Monday, 22 April 2013

A brief overview of Postmodernism (updated) (by Laura)


There is plenty of academic scholarship on postmodernism in the library and online although definition has proved somewhat elusive and it is varied and sometimes contradictory. Here I have pulled together some of the themes and characteristics which have been put forward by different writers that I feel postmodernism means, in particular with respect to the texts on module. I have given a few examples of where these characteristics come up in the text for further understanding and as models of application. 

Postmodern texts distrust the idea that the world can be understood through reason, either objectively or even subjectively. Only a partial, biased or creative reflection of the world is possible. The world is not unified, it has no eternal or unifying truth. Lyotard's 'incredulity towards metanarratives' is about a distrust in ideas of progress, Marxism, teleological Christianisation, Enlightenment etc. (see The Postmodern Condition).
Other themes of awareness are the negative effects of commercialization and industrialization of public life in Western civilization. Postmodernists are often critical of consumerism and are concerned with the environment and the ecological crisis. Man is dissociated from nature and the world. This is closely connected to the postmodernist idea of superficiality and artificiality of experience. 
Knowledge in postmodern writing is personal (and thus plural), historically determined and relational. It is provisional, open and indeterminate. For example, in the Chaos Walking trilogy there are multiple narrative voices which overlap and provide different perspectives on the same events.
The power of language is often foregrounded. Language can have creative, positive power but can also manipulate our vision of the world and be destructive in postmodernist works. They often contemplate ideas from post-structuralist theories such as language as an unstable and relative system dependent upon context.

Gender, Sex, Sexuality
Radical scepticism of what is 'natural' abounds and many texts denaturalise the idea of a biological essence to gender, instead suscribing to the idea that gender is socially constructed and implicated with issues of power. You may want to read around Michel Foucault's work which also heavily influenced Judith Butler (Gender Trouble 1999) and her ideas about the performance of gender constituting our gender identity, and works in the area of feminist postmodernism e.g. Dworkin, Haraway, also perhaps post-transgender criticism by Sandy Stone and Kate Bornstein.

Parody, Irony, Playfulness
Authors often adopt a position of distance from serious events which are the subjects of their works e.g. war. There can be humour or irony there. The Book Thief, I feel, uses Death as its narrator to create this distance. To me, this dehumanised perspective makes strange the actions of humans and makes a statement that there are acts/ideologies/situations which are incomprehensible, they just can not be understood or represented by humans because they are just overwhelming and complex.
Linda Hutcheon has noted the subversive impulse of these techniques. She also writes: “Postmodern parody is both deconstructively critical and constructively creative, paradoxically making us aware of both the limits and the powers of representation—in any medium” (Hutcheon 1991:228).
Postmodernist fiction is self-reflexive in drawing attention to the parodied text and also the processes of linguistic representation which are used in depicting reality in literature. Alternative perspectives of past and present 'realities' are given by different ethnic, social, and minority groups which critique typical traits of national, gender, sexual or ethnic identities.

Postmodern fiction often foregrounds its relationship and dependence on previous literary works. Often it uses pastiche to overcome the idea that everything new has been done already so the only way to be creative is to mix styles and genres and forms (see John Barth  The Literature of Exhaustion). It also recontextualizes the meanings of these texts by revisiting them in new cultural and linguistic contexts and in doing this they can also comment on previous works. Writers may also use a palimpsestic technique in which a new text is written on layers of an old, traditional or canonical pretext to give it a new meaning. You saw this done by Liesel and Max in The Book Thief.
See also Metafiction below.

(See the extracts from Patricia Waugh’s pivotal text elsewhere in the blog on which this is based.) Metafiction draws attention to its ficitionality and is characterised by
self-reflexiveness. This can be through authorial intrusion or the presence of the author in the diegesis. Metafictive texts remind us characters construct their own realities verbally and are tellers of tales. Myrddin and Gwyna are good examples. Furthermore Gwyna in Here Lies Arthur draws attention to the fact that the text is her story and exists because she is choosing to tell it. It can draw the reader’s attention to its processes of construction.  It asserts that the writing of the text is fundamentally problematic and draws attention to the idea that language constructs and maintains everyday ‘reality’ narrative intrusion.

Historiographical Metafiction (Linda Hutcheon for the best work on this! Also, again, Waugh.)
I discussed this in the Historical Fiction lecture. Here, texts question the ability of the text to represent the past, to be objective, to be 'true' and problematise the narrativisation of history, collapsing the distinction between history and story. These texts keep their pre-texts in clear view. Here Lies Arthur is a prime example of this. It displays an awareness of the instability of historical ‘truth’ and denaturalises and deconstructs the original text by exposing the discourses and ideologies within it. It seeks to replace the pre-text, negates the pre-text’s cultural power and ‘corrects’ the way we read the past. These texts often have clear cultural-political thrust, often reflecting feminist or postcolonial discourses and criticism. They expose previous texts’ complicity in oppressing minority ethnic, postcolonial (such as former British colonies) gender (especially female), sexual orientation groups.
Faction is similar, it blurs the distinction between fact and fiction so we no longer can tell which is which whereas historiographical metafiction draws attention to the fact that it is a construction and problematises representation.

Non-linearity, Fragmentation, Formal and Temporal Play
Chapters may be short and seemingly random or disconnected. Sometimes it may be hard to distinguish between different ontological levels (I think of the scene in Here Lies Arthur where Gwyna tells a history of Gwenhwyfar and then at the end reveals that is how she sees it in her head (imagination) anyway). Chapters may be in different forms. You have seen this is a few texts but there is serious formal play in The Seeing Stone where poems, prose, song and scenes in the obsidian follow on from each other and seem disconnected in both theme and time.
Authors and narrators may jump backwards or forwards in time, they may use prolepsis and analepsis. There may also be anachronisms, where historical socio-cultural references appear inaccurately, such as events happening before or after they did or characters who have died or not yet been born appearing in the text.

Frederic Jameson called postmodernism the “cultural logic of late capitalism”. Society is now beyond capitalism and in an age of information and technology. Although Jameson is talking about advertisement and media, The Knife of Letting Go in fact the Chaos Walking trilogy, is an example of the way some postmodernists present information and/or communication overload, where characters are in situations cannot escape communication and technology. In Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking world 'noise' causes information overload, characters cannot prevent their own thoughts from being communicated nor receiving the thoughts of others which is embarrassing, problematic and often dangerous. The trilogy is about the very attempt of one person to control 'noise' to manipulate people and stop communication overload.    

Authors question whether modern society can be explained or understood as it is so chaotic. Postmodernism also distrusts fixity and categorisation, it dislikes the labelling of things or people as a single type, place, or identity. Authors often reflect an idea that society or groups in society conspire against individuals or that the individual is caught up in the web of multiple schemes which individuals have made against others (think of The Knife)

While modernism generally divides author from readers, postmodernists try to engage the reader. It may ask or encourage the reader to ask questions about the narrator, characters, the form, the plot, the reliability of the narrator, the authenticity of aspects of the text, the etc. Unwritten narratives in postmodern fiction sometimes require the reader to engage because they have to construct, interpret or dictate the direction of the plot of the text. Sometimes two narrative strands, or two completely separate stories run side by side, as in the picture-book tthe Pirate in which the page is split and one half of the page follows one story, the other half follows the other.

Magical realismMagical realism is the introduction of fantastic or impossible elements into an otherwise normal narrative. This can include objects which are ontologically uncertain (such as the obsidian in The Seeing Stone-is it really magic or is it all made up by Arthur?), time-slips and playing with time, the blending of the mythic or fairy tale with the real, complex plots.

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