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Postmodern Literature: Home

Postmodern literature currently held by Valley Cottage Library.


Postmodern literature is literature written primarily post-1945 that has some of the following themes/tropes/etc.:

1) extreme self-reflexivity. Postmodernists tend to take this even further than the modernists but in a way that tends often to be more playful, even irreverant. This same self-reflexivity can be found everywhere in pop culture, for example the way the Scream series of movies has characters debating the generic rules behind the horror film. In modernism, self-reflexivity tended to be used by "high" artists in difficult works; in postmodernism, self-reflexive strategies can be found in both high art and everything from Seinfeld to MTV. In postmodern architecture, this effect is achieved by keeping visible internal structures and engineering elements (pipes, support beams, building materials, etc.).

2) irony and parody. Connected to the former point, is the tendency of postmodern artists, theorists, and culture to be playful or parodic. (Warhol and Lichtenstein are, again, good examples.) Pop culture and media advertising abound with examples; indeed, shows or films will often step outside of mimetic representation altogether in order to parody themselves in mid-stride. 

3) a breakdown between high and low cultural forms. Whereas some modernists experimented with this same breakdown, even the modernists that played with pop forms (eg. Joyce and Eliot) tended to be extremely difficult to follow in their experimentations. Postmodernists by contrast often employ pop and mass-produced objects in more immediately understandable ways, even if their goals are still often complex (eg. Andy Warhol's commentary on mass production and on the commercial aspects of "high" art through the exact reproduction of a set of Cambell's Soup boxes). We should, however, keep in mind that Warhol is here clearly following in the modernist tradition of "ready-mades," initiated by Marcel Duchamp, who used everyday objects in his art exhibits (including, for example, a urinal for his work, Fountain).

4) retro. Postmodernists and postmodern culture tend to be especially fascinated with styles and fashions from the past, which they will often use completely out of their original context. Postmodern architects for example will juxtapose baroque, medieval, and modern elements in the same room or building. In pop culture, think of the endlessly recycled tv shows of the past that are then given new life on the big screen (Scooby-DooCharlie's Angels, and so on). Jameson and Baudrillard tend to read this tendency as a symptom of our loss of connection with historical temporality.

5) a questioning of grand narratives. Lyotard sees the breakdown of the narratives that formerly legitimized the status quo as an important aspect of the postmodern condition. Of course, modernists also questioned such traditional concepts as law, religion, subjectivity, and nationhood; what appears to distinguish postmodernity is that such questioning is no longer particularly associated with an avant-garde intelligentsia. Postmodern artists will employ pop and mass culture in their critiques and pop culture itself tends to play with traditional concepts of temporality, religion, and subjectivity. Think of the popularlity of queer issues in various media forms or the tendency of Madonna videos to question traditional Christianity ("Like a Prayer"), gender divisions ("What It Feels like for a Girl"), capitalism ("Material Girl"), and so on. Whether such pop deconstructions have any teeth is one of the debates raging among postmodern theorists.

6) visuality and the simulacrum vs. temporality. Given the predominance of visual media (tv, film, media advertising, the computer), both postmodern art and postmodern culture gravitate towards visual (often even two-dimensional) forms, as in the "cartoons" of Roy Lichtenstein. A good example of this, and of the breakdown between "high" and "low" forms, is Art Spiegelman's Maus, a Pulitzer-prize-winning rendition of Vladek Spiegelman's experiences in the Holocaust, which Art (his son) chooses to present through the medium of comics or what is now commonly referred to as the "graphic novel." Another symptom of this tendency is a general breakdown in narrative linearity and temporality. Many point to the style of MTV videos as a good example. As a result, Baudrillard and others have argued (for example, through the notion of the simulacrum) that we have lost all connection to reality or history. This theory may help to explain why we are so fascinated with reality television. Pop culture also keeps coming back to the idea that the line separating reality and representation has broken down (Wag the DogDark City, The Matrix, The Truman Show, etc.).

7) late capitalism. There is also a general sense that the world has been so taken over by the values of capitalist acquisition that alternatives no longer exist. One symptom of this fear is the predominance of paranoia narratives in pop culture (Bladerunner, X-Files, The Matrix, Minority Report). This fear is, of course, aided by advancements in technology, especially surveillance technology, which creates the sense that we are always being watched.

8) disorientation. MTV culture is, again, sometimes cited as an example as is postmodern architecture, which attempts to disorient the subject entering its space. Another example may be the popularity of films that seek to disorient the viewer completely through the revelation of a truth that changes everything that came before (The Sixth Sense, The OthersUnbreakable, The Matrix).

9) secondary orality. Whereas literacy rates had been rising steadily from the introduction of print through the modern period, postmodern society has seen a drastic reversal in this trend as more and more people are now functionally illiterate, relying instead on an influx of oral media sources: tv, film, radio, etc.. The culture still very much relies on print to create these media outlets (hence the term secondary orality); however, it is increasingly only a professional, well-educated class that has access to full print- and computer-literacy. An ever larger percentage of the population merely ingests orally the media that is being produced.


PoMo Design