Jørgen Riber Christensen
Postmodernism - A Brief Description
Postmodernism is notoriously difficult to define and delimit. There are two poles when dealing
with postmodernism. One may either claim that postmodernism is not there. Postmodernism
is just an aspect of modernism. Or one may categorize all new texts as postmodern. All new
texts are not postmodern. They may be modern or new, but that is all. Postmodern
characteristics may be found in older texts, but not to an extent so that they as a whole may
be dubbed postmodern. Here there is an attempt to define postmodernism by describing six
Death of the grand narratives
Dissolution of the I
However, before doing that, an attempt at terminology and periodization.
Postmodernity is a cultural condition and a mode of existence. It is the way of living and
perceiving oneself and the world in a cultural period. Postmodernism is the aesthetic or
cultural manifestation deriving from this period and this existence. For instance a novel or a
The period of postmodernism is often delimited to late 20th century, sometimes as starting
already after the Second World War because of the existential disillusion caused primarily by
the Holocaust; more often the birth of postmodernism is placed in the 1960s when modernism
was not productive anymore.
Postmodernism has not manifested itself as only philosophical or theoretical, but it is a much
more comprehensive concept. Postmodernism is also popular, and the most common
postmodern aesthetic genre is probably the music video.
Death of the grand narratives
The big religious or philosophical systems which formed the foundation of western societies
for some hundred years have lost their value, and they are not regarded as sufficient for an
understanding of life any longer. These systems have been called the grand narratives by the
French philosopher Lyotard, and they include Christianity, Marxism, Capitalism, technology,
psychoanalysis, history and the like. Instead we have to make do with the smaller and more
local narratives, such as for instance belief in personal love.
Many works that are called postmodern contain metafictional elements. These works are
explicitly aware of their own status as texts. They are self-reflexive or self-conscious. These
works comment on their own creation or process of creation. Quite often the main character is
an author, and in the same way many postmodern authors are academically trained in the
analysis of literature, and they use the terminology of the trade when the become creative
writers. Examples would be A.S. Byatt, Umberto Eco, John Irving and Stephen King.
In the self-reflexive text the way the story is told is just as important as what is told, the telling
is perhaps more conspicuous than the tale. This again means that the text may be regarded
as a closed whole, referring more to itself than to any outer reality. Or to put it in another way,
the element of mimesis or depiction is weakened. This element of mimesis or rendering of
reality does not disappear completely. It is typical of postmodern texts that the metafictional
level is in dialogue with a more realistic level.
A common example of self-reflexivity or metafiction is the-book-in-the-book. In many
postmodern novels a book is written in it, and then this book-in-the-book is discussed and
analyzed. A text like this becomes a borderline case between fiction and criticism. When the
author or narrator of a book starts to analyse it herself, we are dealing with interpretive
appropriation. The narrator takes over the readers’ interpretive task. For instance Stephen
King’s Misery is an example of this found in the horror genre.
When a text is metafictional it refers to itself. A text may also refer to other texts, and in this
case the text is intertextual. Again we see a typical aspect of postmodernism: a weakened
relationship between texts and reality. For instance Tim Burton’s film Mars Attacks is based
on two other texts: H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and a series of chewing gum cards.
Only secondarily is it related to reality as it has a strong satirical element directed against
American politics and the American way of life.
Intertextuality may be viewed as an aspect of these three concepts:
Metafiction is the basic postmodern literary technique. The text is referring to itself, or more
generally to its own textuality or nature as a text. When a text refers to other texts it becomes
apparent that it is one itself.
Originality: In the postmodern era all stories have been told and history is said to be stopped,
so it is impossible to invent any new and original stories. The solution is to tell the old stories
in a new way. The pastiche can be defined as a text that consciously imitates the style and
subject of an older text. It is an example of intertextuality and a disregard for originality.
Mimesis means the reflection of reality in art. However, in postmodernity reality is not so
clear-cut anymore. For instance, a large part of our contact with reality is indirect and through
the media, or our reality may be said to be created and formed through the language we
speak. Therefore postmodern art has turned away from a direct mimesis of reality, and many
postmodern texts rather reflect other texts than reality as such. Reality is still with us, but we
tend to see it as yet another text.
The pastiche is a central postmodern genre. The word pastiche comes from the Italian
pasticcio, which means a mixture of various ingredients or a hotchpotch. The vogue of the
pastiche genre is connected to the postmodern feeling that everything has already been
done, and also to the general backward-orientation of postmodernism, which is caused by the
notion that history has stopped.
The pastiche is an intertextual strategy. A writer imitates the style and subject of an earlier
text or an earlier writer. The pastiche is related to the parody, but unlike the parody the
pastiche does not have as its aim to poke fun at the earlier text. By using the pastiche genre a
writer stresses the textuality of his work. The reader is aware that the pastiche she is reading
is a text because the pastiche points to another text and not just to an imitation of reality.
However, it is typical of the postmodern pastiche that it is double-coded. The postmodern
pastiche both refers to another older text and to the contemporary world. Often the older text
is used to show the postmodern world in a new light, or paradoxically in the light of cultural
and literary history. The message of a postmodern pastiche is often that we can learn just as
much from fiction as from reality and history.
A hybrid is a thing that is a mixture of other things. Postmodern texts are often hybrids of
genre, taste and style. For instance Julian Barnes’ novel Flaubert’s Parrot uses different
genres and styles within the same book: biography, dictionary, fiction, pastiche and even an
examination paper. The film Diva shows hybridity of taste. The film is a combination of
highbrow opera and lowbrow action sequences.
The story with clearly defined start, middle and end is not very common any longer. Already
before 1900 modernism started to break down the clear-cut narrative structure or unity . This
was especially within art, but in the postmodern period this fragmented way of telling stories
has spread to the mass media. It is difficult to say what elements of a music video belong to
the start, middle or end of it. We have got used to this discontinued structure in stories, and
we accept breaks in their narratives. It is then the job of the reader to create a whole out of
Dissolution of the I
Personal identity is weakened in postmodernity. We do not as individual persons have clearly
defined roles in institutions such as the family. Our mental set-up is not very static or stable,
which has the consequence that we can easily identify with others. In fiction the characters
are uncertain, too. For instance, in Brett Easton Ellis’ The Informers the reader is not always
sure who the narrator is or what sex the narrator has. This uncertain identity of the fictional
characters leads to narrative fragmentarism and discontinuity. The totality or wholeness of the
storyline is broken when the reader has to stop ever so often in order to try to identify the