Thursday, February 14, 2013


The Modern Age, grossly the first four decades of the twentieth century, was a period of turmoil and change. It was also a period of experimentation in the fields of science, technology and arts. So far as Literature was concerned, it was remarkable for avant-gardism. The quintessential tendency of that age was a lament for fragmentation and decadence accompanied by a desire to totalize experience, to recuperate the lost unity and to make something new. As some historians believe, that tendency was carried to its extreme limit by totalitarian regimes in Germany and elsewhere. Post-modernism, many literary historians believe, began with the aftershocks of the Second World War (1939-1945). That war and the Holocaust had shaken the thinking process of the western society to such an extent that a revaluation of values was considered inevitable. Postmodernism, though it defined itself in the terms of its radical disagreement with Modernism, retains some of the tacitly stated assumptions of Modernism.

It is certain that Postmodernism will convey an ambiguous sense if we use “modern” as a synonym for “contemporary” or for “avant-garde”.  Many historical periods had styled themselves as modern, and sometimes the conservatives stigmatized the bold experimenters of a particular period as modern. Such was the case with Euripides (484-406 B.C.) in ancient Greece. Departing entirely from the conventional treatment of gods and tragic heroes by his two illustrious predecessors, Aeschylus and Sophocles, he humanized his gods, dispensed with the loftiness of his tragic protagonists, treated women with utter contempt and introduced psychological realism. In his plays, the flawed character and the passionate nature of his protagonists, not the caprices of gods and fate, which contributed to the tragic catastrophe. He enjoyed great popularity but the conservatives of ancient Greece dubbed him ‘a modern’, meaning an upstart.

In a general sense, modern is used to designate a contemporary period in order to distinguish it from an older era. The adjective ‘modern’ used to designate the first half of the twentieth century is time specific. Hence the word postmodern means that age which comes after that period, that is to say, the second half of the twentieth century. The fact that postmodern retains the name of the period that preceded it proves that the new age can only be defined in terms of its radical disagreement with, and its continuation of, the older age and what it stood for. Another plausible reason for the postmodern to borrow the term from its previous era is that the Modern Age, i.e., the first half of the twentieth century has arrogated to itself the general meaning of modern as avant-garde.

Postmodernism is both an attitude and a movement, and it is often used by the promoters of globalization, by literary critics, politicians and political scientists, fashion designers and interior decorators, economists, technocrats, the CEOs of Information Technology, etc. to qualify their respective professions and trades. It is not difficult to notice that most of them use the term postmodern as a synonym for ultramodern, i.e., hyper-modern, excessively advanced or outrageously cranky. An attempt has been made in this essay to recuperate the ideological implications of a movement, which deliberately distanced itself from Modernism, just as Modernism had distanced itself from Victorianism associated with sexual prudery, narrow-mindedness, complacency and an exaggerated sense of respectability. While talking about the rejection of certain beliefs, values and attitudes of one chronological period by another, it has to be borne in mind that such rejection of or disagreement with the prevailing beliefs, values and attitudes is caused more by a desire for a change, that is to make it new than by a desire to make it better in a qualitative way.

Again, while discussing literary postmodernism, it is essential to know whether anything that is produced in literary marketplace should be called postmodern just because they are produced in a period which is called postmodern, or a selected group of texts and writers are postmodern in spirit and technique whereas other texts and writers, though belonging to the same period, choose to carry forward the unfinished agenda and narrative techniques of Modernism. As there is no new term to describe the latter category of texts and writers, they pass off as postmodern simply because they happen to be there in the same period. But in reality, there are only a few writers who have departed entirely from traditional narrative and experimented with new narrative styles. Notwithstanding their mutual differences, the following well-known writers can be called postmodernist: JL Borges (Fictions, El Aleph, Dreamtigers, Other Inquisitions), Italo Calvino (The Castle of Crossed Destinies and If in a Winter Evening, a Traveller…), Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children, The Satanic Verses, Shame, etc.), John Barth (Lost in the Fun House) and Donald Barthelme (Snow White).

            Each period in the history of literature defines itself in terms its landmark literary oeuvres. That is why theoretical systematization and naming of a particular age derive from the literary articulations of that age already made. The Modernist age defined itself in the light of the novels of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and William Faulkner, the poetry of T.S.Eliot, Ezra Pound and G.M.Hopkins, and the dramas of Ibsen, Strindberg, Pinter, Brecht, O’Neill and Tennessee Williams.  Likewise, a study of some literary texts written during the second half of the 20th century will help us define what we generally understand by the term Postmodernism. One such landmark text of literary postmodernism is Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths, a collection of stories, essays and parables (selected from his earlier books such as Ficciones, El Aleph and El Hacedor) translated from Spanish into English in 1964.   Both in its treatment of the subject matter and style of presentation, Labyrinths departed radically from the Modernist fiction. A detailed discussion of the prose techniques employed in that text will bring out some of the salient features of literary postmodernism.

In the following paragraphs there is a discussion of the salient features of Postmodernism as it appears in the writings of certain writers as well as in the other fields of public consumption. In the first part of the essay, the views of the critics and practitioners are stated with some details and with objectivity. The purpose is to arrive at an understanding of the meaning of Postmodernism and its claims for distinctness. The second part of the essay will be a critical comment on the ethical and aesthetic dimensions of this movement.

Modernism, like Enlightenment of 17th and 18th centuries, subscribed to the notion that reason, in its immaculate form, was capable of guiding human mind out of the darkness of superstition and unexamined tradition, and of leading the society to a stable state of progress and prosperity. The major writers and thinkers of Enlightenment such as Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Descartes (1596-1650), John Locke (1632-1704), Voltaire (1694-1778), Leibnitz (1646-1716) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), all belonging to Western Europe, celebrated Reason both as a panacea and a beacon. This absolute faith in reason, which the modernist temper shared with the high priests of Enlightenment, began to falter when the totalitarian regime of Hitler carried on the systematic persecution and massacre of the Jews, prostitutes, homosexuals and gypsies in the name of reason. Their purpose was to maintain the purity of the German Race or the Aryan Race. That ideological misuse of reason unleashed a spirit of skepticism. Reason had failed. With it collapsed the superstructure of faith that supported the general belief in God’s care and benevolence. That failure of Reason caused widespread disillusion and created a need to devise an ideologically different worldview to enable the European intellectuals to cope with that failure. That worldview ushered in an era characterized by the distrust of the dogmatic, the absolute and the certain. It is convenient to presume that Postmodernism replaced Modernism at that juncture. Philosophical utterances of the 19th century philosopher Nietzsche and the subversive writings of Franz Kafka supplied fodder to two French intellectuals, Sartre and Albert Camus, who modified Kierkegaardian existentialism to suit their ends. The question was how to live in a world without a caring God. The traditional idea of a caring and benevolent God had already been enfeebled by the “Bible-believing” Europeans’ experience of the Holocaust. Professor Gordon W. Allport describes the human condition in the grip of terror in his preface to Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (1959): “In the concentration camp every circumstance conspires to make the prisoner lose his hold. All the familiar goals in life are snatched away. What alone remains is ‘the last of human freedoms’ – the ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances”  (P.xiii). (Italics are mine)  Man was asked to choose his own attitude to cope with a world governed by unreasonable and irrational forces. The political agenda of a ruling junta replaced Providence and God. Albert Camus has convincingly presented the idea of the Absurd. Dramatists like Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco presented the idea of the Absurd in their plays.


            In the Postmodernist context, emphasis was shifted from the high seriousness of abstract thought to the aesthetic presentation of the body. John Barth, one of the early commentators on Postmodernism, considers Postmodernism “epigonic”   (concerning the inferior imitation of some noble art forms, akin to parody) and “something anticlimactic”. According to him, Modernist literature has exhausted itself, and it has to be abandoned in favour of “the essentially parodic literature of replenishment” (Waugh, 01).  Parody is one of the literary modes of subverting serious literature. Mikhail Bakhtin in his Rabelais and His World (tr. 1965) stresses the replenishing power of parody. Some great writers of European Renaissance, such as Rabelais, Cervantes and Shakespeare, have used parody, one of the literary tools of carnivalisation, effectively. Bakhtin considers the ability to parody and carnivalise as a mark of the greatest genius, for it revitalizes the effete and existing genres of literature. The postmodernist tendency to parody got a boost from Bakhtin’s forceful projection of Carnivalisation as an antidote to solemnity and hierarchy extolled (and perpetuated, too) in the grand narratives of the Modern era. Even if the name of Bakhtin has not been mentioned in the treatises on Postmodernism, his concept of the Carnival is arguably postmodernist in spirit.


            Postmodernism is characterized by a shift from the conceptual absolutes of philosophy to the contingencies and ironies of literature in order to avoid the violent totalization of abstract thought. From the very beginning, Postmodernism has been associated with the art of telling stories. The art of telling stories, in the Postmodernist context, is not confined to writing fiction only. It has acquired wider application in all forms of narrative, sociological, scientific, and philosophical. Even history has been subsumed under the category of fiction. The meaning of literature is never rigid and fixed. It is tentative, contingent, and plural. Literature that is not explicitly didactic does not impose its message or meaning on the reader. It allows multiplicity of interpretation. On the other hand, the nature of philosophy is inflexible and it insists to be understood in one way by all. When the aesthetic is mingled with serious thought, philosophy is relativized. 

This contingent nature of writing is superbly demonstrated in the “Protean prose” of Jorge Luis Borges who did an Euripides to Postmodernist literature when he published his Ficciones (1956), El Aleph (1957), Discusion(1957), Otras Inquisiciones and El Hacedor (1960). As stated above, the selected fictions, essays and parables from the above-stated works were translated from Spanish into English and published under the title Labyrinths in the USA in 1964. Borges departed entirely from the conventional procedures of story telling and essay writing. He invented a ‘private metaphysics’ to accommodate his ideas, his fantasies and experiences. This book was as important for literary (sometimes referred to as semantic) Postmodernism as The Wasteland and Ulysses, both published in 1922, were for literary Modernism. In the words of James E. Irby, who wrote a perceptive introduction for Labyrinths:

In Borges’s narratives the usual distinction between form and content virtually disappears, as does that between the world of literature and the world of the reader. … We are transported into a realm where fact and fiction, the real and the unreal, the whole and the part, the highest and the lowest, are complementary aspects of the same continuous being; a realm where ‘any man is all men’, where ‘all men who repeat a line of Shakespeare are William Shakespeare’. The world is a book and the book is a world, and both are labyrinthine and enclose enigmas designed to be understood and participated in by man….Borges’s fictions, like the enormous fiction of Don Quixote, grow out of the deep confrontation of literature and life which is not only the central problem of all literature but also that of all human experience: the problem of illusion and reality. We are all at once writers, readers and protagonists of some eternal story. (Labyrinths, 18-21).

            The most noticeable feature of Borges’s writing is its complete lack of responsibility traditionally associated with fiction. There is no social message, no psychological realism, no romantic nostalgia for an absent paradise, no fascination with the world of nature, no resemblance to the life human beings lead on the earth, no lamentation over the decay of values and no covert or overt philosophizing of the life’s evils and blessings. The labyrinth and the ubiquitous mirrors become the overarching symbols and the ultimate referent of all things. It is as if the author is solely responsible to his own creative imagination, to his dreams, and is happy to dispense with all other forms of responsibility, social or otherwise.  Borges’s Tlon, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius have little or no resemblance to the sunken Atlantis, to Sidney’s Arcadia, to Thomas More’s Utopia, to Plato’s Republic, and to the four strange countries Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver visited. The fiction theory of the imaginary character Ts’ui Pen in Borges’s story titled “The Garden of Forking Paths” can be the quintessence of his implied theoretical position.

“In all fictional works”, he writes,  “each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts’ui Pen, he chooses – simultaneously – all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork. Here, then, is the explanation of the novel’s contradictions. Fang, let us say, has a secret; a stranger calls at his door; Fang resolves to kill him. Naturally, there are several possible outcomes: Fang can kill the intruder, the intruder can kill Fang, they both can escape, they both can die, and so forth. In the work of Ts’ui Pen, all possible outcomes occur; each one is the point of departure for other forkings. Sometimes, the paths of this labyrinth converge: for example, you arrive at this house, but in one of the possible pasts you are my enemy, in another, my friend.” (Labyrinths, 57).

Not only in this passage, but also in all his writings, Borges does not simply try to be playful by giving full freedom to his imagination; he, on the other hand, offers a radically revised opinion on history, on philosophy, on imaginative literature and on politics. His agenda is made to appear serious, presented, as it is, in a format of critical inquiry. In one of his stories, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”, he informs us that the eponymous twentieth century author, apart from rewriting Don Quixote (originally written by Miguel de Cervantes in early seventeenth century), has situated Christ on a boulevard, Hamlet on La Cannebiere, and Don Quixote on Wall Street. All literatures, both Pierre Menard and Borges maintain, are palimpsests. One meaning of the palimpsest is a literary device of removing the original text from an ancient book and replacing it with a new text; the second meaning, a literary text that has different layers of meaning. The first meaning of palimpsest is used by the commentators of postmodernism to denote the protean nature of all texts, both literary and philosophical. It is permissible, writes Borges, “to see in this ‘final’ Quixote a kind of palimpsest’ (Labyrinths 70). Pierre Menard’s Don Quixote is a contemporary of Bertrand Russell, and his novel is a ”contingent book”(Page, 67), not a finished product.  Borges quotes a letter that Pierre Menard wrote. That letter contains a sentence: ”Every man should be capable of all ideas and I understand that in the future this will be the case (Labyrinths 70). This idea is germane to his line of thinking as well as to his style of presentation. In his short essay “Partial Magic in the Quixote,” Borges stretches his theory about the timelessness of fiction. It is not the inter-textuality, but the fictional labyrinths, which fascinates him. Referring to The Thousand and One Nights, he finds that on the six hundred and second night, Scheherazade tells the king his (their) own story, beginning from the first night, thereby making the narrative infinite and circular in the process. “Why does it disturb us,” he writes perceptively,

“Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious. In 1833, Carlyle observed that the history of the universe is an infinite sacred book that all men write and read and try to understand, and in which they are also written” (Labyrinths 231).

            Here Borges states briefly the postmodernist approach to Literature, History and Philosophy. Half playfully and half seriously, he approaches the limits of fictional possibility. Each reader not only writes the book he reads, but also becomes a character in it whether he likes it or not. The author, the character and the reader merge into each other.


Alan Wilde in his book Modernism and the Aesthetics of Crisis (1987) makes a perceptible comparison between Modernism and Postmodernism by using two attitudes, such as, Disjunctive irony and Suspensive irony that guided the intellectual worldviews of these two periods respectively.  “Modernist irony, absolute and equivocal, expresses a resolute consciousness of different and equal possibilities so ranged as to defy solution. Postmodern irony, by contrast, is suspensive: indecision about the meaning or relations of things is matched by a willingness to live with uncertainty, to tolerate and, in some cases, to welcome a world seen as random and multiple, even, at times, absurd” (Waugh, 16).

 Wilde uses the term irony both as a literary method of story telling and as an attitude. As a literary method, it means a humorous expression in which the intended meaning of words is the direct opposite of their usual sense. As an aesthetic attitude, it is a cool, detached manner in which the artist’s mind recognizes the incongruities and complexities of experience, and tries to present them in his writing. Modernist writers had felt acutely the chaotic nature of life and the fragmentary nature of human experience, and they had tried to present their world as they experienced it. But they were impelled by a desire for order, for an ultimate resolution. Their disillusion and disgust for their actual world did not prevent them from anticipating a better future, from hoping for transcendence, certitude and coherence. T.S.Eliot’s The Wasteland, a representative modernist text, is a long lament on the decadence and fragmentation of the contemporary world. But the poet does not stop with that. A nostalgic longing for a lost, but recoverable utopia accompanies his lament. He hears the sound of water beneath the rock. He ends the poem with a religious invocation. The Expressionist plays of August Strindberg showcase the sordidness of life, but they end with an assurance of regeneration. In his A Dream Play, he visualizes the sprouting of an immaculate lotus from the dirty bottom of the cesspool. Lord Buddha holding the lotus symbolizes the advent of the Messiah. Wilde also calls it absolute irony.

The modernist writer believes in the perfectibility of the imperfect world he inhabits. His attitude strikingly resembles that of the writers of Enlightenment who envisaged a future world where Reason would rule and cure all evils besetting mankind. Wilde calls this modernist attitude disjunctive irony because of its insistence on an alternative reality or a better proposition.

 Postmodernist Irony, on the other hand, is suspensive in that it suspends anticipation and strives to cope with the imperfections inundating the present world. Albert Camus sees the world and the way it is run as absurd, just as his protagonist Sisyphus sees the futility of his labour in the Underworld. Neither a fervent hope for a better world, nor a wretched mood of despair over the interminable nature of human ordeal informs his writing and his vision; nor does he recommend any escape route through suicide. Only way open to man participating in the absurd and interminable mega show is to slog it out without hoping for a bright future or any reward for his labour. Man on this earth is an epigone of Sisyphus in so far as he inherits that ancient Greek’s wisdom: that man must live his life as a self-imposed duty even after knowing that all his actions would end in vain. This cool, detached attitude of man is akin to Wilde’s suspensive irony, though he desists from acknowledging such a kinship. This spirit is postmodernist, for it suspends the impulse towards transcendence, meaning, certitude and coherence. Postmodernist man is wise or wily enough to know his fate and the futility of seriousness in an absurd dispensation. So in the postmodernist discourse, the depth/surface binary is retained, but the modernist preference of depth is replaced by a preference for the surface. The surface is suggestive of the body, the humdrum of existence, the small and the superficial. The postmodernist man has come to realize that the return to the body has been long overdue.


This change in attitude brings in its wake a host of other preferences. The modernist preference for high seriousness is replaced by the postmodernist preference for playfulness. Such a change of vision is possible when the issues traditionally considered serious are either ignored or undermined or are treated lightly. Instead of complaining about the loss of paradise, the postmodernist temper takes the loss easy. The nostalgia over the origin is considered useless atavistic baggage and is abandoned. Inability to resolve the dilemmas of life and make sense of the intricacies of existence is overcome by an acceptance of the fact that these dilemmas and intricacies are either beyond human comprehension or are not worth the bother. The postmodernist protagonist says: When you feel the life to be too ambiguous to be known clearly, learn to live in that ambiguous world without fretting too much over the absence of clarity; when you cannot feel certain about things, learn to remain in the uncertainties; if you think you are submerged by a flood of incoherence, you feel light and stay afloat or, if you like, be a swimmer and splash around. Postmodernist mind refuses to be intimidated by Unreason, because it distrusts the modernist reason that has not only failed, but has been used as cannon fodder by the totalitarian regimes.


This leads us to the question of meaning, or, more correctly, to the questioning of meaning. The search for Meaning has an ancient origin and the longest continuity. It obtains in theological exegeses and all metaphysical discourses; in didactic literatures and canonical texts. It is the hallmark of Enlightenment and of Modernism. Its validity has never been contested. In the postmodernist scenario, however, meaning is no longer sacrosanct. It has been questioned. It began with the linguistic findings of Ferdinand de Saussure. He discovered that the very process of signification, which joins the signified with the signifier thereby producing the meaning, is itself arbitrary; that there is no logical connection between what is described and what describes it. That apart, the meaning that we get is, by nature, relational. This relational meaning is further complicated by the fact that it is conceptualized through differences, both syntagmatic and paradigmatic. Binarisms play, according to Saussure, an important determinant of meaning. These binaries such as, nature/ culture, earth/ heaven, good/ evil, white/ black, true/ false, etc. are further problematized by our preferences of one over the other. These preferential attitudes are culture-specific and they form the linguistic grid, i.e., the langue of each culture, society and language-speaking community. People who use that language cannot escape the contamination of partiality. In fine, language cannot be a reliable compass. Meaning will not be achieved by the means of any language.

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida further validates the impossibility of achieving meaning when he offered a philosophical model in support of it. Deconstruction, a philosophical and intellectual inquiry into the nature of Truth and Meaning, hogged the academic center-stage for nearly two decades, 1980s and 1990s. It questioned the very foundation of the western metaphysics. It carried the linguistic unascertainability of meaning a la Ferdinand de Saussure to a more profound level of metaphysical inquiry. Derrida’s mission was to question the philosophical certitudes arrived at through logical reasoning. The western culture, he asserts, has always been a logocentric culture, a theistic culture, hence a lopsided and prejudiced culture.  That is why all the thinkers and philosophers from the Pre-Socratics must have encountered unmanageable contradictions and subversive paradoxes on their quest for the Holy Grail of Truth or a convincing explanation. As those roadblocks to logical progress were impossible to overcome, the thinkers and philosophers might have legitimized their ‘imponderables’ through subterfuges and syllogisms. They concealed what they could not handle effectively. The meaning and Truth they achieved by conniving at the disturbing contradictions were made to appear absolute and irrefutable. But such concealment have left their traces, which a rigorous and skilful reading will unravel. Deconstructive reading is a quasi-philosophical game, which the skilled critic plays with a philosophical text by dismantling it with a view to prying into its hidden dissonance, and then rearranging it. It will be better understood if we consider it a game, an intellectual playfulness, because the aim of this enterprise is not a quest for an alternative truth and meaning but to discredit the claims of the wise men of yore who made us believe they had found answers to humanity’s most nagging questions. After telling us that as the means adopted were questionable the end product was bound to be unreliable, the deconstructionist critics do not carry forward the quest. Nor do they offer an alternative. That is so because they do not want to be trapped by their own devices.

Inspired by the ideas of Jacques Derrida, some literary critics applied the methodology of Deconstruction to literary texts. Literary texts, as a rule, have no logical framework and the meanings they seem to offer depends on who reads them and on which frames of reference the text is subjected to. As a result, they were sitting ducks for the trigger-happy deconstructionist critics. They dismantled some selected texts, and came out with big news that they have discovered many difficulties and moments of uncertainty caused by the indeterminacy of meaning and elusiveness of the ever-receding centre for which no resolution would seem possible. Aporia, a term frequently used by Deconstructionists to designate the moments of concealment in a philosophical text, means ‘doubt’ in Latin, and ‘perplexity’ in Greek. Literary Deconstructionists pore over a text with doubt, discover what they want to discover and end their quest with perplexity.

Literary application of Derridean Deconstruction was piecemeal and it did not discredit any canonical text by laying bare its inherent contradictions. That apart, its agenda was just that, and nothing more. That ludic engagement was in perfect accord with the postmodernist temper. It supplied a theoretical framework to postmodernist rejection of depth and preference for the surface. Like Bakhtin’s concepts of Carnival and Dialogic Structure, Derridean Deconstruction released big doses of adrenalin in the postmodernist blood stream: grand claims of Truth were subjected to a skeptical scrutiny; meaning was contested; centrality of the text that has been considered essential for the production of meaning was displaced; traditional pieties were profaned; grand narratives were parodied; hierarchies were pulled down; values were relativized. It is not surprising that many intellectuals strongly disapprove of this tendency. F.F.Centore takes both Postmodernism and Deconstruction to task for making a fetish of their aimlessness. He writes in the Epilogue of his book Being and Becoming:

“Indeed, I am dubious about whether or not the post-moderns can take seriously anything of an objective nature, including their own doctrine. Under Deconstructionism, instead of all history being philosophy, as with Hegel, all philosophy is now a form of playful history, as with Derrida. The serious philosopher is no more; now all is play and parody. Unlike Plato’s play of ideas in his Dialogues, and the Scholastic logic-play of the medieval university undergraduate Arts faculty, both of which were constructive, truth-seeking instruments of learning, now we have the glorification of moral relativism, and play for the sake of play” (213).

The tone and substance of such allegations betray a nostalgic longing for a glorious past, which Postmodernism refrains from entertaining.  But nothing is done with an agenda or with messianic seriousness, for that would have looked like what they want to subvert. Solutions and alternatives are considered dispensable.

Bakhtin drew his ideas of carnival from some representative Renaissance texts such as Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes’s Don Quixote and the dramas of Shakespeare. His theories are not prescriptive, but suggestive. According to Bakhtin, the very purpose of convalesces desecration, profanation and subversion to make available an alternative possibility on a dramatic plane rather than bringing about a permanent transformation of reality. In other words, his ideas are meant to operate on a symbolic level, parodic level, but not on an actual level.

The fact that Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction and Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas of Dialogigm and Carnival gained currency and were quickly assimilated into the mainstream intellectual life of the postmodernist times, cannot be written off as mere coincidence or unrelated occurrences. As it had happened in most historical periods, dominant trends of a particular period are as much determined by as determine the theoretical practices of individual thinkers and writers. For want of something better, it may be assumed that the dominant trends of an age facilitate the assimilation, and ensure the popularity, of the ideas of similar nature while conceding that these ideas influence and to some extent stabilize the trends of the period. The writings of Derrida, Bakhtin and of many other thinkers supplied theoretical bases for postmodernist attitudes.


“Let us wage a war on totality; let us be witnesses to the unrepresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name (P. 82),” declares Jean-Francois Lyotard in his seminal book Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (! 979). By declaring this manifesto, Lyotard shows his preference for postmodernist art and literature. His ideas can be summed up as follows: Postmodernism is a part of the modernism, but it suspects all that it receives from the preceding movement. Modern aesthetic is an aesthetic of the sublime. It is nostalgic and it continues to offer to the reader or viewer matter for solace and pleasure.  Postmodern, on the other hand, puts forward the unpresentable in the presentable form. It honours differences. It does not offer solace. Postmodernist writer is a philosopher and the text, according to Lyotard, is not governed by preestablished rules. The dialectics of Spirit and the hermeneutics of meaning are the goals towards which the modernist metadiscourse is geared. That metadiscourse is also guided by the rule of consensus that the message sent by the sender is acceptable to the addressee. Modernism legitimates itself with reference to that metadiscourse. As a result, “justice is consigned to the grand narrative in the same way as truth.” Then he adds:

“Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences; but that progress in turn presupposes it. To the obsolescence of the metanarrative apparatus of legitimation corresponds, most notably, the crisis of metaphysical philosophy.   The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its grand voyages, its great goal” (Lyotard  xxiv).

Lyotard asks whether postmodernism can obtain its legitimation through discussion and consensus, and answers in the negative. According to him, consensus, in general, does violence to the heterogeneity of language games. Dissention is necessary for experimentation and invention. Postmodernist knowledge  “refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable”(Postmodern, xxv) Lyotard goes to the extent saying that the principle of postmodernism is “paralogy” or false reasoning. By adopting it, postmodernism counters the modernist’s preference for Reason, Progress, Universal Peace and Universal Happiness. The modernist temper has inherited all these from the Western European thinkers of Enlightenment, such as, Descartes, Bacon, Locke, Diderot and Immanuel Kant. Paralogy is necessary to introduce the contrary to “metadiscourse” and “performative principle” associated with Modernism. ”It is necessary,” writes Lyotard, “ to posit the existence of a power that destabilizes the capacity for explanation, manifested in the promulgation of new norms for understanding or, if one prefers, in a proposal to establish new rules circumscribing a new field of research for the language of science” (Lyotard 61).

            Lyotard’s treatise seems to been occasioned by his sharp reaction to a book written by Jurgen Habermas (Knowledge and Human Interests, translated from German by Jeremy Shapiro, Boston: Beacon Press, 1971). Habermas opines that the so-called postmodernists are actually the neo-conservatives whose sole aim is to sabotage the unfinished project of Modernism. Postmodernist spirit has allowed the totality of life to be splintered into independent specialties. These specialties have given rise to destructured forms and narrow competence of experts. Habermas advocates for the unity of experience. This unity will be provided by arts, because it has the power to bridge the gap between cognitive, ethical and political discourses. Habermas subscribes to the ideals of Enlightenment and admires modernism for furthering those ideals. Postmodernism, he avers, instead of completing the unfinished agenda of Modernism, has certainly undermined that grand continuity by rejecting the grand narratives of reason and progress in favour of the contingent and the provisional.

Lyotard refutes his claim. Modernism, he says, has fallen under its own weight and that is all the better for us. One point, however, emerges from this debate between these two thinkers: Habermas upholds modernist tradition; Lyotard discredits this tradition because it has become a diabolical power in the hands of totalitarian regimes and they have misused it in the name of reason, progress and stability.


The supreme formal feature of all postmodernisms, writes Frederic Jameson, is a new kind of superficiality, flatness or depthlessness (Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 1984). Just as Lyotard’s tirade against Modernism is a reaction to Habermas’s advocacy of it, the champions of Postmodernism seem to have a reactionary agenda. To be superficial or flat as a principle is different from being superficial or flat as a matter of fact. Doctrinaire superficiality of Postmodernism is a posturing, an aesthetic broadside against the ideologically inspired depth model of Modernism. Here, superficiality that is used as a front of protest and as a mode of offence should not be confused with superficiality as such. Jameson rightly calls it ‘a new form of superficiality’. To be superficial is to privilege the surface over what is supposed to reside within or beneath the surface of a text. How a work of art tells or represents has become more significant than what it implies and what lies beneath its surface. Jameson considers all contemporary theory to be postmodernist in that they show their preference for the surface. Value judgment, evaluation of the literary merit of a text and the levels of achievement of a writer in expressing the human situation effectively are simply discarded as a metaphysical baggage, a modernist baggage.

            Both postmodernism and poststructuralism, observes Jameson, repudiate five depth models, which supported modernism and structuralism. They are: (a) the hermeneutic model of inside and outside; (b) the dialectical model of essence and appearance; (c) the Freudian model of latent and manifest and of repression and sublimation; (d) the existential model of authenticity and inauthenticity; and (e) the semiotic model of the opposition between signifier and signified.

According to Jameson, the great thematics of modernism were alienation, anomie, solitude, social fragmentation and anxiety.  These problems are neither appropriate nor fashionable in the world of the postmodern. That is to say, the man in the postmodern world refuses to be bothered by those ailments that tormented the modern man. Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities no longer cares for his not having any quality. He manages without it. As Herbert Marcuse’ writes in One Dimensional Man, technology has divested the individual of his spiritual and cultural dimensions leaving him just one. In the postmodern world such complaints have become passé. The contemporary man no longer defines himself in terms of his dimensionality. He does not mind for being called three-dimensional or one-dimensional. Wylie Sypher laments The Loss of the Self in Modern Literature and Arts. But such laments were always associated with diagnostics of the sickness and an implicit faith in the recoverability of the lost Self. But in the postmodern condition the terms like quality, dimension and Self are no longer fashionable, no longer a necessity. Writers such as Robert Musil, Wylie Sypher and Herbert Marcuse tried to expose the condition of the man in a technological society and regretted the absence of quality, selfhood and multidimensionality in him. Such concerns arise when man feels that his subjective potential is denied full expression due to certain objective reasons; that his individual self is different from the collective self, which the society tries to graft in him; that individual distinctness is preferable to the collective uniformity. That problem is now solved; because the general tendency of the progressive, highly advanced technological society has conditioned man’s mind to such an extent that he is proud of being a useful part of that society. In the words of Jean Baudrillard, the simulacrum has started giving itself value and it no longer represents the real (p.360).

Thinkers like Walter Kaufmann considered modern man’s reluctance to conform to the impersonal social forces and, consequently, his feeling alienated from the society to be a sign of growth and an inevitable stage of individuation. According to Kaufmann, only the educated, sensitive and intelligent individuals are capable of feeling alienated when the society smothers their personal needs and aspirations, and tries to commodify them for its own profit.

But in the postmodernist context, the attitude has changed radically. The sensitive individual has acquired the ability to conform completely to the society. According to Professor Marcuse, the technologically advanced western society, through shrewd use of the mass media and public opinion, had effectively removed all possible causes for man to feel special or neglected.   He does not whine; he does not freak out; he simply and happily accepts his condition. The grouch sheds his inhibition, his sulkiness and becomes the performer. The prototype postmodern man has found an easy cure for the ills, which had beset the sensitive modern man. His motto is: If the merry party is going on in the other room and the noise is getting on your nerves, you do one thing. Just join the party; dance and sing like the rest. Then you will feel all right. The noise will no longer bother you. The postmodernist man has done precisely that.

Patricia Waugh, in her introduction to Postmodernism: A Reader (1992) refers to an observation made by Sigmund Freud: “Maturity is the ability to live with hesitation, ambiguity and contradiction” (Waugh 9). Freud, it should be noted, has said this in the universal human context. Professor Waugh quotes him to validate the postmodernist attitude, as if the modern man was passing through the teenage syndrome, which he has ultimately overcome.

 Now the question arises, should the postmodern man be considered truly mature for having acquired the ability to naturalize his manifold contradictions, to assimilate all uncertainties and ambiguities? It is the question that many writers have tried to answer in their influential essays and full-length studies, though the critical opinion is sharply divided about the goodness of such assimilation.


            Linda Hutcheon, an eminent theorist of Postmodernism, attempts a comparative study of Modernism and Postmodernism by using parody as a focal frame of reference. Parody is used as stylistic mode by writers who imitate the prominent characteristics of an earlier and influential work in a satirical or humorous manner, and most often apply it to an inappropriate subject. Postmodernist parody, unlike its modernist counterpart, stresses the ironic discontinuity that is revealed in the heart of continuity, difference at the heart of similarity. According to Linda Hutcheon, parody is the perfect postmodern form, because it paradoxically both incorporates and challenges that which it parodies. She considers Emberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Shame as perfect examples of postmodernist parody.

As stated above, the Latin American/ Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges whose influence on postmodern literature is universally acknowledged is the first innovator of the postmodernist prose technique, which was later developed by novelists like Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, etc. into Magical Realism. His books have broadened the boundary of contemporary fiction. His stories, which read like historical research articles, blur the boundaries of fact and fiction. Taking the cue from Linda Hutcheon, it is possible to suggest that Magical Realism is indubitably postmodern as the fictional works belonging to this category both incorporate and challenge the history, cultural climate and the worldview of their respective countries in transition. Marquez’s Macondo is Columbia, and Rushdie situates his novels in the Indian subcontinent. They are marked by discontinuity, casual distortion of historical events and recognizable socio-cultural scenario without any symbolic intentions and, above all, a radical departure from what we understand by regular fiction and Grand Narrative of Modernist era.


The debate on the primigenit will continue, like the chicken-egg paradox, whether literary trends of an age are willingly or in spite of themselves influenced by the dominant philosophical postulates of their times, or the worldview of an age is understood in terms of the literary and philosophical oeuvres of that age. Be that as it may, both literature and philosophy are intellectual expressions of the spirit of the age in which they flourish. In its drive to counter the totalitarian worldview and disallow the supremacy of Reason of the modernist era, postmodernism has introduced relativism and contingencies as viable alternatives. The idea that one can be more right than her neighbour is discarded as old junk, for it militates against the spirit of liberal democracy whose slogan is that every person has the freedom to decide what is right for him and the privilege to state his views on reality. The question of being adjudged right or wrong does not arise. The dominant view is each man is right in so far as his attitude to life and his personal decision are concerned. To claim one man’s attitude or opinion to be ethically superior to that of another is unacceptable on the ground that such a judgmental, preferential statement would sound absolutist, a throwback to the earlier era.  In such a scenario, philosophy has voluntarily distanced itself from its traditional and self-imposed responsibility as an inquiry into truth, and allowed each man to find truth for himself, that is to say, to interpret truth as it suits him or appears to him. That is so because truth has been divested of its transcendental quality and metaphysical aura, and has become a populist, consensual or personal construct. Postmodernism seems to support an anything-goes attitude.


In the Positivist sense, a statement is deemed true or meaningful if it is either obvious or verifiable through our senses or based on our actual experiences. This position is different from the philosophical system of Enlightenment, particularly of Immanuel Kant, where both phenomenon and noumenon serve as necessary grounds for understanding reality per se. Phenomenon is apparent to the senses and can be scientifically appraised; hence it is the thing as it appears in our perception. Noumenon, on the other hand, is the thing as it is in itself, and it cannot be comprehended by our sense of perception, though it serves as an intelligible ground of phenomenon, i.e., any event, circumstance, verifiable experience.  According to the Enlightenment, Kantian and Modernist worldview, our senses are not the only tools using which we can make sense of the life and the world. It accommodates noumenon even though it exists independent of our sensory perceptions and scientific verification. Postmodernism has abandoned this worldview, and replaced it with Logical Positivism, which postulates that statements become meaningful only when they are self-evident and scientifically verifiable. It does not subscribe to any abstract, hypothetical, or speculative philosophy, and considers all statements concerning God, the soul, the supernatural, the spiritual, etc. right or wrong depending on who makes them. The totalitarian regimes in Europe in general and Germany in particular before and during the Second World War considered prostitutes and professed same-sex lovers as deviant, fringe groups and scummy pollutants of the society that should be consigned to the gas chamber. In the second half of the twentieth century, they are not only tolerated, but are legalized as well. Let alone in Europe and America, in an orthodox country like India, as has been reported in the media, a minister in the central cabinet, who happens to be a Muslim woman, is trying her best to legalize prostitution. Mainstream political parties and intellectuals world over are ready to protect the rights of gays and lesbians. Many western governments have passed bills regularizing the marriage of gay and lesbian couples. Such changes in attitude are in keeping with the spirit of postmodernism. As Douwe W. Fokkema puts it simply: “At the center of the Postmodernist semantic universe we find… inclusiveness and assimilation… Instead of discussing the various options open to him in a detached and intellectual way, as the Modernist did, the Postmodernist assimilates and absorbs the world that he perceives, without knowing or wanting to know how to structure that world so that it might make sense” (49).

Any attempt to define postmodernism with clarity and certainty is surely a difficult task considering its protean contours and its theoretical resistance to any shipshape definition. In his essay: “Introduction: Postmodernism? Representing Postmodernism” Leah Wain comments referring to Lyotard’s essay that one possible answer to the question What is postmodernism? is What is postmodernism? (p.362). This mode of answering a question with a question is playful. Parody, a postmodernist mode of literary expression, is a form of playfulness, footloose and fancy-free.

The modernist age saw the emergence of an industrial and technological society. It also saw the exponential growth of human population. For the first time, the mass became visible and powerful, and tried to dominate the individual. The individual thus dominated felt uneasy and alienated from himself. Jose Ortega y Gasset in his 1930 book The Revolt of the Masses   offers an incisive diagnosis of the condition of the modern man in a mass-dominated society. He writes:

The mass is all that which sets no value on itself –good or ill- based on specific grounds, but which feels itself just like everybody, and nevertheless it is not concerned about it; it is in fact quite happy to feel itself as one with everybody else… and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort towards perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves (Gasset 10).

            Herbert Marcuse wrote his One Dimensional Man thirty-four years after The Revolt of the Masses. By that time the technological civilization had already indoctrinated the individual, and the power of the masses had already assimilated the individual. By that time the identification of the individual with the dehumanizing mass culture had become almost total. That was, according to Marcuse, a “more progressive stage of alienation… the subject which is alienated is swallowed up by its alienated existence. There is only one dimension” (Marcuse 11).

Both these writers offered an apocalyptic picture of the society and the individual caught up in a transition. Now that transitional phase is over. The terms like alienation, inner rift, spiritual discontent, dehumanization, anomie and goal-oriented struggle have ceased to make any sense. The masses no longer try to woo the individual, the elite; on the contrary, the individual and the elite try to woo the masses. This is both the symptom and the sign of postmodernism. There is only one culture: the mass culture. The makers of literature and art do their bit to ingratiate themselves to the masses. In this sense, postmodernism has become an adjunct of free-market economy and globalization. The private space and the public sphere merge in one. “There are no longer protagonists; there is only the chorus” (Gasset 8).

Robert B. Ray concludes his essay by enlisting the salient features of Postmodernism in an alphabetical order, some of which I quote below in order to give a general idea about Postmodernism to the reader.

Allegory, appropriation, aberrant decoding, banality, bricolage, Benjamin, Barthes, Baudrillard, Borges, collage, computer, compact disc, Calvino, displacement, dandyism, deconstruction, Dictionary of Received Ideas, Derrida, everyday life, entropy, feminism, fetish, Finnegans Wake, graffiti, heterogeneity, heteroglossia, intertextuality, Lacan, mechanical reproduction, media, montage, mass culture, mime, margins, pop art, pun, parody, pastiche, plagiarism, readymade, repetition, spectacle, speed, television, textuality,, urinal, uniformity, vernacular, voyeuristic, word-processor, Warhol, Xerox, yuppies, S/Z, etc. (144-45).

Such an agglomeration of disparate names and terms may confuse a person who is keen to know what Postmodernism is all about, but again, such confusion need not weigh too heavy on him as the very spirit of postmodernism requires of him maturity and ability not to be bothered by confusion. “Perhaps to grow up,” writes Patricia Waugh, “ is to live suspended between the modern and the postmodern, resisting the temptation for resolution in one direction or the other” (9).

Works Cited:

Borges, Jorge Luis. (1983). Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other                               Writings. Edited by Donald Yates and James Irby: Middlesex: King Penguin.

Centore, F.F. (1991). Being and Becoming: A Critique of Postmodernism.

New York: Greenwood Press.

Coyle, Martin, Peter Garside, etc. (1991).  Encyclopedia of Literature and Criticism.

London: Routledge.

Farrell, Frank B. (1996). Subjectivity, Realism and Postmodernism: The Recovery of the World. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fokkema,Douwe W. (1984). Literary History, Modernism and Postmodernism (The Harvard University Erasmus Lectures, Spring 1983). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co.

Frankl, Viktor E. (1959) Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (Translated from German by Ilse Lasch). New York: Washington Square Press.

Jameson, Fredrick. (1984). “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.”

New Left Review, Volume: 146. Pp.53-92.

Lodge, David and Nigel Wood (Ed.). (2004). Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader.

 New Delhi: Pearson Education Limited.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. (1982). “Answer to the Question, What is the Postmodern?”

Literary Theories: A Reader and Guide. Edited by Julian Wolfreys. PP.371-380.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. (1984). Postmodern Condition, A Report on Knowledge Translated from the French by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Marcuse, Herbert. (1964). One Dimensional Man. New York: Beacon Press.

Ortega y Gasset,  Jose. (1930). The Revolt of the Masses. New York: New American Library.

Roy, Robert B. “Postmodernism” in Encyclopedia of Literature and Criticism, edited by Martin Coyle. Pp.131-147.

Waugh, Patricia.  (1992) Postmodernism: A Reader . London: Routledge

Wilde, Alan. (1987). Modernism and the Aesthetics of Crisis. New York: Johns Hopkins Press.

.Wolfreys, Julian.  (1999) (Ed.) Literary Theories: A Reader and Guide.

                        Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.