The idea of postmodernism in literature is one of the most predominant notions existing in criticism today; though its definitions are often loose and unmoored, there are many specific notions about its application to a great many aspects of modern society, from its books and its written works to culture itself. Fredric Jameson, in his essay ” Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” he denotes the ambiguity that permeates all manner of consumer culture and literature in today’s age; pastiche and schizophrenia are touted as the means by which postmodernism translates to the modern day culture. N. Katherine Hayles, on the other hand, describes postmodernism through posthumanism in her work ” How We Became Posthuman.” Given today’s advancing computer age, intelligence is being redefined, which has great implications for how we store and process information. This also extends to literature, where information and material are given even greater distinctions than before. Both Jameson and Hayles, as well as other authors, touch on the idea of postmodernism as a means of moving on from the material into a purely information-based way of thinking, both as people and in literature.
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Jameson discusses the fact that all kinds of media has some level of postmodernism to it, and with that comes a bit of ambiguity; it is nearly impossible to have a clean, definitive definition of the practice, but it is noticed when it exists. Postmodernism is cited as a reaction to high modernism – this is how literary criticism was defined in the previous generation, which was reviled by those who came before and those who came after, denoting a constant shift in priorities and desires by those who write and examine literature.
The two things that link postmodernism to a late capitalism state of culture, according to Jameson, are pastiche and schizophrenia. In essence, pastiche is ” blank parody,” where something is satirized, but not in a comic manner. Modern art now is just a pastiche of what came before, rendering it effectively ” dead.” Originality does not exist anymore, but it is just pastiche; everything has been said before and done before, and as a result everything emptily echoes each other – only pastiche exists ” to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum” (Jameson, 2010). Films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, which harken back to a specific genre of film – the 1940s adventure serial – are pastiches, an attempt to recapture the past while ignoring or being incapable of identifying the present.
In order to either appreciate a pastiche or accept it for what it is, a postmodern type of criticism must be applied. Postmodernism is needed to acknowledge that Raiders is a willing homage or pastiche to things that were made in the past, tracing its influences back to their source and using that as part of the criticism. In this way, Jameson demonstrates an ability to make criticism not about the material component itself, but the cultural information to which it contributes.
Hayles describes the Turing imitation game to illustrate the idea that information, rather than material knowledge or senses, help us to determine what is a human and what is a machine. This particular trope has manifested itself in a great many pieces of literature, including Neuromancer and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In these works, the lines between what is human and what is machine are blurred, from the sentient AI seeking freedom (Wintermute and Neuromancer) to androids that look and feel just like humans, making them indistinguishable from us. These postmodernist works are also posthuman, imagining a time in which we are beginning to become obsolete, and other forms of life (or ways of life) are coming in to replace us. The material world is starting to fade away into the realm of computers and information – the worlds of these works are gravitating toward completely information-based existences instead of flesh and blood.
These ideas speak to postmodernist ideas of losing control, which is something that humans have enjoyed for a long time, especially in literary realism. ” The very illusion of control bespeaks a fundamental ignorance about the nature of the emergent process through which consciousness, the organism, and the environment are constituted” (Hayles, 2010). According to postmodernists, we are not the body – we are the thoughts that reside within that body. This is proved by these posthumanist works demonstrating sapient, human life outside of the constraints of physical bodies and pumping organs. Using these cyberpunk works allows Hayles to liken the move from literal realism to postmodernism to these specific examples of stories where humans move beyond their original understanding of life to a more metaphysical, interpretation-heavy and abstract way of thinking.
John Barth, in his essay ” The Literature of Exhaustion,” handwaves literary realism as a tradition and a practice that has been ” used up,” discarded and exhausted. To Barth, creating realistic literary works (or at least purporting to do so) was the highest level of presumption, and it no longer worked. The part of history that tolerated this type of literature was said to be quickly passing, since literary realism was tragically overused. While this essay endured a great deal of criticism when it came out and was accused of being an indictment of literature as a whole, it is in fact quite the contrary. Barth feels as though literature and art have actually been kept alive through ideas of the death of the author and the intentional fallacy; with these principles, authorial intent is no longer important, and in fact is actively detrimental to the process of writing and literary criticism. In postmodernism, the reader becomes part author as well, and inserts their own meanings into the work, which now exists in a vacuum. To this extent, he takes Hayles and Jameson’s readings into heavy account in describing postmodernism’s effect on literature and culture. With postmodernism, nothing exists as a unit anymore, but is colored by the reader’s knowledge of tropes, cliches, known literary devices and precedent. This inspires us to do new things with the knowledge we have, and allow literature and culture to live once more.
Barth, John. ” The Literature of Exhaustion.” The Atlantic, vols. 245-246. 1967. Print.
Hayles, Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and
Informatics. Norton Anthology, pp. 2161-2187.
Jameson, Fredric. ” Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” Norton Anthology, pp. 1846-1860.
The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2nd Ed. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: WW
Norton, 2010. Print.