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Origin of Postmodernism: When did postmodernism begin?

In an article, I explored the characteristics of postmodernism in which I briefly discussed the background of #postmodernism. The term coined by Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) early in the century to refer to the last quarter of the 19th century, a time where capitalism and imperialism and Western civilization in general began to decline. The ‘post’ means ‘after’ modernity. Thus, post-modernity is interpreted as a time of constant change, multiplicity, fluidity and uncertainty, where knowledge, #identity and culture conceived as verbs and that are always already socially and historically situated. In a general view, postmodernism is a movement in philosophy and literary theory began late 20th-century. It generally questions the basic assumptions of Western philosophy in the modern period, which can be roughly the 17th through the 19th century. Hence, as implied by its name, postmodernism origin goes back to the end of the modernism period. In this post, I will review the origin of postmodernism and specifically its impact on literature.

Postmodernism origin: Events that inspired postmodernism movement

Postmodernism works characterize by multiple qualities featuring ordinary places and portrays a release from meaning, a desire to correct the past, and a desire to enjoy oneself. As discussed in my article “Postmodern Literature Characteristics: Define the moral and purpose of Transgressive fiction?” in this new era, the meta-narratives of the past and existence of one truth or reality faded away. This was inspired by events such as the end of World War II, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the Civil Rights movement and the Cold War. So, phenomenon such as the holocaust and the atomic bomb, pushed society to see reality as a more subjective matter than objective. This change from objectivity of previous era resulted in new forms of art and literature which demonstrated the new subjective mindset.

During the period of postwar there was a strong desire to correct the past and right the wrongs that happened during both of the World Wars and here we see the major reconstruction of norms and values and moving toward fluidity. With advances in technology and rights, individuals could better define who they were. America in this period saw themselves as a superpower because of their atomic bombs. Minority groups such as women and African Americans also began developing a voice and identity distinct in American culture. With people like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X leading the Civil Rights Movement, the African American identity started becoming recognized by society. However, as not everyone supported this change, racism also became another important theme of the postmodern era.

Hence, such events influenced the writings of this era that display the diversity, materialism, and pride seen throughout America. Postmodernism focused on the present and the future and we can see that literature began focusing more on everyday life and new technology. It was and is an ongoing, evolving period of American literature and the world. Hence, we can safely say that the dominant mode of literature between 1960s and 1990s was postmodernist writing. During this period we have the killing of Kennedy, and the Berlin Wall that was the most potent symbol of the Cold War.

Accordingly, I can say that postmodernism arose after World War II as a reaction to the perceived failings of modernism. The failing of modernism in such case was their radical artistic projects that were mostly associated with totalitarianism or had been integrated into mainstream culture. So, for me, the basic form of postmodernism goes back as early as the 1940s.

Postmodern Literature Origin: The First Novel

In regard to literature, which in my perception was one of the first means of fighting against modernism and bringing postmodernism to life can be the works of Jorge Luis Borges and John Hawkes.

One of the most important authors of postmodernism is Jorge Luis Borges with his stories colored with various postmodern themes and techniques. Borges's is often compared with Kafka's fictions, as his works are expressionist, projective, and personal. But #Borges's stories are very different. They are mainly written and designed as metaphysical arguments with dense, self-enclosed, and their own deviant logics. Above all, they are meant to be impersonal and to surpass individual consciousness. In my perspective, Borges is arguably a bridge between modernism and post-modernism literature. His work has a modernist literature structure while it stripped the human mind of all foundations of religious or ideological objectivity. As Borges is a meta-fictionist, he knows that there's finally no difference between good and evil.

Obviously, this has postmodern implications, but Borges's perception is a profound mystical insight. The amazing link of his works between monism and solipsism is such thin that separates his work from traditional meta-narratives of modernism. One great example of his books is “The Garden of Forking Paths” published in 1941. This book is full of postmodern twists and the concept of infinity and paradox illustrated by the cultural and postmodern relativism enhanced in the blurred boundary between fiction and reality and between the East and the West. This book can be one of the important sources for his stance on postmodernism as well as Transgressive philosophy with this story's final refusal to closure allows the reader to engage in new discourse and invites the reader to evaluate the relevance of this kind of cultural and epistemological relativism on their own.

On the other hand, I can mention about the first publication of John Hawkes’ “The Cannibal” published in 1949. This novel, which by the way is very transgressive, discussed by Albert J. Guerard, who taught Hawkes creative writing, as Hawkes's link between surrealistic or anti-realistic depiction of postwar Germany with Kafka's twisted image of the United States with "[…] its diseased impotent adults and crippled children, with its foul choked canals, with its hunger, militarism, primitive memories and its unregenerate hatred of its conqueror—is Germany itself in microcosm".(Source). What makes this piece postmodern is the destructured form of the novel against the well-structured modernist fiction. Hawkes was praised by Thomas Pynchon, to the extent that both The Cannibal and The Lime Twig were important sources of inspiration for his masterpiece Gravity's Rainbow. Hence, Hawkes’ novel can be read as one of the first examples of postmodern literature and as a link between modernism and postmodernism.

Postmodern Literature after the 40s

However, in my perspective, the beginning of postmodern literature roots in the 40s, most scholars today agree postmodernism began to compete with modernism in the late 1950s and gained an ascendancy over it in the 1960s. (source) In my idea, since the first signs of change, we can see primary features of postmodernism more in literature and plays after the 40s. Such features include the ironic play with styles, citations, and narrative (source) as well as a philosophical skepticism or nihilism towards a meta-narrative in Western culture, (source) and a preference for the Simulation/Artificial at the expense of the Real (source) or simply put, a fundamental questioning of what 'the real' constitutes. Considering such shift, we then can mention about the first performance of Waiting for Godot in French (En attendant Godot) in 1953, and most significantly, the first publication of Howl in 1956 and Naked Lunch in 1959 and works of artists such as Jorge Luis Borges (source).

This was the beginning of a new era in which the world was uneasy with rapid technological change and ideological uncertainties. A period where literature responded to this climate with its own way not only through fiction but any other types of writing. For example, Roth explains that the daily news was more absurd than anything fiction could render. This gave the novelists the chance to experiment with fantasy and self-consciousness. On the other hand, we have writers such as Wolfe's manifesto that demonstrated a rallying-cry for a return to realism. Tom Wolfe, for instance, claimed that postmodernist novelists had neglected the task of representing the complex life of the city. His own work ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ was an attempt to restore the balance by applying the journalistic methods of Balzac and Thackeray to the urban New York jungle.

Another plausible example for this postmodern period involves Naked Lunch (1962) by William Burroughs, a novel that challenged narrative norms upon its original French publication in 1959. The Boston Superior Court created a sensation when it concluded that the book's depiction of the hallucinations of a drug addict was foul and cruel. This book in 1992 was turned into a feature film directed by David Cronenberg. Despite the old comments on the book, this movie met with apathy and not apoplexy, disdain and not disgust. This suggests not only a rise in tolerance levels but also a change in attitudes towards transgressive fiction, literature and arts. Indeed, formerly The Avant-Garde art styles are now fading. It’s certain that the separation between mainstream and transgressive/postmodern art has eroded. The word can no longer compete with the visual media as far as surrealism is concerned.

Then, the literature of exhaustion gradually exhausted itself. As DeVillo Sloan, in his essay 'The Decline of American Postmodernism' (1987) (source) mentions that “postmodernism as a literary movement…is now in its final phase of decadence”. Others such as Malcolm Bradbury and Richard Ruland, in their sweeping survey From Puritanism to Postmodernism (1991) admit that a large proportion of writing published after 1990 which is dubbed 'postmodernist' is really 'post-postmodernist', (post-pomo) for short. So as we see, the more we moved toward the 80s and 90s, postmodernism, especially since the late 1990s, has been a growing sentiment in popular culture but in academia it "has gone out of fashion". (source) Many argued that postmodernism was dead in their context of existing cultural production which could be true back in the 90s but these days I beg to differ.

Postmodernism in 21st century

In 21st century, our current time, I believe that postmodernism fluidity is at the peak.

By the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century, we were facing the declining of postmodernism literature. This in the 2000s can be identified in the work of those novelists, including Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, who have consciously returned to modernist forms of writing. Also, we see that Ian McEwan in Atonement (2001), despite its meta-fictional twist, examines the modes of writing related to modernist style. This is real by the self-conscious use of the interior monologues and free-indirect discourse associated with one of the novel’s key literary references, Virginia Woolf. This is extended in his 2005 novel Saturday, which is significantly set in the most modernist of locations, Bloomsbury.

Other modernist precursors have garnered the attention of novelists in the 2000s. Zadie Smith, for example, used E.M. Forster’s Howards End as a key inter-text in her 2005 work On Beauty , while Alan Hollinghurst has attempted to engage with the modernistic styles of Henry James in his Man Booker Prize-winning novel of 2004, The Line of Beauty. The trend for reviving modernism has continued in Smith’s NW (2012) and in Will Self’s Umbrella (2012) and Shark (2014), which all consciously evoke and deploy modernist styles. This renewed interest in modernist writers and techniques has led David James and Urmila Seshagiri to argue that, ‘At a moment when postmodern disenchantment no longer dominates critical discourse or creative practice, the central experiments and debates of twentieth-century modernist culture have acquired new relevance to the moving horizon of contemporary literature’ (87–8). (source)

However, as this attempt is mostly focused on the return of modernist style, the content regarding the impact of postmodernism remains untouched. For example, McHale's second book, Constructing Postmodernism, provides readings of postmodern fiction and some contemporary writers who go under the label of cyberpunk. McHale's "What Was Postmodernism?" follows Raymond Federman's lead in now using the past tense when discussing postmodernism.

The postmodern perspective on 21st Century is more focused on destroying the traditional assumptions about value chains and re-conceptualizing the market of learning in the knowledge economy, the private sector or students themselves will. It is, after all, a huge market. As Taylor (source) suggest there is a different set of rules that applies in 21st century organizations and social institutions. He recommends, first, that we stop planning around chains of causality and plan instead of the certainty of uncertainty. If the environment is continually changing, then we must focus on outcomes rather than products. In an unpredictable environment, the outcome is not predicable in terms of behaviors and actions. Outcomes need to be based on the core business and values of the enterprise.

The ‘21st century’ is a postmodern period which recognizes that there are many possible stories about reality that can conceive or constructed in different social, cultural and geographic contexts. Therefore, ‘21st century’ can be thought as a context followed by the impact of technology that offers multiple sources of dynamic knowledge and identity creation. These define knowledge and identity as much more ‘fluid’, and challenge the traditional ‘modern’ knowledge and identity boundaries and hierarchies. Therefore, this period is associated with the generation of partial and contingent knowledge that can be replaced once the context changes.

So concluding, I can say that to find the origin and discuss the history of postmodernism up to 90s is much easier than what the literature today seems like. The postmodern literature after 2000 is more difficult to define and identify, as we have multiple genre mixing in one another and new sub-genre that make it difficult to compartmentalize the literature based on a theoretical and style-based trend.

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Apr 21

Very helpful information for my research for my paper

Neda Aria
Neda Aria
Apr 28
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Glad I could help

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