Postmodernism is a late-20th century style that spanned art, literature, and philosophy.
Postmodernism is a late-20th century style that spanned art, literature, and philosophy. Building on the loss of absolute truth that Modernists experienced, Postmodernism focuses in on the idea that knowledge is conditional – nothing is really true, it only seems true under certain circumstances – and it considers realism or a belief in objective fact as naïve. In Postmodernism, everything is relative and individual, nothing is sacred, and you should be skeptical of everything.
Despite this depressing outlook, Postmodernism often relies on humor, irony and irreverence to get its point across.
Although in some ways Postmodernism is an extension of Modernists ideas, the Postmodern movement also saw itself as a rejection of Modernism. Both Modernism and Postmodernism reject realism, universal truths, rationalism, and often religion. But Postmodernism takes these rejections to the extreme, viewing every aspect of life as subjective and truth as relative to the individual. This affects any understanding of politics, society, art, or communication.
Additionally, post-structuralism and Deconstruction are both sub genres of Postmodernism.
Historical Context for Postmodernism
Though the phrase ‘post-modernism’ was first used in 1870, Postmodernism as we understand it today didn’t start to take shape until well into the 20th century.
Jorge Luis Borges is often cited as developing the first literary works that showcase Postmodernism, including his short story ‘The Garden of the Forking Paths.’
Similar to WWI’s impact on Modernism, the devastation and extreme violence of WWII and the Vietnam War greatly affected social thought and the literary arts, leading eventually to post-structuralism and Postmodernism.
As a movement that spanned artistic genres, Postmodernism was heavily influenced by post-structural theorists and philosophers including Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kirsteva, and Hélène Cixous.
The movement continued to grow in popularity through the 1960s and 70s, falling out of vogue in the 1990s. Some critics argue that Postmodernism is now impossible in the context of contemporary cultural production, such as social media and worldwide streaming.
Characteristics of Postmodern Literature
In literature, Postmodernism can be seen through experimentation and the use of new forms, narrative styles, and themes. Notable characteristics of Postmodern writings include the use of metafiction (fiction in which the author alludes to the work as a fictional work), the unreliable narrator, self-reflexivity or self-awareness, intertextuality (where works interact with each other), temporal distortion, and fragmentation.
Through metafiction, a work identifies its existence as a construct. This can happen, for example, when characters or a narrator breaks the fourth wall – speaking directly to the audience – or when a character identifies themself as a fictional character. The intention of metafiction is to remind the reader of the thing-ness or fiction of a text.
Postmodern works also often include intertextuality, where the author weaves literary history into their own works as a comment on the interconnectedness of all artistic creation. This can occur as a parallel, but another form is pastiche, in which multiple elements are ‘pasted’ together.
Magical realism is a narrative genre that includes magical or mythical elements – often in a matter-of-fact way – into an otherwise realistic work of fiction. It is considered a subgenre of Postmodernism and is chiefly used by Latin-American writers like Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende.
The amount of ‘magic’ within any given Magical Realism text varies. Some works are relatively realistic with only a mild suggestion of something supernatural, while other texts border on complete fantasy.
The writing style is often marked by ‘plenitude,’ or an extraordinary and disorienting abundance of detail. Authors employ vibrant descriptions that draw on all five senses.
Real world, often modern-day settings are a common characteristic of Magical Realism, and authors use the format to criticize current social or political issues. By infusing magic into an otherwise real – and possibly recognizable – world, Latin American authors were able to criticize governments and their regimes in a way that was dangerous to do openly.
Postcolonialism continues to be an important part of modern scholarship. It studies the impact of colonialism and imperialism on the cultures, politics, and economics of colonized lands and seeks to revive lost traditions and regional identities while condemning colonizing forces and calling for decolonization – both political and social – and reparations.
Postcolonial writings readdress historical works in light of the impact of colonization and create new literature, both fiction and nonfiction, that seeks to reclaim regional traditions and styles.
Postcolonial literature is written by people from formerly or currently colonized regions, and it often intersects with Migrant literature and feminist literature. In particular, Postcolonial feminist literature is a response to white and Eurocentric feminism.
Postcolonial literature exists on all continents, and its style, form, and content often depend on its geographical source. Subjugation, subalternism (or ‘oppressed difference’), hybridity, alternative modernity, and nationalism are all common themes in Postcolonial literature.
With the ‘death’ of Postmodernism in the 1990s, literature entered a new era that we currently call Post-postmodernism, or sometimes Trans-postmodernism. Scholars still don’t agree on styles and themes define this era, as it’s still happening.
However, there are some elements of today’s literature that are in clear opposition to Postmodernism, it’s this change that has inspired the name Post-postmodern.
In general, this new movement rejects the irony and cynicism of Modernism and Postmodernism. While accepting the Postmodern idea that truth is individual and no concepts are universal, the new movement denies the nihilism or meaninglessness of this conclusion; instead focusing on the responsibility of the individual to move towards faith, trust, sincerity, and authenticity.
Some critics see this time in literature as an intensification of Postmodernism to its extremes – particularly from capitalism to late-stage capitalism – and they observe the ways in which the language of economics now touches every part of life.
The term ‘contemporary literature’ is used to describe any works that are written within a certain amount of time from each other or from today.
Sometimes works that are considered contemporary have things in common either in style or content because of important events, popular trends, or societal norms. In this case the dividing line between ‘contemporary’ and ‘not contemporary’ might be drawn based on these similarities. At other times, or by other definitions, the line is drawn simply between one year and the next. Currently, contemporary literature is generally considered any literature set after World War II.
However, in publishing today, there is a move to define a much smaller section of works as contemporary.
Likewise, although any work from any genre can be high quality, the term ‘literary fiction’ is often used today to distinguish one type of written work from either genre fiction or popular fiction. There is still a lot of disagreement on whether or not this is a useful or accurate description.
Key Figure: Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut, who lived from 1922 to 2007, was an American writer known best for his dark gallows humor and satirical wit.
All in all, his publications include 14 novels, 3 short-story collections, and 5 plays.
Vonnegut was born into wealth, but his family experienced financial ruin when he was a young man, and his mother took her own life. He served in the army as an intelligence scout during WWII, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and was taken prisoner. He was then sent to Dresden, where he narrowly survived the Allied bombing of the city.
These devastating experiences left a mark on Vonnegut and deeply impacted his work. In his novel Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death Vonnegut describes many of his experiences in Dresden. Vonnegut is known for his fragmentary narrative form, his direct and natural writing style, and his often bizarre plot devices – like when his main character ends up in an alien zoo.
Key Figure: Don DeLillo
Don DeLillo is an American novelist, short-story writer, and screenwriter who currently resides in New York City. The literary critic Harold Bloom called DeLillo one of the four major American novelists of the Postmodern age, along with Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, and Cormac McCarthy.
Although he was already popular in some circles before its publication, his novel White Noise brought him national recognition and acclaim as one of the greatest contemporary American novelists (adapted into a film in 2022).
DeLillo’s works have covered a wide array of contemporary subjects and his works bridge the divide between Modernism and Postmodernism – though DeLillo himself sees his work as the spiritual successor to William Faulkner and James Joyce. Despite this, his works also display particularly Postmodern ideas about consumerism, a cynicism for academia and pseudo-intellectualism, and an embrace of abstract expressionism.
Expanding the Canon: Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde was a self-described ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,’ who dedicated her life to addressing the injustices of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. She is known both for her poetry and her nonfiction essays. Lorde was born in New York City in 1934 and died of breast cancer in 1992 at age 58.
Lorde’s theoretical work shaped postcolonialism, third-wave feminism, and womanism. She worked to confront racism within mainstream feminism, and her 1984 essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” unabashedly critiqued white feminism.
Lorde’s nonfiction writings are known for their craft and direct observations, particularly on social inequalities; she could reach the heart of an issue in a single sentence. As a poet, she is highly regarded for her technical skill and mastery over emotional expression. Her poems are an outpouring of anger and outrage at the social injustices she observed in contemporary life.