RARA-AVIS: Postmodernism and literature

From: Michael Robison ( miker_zspider@yahoo.com)
Date: 17 Mar 2007

Jim Doherty wrote:
  My curiosity is overcoming my reluctance to display my ignorance. What, exactly, is "po-mo?"

************** More than you ever wanted to know, sliced out of last September:

In 1916 the collected lectures of Saussure were published posthumously in a thin volume titled Course in General Linguistics. Called structuralism, it introduced a revolutionary concept into the field of linguistics. Formerly, the study of language emphasized the history of words, a field called etymology that examined the slow evolution of word similarities and derivatives. Structuralism stressed differences instead, stating that words are defined by difference rather than similarity. Saussure referred to words as signifiers, the idea or thing that it stood for as the signified, and the word and idea together was the sign. Saussure's book on linguistics lighted a slow-burning fuse that took over forty years to make the transition into literary criticism. In the sixties, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida seized upon structuralism's emphasis on differences and extrapolated it out to binary opposites, concentrating on constructs such as light and dark, good and evil, male and female.

Ten years later postmodernism was born. The movement originated with the restoration of peace after the violent student rioting in France during the late sixties. A transmogrification of structuralism, postmodernism declared the binary opposites of structuralism as non-neutral constructs that supported a philosophic bias, with one end of the spectrum seen as more desirable or privileged than the other. By an often contrived process, the postmodernists revealed the privileged construct and proceeded by a process called deconstruction to use minor or obscure details to demonstrate conflicts in the underlying philosophy of the text. The bottom line was an established methodology for demonstrating that the validity of absolutely everything can be denied. This, of course, is not an original school of thought but rather a rehash of the Greek sceptics. Postmodern scepticism is founded upon a conclusion drawn from two premises. First, human perception of reality is based almost exclusively on language. As Roland Barthes's dramatically stated, "There is nothing outside the text." Second, language is a notoriously unreliable media for portraying reality with any degree of accuracy.

So what do you find in postmodern fiction? A standard theme is the purposeful disruption of any sense of realism. Postmodernism considers realism to be bogus because they consider language to be an inadequate tool for conveying reality. Therefore, realism in writing is dishonest, and a writing style that brings attention to the contrivance of the story is desirable. Authorial intrusion upon the text is one technique used to disrupt realism. The story is interrupted by editorial commentary from the author in a manner that accents the artificiality of the text. It might be a discussion of a possible event in the author's life that inspired the story, like in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, or the author might talk about his price negotiations for the novel at hand, like in Nick Tosches's In the Hand of Dante. Another technique commonly used to impart a postmodern flavor is manipulation of the narrative. Narrative structure with the usual suspects moving through a reasonably contolled timeline is old school. The narrative might be scattered, perhaps with many different characters doing inconsequential bit parts, sometimes so convoluted and confused that it simply doesn't carry much of anything identifiable as a story.

Another common postmodern theme is the deconstruction of ideals and absolutes. Around the mid-twentieth century there was a strong belief that moral right and wrong were founded on immutable and absolute principles. Postmodern scepticism eschews any kind of certainty, and denies the validity of these absolutes.
 In postmodern fiction, any character with strong moral beliefs will likely be proved to be a fool or a fraud. Julian Barnes demonstrates this in his Arthur and George. Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the popular Sherlock Holmes stories, appears as a character in Barnes's novel. What first appears to be respectable motives and upright Victorian morality is deconstructed into pathetic hypocrisy and stupidity by the end of the book. There is an exception to their objection to absolutes. In postmodernism, the United States typically stands as a symbol for many of the ideals that it disdains. As a result, the moral stance of anti-American characters is likely to be bolstered, without being subjected to the usual postmodern criticism.

Another theme found in postmodern fiction is marginalization. Although language is deemed undependable, it can nevertheless wield great power. Foucault identified certain schools of thought that centered around the favoring of some binary opposites.
 Calling them discourses of power, he noted that they empower particular groups of people while isolating others in a marginalized state. Originally, Foucault concentrated on crazies and criminals as marginalized by the social mores of the eighteenth century, but eventually Western democracy was targeted by postmodernism as a dominant discourse of power, and the portrayal of those marginalized by it became a popular theme. So instead of a bastion of freedom and the epitome of Enlightenment philosophy, Western democracy is deconstructed into an expansionist tyranny. Pamuk's Snow demonstrates how deeply religious Muslims are pressured by Western oppression into terrorist acts of liberation. Barnes's Arthur and George portrays Victorian society as racist and sexist.

The establishment of the sanctity of the individual was the supreme philosophical achievement of the Renaissance, and a philosophy of natural rights and a structure of government that supported it was the apogee of the Enlightenment. In postmodernism, the individual loses importance and becomes little more than an arbitrary intersection of varying and dubious discourses, so debunking the value of the individual is a primary postmodernism theme. Postmodern characters are often drab, uncommitted, uninspired, and lifeless, often little more than text on the page.
 In postmodern thought, this is not bad writing; it is the intended effect. Generally, the characters accomplish little. Any significant accomplishment would have the suspicious aura of mattering, a dangerous flirting with the obviously bogus concept of an ideal worth working towards. In a postmodern mystery novel, the mystery most likely won't get solved, and if it is solved, it won't matter to anyone. If it's a crime novel, nobody will pay for the crime, but on the outside chance that somebody does, it won't be the person who committed the crime and, again, it won't really matter.


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