Some Attributes of Post-Modernist Literature

Copyright 1997, 1998, 1999 by Professor John Lye. This text may be freely used, with attribution, for non-profit purposes.

As with most of my course pages, this document is open to change. If you have any suggestions (additions, qualifications, arguments), mail me.

For some further development of some of the ideas on this page, go to my page Some Post-Structural Assumptions (post-modernism and post-structuralism are not identical, but post-modernism has a number of post-structural elements), also Postmodernism by Mary Klages, U. of Colorado. For a brief foundational text in post-modern thought, go to Nietzsche's "'Reason' in Philosophy" from Twilight of the Idols. If you are looking to do some bookreading, try Postmodernism: a Reader edited, with a good introduction, by Patricia Waugh.

Warning! This is not an exhaustive description. Okay, on to the Attributes...

'Postmodernism' is a broad range of

  1. responses to modernism, especially refusals of some of its totalizing premises and effects, and of its implicit or explicit distinction between 'high' culture and commonly lived life,

  2. responses to such things as a world lived under nuclear threat and threat to the geosphere, to a world of faster communication, mass mediated reality, greater diversity of cultures and mores and a consequent pluralism,

  3. acknowledgments of and in some senses struggles against a world in which, under a spreading technological capitalism, all things are are commodified and fetishized (made the object of desire), and in which genuine experience has been replaced by simulation and spectacle,

  4. resultant senses of fragmentation, of discontinuity, of reality as a pastiche rather than as a weave,

  5. reconceptualizations of society, history and the self as cultural constructs, hence as rhetorical constructs.

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

a reaction to, refusal and diffusion of, the elements of modernist thought which are totalizing: which suggest a master narrative or master code, i.e. an explanatory cohesion of experience; the result may be

  1. a sense of discontinuity, of the world as a field of contesting explanations none of which can claim any authority,

  2. parodies of all sorts of meta-narrative and master-code elements, including genre and literary form,

  3. the challenging of borders and limits, including those of decency,

  4. the exploration of the marginalized aspects of life and marginalized elements of society.

    (The 'problem' with grand narratives is that they bring all of experience under one explanatory and one implicitly or explicitly regulative order, and hence are potentially (some would say, inevitably) totalitarian and repressive; the problem of trying to live without them is that without their explanatory frame there is no way in which acts can be validated (once one tries, one uncovers a hidden grand narrative) other than through the validation of pleasure or pain, some would say beauty or ugliness. It comes down to what one believes: is living without grand narratives an act of courage and freedom in the face of inevitable doubt and instability, or merely an opening of oneself to the worst forces of the libido and an abandonment of necessary principles?)

a sense that life is lived in a world with no transcendent warrant, nothing to guarantee or to underwrite our being as meaningful moral creatures. Life just is. We no longer look for a pattern. We live between the 1's and the 0's, in the interstices of meaning; we live on the bleak terrain of an endless uncreated happenstance universe. We may celebrate its specificity, its immediacy; or not. Postmodernism goes different directions here.

the writing of reflexive or meta-fiction: fiction which is in the first instance aware of itself as fiction and which may dramatize the false or constructed nature of fiction, on the one hand, or the inevitable fictionality of all experience, on the other.

a reaction to, refusal of, the totalizing of modernist form -- of the dominance in modernism of form and of the idea of the aesthetic, which concept created a 'special world' for art, cut off from the variety and everydayness of life (a negative judgment on this 'refusal' is that postmodernism simply aestheticizes everything, see the next point)

an attempt to integrate art and life -- the inclusion of popular forms, popular culture, everyday reality; Bakhtin's notion of 'carnival', of joyous, anti-authoritarian, riotous, carnal and liberatory celebration, makes sense in this context and adds a sense of energy and freedom to some post modern work

the notion of carnival, above, is taken to the limit in the idea of transgression, the idea that to live and think beyond the structures of capitalist ideology and of totalizing concepts one must deliberately violate what appear to be standards of sense and decency but are (if the truth were known) methods of social and imaginative control. A more benign conception than transgression is the concept of the paralogical: a revelation of the non-rational immediacy of life (considered thus to be implicitly revolutionary, liberating); as with ideas such as carnival and transgression, the paralogical gives access to the energy of the world, and allows us to experience outside of the strictures of the grand narratives which form our usual sense of our reality.

the use of paradox, of undercutting, of radical shifts, in order to undercut any legitimization of reality, subject, ontological ground

a refusal of seriousness or an undercutting of or problematizing of seriousness -- achieved through such things as the above-mentioned notion of carnival, of the turning upside-down of everything, and through the use of parody, play, black humour and wit; this refusal and these methods of undercutting seriousness are associated as well with fragmentation, as traditional notions of narrative coherence are challenged, undone. The 'problem' with seriousness is that is has no room for the disruptions necessary to expose the oppressions and repressions of master narratives, in fact seriousness tends almost inevitably to reinforce them and hence the ideologies they support; to attack seriousness does not mean, in this context, to abandon conviction or good intentions.

a crossing or dissolving of borders -- between fiction and non-fiction, between literary genres, between high and low culture

a sense that the world is a world made up of rhetoric -- of language and cultural constructs and images and symbols, none of which have any necessary validity

a move away from perspectivism, from the located, unified 'subject' and the associated grounding of the authority of experience in the sovereign subject and its processes of perception and reflection (see next point)

a fragmentation of the self (the unified, located subject), or a disappearance or flatness -- the self, or subject, is no longer a 'psychological' reality but henceforth a cultural construction, located rhetorically (in terms of the kinds of language used, the subject matter, the situation), differently configured in different situations

the dramatization to a world in which there are no depths, in which there is nothing 'under' appearances

a greater emphasis on the body, on the human as incarnate, as physical beings in a physical world. This is tied to postmodernism's distrust of rationalism and of the ideology of the Enlightenment. This emphasis on the physicality of our being leads in several directions, including

  1. an emphasis on chance and contingency as fundamental conditions of our being and

  2. a positing of aesthetics rather than rationalism as guide to truth, hence ultimately as the ground for ethics.

a rethinking of modernism's break with history. There are (at least) two directions in which this rethinking may go:

  1. a greater awareness of history as a narrative, that is, a human construct; history is accessible to us, but only as text -- its documents are texts, its institutions are social texts. This does not mean that history did not happen; it means that what we know as history is known to us only through what is configured for our understandings by language, by narratives with their own shaping forces, by figures of speech.

  2. an insistence of the incarnate and the contingent, human life as located, specific, grounded in the body and in circumstance.