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  1. 1. 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 key concepts: Death of the grand narratives Metafiction Intertextuality Hybridity Fragmentarism 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 philosophical system. 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. Metafiction 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.
  2. 2. 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. Intertextuality 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 Originality Mimesis 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.
  3. 3. 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. Pastiche 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. Hybridity 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. Fragmentarism 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 the fragments. 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 characters.