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Modernism and Postmodernism in the American Culture and Art

Modernism its predecessors include Henry James, with his House of Fiction theory (around
1890). However, the birth of Modernism came in the early 20
century, with the publication of
Joyces Ulysses (1922) and T.S. Eliots The Waste Land (1922). Other important authors/works
include: V. Woolfs To the Lighthouse (1927), and The Waves; Ezra Pounds poems Cantus; G.
Steins The Making of the Americans. Other writers can be included as well: Hemingway, Fitzgerald,
Kafka, Th. Mann, Proust, Faulkner (1897 1962). Modernism was defined by innovative literary
techniques, such as stream-of-consciousness, limited perspective, disruptions in the chronological
order of narrations, interest in language and style more than in plot. They emphasized irony,
subjectivism, and borrowed from the Romantics the image of the artist alienated from society.
Modernist fiction was elitist difficult to read, intellectual, experimental. Modernism resorts to
technologism in art: architecture, sculpture (efficiency is achieved by means of technology). Cubist,
surrealist movements are included in modernism.
PostModernism, on the other hand, is a later literary trend, appeared around 1960, having its origins
in the Beat Movement and in the changes taking place in the 1960s. Postmodernism has been
regarded either as a continuation of modernism (John Barth, who is considered the father of
Postmodernism, with his essays The Literature of Exhaustion (1967) (classic literature, including
modernism, is exhausted) followed by The Literature of Replenishment (1980) (postmodernism
combines old elements into new pieces of literature). Postmodernism puts together old motifs, but in
an ironic/parodic/pastiche manner; it is self-conscious; it combines high and popular culture,
intellectual literature and politics; other influences come from painting (for instance, the Dada
movement: William Burroughs cut-up method, joining disparate fragments). Other Postmodern
authors are: Kurt Vonnegut, Th. Pynchon (his novel V., 1963). If Barth views postmodernism as
continuating modernism, the other vision is advocated by Ihab Hassan (1984) who sees a radical
split, an opposition between modernism and postmodernism, determined by a change of the entire
cultural paradigm. This view is supported by Jean-Francois Lyotard, in PostModernism or the
Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1993), who states that postmodernism, by opposition with
modernism, is the expression of a new type of society: late capitalism, based on information, by
opposition with classical capitalism, based on labour and capital. Postmodern writers: John Barth,
Nabokov, Borges, Umberto Eco, John Fowles (The Magician, The French Lieutenants Woman
which offers three possible endings, action is interrupted by digressions of the author, the author
meets his characters).
At the present moment, literature is characterized by the co-existence of all types of fiction: 19

century realism, 1930 modernism, 1960 postmodernism.
Modernism: principles - the universe is not rational and orderly, but unpredictable, agitated;
- the western civilization faces possible, imminent destruction of this world brought to an apocaliptic
- art is the only thing that can serve humanity (Matthew Arnold, H. James thought the same); artists
wanted to distance themselves from the consumatorial, common culture. Art is a kind of geometry
(art = order), which saves it from the anarchy of the contemporary world.
- there is a break with the tradition (thus confrontation with the past is necessary for modernism). E.
Pound said: Make it new.
- interest in exotic traditions: orientalism, Asian, Greek, Russian traditions. Break of boundaries
between genres.
- systematic experiment of the unconscious, interest in the irrational, in the working of the
Most modernists were expatriates to Europe (they were dissatisfied with the narrowness of the
American culture and they looked for another place where they could find out about themselves, so
they went to Europe: G. Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, E. Hemingway, E. Pound, W.C. Williams, H.
James). R. Mihaila: Writers such as: Hemingway, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, E. Pound, G. Stein resent
Americas materialism, provincialism and puritanism, spend time in post-war Europe (avant-garde
experiment). They break with the genteel tradition and make Modernism the second flowering of
American literature. G. Stein named The Lost Generation those rootless young Americans who
flocked to Europe after the WW I. G. Stein is considered the spiritual mother of Modernism; she
pleaded for imaginative writing, and fragmented perspective, against the realistic novel.
Modernism is the name of a major artistic movement responding to the sense of social breakdown in
early 20
century. It was an international movement shared by many art forms. Modernism was a
special attitude of the mind, emphasizing the present, breaking with the past. There was a revolt
against conventionalism, against the artificiality of the 19
century, against its verbosity. At the heart
of the modernist aesthetic lay the conviction that the previously sustaining structures, whether social,
politic, religious or artistic, had been destroyed or shown up as falsehoods. If art incorporated such a
false order, it had to be renovated.
The causes which brought to modernism:
- experimentalism (experimenting for experiments sake);
- the industrialization (urbanism) brought a shift in mentality, a break with the patriarchal view of the
- consumerism was another cause, together with the tendency of acquiring things;
- the frustrations and failures related to WW I, a sense of suffering whose reason they couldnt
understand (a sense of absurdity);
- in science, fundamental discoveries turned upside down Newtons universe (stability, harmony);
Einsteins theory of relativity of time and space questioned everything, the cause-effect theory was
no longer workable.
- no longer chronological time hence, the stream of consciousness
- G. Steins aim: to turn historical perspective to spatial representation
- focus not on the meaning, but on the composition of the sounds; lingering quality of the sounds.
The defining formal characteristic of the modernist work is its construction out of fragments. A
typical modernist work will seem to begin arbitrarily, to advance without explanation and to end
without resolution; there will be shifts in perspective, voice and tone; it will make use of symbol and
images instead of statements. The experience of reading will be challenging. Most modernist
literature retains a degree of coherence, but the reader has to look for it, to dig the structure out. The
reader of the modernist work is often said to participate in the actual work of making the poem or the
story. Often, the modernist work is structured as a quest for the very coherence, which on the surface
seems to lack. Victorian and realistic fiction achieved its effects by accumulation and structuration;
modern fiction preferred suggestion. Victorian fiction usually had an authoritative narrator; modern
fiction tended to be written in the first person or to limit the reader to one characters point of view
on the action. The selected point of view was often that of a nave or marginal person a child or an
outsider so as to convey better the reality of confusion rather than the myth of certainty. In a
modernist work, the chronology is not logical.
Faulkner is probably the highest representative of modernism in American fiction; due to his
experiments with language and narrative techniques, he is considered the typical modernist.
The Sound and the Fury - modernist elements: it stands for Faulkners dream of writing the
perfect book. It is a landmark in the history of literature, a real modernist work, obsessed with its
own technique. Its text is divided into four parts, and in the first three Faulkner completely removes
himself from the traditional role of the narrator. Each of those first three parts is presented as a
separate soliloqui. Thus the reader is given the artistic illusion of eavesdropping on the impressions
and memories of three brothers in the Compson family: Ben, Quentin and Jason. It is a four-time told
story, four perspectives on the same events, which means multiple perspective, and each chapter
bringing a new light on the events. Faulkner is a twofold writer: on one hand, he pursues the
achievements of narratory, and on the other hand, he is a very keen painter of the South; the South is
torn apart just like the story, which tries to get together but still disintegrates.
- another modernist feature: the story is not told chronologically (like V. Woolfs The Waves, Proust,
Joyce); time is fragmented.
- all characters are obsessed by their past, in their own way
Quentin tries to save his past by turning it into a kind of performance; Jason also arranges a new
version of the past. Its only Benjy who can actually relive the past, because he doesnt have the
sense of time: for him, theres a temporal confusion, which arises from the fact that the segments
(past, present) overlap, so that the chronology within them is continually interrupted by the jumping
back and forth. The author uses different types of letters when Benjy has flashes back on the past;
time is reversed, the story is not chronological.
- no punctuation marks
- Faulkner uses intertextuality: elements taken from one text and given another meaning (e.g.: the
title is inspired from Macbeth: Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying
nothing this is Benjys point of view).
- he uses the stream-of-consciousness: the characters speech is a sort of afflux, they say what comes
to their minds
- shifts from present to past, which are triggered by an object, a sound. Remembering means a
reconstruction of the past, re-creating its meaning.
- imagism (a trend in Modernism associated with E. Pound): a direct treatment of the things, with no
ornaments, the image being a cluster of emotional and intellectual complexes the first part (Benjys
section) may be associated with imagism.
Absalom! Absalom! modernist techniques: - a whole network of points of view throughout the
story, a labyrinthine vision of events, revealing conflicting perspectives;
- there are sudden shifts from one perspective to another;
- the reader is forced to put together all these incoherent pieces in order to create a coherence;
- a lot of chronological inversions, discrepancies;
- sentences are unique with Faulkner, sometimes very long; they stretch the language to its limits;
- lots of digressions;
- the message is: language is insufficient to itself, hence the contradiction between the desire to
comprehend and the impossibility of language to perform its message;
- violence upon language, giving a sense of the drama of the South, and at the same time of the
drama of writing: writing cannot mean enough, thats why these efforts.

Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby: he wrote about the rich class, but with Fitzgerald (as well as
with Hemingway) there is a sense of aimlessness, a lack of accomplishment; he oscillates between
ecstasy and disappointment. Fitzgerald imposes his variant of the American dream as represented by
Gatsby, a character made of contradictions: he lives in the margin and in the center in the same time;
he began as a poor boy and he ends up poor; hes in the center of wealth, but he cant stay in this
status; it isnt his way of living life. He exemplifies the contradictions of the lost generation.
Techniques: - sudden shifts from the first person to the third;
- cinematographical scenes: we are able to visualize the book;
- lots of words of movement: it is a very dynamic book, there is movement from one place to
another, everything is restless;
- glamour is only at the surface; everything seems to be floating, there is no terra ferma;
- the character is blurred; there are different remarks about him, but they contradict each other, so we
have different perspectives on the character, and it is difficult for the reader to find the truth. The
character constructs his own identity, by joining all the rumours; his cars, clothes (yellow, pink)
suggest that possession is a means of creating his identity;
- Nick Carraway is a kind of guide, a mediator;
- there is a reference to B. Franklin (the perfect embodiment of the American Dream), but here we
have a degraded version of the American hero. From the American Dream, Gatsby still preserves the
ambition and the will to succeed. We have here the failure of the American Dream.
- the narrator appears as characterizing everybody, but he only seems to do it; you are the one to find
the pieces and put them together (a modernist trait). The author is not present somewhere above, but
in the very action. The author is erased, but he is still living.

R. Mihaila: The emergence of Postmodern fiction: the mood of the 1960s, described as
antinomian, a mood which turned against art, and the incentive to erase the boundaries between
art and life were at the origin of the two tendencies in the American novel of the 1960s that marked
the emergence of Postmodern fiction: the New Journalism or New Nonfiction, and Self-
Reflexive Fiction, also called metafiction or surfiction. Applied since 1965 to the writing of
Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe, but consecrated only after the publication of Truman
Capotes In Cold Blood, subtitled A Nonfiction Novel, 1966, New Journalism claims absolute
adherence to fact, without discarding the truth of the subjective vision, freely borrowing congenial
techniques from the novel and various devices from the other media, dissolving the lines between the
traditional literary genres. Wolfes The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) best illustrates the new
nonfiction growing out of the 60s.
The self-reflexive fiction, produced by the new writers of the 1960s: William Burroughs, John
Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and others, joined in the 1970s by other
innovators such as Ronald Sukenik, Walter Abish, Steve Katz and Gilbert Sorrentino, contains the
same effort to erase the boundaries between art and life, though for different reasons and with
different means. It attempted to do so neither by making art reflexive of life, nor by making it
indistinguishable from life experience, but by constructing a text which uses incongruity,
disruptiveness, arbitrariness, absurdity, irony, parody and self-parody, black humor and fabulation to
challenge all meaning, all forms of authority, including its own possibilities of representing a reality
which, as Philip Roth confessed, stupefies, sickens, infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of
embarassement to ones meagre imagination. In doing so it casts total doubt on the relation between
the real and the imaginary, between history and the subject, between official discourse and historical
truth; At the end of these intricate stories there is no real message, no order, no easy resolution, no
pseudomoral statement, only a text that offers itself as a kind of nonsense delirium that, to a great
extent, reflects the nonsense of historical events and the delirium of the language recounting these
events (Raymond Federmann, post modern writer and critic). In the conclusion of The Postmodern
Turn, an inquiry into the cultural field of postmodernism spanning more than two decades, Ihab
Hassan contends that the American sixties, with all their liberationist and countercultural
tendencies, may be regarded as the energizing matrix of postmodernism, if not its origin. As
Hassan argues, Postmodernism emerged in complicity with things falling apart, its two main
constitutive tendencies, indeterminacy and immanence (fused in the term indetermanence) pointing
in the sixties toward either artistic anarchy, or Pop. By indeterminacy, he means a complex
referent that these concepts help to delineate: ambiguity, discontinuity, heterodoxy, pluralism,
randomness, revolt, perversion, deformation, the latter alone subsuming various terms of
unmaking, such as decreation, disintegration, deconservation, decenterement, displacement,
difference, discontinuity, disjunction, disappearance, decomposition, de-definition, demystification,
detotalization, deligitimization the rhetoric of irony, rupture, silence, all of them expressing the
vast will of unmaking which afects the entire discourse of the 60s and makes everything
questionable. Immanence, which Hassan describes by evoking such concepts as diffusion,
dissemination, pulsion, interplay, communication, interdependence connected with the ideas of
language, of homo pictor and homo significans, designates the capacity of mind to generalize itself
through its own abstractions and so become its own environment. Language changes nature into
culture and culture into an immanent semiotic system.
As an artistic, philosophical and social phenomenon, postmodernism in America represents a culture
revolution of which the spirit of the 60s, from the visionarism of the New Frontier (Kennedys
doctrine) and the hopes of the Great Society (Lyndon Johnson) through anger, revolt, and iconoclasm
to the antinomianism, skepticism and alienation of the ending years of the decade, acted as a catalyst.
In the pluralist and individualist climate of the following decade (70s), the reflexive, parodic and
antinomic postmodernism of the 60s would dissolve into various eclectic tendencies: neoromantic
(particularly in music and architecture), deconstructionist, neodadaist, pop, camp, kitsch, and many
In the 70s, in literature and arts style and technique become an obsession seen by some as the last
pulsation of the agonizing Modernism, by others, more likely, as a full manifestation of the playful,
whimsical and parodic spirit of Postmodernism. Actually, the decade is the apogee of
postmodernism. The recycling of styles, the use of style as a structural principle or as a theme in
itself gave substance and glamour to postmodernist writing, inspired its metafictions and fabulations.
Such exemplary postmodernist fictions of the 1970s are Barths Chimera (1972) and Letters (1979),
Pynchons Gravitys Rainbow (1973), the writing of Hawkes, Barthelme, Kosinski and Sukenik
made of the same decade the apogee of Postmodernist. Significantly, one of the most highly praised
novels of the decade, Bellows Humboldts Gift (1975) included among its foci the transition from
modernist to postmodernist styles as part of American literatures turn to subjectivism which started
in the late 50s, and Americas turn to individualism after the 60s.

Post Modernism: the term post-modernism was used for the first time in architecture, referring to
the cubist and highly functional buildings. In arts, PM means a stress on the pastiche, imitation, the
mixture of genres, fragmentation in painting and an increasing role of the views and playful irony. In
philosophy and critical theory, PM means a problematized relationship between real and unreal, the
stress on the constructive nature of truth (truth is something made up), skepticism towards the
function of knowledge. In fiction, there are three meanings of the term: the first one, promoted by
Ihab Hassan, John Barth for them PM means formal experimentation and artificiality of discourse;
the second one: for the Afro-American writers, PM means the rising of minority fiction since the
1970s. In this sense, the stress is not at all on innovation, on experimentation; the third meaning for
other critics, PM means the appearance of cyberpunk fiction, graphic novels, hypertexts (reference to
using the computer and the readers participation in the construction of the novel). Ihab Hassan, in
The PostModern Turn, proposed an eleven-point classification as far as the PM is concerned:
1) Indeterminacy - ambiguity, relativity, rupture in the narration, discontinuity, randomness;
2) Fragmentation - the novel doesnt flow as a unit;
3) Decanonization - no more canons, disrespect for genres, deconstruction of language;
4) Selflessness - the self is multiplied, is split; no belief in the self as a whole;
5) The unrepresentable prevails - unlike the traditional novel, mimesis has no role to play or its only
6) Irony asserting the opposite of what you mean;
7) Hybridization between genres;
8) Carnivalization prevalence of the absurd, of multiplicity of voices;
9) Performance the text needs to be acted out; the author confesses his pleasure in constructing the
10) Constructionism reality as a construct, it is not objective, its only an effect of our mind
(perception); it is not imitated;
11) Immanence the writers mind is everywhere, his work is a product of his mind; language is
more important than what is expressed by it, attention turns to its structure.
Postmodern works appear as fictive, artificial constructions in which there is a random structure. The
narrative is like a game between the reader and the writer, and the writer uses various means to draw
attention upon the text itself (exaggerations, repetitions). Characters are flat, very often grotesque.
There is humour, but usually black humour, or highly satirical. Mythical elements occur, but they
usually appear in parodic forms (parody is a very important element). Other characteristics
(principles) of PM: it is antinovelistic (no plot, no characters); PM rejects the idea that language can
represent reality; language creates the world rather than mirrors it. Knowledge is also distorted by
language, by the way it is communicated; self-reflexiveness in the metafiction (fiction within
fiction); surfictionism (reflexiveness of the self as a writer; purpose to unmask fictionality (?)).
Subjective perception of reality, denies the fact that the author conveys a true perception of reality.
What the author writes is only an illusion. Mock at the idea that art can render reality, even
subjectively. Technique is important. A way of transcending modernism: undermining the very idea
of art as institution (which is a typical modernist creation). PM undermines the idea of truth,
recreating the mind in search of a thruth that continually eludes it.

Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse Five: the novel is very revolutionary in conception, because it is
also a novel about language, about how to write a novel. It has metafictional characteristics (self-
reflexivity in fiction means metafiction a narrative which talks about its creation). PM elements:
- his view of war is pessimistic, as well as his view of human condition, having as a result an amount
of black humour;
- the novel is a melange of science-fiction, autobiographical and metafictional elements;
- the idea of a pluralist universe, of fragmentation of time. Time is spastic, Billy Pilgrim says. He
does not have a normal life, his life is always floating. There are fragments in his life which are not
ranged in a succession; their patterning is at random; he lives in the past, in the future, in a state of
- there are random leaps in time and there is no causality. Things happen in such a way that often can
be taken as effect comes before the cause;
- there is no chronological order in the novel; objective and subjective time intersect and contaminate
each other. Present, past, future are seen as a continuum, a simultaneous structure, which brings us
to several perspectives/realities at the same time. Time becomes relative, arbitrary;
- questioning chronology is questioning/doubting ones own identity, and historical validity.
Personality is doubted;
- in this novel, we deal with a perverted pilgrimage (one finds no truth in the end) allusion to
Pilgrims Progress;
- two different points of view co-exist. The first, in the opening chapter, is a self-reflexive one, while
the second consists in the use of the neutral omniscience (the author diminishes his role as an
authority), a procedure that permits the rendering of Billy Pilgrims story and, at the same time,
Vonneguts detachment from his character, a fact which implies satirical approaches subtly
camuflated in the novel;
- the author explains the creation of his work; the map he draws with his daughters pencil is a kind
of explanation, he gives us a clue;
- the book is characterized by anti-form (it doesnt have a consistent form); writing the text can and
should be continued by the reader;
- the book is based on the idea of play/game; there is a ludic universe in which the most important is
the play without rules, not the game, but the play;
- Vonnegut frustrates the readers expectations in order to bring about an experience of the absurd.
He allows the reader the temporary illusion that he has the answer and then disillusions him;
- he uses intertextuality, he quotes from several books; some of the characters are to be found in
other texts by Vonnegut;
- the way he presents history: a deconstruction of the world, the fact that everything is absurd,
suggested by the phrase, very often used, So it goes!. There is no history, history turns into
histories, he offers alternative histories; a new idea of history; time is either continuous or
- unrelated episodes, no control of time and space;
- the bombing of Dresden and the war are just pretexts; what the novel really presents is a border
picture of the human condition. Billy does not really progress, he just moves to and fro;
- the author deconstructs the aura of war by sending children to war;
- he returns to Dresden not to remember, not to re-live the events, but to rethink and revise his vision
of those absurd moments;
- contrary to the American tradition, Vonnegut mocks at the ideas of war, of innocence and of
- the participation of the author in the events is obvious by the first person pronoun. PM subscribed
to the idea death of the death of the author and Vonnegut did also (the author appears in the text);
- intertextuality he brings poems, even a play, into the novel; surrealistic elements: songs, stories
within stories, mixture of dreamlike and real events.

Nabokov is representative for PM (although Lolita has modernist elements too). His best-known
novels are Lolita and Pale Fire. Pale Fire starts with a poem which includes a novel in itself, but at
the same time, the novel includes a poem. It is a mixture of genres (PM characteristic). The book is a
kind of parody of his own activity, both as a writer and as a teacher. PM characteristics:
Lolita PM characteristics: it is a book which can be read in various ways: as a detective story, as a
love story, as a travel book and also as a book about imagination, about the imaginative effort and
in this respect it is very close to PM (at a certain point in the book, he even asserts: Lolita didnt
exist). The book is a parody of many forms of novelistic discourse, and also a parody of thrillers
and other shocking books; form this point of view, it is a PM book.
- the book is based very much on linguistic pastiche, on linguistic word-play and all kinds of aberant
forms of syntax and description;
- Nabokov undermines the literary conventions, the assumption of a reliable narrator; the novel
appears as a confession, as a kind of memoir in front of a jury. He indirectly makes us, the readers,
side with him; he undermines his memoir in a very subtle way;
- intertextuality with the Shakespearian title The Taming of the Shrew (we have a continuous
taming with Lolita);
- there are shiftings of identity. Instable identity with Humbert Humbert, he assumes various roles;
assuming different egos might suggest the artists various interpretations. The name also suggests
- the book is rich in allusions: the reader is challenged to look beyond the text in order to understand
it; we have to fill in the gaps.
- Nabokov parodies or imitates a great number of genres: the case study, the novel of the double,
detective story, pornography (he mixes them).
- deconstruction of identity (he continuously undermines his identity)
- the reader is invited to read between the lines, not just look at the appearances; one has to reread, to
decipher, to understand it.
Maxine Hongs The Woman Warrior attracted both those interested in postmodern techniques of
autobiography and those interested in stories of cultural displacement and alienation. For scholars of
autobiography, Kingston's story represents an important break from past writings; her complex,
multi-layered and quasi- fictional narrative flies in the face of traditional autobiographies, which tend
to follow a linear-chronological pattern and maintain a stable narratoran "I"throughout.
Kingston's memoir, on the other hand, is a blending of voices and styles, often contradictory, that use
many of the techniques of postmodernism: ambiguity, incoherence, pluralism, and irony.
With his use of surrealism and creation of vast, varied, and incredible conspiracy theories, Pynchon
has remained one of the most original and important of American novelists. Almost all works by
Pynchon are deliberately complex. The plots are often difficult to follow both because of their
intricate twists and turns and their sometimes incredibly esoteric subject matter. Pynchon's
characters, furthermore, can be hard to relate to. Pynchon has a tendency to fill his novels not with
real characters but rather with facades or brief cameo figures that exist in the novel only for some
specific purpose, after which they disappear. Indeed, Gravity's Rainbow has over 400 of these types
of characters. In The Crying of Lot 49, examples of such characters are Manny di Presso and Jesus
Arrabel. By using completely unrealistic and somewhat obvious name symbolism, Pynchon is
wildly, and yet somehow generously, mocking these authors, in much the same way that The Crying
of Lot 49 mocks a thoroughly mockable California culture that the book nonetheless seems to find
endlessly interesting. From a different perspective, the names can be seen as a small commentary on
the use of language. After all, why could someone not be named "Oedipa Maas"; the name itself is
no less absurd than other names used by other novelists. Pynchon may be indicating the absurd
nature of associating people and names so closely together and inferring things about people from
names. In effect, Pynchon is exploding the assumption that any type of meaning can be inferred from
a name, that names might be some kind of understandable communication. The Crying of Lot 49 was
written in the 1960s, one of the most politically and socially turbulent decades in U.S. history. The
Crying of Lot 49 contains a pervasive sense of cultural chaos; indeed, the book draws on all areas of
culture and society, including many of those mentioned above. Many of the problems with chaos
found in the novel are tied in to the idea of communication. The major symbol of order in the novel,
Maxwell's Demon, cannot be operated because it requires a certain unattainable level of
communication. Letters in the novel, which should be clear and direct forms of stable
communication, are ultimately meaningless. The novel also contains a mail-delivery group that
requires its members to mail a letter once a week even if they have nothing to say. Indeed, the letter
Oedipa receives in chapter one may itself be meaningless, since it is the first step in what may be
nothing more than a big joke played on Oedipa. The religious moment Oedipa experiences in chapter
two seems for a moment to promise the possibility of some kind of communication being
communicated, but the process breaks down. Religion, language, science, all of the purveyors of
communication, and through that communication a sense of wholeness, do not correctly function in
the novel. Related to the theme of the problem of communication is the novel's representation of the
way in which people impose interpretation on the meaningless. It is very telling that Oedipa wants to
turn the mystery of the Tristero into a "constellation," which is not really an example of true order.
Solar systems are simply mankind's way of imposing an artificial but pleasing order on the
randomness of outer space. It is, furthermore, an imposition of a two-dimensional structure onto a
three-dimensional reality. Oedipa's quest to construct a constellation seems to indicate that she is
only looking for a superficial system. Indeed, she never succeeds in figuring out the meaning behind
the Tristero, and, further, the novel ends with the very strong likelihood that the mystery may hold no
mystery at all. And just as she is unable to piece together the puzzle of the Tristero, she is similarly
unable to refashion her life after it begins to fall apart. Even the United States government, which
tries to impose an order on the world of mail delivery, cannot prevent side groups from springing up
to undermine its work. There are two concepts underlying all this: puns and science. The novel is full
of puns and language games of all sorts. For instance, the odd names of the novel's characters are a
type of play on different words and their symbolic baggage. Another example is the concept of the
word "lot" in the title, which actually occurs several times in the book but does not relate to anything
in the story until the last few pages. Also, we see that Mucho's radio station spells "fuck" when read
in reverse, forming another little language game that does not have necessarily any inherent meaning
but does indicate an interest in manipulating language for intellectual enjoyment. Language is the
means through which the story is communicated, and Pynchon has chosen to use a language full of
jokes, puns, and satires. Science seems to stand in opposition to the chaos of language that all of
Pynchon's manipulation suggests. Science is ordered and coherent and offers a body of definite
knowledge that all can study. And yet, even the coherence of science is undermined in the existence
of Maxwell's Demon and the figure of Dr. Hilarius. Though pure science may offer coherence, the
uses to which that science is put, the interpretations imposed on that science, can scatter that
coherence to the wind. This novel thematically treats a blend of many different cultural fragments,
and one of the ways it does so is by writing about many different levels of society. This book
discusses in detail the culture of suburbia, hippies, colleges, theater, Jacobean Europe, academia,
medicine, and conspiracy groups, to name only a few. One of Pynchon's strong suits is his ability to
piece together all these fragments into one logical order, all the while questioning the legitimacy and
efficacy of the ordering impulse itself.

Three Distinctions in the term Postmodern*
(* = -ity, -ism, ist)
These terms are often conflated, but actually mean very different things.
Postmodernity is historical. It designates the period from approximately the 1960s to the present,
although some people claim the beginnings of postmodernity is shortly after World War II.
Significant moments of postmodernity include the multinational economic system, the Cold War and
its after-effects; the decline of the urban and growth of suburbia/exurbia; the increasing
acknowledgment of mulitculturalism or ethnic diversity; and the rise of technology, particularly
television and computers.
Postmodernism is artistic or aesthetic. It refers to styles, ideas, and themes increasingly prevalent
in works the 1960s to the present. Some indicators of postmodernism include: pastiche, a mix of
genres or voices within a single work, fragmented or "open" forms that acknowledge the power of
the audience, and the use of irony.
Postmodernist is philosophical and theoretical. These approaches and concepts are skeptical of
any totalizing narratives (as Lyotard suggests), foundations, or structures of knowledge. Some
approaches examine the relationship between Real, Unreal, Fake, and Simulation. Other assert the
constructedness of meaning, truth, or history. Still others examine the importance of identity and
subjectivity. All reject the idea of a single, unifying moment: one Truth, real history, objectivity.

The Postwar and the Postmodern
Although postmodernism is viewed as beginning in the 1960s, World War II is also considered to be
a turning point and influence. Postmodern works can be seen, in part, as a resulting from individual
and communal struggling with the atrocities of a multinational war that was made possible, in part,
because of the technological advances attributed to the advancement of civilization.
Postmodern works tend have certain interests (although not every work will contain all traits):
Questions about identity
Dystopian or apocalyptic views
A broad skepticism, particularly of institutions of power (and an increasing belief in
conspiracy theory)
Presence of subcultural or countercultural elements
Resisting, redefining, or playing with conventional forms for the genre
Opposing or undermining "official" stories or "metanarratives"
Centered around identity politics (identity defined by race, gender, sexual orientation,
ethnicity, or religion--also age and disability)
Hybrid forms or drawing from multiple genres
Emphasizes multinational or global economies, capitalism, or postindustrial society (a
services and information-oriented culture rather than one based on goods)
References suburbanization and deals with notions of community
Reflects on the influence of technology, especially television and the computer.

Postmodernism, Modernism, and the Avant-Garde
These movements may be distinguished by three broad concerns: style, relationship to popular (or
mass) culture, and political stances.
Modernism is generally defined as the period of time from the late nineteenth and early twentieth
century to the end of World War II. Modernists attempted to "make it new," or find ways to convey
the experience of the modern world. It attempts to create a unified vision of the external world, and
often works to unify the works form with its material.
Examining Modernism & Popular Culture: High modernism is an artistic movement that opposes the
diminishment of consciousness that popular culture encourages while at the same time attempting to
express the potential in art. High modernism sometimes uses popular culture's genres and languages
to express art's potential but do so only for its own purpose rather than to acknowledge popular
culture; it resists and opposes the prevalence of popular culture.
Modernity focuses on questions of epistemology or knowledge--how do we know?--versus
postmodernity's questions of ontology or ways of being--what constitutes identity?
Avant-Garde refers to a variety of Western European movements of the early twentieth century,
usually associated with extreme statements and political stances. The Dada movement (1910s and
1920s) defied artistic conventions and what they stood for--faith in progress and rationality. Dadaists
combined pieces of everyday objects into montages. The Surrealist movement (1920s and 1930s)
followed Dada in its rejections of conventions, but did so for a "higher" purpose--to unite the
conscious and subconscious. The Futurist movement, primarily an Italian movement of the early part
of the twentieth century, was a celebratory examination of and faith in technology. Futurists focused
on the movement, power, speed, and space of the modern world by celebrating technology
(particularly skyscrapers, automobiles, and trains) as predicting a near-utopian future for humankind.
Examining the Avant-Garde & Popular Culture: The avant-garde used popular culture for its political
and social stances, absorbing its anarchic and transformative possibilities.

Postmodernism draws on both modernism and the avant-garde for its influences. Like modernists,
postmodernists experiment with conventional forms. However, unlike modernists, postmodernists do
not dismiss either popular culture or seek to create divisions between high art and popular art. Thus,
one of postmodernism's strongest ties to the avant-garde is in its embrace of popular culture. In
particular, one of the strongest ties to popular culture that postmodernism embraces has to do with

Postmodern Terms
Anti-foundationalism: Refers to the interdisciplinary questioning of previously held
assumptions of disciplines. There is not one, unified, totalized set of answers or assumptions.
Authors, Readers, and Originality: Related to notions of deconstruction and intertextuality,
these terms question a traditional notion of the author, particularly in terms of authority and
control. Roland Barthes, in "The Death of the Author," and Michel Foucault, in "What is an
Author?", both question the primacy and control of the author over the text (see work and
text). Related to deconstruction (see below), this view also places more control and
responsibility for the construction of meaning with the reader. It also sees texts as developing
from social and cultural constructs. This brings up the term "originality" as a point for debate.
Deconstruction: Founded by Jacques Derrida, deconstruction looks for the contradictions in
texts and within larger systems of meaning. It is especially critical of the way we examine the
relationship between language and the world, or the "sign" (language, words, icons) and the
"signified" (that which the sign represents). A deconstructive view states that language
mediates our relationship to the world but language is inadequate--there's always a gap
between the two. Deconstruction further argues that the meaning of any text is indeterminate
because it cannot be controlled; there is a mediation between texts, readers, and authors that
results in almost uncontrollable excess.
Grand Narratives/Metanarratives: Jean-Francois Lyotard, author of The Postmodern
Condition, argues against any grand narratives (or metanarratives) that offer totalizing views
of any discipline, culture or history. This includes critical approaches such as Marxism.
Objectivity, Subjectivity, History, and Truth: Postmodernism increasingly questions the
notion of objectivity and subjectivity. The boundaries between fiction and truth become
increasingly blurred. Postmodern texts that used to be considered subjective/ fictive
increasingly incorporate historical figures or events into their pieces or structure their texts as
historical or factual documents (letters, diaries, newspaper accounts). Texts formerly viewed
as objective/truthful use many of the techniques in fictive pieces. Objectivity is increasingly
seen as a construction and the pretense of total objectivity is questioned. In some disciplines,
objectivity is not only viewed as impossible when attempted but any attempt at objectivity is
suspect (as in ethnography). Other disciplines that were assumed to be objective by nature are
now openly and increasingly self-reflexive or openly subjective, such as more recent
biographies or in the "New Journalism."
Intertextuality: The explicit relationship of a text to other texts. It may also include parts of
a text that are normally thought of as peripheral to the text, such as footnotes and indexes or
album covers. Intertextuality is related to pastiche in form, although not necessarily in
Pastiche: Like intertextuality, this refers to the relationship between texts. However, pastiche
tends to be characterized by fragments and excess. Pastiche tends to use rather than reference
other texts, usually in fragments. Often pastiche is known as the "excessive quotation" of
texts. Sometimes this appears to be done for merely stylistic purposes, or "referencing for the
sake of referencing." Fredric Jameson refers to pastiche as a "blank parody," similar in
technique to parody but without its intentions.
Simulacrum: Taken from Plato and appropriated by postmodernists, this refers to the
identical copy for which no original has ever existed. It is used to discuss the "Fake" that
replaces the "Real."
The Subject: Also known as the self, the postmodern idea about the subject differs that that
of modernism. While modernism sees the self as stable and unified, wholly knowable and
capable of self-actualization, postmodernism makes no such claims. While the notion behind
a unified self is attractive, its use in modernism generally refers to only certain selves being
recognized; other selves are seen as lesser (including women and people of color). In
modernism, the self is also seen as divided between the conscious and the unconscious.
Postmodernism claims that the subject, the preferred term, is more fragmentary and fluid in
construction. The subject shifts and is influenced by social structures, language, and culture
rather than primarily through conflicts with(in) oneself. As in other areas, the postmodern
subject is not viewed as a metanarrative or absolute. Such a concern with the subject is of
great importance when examining the Other (the "not us") that exists, whether in terms of
gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, and so forth. In terms of gender and race, the
postmodern subject is constructed more through language, culture and society than through
Work and Text: Roland Barthes, in "From Work to Text," claims the term work refers to a
closed piece with meaning that is limited or fixed by the author. Text refers to an open piece
with fluid boundaries. A text does not have to be literary writing; it can be music,
architecture, film, photographs, and so forth.

Postmodern Fiction
Three broad categories, none of which are discrete. Authors may belong to more than one category,
and each category could be renamed or broken down further.
Innovative Form and Experimental Form Writers: Those who play with form, language, style.
John Barth, Grace Paley, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, Richard Brautigan, Donald Barthelme.
Minority Writers and Marginalized Writers: The increased inclusion of writers of differing ethnic
and racial backgrounds in the traditional literary canon. This is not the recovery work of
rediscovering past authors, but the texts of current writers who often also bring to their writing
questions of identity and context. Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Sherman Alexie.
Mass Culture Writers and Technology Writers: Those who write with the changing landscape of
American culture in mind. These writers tend to emphasize the changed relationship between high
culture and popular culture; the influence of capitalism and mass culture; the emphasis on the visual
and the image; and the pervasive influence of media and technology. Kurt Vonnegut, William
Gibson, Laurie Anderson.

Forms and Styles Prevalent in Postmodern Texts (Fiction)
The Blurred Boundary of Truth & Fiction
Refers to uncertain boundaries between fact and fiction. Fictive forms increasingly resemble those
formerly associated with fact, and vice versa. Historical events and people occupy fictional
narratives. The memoir, the biography, the documentary, and journalism increasingly borrow from
literary forms. Hybrid forms flourish, and questioning the boundary between truth and fiction
becomes a dominant question in postmodernism. The easy binary between objectivity and
subjectivity is also addressed.
Form Innovations and the Use of Conventions
Refers to adapting or extending the use of the narrative strategies of modernism. At the same time
postmodern authors play with these conventions, they tend to address postmodern issues such as the
nature of meaning and representation. Also of concern here are questions of language. Some
conventions and techniques that are explored include: linear narrative forms, coherence, the
detachment or invisibility of the author, and intertextuality.
High Culture & Popular Culture
Refers to the blending of high culture, or elite forms, with popular culture, or low forms. This is due
in part to the power of the twentieth century technologies that distribute popular forms: television,
film, computers. Serious culture is not necessarily in opposition to popular culture but rather uses it.
In one manifestation, the high culture/popular culture boundary blends to offer possibilities for new,
hybrid forms. This not only includes the use of mainstream genres--like literary detective fiction--but
the incorporation of high culture concerns into popular culture forms--like the idea of the subject in
Calvin & Hobbes comics. Another manifestation concerns high culture and intertextual references to
popular culture.
Refers to retelling history from another viewpoint, often for the purpose of countering what was once
viewed as "the whole truth" or a metanarrative. In many cases, this is a political activity that seeks to
transform an understanding of both the past and the present. In constructions, this use of history
tends to blend fact and fiction (see above).
Retellings & Re-Envisionings
This contributes to the ongoing debates about authors and originality. Postmodern authors retell, re-
envision, or explore established texts and genres. Often they will revise the "original" by playing
with conventional narratives, altering the focus of the narrative, or try to find "new" stories in the
old. These retellings can either overtly update one story or refer to a genre/style of writing. The latter
is common in postmodernism's use of science fiction, detective novels, or fantasy.
Refers to the postmodern fascination with many different forms of technology: television, computers,
automobiles, telecommunications, and so forth. This includes a fascination with robots, hybrids
between humans and machines called cyborgs (a term used by Donna Haraway), computers and
hypertext, and cyberpunk. Postmodern attitude toward technology either tends to be celebratory and
utopian, or technology as a salvation, or technology as isolating, restrictive, and dystopian, or
technology as dangerous.

Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 is a detective novel without a solution. The heroine of the
book criss-crosses northern California, chasing after clues to a mysterious symbol that keeps
appearing in place after place. Finally, just when she seems on the verge of uncovering the symbol's
meaning, the novel ends. One of the great pleasures of narrative is that it provides a closure we don't
often get in real life. People want an ending--particularly a happy ending, but an ending above all.
Postmodern texts are more realistic. There are always questions left open in real life. You must
change your expectations of literature to tolerate the ambiguity, and you grow to value it. The
ending of Lot 49 is far more powerful this way. The dilemma is what's interesting, not the solution.
Its embrace of ambiguity, among other qualities, makes The Crying of Lot 49 an early classic of
postmodern American literature. Postmodern fiction can be vexing, challenging, shocking, beautiful,
sly, anxiety-ridden, haunting, satirical, and magical, and much of it is an acquired taste.
Some critics call "postmodern" anything written after 1945. Geyh defines postmodern literature by
styles and themes. Does it blur the boundary between fiction and nonfiction, or between prose and
poetry? Does it have a fragmented narrative without a traditional ending? Does it retell the past--or
even an earlier work of literature--from the viewpoint of the forgotten, the marginal, or the
oppressed? Does it draw upon the forms or language or material objects of popular culture? Does it
revel in playful irony and language experimentation? Does the author intrude, addressing the reader
directly, talking about the work itself, or even appearing as a character in it? All are telltale signs of
postmodernism. "There is very little that's brand new," Geyh stresses. "It's not that many of these
things haven't been done before, but it's the way in which they come together in this time" that gives
postmodern literature its distinctive identity.
But there is something new under the sun: 20th-century inventions such as television and computers,
which have changed our world and our literature. Above all, says Geyh, postmodern literature
reflects the vast cultural changes wrought by technology and its inseparable counterpart, global
consumerism. ("The all-pervasiveness of American popular culture and consumer products and
advertising is inescapable," she notes. "I cannot find a place in this world where they're not watching
Baywatch.") You see the influence of television all over postmodern fiction. You can see it in the
fragmentary nature of the fiction, [and] a lot of the fiction mimics the fast-cut edits and shifts and
juxtapositions of television as well. Writers may present events out of sequence, or shift between
events that seem unconnected, or merge past and present. The effect can range from a kind of hyper-
realism to satirical commentary to poignancy.
Another often-used technique is pastiche--a collage-like style that mixes different genres or
contradictory voices within one work. For example, a the novels incorporates Native American
chants and poems. Other works may blend in diary accounts, newspaper items, drawings,
photographs, and lists. These construction styles are partly a legacy of TV. "Marshall McLuhan
talked about how television tends to collapse space and time into one seamless mosaic, so that
everything seems to be happening all the time at the same time in the same place," says Geyh.
Likewise, she adds, "There's an aspect of postmodernism that views the past as a collection of ideas
and forms and styles and material to be ransacked at will and combined in new ways."
All this free-wheeling shape-shifting can overwhelm. Such works require a great deal more
involvement from the reader than traditional narratives do. The reader becomes more actively
involved in assembling the work and determining its meaning.
One of the reasons she loves postmodern fiction, Geyh says, is that it gives "a sense of the
world...that I find very powerful. The fiction illuminates things in our daily lives--we inhabit a
postmodern world. I think the [new] technologies are inescapable and they have changed perception
itself, really."