Modernism is a cultural movement away from the Enlightenment, which was characterized by a belief in human progress. Modernists rejected tradition and certainty and embraced innovation (“Make it New,” the poet Ezra Pound said) and irony. Musicians wrote atonal music, painters eschewed representation, poets shunned rhyme and rhythm, and novelists gave up on realism. These changes were the result of upheavals in the sciences and society that included the Industrial Revolution, the First World War, and the theories of Einstein and Freud. Famous modernist writers included poets T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and H.D. and novelists Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce. Famous modernist movements included surrealism, Dadaism, fauvism, Futurism, and Cubism.
Example: “I would like to be sometime in love with every one. I will not be sometime in love with every one. I would like certainly to be sometime in love some with every one, to have every one sometime in love with me and then I would be certain what way each one had loving being being in them.” Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans
Surrealism is a Modernist movement that started in the 1920s and was highly influenced by Sigmund Freud’s work in dream analysis. It is one of the most extreme forms of Modernism in its rejection of rationality in favor of irrationality. Celebrating the non sequiturs and unexpected juxtapositions that characterize dreams, writers such as Andre Breton, Pierre Reverdy, and Antonin Artaud used automatic writing and cut-up texts to get at the deeper realities existing in our unconscious minds. Surrealism has had a continuous and powerful influence in the arts, on Dadaism, Theater of the Absurd, the Beats, Magical Realism, the Chicago Surrealists, and Fluxus, for example.
Example: “Poetry is made in bed like love / Its unmade sheets are the dawn of things / Poetry is made in a forest / / She has the space which she needs / Not this one but the other / / Governed by the hawk’s eye / The dew on the spindle / / The memory of a moist bottle of Traminer on a silver platter” Andre Breton, “On the Road to San Romano”
Theater of the Absurd
Arising in the France in the 1940s (as did Existentialism), Theater of the Absurd emphasizes the meaninglessness of life, ignoring the “rules” of traditional theater, causality, conflict, and realism. Tragicomic situations, nonsense language, inexplicable events, stereotypical characters, incomprehensibility, and circular plots replace Aristotle’s well-made play. Surrealism is an important influence. Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Harold Pinter are Absurdists, as are more recent playwrights like Edward Albee and Tom Stoppard.
Example: “Vladimir: Sometimes I feel it coming all the same. Then I go all queer. (He takes off his hat, peers inside it, feels about inside it, shakes it, puts it on again.) How shall I say: Relieved and at the same time . . . (he searches for the word) . . . appalled. (With emphasis.) AP-PALLED . (He takes off his hat again, peers inside it.) Funny. (He knocks on the crown as thought to dislodge a foreign body, peers into it again, puts it on again.) Nothing to be done.” Samuel Beckett, “Waiting for Godot”
Just as the First World War provided fertile ground for the artistic rebellion that was Modernism, the Second World War and its button-downed aftermath produced a generations of rebels known as the Beats, short for tired (of uptight, suburban American life) or for beatific (as in high). The Beats experimented with drugs, with sexuality (many were openly gay, which was courageous at the time), with spirituality, especially Eastern mysticism, with individuality, and with literary iconoclasm, in both form and subject matter. They rejected the Eliotic objectivity of the Modernists, though Ezra Pound, the populist voice of William Carlos Williams, and the mysticism of H.D. were important influences, as were the surrealists. Beat writers included Allen Ginsburg, Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Lucien Carr. They wrote about jazz, about life on the streets (and on the road), about sex, and about drugs in frank and sometimes ecstatic language.
Example: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, / starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn / looking for an angry fix, / angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly / connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, / who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat / up smoking in the supernatural darkness of / cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities / contemplating jazz.” Allen Ginsburg, “Howl”
Postmodernism takes Modernism several steps further, rejecting not only the certainties of the Enlightenment but the basic values of Western civilization—indeed all values, ideas, and even “facts” that purport to be absolute. Reality is a social construct, say the Postmoderns. Humans invent it as they go along. There is no reality, in fact, only realities that are relative to time and place and largely self-serving (to those in power). Thus, the monolithic, unadorned, universalism of the Modern skyscraper (the Aon Building, for example) gives way to architecture that mixes eras, references both high-and low-cultures, and exaggerates adornment and pluralism the way that the Chicago Public Library does. Postmodern writers include William Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Ishmael Reed, Thomas Pynchon, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Lyn Hejinian, and Kathy Acker, all of whom use techniques such as pastiche and parody, derangement, indeterminacy, decontextualizing, playfulness, and the subverting of genre expectations.
Example: “It was amid such lively exclamation that the hydrogen skyship Inconvenience, its gondola draped with patriotic bunting, carrying a five-lad crew belonging to that celebrated aeronautics club known as the Chums of Chance, ascended briskly into the morning, and soon caught the southerly wind.” Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day
Deconstruction is a critical practice based on the work of French literary theorist Jacques Derrida. Though Derrida himself insisted that deconstruction was not a method, or a critique, or an analysis, it has been used as all three and was highly influential in American English departments in the later quarter of the twentieth century. Like Postmodernism, of which it is a shaping part, Deconstruction examines the contradictions in all texts (i.e., novels, poems, essays, etc.), the interrelatedness of all texts, and the impossibility of any final interpretation of a text. "The term 'deconstruction' refers . . . to the way in which the 'accidental' [or incidental] features of a text can be seen as betraying, subverting, its purportedly 'essential' message” is how philosopher Richard Rorty puts it, and Richard Ellman calls it “the systematic undoing of understanding.” Writers like the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets and their precursor John Ashbery put this last into action because, as Ashbery frequently points out, understanding closes off communication.
Example: “If the alterity of the other is posed, that is, only posed, does it not amount to the same, for example in the form of the ‘constituted object’ or of the ‘informed product’ invested with meaning, etc.? From this point of view, I would even say that the alterity of the other inscribes in this relationship that which in no case can be ‘posed.’” Jacques Derrida, Positions
Postmodern theater is the product of panoply of deaths: of the author, of character, of the stable self, of plot, of causality and determinacy, of objectivity, of the passive audience. Productions are frequently nonlinear and nonnarrative. Characters, such as they exist, are fragmented and may mutate from male to female, adult to child. Women may be played by actors, men by actresses, children by the elderly to make the point that the self is a social construction. Several scenes may take place simultaneously to emphasize that time, place, and event are contingent not absolute. The distinction between reality and theater is often erased, and all the world is indeed a stage in plays like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Other postmodern playwrights include Caryl Churchill, Ben Elton, and Suzan-Lori Parks.
Example: “The stage lights come up to reveal a poet in her study, which is lined with bookcases. Overhead is a small projection screen on which can be seen whatever is on her computer monitor. Flanking her are two women (stage left) and two men (stage right), all four wearing flesh-colored bodysuits. Flanking them are two wardrobes ajumble with various props and an assortment of tacky theater clothes spanning several centuries. Actors* don costumes appropriate to the simulacra they portray. Some simulacra change gender in the course of the production. * Actors and actresses? Male and female actors? Male and female subject-creators of subject-creator simulacra?” Brooke Bergan, “How Mimi Got to Be Postmodern . . .”
Postmodern nonfiction covers everything from memoirs to marionettes to monopoly, sometimes in the same essay. Postmodern nonfiction writers use techniques drawn from fiction, emphasize the slipperiness of “truth” and “fact,” combine found materials with composed (i.e., written) ones, play with the words on the page spatially and typographically, and invent modes of organization: collages, montages, braided essays, fragmented essays, poetic essays, reverse chronologies, nonlinear essays. Poets like David Antin and Anne Carson love the form, as do fiction writers like David Foster Wallace, Carol Maso, and Joan Didion.
Example: “so now we’re sleeping on the great mattress that eleanor / selected so carefully for us and she still has back troubles / but theyre not as bad as the ones she used to have so either / this is the best possible mattress for her and for us or not and / this is the situation that I think best describes our postmodern / condition with respect to which I believe in taking descartes / advice if youre lost in a a forest and you have no idea which way / to go go for it straight ahead because it is not likely to be / any worse than anything else.” David Antin, “The Theory and Practice of Postmodernism: A Manifesto”
If there are no characters (only subject positions), no plausible events, no absolute causalities, no grand narratives (like God or “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”) that make it all make sense, what are you left with? Postmodern fiction (i.e., fiction blurs the distinction between fiction and fact, distorts time, eschews closure, and is contradictory, random, excessive, discontinuous, playful, intertextual, and at every turn unexpected). The New Novel, magical realism, metafiction, slipstream fiction, poststructuralist feminist fiction, postcolonial fiction, and fictional histories all come under this rubric. Postmodern fiction writers include Philip Roth, Kathy Acker, Don Delilo, Umberto Eco, Carlos Fuentes, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Zadie Smith, A.S. Byatt, and Philip K. Dick.
Example: “’Some lives of murderesses’ June 1973. I become a murderess. I’m born in the late autumn or winter of 1827. Troy, New York. My childhood is happy, and my parents allow me to do whatever I please as long as I, by my actions, don’t infringe on their high social standing.” Kathy Acker, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula
Postmodern poetry runs in a line from Charles Olson’s Projective Verse, the Beats, and the New York School, to the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets. Olson’s dictum that “form is never more than an extension of content,” his emphasis on “field composition,” and his foregrounding of process set the parameters for much of what followed. Postmodern poets embrace rather than eschew (as the modernists did) a jumble of high and low culture (Popeye and Catullus are both fodder) and of dictions. They prefer non sequiturs to pronouncements, metonymy to metaphor, and silliness to sentiment. The material of poetry (words) is more important than meaning. Like Postmodernists in other genres, there work is purposely transgressive of conventional ideologies.
Example: “The first of the undecoded messages read: ‘Popeye sits in thunder / Unthought of. From the shoebox of an apartment, / From livid curtain’s hue, a tangram emerges: a country.’ / Meanwhile the Sea Hag was relaxing on a green couch: ‘How pleasant / To spend one’s vacation en la casa de Popeye,’ she scratched / Her cleft chin’s solitary hear. She remembered spinach” John Ashbery, “Farm Implements and Rutabegas in a Landscape”
Magical realism uses the conventions of realistic fiction to describe worlds that vacillate between the recognizable and the inexplicable or fantastic. Unlike science fiction or fantasy fiction, Magical Realism does not attempt to explain, contextualize, or systemize the fabulist or magical elements of the story. Born and raised in Latin America, this form usually exhibits strong (if coded) political critiques of power figures (both domestic and colonial). The Magical Realists include Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, Jorge Luis Borges, as well as Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison.
Example: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One-Hundred Years of Solitude
Oulipo is short for Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature. It was founded in France in 1960 and included writers, mathematicians as well as writers. The goal of the group was to identify ancient experiments in form and create new ones. Constraint is the Oulipo watchword—a remarkable one given the twentieth-century obsession with breaking free of constraint. Often the restrictions seem arbitrary and meaningless (like writing a novel that never uses the letter e, as Georges Perec did with A Void). Some, like S + 7, are mathematical (replace every noun in a text with the noun seven entries after it in the dictionary). The restraints provide inspiration and new ways of seeing the world. Oulipo members have included Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, Harry Matthews, and Marcel Duchamp.
Example: “Incurably insomniac, Anton Vowl turns on a light. According to his watch it’s only 12:20. With a loud and languorous sigh Vowl sits up, stuffs a pillow at his back, draws his quilt up around his chin, picks up his whodunit and idly scans a paragraph or two; but, judging its plot impossibly difficult to follow in his condition, its vocabulary to whimsically multisyllabic for comfort, throws it away in disgust.” George Perec, A Void
The first Fluxus event was held in 1960. The movement brought together writers, designers, and architects interested in a variety of related issues: minimalism, indeterminacy; noncommercial, do-it-yourself, use-what-you-have approaches; multimedia; and a kind of Dadaesque humor that refuses to take art too seriously. Yoko Ono is probably the best-known Fluxus artist. Others include John Cage, George Maciunas, and Jackson Mac Low. Happenings were an offshoot of Fluxus, as were collaborations like the recent ones between the poet/essayist/novelist/classist Anne Carson, the artist Robert Currie, and the Merce Cunningham dancers.
Example: Anne Carson’s “book” Nox is ten-feet of paper folded like an accordion and placed in a box reminiscent of the Fluxus boxes created by hand in the 1960s. Pasted on the folds are letters and photographs as well as poetry and prose. Here is a quotation: “I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of [Cattulus’s] poem 101. But over the years of working at it, I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end.”
Metafiction is fiction that calls attention to its own fictionality, dropping the mimetic veil. This comprises stories about writers writing stories or about readers reading a book (Italo Covino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler), stories about other stories (like Nabakov’s Pale Fire), stories with narrative footnotes (again Pale Fire or Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine), stories that comment on the conventions of story-telling (even Chaucer did this), and stories in which the narrator admits to being the author. Metafiction writers include Raymond Federman, Robert Coover, Kurt Vonnegut, Tim O’Brien, and Paul Auster.
Example: “Once upon a time (two or three weeks ago), a rather stubborn and determined middle-aged man decided to record (for posterity), exactly as it happened, word by word and step by step, the story of another man (for indeed what is GREAT in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal), a somewhat paranoiac fellow (unmarried, unattached, and quite irresponsible), who had decided to lock himself in a room (a furnished room with a private bath, cooking facilities, a bed, a table, and at least one chair), in New York City, for a year (365 days to be precise), to write the story of another person—a shy young man about 19 years old . . . “ Raymond Federman, Double or Nothing
The New York School
Inspired by the Surrealists of the early twentieth century, by mid-century abstract expressionists and action painters like Jackson Pollack, and by jazz, a group of poets centered in New York began producing urbane and often humorous poems, as well as collaborations with each other and with painters. Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, James Schyler, and Alice Notley wrote about New York, friends, art, popular culture, and ideas (rather than about breakdowns and broken lives like the Confessional poets). Their work was a witty, sophisticated, immediate, and joyously unsentimental (anti-sentimental, even) exploration of pleasure and happiness that revitalized old forms (like the ode and the sestina) and created new ones (as Ashbery does in Three Poems).
Example: “We shall have everything we want and there’ll be no more dying / on the pretty plains or in the supper clubs / for our symbols we’ll acknowledge vulgar materialistic laughter / over an insatiable sexual appetite / and the streets will be filled with racing forms.” Frank O’Hara, “Ode to Joy”
Based on postmodern theories like Deconstruction, L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry starts with a belief that language is inherently political, even imperialistic, and that the job of the poet is to subvert it. Influenced by the language play of Gertrude Stein, the New York School, and the Black Mountain poets, L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets began in the 1970s to derange syntax, remove context, replace metaphor with metonymy and causality with parataxis, focus on the materiality of words, and change the reader’s passive relationship to the poem. Meaning was no longer the goal of the poem. Texture was more important. Charles Bernstein is the movement’s theorist. Other practitioners include Michael Palmer, Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop, Lyn Hejinian, and Leslie Scalapino.
Example: “You will spill the sugar when you lift the spoon. My father had filled an old apothecary jar with what he called ‘sea glass,’ bits of old bottles rounded and textured by the sea, so abundant on beaches. There is no solitude. It buries itself in veracity.” Lyn Hejinian, My Life
In the wake of liberation movements, the latter half of the twentieth century produced a range of oppositional writing—from women, from African-Americans, from oppressed and colonized peoples, from gays and lesbians, from the marginalized, in short. Movements such as Poststructuralist Feminism, Postcolonialism, and Queer Theory propounded recapturing language and identity from the oppressor and created fertile ground for new ways of using language. Writers include Julia Kristeva , Jean Rys, Jeanette Winterson, J.M. Coetze, and June Jordan.
Example: “Even tonight and I need to take a walk and clear / my head about this poem about why I can't / go out without changing my clothes my shoes / my body posture my gender identity my age / my status as a woman alone in the evening/ alone on the streets/alone not being the point/ the point being that I can't do what I want / to do with my own body because I am the wrong /sex the wrong age the wrong skin” June Jordan, “Poem about My Rights”
Parody and Pastiche
Unlike the Modernists, who rued the loss of tradition and the discontinuity of Modern life, Postmoderns embrace these realities and show their enthusiasm by parodying canonical texts and patching together texts, styles, ideas, dictions, etc. William Burrougs collaborated with Brion Gysin to produce The Third Mind, a collection of cut-up writings. Kathy Acker combined pastiches of work by Rimbaud, Dickens, and James Michner (for which she was sued by his publisher) with parodies of pornography. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is both pastiche and parody. Pynchon’s Against the Day is a pastiche that parodies popular writing styles of the era in which it is set (1893)
Example: “Porn and exile and fear and violence / Are part of us. / We eat guilt and remorse / Like bums eat their own vermin. / / We squirm and cut our wrists / Over one confession; / Then go back to the street of shit / Believing we’ve forgiven and been forgiven.” Kathy Acker, “To the Germans, Both Nazis and Peaceniks”
The Heisenberg uncertainty principle (1927) that we can never measure anything precisely is a guidepost of Postmodernism. It suggests we can never know the “truth” of anything in an absolute way. Such truths as we do know are contingent on time and place. Even the self is contingent on the culture that produces it. Techniques developed to accommodate this new idea include open-ended texts, texts that require the reader to participate in their development, panfictional approaches (i.e. approaches that assume all writing is fiction), shifting characterizations and points of view, and multiple versions of the same story. Aficionados include Paul Auster, William Faulkner, Don Delilo, Sarah Dunant, and the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets.
Example: “Perhaps I am writing a transposed autobiography; perhaps I now live in one of the houses I have brought into the fiction; perhaps Charles is myself in disguise. Perhaps it is only a game. Modern women like Sarah exist, and I have never understood them.” John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman
The classic genres--poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama--are each associated with a set of conventions. Rhyme, rhythm, consonance, assonance, and figurative language are the stuff of poetry. Invented characters, dialog, conflicts that set in motion a series of events (i.e., plot), settings create fiction and drama. Discussions of factual matters and of ideas are the purview of nonfiction. Increasingly, writers are interested in crossover writing. In the 1960s the New Journalists began to incorporate the elements of fiction into their writing to make it more immediate and readable. Meanwhile, fiction writers began incorporating historical characters and events into their work. And poets started writing prose poems, poetic essays, and performance pieces. Tom Wolfe, Philip Roth, Don Delilo, Charles Bernstein, and Anne Carson are just a few of those creating hybrid genres.
Example: “Fear presides over these memories. Of course, no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn’t been president of if I hadn’t been the offspring of Jews.” Philip Roth, The Plot Against America
Hypertextuality is the Postmodern theory that all literary works are interconnected. It is also a reality of the Internet. Hypertextual literature is endlessly digressive and expansive, like Tristam Shandy. Hypertext writers include Adrienne Eisen, Caitlin Fisher, Nicholson Baker, Julio Cortazar, and Judy Malloy.
Example: “I love the constancy of shine of the edges of moving objects. Even propellers or desk fans will glint steadily in certain places in the greyness of their rotation.” Nicholson Baker, The Mezzanine
The Postmodern Dozens
The Loves of Dobie Gillis
The Truman Show
Being John Malkovich
Six Feet Under
The Larry Sanders Show
Postmodern American Fiction : A Norton Anthology by Paula Geyh (Editor), Fred G. Leebron (Editor), Andrew Levy (Editor), W.W. Norton & Company, 1997
Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, by Paul Hoover (Editor), W.W. Norton & Company, 1994