Postmodern Literary Theory

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!

Postmodern Literary Theory Postmodern Literary Theory

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    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 result, 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 The 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 StudySmarterFig. 1 Postmodernism was concerned with finding meaning in a chaotic world.

    Michel Foucault and discourse

    The French philosopher and critic Michel Foucault's ideas on knowledge 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.

    Samuel Beckett

    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).

    Thomas Pynchon

    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 Gothic, 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. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who proposed the theory of deconstruction?

    When was it published?

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

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