The Ethos of Postmodernism

In his poem “Overpopulation and Art” John Cage provides a snapshot of some of the popular descriptors of postmodernism, both in the visual format of the poem and in its content. Most often presented through video, and read by Cage himself, the poem draws us into something of the postmodern dilemma:

the necessity tO find new forms
                    of liVing
                         foRms of living together
                   to stoP the estrangement between us
                            tO overcome
                       the Patriarchal thinking
                     the aUthoritarian structures
           and the coLdness
                         noT togetherness
            the necessIty
                             tO develop a culture
                  that coNsciously opposes the ruling culture
                               A culture that we create
          we determiNe  which overcomes the passive consumers
       which is not Ruled
                by profiTeering

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by Mary Klages

Postmodernism is a complicated term, or set of ideas, one that has only emerged as an area of academic study since the mid-1980s. Postmodernism is hard to define, because it is a concept that appears in a wide variety of disciplines or areas of study, including art, architecture, music, film, literature, sociology, communications, fashion, and technology. It's hard to locate it temporally or historically, because it's not clear exactly when postmodernism begins.

Perhaps the easiest way to start thinking about postmodernism is by thinking about modernism, the movement from which postmodernism seems to grow or emerge. Modernism has two facets, or two modes of definition, both of which are relevant to understanding postmodernism.
The first facet or definition of modernism comes from the aesthetic movement broadly labeled "modernism." This movement is roughly coterminous with twentieth century Western ideas about art (though traces of it in emergent forms can be found in the nineteenth century as well). Modernism, as you probably know, is the movement in visual arts, music, literature, and drama which rejected the old Victorian standards of how art should be made, consumed, and what it should mean. In the period of "high modernism," from around 1910 to 1930, the major figures of modernism literature helped radically to redefine what poetry and fiction could be and do: figures like Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Proust, Mallarme, Kafka, and Rilke are considered the founders of twentieth-century modernism.

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Literature and Postmodernism

By Unknown Author

A Beginning
Postmodernism in literature can only be understood in relation to Modernism. We could call it a continuation of Modernism by other means, but this would only address its style, and not its substance. At its core, Postmodernism rejects that which Modernism champions, a resting upon the bedrock of Enlightenment ideas.

Enlightenment Ideas

Here's a summary list of core Enlightenment values and beliefs:
1. There is a stable, coherent, knowable self. This self is conscious, rational, autonomous, and universal-- no physical conditions or differences substantially affect how this self operates.
2. This self knows itself and the world through reason, or rationality, posited as the highest form of mental functioning, and the only objective form.
3. The mode of knowing produced by the objective rational self is "science," which can provide universal truths about the world, regardless of the individual status of the knower.
4. The knowledge produced by science is "truth," and is eternal.
5. The knowledge/truth produced by science (by the rational objective knowing self) will always lead toward progress and perfection. All human institutions and practices can be analyzed by science (reason/objectivity) and improved.
6. Reason is the ultimate judge of what is true, and therefore of what is right, and what is good (what is legal and what is ethical). Freedom consists of obedience to the laws that conform to the knowledge discovered by reason.
7. In a world governed by reason, the true will always be the same as the good and the right (and the beautiful); there can be no conflict between what is true and what is right (etc.).
8. Science thus stands as the paradigm for any and all socially useful forms of knowledge. Science is neutral and objective; scientists, those who produce scientific knowledge through their unbiased rational capacities, must be free to follow the laws of reason, and not be motivated by other concerns (such as money or power).
9. Language, or the mode of expression used in producing and disseminating knowledge, must be rational also. To be rational, language must be transparent; it must function only to represent the real/perceivable world which the rational mind observes. There must be a firm and objective connection between the objects of perception and the words used to name them (between signifier and signified).

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Postmodernism in Poetry

 By C. John Holcombe


To repeat a previous simplification: whereas Classicism, Realism and Romanticism all deal with the outside world, contemporary literature, by contrast, is commonly a retreat into the writer's consciousness — to make autonomous creations that incorporate diverse aspects of modern life (Modernism), or free-wheeling creations constructed of a language that largely points to itself (Postmodernism).

Postmodernism began in the sixties, when there developed on both sides of the Atlantic a feeling that poetry had become too ossified, backward-looking and restrained. The old avant garde had become respectable, replacing one orthodoxy by another. The poetry commended by the New Criticism — and indeed written by its teachers — was self-contained, coherent and paradoxical. Certainly it was clever, with striking imagery, symbolism and structural economy, but it was also far too predictable. Where were the technical innovations of the early modernists? Where were the alternatives to capitalism and the modern state that feature in Pound's or Lawrence's thought? And if contrary movements existed, they seemed disorganized. The UK might have its neo-Romantics, and a reaction to them. And in Europe were Milosz, Kundera, Ponge and Herbert. But there was no common purpose in these figures, and no common philosophy to give them intellectual standing. Into this vacuum came radical theory, and the generally Leftist theories of literature.

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Postmodernism in Literature

By Unknown Author

In their sociological study The Social Construction of Reality, Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann set out to show that reality is manufactured by social conventions and institutions, which we unquestionably take for facts. These social conventions, according to Berger and Luckmann, are necessary for human beings to function in society without the need to analyze every single action they perform. Such habitual actions performed at the level of the unconscious allow for more creativity and productivity, opening a ‘foreground for deliberation and innovation'

Similarly, the realist text applies literary conventions which are shared between author and reader, in such a way that the reader does not question the artifice of fiction. Literary conventions are tacitly agreed upon between author and reader, and enable the reader to momentarily suspend his disbelief to accept the constructed world of fiction as real. Conventions can, however, become naturalized to such an extent that we may regard them as given. When these conventions are exposed we become aware of the construction of reality, and accordingly the very concept of reality is undermined. If ‘fiction is woven into all’, all truth claims are fictions which can be written in alternative way once viewed from a different set of conventions.

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