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Postmodernism by Hans Bertens LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0081

The terms “postmodern” and “postmodernism” first of all referred to new departures in the arts, in literature, and in architecture that had their origins in the 1950s and early 1960s, gained momentum in the course of the 1960s, and became a dominant factor in the 1970s. After their heyday in the 1980s, postmodern innovations had either run their course or were absorbed by the mainstream, if not commercialized by the advertising industry. On a more intangible level, the terms referred to the new “postmodern” sensibility that had given rise to those innovations, but that also manifested itself more broadly in, for instance, the so-called counterculture of the later 1960s. This postmodern sensibility was irreverent, playful, and ironic. It rejected the distinction between high art and popular culture and demystified the status of art and the artist. Its articulation in the form of literary criticism—where the label “postmodern” first gained wide currency—prefigured the theory-driven criticism that arose in the course of the 1970s and that was heavily indebted to French poststructuralism. In the next decade, this postmodern criticism or critique, an amalgam of poststructuralist ideas and assumptions, branched out into all directions, making itself felt in historiography, ethnography, musicology, religious studies, management and organization studies, legal studies, leisure studies, and other areas that unexpectedly experienced a postmodern moment, or even a more lasting postmodern reorientation. Finally, and at its most encompassing level, the term postmodern was applied to late-20th-century Western society as a whole. The argument here was that somewhere in the postwar period modernity had given way to a postmodernity that recognizably constituted a new economic and sociocultural formation. There was not much agreement as to the exact turning point, or on the nature, of the new “postmodern condition,” but its theorists, most of whom saw it as inextricably entangled with capitalism, even if some emphasized its emancipatory pursuit of heterogeneity and difference, argued that it was here to stay. If it did, it soon was left to its own devices. We have since the turn of the century not heard much about postmodernity. Postmodern criticism has fared better and though it, too, would seem to have run out of steam in the new millennium, it has fundamentally changed our perspectives on literature, architecture, the arts, and a host of other subjects, not the least of which is the rational, self-determined subject of Enlightenment humanism.

A good starting point is Butler 2002 which in spite of its brevity covers most of the essentials. While recognizing postmodernism’s importance and its positive contributions, it questions much of postmodern thought. Malpas 2005 is another short introduction and usefully juxtaposes modern and postmodern positions. Woods 2010 is the most thorough of introductions to postmodernism. Bertens 1995 is a wide-ranging study that traces the origins and rise of postmodernism as an intellectual concept and its dissemination into ever more disciplines. Connor 1997 focuses on postmodernism as the key to late-20th-century culture, discussing its impact in areas ranging from legal theory to style and fashion. Sim 2011 collects thoughtful essays on diverse aspects of postmodernism and provides a glossary of postmodern terms. Taylor and Winquist 2002 offers a wealth of information on postmodernism and everything relevant to its trajectory. Bertens and Natoli 2002 covers the key figures in the debate on postmodernism. McHale 2015 , trying to answer the question, “What was postmodernism?,” looks back on postmodernism with the advantage of hindsight. Natoli and Hutcheon 1993 and Jencks 2011 are readers that offer selections of important contributions to the debate, with Jencks including contributions on the impact of postmodernism in fields which have been relatively neglected.

Bertens, Hans. The Idea of the Postmodern: A History . London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

Traces the rise of postmodern thought from its beginnings in 1960s literary criticism to its global dissemination some twenty years onward, on the way offering detailed discussions of all major contributors to, and detractors of, postmodern theorizing. Sees postmodernism as part of the widespread postwar revaluation of values that also led to feminism and processes of decolonization.

Bertens, Hans, and Joseph Natoli, eds. Postmodernism: The Key Figures . Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 2002.

Fifty-three short and accessible essays on writers, philosophers, critics, and artists who have made important contributions to postmodernism in all its different aspects.

Butler, Christopher. Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

An excellent and accessible, but by no means uncritical, introduction. (“We should be prepared to see many postmodernist ideas as very interesting and influential, and as the key to some good experimental art—but at best confused and at worst simply untrue”) (p. 12).

Connor, Steven. Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary . 2d ed. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1997.

A wide-ranging and highly insightful survey of postmodern artistic practices and theories. But also offers chapters on postmodern social and legal theory and postmodern cultural politics. Impressive but not without its challenges.

Jencks, Charles, ed. The Post-Modern Reader . 2d ed. Chicester, UK: Wiley, 2011.

Gathers twenty-six texts on postmodernism in general and on more specific subjects such as postmodern architecture, literature, and such relatively neglected topics as economics, sociology, and science. Includes texts by important figures—Jane Jacobs, John Barth, Umberto Eco, and others—who usually do not feature in anthologies.

Malpas, Simon. The Postmodern . London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

Discusses the differences between modern and postmodern architecture, arts, and literature, but also between modern and postmodern views of the subject, of history, and of politics. A good introduction.

McHale, Brian. The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism . Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139108706

An important and comprehensive survey by one of postmodernism’s most prominent theorists. Periodizes the successive phases that McHale distinguishes within postmodernism’s history.

Natoli, Joseph, and Linda Hutcheon, eds. A Postmodern Reader . Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Collects essays and excerpts that have shaped the debate on modernism/postmodernism and on postmodern criticism. Includes contributions by Cornell West, bell hooks, and Houston A. Baker Jr. that discuss postmodernism from an Afro-American perspective.

Sim, Stuart, ed. The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism . 3d ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2011.

Presents some twenty quite accessible articles discussing postmodernism’s impact in widely varying areas, including the usual suspects—philosophy, the various arts, popular culture—but also postcolonial criticism and organization theory. Ends with what amounts to a substantial and useful dictionary of postmodern terminology.

Taylor, Vincent E., and Charles E. Winquist, eds. The Encyclopedia of Postmodernism . London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

Is what it claims to be. A truly exhaustive source of information on every aspect of postmodernism and postmodern theorizing and of everything conceivably relevant to postmodernism’s cultural and philosophical origins and its subsequent development.

Woods, Tim. Beginning Postmodernism . 2d ed. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2010.

A clear and accessible introduction to postmodernism that, apart from architecture, literature, and the arts, also discusses the postmodern impact on popular culture, cultural theory, the social sciences, and philosophy. The most basic introduction to postmodern practice and theory.

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Home › Literature › Postmodernism


By NASRULLAH MAMBROL on March 31, 2016 • ( 22 )

Postmodernism broadly refers to a socio-cultural and literary theory, and a shift in perspective that has manifested in a variety of disciplines including the social sciences, art, architecture, literature, fashion, communications, and technology. It is generally agreed that the postmodern shift in perception began sometime back in the late 1950s, and is probably still continuing. Postmodernism can be associated with the power shifts and dehumanization of the post- Second World War  era and the onslaught of consumer capitalism.

The very term Postmodernism implies a relation to Modernism . Modernism was an earlier aesthetic movement which was in vogue in the early decades of the twentieth century. It has often been said that Postmodernism is at once a continuation of and a break away from the Modernist stance.

Postmodernism shares many of the features of Modernism. Both schools reject the rigid boundaries between high and low art. Postmodernism even goes a step further and deliberately mixes low art with high art, the past with the future, or one genre with another. Such mixing of different, incongruous elements illustrates Postmodernism’s use of lighthearted parody, which was also used by Modernism. Both these schools also employed pastiche , which is the imitation of another’s style. Parody and pastiche serve to highlight the self-reflexivity of Modernist and Postmodernist works, which means that parody and pastiche serve to remind the reader that the work is not “real” but fictional, constructed. Modernist and Postmodernist works are also fragmented and do not easily, directly convey a solid meaning. That is, these works are consciously ambiguous and give way to multiple interpretations. The individual or subject depicted in these works is often decentred, without a central meaning or goal in life, and dehumanized, often losing individual characteristics and becoming merely the representative of an age or civilization, like Tiresias in The Waste Land .

In short, Modernism and Postmodernism give voice to the insecurities, disorientation and fragmentation of the 20th century western world. The western world, in the 20th century, began to experience this deep sense of security because it progressively lost its colonies in the Third World, worn apart by two major World Wars and found its intellectual and social foundations shaking under the impact of new social theories an developments such as Marxism and Postcolonial global migrations, new technologies and the power shift from Europe to the United States. Though both Modernism and Postmodernism employ fragmentation, discontinuity and decentredness in theme and technique, the basic dissimilarity between the two schools is hidden in this very aspect.

Modernism projects the fragmentation and decentredness of contemporary world as tragic. It laments the loss of the unity and centre of life and suggests that works of art can provide the unity, coherence, continuity and meaning that is lost in modern life. Thus Eliot laments that the modern world is an infertile wasteland, and the fragmentation, incoherence, of this world is effected in the structure of the poem. However, The Waste Land  tries to recapture the lost meaning and organic unity by turning to Eastern cultures, and in the use of Tiresias as protagonist

In Postmodernism, fragmentation and disorientation is no longer tragic. Postmodernism on the other hand celebrates fragmentation. It considers fragmentation and decentredness as the only possible way of existence, and does not try to escape from these conditions.

This is where Postmodernism meets Poststructuralism —both Postmodernism and Poststructuralism recognize and accept that it is not possible to have a coherent centre . In Derridean terms, the centre is constantly moving towards the periphery and the periphery constantly moving towards the centre. In other words, the centre, which is the seat of power, is never entirely powerful. It is continually becoming powerless, while the powerless periphery continually tries to acquire power. As a result, it can be argued that there is never a centre, or that there are always multiple centres. This postponement of the centre acquiring power or retaining its position is what Derrida called differance . In Postmodernism’s celebration of fragmentation, there is thus an underlying belief in differance , a belief that unity, meaning, coherence is continually postponed.

The Postmodernist disbelief in coherence and unity points to another basic distinction between Modernism and Postmodernism. Modernism believes that coherence and unity is possible, thus emphasizing the importance of rationality and order. The basic assumption of Modernism seems to be that more rationality leads to more order, which leads a society to function better. To establish the primacy of Order, Modernism constantly creates the concept of Disorder in its depiction of the Other—which includes the non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-adult, non-rational and so on. In other words, to establish the superiority of Order, Modernism creates the impression- that all marginal, peripheral, communities such as the non-white, non-male etc. are contaminated by Disorder. Postmodernism, however, goes to the other extreme. It does not say that some parts of the society illustrate Order, and that other parts illustrate Disorder. Postmodernism, in its criticism of the binary opposition, cynically even suggests that everything is Disorder.


Jean Francois Lyotard

The Modernist belief in order, stability and unity is what the Postmodernist thinker Lyotard calls a metanarrative . Modernism works through metanarratives or grand narratives, while Postmodernism questions and deconstructs metanarratives. A metanarrative is a story a culture tells itself about its beliefs and practices.

Postmodernism understands that grand narratives hide, silence and negate contradictions, instabilities and differences inherent in any social system. Postmodernism favours “mini-narratives,” stories that explain small practices and local events, without pretending universality and finality. Postmodernism realizes that history, politics and culture are grand narratives of the power-wielders, which comprise falsehoods and incomplete truths.

Having deconstructed the possibility of a stable, permanent reality, Postmodernism has revolutionized the concept of language. Modernism considered language a rational, transparent tool to represent reality and the activities of the rational mind. In the Modernist view, language is representative of thoughts and things. Here, signifiers always point to signifieds. In Postmodernism, however, there are only surfaces, no depths. A signifier has no signified here, because there is no reality to signify.


Jean Baudrillard

The French philosopher Baudrillard has conceptualized the Postmodern surface culture as a simulacrum. A simulacrum is a virtual or fake reality simulated or induced by the media or other ideological apparatuses. A simulacrum is not merely an imitation or duplication—it is the substitution of the original by a simulated, fake image. Contemporary world is a simulacrum, where reality has been thus replaced by false images. This would mean, for instance, that the Gulf war that we know from newspapers and television reports has no connection whatsoever to what can be called the “real” Iraq war. The simulated image of Gulf war has become so much more popular and real than the real war, that Baudrillard argues that the Gulf War did not take place. In other words, in the Postmodern world, there are no originals, only copies; no territories, only maps; no reality, only simulations. Here Baudrillard is not merely suggesting that the postmodern world is artificial; he is also implying that we have lost the capacity to discriminate between the real and the artificial.


Fredric Jameson

Just as we have lost touch with the reality of our life, we have also moved away from the reality of the goods we consume. If the media form one driving force of the Postmodern condition, multinational capitalism and globalization is another. Fredric Jameson has related Modernism and Postmodernism to the second and third phases of capitalism. The first phase of capitalism of the 18th -19th centuries, called Market Capitalism, witnessed the early technological development such as that of the steam-driven motor, and corresponded to the Realist phase. The early 20th century, with the development of electrical and internal combustion motors, witnessed the onset of Monopoly Capitalism and Modernism. The Postmodern era corresponds to the age of nuclear and electronic technologies and Consumer Capitalism, where the emphasis is on marketing, selling and consumption rather than production. The dehumanized, globalized world, wipes out individual and national identities, in favour of multinational marketing.

It is thus clear from this exposition that there are at least three different directions taken by Postmodernim, relating to the theories of Lyotard, Baudrillard and Jameson. Postmodernism also has its roots in the theories Habermas and Foucault . Furthermore, Postmodernism can be examined from Feminist and Post-colonial angles. Therefore, one cannot pinpoint the principles of Postmodernism with finality, because there is a plurality in the very constitution of this theory.

Postmodernism, in its denial of an objective truth or reality, forcefully advocates the theory of constructivism—the anti-essentialist argument that everything is ideologically constructed. Postmodernism finds the media to be a great deal responsible for “constructing” our identities and everyday realiites. Indeed, Postmodernism developed as a response to the contemporary boom in electronics and communications technologies and its revolutionizing of our old world order.

Constructivism invariably leads to relativism. Our identities are constructed and transformed every moment in relation to our social environment. Therefore there is scope for multiple and diverse identities, multiple truths, moral codes and views of reality.

The understanding that an objective truth does not exist has invariably led the accent of Postmodernism to fall on subjectivity. Subjectivity itself is of course plural and provisional. A stress on subjectivity will naturally lead to a renewed interest in the local and specific experiences, rather than the and universal and abstract; that is on mini-narratives rather than grand narratives.

Finally, all versions of Postmodernism rely on the method of Deconstruction to analyze socio-cultural situations. Postmodernism has often been vehemently criticized. The fundamental characteristic of Postmodernism is disbelief, which negates social and personal realities and experiences. It is easy to claim that the Gulf War or Iraq War does not exist; but then how does one account for the deaths, the loss and pain of millions of people victimized by these wars? Also, Postmodernism fosters a deep cynicism about the one sustaining force of social life—culture. By entirely washing away the ground beneath our feet, the ideological presumptions upon which human civilization is built, Postmodernism generates a feeling of lack and insecurity in contemporary societies, which is essential for the sustenance of a capitalistic world order. Finally, when the Third World began to assert itself over Euro-centric hegemonic power, Postmodernism had rushed in with the warning, that the empowerment of the periphery is but transient and temporary; and that just as Europe could not retain its imperialistic power for long, the new-found power of the erstwhile colonies is also under erasure.

In literature, postmodernism (relying heavily on fragmentation, deconstruction, playfulness, questionable narrators etc.) reacted against the Enlightenment  ideas implicit in modernist literature – informed by Lyotard’s concept of the “metanarrative”, Derrida’s concept of “play”, and Budrillard’s “simulacra.” Deviating from the modernist quest for meaning in a chaotic world, the postmodern. writers eschew, often playfully, the possibility of meaning, and the postmodern novel is often a parody of this. quest. Marked by a distrust of totalizing mechanisms and self-awareness, postmodern writers often celebrate chance over craft and employ metafiction to undermine the author’s “univocation”. The distinction between high and low culture is also attacked with the employment of pastiche, the combination of multiple cultural elements including subjects and genres not previously deemed fit for literature. Postmodern literature can be considered as an umbrella term for the post-war developments in literature such as Theatre of the Absurd , Beat Generation and Magical Realism .

Postmodern literature, as expressed in the writings of Beckett, Robbe Grillet , Borges , Marquez , Naguib Mahfouz and Angela Carter rests on a recognition of the complex nature of reality and experience, the role of time and memory in human perception, of the self and the world as historical constructions, and the problematic nature of language.

Postmodern literature reached its peak in the ’60s and ’70s with the publication of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Lost in the Funhouse and Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth , Gravity’s Rainbow, V., and Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon , “factions” like Armies in the Night and In Cold Blood by Norman Mailer and Truman Capote , postmodern science fiction novels like Neoromancer by William Gibson , Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut and many others. Some declared the death of postmodernism in the ’80’s with a new surge of realism represented and inspired by Raymond Carver . Tom Wolfe in his 1989 article Stalking the Billion-Footed Beas t called for a new emphasis on realism in fiction to replace postmodernism. With this new emphasis on realism in mind, some declared White Noise in (1985) or The Satanic Verses (1988) to be the last great novels of the postmodern era.


Postmodern film describes the articulation of ideas of postmodernism trough the cinematic medium – by upsetting the mainstream conventions of narrative structure and characterization and destroying (or playing with) the audience’s “suspension of disbelief,” to create a work that express through less-recognizable internal logic. Two such examples are Jane Campion ‘s Two Friends, in which the story of two school girls is shown in episodic segments arranged in reverse order; and Karel Reisz ‘s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, in which the story being played out on the screen is mirrored in the private lives of the actors playing it, which the audience also sees. However, Baudrillard dubbed Sergio Leone ‘s epic 1968 spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West as the first postmodern film. Other examples include Michael Winterbottom ‘s 24 Hour Party People, Federico Fellini ‘s Satyricon and Amarcord, David Lynch ‘ s Mulholland Drive, Quentin Tarantino ‘s Pulp Fiction.

In spite of the rather stretched, cynical arguments of Postmodernism, the theory has exerted a fundamental influence on late 20th century thought. It has indeed revolutionized all realms of intellectual inquiry in varying degrees.

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purpose of postmodern literature

If modernism was an aesthetic movement how come postmodernism becomes bad for society? I think modernism caused more struggle and stress for ordinary people and they found relief in postmodernism. Contemporary people always found reasons not to be part of any movements and they did nothing good or bad, it’s very strange that small groups of people make big movements in literature, movies, architecture and the rest majority are forced to read, watch and entertain. In my view, marketing play a big role here considering the fact that human races have tendency to follow and react what they see and what they hear. Reality is not just about the sufferings and losses. A moving window in a computer screen is a virtual reality. Watching and enjoying that window movement while a war is going on in some other countries is very much better than going there and being participating in it. No-one wants to think the war doesn’t exist. They know war does exist and they don’t want to make it more worse. So whenever you talk about postmodernism, make sure you are not completely against this.

purpose of postmodern literature

So informative, expressed in limpid way

purpose of postmodern literature

Hello Can you please add up more to your excerpts With more original, important translated articles by the theorists with examples and analysis please

purpose of postmodern literature

Hi Kindly find this category https://literariness.org/category/postmodernism/ if you are in search of Postmodernism related articles. You could also find articles on the key theorists by just browsing through http://www.literariness.org . Thank You. Share the site with your friends

Nasrullah Mambrol

purpose of postmodern literature

HI! how can i give references to your articles?

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That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.

The term “postmodernism” first entered the philosophical lexicon in 1979, with the publication of The Postmodern Condition by Jean-François Lyotard. I therefore give Lyotard pride of place in the sections that follow. An economy of selection dictated the choice of other figures for this entry. I have selected only those most commonly cited in discussions of philosophical postmodernism, five French and two Italian, although individually they may resist common affiliation. Ordering them by nationality might duplicate a modernist schema they would question, but there are strong differences among them, and these tend to divide along linguistic and cultural lines. The French, for example, work with concepts developed during the structuralist revolution in Paris in the 1950s and early 1960s, including structuralist readings of Marx and Freud. For this reason they are often called “poststructuralists.” They also cite the events of May 1968 as a watershed moment for modern thought and its institutions, especially the universities. The Italians, by contrast, draw upon a tradition of aesthetics and rhetoric including figures such as Giambattista Vico and Benedetto Croce. Their emphasis is strongly historical, and they exhibit no fascination with a revolutionary moment. Instead, they emphasize continuity, narrative, and difference within continuity, rather than counter-strategies and discursive gaps. Neither side, however, suggests that postmodernism is an attack upon modernity or a complete departure from it. Rather, its differences lie within modernity itself, and postmodernism is a continuation of modern thinking in another mode.

Finally, I have included a summary of Habermas's critique of postmodernism, representing the main lines of discussion on both sides of the Atlantic. Habermas argues that postmodernism contradicts itself through self-reference, and notes that postmodernists presuppose concepts they otherwise seek to undermine, e.g., freedom, subjectivity, or creativity. He sees in this a rhetorical application of strategies employed by the artistic avant-garde of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, an avant-garde that is possible only because modernity separates artistic values from science and politics in the first place. On his view, postmodernism is an illicit aestheticization of knowledge and public discourse. Against this, Habermas seeks to rehabilitate modern reason as a system of procedural rules for achieving consensus and agreement among communicating subjects. Insofar as postmodernism introduces aesthetic playfulness and subversion into science and politics, he resists it in the name of a modernity moving toward completion rather than self-transformation.

1. Precursors

2. the postmodern condition, 3. genealogy and subjectivity, 4. productive difference, 5. deconstruction, 6. hyperreality, 7. postmodern hermeneutics, 8. postmodern rhetoric and aesthetics, 9. habermas's critique, other internet resources, related entries.

The philosophical modernism at issue in postmodernism begins with Kant's “Copernican revolution,” that is, his assumption that we cannot know things in themselves and that objects of knowledge must conform to our faculties of representation (Kant 1787). Ideas such as God, freedom, immortality, the world, first beginning, and final end have only a regulative function for knowledge, since they cannot find fulfilling instances among objects of experience. With Hegel, the immediacy of the subject-object relation itself is shown to be illusory. As he states in The Phenomenology of Spirit , “we find that neither the one nor the other is only immediately present in sense-certainty, but each is at the same time mediated ” (Hegel 1807, 59), because subject and object are both instances of a “this” and a “now,” neither of which are immediately sensed. So-called immediate perception therefore lacks the certainty of immediacy itself, a certainty that must be deferred to the working out of a complete system of experience. However, later thinkers point out that Hegel's logic pre-supposes concepts, such as identity and negation (see Hegel 1812), which cannot themselves be accepted as immediately given, and which therefore must be accounted for in some other, non-dialectical way.

The later nineteenth century is the age of modernity as an achieved reality, where science and technology, including networks of mass communication and transportation, reshape human perceptions. There is no clear distinction, then, between the natural and the artificial in experience. Indeed, many proponents of postmodernism challenge the viability of such a distinction tout court , seeing in achieved modernism the emergence of a problem the philosophical tradition has repressed. A consequence of achieved modernism is what postmodernists might refer to as de-realization. De-realization affects both the subject and the objects of experience, such that their sense of identity, constancy, and substance is upset or dissolved. Important precursors to this notion are found in Kierkegaard, Marx and Nietzsche. Kierkegaard, for example, describes modern society as a network of relations in which individuals are leveled into an abstract phantom known as “the public” (Kierkegaard 1846, 59). The modern public, in contrast to ancient and medieval communities, is a creation of the press, which is the only instrument capable of holding together the mass of unreal individuals “who never are and never can be united in an actual situation or organization” (Kierkegaard 1846, 60). In this sense, society has become a realization of abstract thought, held together by an artificial and all-pervasive medium speaking for everyone and for no one. In Marx, on the other hand, we have an analysis of the fetishism of commodities (Marx 1867, 444–461) where objects lose the solidity of their use value and become spectral figures under the aspect of exchange value. Their ghostly nature results from their absorption into a network of social relations, where their values fluctuate independently of their corporeal being. Human subjects themselves experience this de-realization because commodities are products of their labor. Workers paradoxically lose their being in realizing themselves, and this becomes emblematic for those professing a postmodern sensibility.

We also find suggestions of de-realization in Nietzsche, who speaks of being as “the last breath of a vaporizing reality” and remarks upon the dissolution of the distinction between the “real” and the “apparent” world. In Twilight of the Idols , he traces the history of this distinction from Plato to his own time, where the “true world” becomes a useless and superfluous idea (1889, 485–86). However, with the notion of the true world, he says, we have also done away with the apparent one. What is left is neither real nor apparent, but something in between, and therefore something akin to the virtual reality of more recent vintage.

The notion of a collapse between the real and the apparent is suggested in Nietzsche's first book, The Birth of Tragedy (Nietzsche 1872), where he presents Greek tragedy as a synthesis of natural art impulses represented by the gods Apollo and Dionysus. Where Apollo is the god of beautiful forms and images, Dionysus is the god of frenzy and intoxication, under whose sway the spell of individuated existence is broken in a moment of undifferentiated oneness with nature. While tragic art is life-affirming in joining these two impulses, logic and science are built upon Apollonian representations that have become frozen and lifeless. Hence, Nietzsche believes only a return of the Dionysian art impulse can save modern society from sterility and nihilism. This interpretation presages postmodern concepts of art and representation, and also anticipates postmodernists' fascination with the prospect of a revolutionary moment auguring a new, anarchic sense of community.

Nietzsche is also a precursor for postmodernism in his genealogical analyses of fundamental concepts, especially what he takes to be the core concept of Western metaphysics, the “I”. On Nietzsche's account, the concept of the “I” arises out of a moral imperative to be responsible for our actions. In order to be responsible we must assume that we are the cause of our actions, and this cause must hold over time, retaining its identity, so that rewards and punishments are accepted as consequences for actions deemed beneficial or detrimental to others (Nietzsche 1889, 482-83; 1887, 24-26, 58-60). In this way, the concept of the “I” comes about as a social construction and moral illusion. According to Nietzsche, the moral sense of the “I” as an identical cause is projected onto events in the world, where the identity of things, causes, effects, etc., takes shape in easily communicable representations. Thus logic is born from the demand to adhere to common social norms which shape the human herd into a society of knowing and acting subjects.

For postmodernists, Nietzsche's genealogy of concepts in “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” (Nietzsche 1873, 77–97) is also an important reference. In this text, Nietzsche puts forward the hypothesis that scientific concepts are chains of metaphors hardened into accepted truths. On this account, metaphor begins when a nerve stimulus is copied as an image, which is then imitated in sound, giving rise, when repeated, to the word, which becomes a concept when the word is used to designate multiple instances of singular events. Conceptual metaphors are thus lies because they equate unequal things, just as the chain of metaphors moves from one level to another. Hegel's problem with the repetition of the “this” and the “now” is thus expanded to include the repetition of instances across discontinuous gaps between kinds and levels of things.

In close connection with this genealogy, Nietzsche criticizes the historicism of the nineteenth century in the 1874 essay, “On the Uses and Disadvantage of History for Life” (Nietzsche 1874, 57–123). On Nietzsche's view, the life of an individual and a culture depend upon their ability to repeat an unhistorical moment, a kind of forgetfulness, along with their continuous development through time, and the study of history ought therefore to emphasize how each person or culture attains and repeats this moment. There is no question, then, of reaching a standpoint outside of history or of conceiving past times as stages on the way to the present. Historical repetition is not linear, but each age worthy of its designation repeats the unhistorical moment that is its own present as “new.” In this respect, Nietzsche would agree with Charles Baudelaire, who describes modernity as “the transient, the fleeting, the contingent” that is repeated in all ages (Cahoone 2003, 100), and postmodernists read Nietzsche's remarks on the eternal return accordingly.

Nietzsche presents this concept in The Gay Science (Nietzsche 1974 [1882], 273), and in a more developed form in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Nietzsche 1883–1891, 269–272). Many have taken the concept to imply an endless, identical repetition of everything in the universe, such that nothing occurs that has not already occurred an infinite number of times before. However, others, including postmodernists, read these passages in conjunction with the notion that history is the repetition of an unhistorical moment, a moment that is always new in each case. In their view, Nietzsche can only mean that the new eternally repeats as new, and therefore recurrence is a matter of difference rather than identity. Furthermore, postmodernists join the concept of eternal return with the loss of the distinction between the real and the apparent world. The distinction itself does not reappear, and what repeats is neither real nor apparent in the traditional sense, but is a phantasm or simulacrum.

Nietzsche is a common interest between postmodern philosophers and Martin Heidegger, whose meditations on art, technology, and the withdrawal of being they regularly cite and comment upon. Heidegger's contribution to the sense of de-realization of the world stems from oft repeated remarks such as: “Everywhere we are underway amid beings, and yet we no longer know how it stands with being” (Heidegger 2000 [1953], 217), and “ precisely nowhere does man today any longer encounter himself, i.e., his essence ” (Heidegger 1993, 332). Heidegger sees modern technology as the fulfillment of Western metaphysics, which he characterizes as the metaphysics of presence. From the time of the earliest philosophers, but definitively with Plato, says Heidegger, Western thought has conceived of being as the presence of beings, which in the modern world has come to mean the availability of beings for use. In fact, as he writes in Being and Time , the presence of beings tends to disappear into the transparency of their usefulness as things ready-to-hand (Heidegger 1962 [1927], 95-107). The essence of technology, which he names “the enframing,” reduces the being of entities to a calculative order (Heidegger 1993, 311-341). Hence, the mountain is not a mountain but a standing supply of coal, the Rhine is not the Rhine but an engine for hydro-electric energy, and humans are not humans but reserves of manpower. The experience of the modern world, then, is the experience of being's withdrawal in face of the enframing and its sway over beings. However, humans are affected by this withdrawal in moments of anxiety or boredom, and therein lies the way to a possible return of being, which would be tantamount to a repetition of the experience of being opened up by Parmenides and Heraclitus.

Heidegger sees this as the realization of the will to power, another Nietzschean conception, which, conjoined with the eternal return, represents the exhaustion of the metaphysical tradition (Heidegger 1991a, 199-203). For Heidegger, the will to power is the eternal recurrence as becoming, and the permanence of becoming is the terminal moment of the metaphysics of presence. On this reading, becoming is the emerging and passing away of beings within and among other beings instead of an emergence from being. Thus, for Heidegger, Nietzsche marks the end of metaphysical thinking but not a passage beyond it, and therefore Heidegger sees him as the last metaphysician in whom the oblivion of being is complete (Heidegger 1991a, 204-206; 1991b, 199-203). Hope for a passage into non-metaphysical thinking lies rather with Hölderlin, whose verses give voice to signs granted by being in its withdrawal (Heidegger 1994 [1937–1938], 115-118). While postmodernists owe much to Heidegger's reflections on the non-presence of being and the de-realization of beings through the technological enframing, they sharply diverge from his reading of Nietzsche.

Many postmodern philosophers find in Heidegger a nostalgia for being they do not share. They prefer, instead, the sense of cheerful forgetting and playful creativity in Nietzsche's eternal return as a repetition of the different and the new. Some have gone so far as to turn the tables on Heidegger, and to read his ruminations on metaphysics as the repetition of an original metaphysical gesture, the gathering of thought to its “proper” essence and vocation (see Derrida 1989 [1987]). In this gathering, which follows the lineaments of an exclusively Greco-Christian-German tradition, something more original than being is forgotten, and that is the difference and alterity against which, and with which, the tradition composes itself. Prominent authors associated with postmodernism have noted that the forgotten and excluded “other” of the West, including Heidegger, is figured by the Jew (see Lyotard 1990 [1988], and Lacoue-Labarthe 1990 [1988]). In this way, they are able to distinguish their projects from Heidegger's thinking and to critically account for his involvement with National Socialism and his silence about the Holocaust, albeit in terms that do not address these as personal failings. Those looking for personal condemnations of Heidegger for his actions and his “refusal to accept responsibility” will not find them in postmodernist commentaries. They will, however, find many departures from Heidegger on Nietzsche's philosophical significance (see Derrida 1979 [1978]), and many instances where Nietzsche's ideas are critically activated against Heidegger and his self-presentation.

Nevertheless, Heidegger and Nietzsche are both important sources for postmodernism's critical de-structuring or displacement of the signature concept of modern philosophy, the “subject,” which is generally understood as consciousness, or its identity, ground, or unity, and designated as the “I.” Where Nietzsche finds in this concept the original metaphysical error produced by morality and the communicative needs of the herd, Heidegger sees in it the end and exhaustion of the metaphysical tradition, inaugurated by the Greeks, in which being is interpreted as presence. Here, being is the underlying ground of the being of beings, the subiectum that is enacted in modern philosophy as the subject of consciousness. But in Being and Time Heidegger conceives the human being as Dasein , which is not simply a present consciousness, but an event of ecstatic temporality that is open to a past ( Gewesensein ) that was never present (its already being-there) and a future ( Zu-kunft ) that is always yet to come (the possibility of death). The finitude of Dasein therefore cannot be contained within the limits of consciousness, nor within the limits of the subject, whether it is conceived substantively or formally.

In addition to the critiques of the subject offered by Nietzsche and Heidegger, many postmodernists also borrow heavily from the psycho-analytic theories of Jacques Lacan. Lacan's distinctive gesture is his insistence that the Freudian unconscious is a function, or set of functions, belonging to language and particularly to the verbal exchanges between the analyst and analysand during the analytic session (see Lacan 1953–55). For Lacan, the subject is always the subject of speech, and that means speech directed toward an other in relation to whom the subject differentiates and identifies itself. On this view, language is a feature of the “symbolic order” of society, which is constituted as an economy of signifiers, through which animal need becomes human desire, whose first object is to be recognized by the other. However, desire ultimately aims for something impossible: to possess, to “be,” or to occupy the place of the signifier of signifiers, i.e. the phallus. Insofar as the phallus is nothing but the signifying function as such , it does not exist. It is not an object to be possessed, but is that through which the subject and the other are brought into relation to begin with, and it thus imposes itself upon the subject as a fundamental absence or lack that is at once necessary and irremediable (Lacan 1977, 289). Hence the subject is forever divided from itself and unable to achieve final unity or identity. As the subject of desire, it remains perpetually incomplete, just as Dasein in Heidegger exists “beyond itself” in temporal ecstasis.

The term “postmodern” came into the philosophical lexicon with the publication of Jean-François Lyotard's La Condition Postmoderne in 1979 (in English: The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge , 1984), where he employs Wittgenstein's model of language games (see Wittgenstein 1953) and concepts taken from speech act theory to account for what he calls a transformation of the game rules for science, art, and literature since the end of the nineteenth century. He describes his text as a combination of two very different language games, that of the philosopher and that of the expert. Where the expert knows what he knows and what he doesn't know, the philosopher knows neither, but poses questions. In light of this ambiguity, Lyotard states that his portrayal of the state of knowledge “makes no claims to being original or even true,” and that his hypotheses “should not be accorded predictive value in relation to reality, but strategic value in relation to the questions raised” (Lyotard 1984 [1979], 7). The book, then, is as much an experiment in the combination of language games as it is an objective “report.”

On Lyotard's account, the computer age has transformed knowledge into information, that is, coded messages within a system of transmission and communication. Analysis of this knowledge calls for a pragmatics of communication insofar as the phrasing of messages, their transmission and reception, must follow rules in order to be accepted by those who judge them. However, as Lyotard points out, the position of judge or legislator is also a position within a language game, and this raises the question of legitimation. As he insists, “there is a strict interlinkage between the kind of language called science and the kind called ethics and politics” (Lyotard 1984 [1979], 8), and this interlinkage constitutes the cultural perspective of the West. Science is therefore tightly interwoven with government and administration, especially in the information age, where enormous amounts of capital and large installations are needed for research.

Lyotard points out that while science has sought to distinguish itself from narrative knowledge in the form of tribal wisdom communicated through myths and legends, modern philosophy has sought to provide legitimating narratives for science in the form of “the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth,” (Lyotard 1984 [1979], xxiii). Science, however, plays the language game of denotation to the exclusion of all others, and in this respect it displaces narrative knowledge, including the meta-narratives of philosophy. This is due, in part, to what Lyotard characterizes as the rapid growth of technologies and techniques in the second half of the twentieth century, where the emphasis of knowledge has shifted from the ends of human action to its means (Lyotard 1984 [1979], 37). This has eroded the speculative game of philosophy and set each science free to develop independently of philosophical grounding or systematic organization. “I define postmodern as incredulity toward meta-narratives,” says Lyotard (Lyotard 1984 [1979], xxiv). As a result, new, hybrid disciplines develop without connection to old epistemic traditions, especially philosophy, and this means science only plays its own game and cannot legitimate others, such as moral prescription.

The compartmentalization of knowledge and the dissolution of epistemic coherence is a concern for researchers and philosophers alike. As Lyotard notes, “Lamenting the ‘loss of meaning’ in postmodernity boils down to mourning the fact that knowledge is no longer principally narrative” (Lyotard 1984 [1979], 26). Indeed, for Lyotard, the de-realization of the world means the disintegration of narrative elements into “clouds” of linguistic combinations and collisions among innumerable, heterogeneous language games. Furthermore, within each game the subject moves from position to position, now as sender, now as addressee, now as referent, and so on. The loss of a continuous meta-narrative therefore breaks the subject into heterogeneous moments of subjectivity that do not cohere into an identity. But as Lyotard points out, while the combinations we experience are not necessarily stable or communicable, we learn to move with a certain nimbleness among them.

Postmodern sensibility does not lament the loss of narrative coherence any more than the loss of being. However, the dissolution of narrative leaves the field of legitimation to a new unifying criterion: the performativity of the knowledge-producing system whose form of capital is information. Performative legitimation means maximizing the flow of information and minimizing static (non-functional moves) in the system, so whatever cannot be communicated as information must be eliminated. The performativity criterion threatens anything not meeting its requirements, such as speculative narratives, with de-legitimation and exclusion. Nevertheless, capital also demands the continual re-invention of the “new” in the form of new language games and new denotative statements, and so, paradoxically, a certain paralogy is required by the system itself. In this regard, the modern paradigm of progress as new moves under established rules gives way to the postmodern paradigm of inventing new rules and changing the game.

Inventing new codes and reshaping information is a large part of the production of knowledge, and in its inventive moment science does not adhere to performative efficiency. By the same token, the meta-prescriptives of science, its rules, are themselves objects of invention and experimentation for the sake of producing new statements. In this respect, says Lyotard, the model of knowledge as the progressive development of consensus is outmoded. In fact, attempts to retrieve the model of consensus can only repeat the standard of coherence demanded for functional efficiency, and they will thus lend themselves to the domination of capital. On the other hand, the paralogical inventiveness of science raises the possibility of a new sense of justice, as well as knowledge, as we move among the language games now entangling us.

Lyotard takes up the question of justice in Just Gaming (see Lyotard 1985 [1979]) and The Differend: Phrases in Dispute (see Lyotard 1988 [1983]), where he combines the model of language games with Kant's division of the faculties (understanding, imagination, reason) and types of judgment (theoretical, practical, aesthetic) in order to explore the problem of justice set out in The Postmodern Condition . Without the formal unity of the subject, the faculties are set free to operate on their own. Where Kant insists that reason must assign domains and limits to the other faculties, its dependence upon the unity of the subject for the identity of concepts as laws or rules de-legitimizes its juridical authority in the postmodern age. Instead, because we are faced with an irreducible plurality of judgments and “phrase regimes,” the faculty of judgment itself is brought to the fore. Kant's third Critique therefore provides the conceptual materials for Lyotard's analysis, especially the analytic of aesthetic judgment (see Kant 1790).

As Lyotard argues, aesthetic judgment is the appropriate model for the problem of justice in postmodern experience because we are confronted with a plurality of games and rules without a concept under which to unify them. Judgment must therefore be reflective rather than determining. Furthermore, judgment must be aesthetic insofar as it does not produce denotative knowledge about a determinable state of affairs, but refers to the way our faculties interact with each other as we move from one mode of phrasing to another, i.e. the denotative, the prescriptive, the performative, the political, the cognitive, the artistic, etc. In Kantian terms, this interaction registers as an aesthetic feeling. Where Kant emphasizes the feeling of the beautiful as a harmonious interaction between imagination and understanding, Lyotard stresses the mode in which faculties (imagination and reason,) are in disharmony, i.e. the feeling of the sublime. For Kant, the sublime occurs when our faculties of sensible presentation are overwhelmed by impressions of absolute power and magnitude, and reason is thrown back upon its own power to conceive Ideas (such as the moral law) which surpass the sensible world. For Lyotard, however, the postmodern sublime occurs when we are affected by a multitude of unpresentables without reference to reason as their unifying origin. Justice, then, would not be a definable rule, but an ability to move and judge among rules in their heterogeneity and multiplicity. In this respect, it would be more akin to the production of art than a moral judgment in Kant's sense.

In “What is Postmodernism?,” which appears as an appendix to the English edition of The Postmodern Condition , Lyotard addresses the importance of avant-garde art in terms of the aesthetic of the sublime. Modern art, he says, is emblematic of a sublime sensibility, that is, a sensibility that there is something non-presentable demanding to be put into sensible form and yet overwhelms all attempts to do so. But where modern art presents the unpresentable as a missing content within a beautiful form, as in Marcel Proust, postmodern art, exemplified by James Joyce, puts forward the unpresentable by forgoing beautiful form itself, thus denying what Kant would call the consensus of taste. Furthermore, says Lyotard, a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern, for postmodernism is not modernism at its end but in its nascent state, that is, at the moment it attempts to present the unpresentable, “and this state is constant” (Lyotard 1984 [1979], 79). The postmodern, then, is a repetition of the modern as the “new,” and this means the ever-new demand for another repetition.

The Nietzschean method of genealogy, in its application to modern subjectivity, is another facet of philosophical postmodernism. Michel Foucault's application of genealogy to formative moments in modernity's history and his exhortations to experiment with subjectivity place him within the scope of postmodern discourse. In the 1971 essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” Foucault spells out his adaptation of the genealogical method in his historical studies. First and foremost, he says, genealogy “opposes itself to the search for ‘origins’” (Foucault 1977, 141). That is, genealogy studies the accidents and contingencies that converge at crucial moments, giving rise to new epochs, concepts, and institutions. As Foucault remarks: “What is found at the historical beginning of things is not the inviolable identity of their origin; it is the dissension of other things. It is disparity” (Foucault 1977, 142). In Nietzschean fashion, Foucault exposes history conceived as the origin and development of an identical subject, e.g., “modernity,” as a fiction modern discourses invent after the fact. Underlying the fiction of modernity is a sense of temporality that excludes the elements of chance and contingency in play at every moment. In short, linear, progressive history covers up the discontinuities and interruptions that mark points of succession in historical time.

Foucault deploys genealogy to create what he calls a “counter-memory” or “a transformation of history into a totally different form of time” (Foucault 1977, 160). This entails dissolving identity for the subject in history by using the materials and techniques of modern historical research. Just as Nietzsche postulates that the religious will to truth in Christianity results in the destruction of Christianity by science (see Nietzsche 1974 [1882], 280–83), Foucault postulates that genealogical research will result in the disintegration of the epistemic subject, as the continuity of the subject is broken up by the gaps and accidents that historical research uncovers. The first example of this research is Histoire de la folie à l'age classique , published in 1961, the full version of which was published in English as History of Madness in 2006. Here, Foucault gives an account of the historical beginnings of modern reason as it comes to define itself against madness in the seventeenth century. His thesis is that the practice of confining the mad is a transformation of the medieval practice of confining lepers in lazar houses. These institutions managed to survive long after the lepers disappeared, and thus an institutional structure of confinement was already in place when the modern concept of madness as a disease took shape. However, while institutions of confinement are held over from a previous time, the practice of confining the mad constitutes a break with the past.

Foucault focuses upon the moment of transition, as modern reason begins to take shape in a confluence of concepts, institutions, and practices, or, as he would say, of knowledge and power. In its nascency, reason is a power that defines itself against an other, an other whose truth and identity is also assigned by reason, thus giving reason the sense of originating from itself. For Foucault, the issue is that madness is not allowed to speak for itself and is at the disposal of a power that dictates the terms of their relationship. As he remarks: “ What is originative is the caesura that establishes the distance between reason and non-reason; reason's subjugation of non-reason, wresting from it its truth as madness, crime, or disease, derives explicitly from this point ” (Foucault 1965, x). The truth of reason is found when madness comes to stand in the place of non-reason, when the difference between them is inscribed in their opposition, but is not identical to its dominant side. In other words, the reason that stands in opposition to madness is not identical to the reason that inscribes their difference. The latter would be reason without an opposite, a free-floating power without definite shape. As Foucault suggests, this free-floating mystery might be represented in the ship of fools motif, which, in medieval times, represented madness. Such is the paradoxical structure of historical transformation.

In his later writings, most notably in The Use of Pleasure (Foucault 1985 [1984]), Foucault employs historical research to open possibilities for experimenting with subjectivity, by showing that subjectivation is a formative power of the self, surpassing the structures of knowledge and power from out of which it emerges. This is a power of thought, which Foucault says is the ability of human beings to problematize the conditions under which they live. For philosophy, this means “the endeavor to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is already known” (Foucault 1985 [1984], 9). He thus joins Lyotard in promoting creative experimentation as a leading power of thought, a power that surpasses reason, narrowly defined, and without which thought would be inert. In this regard, Foucault stands in league with others who profess a postmodern sensibility in regard to contemporary science, art, and society. We should note, as well, that Foucault's writings are a hybrid of philosophy and historical research, just as Lyotard combines the language games of the expert and the philosopher in The Postmodern Condition . This mixing of philosophy with concepts and methods from other disciplines is characteristic of postmodernism in its broadest sense.

The concept of difference as a productive mechanism, rather than a negation of identity, is also a hallmark of postmodernism in philosophy. Gilles Deleuze deploys this concept throughout his work, beginning with Nietzsche and Philosophy (1962, in English 1983), where he sets Nietzsche against the models of thinking at work in Kant and Hegel. Here, he proposes to think against reason in resistance to Kant's assertion of the self-justifying authority of reason alone (Deleuze 1983 [1962], 93). In a phrase echoed by Foucault, he states that the purpose of his critique of reason “is not justification but a different way of feeling: another sensibility” (Deleuze 1983 [1962], 94). Philosophical critique, he declares, is an encounter between thought and what forces it into action: it is a matter of sensibility rather than a tribunal where reason judges itself by its own laws (see Kant 1787, 9). Furthermore, the critique of reason is not a method, but is achieved by “culture” in the Nietzschean sense: training, discipline, inventiveness, and a certain cruelty (see Nietzsche 1887). Since thought cannot activate itself as thinking , Deleuze says it must suffer violence if it is to awaken and move. Art, science, and philosophy deploy such violence insofar as they are transformative and experimental.

Against Hegel, Deleuze asserts that while dialectic is structured by negation and opposition within a posited identity, “difference is the only principle of genesis or production” (Deleuze 1983 [1962], 157). Opposition occurs on the same logical plane, but difference moves across planes and levels, and not only in one direction. Furthermore, where Hegel takes the work of the negative to be dialectic's driving power, Deleuze declares that difference is thinkable only as repetition repeating itself (as in Nietzsche's eternal return), where difference affirms itself in eternally differing from itself. Its movement is productive, but without logical opposition, negation, or necessity. Instead, chance and multiplicity are repeated, just as a dice-throw repeats the randomness of the throw along with every number. On the other hand, dialectic cancels out chance and affirms the movement of the negative as a working out of identity, as in the Science of Logic where being in its immediacy is posited as equal only to itself (Hegel 1812, 82). For Deleuze, however, sensibility introduces an aleatory moment into thought's development, making accidentality and contingency conditions for thinking. These conditions upset logical identity and opposition, and place the limit of thinking beyond any dialectical system.

In Difference and Repetition (1968, in English 1994), Deleuze develops his project in multiple directions. His work, he says, stems from the convergence of two lines of research: the concept of difference without negation, and the concept of repetition, in which physical and mechanical repetitions are masks for a hidden differential that is disguised and displaced. His major focus is a thoroughgoing critique of representational thinking, including identity, opposition, analogy, and resemblance (Deleuze 1994 [1968], 132). For Deleuze, “appearances of” are not representations, but sensory intensities free of subjective or objective identities (Deleuze 1994 [1968], 144). Without these identities, appearances are simulacra of an non-apparent differential he calls the “dark precursor” or “the in-itself of difference” (Deleuze 1994 [1968], 119). This differential is the non-sensible being of the sensible, a being not identical to the sensible, or to itself, but irreducibly problematic insofar as it forces us to encounter the sensible as “given.”

Furthermore, any move against representational thinking impinges upon the identity of the subject. Where Kant founds the representational unity of space and time upon the formal unity of consciousness (Kant 1787, 135-137), difference re-distributes intuitions of past, present, and future, fracturing consciousness into multiple states not predicable of a single subject. Intensive qualities are individuating by themselves, says Deleuze, and individuality is not characteristic of a self or an ego, but of a differential forever dividing itself and changing its configuration (Deleuze 1994 [1968], 246, 254, 257). In Nietzschean fashion, the “I” refers not to the unity of consciousness, but to a multitude of simulacra without an identical subject for whom this multitude appears. Instead, subjects arise and multiply as “effects” of the intensive qualities saturating space and time. This leads Deleuze to postulate multiple faculties for subjectivity, which are correlates of the sensible insofar as it gives rise to feeling, thought, and action. “Each faculty, including thought, has only involuntary adventures,” he says, and “involuntary operation remains embedded in the empirical” (Deleuze 1994 [1968], 145). Subjectively, the paradox of the differential breaks up the faculties' common function and places them before their own limits: thought before the unthinkable, memory before the immemorial, sensibility before the imperceptible, etc. (Deleuze 1994, 227). This fracturing and multiplying of the subject, he notes, leads to the realization that “schizophrenia is not only a human fact but also a possibility for thought” (Deleuze 1994 [1968], 148), thus expanding the term into a philosophical concept, beyond its clinical application.

The dissolution of the subject and its implications for society is the theme of Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia , which Deleuze published with Félix Guattari in 1972 (in English 1983). The book, in large part, is written against an established intellectual orthodoxy of the political Left in France during the 1950s and 1960s, an orthodoxy consisting of Marx, Freud, and structuralist concepts applied to them by Louis Althusser and Jacques Lacan. Deleuze and Guattari argue that this mixture is still limited by representational thinking, including concepts of production based upon lack, and concepts of alienation based upon identity and negation. Furthermore, the Oedipus concept in psychoanalysis, they say, institutes a theater of desire in which the psyche is embedded in a family drama closed off from the extra-familial and extra-psychic forces at work in society. They characterize these forces as “desiring machines” whose function is to connect, disconnect, and reconnect with one another without meaning or intention.

The authors portray society as a series of “territorializations” or inscriptions upon the “body without organs,”or the free-flowing matter of intensive qualities filling space in their varying degrees. The first inscriptions are relations of kinship and filiation structuring primitive societies, often involving the marking and scarring of human bodies. As an interruption and encoding of “flows,” the primitive inscriptions constitute a nexus of desiring machines, both technical and social, whose elements are humans and their organs. The full body of society is the sacred earth, which appropriates to itself all social products as their natural or divine precondition, and to whom all members of society are bound by direct filiation (Deleuze 1983 [1962], 141-42). These first inscriptions are then de-territorialized and re-coded by the “despotic machine,” establishing new relations of alliance and filiation through the body of the ruler or emperor, who alone stands in direct filiation to the deity (Deleuze 1983 [1962], 192) and who institutes the mechanism of the state upon pre-existing social arrangements. Finally, capitalism de-territorializes the inscriptions of the despotic machine and re-codes all relations of alliance and filiation into flows of money (Deleuze 1983 [1962], 224-27). The organs of society and the state are appropriated into the functioning of capital, and humans become secondary to the filiation of money with itself.

Deleuze and Guattari see in the capitalist money system “an axiomatic of abstract quantities that keeps moving further and further in the direction of the deterritorialization of the socius” (Deleuze and Guattari 1983 [1972], 33), which is to say that capital is inherently schizophrenic. However, because capital also re-territorializes all flows into money, schizophrenia remains capitalism's external limit. Nevertheless, it is precisely that limit against which thinking can subject capitalism to philosophical critique. Psychoanalysis, they say, is part of the reign of capital because it re-territorializes the subject as “private” and “individual,” instituting psychic identity through images of the Oedipal family. However, the Oedipal triangle is merely a representational simulacrum of kinship and filiation, re-coded within a system of debt and payment. In this system, they insist, flows of desire have become mere representations of desire, cut off from the body without organs and the extra-familial mechanisms of society. A radical critique of capital cannot therefore be accomplished by psychoanalysis, but requires a schizoanalysis “to overturn the theater of representation into the order of desiring-production” (Deleuze 1983 [1962], 271). Here, the authors see a revolutionary potential in modern art and science, where, in bringing about the “new,” they circulate de-coded and de-territorialized flows within society without automatically re-coding them into money (Deleuze and Guattari 1983 [1972], 379). In this revolutionary aspect, Anti-Oedipus reads as a statement of the desire that took to the streets of Paris in May of 1968, and which continues, even now, to make itself felt in intellectual life.

The term “deconstruction,” like “postmodernism,” has taken on many meanings in the popular imagination. However, in philosophy, it signifies certain strategies for reading and writing texts. The term was introduced into philosophical literature in 1967, with the publication of three texts by Jacques Derrida: Of Grammatology (in English 1974), Writing and Difference (in English 1978), and Speech and Phenomena (in English 1973). This so-called “publication blitz” immediately established Derrida as a major figure in the new movement in philosophy and the human sciences centered in Paris, and brought the idiom “deconstruction” into its vocabulary. Derrida and deconstruction are routinely associated with postmodernism, although like Deleuze and Foucault, he does not use the term and would resist affiliation with “-isms” of any sort. Of the three books from 1967, Of Grammatology is the more comprehensive in laying out the background for deconstruction as a way of reading modern theories of language, especially structuralism, and Heidegger's meditations on the non-presence of being. It also sets out Derrida's difference with Heidegger over Nietzsche. Where Heidegger places Nietzsche within the metaphysics of presence, Derrida insists that “reading, and therefore writing, the text were for Nietzsche ‘originary’ operations,” (Derrida 1974 [1967], 19), and this puts him at the closure of metaphysics (not the end), a closure that liberates writing from the traditional logos, which takes writing to be a sign (a visible mark) for another sign (speech), whose “signified” is a fully present meaning.

This closure has emerged, says Derrida, with the latest developments in linguistics, the human sciences, mathematics, and cybernetics, where the written mark or signifier is purely technical, that is, a matter of function rather than meaning. Precisely the liberation of function over meaning indicates that the epoch of what Heidegger calls the metaphysics of presence has come to closure, although this closure does not mean its termination. Just as in the essay “On the Question of Being” (Heidegger 1998, 291-322) Heidegger sees fit to cross out the word “being,” leaving it visible, nevertheless, under the mark, Derrida takes the closure of metaphysics to be its “erasure,” where it does not entirely disappear, but remains inscribed as one side of a difference, and where the mark of deletion is itself a trace of the difference that joins and separates this mark and what it crosses out. Derrida calls this joining and separating of signs différance (Derrida 1974 [1967], 23), a device that can only be read and not heard when différance and différence are pronounced in French. The “a” is a written mark that differentiates independently of the voice, the privileged medium of metaphysics. In this sense, différance as the spacing of difference, as archi-writing, would be the gram of grammatology. However, as Derrida remarks: “There cannot be a science of difference itself in its operation, as it is impossible to have a science of the origin of presence itself, that is to say of a certain non-origin” (Derrida 1974 [1967], 63). Instead, there is only the marking of the trace of difference, that is, deconstruction.

Because at its functional level all language is a system of differences, says Derrida, all language, even when spoken, is writing, and this truth is suppressed when meaning is taken as an origin, present and complete unto itself. Texts that take meaning or being as their theme are therefore particularly susceptible to deconstruction, as are all other texts insofar as they are conjoined with these. For Derrida, written marks or signifiers do not arrange themselves within natural limits, but form chains of signification that radiate in all directions. As Derrida famously remarks, “there is no outside-text” (Derrida 1974 [1967], 158), that is, the text includes the difference between any “inside” or “outside.” As he explains in a letter to Gerald Graff, attached as an appendix to Limited Inc (see Derrida 1988, 148), this means that “every referent, all reality has the structure of a differential trace.” A text, then, is not a book, and does not, strictly speaking, have an author. On the contrary, the name of the author is a signifier linked with others, and there is no master signifier (such as the phallus in Lacan) present or even absent in a text. This goes for the term “différance ” as well, which can only serve as a supplement for the productive spacing between signs. Therefore, Derrida insists that “ différance is literally neither a word nor a concept” (Derrida 1982 [1972], 3). Instead, it can only be marked as a wandering play of differences that is both a spacing of signifiers in relation to one another and a deferral of meaning or presence when they are read.

How, then, can différance be characterized? Derrida refuses to answer questions as to “who” or “what” differs, because to do so would suggest there is a proper name for difference instead of endless supplements, of which “ différance ” is but one. Structurally, this supplemental displacement functions just as, for Heidegger, all names for being reduce being to the presence of beings, thus ignoring the “ontological difference” between them. However, Derrida takes the ontological difference as one difference among others, as a product of what the idiom “ différance ” supplements. As he remarks: “ différance , in a certain and very strange way, (is) ‘older’ than the ontological difference or than the truth of Being” (Derrida 1982 [1972], 22). Deconstruction, then, traces the repetitions of the supplement. It is not so much a theory about texts as a practice of reading and transforming texts, where tracing the movements of différance produces other texts interwoven with the first. While there is a certain arbitrariness in the play of differences that result, it is not the arbitrariness of a reader getting the text to mean whatever he or she wants. It is a question of function rather than meaning, if meaning is understood as a terminal presence, and the signifying connections traced in deconstruction are first offered by the text itself. A deconstructive reading, then, does not assert or impose meaning, but marks out places where the function of the text works against its apparent meaning, or against the history of its interpretation.

Hyperreality is closely related to the concept of the simulacrum: a copy or image without reference to an original. In postmodernism, hyperreality is the result of the technological mediation of experience, where what passes for reality is a network of images and signs without an external referent, such that what is represented is representation itself. In Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976), Jean Baudrillard uses Lacan's concepts of the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real to develop this concept while attacking orthodoxies of the political Left, beginning with the assumed reality of power, production, desire, society, and political legitimacy. Baudrillard argues that all of these realities have become simulations, that is, signs without any referent, because the real and the imaginary have been absorbed into the symbolic.

Baudrillard presents hyperreality as the terminal stage of simulation, where a sign or image has no relation to any reality whatsoever, but is “its own pure simulacrum” (Baudrillard 1981, 6). The real, he says, has become an operational effect of symbolic processes, just as images are technologically generated and coded before we actually perceive them. This means technological mediation has usurped the productive role of the Kantian subject, the locus of an original synthesis of concepts and intuitions, as well as the Marxian worker, the producer of capital though labor, and the Freudian unconscious, the mechanism of repression and desire. “From now on,” says Baudrillard, “signs are exchanged against each other rather than against the real” (Baudrillard 1976, 7), so production now means signs producing other signs. The system of symbolic exchange is therefore no longer real but “hyperreal.” Where the real is “ that of which it is possible to provide an equivalent reproduction ,” the hyperreal, says Baudrillard, is “ that which is always already reproduced ” (Baudrillard 1976, 73). The hyperreal is a system of simulation simulating itself.

The lesson Baudrillard draws from the events of May 1968 is that the student movement was provoked by the realization that “ we were no longer productive ” (Baudrillard 1976, 29), and that direct opposition within the system of communication and exchange only reproduces the mechanisms of the system itself. Strategically, he says, capital can only be defeated by introducing something inexchangeable into the symbolic order, that is, something having the irreversible function of natural death, which the symbolic order excludes and renders invisible. The system, he points out, simulates natural death with fascinating images of violent death and catastrophe, where death is the result of artificial processes and “accidents.” But, as Baudrillard remarks: “Only the death-function cannot be programmed and localized” (Baudrillard 1976, 126), and by this he means death as the simple and irreversible finality of life. Therefore he calls for the development of “fatal strategies” to make the system suffer reversal and collapse.

Because these strategies must be carried out within the symbolic order, they are matters of rhetoric and art, or a hybrid of both. They also function as gifts or sacrifices, for which the system has no counter-move or equivalence. Baudrillard finds a prime example of this strategy with graffiti artists who experiment with symbolic markings and codes in order to suggest communication while blocking it, and who sign their inscriptions with pseudonyms instead of recognizable names. “They are seeking not to escape the combinatory in order to regain an identity,” says Baudrillard, “but to turn indeterminacy against the system, to turn indeterminacy into extermination ” (Baudrillard 1976, 78). Some of his own remarks, such as “I have nothing to do with postmodernism,” have, no doubt, the same strategic intent. To the extent that “postmodernism” has become a sign exchangeable for other signs, he would indeed want nothing to do with it. Nevertheless, his concepts of simulation and hyperreality, and his call for strategic experimentation with signs and codes, bring him into close proximity with figures such as Lyotard, Foucault, and Derrida.

Hermeneutics, the science of textual interpretation, also plays a role in postmodern philosophy. Unlike deconstruction, which focuses upon the functional structures of a text, hermeneutics seeks to arrive at an agreement or consensus as to what the text means, or is about. Gianni Vattimo formulates a postmodern hermeneutics in The End of Modernity (1985, in English 1988 [1985]), where he distinguishes himself from his Parisian counterparts by posing the question of post-modernity as a matter for ontological hermeneutics. Instead of calling for experimentation with counter-strategies and functional structures, he sees the heterogeneity and diversity in our experience of the world as a hermeneutical problem to be solved by developing a sense continuity between the present and the past. This continuity is to be a unity of meaning rather than the repetition of a functional structure, and the meaning is ontological. In this respect, Vattimo's project is an extension of Heidegger's inquiries into the meaning of being. However, where Heidegger situates Nietzsche within the limits of metaphysics, Vattimo joins Heidegger's ontological hermeneutics with Nietzsche's attempt to think beyond nihilism and historicism with his concept of eternal return. The result, says Vattimo, is a certain distortion of Heidegger's reading of Nietzsche, allowing Heidegger and Nietzsche to be interpreted through one another (Vattimo 1988 [1985], 176). This is a significant point of difference between Vattimo and the French postmodernists, who read Nietzsche against Heidegger, and prefer Nietzsche's textual strategies over Heidegger's pursuit of the meaning of being.

On Vattimo's account, Nietzsche and Heidegger can be brought together under the common theme of overcoming. Where Nietzsche announces the overcoming of nihilism through the active nihilism of the eternal return, Heidegger proposes to overcome metaphysics through a non-metaphysical experience of being. In both cases, he argues, what is to be overcome is modernity, characterized by the image that philosophy and science are progressive developments in which thought and knowledge increasingly appropriate their own origins and foundations. Overcoming modernity, however, cannot mean progressing into a new historical phase. As Vattimo observes: “Both philosophers find themselves obliged, on the one hand, to take up a critical distance from Western thought insofar as it is foundational; on the other hand, however, they find themselves unable to criticize Western thought in the name of another, and truer, foundation” (Vattimo 1988 [1985], 2). Overcoming modernity must therefore mean a Verwindung , in the sense of twisting or distorting modernity itself, rather than an Überwindung or progression beyond it.

While Vattimo takes post-modernity as a new turn in modernity, it entails the dissolution of the category of the new in the historical sense, which means the end of universal history. “While the notion of historicity has become ever more problematic for theory,” he says, “at the same time for historiography and its own methodological self-awareness the idea of history as a unitary process is rapidly dissolving” (Vattimo 1988 [1985], 6). This does not mean historical change ceases to occur, but that its unitary development is no longer conceivable, so only local histories are possible. The de-historicization of experience has been accelerated by technology, especially television, says Vattimo, so that “everything tends to flatten out at the level of contemporaneity and simultaneity” (Vattimo 1988 [1985], 10). As a result, we no longer experience a strong sense of teleology in worldly events, but, instead, we are confronted with a manifold of differences and partial teleologies that can only be judged aesthetically. The truth of postmodern experience is therefore best realized in art and rhetoric.

The Nietzschean sense of overcoming modernity is “to dissolve modernity through a radicalization of its own innate tendencies,” says Vattimo (Vattimo 1988 [1985], 166). These include the production of “the new” as a value and the drive for critical overcoming in the sense of appropriating foundations and origins. In this respect, however, Nietzsche shows that modernity results in nihilism: all values, including “truth” and “the new,” collapse under critical appropriation. The way out of this collapse is the moment of eternal recurrence, when we affirm the necessity of error in the absence of foundations. Vattimo also finds this new attitude toward modernity in Heidegger's sense of overcoming metaphysics, insofar as he suggests that overcoming the enframing lies with the possibility of a turn within the enframing itself. Such a turn would mean deepening and distorting the technological essence, not destroying it or leaving it behind. Furthermore, this would be the meaning of being, understood as the history of interpretation (as “weak” being) instead of a grounding truth, and the hermeneutics of being would be a distorted historicism. Unlike traditional hermeneutics, Vattimo argues that reconstructing the continuity of contemporary experience cannot be accomplished without unifying art and rhetoric with information from the sciences, and this requires philosophy “to propose a ‘rhetorically persuasive’, unified view of the world, which includes in itself traces, residues, or isolated elements of scientific knowledge” (Vattimo 1988 [1985], 179). Vattimo's philosophy is therefore the project of a postmodern hermeneutics, in contrast to the Parisian thinkers who do not concern themselves with meaning or history as continuous unities.

Rhetoric and aesthetics pertain to the sharing of experience through activities of participation and imitation. In the postmodern sense, such activities involve sharing or participating in differences that have opened between the old and the new, the natural and the artificial, or even between life and death. The leading exponent of this line of postmodern thought is Mario Perniola. Like Vattimo, Perniola insists that postmodern philosophy must not break with the legacies of modernity in science and politics. As he says in Enigmas , “the relationship between thought and reality that the Enlightenment, idealism, and Marxism have embodied must not be broken” (Perniola 1995, 43). However, he does not base this continuity upon an internal essence, spirit, or meaning, but upon the continuing effects of modernity in the world. One such effect, visible in art and in the relation between art and society, is the collapse of the past and future into the present, which he characterizes as “Egyptian” or “baroque” in nature. This temporal effect is accomplished through the collapse of the difference between humans and things, where “humans are becoming more similar to things, and equally, the inorganic world, thanks to electronic technology, seems to be taking over the human role in the perception of events” (Perniola 1995, viii ). This amounts to a kind of “Egyptianism,” as described by Hegel in his Aesthetics (see Hegel 1823–9, 347-361), where the spiritual and the natural are mixed to such a degree that they cannot be separated, as, for example, in the figure of the Sphinx. However, in the postmodern world the inorganic is not natural, but already artificial, insofar as our perceptions are mediated by technological operations.

Likewise, says Perniola, art collections in modern museums produce a “baroque effect,” where “The field that is opened up by a collection is not that of cultivated public opinion, nor of social participation, but a space that attracts precisely because it cannot be controlled or possessed” (Perniola 1995, 87). That is, in the collection, art is removed from its natural or historical context and creates a new sense of space and time, not reducible to linear history or any sense of origin. The collection, then, is emblematic of postmodern society, a moment of its “truth.” Furthermore, Perniola insists that baroque sensibility is characteristic of Italian society and culture in general. “The very idea of truth as something essentially naked,” he says, “is at loggerheads with the Baroque idea, so firmly rooted in Italy, that truth is something essentially clothed” (Perniola 1995, 145). This corresponds to a sensibility that is intermediate between internal feelings and external things. “The Italian enigma,” he says, “lies in the fact that the human component is equipped with an external emotionality that does not belong to him or her intimately, but in which they nonetheless participate” (Perniola 1995, 145). To account for this enigmatic experience, the philosopher must become “the intermediary, the passage, the transit to something different and foreign” (Perniola 1995, 40). Hence, philosophical reading and writing are not activities of an identical subject, but processes of mediation and indeterminacy between self and other, and philosophical narrative is an overcoming of their differences.

These differences cannot be overcome, in Hegelian fashion, by canceling them under a higher-order synthesis, but must be eroded or defaced in the course of traversing them. In Ritual Thinking , Perniola illustrates this process through the concepts of transit, the simulacrum, and ritual without myth. Transit derives from a sense of the simultaneity of the present, where we are suspended in a state of temporariness and indeterminacy, and move “from the same to the same”; the simulacrum is the result of an endless mimesis in which there are only copies of copies without reference to an original; and ritual without myth is the repetition of patterns of action having no connection to the inner life of a subject or of society. Thus Perniola sees social and political interaction as repetitive patterns of action having no inherent meaning but constituting, nonetheless, an intermediary realm where oppositions, particularly life and death, are overcome in a to-and-fro movement within their space of difference.

To illustrate these concepts Perniola refers to practices associated with Romanism, particularly Roman religion. “Ritual without myth,” he says, “is the very essence of Romanism” (Perniola 2001, 81). It is a passage between life and death via their mutual simulation, for example, in the labyrinthine movements of the ritual known as the troiae lusus . These movements, he says, mediate between life and death by reversing their pattern of natural succession, and mediate their difference through actions having no intrinsic meaning. Unlike Vattimo's project of constructing meaning to overcome historical differences, Perniola's concept of transit into the space of difference is one of “art” in the sense of artifice or technique, and is not aimed at a synthesis or unification of opposing elements. In this respect, Perniola has an affinity with the French postmodernists, who emphasize functional repetition over the creation of meaning. However, as Perniola's notion of ritual without myth illustrates, the functional repetitions of social interaction and technology do not disseminate differences, but efface them. This is clear in his account of the ritualized passage between life and death, as compared with Baudrillard, who calls for strategies introducing the irreversibility of death into the system of symbolic exchange. In this respect, Perniola's postmodernism is strongly aesthetic, and remains, with Vattimo, in the aesthetic and historical dimensions of experience.

The most prominent and comprehensive critic of philosophical postmodernism is Jürgen Habermas. In The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Habermas 1987 [1985]), he confronts postmodernism at the level of society and “communicative action.” He does not defend the concept of the subject, conceived as consciousness or an autonomous self, against postmodernists' attacks, but defends argumentative reason in inter-subjective communication against their experimental, avant-garde strategies. For example, he claims that Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida and Foucault commit a performative contradiction in their critiques of modernism by employing concepts and methods that only modern reason can provide. He criticizes Nietzsche's Dionysianism as a compensatory gesture toward the loss of unity in Western culture that, in pre-modern times, was provided by religion. Nietzsche's sense of a new Dionysus in modern art, moreover, is based upon an aesthetic modernism in which art acquires its experimental power by separating itself from the values of science and morality, a separation accomplished by the modern Enlightenment, resulting in the loss of organic unity Nietzsche seeks to restore via art itself (see Habermas 1987 [1985], 81-105). Habermas sees Heidegger and Derrida as heirs to this “Dionysian messianism.” Heidegger, for example, anticipates a new experience of being, which has withdrawn. However, says Habermas, the withdrawal of being is the result of an inverted philosophy of the subject, where Heidegger's destruction of the subject leads to hope for a unity to come, a unity of nothing other than the subject that is now missing (Habermas 1987 [1985], 160). Derrida, he says, develops the notion of différance or “archi-writing” in similar fashion: here, we see the god Dionysus revealing himself once again in his absence, as meaning infinitely deferred (Habermas 1987 [1985], 180-81).

Habermas also criticizes Derrida for leveling the distinction between philosophy and literature in a textualism that brings logic and argumentative reason into the domain of rhetoric. In this way, he says, Derrida hopes to avoid the logical problem of self-reference in his critique of reason. However, as Habermas remarks: “Whoever transposes the radical critique of reason into the domain of rhetoric in order to blunt the paradox of self-referentiality, also dulls the sword of the critique of reason itself” (Habermas 1987 [1985], 210). In similar fashion, he criticizes Foucault for not subjecting his own genealogical method to genealogical unmasking, which would reveal Foucault's re-installation of a modern subject able to critically gaze at its own history. Thus, he says, “Foucault cannot adequately deal with the persistent problems that come up in connection with an interpretive approach to the object domain, a self-referential denial of universal validity claims, and a normative justification of critique” (Habermas 1987 [1985], 286).

Habermas's critique of postmodernism on the basis of performative contradiction and the paradox of self-reference sets the tone and the terms for much of the critical debate now under way. While postmodernists have rejected these criticisms, or responded to them with rhetorical counter-strategies. Lyotard, for example, rejects the notion that intersubjective communication implies a set of rules already agreed upon, and that universal consensus is the ultimate goal of discourse (see Lyotard 1984 [1979], 65-66). That postmodernists openly respond to Habermas is due to the fact that he takes postmodernism seriously and does not, like other critics, reject it as mere nonsense. Indeed, that he is able to read postmodernist texts closely and discursively testifies to their intelligibility. He also agrees with the postmodernists that the focus of debate should be upon modernity as it is realized in social practices and institutions, rather than upon theories of cognition or formal linguistics as autonomous domains. In this respect, Habermas's concern with inter-subjective communication helps clarify the basis upon which the modernist-postmodernist debates continue to play out.

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  • Heidegger, Martin, 1962 [1927], Being and Time , John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (trans.), San Francisco: Harper & Row.
  • –––, 1991a, Nietzsche, Volume I: The Will to Power as Art, and Volume II: The Eternal Recurrence of the Same , David Farrell Krell (trans.), San Francisco: Harper Collins.
  • –––, 1991b, Nietzsche, Volume III: The Will to Power as Knowledge and as Metaphysics, and Volume IV: Nihilism , David Farrell Krell (ed.), San Francisco: Harper Collins.
  • –––, 1993, Basic Writings, 2nd Edition , David Farrell Krell (ed.), San Francisco: Harper & Row.
  • –––, 1994 [1937–1938], Basic Questions of Philosophy: Selected “Problems” of “Logic,” Richard Rojcewicz and Andre Schuwer (trans.), Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • –––, 1998, Pathmarks , William McNeill (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • –––, 2000 [1953], Introduction to Metaphysics , Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (trans.), New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Kant, Immanuel, 1787, Critique of Pure Reason , 2nd edition, Norman Kemp Smith (trans.), London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1929; reprinted 1964. (Page reference is to the reprinted translation of 1964.
  • –––, 1790, Critique of Judgment , Werner S. Pluhar (trans.), Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987.
  • Kaufmann, Walter (ed.), 1954, The Portable Nietzsche , New York: Viking Press.
  • Kierkegaard, Soren, 1846, The Present Age , Alexander Dru (trans.), New York: Harper & Row, 1962. (Page reference is to the translation.)
  • Lacan, J., 1977, Écrits: A Selection , Alan Sheridan (trans.), New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
  • Lacan, J., 1953–1955, The Seminar , Books I ( Freud's Papers on Technique ) and II ( The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis ), edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, transl. by J. Forrester (Book I) and Sylvana Tomaselli (Book II), New York: W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1988.
  • Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe, 1990 [1988], Heidegger, Art and Politics , Chris Turner (trans.), London: Blackwell.
  • Lyotard, J.-F., 1984 [1979], The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge , Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (trans.), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • –––, 1985 [1979], Just Gaming , Wlad Godzich (trans.), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • –––, 1988 [1983], The Differend: Phrases in Dispute , Georges Van Den Abbeele (trans.) Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • –––, 1990 [1988], Heidegger and “the jews” , Andreas Michel and Mark Roberts (trans.), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Marx, Karl, 1867, Das Kapital , Volume 1. The section quoted is from chapter 1, “The Commodity”, Page numbers from the reprint, The Portable Karl Marx , Eugene Kamenka (ed.), New York: Penguin USA, 1983.
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich, 1872, “The Birth of Tragedy”, reprinted in The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner , Walter Kaufmann (trans.), New York: Random House, 1967.
  • –––, 1873, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”, reprinted in Philosophy and Truth: Selections From Nietzsche's Notebooks of the Early 1870s , Daniel Breazeale (ed.), New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1979.
  • –––, 1874, “On the Uses and Disadvantage of History for Life”, in Untimely Meditations , R.J. Hollingdale (trans.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  • –––, 1974 [1882], The Gay Science , Walter Kaufmann (trans.), New York: Random House, 1974.
  • –––, 1883–1891, Thus Spoke Zarathustra , translation and page numbers from Kaufman 1954: 112–439.
  • –––, 1967 [1887], On the Genealogy of Morals , Walter Kaufmann (trans.), New York: Random House.
  • –––, 1889, “Twilight of the Idols”, translation and pages numbers from Kaufman 1954: 463–564.
  • Perniola, Mario, 1995 [1990], Enigmas: The Egyptian Moment in Society and Art , Christopher Woodall (trans.), London: Verso.
  • –––, 2001, Ritual Thinking: Sexuality, Death, World , Massimo Verdicchio (trans.), Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books.
  • Taylor, Victor E., and Winquist, Charles E., 2001, Encyclopedia of Postmodernism , London: Routledge.
  • Vattimo, Gianni, 1988 [1985], The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Postmodern Culture , Jon R. Snyder (trans.), Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig, 1953, Philosophical Investigations , G.E.M. Anscombe (trans.), New York: Macmillan.
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Explainer: what is postmodernism?

purpose of postmodern literature

Senior Lecturer, Art History & Theory Program, Monash University

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Daniel Palmer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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purpose of postmodern literature

I once asked a group of my students if they knew what the term postmodernism meant: one replied that it’s when you put everything in quotation marks. It wasn’t such a bad answer, because concepts such as “reality”, “truth” and “humanity” are invariably put under scrutiny by thinkers and “texts” associated with postmodernism.

Postmodernism is often viewed as a culture of quotations.

Take Matt Groening’s The Simpsons (1989–). The very structure of the television show quotes the classic era of the family sitcom. While the misadventures of its cartoon characters ridicule all forms of institutionalised authority – patriarchal, political, religious and so on – it does so by endlessly quoting from other media texts.

This form of hyperconscious “ intertextuality ” generates a relentlessly ironic or postmodern worldview.

Relationship to modernism

The difficulty of defining postmodernism as a concept stems from its wide usage in a range of cultural and critical movements since the 1970s. Postmodernism describes not only a period but also a set of ideas, and can only be understood in relation to another equally complex term: modernism .

Modernism was a diverse art and cultural movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries whose common thread was a break with tradition, epitomised by poet Ezra Pound ’s 1934 injunction to “make it new!”.

The “post” in postmodern suggests “after”. Postmodernism is best understood as a questioning of the ideas and values associated with a form of modernism that believes in progress and innovation. Modernism insists on a clear divide between art and popular culture.

But like modernism, postmodernism does not designate any one style of art or culture. On the contrary, it is often associated with pluralism and an abandonment of conventional ideas of originality and authorship in favour of a pastiche of “dead” styles.

Postmodern architecture

The shift from modernism to postmodernism is seen most dramatically in the world of architecture, where the term first gained widespread acceptance in the 1970s.

purpose of postmodern literature

One of the first to use the term, architectural critic Charles Jencks suggested the end of modernism can be traced to an event in St Louis on July 15, 1972 at 3:32pm. At that moment, the derelict Pruitt-Igoe public housing project was demolished.

Built in 1951 and initially celebrated, it became proof of the supposed failure of the whole modernist project.

Jencks argued that while modernist architects were interested in unified meanings, universal truths, technology and structure, postmodernists favoured double coding (irony), vernacular contexts and surfaces. The city of Las Vegas became the ultimate expression of postmodern architecture.

Famous theorists

Theorists associated with postmodernism often used the term to mark a new cultural epoch in the West. For philosopher Jean-François Lyotard , the postmodern condition was defined as “incredulity towards metanarratives”; that is, a loss of faith in science and other emancipatory projects within modernity, such as Marxism .

Marxist literary theorist Fredric Jameson famously argued postmodernism was “the cultural logic of late capitalism” (by which he meant post-industrial, post-Fordist , multi-national consumer capitalism).

In his 1982 essay Postmodernism and Consumer Society , Jameson set out the major tropes of postmodern culture.

These included, to paraphrase: the substitution of pastiche for the satirical impulse of parody; a predilection for nostalgia; and a fixation on the perpetual present.

In Jameson’s pessimistic analysis, the loss of historical temporality and depth associated with postmodernism was akin to the world of the schizophrenic.

Postmodern visual art

In the visual arts, postmodernism is associated with a group of New York artists – including Sherrie Levine , Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman – who were engaged in acts of image appropriation, and have since become known as The Pictures Generation after a 1977 show curated by Douglas Crimp.

purpose of postmodern literature

By the 1980s postmodernism had become the dominant discourse, associated with “anything goes” pluralism, fragmentation, allusions, allegory and quotations. It represented an end to the avant-garde’s faith in originality and the progress of art.

But the origins of these strategies lay with Dada artist Marcel Duchamp , and the Pop artists of the 1960s in whose work culture had become a raw material. After all, Andy Warhol was the direct progenitor of the kitsch consumerist art of Jeff Koons in the 1980s.

Postmodern cultural identity

Postmodernism can also be a critical project, revealing the cultural constructions we designate as truth and opening up a variety of repressed other histories of modernity. Such as those of women, homosexuals and the colonised.

The modernist canon itself is revealed as patriarchal and racist, dominated by white heterosexual men. As a result, one of the most common themes addressed within postmodernism relates to cultural identity.

purpose of postmodern literature

American conceptual artist Barbara Kruger ’s statement that she is “concerned with who speaks and who is silent: with what is seen and what is not” encapsulates this broad critical project.

The discourse of postmodernism is associated with Australian artists such as Imants Tillers , Anne Zahalka and Tracey Moffatt .

Australia has been theorised by Paul Taylor and Paul Foss, editors of the influential journal Art & Text, as already postmodern, by virtue of its culture of “second-degree” – its uniquely unoriginal, antipodal appropriations of European culture.

If the language of postmodernism waned in the 1990s in favour of postcolonialism, the events of 9/11 in 2001 marked its exhaustion.

While the lessons of postmodernism continue to haunt, the term has become unfashionable, replaced by a combination of others such as globalisation , relational aesthetics and contemporaneity .

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  • A Guide to Postmodernism in Literature

Manuel Campos

July 6, 2023

Postmodernism in literature  is a form of literature which is marked, both stylistically and ideologically, by a reliance on such literary conventions as fragmentation, paradox, unreliable narrators, often unrealistic and downright impossible plots, games, parody, paranoia, dark humor and authorial self-reference. 

Postmodern authors  tend to reject outright meanings in their novels, stories and poems, and, instead, highlight and celebrate the possibility of multiple meanings, or a complete lack of meaning, within a single literary work.

Table of Contents

  • 1 Characteristics of Postmodern Literature
  • 2 Postmodern Authors
  • 3 Other Literary periods and Movements

Characteristics of Postmodern Literature

These are some of the most important characteristics of postmodern literature

  • Pastiche : The taking of various ideas from previous writings and literary styles and pasting them together to make new styles.
  • Intertextuality : The acknowledgment of previous literary works within another literary work.
  • Metafiction : The act of writing about writing or making readers aware of the fictional nature of the very fiction they’re reading.
  • Temporal Distortion : The use of non-linear timelines and narrative techniques in a story.
  • Minimalism : The use of characters and events which are decidedly common and non-exceptional characters.
  • Maximalism : Disorganized, lengthy, highly detailed writing.
  • Magical Realism : The introduction of impossible or unrealistic events into a narrative that is otherwise realistic.
  • Faction : The mixing of actual historical events with fictional events without clearly defining what is factual and what is fictional.
  • Reader Involvement : Often through direct address to the reader and the open acknowledgment of the fictional nature of the events being described

Postmodern Authors

These are some of the most important postmodern authors

Bret Easton Ellis  (born March 7, 1964) is an American author, screenwriter, and short story writer. His works have been translated into 27 languages.

He was at first regarded as one of the so-called literary Brat Pack, which also included Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney.

He is a self-proclaimed satirist, whose trademark technique, as a writer, is the expression of extreme acts and opinions in an affectless style. 

Ellis employs a technique of linking novels with common, recurring characters. He wrote American Psycho

Samuel Barclay Beckett  was an Irish avant-garde novelist, playwright, theatre director, and poet, who lived in Paris for most of his adult life and wrote in both English and French.

He is widely regarded as among the most influential writers of the 20th century. He is the author of Waiting for Godot

Other Literary periods and Movements

If you want to learn more about literary periods and movements, consider visiting some of these posts:

  • A Guide to Renaissance Literature
  • A Guide to Modernism in Literature
  • A Guide to the Beat Generation in Literature
  • The Beginner’s Guide to Realism in Literature

A Guide to Naturalism in Literature

  • A Guide to the Bloomsbury Group in Literature
  • A Guide to Existentialism in Literature
  • A Guide to Transcendentalism in Literature
  • A Guide to the Victorian Period Literature
  • A Guide to Romanticism in Literature
  • A Guide to The Enlightenment Literature
  • A guide to Medieval Literature

Manuel Campos, Docente de Inglés

About manuel Campos

I am Jose Manuel, English professor and creator of EnglishPost.org, a blog whose mission is to share lessons for those who want to learn and improve their English

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purpose of postmodern literature

What is Postmodernism in Literature?

purpose of postmodern literature


Table of Contents

The term postmodernism can be difficult to define. That’s because it emerged from modernism, and the two are often used interchangeably in literature discussions, criticism, and analysis. Postmodernism encompasses the use of techniques that were pioneered by modernist authors, such as stream-of-consciousness writing and symbolism.

Many literary critics say that we’re still living in a world of postmodernism today, while others believe that it ended years ago when its influence on literature had dissipated completely. Postmodernism in literature started around 80 and 90 and emerged out of modernism. It instantly hit the literary world, spawning different branches and variations within its own context.

However, some simple characteristics make up the core of what defines postmodernism, and here are some examples from the literature that illustrate this aesthetic movement’s essence.

What Is Postmodernism ?

Postmodernism emerged as a response to modernist beliefs. It contains the idea that there are no truths, only interpretations. A postmodern work of literature cannot have one correct meaning or performance because of this belief; it has to be interpreted by readers for themselves.

Modern literature was about being modern, and writing about change was in style. Writers thought every novel needed a moral from it- an honest to teach us how to live our lives (this is what people want when they read). Modernist writers also rejected accepted canons of knowledge from church, government, science, or culture. However, this new form of writing doesn’t negate those norms completely. Instead, postmodern literature considers those values but still assumes they are not true. 

One way to understand this would be through Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation: The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth–it is the truth which covers that there is none. The simulacrum presents society’s version of reality, which means we live in reality simulation. Postmodernism rejects any notion of objectivity or transcendent ideas. Rather than one story with many perspectives, all stories share the same perspective. 

We see this example in  House Made of Dawn  by N. Scott Momaday. He tells the story through Tayo and Abel, two different characters’ perspectives, yet all their stories are shared from Tayo’s perspective. We learn who they are and what happened to them based on Tayo’s narration, even though it is just his personal view of things.

Modernist vs. Postmodernist Elements

It has been argued that postmodernist writers, unlike modernists, are not sure about the foundations of their subject matter. They question traditions, literary and otherwise.  A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu  (In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust depicts what happens when an author-narrator starts to blend real life with art. 

He has two distinct moments: one where he seems to be reading his manuscript, but then he sees that it has not been written yet. While another where he describes things as they happen outside his window. Also, he tells what a painter sees inside the room simultaneously. It looks like each medium was fighting for primacy over space or time.

The battle between words and images seems never-ending in this novel. Sometimes, you might feel like you’re watching a movie and then turn the page to find yourself reading again. In others, you might feel stuck in a painting and want to escape into reality because nothing makes sense anymore. Modernism generally subscribes to organic unity. However, postmodernists destroy it on purpose.

Examples of Modernist Fiction

Some of the notable examples of modernist fiction are: 

A Christmas Carol  by Charles Dickens was first published on December 19th, 1843. 

The Lady with the Dog  by Anton Chekhov. This piece was first published on October 20th, 1904.  Bouvard et Pécuchet

 by Gustave Flaubert, which was published in 1881. 

The Metamorphosis  by Franz Kafka, a German author who died on June 3rd, 1924. His work was published for the first time on July 15th, 1915. 

Ulysses  by James Joyce, an Irish novelist who lived from February 2nd to January 13th, 1941. His book became available to the public on January 16th, 1922. Other authors, such as Henry James, wrote novels with themes related to postmodernism, such as indirect narration or even the use of characters from other works in their own stories (known as intertextuality).

Examples of Postmodernist Fiction

One example of postmodernist fiction would be the story of  The Metamorphosis  by Franz Kafka. This story is unique because it uses a style that blends realism with surrealism. In the story, an insect-like creature gets up one morning to find that he has changed into something unrecognizable as a human being. Another would be the popular collection of short stories,  The Things They Carried,  by Tim O’Brien. 

These stories revolve around a Vietnam War veteran. It explores the effects of war on him psychologically and physically while also exploring his moral dilemmas, such as whether or not to kill another person he may have been fighting against. Unfortunately, he tells these stories from memory, so there are discrepancies between what actually happened and what he remembers happening. 

What is Metafiction?

Another way to explore postmodern literature is through metafiction, where the author challenges traditional notions of reality, such as challenging our belief that everything written down must be true. For example, in the novel  Slaughterhouse-Five  by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., many references are made to things like time travel, making it difficult for readers to know if any of this happened or if we’re reading a fictional story about a character who experienced these events. 

Another thing that sets postmodern literature apart from modernist literature is its tendency to use humor. An example of this can be seen in  Catch-22  by Joseph Heller. There are lots of jokes in this book, which makes it easier for readers to understand some parts that might otherwise seem confusing. One particular joke occurs when the American Army bombs their troops, but they still tell their families back home that they were victorious because nobody ever lost a war.

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purpose of postmodern literature

Do you believe there is no final truth or concrete reality that we can be sure of? If you do, you might as well be a postmodernist. Postmodernism is both a way of inquiry as well as a way of talking about a period in history that followed modernism. Some may say that we still live in the era of…

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Thomas Pynchon

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Samuel Beckett

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Jacques Derrida

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Save the explanation now and read when you’ve got time to spare.

Lerne mit deinen Freunden und bleibe auf dem richtigen Kurs mit deinen persönlichen Lernstatistiken

Nie wieder prokastinieren mit unseren Lernerinnerungen.

Do you believe there is no final truth or concrete reality that we can be sure of? If you do, you might as well be a postmodernist. Postmodernism is both a way of inquiry as well as a way of talking about a period in history that followed modernism. Some may say that we still live in the era of postmodernism, but some might argue that civilization has moved beyond it into post-postmodernism!

No matter where we are now, there is no debate that postmodern philosophy has had ripple effects on the study of arts and humanities. Postmodernist theories continue to influence different subjects like philosophy, literature, linguistics, and film theory. Let's explore the practices and characteristics of postmodern literary theory!

Postmodern literary theory: definition

Postmodernism, like many movements in literary theory, is an unorganised collection of ideas, principles, aesthetic values, and practices. Scholars still struggle to define postmodernism, primarily because postmodernism is undefinable by the very nature of its philosophy. Some argue that postmodernism refers to the ongoing social and cultural currents that carry specific characteristics starting in the 1960s, the period that followed modernism.

Postmodernism: In literary criticism and theory , postmodernism is an analytical tool that focuses on the sociopolitical underpinnings and motivations of literature concerning the individual. Much of the postmodern literary theory is made up of or inspired by the philosophical or critical discourse proposed by theorists that were not originally intended for literary criticism.

To understand postmodernism, we need to understand what it opposes: modernism.

Modernism was a movement in arts and literature that sought to depart from traditions and conventions and reform the arts to fit modern values. As the name suggests, modernism was all about newness and innovation.

The modernist sentiment is captured well by its motto, 'make it new' (suggested by the American poet Ezra Pound). The modernist era coincided with the age of industrialisation, capitalism, war, and colonialism. The writers of this era actively tried to make sense of the rapidly changing society through their writing. As a resul t, different narrative styles and philosophical standpoints emerged. For example, modernist fiction is known for its individualism, experimentation, and stream-of-consciousness style of narration.

James Joyce 's Ulysses (1920) and Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway (1925) are among the most popular novels of the modernist era.

Postmodernism is a critique of modernity and modernist values. The postmodern era began in the 1960s when French thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, and Michel Foucault rose to prominence. The term 'postmodern' came into popular use with the publication of T he Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1984) by the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard.

Postmodernism is a compound word made up by adding 'post' to the word modernism. The prefix 'post' is a contested space. There is an ongoing debate in academic circles as to what the term signifies. It could be typological (a way to classify ideas) or temporal (one referring to time).

Postmodern literary theory: practices

An interesting aspect of postmodernism is its interconnectedness with different theories of culture.

For example, postmodernism is influenced by the material approach to society and culture followed by Marxists. Many postmodern theorists began their careers from a Marxist perspective or by commenting on Marxist theories. Some postmodern ideas offer a sharp commentary on the evolution of the capitalist society to its present stage.

Let's have a look at some of the key figures of postmodernism and their ideas.

Grand narratives

The French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard offered a critical understanding of what he called the grand narratives (also known as metanarratives or master narratives) of modernism. Grand narratives are ideologies that explain and justify existing truths. Grand narratives ( les grands récits) work in conjunction with local narratives ( les petits récits ) that complement them.

Grand narratives are overarching ideologies of an era whose legitimacy is rarely contested, for example, democracy and capitalism.

Lyotard argues that there is no longer room for such totalising narratives in the postmodern era. Since the idea of universal truth is debunked, everyone subscribes to their own beliefs, and there arises the potential for conflict.

Postmodernism Postmodern literary theory practices StudySmarter

Michel Foucault and discourse

The French philosopher and critic Michel Foucault's ideas on knowledg e and power have been influential in postmodern literary criticism. Foucault is most famous for the concept of discourse .

Discourse: Foucault discusses discourse as a way of organising knowledge that establishes, legitimises, and sustains institutions of power. In society, there are a series of discourses on various aspects of culture.

Though Foucault is often given post-structuralist and postmodernist labels , he rejected them. His work on knowledge and power continues to shape many academic fields, including literary theory. His works include Madness and Civilization (1961), The Order of Things (1966), and Discipline and Punish (1975).

Jacques Derrida and deconstruction

The theory of deconstruction by Jacques Derrida is widely used in postmodern literary criticism. Some see deconstruction as a radical critique of Saussurean linguistics. It not only questions the foundations of structuralism but also takes the argument further by introducing the idea of différance. Derrida coined the term 'différance' to mean both 'difference and deferral of meaning'.

Saussurean linguistics is a school of linguistics that originated from the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913). It looks at language as an arbitrary but self-sufficient system made up of interconnected signs.

Structuralism: an intellectual movement and critical approach that focuses on the structural aspects of a text rather than what its content represents.

This is a complex term with several layers of interpretation. Breaking down the idea of différance might help simplify the concept a little:

a. Difference: meaning can only be produced in contrast to other meanings. We understand the meaning of a word because it is different from other words.

b. Deferral: meaning is always pointing to other meanings. Let's use an analogy to understand this better. Whenever you look something up on Wikipedia, it presents hyperlinks that you might end up clicking and before you know it, you are several web pages away from what you were originally looking for. In a similar process, meaning is infinitely postponed or deferred in language.

Do keep in mind that Derrida was notorious for his cumbersome language, so we can never be too sure!

Another interesting aspect of Derrida's work is his breakdown of binary oppositions by challenging the implied hierarchy of the opposing pair, e.g., light/dark, man/woman. According to Derrida, these are not neutral opposites but equations of power where one is superior to its opposite.

Characteristics of postmodern literary theory

  • Rejection of the presupposed ideas and norms relating to art and knowledge.
  • Criticism of totalising narratives (grand or master narratives) and questioning the concept of a common objective reality or universal truths.
  • Rejection of philosophical foundationalism that talks about the possibility of a solid basis on which we can build our knowledge systems.
  • Breakdown of the boundaries between high-art and low-art by combining features of the two in works of art and literature.

Rejection of the belief that words and concepts carry inherent meanings that represent a pre-existing reality.

Postmodernity is portrayed as a crisis of individuality brought forth by late capitalism and high modernity.

Use of intertextuality , pastiche and parody as narrative techniques.

Fragmentary and convoluted and non-linear narratives in postmodern texts signal the disjoint postmodern subjectivity.

Experimental use of metafiction and playfulness in narration to emphasise that life has no inherent meaning that we are capable of knowing.

Intertextuality refers to the influence and mentions of another text found in a text.

Parody is the imitation of something for comic effect.

Pastiche : parody without the comic effect; a style of art or literature that tries to recreate an existing one.

Postmodern literary theory: examples

After the second world war, the philosophical preoccupations of postmodernism came to dominate works of literature that coincided with a sense of disillusionment with the promises of modernity. Postmodernist literature highlights the chaos and crises of identity in an uncertain world. It recognises the complex and constructive nature of reality and perception and knowledge. Postmodern writers employ a variety of techniques like fragmentation, deconstruction , playfulness, and questionable narrators to emphasise this view.

One of the most well-known names in the Theatre of the Absurd tradition, Beckett's works are known for their bilingual, idiosyncratic, and tragicomic elements. Beckett was an Irish writer who wrote in French, and he often translated his works into English himself. Beckett's most famous works include Waiting for Godot (1953), Endgame (1957) , and Happy Days (1961). Beckett's works carry a poignant realism coupled with a tragicomic play on existentialism.

Theatre of the Absurd is a movement and theatrical style that tries to portray the philosophical concept of the Absurd.

Realism is a philosophical viewpoint that argues things have an independent existence, free from how they are perceived. It favours facts and practicality.

Existentialism is a modern school of philosophy that believes individuals are free agents and capable of creating their own meaning in life.

Jorge Luis Borges

This Argentine writer is celebrated for his unconventional modes of storytelling. The recurrent themes in his works include labyrinths, mirrors, libraries, and so on. His works sometimes display self-reflexity and striking elements of metafiction . Famous works include A Universal History of Infamy (1935), El Aleph (1949), 'Borges and I' (1960), and Labyrinths (1962).

Gravity's Rainbow (1973) by Thomas Pynchon epitomises postmodern literature as it uses a fragmented and convoluted narrative structure to discuss different themes ranging from society and culture to science. The works of Thomas Pynchon display characteristics of postmodernism although he was critical of postmodernism.

Other examples

More examples of postmodernist fiction: One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by the Columbian novelist Gabriel García Márquez is a seminal work of magic realism . Italo Calvino's novel If on a winter's night a traveler (1979) is a metafiction that addresses the reader directly about the exercise of reading the book. Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961) uses literary devices such as paradox and farce to present a complicated narrative to the reader.

Paradox: contradiction.

Farce is a theatrical style that incorporates exaggerated physical comedy, crude behaviour, and buffoonery into performance.

Magic realism is a style that presents elements of magic and myth in an otherwise realistic narrative.

Postmodern literary theory: facts

The methodology of postmodernism is best described as going against the grain of modernist values and conventions. As opposed to modernism , which placed great importance on innovation and a positive outlook on modern life, postmodernism questions underlying assumptions of modernity and challenges presupposed knowledge and ideas. In literature, this is made visible through unreliable and circuitous narrations and deeply fragmented presentation of reality.

Methodology: the methods of study used in a field or activity.

There was a resurgence of Gothic literature in the postmodern era, a genre that uses fearful and grotesque imagery to invoke intense reactions in readers. This is the postmodern Gothi c, a manifestation of postmodern anxiety and uncertainty. Gothic-postmodernism is Gothic fiction with characteristics or undertones of postmodernism and captures the postmodern 'spirit of terror' that postmodern philosophers talk about. This genre uses fragments of realism and fantasy to achieve the interplay between fiction and reality.

  • The Master and Margarita (1967) by Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov
  • The Satanic Verses (1988) by British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie
  • Heroes and Villains (1969) and ' The Bloody Chamber ' (1979) by the English novelist Angela Carter

The works of postmodernism in art, architecture, and music offer interesting comparisons to how it appears in literature. Many pop icons in these fields who we are familiar with are often associated with or influenced by postmodernism.

Postmodern Literary Theory - Key takeaways

  • Postmodern literary theory is characterised by the critique of modernity and a digression from modernist aesthetic and literary style .
  • Postmodernist fiction rejects the idea of the absolute and embraces chaos, disorder, and fragmentation of reality.
  • Unreliable narrator, playfulness in narration and intertextuality are often the marks of the postmodern novel .
  • Metafiction and self-referential style is often associated with postmodernist fiction.

A key characteristic of postmodernist theory and fiction is the difficulty of locating fixed and absolute meaning within the text.

Frequently Asked Questions about Postmodern Literary Theory

--> what are the 5 characteristics of postmodern literary theory.

  • Postmodern texts often use literary devices like metafiction, parody, unreliable, fragmented and non-linear narration. 
  • Thematic tendencies of postmodern literature include both individual subjectivity and social issues.
  • Postmodernism rejected presupposed ideas and norms relating to art and knowledge.
  • There was a blurring of the boundaries between high and low art. 
  • Renewed definition of the relationship between text and meaning was another feature of postmodernism.

--> What is postmodern literary theory in simple terms?

In simple terms, postmodern literary theory can be understood as a method of literary analysis inspired by postmodern philosophy. Postmodernism does not share the modernist belief in coherence and rationality, and the idea of grand truths in culture. They attempt to shift focus to individual narratives and perspectives, doing away with the hierarchy of ideologies and perspectives. 

--> What is the purpose of postmodern literary theory?

Like other critical theories, postmodernism also seeks to understand the associations that exist within a work of literature and its relationship with the world it represents. Literary critics often use the written word as an instrument to critically analyse the workings of the world, to varying degrees. Postmodern literary theory is more inclined to see associations between the work and certain aspects of culture, such as meaning,  subjectivity and individual experience. 

--> Who are notable authors of postmodern literary theory?

French philosophers and critics Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, American critics Frederic Jameson and Richard Rorty are some of the most influential names associated with postmodern theory. 

--> Who is the father of postmodern literary theory?

It is difficult to identify a single person who inspired the theories of postmodern theory. The term postmodern was coined by the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. Philosophers and critics such as Frederic Jameson, Michel Foucault, and Richard Rorty are some of the theorists who contributed to the theory and practice of postmodern literary criticism. 

Final Postmodern Literary Theory Quiz

Postmodern literary theory quiz - teste dein wissen.

Who proposed the theory of deconstruction?

Show answer

Show question

Postmodernism is a continuation of modernism: True or False

There are two ways to look at postmodernism: it is a classification based on time and history, and it is a mode of philosophical or critical investigation that dominated the 1970s and after. 

What are the most important theories of postmodernism?

Deconstruction by Jacques Derrida, Discourse and power by Michel Foucault, Grand narratives by Jean Francois Lyotard, hyperreality by Jean Baudrillard.

What are the characteristics of postmodern literature?

Unreliable narrator, playfulness in narration and intertextuality are often the marks of the postmodern novel. Metafiction and self-referential style is often associated with postmodernist fiction.

What is meant by the term différance?

Différance is a pun on the French word différence. It is used to describe word associations in a language system where meaning is formed in contrast with or in relation to difference. Derrida argues that the creation of meaning is informed by the interplay between presence and absence and is infinitely postponed.

What is discourse according to Foucault?

In Foucauldian theory, discourse is the way knowledge is organised in society.

Give examples of postmodern fiction

Works of Samuel Beckett, works of Jorge Luis Borges, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller,  Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

Is postmodernism over?

There is no definite answer to the question. Some theorists have come up with the idea of post-postmodernism.

There are sub-genres in postmodern literature: True/False

Who proposed the concept of grand narratives?

Jean Francois Lyotard

When was Michel Foucault born?

15 October 1926

When did Foucault die?

25 June 1984

What was the cause of Foucault's death?

Complications from HIV and AIDS

What was the title of Foucault's 1960 doctoral thesis?

Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason

What was the title of Foucault's career-defining work?

The Order of Things

When was it published?

What prestigious university was Foucault elected as a chair to in 1969?

Collége de France

What was Foucault's 1975 work called?

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

What is epistemology? 

The theory of knowledge, referring particularly to methods, reason and validity

What important idea, from English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, does Foucault use in Discipline and Punish ?

The Panopticon

Who was Jean Baudrillard?

Jean Baudrillard was a French sociologist, cultural theorist, and philosopher.

When and where was Jean Baudrillard born?

Baudrillard was born in 1929 in Reims, France.

Where did Jean Baudrillard study?

Baudrillard attended the Sorbonne (University of Paris).

Where did Jean Baudrillard begin his career?

Baudrillard started teaching German language and literature in schools in France. 

How is Jean Baudrillard connected to May 1968?

Baudrillard started teaching sociology at Paris X Nanterre. The campus later became involved in the events of May 1968.

What did Baudrillard write about?

Baudrillard wrote a impressive range of topics, from language to economics. 

What was Baudrillard's hobby?

Baudrillard was an avid photographer.

What are Jean Baudrillard's theories?

Baudrillard's theory of simulation and hyperreality is widely discussed. 

Name a few of Baudrillard's books.

Simulacra and Simulation (1981)

America (1986)

The System of Objects (1968)

Was Jean Baudrillard a postmodernist?

Baudrillard is considered a postmodern thinker even though he disavowed the term. 

Who was Jean- François Lyotard?

Lyotard was a French philosopher who was born in 1924 in Vincennes, France. 

What is Lyotard's most famous theory?

Lyotard is most well-known for his idea of metanarratives. 

What did Jean-François Lyotard do?

Lyotard was a philosopher and an academic who had taught at universities in France and the United States.

What did Jean-Francois Lyotard describe as postmodernism?

In The Postmodern Condition (1979), Lyotard wrote that postmodernism is marked by an 'incredulity towards metanarratives'.

What is Lyotard's idea of metanarratives?

Metanarratives or grand narratives are the totalising narratives that endow legitimacy to belief systems in a society.

What is Lyotard's argument in The Postmodernism Condition ?

Lyotard argued that postmodernism is characterised by the loss or breakdown of grand narratives.

Where did Lyotard live?

Lyotard spent most of his life in Paris. He had also held teaching positions in French Algeria, where he lived for two years. 

Give examples of grand narratives.

Capitalism, patriarchy, democracy, science.

Lyotard coined the term postmodernism: true/false?

False. The term postmodernism was already in use in sociology and art criticism when Lyotard started using it in his philosophical works. 

What is a differend?

A differend is a wrong or injustice that cannot be expressed because the language and the opportunity to articulate it are not available to the victim. 

What are the key characteristics of postmodernist fiction according to Brian McHale?

Increased focus on ontological questions, rupture in traditional narrative structures, blending of diverse cultural and historical references, and metafictional elements.

What are some key concepts identified by Brian McHale in his analysis of postmodernist fiction?

Ontological dominants, worlds theory, and metafiction.

What is the primary focus of Brian McHale's work that differentiates it from other perspectives on postmodernist fiction?

McHale's work focuses on the ontological aspects of postmodernist fiction.

How has Brian McHale's literary theory evolved over time?

McHale has shifted from a predominantly ontological perspective to a broader approach, exploring connections with other artistic and cultural movements, historical and political contexts, and addressing limitations and criticisms of postmodernist theory.

What is the main focus of Brian McHale's "Postmodernist Fiction" (1987)?

The main focus is on the ontological aspects of postmodernist fiction and distinguishing it from other literary genres.

In "Constructing Postmodernism" (1992), what does McHale explore in relation to postmodernist fiction?

He examines the connections between postmodernist fiction and other cultural and artistic movements, and delves into historical and political contexts.

What does Brian McHale address in "The Obligation Toward the Difficult Whole" (2004)?

He addresses criticisms and limitations of postmodernist theory, and refines his approach to literary criticism.

What is the focus of McHale's "Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism" (2015)?

It provides an overview of postmodernism, addressing its key features and aspects across multiple art forms, including literature.

What is the primary focus of Brian McHale's work in literary studies?

Brian McHale's primary focus in literary studies is postmodernist fiction.

What has Brian McHale's work contributed to the understanding of postmodernist fiction?

McHale helped establish defining characteristics of postmodernist fiction, developed methodological approaches for analysis, influenced subsequent criticism, and related it to other art forms.

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More on Postmodern Literature

Introduction see all, characteristics see all, timeline see all, top authors see all, texts see all.

  • For Teachers

Postmodern Literature Introduction

Postmodernism is one of those words that has made itself at home in our everyday language. Just think how often you've heard a movie or a book being described as " so postmodern." From Andy Warhol's pop art, to authors like Chuck Palahniuk and Douglas Coupland, to ultra-popular movies like Moulin Rouge , Scream , and Pulp Fiction , there's no getting around it: postmodernism has become part of our lives and our entertainment.

But…um…what is it?

Like any lit movement, postmodernism (or "pomo," if you want to be trendy) can't be pinned down to one thing—in fact, one of its big beefs is with the idea that things have to be tied up in a neat little package.

But there are a bunch of features that often crop up in postmodern texts and give us an idea of what sort of criteria we're looking at. We'll get into the essentials later, but one of the major ideas behind postmodernism is that everything has already been done —every story has been told, and it's impossible to be 100% original anymore.

This attitude might seem gloomy at first, but postmodernism is far from Debbie Downerville. It takes this lack of originality as a starting point and says, what the hey?—let's just have fun experimenting and drawing inspiration from those texts that already exist. Sure, some critics may see this as a cop-out, but for postmodernists, it can be liberating. Think of it like a collage, where you piece together stuff to create another text that takes on a life of its own. You've seen those Andy Warhol prints that reframe Marilyn Monroe using neon colors ? Imagine that but applied to literary texts.

Postmodernism is known for its rebellious approach and willingness to test boundaries. We may take this for granted in literature today, but there was a time back in the 17th and 18th centuries (known as the Enlightenment) that was all about order, unity, reason…you get the idea. We're not saying that postmodernists were the first to go against the grain: Romanticism and then modernism had already questioned whether these ideals were possible. The difference is that postmodernists are all about embracing disorder and taking a more playful approach.

The word "postmodern" is so widely used today that some people see it as a cliché. But maybe it's just super popular? Far from being ancient history, postmodernism is one of the big literary movements of our time and has given us some of the best-loved texts of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Not too shabby.

What is Postmodern Literature About and Why Should I Care?

Throw away the dusty history books: postmodernism is what's happening today.

It started to generate buzz around the mid-20th century and since then, it's become more and more a part of our lives—for better or worse, depending on who you ask.

Since postmodernism exploded onto the scene, it's grown to the point where some folks have suggested that we're now moving into (or have already moved into) a post -postmodern age. At the moment, though, the idea of what this new age might involve is still vague, with academic types having different ideas about where we're heading. So let's stick with postmodernism for the moment.

And what has postmodernism done for us? Well, it's broken down boundaries. Where some other eras and literary movements have tried to draw a line between high and low culture, postmodernism mixes things up. It's the opposite of snobby, and doesn't worship a particular set of "classic" authors or texts.

Because of this laidback approach, postmodernism has helped change people's ideas about what we can classify as literature. Sure, there may be some folks who'd like to stick with the old emphasis on "serious," "highbrow" texts, but postmodernism has made a major dent on traditional ideas about literature, art, and culture.

With its playful approach and rebelliousness when it comes to the line between high/low culture, postmodernism isn't burrowed away in some narrow corner of academia; in fact, it has seriously shaken up academia, all while having a massive impact on pop culture. NBD.

Postmodern Literature Resources

Introduction to Postmodernism Put together by Purdue University's English department, this useful overview of postmodernism includes a general intro, a glossary of terms and concepts, and modules on some key theorists (Jean Baudrillard, Frederic Jameson, and Linda Hutcheon), along with lesson plans and examples of postmodernism in action. Covering texts ranging from a 1538 woodcut to William Gibson's <em>Neuromancer</em>, plus <em>Star Trek</em> and <em>The Matrix</em>, it's definitely worth a look.

The Modern Word Don't be fooled by the title—this site isn't about modernism. When it uses the term "modern," it's in the same way that we use it in daily life; i.e., to talk about stuff that has to do with either the present day or recent history. Spanning fiction from the 20th century onwards, this site is dedicated to "writers who have pushed the edges of their medium, combining literary talent with a sense of experimentation." All the big postmodern names are here, so if you're looking for info on an author then this site has it covered.

OnPostmodernism This online dictionary is your doorway to the world of postmodernism, summing up the key terms we're likely to come across when reading up on the topic. It's not just your basic dictionary, though: it features listings of postmodern literature, movies, TV, art, and architecture, plus some key theoretical works. Oh, and don't forget to check out the "links" page too.

Postmodern Culture A lot of journals are aimed squarely at the academic crowd and don't make their contents freely available. However, this e-journal does things its own way: founded in 1990, its goal is to appeal to academic and non-academic types alike. Not only is its most recent issue available online; it also features a text-only archive where you can read full articles from past issues.

"The Postmodern Essay Generator" We all know how literary theories and movements sometimes have their fair share of fancy lingo. Ever read an essay and come away confused? We share your pain. For a fun spoof of this experience, head over to Communication from Elsewhere 's Postmodern Essay Generator. Every time you visit this page you'll be greeted with a randomly-generated, fake essay that's full of "pomo" names and terms. Just don't fall into the trap of mistaking them for the real thing.

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purpose of postmodern literature

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Part 4: Romantic and (Post)Modernist Culture

4.101: postmodern and 21st century literature in america, postmodernity/postmodernism.

Our current period in history has been called by many the postmodern age (or “postmodernity”) and many contemporary critics are understandably interested in making sense of the time in which they live. Although an admirable endeavor, such critics inevitably run into difficulties given the sheer complexity of living in history: we do not yet know which elements in our culture will win out and we do not always recognize the subtle but insistent ways that changes in our society affect our ways of thinking and being in the world. One symptom of the present’s complexity is just how divided critics are on the question of postmodern culture, with a number of critics celebrating our liberation and a number of others lamenting our enslavement….

One of the problems in dealing with postmodernism is in distinguishing it from modernism. In many ways, postmodern artists and theorists continue the sorts of experimentation that we can also find in modernist works, including the use of self-consciousness, parody, irony, fragmentation, generic mixing, ambiguity, simultaneity, and the breakdown between high and low forms of expression. In this way, postmodern artistic forms can be seen as an extension of modernist experimentation; however, others prefer to represent the move into postmodernism as a more radical break, one that is a result of new ways of representing the world including television, film (especially after the introduction of color and sound), and the computer. Many date postmodernity from the sixties when we witnessed the rise of postmodern architecture; however, some critics prefer to see WWII as the radical break from modernity, since the horrors of Nazism (and of other modernist revolutions like communism and Maoism) were made evident at this time. The very term “postmodern” was, in fact, coined in the forties by the historian, Arnold Toynbee. ( Click this link for more about the aforementioned aspects of postmodernism.)

Postmodernist Literature

Postmodernism is difficult to define. Don DeLillo is recognized as one of America’s premier postmodernist novelists, yet he rejects the term entirely. “If I had to classify myself,” he explains in a 2010 interview in the  Saint Louis Beacon , “it would be in the long line of modernists, from James Joyce through William Faulkner and so on. That has always been my model.”

purpose of postmodern literature

DeLillo in New York City, 2011

Literally, the term postmodernism refers to culture that comes after Modernism, referring specifically to works of art created in the decades following the 1950s. The term’s most precise definition comes from architecture, where it refers to a contemporary style of building that rejects the austerity and minimalism of modernist architecture’s glass boxes and towers; postmodernist architects retain the functionalist core of the modernist building but then decorate their boxes and towers with playful colors, forms, and ornaments that reference disparate historical eras. Indeed, play with media and materials, and with forms, styles, and content is one of the chief characteristics of postmodernist art.

While postmodernist architects play with the material of their buildings, postmodernist writers play with the material that their poems and stories are made of, namely language and the book. Postmodernist writers freely use all the challenging experimental literary techniques developed by the modernists earlier in the twentieth century as well as new, even more experimental techniques of their own invention. In fiction, many postmodernist authors adopt the self-referential style of “ metafiction ,” a story that is just as much about the process of telling a story as it is about describing characters and events. Donald Barthelme’s postmodernist short story, “The School,” contains metafictional elements that comment on the process of storytelling and meaning-making, as when the narrator describes how the “lesson plan called for tropical fish input” even though all the students in the schoolroom knew the fish would soon die. Who is telling this story? Bartheleme? The unnamed narrator? The lesson plan? The stories that make up history itself are often a playground for postmodernist authors, as they take material found in history books and weave it into new tales that reveal secret histories and dimly perceived conspiracies. David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Consider the Lobster,” is a good example of the narrative excess found in postmodern literature. In this essay written for  Gourmet  magazine, Wallace uses his visit to the Maine Lobster Festival to tell a history of the lobster since the Jurassic period that eventually turns against the organizers of the festival themselves, who may or may not be covering up the truth about how much lobsters suffer in their cooking pots. The form of the essay cannot even contain Wallace’s ideas, which spill over into twenty excessively long footnotes, many of which are little essays in themselves. In addition to playing with the form of literature and the notion of authorship, postmodernist writers also often play with popular sub-genres such as the detective story, horror, and science fiction. For example, in her poem “Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich evokes both the detective story and science fiction as she imagines a futuristic diver visiting a deep sea wreck in order to solve the mystery of why literature and history have been mostly about men and not women.

Not all works of postmodernist literature are stylistically experimental or playful. Rather, their authors explore the meaning and value of postmodernity as a cultural condition. Several philosophers and literary critics many of whose names have become synonymous with postmodernism itself have helped us understand what the postmodern condition may be. “Poststructuralist” philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard have argued that words and texts do not reflect the world but instead exist as their own self-referential systems, containing and even creating the world they describe. When we perceive the world, Derrida’s philosophy of “deconstruction” claims, we see not things but “signs” that can be understood only through their relation to other signs. “There is no outside the text,” Derrida famously claimed in his book  Of Grammatology  (1967). In this way, words and books and texts are powerful things, for in them our world itself is created an insight that many postmodernist creative writers share. Baudrillard, in turn, argues in his book,  Simulacra and Simulation  (1981), that the real world has been filled up with and even replaced by simulations that we now treat as reality: simulacra. These postmodern sensibilities are reflected in both Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “A Supermarket in California,” and our selection from DeLillo’s  White Noise . In Ginsberg’s poem, food has become “brilliant stacks of cans” knowable only by their similarity to each other. The “neon fruit supermarket” is not even a simulation of a real farm but instead is a simulacra full of families who have probably never even seen a farm. In DeLillo’s novel, we find the insight that the collected photographs of “the most photographed barn in America” are more real than the physical barn being photographed. Nobody knows why this particular barn is the most photographed barn in America. The barn is famous simply because it is a much-copied text, valued more as a sign in relation to other signs (all those photos of the same thing) than as a thing in itself with a specific history and a particular use. In his book  Postmodernism  (1991), the leftist critic Frederic Jameson chastises postmodernism for being the “cultural logic of late capitalism,” which for him is a culture that erases the real meanings and relations of things such as the most photographed barn in America, replacing true history with nostalgic simulacra.

Read this excerpt about “the most photographed barn in America” from DeLillo’s  White Noise  (1985):

Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the sign started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides — pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.

“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”

There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Another silence ensued.

“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.

He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.

“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said. “What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns, how was it similar to other barns?”

The culture of postmodernism in general exhibits a skepticism towards the grand truth claims and unifying narratives that have organized culture since the time of the Enlightenment. In postmodern culture, history becomes a field of competing histories and the self becomes a hybrid being with multiple, partial identities. In his provocative study,  The Postmodern Condition  (1979), the philosopher Jean Francois Lyotard argues that what defines the present postmodern historical era is the collapse of “grand narratives” that explain all experience, faiths, and truths, such as those found in science, politics, and religion; in place of all-explaining master narratives, he argues, we now know the world through smaller micro-narratives that don’t all fit together into a greater coherent whole.

These insights are thoroughly explored in the confessional, feminist, and multicultural American literature of this era, whose authors write from their subjective points of view rather than presuming to represent the sum total of all American experiences, and whose works show us that American history has been far from the same experience for all Americans. For example, both Sylvia Plath and Theodore Roethke have poems about their fathers, but their appreciation of their respective fathers is shaped by both their genders and their own personal histories. Roethke feels a kinship with his father. Plath, however, sees her father as an enemy. The Native American author Leslie Marmon Silko tells her story specifically from the point of view of a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, whose members use old stories about the Yellow Woman and the ka’tsina spirit to understand their tribe’s relationship to the rest of America. In the works of African-American literature in this section, we find similar explorations of cultural identity.

Read these excerpts from  Almanac of the Dead  (1991) by Leslie Marmon Silko:

James Baldwin uses the African-American music of the blues and jazz to describe the relationship between the two brothers in his story, “Sonny’s Blues.” Ralph Ellison, in the first chapter from his novel  Invisible Man  (1952), writes about the experience of attending a segregated school that keeps black Americans separate from white Americans. Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, in their stories, explore the hybrid nature of African-American identity itself, showing us the tensions that arise when one’s identity is both American and black.

The varied, playful, experimental literature of postmodernism, the critic Brian McHale helpfully observes in his book  Constructing Postmodernism  (1993), presents readers not with many ways to know our one world but instead with many knowable worlds created within many disparate works in many different ways. Modernist authors all strove to devise new techniques with which to accurately represent the world, McHale observes. Postmodernist authors, however, are no longer concerned with representing one knowable world but instead with creating many literary worlds that represent a diversity of experiences. Thus, much as the American literature of the contemporary era presents us with a record of how the nation has known, questioned, and even redefined itself, so too does the literature of postmodernism present us with a record of how writers have known, questioned, and even redefined what literature is.

Literature in the 21st Century

In many ways, the literature of this century is still postmodern, as it challenges grand narratives, monolithic constructions of identity, and many traditions and techniques of literature of the past. (And if it is not, there is no term for what is post-postmodern!) One motif that has persisted and proliferated during this century revolves around the impact of technology on the topics postmodern writers addressed in the latter part of the 21st century. Cyberpunk , which dealt with the “down and out” struggling to survive or transform a dystopian setting in which technology both empowers and enslaves, and which rose to prominence in the 1980s with authors such as William Gibson, Pat Cadagin, and Bruce Sterling, set the groundwork for this genre.

purpose of postmodern literature

William Gibson at a 2007 reading from his new book Spook Country at Bolen Books in Victoria BC Canada.

Fiction writers such as Alaya Dawn Johnson continue to question essentializing of sexual identity and practice, and a patriarchal, if not-so-dystopian society in a work such as The Summer Prince . Larissa Lai considers the same kind of topics with the integration and, at times, through the lens of Chinese mythology. The Circle by David Eggers confronts the loss of privacy and authentic selfhood via technology, and the question of if progress or self-definition is more important in an ever speeding up world. And M.T. Anderson’s Feed calls into question the supposed utopia of a world proming instant gratification at the expense of destroying the environment, dumbing down the citizenry, and a general loss of humanity.

purpose of postmodern literature

Johnson in 2013

In drama Jennifer Haley has written plays suggesting there today exists a blurring of the material and digital in relation to video games ( Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom ) and virtual reality ( The Nether ). And Jordan Harrison’s play Marjorie Prime addresses the possibilities and limitations of technology for filling the gap of losing a loved one and preserving one’s “existence” after death.

What this era is and will be known as is still unclear, and the dominance of visual and aural narrative forms is likely pushing the written narrative to a less pervasive and influential role than anytime before the emergence of the alphabet. But, then again, what constitutes literature is also changing with the times, as everything from video games to websites have been analyzed as forms of literature this century. So, maybe this is a transformational time for literature and we will just have to wait to see how the changes play out.

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Defining Literary Postmodernism for the Twenty-First Century pp 33–51 Cite as

Characteristically Postmodern

  • Matthias Stephan 2  
  • First Online: 26 April 2019

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This chapter considers the definitions of postmodernism that trace specific characteristics as the defining feature of the mode. Starting with Ihab Hassan’s list of characteristics, the chapter explores which characteristics are reflective of literary postmodernism, dividing up Hassan’s list into three categories—terms which reinforce a modernist framework, terms which are dependent on the reader’s interpretation, and terms which can form the basis of a definition of postmodernism. The chapter then considers the most often associated characteristics—metafiction, parody, intertextuality, play, and irony—and considers how they can contribute to a definition of postmodernism. The chapter concludes with a look at Brian McHale’s reductive definition of postmodernism, a definition I challenge in developing my structural definition of literary postmodernism (further developed in Chap. 4 ).

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I contend that the left side of the list forms a coherent picture of modernism, as understood by Hassan and against which he was attempting to define postmodernism (in 1982). While understandings of modernism have shifted up to 1982, and continue to do so, especially in terms of new post-millennial scholarship, I argue that Hassan’s modernist list stands up to interrogation (though my focus is on postmodernism here).

Johan Huizinga in 1939 even argues for play as a foundational aspect of culture.

Andersen focuses fundamentally on David Foster Wallace and his contemporaries (and close associates) when defining this new generation, including Jonathan Franzen, Rick Moody, A.M. Holmes, Jeffrey Eugenides, Emily Barton, Dave Eggers, Nicole Krauss, and Zadie Smith.

McHale backs away from the possibility of a reductive definition in Constructing Postmodernism , reacting to criticism of his first text. In so doing, he follows Christopher Norris’ ‘narrative turn’ and presents a series of articles and readings which cannot be completely cohered (purposefully McHale asserts in the introduction) into a single way of understanding postmodernism, but as a series of constructivist attempts at definitions. He does say, however, that he has “by no means abandoned the story of Postmodernist Fiction here, and in fact it is retold below not once but several times, in various ways” (McHale 1992 , 9).

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