodern writers changed the way of narration in their works. Little narration started to be used in postmodern literature and the writers were apt to generalize the ideas they expressed in their works avoiding stating their personal opinion which, perhaps, can be regarded as unwillingness to bear responsibility for possibly distorted facts.

Finally, the writers of postmodern literature changed character development and the themes of their works. Subjectivism was typical for postmodern character development; the writers stopped evaluating the characters and information objectively and their works turned into irrational, discontinuous, and shallow. They started paying more attention to the depiction of emotions and immortal issues of friendship, love, and death.

In a conclusion, it can be seen that despite the criticism of the postmodernism movement as a whole, its most bright representatives put a distinct mark in the history of literature. Although in later periods postmodernism decreased in its influence on literary works, the long term made it possible to evaluate postmodernism as a phenomenon of culture and a specific direction in philosophy and literary criticism. Postmodernism absolutely consciously revised the entire literary heritage. Today it becomes an existing cultural context – a huge cultural unwritten encyclopedia, where all texts relate to each other as parts of inter-text. Our culture consists of a cultural context. The literature is a part of that cultural context in which we live. We can use these products and they are a part of that reality which we create for ourselves.

Thus, it is possible to draw a conclusion that postmodernism as the philosophical and literary system actively functioning at present, continues to remain in the center of attention of domestic and foreign authors and critics, causing brisk discussions and receiving mixed opinions.

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author”. 1977. 2009. Web.

Berman, Art. Preface to Modernism. University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Bertens, Johannes Willem, Hans Bertens, and Joseph P. Natoli. Postmodernism: The Key Figures. Blackwell Publishing, 2002. Web.

Daw, Larry. “A Man Born through a Sea-Change from out of an Oyster”. 2000. The Modern World. 2009. Web.

Federman, Raymond. “Before Postmodernism and after (Part One & Two)”. Re-Vista. 2009. Web.

Love, Tim. “Allusion”. 1996. University of Cambridge. 2009. Web.

Lyotard, Jean-François. “The Postmodern Conditiona Report on Knowledge – the First Five Chapters”. 1979. 2009. Web.

Mahoney, Blair. “Lost in the Barthhouse”. 2000. The Modern World. 2009. Web.

Ruch, Allen B. “Biography Libraries and Garden Labyrinths: A Dream of Childhood”. 2004. The Modern World 2009. Web.

Sullivan, Bruce A. “Totalizing Postmodernism: Master-Narratives in Pynchon’s Vineland”. 2006. The Modern World. 2009. Web.

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We explain what postmodernism is and what its main characteristics are. In addition, we explore postmodern society and postmodern architecture.


What is postmodernism?

Postmodernism is a philosophical, cultural and artistic movement that emerged in the late 20th century as a reaction to the intellectual and philosophical ideas of modernity. It gets its name for being the school of thought following Modernism.

Postmodernism rejects the idea of an unmediated, objective reality independent of the human being , which it dismisses as naive realism. It is characterized by skepticism or rejection of the Enlightenment.

Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998) analyzes postmodern culture in The Postmodern Condition as the end of metanarratives or "grand narratives", the main characteristic of modernity. Examples of these are reductionism and teleological interpretations of Marxism and the Enlightenment, among others.

Rather than denying the identity of what was known until then, postmodernism grounds in the concept of "difference" as productive mechanism . It argues that thought (and what compels humans to act) is a matter of sensitivity rather than reason.

  • See also: Existentialism

Characteristics of postmodernism

The postmodernist movement held that:

  • Modern Western philosophy creates dualisms. Postmodernism maintains a hybrid or pluralistic stance on reality.
  • Truth is a matter of perspective or context rather than something universal or absolute. This idea arises from Nietzschean perspectivism: Nietzsche states that "there are no facts, only interpretations".
  • Language shapes the way of thinking and there can be no thought without language. Authors like Derrida work on this idea.
  • Language is capable of literally creating reality. Austin's performativity elaborates a theory in this regard.

Postmodern philosophy

Postmodern philosophy emerges as a break from modernism . Though it is difficult to pinpoint the origin of postmodernism, its start can be roughly marked in the 1960s, in France. Most postmodern thinkers are also post-Nietzschean: Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Guattari, Nancy, Barthes and Lacan, among others.

Postmodernism arises as a reaction or attempt to depart from the ideals of the previous era. Many of its authors are concerned with existentialism , deconstruction, posthumanism and contemporary literary theory. All of them break with the primacy that modernism gave to the individual and reason.

Central ideas of philosophical postmodernism are Derridean logocentrism, binary dichotomy and power relations , which are illustrated in works such as Foucault's The Order of Things , Derrida's Of Grammatology , or Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus .

Regarding the concept of difference , various authors adopt similar though not entirely reconcilable positions.

  • For Derrida, there exists the concept of différance or "difference", which is the simultaneous overlap of deferral and difference. This concept first appeared in his 1967 book Of Grammatology , which discusses language and writing not as sign but as a gramma or "differentiated" inscription.
  • Deleuze develops the Bergsonian multiplicity as a form of difference.
  • For his part, Foucault treats episteme as a singularity modified by the exercise of power.
  • In Lyotard's case, he coined the term "dispute", asserting that it is no longer possible to legitimize the historical truth claims of the various Western philosophical systems.

Postmodern art

Postmodernism broke with the established rules in art giving way to a new era of freedom in which "anything goes" . It is inherently an anti-authoritarian movement, as it refuses to acknowledge the influence of any style.

In order to challenge the boundaries of collective taste, the postmodernist movement may acquire a humorous, ironic and even ridiculous tone . It takes an anti-dualistic stance opposed to classical preconceptions such as east and west, male and female, rich and poor or black and white.

Examples of postmodern art include minimalism, conceptual art, land-art, happenings and interventions, all of which assert the failure of avant-garde art . Postmodern artists hold that avant-gardes are nothing but a failed response to established canon, since once they make their critique and mark their artistic difference, they end up being part of canon.

Postmodern architecture


Postmodern architecture is characterized by its undefined type , which does not oppose traditional styles while managing to differentiate itself from them. It replaced modern aesthetics (unadorned and with right angles) with irregular lines and unusual surfaces.

Some examples of postmodern architecture include: the State Gallery of Stuttgart (Germany), the public square Piazza d'Italia in New Orleans (United States) and the Scottish Parliament Building in Holyrood (Scotland).

Modern architects often regard postmodern buildings as vulgar or having a populist ethic. Conversely, postmodern architects may see modern works as having soulless and bland facades.

Postmodern Literature

Postmodern literature features a style of fragmentariness, diversity, paradox, unreliable narration, parody and "black humor" . It rejects the distinction between genres and forms of writing.

Latin America literature in the 1990s experienced a trend towards postmodernism. Major figures of postmodernism include Ricardo Piglia, Diamela Eltit, Rafael Humberto Moreno-Durán, José Balza and José Emilio Pacheco.

Postmodern authors typically blur the line between fictional discourses and essays : they write fiction about literature and essays in fiction style.

Postmodern society

The development of postmodern society meant a shift from production-based to consumer economies and even to compulsive consumerism which has caused harmful consequences that can be seen today.

To counteract the negative consequences, postmodernism began to question environmental disasters caused by the overexploitation of natural resources and the amount of toxic waste generated. It called for a reappreciation of planet Earth and a rise of awareness for its care.

Criticism of postmodernism

In all the fields where postmodernism has been observed, there has been resistance and rejection of the general ideas it puts forward . Whether in architecture, art or literature, generations of artists, writers and thinkers maintain that postmodernism is the symptom of a declining society whose foundations have been lost in time.

One of the most famous examples is the book Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science , written by physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, where they highlight the relativism to which postmodernity is subject. They criticize both the abuse of scientific concepts by philosophers and the use of non-communicative language by authors like Derrida or Heidegger, who tend to write in a non-predicative playful style as a display of thought.

The philosophers and thinkers most criticized by Sokal and Bricmont are Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour and Jean Baudrillard.

  • Ballesteros, J. (1989). Posmodernidad: decadencia o resistencia . Tecnos.
  • Baudrillard, J., Habermas, J., Said, E. y otros. (2000). La posmodernidad . Kairós
  • Lyotard, J.-F. (2008). La condición postmoderna: Informe sobre el saber . Cátedra.
  • “Postmodernism”. Encyclopaedia Britannica .
  • “Postmodernism”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy .
  • “Postmodernism”. Literary Theory and Criticism .

Related articles:

  • Rationalism

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Posmodern Literature.

The term Postmodern literature is used to describe works of literature that were produced after World War II (after 1945). The main objective of postmodern literature is to break away from conventional traditions through experimentation with new literary devices, forms, genres, styles etc.

Postmodernism in literature is not an organized movement with leaders or central figures; therefore, it is more difficult to say if it has ended or when it will end (compared to, say, declaring the end of modernism with the death of Joyce or Woolf).

Postmodernism springs from a number of variables:

  • A reaction against modernism: especially against the distinction between “high art” and everyday life. That is why postmodernists appealed to popular culture. Cartoons, music, pop art, and television have thus become acceptable for postmodernist artistic expression.
  • A reaction against a totally new world after WWII:

It implies a reaction to significant post-war events: the nuclear bombing and the massacre of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the beginning of the Cold War , the civil rights movement in the United States , postcolonialism , and globalization. Also a r eaction against capitalism, technology and information.

  • A reaction against realists:

Realists believed that reality was objective and could be differentiated from the subjective status of each subject’s vision. Realism believed that language could represent reality, while postmodernists believed in the randomness of human experience. Postmodernist literature holds the view that literary language is its own reality, not a means of representing reality.

  • A reaction against modernism:

Modernist literature sees fragmentation and extreme subjectivity as an existential crisis, a problem that must be solved, and the artist is often cited as the one to solve it. Postmodernists, however, often demonstrate that this chaos is insurmountable; the artist is impotent, and the only recourse against "ruin" is to play within the chaos. I nstead of the modernist quest for meaning in a chaotic world, the postmodern author eschews, often playfully, the possibility of meaning, and the postmodern novel is often a parody of this quest. For instance, whereas modernists such as T.S. Eliot perceived the world as fragmented and represented that fragmentation through poetic language, many also viewed art as a potentially integrating restorative force against the chaos that postmodernist works often imitate (or even celebrate) but do not attempt to counter or correct.

Postmodernist themes:

q  Loss & death

q  The sense of paranoia

q  Meaninglessness of human existence

q  Alienation of individuals

q  Lack of communication

q  Feelings of anxiety

q  Attachment to illusions of security to conceal the void of our lives

q  Fragmentation & discontinuity

q  Uncertitude

Postmodernist literary developments defy the conventions of literary cohesion and even coherence. Postmodernist literature involves a deconstruction of certain already existing literary forms and genres, and also the invention of new ones.

ü  Point of view:

The postmodern point of view becomes more limited. They shift from the omniscient narrator of Realism to limited point of view, more incoherent and mysterious. The omniscient narrator is eliminated in order to incorporate other perspectives.

ü  Fragmentation:

No linear narration. There is no relation between narration & time, so the narrative is fragmented, with loops in time. They abandon lineal narration, lineal plots.

ü  Intertextuality:

The idea that every text is the result of pre-existing texts whose meanings it re-works and transforms.

Since postmodernism represents a decentered concept of the universe in which individual works are not isolated creations, much of the focus in the study of postmodern literature is on intertextuality: the relationship between one text (a novel for example) and another or one text within the interwoven fabric of literary history. Intertextuality in postmodern literature can be a reference or parallel to another literary work, an extended discussion of a work, or the adoption of a style. For example, Umberto Eco ’s The Name of the Rose takes on the form of a detective novel and makes references to authors such as Aristotle , Arthur Conan Doyle , and Borges.

 (See Murfin & Ray, 1998)

ü  Pastiche:

 Related to postmodern intertextuality, pastiche means to combine, or "paste" together, multiple elements. In Postmodernist literature this can be a parody of past styles. It can be seen as a representation of the chaotic, pluralistic aspects of postmodern society. It can be a combination of multiple genres to create a unique narrative: for example, William S. Burroughs uses science fiction, detective fiction, westerns; Margaret Atwood uses science fiction and fairy tales; Umberto Eco uses detective fiction, fairy tales, and science fiction. Other writers combine elements songs; pop culture references; well-known, obscure, and fictional history mixed together; real contemporary and historical figures.

(See also Murfin & Ray, 1998)

ü  Re-writes:

They are a re-interpretation of canonical texts. They imply an appropriation of the text and the deconstruction of it, in order to produce a new version that may consist of a prequel, a sequel or a parody

ü  The absurd:

Absurd literature rejects the traditional idea that narratives should tell stories in a logical way. It is based on the idea that life is absurd –without meaning, point or purpose- and it is the duty of the writer to present the futility of life in the most striking ways.

Example: Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”. (See Murfin & Ray, 1998)

ü  Magical real ism

It is a technique popular among Latin American writers (and can also be considered  a genre in itself) in which supernatural elements are treated as mundane (a famous example being the practical-minded and ultimately dismissive treatment of an apparently angelic figure in Gabriel García Márquez 's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings"). Though the technique has its roots in traditional storytelling, it was a center piece of the Latin American "boom" , a movement coterminous with postmodernism. Some of the major figures of the "Boom" and practitioners of Magical Realism ( Gabriel García Márquez , Julio Cortázar etc.) are sometimes listed as postmodernists. Some characteristics of this genre 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, expressionistic and even surrealistic description,

ü  Political protest literature  (postcolonial literature)

Literature produced in countries and cultures that have come under the control of European colonial powers at some point in their history.

ü  Irony, black humor & sarcasm.

Sarcasm: intentional derision generally directed at another person and intended to hurt. Sarcasm involves obvious, even exaggerated verbal irony, achieving its effect by stating the opposite of what is meant (for instance false praise) so as to heighten the insult.

Irony:  a contradiction or incongruity between appearance or expectation and reality. It is commonly employed as a “wink” that the reader is expected to notice so that he or she may be “in on the secret”. It has been called the Subtlest rethorical form, for the success of an ironic statement depends upon the audience’s recognition of the discrepancy at issue. It should not be confused with sarcasm, since sarcasm is more obvious, blunt and nastier and its intent is to wound or ridicule, while irony generally lacks a hurtful aim.

Black humor: a dark, disturbing, and often morbid or grotesque mode of comedy found in certain modern and postmodern texts. Such humor often concerns death, suffering, or other anxiety-inducing subjects. Black humor usually goes hand in hand with a pessimistic world-view or tone; it manages to express a sense of hopelessness in a wry, sardonic way that is grimly humorous.

Linda Hutcheon claimed postmodern fiction as a whole could be characterized by the ironic quote marks, that much of it can be taken as tongue-in-cheek ( characterized by insincerity, irony, or whimsical exaggeration) . This irony , along with black humor and the general concept of "play" (related to Derrida's concept or the ideas advocated by Roland Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text ) are among the most recognizable aspects of postmodernism. It's common for postmodernists to treat serious subjects in a playful and humorous way: for example, the way Heller, Vonnegut, and Pynchon address the events of World War II.

ü  The antinovel:

Postmodern novels are called antinovels because they attempt to present the reader with experience itself, unfiltered by metaphor or other vehicles of unfiltered interpretation. Antinovels violate and flout establishes novelistic conventions and norms. Confusion is an intended result of this type of narrative, also characterized by fragmentation and dislocation and requiring the reader to assemble and make sense of disparate pieces of information.

ü  Metalepsis

(See: “El lector como detective”, de Isaías Gonzalez)


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Literary Theory and Criticism

Home › Postmodernism and Feminism

Postmodernism and Feminism

By NASRULLAH MAMBROL on March 27, 2018 • ( 1 )

[ Feminism ] should persist in seeing itself as a component or offshoot of Enlightenment modernism, rather than as one more ‘exciting’ feature (or cluster of features) in a postmodern social landscape. (Sabina Lovibond, in T. Docherty, ed., Postmodemism: A Reader (1993) .)

[D]espite an understandable attraction to the (apparently) logical, orderly world of the Enlightenment, feminist theory more properly belongs in the terrain of postmodern philosophy . (Jane Flax, in L. J. Nicholson, ed., Feminism/Postmodernism (1990).)

Any definition of feminism must see it above all as a social and political force, aimed at changing existing power relations between women and men. In Maggie Humm ‘s words, ‘The emergence of feminist ideas and feminist politics depends on the understanding that, in all societies which divide the sexes into different cultural, economic or political spheres, women are less valued than men’ ( Feminisms: A Reader (1992». As a movement for social change, therefore, feminism’s theoretical developments have been bound up with demands for political change. The beginnings of ‘second wave’ feminism, the term now usually used to describe the post-1968 women’s movement, were thus marked both by new political groupings and campaigns, such as those organized around abortion legislation, demands for legal and financial equality, and equal opportunity at work, and by the publication of ambitious theoretical works such as Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and Shulamith Firestone ‘s The Dialectic of Sex (both 1970). Both works offered themselves as texts of revolution, Firestone insisting that what she called the ‘pioneer Western feminist movement’ of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries must be seen as only the first onslaught of ‘the most important revolution in history’, and Millett heralding the emergence of ‘a second wave of the sexual revolution’. Both sought to re-claim a feminist history; both identified feminism as theoretical standpoint with the women’s movement as political practice.


For feminism , then, politics and theory are interdependent. But feminist politics have operated in the spheres of knowledge and culture as well as through campaigns for social and economic change. Feminist theorists from Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) onwards have identified as a primary source of women’s oppression the cultural construction of femininity which renders women ‘insignificant objects of desire’ and opposes the category ‘woman’ to the category ‘human’. As Annette Kuhn insists in The Power of Image (1985), ‘From its beginnings, feminism has regarded ideas, language and image as crucial in shaping women’s (and men’s) lives.’ Feminism has taken as an object of both analysis and intervention the construction of knowledge, meaning and representations. It has also been concerned with the struggle to find a voice through which such knowledges might be expressed. For the development of an autonomous female subject, capable of speaking in her own voice within a culture which has persistently reduced her to the status of object, is also part of feminism’s project. As Rosalind Delmar describes it, feminism has sought to transform women’s position from that of object of knowledge to knowing subject, from the state of subjection to subjecthood (in J. Mitchell and A. Oakley, eds., What is Feminism (1986)).

All of this would seem to place feminism as an offshoot of the ’emancipatory metanarratives’ of Enlightenment modernism, and this is indeed where many feminist theorists would position themselves. If, as Lyotard suggests, two major forms of ‘legitimation narrative’ have been used to justify the Enlightenment quest for knowledge and the importance of scientific research, both find their echo in feminist theory. The first, the ‘narrative of emancipation’, in which knowledge is sought as a means to liberation, finds a clear echo in the concept of ‘women’s liberation’. As Sabina Lovibond writes, ‘it is difficult to see how one could count oneself a feminist and remain indifferent to the modernist promise of social reconstruction’ (Postmodemism: A Reader). But Lyotard ‘s second legitimation narrative, that of the speculative mind, in which knowledge is sought for its own sake, also finds its feminist echo – in the practice of ‘consciousness raising’. Through consciousness raising, greater insight into the operations of male power (a feminist ‘enlightenment’) is achieved through women’s communal self-analysis and consequent rejection of internalized patriarchal assumptions and ways of understanding (what might be termed a patriarchal ‘false consciousness’). Like Marxism, therefore, feminism’s initial project ties theoretical analysis of oppression to a narrative of emancipation through social transformation.

Early feminism , then, had as its aim women’s equality, through their admission to those spheres from which they had been excluded, and this included the spheres of rational thought and intellectual discourse. If women had been excluded from political theory, Marxism , philosophy, psychoanalysis and other dominant theoretical discourses, then women’s inclusion would expand and perhaps transform those discourses, while at the same time their insights could be used to illuminate women’s experience. Much feminist theory of the 1960s and early 1970s, therefore, set out to expand and transform existing theoretical models. But there are a number of problems with this approach. In the first place, it became clear that it was not possible simply to expand such theories to include women, for women’s exclusion was not an accidental omission but a fundamental structuring principle of all patriarchal discourses. As Simone de Beauvoir pointed out in The Second Sex (1949), woman in Western thought has represented the Other that can confirm man’s identity as Self, as rational thinking being. ‘The category of the Other’, writes de Beauvoir , ‘is as primordial as consciousness itself, since the Self can only be defined in opposition to something which is not-self, Man, she writes, has assigned to himself the category of Self, and constructed woman as Other: ‘she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’


Moreover, even if women could be included within these discourses, it could be in terms only of sameness not difference, that is, within frameworks which could discuss women only in terms of a common, male-referenced humanity (what Luce lrigaray calls the ‘hom(m)osexual economy’ of men) not specifically as women As subjects of these knowledges, therefore – that is, as thinkers and writers – women could occupy only a range of pre-given positions: they could write only as surrogate men. Indeed, it became increasingly clear that the ‘universal subject’ of Enlightenment modernism, far from being ungendered and ‘transcendent’, was not only gendered but very specific: a Western, bourgeois, white, heterosexual man.

Once this theoretical step is taken, a further step is inevitable: if feminists seek to construct a universal, ‘essential’ woman as subject and/ or object of their own thought, then that figure will be as partial, as historically contingent and as exclusionary as her male counterpart. Given her origins, she will simply be a Western, bourgeois, white, heterosexual woman. Feminist theory cannot claim both that knowledge and the self are constituted within history and culture and that feminist theory speaks on behalf of a universalized ‘woman’. Rather, it must embrace differences between women and accept a position of partial knowledge(s). And once it occupies this position, feminist thought would seem to move away from its Enlightenment beginnings, and to have much in common with postmodernist theory. Barbara Creed, summarizing the arguments of Craig Owens in The Discourse of Others  (H Foster, ed., Postmodem Culture (1983», suggests a number of points of apparent convergence between the two. Both feminism and postmodernism argue that the ‘grand’ or ‘master’ narratives of the Enlightenment have lost their legitimating power. Not only, they would both suggest, have claims put forward as universally applicable in fact proved to be valid only for men of a particular culture, class and race, the ideals that have underpinned these claims – of ‘objectivity’, ‘reason’, and the autonomous self – have been equally partial and contingent. Both also argue that Western representations – whether in art or in theory – are the product of access not to truth but to power. Women, as Owens points out, have been represented in countless images (and metaphors) throughout Western culture, often as a symbol of something else – Nature, truth, the sublime, sex – but have rarely seen their own representations accorded legitimacy. The representational systems of the West have, he argues, admitted only ‘one vision – that of the constitutive mali subject’. Both present a critique of binarism, that is, thinking by means of oppositions, in which one term of the opposition must always be devalued: we have seen in the discussion of de Beauvoir ‘s work how fundamental this critique has been to feminist thought. Both, instead, insist on ‘difference and incommensurability’. Finally, both seek to heal the breach between theory and practice, between the subject of theory/knowledge and its object. Women, of course, are both the subjects and the objects of feminist theory, and women’s sense of self, it has been argued, is far more ‘relational’ than that of men.

Instead of an essential, universal man or woman, then, both feminism and postmodernism offer, in Jane Flax’s words, ‘a profound skepticism regarding universal (or universalizing) claims about the existence, nature and powers of reason, progress, science, language and the subject/self’ (‘Gender as a Social Problem’, American Studies (1986». But the alliance thus formed is an uneasy one, for feminism, as I have indicated, is itself a ‘narrative of emancipation’, and its political claims are made on behalf of a social group, women, who are seen to have an underlying community of interest, and of an embodied female subject whose identity and experiences (or ‘truth-in-experience’) are necessarily different from those of men. If, then, as Sarah Harding has suggested, we replace the concept of ‘woman’ by that of ‘myriads of women living in elaborate historical complexes of class, race and culture’ (H. Crowley and S. Himmelweit, eds., Knowing Women (1992», as some theorists propose – if, in other words, we remove gender (or sexual difference) as a central organizing principle – how can a feminist political practice any longer be possible? If sexual difference becomes only one term of difference, and one that is not fundamentally constitutive of our identity, then how can it be privileged? Surely to privilege it becomes, in Christine Di Stefano ‘s words, ‘just another … totalizing fiction which should be deconstructed and opposed in the name of a difference that serves no theoretically unifying master’ ( Feminism/Postmodemism ).


In throwing in its lot with postmodernism, then, might not feminism be colluding in its own eradication, accepting the demise of ‘metanarratives of emancipation’ at a point when women’s own emancipation is far from complete? Feminists are understandably divided as to the answer to this question. Some, like Sabina Lovibond , insist that feminism must not be seduced by the attractions of postmodernism, for if feminism disowns’the impulse to “enlighten'” it loses the possibility of all political and social action. Others take a very different line, arguing that the critiques of Enlightenment beliefs which feminist theory has mounted must place it as ‘a type of postmodern philosophy’. Thus Jane Flax , for example, argues that feminist theories, ‘like other forms of postmodernism, should encourage us to tolerate and interpret ambivalence, ambiguity, and multiplicity as well as to expose the roots of our needs for imposing order and structure no matter how arbitrary and oppressive these needs may be’ ( Feminism/Postmodemism ). In this argument, postmodernism becomes a sort of therapeutic corrective to feminism’s universalizing tendency. In similar vein, Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson , while rejecting the philosophical pessimism of Lyotard , wish to adopt his critique of metanarratives for a feminist social criticism. Such a feminist theory, they argue, would eschew the analysis of grand causes of women’s oppression, focusing instead on its historically and culturally specific manifestations. It would also replace unitary conceptions of woman and female identity with ‘plural and complexly structured conceptions of social identity, treating gender as one relevant strand among others, attending also to class, race, ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation’. In a thoroughly feminizing metaphor, they conclude that such a theory ‘would look more like a tapestry composed of threads of many different hues than one woven in a single color’ (Feminism/Postmodemism ).

Another example of such an anti-essentialist critique can be found in the work of Judith Butler who, from a lesbian perspective, goes much further than Flax or Fraser and Nicholson, in arguing that the very category of gender is a ‘regulatory fiction’ which functions to enforce compulsory heterosexuality (everyone is either male or female; opposites complement/attract). For Butler, gender is ‘a kind of impersonation and approximation … but … a kind of imitation for which there is no original’. The appearance of ‘naturalness’ that accompanies heterosexual gender identity is simply the effect of a repeated imitative performance. What is being imitated, however, is ‘a phantasmatic ideal of heterosexual identity’. There is no essence of heterosexual masculinity or femininity which precedes our performance of these roles; we construct the ideal of that essence through our performances (D. Fuss, ed.,Inside/Out (1991». And we construct it in the service of a regulatory heterosexual binarism. Gender, like other categories of knowledge, then, is the product not of truth but of power expressed in discourse. Moreover, as a copy of a fantasized ideal, heterosexuality always fails to approximate its ideal. It is thus doomed to a kind of compulsive repetition, always threatened by failure and always liable to disruption from that which is excluded in the performance. Gender , in this view, is a performance which constructs that which it claims to explain. Rather than persisting in clinging to it as an explanatory category, therefore, feminists should celebrate its dissolution into ‘convergences of gender identity and all manner of gender dissonance’ ( Butler, Feminism/ Postmodemism ). Its abandonment promises the possibility of new and complex subject-positions and of ‘coalitional politics which do not assume in advance what the content of “women” will be’ ( Butler, Gender Trouble (1990».

Other feminists, however, while not wishing to return to a unitary concept of ‘woman’, are far more sceptical than Butler about the transformative possibilities of a feminism which embraces postmodernism. These theorists point to a number of major problems in this projected alliance. First, there is the tendency of male postmodernist theorists, when discussing feminism or attempting, as for example Craig Owens does, to ‘introduce’ feminism into the postmodern debate, to do so by presenting feminism as, in Owens’s words, ‘an instance of postmodern thought’ (my emphasis). Postmodernism, that is, constitutes itself where it considers feminism at all- as the inclusive category, of which feminism is merely one example. Second, to treat gender as only ‘one relevant strand among others’, as Fraser and Nicholson would wish, or as merely a ‘regulative fiction’, as Butler suggests, would render a politics based on a specific constituency or subject – women impossible. The strategy proposed by Judith Butler, for example, is that of ‘gender parody’, in which gender is self-consciously and parodically performed, in a masquerade that subverts because it draws attention to the non-identity of gender and sexuality, to the multiple sexualities that can be written on our bodies. It is, as Tania Modleski points out in Feminism Without Women (1991), an ‘extremely individualistic solution to the problem of women’s oppression’, and one which risks merely reinforcing the binary structure which it seeks to subvert. Parody, after all, depends on the stability of that which it imitates for its critical force. It is difficult, therefore, to envisage the ‘coalitional politics’ advocated by Butler as any more than a coalition in resistance, rather than a strategy for change.


A third problem inherent in the too-easy acceptance by feminism of postmodernism’s embrace is, as Meaghan Morris points out, that while we may accept that there is a crisis in modernism’s ‘legitimation narratives’, there is no reason to assume – simply because they have been termed ‘master narratives’ – that this will benefit women – or blacks, gays, or other difference-based movements. It might just as well mean the disintegration of all motivating arguments for any kind of intervention or, as Donna Haraway puts it in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (1991), ‘one more reason to drop the old feminist self-help practices of repairing our own cars. They’re just texts anyway,so let the boys have them back.’ It might even, as Morris suggests, mean ‘a state of permanent bellicosity in which Might … is Right’ ( The Pirate’s Fiancee (1988». With no arguments for change, power is ceded to the powerful. This last point takes us on to a further argument: that postmodernism may itself be a new ‘master discourse’, one which deals with the challenges posed by feminism by an attempted incorporation – as when feminism is offered inclusion in the postmodern debate as ‘an instance’ of postmodern thought.

That postmodernism has sought to deal with the feminist critique by offering itself as a ‘framing discourse’ for feminism is a point made by a number of feminist theorists. They have pointed to the fact that postmodernism’s debate with – or deconstruction of – modernism has been conducted pretty well exclusively within and by the same constituency as before (white, privileged men of the industrialized West), a constituency which, having already had its Enlightenment, is now happy to subject that legacy to critical scrutiny. It is a debate in which the contribution of feminism, while acknowledged as a (perhaps even central) factor in the destabilizing of modernism’s concept of a universal ‘subject’, must necessarily be (re-)marginalized: the central protagonists are (as always) situated elsewhere. Feminist suspicions of this move are voiced by Nancy Hartsock. ‘Why is it,’ she asks, ‘that just at the moment when so many of us who have been silenced begin to demand the right to name ourselves, to act as subjects rather than objects of history, that just then the concept of subjecthood becomes problematic?’ (Feminism/Postmodernism). It is no accident, she argues, that just at the moment when those previously excluded begin both to theorize and to demand political change, there emerges uncertainty about whether the world can be theorized and about whether progress is possible or even, as a ‘totalizing’ ideal, desirable. For Hartsock, then, the intellectual moves of postmodernism constitute merely the latest accent of the voice of the ‘master discourse’, as it attempts to deal with the social changes and theoretical challenges of the late twentieth century.

Two further feminist suspicions are worth enumerating here. They concern the way in which postmodern ‘gender-scepticism’ permits an easy slide into what Susan Bordo calls the ‘fantasy of becoming multiplicity – the dream of endless multiple embodiments, allowing one to dance from place to place and self to self (Feminism/Postmodernism). This has two aspects. The first is that being everywhere is pretty much the same as being nowhere; in other words, postmodernism offers to its male theorists simply another version of the disembodied detachment which characterized the Enlightenment speaking position. The second is that ‘becoming multiplicity’ can also mean ‘becoming woman’ or occupying the feminine position. Thus, as Alice Jardine, Barbara Creed, and Tania Modleski all point out, male postmodern theorists have tended both to identify – in common with earlier thinkers – the position of ‘otherness’ with femininity, and to seek to occupy it. In this way, as Tania Modleski puts it, ‘male power … works to efface female subjectivity by occupying the site of femininity’ (Feminism Without Women), and the material struggles of embodied women are erased. Modleski goes on to argue further that for women to seek to occupy the postmodernist position, as postmodernist feminists do, is a cause for considerable feminist concern. The kind of disembodied, ‘antiessentialist’ feminism which is produced is, she argues, a luxury open only to the most privileged of women. Only those who have a sense of identity can play with not having it.

How, then, can feminist theory both hold on to a belief in ‘woman’ and respect cultural diversity and difference? Or, as Rosi Braidotti puts it in Nomadic Subjects (1994), ‘By what sort of interconnections, sidesteps, and lines of escape can one produce feminist knowledge without fixing it into a new normativity?’ Attempts to answer this question – to, in Alice Jardine’s words, ‘dive into the wreck’ of Western culture rather than simply pushing it aside – have produced some of the most exciting feminist thinking over the past decade. One possible answer is provided by what have been termed the feminist ‘standpoint’ theorists. These thinkers use for feminist ends the Marxist vision in which those who occupy subjugated or marginal positions in society not only produce different knowledges from those in positions of privilege; they also produce less distorted, less rationalizing, less falsely universalizing accounts. Nancy Hartsock presents the argument for this approach, arguing that ‘we need to dissolve the false “we” I have been using into its real multiplicity and variety and out of this concrete multiplicity build an account of the world as seen from the margins, an account which can expose the falseness of the view from the top and can transform the margins as well as the center’ ( Feminism/Postmodernism ). The task, she suggests, is to develop an account of the world which treats these alternative perspectives not – as they are seen from the centre – as subjugated or disruptive knowledges, but instead as primary and as capable of constituting a different world. This is an approach also embraced by black feminists like Patricia Hill Collins, who argues for what she terms a black women’s or Afrocentric feminist epistemology. Like other subordinate groups, argues Collins, African-American women have not only developed distinctive interpretations of their own oppression, but have done so by constructing alternative forms of knowledge. The specific forms of black women’s economic and political oppression and the nature of their collective resistance to this oppression mean, she argues, that African-American women, as a group, experience a different world from those who are not black and female. This distinctive experience in turn produces a distinctive black feminist consciousness about that experience, and a distinctive black feminist intellectual tradition. These ‘engaged visions’, in Hartsock’s terms, can then produce the grounds for the recognition of commonalities, and ‘the tools to begin to construct an account of the world sensitive to the realities of race and gender as well as class’ ( Feminism/Postmodernism ).


There are problems, however, with this rather literal interpretation of what a ‘politics of location’ ( Adrienne Rich , Blood, Bread and Poetry (1986» might mean. It can become over-simplified and reductive (this set of experiences inevitably produces that mode of consciousness). It is difficult to know which set of experiences is constitutive of a particular group and mode of knowledge-production. It places an emphasis on experience which should perhaps more properly be placed on particular ways of interpreting that experience. Finally, the appeal to a commonality of experience can elide both differences between and differences within women. Collins’s work, for example, persistently assumes that all black women are American, insisting, in ‘The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought’, for example, that ‘[l]iving life as an African American woman is a necessary prerequisite for producing black feminist thought’ (B. Guy-Sheftall, ed., Words ofFire (1995», and that all African-American women share a common position. On the other hand, once we allow for the multiplicity of positionings within every ‘standpoint’, the concept of a commonality of experience – and hence a distinctive standpoint – within oppressed groups can become lost.

The concept of ‘situated knowledges’ developed by theorists like Rosi Braidotti and Donna Haraway is a more complex answer to the question of how, in Braidotti’s words in Nomadic Subjects, to ‘figure out how to respect cultural diversity without falling into relativism or political despair’. The ‘situatedness’ envisaged here, however, isno simple affair. It is in the first place a position which insists on the embodied and therefore sexually differentiated nature of the female subject. But embodiment does not, in this context, mean ‘essentialism’, where essentialism is defined as implying a fixed and monolithic essence to female identity “which is beyond historical and cultural change. The embodied female subject envisaged here is, on the contrary, a ‘nomadic’ subject, to use Braidotti’s terminology. That is, she is ‘the site of multiple, complex, and potentially contradictory sets of experiences, defined by overlapping variables such as class, race, age, lifestyle, sexual preference, and others’. Haraway goes further: in the contemporary high-tech world, feminist embodiment is about ‘nodes in fields, inflections in orientations, and responsibility for difference in materialsemiotic fields of meaning’ (Simians, Cyborgs, and Women). What both thinkers are trying to do in these rather complex formulations is to insist both that the female subject is embodied – that women’s knowledge and thought cannot be separated from their lived experience – and that this insistence does not mean that feminism cannot recognize the differences both between women and within each woman. Within all of us, argues Braidotti, there is an interplay of differing levels of experience, so that our identities, while situated, are not fixed but ‘nomadic’. It is such situated knowledges – ‘partial, locatable, critical knowledges’, as Haraway describes them – which permit both a new definition of objectivity (objectivity as partial, situated knowledge) and the possibility of new political coalitions.

But this still leaves the difficulty of how, in Braidotti ‘s words, to ‘connect the “differences within” each woman to a political practice that requires mediation of the “differences among” women’. For it is difficult – to say the least – to see how women could unite around the formulations quoted earlier. In answer, Braidotti and Haraway offer ‘political fictions’ (Braidotti) or ‘foundational myths’ (Haraway) as a way of framing understanding. These ‘politically informed images’ (Braidotti), or ‘figure[s] of hope and desire’ (Patricia Clough, Feminist Thought (1994», are offered as a means of empowering both a shared sense of identity and the struggle against oppression. Political fictions, argues Braidotti, may be more effective at this moment than theoretical systems. Braidotti’s image is the figure of the nomad, who is neither exile (homeless and rootless) nor migrant (displaced and suspended between the old and the new); instead, ‘situated’ but mobile, the nomad employs a critical consciousness to cultivate ‘the art of disloyalty to civilization’, thus resisting incorporation by the host culture. Haraway’s ‘political fiction’ is more challenging: the figure of the cyborg, a hybrid of body and machine, a ‘kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodem collective and personal self’ (Feminism/Postmodernism). As hybrid figure, the cyborg blurs the categories of human and machine, and with it those other Western dualisms: self/other, mindlbody, nature/culture, male/female, civilized/primitive, reality/appearance, whole/part, agent/resource, maker/made, active/passive, right/wrong, truth/illusion, total/partial, God/man. It is embodied but not unified, and being a figure of blurred boundaries and regeneration rather than (re )birth, it cannot be explained by reference to conventional narratives of identity. It is locally specific but globally connected: Haraway reminds us that ‘networking’ is a feminist practice as well as a multinational corporate strategy, a way of surviving ‘in diaspora’ ( Feminism/Postmodernism ).

It can be objected, however, that theorists like Rosi Braidotti and Haraway are trying to have it both ways: to be both situated and multiple, within and outside postmodernism . They can also be accused of substituting for a narrative of liberation directed at change in the real world, a utopian fantasy whose notions of ’embodiment’ and ‘situatedness’ are slippery in the extreme. Susan Bordo , for example, criticizing Haraway ‘s image of the cyborg, protests: ‘What sort of body is it that is free to change its shape and location at will, that can become anyone and travel anywhere? If the body is a metaphor for our locatedness in space and time and thus for the finitude of human perception and knowledge, then the postmodern body is no body at all’ ( Feminism/Postmodernism ). For Bordo, this kind of response to what Sandra Harding in Knowing Women calls the contemporary ‘instabilities’ of feminism’s analytical categories will leave feminist thought ‘cut … off from the source of feminism’s transformative possibilities’ ( Feminism/Postmodernism ). A similar charge is made by Tania Modleski ( Feminism Without Women ), who argues that it will leave us with a ‘feminism without women’. Nevertheless, the dilemma that all these theorists articulate is the same: in Modleski’s words, how to ‘hold on to the category of woman while recognizing ourselves to be in the process (an unending one) of defining and constructing the category’. Since it is, as Donna Haraway comments, ‘hard to climb when you are holding on to both sides of a pole, simultaneously or alternately’ ( Simians, Cyborgs, and Women ), the various ‘political fictions’ offered by feminist theorists can be seen as a way of finding new terms in which to theorize a way forward. For the danger they recognize is also the same: that male postmodern theory will simply repeat the gesture of its modernist predecessors in appropriating ‘femininity as one of its multiple possible positions, at the same time as it erases and silences the work and lives of women. The task that is being addressed, then, is, in the words of Meaghan Morris in The Pirate’s Fiancee , ‘to use feminist work to frame discussions of postmodernism, and not the other way around’.


Source: The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, Edited by Stuart Sim, Routledge London, 2001.

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Could a video game developer win the Nobel Prize for Literature?

essay on postmodernism in english literature

Profesor de Humanidades, IE University

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In October 2016, the Swedish Academy announced that it was awarding the Nobel prize for Literature to the singer-songwriter Bob Dylan for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. The decision sent out shockwaves: for the first time, a musician had received the most prestigious literary award on the planet. It sparked debate , with many questioning the decision and even sarcastic suggestions that novelists could aspire to winning a Grammy.

The controversy fed into much needed debates on the boundary between poetry and song, but the question of what constitutes literature is much broader. Does it mean the same as it did in 1901, when the first Nobel prize for literature was awarded?

High and low culture

These questions date back far beyond 2016. In the late 1950s, a group of professors from the University of Birmingham founded a new interdisciplinary area of study, called cultural studies , in order to ask new questions: What was the role of TV and other mass media in cultural development? Is there a justification for distinguishing high and low culture? What is the relationship between culture and power?

These questions are all still relevant to current debates around literature. Often, the word “literary” is a status symbol, a seal of approval to distinguish “high” culture from more vulgar or less valuable “low” forms of culture. Comics, for example, were not invited to join the club until recently, thanks in part to a rebranding under the more respectable guise of “graphic novels”.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, literature displays “excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest”. It seems that an artist like Bob Dylan can take home the Nobel prize thanks to literature’s defining feature of “excellence of form or expression”, which is not strictly limited to the written word.

But how do we account for other language-based forms of expression? If performed works such as theatre or songwriting can be considered literature, where is the limit?

Word play: text-based video games

According to data from video game data consultancy Newzoo , more than 3 billion people play video games worldwide – almost half of the world’s population. In Spain alone, 77% of young people play videogames , making them a massively relevant form of culture. But what does this have to do with “excellence of form or expression”? To answer this question we have to look back several decades.

When the first video games were developed in the 1950s, two distinct genres emerged: one was action oriented (such as the pioneering 1958 game Tennis for Two ), and the other more text based. The original written games, known as “ interactive fiction ”, were made up exclusively of text, and the player’s job was to read and make decisions that would determine the game’s outcome using a keyboard.

Screenshot of the game _Mystery House_ on Apple II. The colour white was created by combining green and purple, producing white in the centre, but into the other two colours at the edges.

The inclusion of images in adventure games would not arrive until 1980, when Mystery House became the first “graphic adventure” game. These would reach their heyday in the 1990s: famous examples include the first two Monkey Island games (1990, 1991), Day of the Tentacle (1993), Full Throttle (1995), and Grim Fandango (1998), though there were many others. Despite technological advances, these games inherited several features from interactive fiction, including the predominant role of text.

The experience of playing one of these titles is not so different from that of a book: reading, pauses, the possibility of backtracking, and so on. The player spends most of their time in dialogue with various characters in search of information, stories, or even banter and jokes that are irrelevant to the game’s progress, much like footnotes or subplots.

Several classic adventure games even have direct links to literature: The Abbey of Crime (1987) is a Spanish adaptation of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose , while the legendary insult sword fighting of The Secret of Monkey Island was written by science fiction author Orson Scott Card . In Myst (1993), the gameplay itself revolves around two books.

Literature on the screen: “story-rich” games

In more recent years, a new sub-genre of adventure games – known as “story-rich” games – has become popular thanks to independent creators and producers. In Papers, Please (2013), a border policeman in a fictional dictatorial regime deals with terrible moral dilemmas on a daily basis. In Firewatch (2016), players take the role of a forest ranger who investigates a conspiracy by walkie-talkie. In Return of the Obra Dinn (2018), the player must reconstruct a tragedy on the high seas with the help of an incomplete book and a peculiar compass. In all these cases, gameplay and visuals take a back seat to strong narratives.

Screenshot from the video game _Papers, Please_.

A quintessential example is The Stanley Parable (2011), where the player takes the role of a worker in a strangely deserted office. They have to explore several corridors while trying unsuccessfully to interact with their surroundings, accompanied by the voice of an enigmatic narrator. Upon reaching a room with two open doors, the voiceover states that Stanley “entered the door on his left”.

The player can choose to follow the instructions or disobey, provoking the wrath of the narrator much like in the denouement of Miguel de Unamuno’s 1914 novel Fog , where the main character speaks directly to the author.

Each decision then opens up new paths leading to dozens of possible endings, similar to a “choose your own adventure” book. Its fragmentary and disordered story – as well as its playful spirit – is reminiscent of Julio Cortázar’s 1963 novel Hopscotch . The experience of playing the game is marked by postmodern literary features – as described by critics like Mikhail Bakhtin or Linda Hutcheon – including metafiction, intertextuality and parody.

One of its creators – Davey Wreden, a critical studies graduate – also created The Beginner’s Guide (2015), a game in which the player moves through levels of failed video games to learn more about their mysterious creator. In one, the player’s task consists solely of wandering through a virtual cave reading the countless comments left there by other frustrated players.

Screenshot from the videogame _The Beginner's Guide_.

In recent years, the genre of digital or electronic literature has emerged, including books with QR codes, works that can only be read with virtual reality headsets, poetry collections published as apps, and so on. These works are fundamentally based on language, begging the question of why video games cannot also fit into this category.

This debate takes on added relevance today, as digital formats are having an undeniable impact on our reading habits. Just as today we accept oral cultures or popular music as literature, perhaps one day we will do the same with interactive stories like The Stanley Parable . Writing has always tried to break away from established ideas, and we know that literature is not limited to words on paper. Sometimes it pays to disobey the voice in our heads and walk through the door on the right, the one that leads to new, unexplored possibilities.

This article was originally published in Spanish

  • Nobel Prize
  • Video games
  • Nobel Prize for Literature
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    Postmodern Period in English Literature. The Postmodern Period, which began in the middle of the 20th century, is characterized by a radical shift in literary and cultural paradigms. Its departure from the Modern Period was what made it distinctive, and it did so in response to the enormous societal, technological, and political developments.

  3. Postmodern Literature Guide: 10 Notable Postmodern Authors

    Postmodern Literature Guide: 10 Notable Postmodern Authors. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, modernist literature was the central literary movement. However, after World War II, a new school of literary theory, deemed postmodernism, began to rise.

  4. Postmodernism

    The terms "postmodern" and "postmodernism" first of all referred to new departures in the arts, in literature, and in architecture that had their origins in the 1950s and early 1960s, gained momentum in the course of the 1960s, and became a dominant factor in the 1970s. After their heyday in the 1980s, postmodern innovations had either ...

  5. Postmodern literature

    Postmodern literature is a form of literature that is characterized by the use of metafiction, unreliable narration, self-reflexivity, intertextuality, and which often thematizes both historical and political issues.This style of experimental literature emerged strongly in the United States in the 1960s through the writings of authors such as Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis ...

  6. 3.1.1: Modernism and Postmodernism as Literary Movements

    This page titled 3.1.1: Modernism and Postmodernism as Literary Movements is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Bonnie J. Robinson ( University of North Georgia Press) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon ...

  7. Postmodernism

    A range of readable essays, in which the first part raises general theoretical questions about the language and politics of postmodernism, and the second part focuses on some particular "sites"—architecture, painting, literature, theater, photography, film, television, dance, fashion.

  8. The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism

    Book description. The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism surveys the full spectrum of postmodern culture - high and low, avant-garde and popular, famous and obscure - across a range of fields, from architecture and visual art to fiction, poetry, and drama. It deftly maps postmodernism's successive historical phases, from its emergence in ...

  9. PDF The Presence of Postmodernism in Contemporary American Literature

    188 Presence of Postmodernism in Contemporary American Literature. more than simply the cultural 'reflection' of real covert actions or a collection of diversionary fantasies about secret government," he em-. phasizes (5). The covert sphere "is an ideological arena with pro-. found effects on democracy, citizenship, and state policy" (5).

  10. Postmodernism

    Origin of "Postmodernism Literary Theory. Postmodernism, in literature, started around the decades of the 80s and 90s and emerged out of modernism. It instantly hit the literary world. Yet, it is uncertain when the first postmodern literary piece appeared on the scene, for several literary pieces are simultaneously modernist and postmodernist.

  11. Postmodernism

    Lyotard uses 'postmodern' to denote the impact of twentieth-century cultural transformations 'in the context of the crisis of narratives', and thereby brings literature onto centre stage in discussion of the postmodern. In treating English literature and theology from the perspective of postmodernism, one can do more than reflect on ...

  12. Postmodernism in Literature: Key Themes & Techniques

    Postmodernism in literature is a style of writing that came to prominence after World War II. It's like a funhouse mirror—distorting and challenging our perceptions of what literature should be. It's a reaction against established forms, structures, and ideas, often poking fun at them and turning them on their head.

  13. Post-Modernism in Literature

    Postmodernism in the literature started to take a shape in the sixties and the seventies of the 20th century and, as well as modernism, promised salvation. This salvation and social release were imposed on the public in a rather aggressive way. The announcement of the death of the author, the novel, the story, and true art became the main ...

  14. (PDF) Postmodern literature: Practices and Theory

    literature modernism is an aesthetic m ovement that got popularity from around. 1910 to 1030. The main figures of high modernism in clude Virginia Woolf, James. Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound ...

  15. The Concept Of Postmodernism English Literature Essay

    So, to conclude, postmodernism is a vast and loose term that can be applied to many different things, such as literature, art and history. Whereas Don Delillo is fascinated with the continuing escalation of modern technology and the strong influences of the media, Caryl Churchill focuses more on the gender and class oppressions that are faced ...

  16. PDF English 290

    the relevance of Postmodernism in our daily lives. Course Goals: • To trace the development of Postmodern literature, and to explorethe major concepts and issues presented in Postmodern literary texts. (AIL 2, WI 5) • To demonstrate the ability to critically analyze, appreciate, and make cogent subjective judgments about Postmodern literature.

  17. Postmodernism: what it is, criticism and characteristics

    Postmodern authors typically blur the line between fictional discourses and essays: they write fiction about literature and essays in fiction style. Postmodern society The development of postmodern society meant a shift from production-based to consumer economies and even to compulsive consumerism which has caused harmful consequences that can ...


    The term Postmodern literature is used to describe works of literature that were produced after World War II (after 1945). The main objective of postmodern literature is to break away from conventional traditions through experimentation with new literary devices, forms, genres, styles etc. Postmodernism in literature is not an organized ...

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    English literature - Modernism, Poetry, Novels: The 20th century opened with great hope but also with some apprehension, for the new century marked the final approach to a new millennium. For many, humankind was entering upon an unprecedented era. H.G. Wells's utopian studies, the aptly titled Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought ...

  20. Postmodernism and Feminism

    Postmodernism and Feminism. By NASRULLAH MAMBROL on March 27, 2018 • ( 1 ) [ Feminism] should persist in seeing itself as a component or offshoot of Enlightenment modernism, rather than as one more 'exciting' feature (or cluster of features) in a postmodern social landscape. (Sabina Lovibond, in T. Docherty, ed., Postmodemism: A Reader ...

  21. Literary modernism

    Modernist literature, originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and is characterised by a self-conscious separation from traditional ways of writing in both poetry and prose fiction writing.Modernism experimented with literary form and expression, as exemplified by Ezra Pound's maxim to "Make it new." This literary movement was driven by a conscious desire to overturn traditional ...

  22. Could a video game developer win the Nobel Prize for Literature?

    Screenshot from the video game Papers, Please. Papers, Please. A quintessential example is The Stanley Parable (2011), where the player takes the role of a worker in a strangely deserted office ...