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  1. Postmodernism Jean-Francois Lyotard: The Postmodern would be that which in the modern invokes the unpresentable in presentation itself, that which refuses the consolation of correct forms, refuses the consensus of taste permitting a common experience of nostalgia for the impossible, and inquires into new presentations--not to take pleasure in them, but to better produce the feeling that there is something unpresentable.

  2. Postmodernism presents a set of complex philosophical and theoretical issues. • One way to begin thinking about postmodernism is by thinking about modernism, the movement from which postmodernism seems to grow or emerge. • As you know, modernist literature tends to share certain characteristics. From a literary perspective, the main aspects of modernism include*: * The following notes on modernism and modernity versus postmodernity are taken from Mary Klages’ Page at

  3. Modernism: • an emphasis on impressionism and subjectivity in writing; an emphasis on HOW perception takes place, rather than on WHAT is perceived. • a movement away from the apparent objectivity provided by omniscient third-person narrators, fixed narrative points of view, and clear-cut moral positions. • a blurring of distinctions between genres, so that poetry seems more documentary and prose seems more poetic.

  4. Modernism, cont.: • an emphasis on fragmented forms, discontinuous narratives, and random-seeming collages of different materials. • a tendency toward reflexivity, or self-consciousness, about the production of the work of art, so that each piece calls attention to its own status as a production, as something constructed and consumed in particular ways. • a rejection of elaborate formal aesthetics in favor of minimalist designs and a rejection, in large part, of formal aesthetic theories, in favor of spontaneity and discovery in creation. • A rejection of the distinction between "high" and "low" or popular culture, both in choice of materials used to produce art and in methods of displaying, distributing, and consuming art.

  5. Postmodernism, like modernism, follows most of these same ideas, rejecting boundaries between high and low forms of art, rejecting rigid genre distinctions, emphasizing pastiche, parody, bricolage, irony, and playfulness. • Postmodern art (and thought) favors reflexivity and self-consciousness, fragmentation and discontinuity (especially in narrative structures), ambiguity, simultaneity, and an emphasis on the destructured, decentered, dehumanized subject.

  6. But--while postmodernism seems very much like modernism in these ways, it differs from modernism in its attitude toward a lot of these trends. • Modernism, for example, tends to present a fragmented view of human subjectivity and history, but presents that fragmentation as something tragic, something to be lamented and mourned as a loss. Many modernist works try to uphold the idea that works of art can provide the unity, coherence, and meaning which has been lost in most of modern life; art will do what other human institutions fail to do.

  7. Postmodernism, by contrast, doesn't lament the idea of fragmentation, provisionality, or incoherence, but rather celebrates that.

  8. Modernity vs. Postmodernity • Following Frederic Jameson, there is another way to conceive the relationship between modernism and postmodernism, and this is to recognize them as distinct cultural formations. • Modernity is fundamentally about order: about rationality and rationalization, creating order out of chaos

  9. Modernity vs. Postmodernity (cont.) • The ways that modern societies go about creating order have to do with the effort to achieve stability. • Lyotard equates that stability with the idea of "totality," or a totalized system. • Totality, and stability, and order, Lyotard argues, are maintained in modern societies through the means of "grand narratives" or "master narratives," which are stories a culture tells itself about its practices and beliefs.

  10. Modernity vs. Postmodernity (cont.) • Postmodernism then is the critique of grand narratives, the awareness that such narratives serve to mask the contradictions and instabilities that are inherent in any social organization or practice. In other words, every attempt to create "order" always demands the creation of an equal amount of "disorder," but a "grand narrative" masks the constructedness of these categories by explaining that "disorder" really is chaotic and bad, and that "order" really is rational and good.

  11. Modernity vs. Postmodernity (cont.) • Postmodernism, in rejecting grand narratives, favors "mini-narratives," stories that explain small practices, local events, rather than large-scale universal or global concepts. Postmodern "mini-narratives" are always situational, provisional, contingent, and temporary, making no claim to universality, truth, reason, or stability.

  12. Modernism vs. Postmodernism: A Breakdown* • Master Narratives and metanarratives of history, culture and national identity as accepted before WWII (American-European myths of progress). Myths of cultural and ethnic origin accepted as received. • Suspicion and rejection of Master Narratives for history and culture; local narratives, ironic deconstruction of master narratives: counter-myths of origin. * The following breakdown can be found at Georgetown’s Po-Mo page, located at:

  13. Modernism vs. Postmodernism: A Breakdown (Cont.) • Faith in "Grand Theory" (totalizing explanations in history, science and culture) to represent all knowledge and explain everything. • Rejection of totalizing theories; pursuit of localizing and contingent theories.

  14. Modernism vs. Postmodernism: A Breakdown (Cont.) • Faith in, and myths of, social and cultural unity, hierarchies of social-class and ethnic/national values, seemingly clear bases for unity. • Social and cultural pluralism, disunity, unclear bases for social/national/ ethnic unity.

  15. Modernism vs. Postmodernism: A Breakdown (Cont.) • Master narrative of progress through science and technology. • Skepticism of idea of progress, anti-technology reactions, neo-Luddism; new age religions.

  16. Modernism vs. Postmodernism: A Breakdown (Cont.) • Sense of unified, centered self; "individualism," unified identity. • Sense of fragmentation and decentered self; multiple, conflicting identities. • Hierarchy, order, centralized control. • Subverted order, loss of centralized control, fragmentation.

  17. Modernism vs. Postmodernism: A Breakdown (Cont.) • Faith in "Depth" (meaning, value, content, the signified) over "Surface" (appearances, the superficial, the signifier). • Attention to play of surfaces, images, signifiers without concern for "Depth". Relational and horizontal differences, differentiations.

  18. Modernism vs. Postmodernism: A Breakdown (Cont.) • Crisis in representation and status of the image after photography and mass media. • Culture adapting to simulation, visual media becoming undifferentiated equivalent forms, simulation and real-time media substituting for the real.

  19. Modernism vs. Postmodernism: A Breakdown (Cont.) • Faith in the "real" beyond media, language, symbols, and representations; authenticity of "originals." • Hyper-reality, image saturation, simulacra seem more powerful than the "real"; images and texts with no prior "original". "As seen on TV" and "as seen on MTV" are more powerful than unmediated experience. Dichotomy of high and low culture (official vs. popular culture).

  20. Modernism vs. Postmodernism: A Breakdown (Cont.) • Knowledge mastery, attempts to embrace a totality. Quest for interdisciplinary harmony. The encyclopedia. • Navigation through information overload, information management; fragmented, partial knowledge; just-in-time knowledge. The Web.

  21. Modernism vs. Postmodernism: A Breakdown (Cont.) • Seriousness of intention and purpose, middle-class earnestness. • Play, irony, challenge to official seriousness, subversion of earnestness.