I’ve been reading an excellent introductory guide to critical theory entitled Beginning Theory by Peter Barry. It’s so clear and well-written and to the point that I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning more about this area of literary studies. I’ve been reading the chapter on postmodernism which is admirably lucid and so I thought I’d try and do a bit of a synthesis here, as well as adding some of my own (far from authoritative) thoughts on the matter.
So postmodernism refers to a general cultural practice, a kind of spirit that infuses a wide range of cultural artefacts (literature, film, architecture) and defines the age and mindset in which they were produced. Deciding when postmodernism begins is the kind of thing you could probably turn into a fun board game for academics. It’s not really possible to say, hmmm, well, clearly the tide turned on 23rd October 1979, around about teatime, and so there are probably still critics out there arguing that for all this endless talk about postmodernism, it hasn’t truly happened yet. And there are probably others identifying its elements in eighteenth century works by Voltaire, for all I know. But for the sake of argument we’ll call it a paradigm shift in thinking that was defined as we know it in 1979 by Jean-Francois Lyotard in his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. The tricky thing about postmodernism is that it requires you to understand what modernism is first, and heaven only knows the arguments are still going on about that, too! But looking just at literature, a selection of the great modernist writers would include James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Proust and Kafka. So we can see from these authors that a certain experimentalism enters into the way the world is viewed. The emphasis now is on sense perception, impressions, feelings, stream of consciousness rather than on a realistic perspective coming from an omnipresent point of view. What it’s like to be an individul experiencing life is paramount, resulting in fragmentation, lack of closure, and a certain navel-gazing preoccupation with the act of recording in language what happens outside of it.
So does postmodernism continue and extend the precepts of modernism or does it oppose it? Ah, tricky. The change is more in terms of attitude, but as we all know and tell our children, attitude makes a whole world of difference. Now one way of looking at modernism is to see it as the end of a story that began in the Enlightenment, when there was a lot of excitement about the perfectability of the human race. It was generally thought that if you ditched superstition and blind habit and applied reason and logic to all situations in a cool-as-a-cucumber kind of way, we would all live happily ever after. Alas, it transpired that humans are terrible at learning from previous errors, and reason and logic are themselves products of language to which the external world is generally indifferent. Certainty about what we could know and control for sure shrank to the size of, well, the modernist field of sense perception. One way to look at this is to see it as the demise of what Lyotard calls ‘metanarratives’, great overarching stories that were intended to make sense of the world and everything in it, like religion, or science, or the history of progress. All we are left with is lots of mini-narratives that are contingent, ephemeral, provisional and relative. In other words, I can only ever speak for myself.
Now modernism is understood (mostly in retrospect) as the lament for the loss of the grand narratives, as well as for the belief in fairly useful things like truth and reality. Postmodernism looks at the same situation and celebrates it; has one great big, boisterous, out of hand, neighbours-calling-the-police type party with it. Postmodernism sees those old fixed systems of belief that we all had to tediously subscribe to as claustrophobic and constraining. It doesn’t believe in those ritzy little distinctions that cause so much grief like the ones between high and low art, it revels in the gaudy and the cross-pollinated and the subversive and it mixes it all up in its brightly coloured plastic crucible with the advertising slogan on the side. I tend to think of postmodernism as that which is irrevocably cross-bred, like a Vivienne Westwood outfit that uses the gentry’s tweed to make a studded and leather-trimmed corset. It’s very experimental in its way, it’s often also ugly, and it delights in surface without depth. Graphic sex and violence are very much part of the postmodern where nothing is left to the imagination, all must be put on bold display. And it’s a throwaway culture, not built to last or built to linger, not least because it certainly doesn’t mystify or attempt to be enigmatic.
So postmodernism is a way of saying: this is all there is. You can either moan about the passing of great noble hopes, or you can live in the moment for all it’s worth (which is about 55p). As befitting a mixed-up miscegenated movement I think it’s divided between its good and bad parts. Its dismissal of depth in favour of surface always distresses me, until I realise that depth is something that is endemic to all human creativity; no matter how much we try and make everything visible there will always be the part that resists, that eludes, that taunts and entices. A wholescale abandonment of truth is equally alarming, until of course we recognise that there will always be truths of all shapes and sizes, same as there ever were. But for me the postmodern is probably summed up in that strange recommendation we so regularly exhort one another to embrace, which is ‘to live in the moment.’ In the postmodern worldview, the moment is all there is, in a radical way. And yet what would our grandparents have thought of us if we had made the same suggestion to them? They would have had no idea that there was any other way to live. So for me, the postmodern is also bound up with the media, and the strange, image-driven, hidden-story-ridden kind of lives we lead, in which we have to remind ourselves to live in the moment, because there are so many other virtual places we could be. For me, postmodernism arises out of the sheer complexity of the world we’ve created for ourselves, and whilst it’s every bit a part of that crippling sophistication, it’s also pretending to a kind of wild and spontaneous simplicity that it never really achieves. Its a form of manic distraction from its own longings for comfort and stability in an increasingly out of control world.