The past several decades have seen the emergence of a new global form of capitalism that established a new international order. As a result of this globalization of capital, cultures from all over the world have come into contact with one another as never before. To some extent, this contact has resulted in substantial enrichment, as various cultures have influenced and been influenced by each other. At the same time, it has also led to a considerable cultural convergence, in which cultures from all over the globe have become more and more alike. The Netflix streaming platform, for example, has become a massive global phenomenon, and people in almost every country of the world have access to this platform and to much of the same programming, which is itself generated all over the world.
This globalization is a natural consequence of the historical development of capitalism, which (in the wake of the disintegration of the great European colonial empires in the 1950s and 1960s) has now entered a new “late” (and presumably final) phase in which the process of capitalist modernization is nearing completion. Fredric Jameson, who developed the most influential theorization of this process (at least with regard to its impact on culture) in the 1980s, follows Marxist thinkers such as Ernest Mandel in believing that, in the wake of the collapse of the great European colonial empires after World War II, capitalism has entered a new “late” era of globalization and transnationalism, informed by a
“new international division of labor, a vertiginous new dynamic in international banking and the stock exchanges (including the enormous Second and Third World debt), new forms of media interrelationship (very much including transportation systems such as containerization), computers and automation, the flight of production to advanced Third World areas, along with all the more familiar social consequences, including the crisis of traditional labor, the emergence of yuppies, and gentrification on a now-global scale” (Jameson xix).
Also crucial to Jameson’s analysis is his notion that postmodernism is the “cultural logic” of this late capitalism, that is, postmodernism is the cultural dominant that appears when capitalist modernization is complete, leading to the incorporation of culture as simply another commodity within the capitalist economic system. All parts of the world now participate in this process, but that does not mean that some parts are not more thoroughly saturated by it, more thoroughly modernized, than others. In the West, especially in the United States, postmodernism thus reigns supreme as a cultural dominant, while in places such as the Middle East postmodernism still contends for supremacy with other powerful cultural forces. In fact, while Jameson himself emphasizes that postmodernism, like late capitalism itself, is a global phenomenon, he has consistently insisted that the phenomenon is further advanced in the West than in what used to be called the “third world,” where localized pockets of cultural resistance remain.
What Is Postmodernism?
To a large extent, the dominant trend in Western literature from the 1970s forward can be encompassed within the rubric of “postmodernism,” though that term itself is complex and has been widely contested. It is clear, however, that many observers, in the 1960s and 1970s, noted that a new form of cultural production seemed to be emerging. Many also noted that the formal characteristics of this new cultural form—its self-conscious experimentalism, its violations of the conventions of realism—resembled those of modernism, even if its tone seemed very different. Thus, this new phenomenon came to be called “postmodernism,” indicating both its similarities to modernism and the fact that it seemed aware of modernism as a predecessor—as opposed to the modernist sense of seeking to do something new and without precedent. In any case, postmodernism occurred under very different historical circumstances than did modernism and seemed to take a different—less serious, more playful—attitude toward its own project.
Actually, the phenomenon of postmodernism in its contemporary sense was first noticed (and named) in the 1950s in relation to architecture, where the turn to a new style of production was immediately obvious. Modernist architecture—the so-called “international style”—was marked by simplicity and practicality, by the kinds of stark, rectangular forms to be found in the conventional skyscrapers that sprang up around the world in the early and middle part of the twentieth century and in phenomena such as the “Bauhaus” architecture in Germany and the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) in America. However, while Wright’s designs employed many of the efficient, economical aspects of modernist architecture, his insistence on developing designs that were in harmony with the natural environment and with the natural inclinations of human beings acknowledged some of the dehumanizing limitations of modernist architecture. These limitations, by the 1950s, led to the development of new forms of architecture that were less rigidly functional and more ornamental, combining aspects of different architectural styles from different historical periods.
This new, self-consciously eclectic form of architecture came to be recognized as a genuine departure, especially as theorized by architect Robert Venturi, who countered the telling dictum of the important modernist architect Mies van der Rohe (1866–1969) that “less is more” with his own declaration that “less is a bore.” Venturi’s principal theorization of this new form of architecture is contained in his influential 1972 book (co-authored with his wife Denise Scott Brown and with Steven Izenour) Leaving Las Vegas.
Venturi and his associates correctly surmised that something genuinely new was happening in contemporary architecture, though they were unable fully to characterize these new developments. It was Charles Jencks, with Language of Post-modern Architecture (1977), who for the first time clearly articulated these new developments within the context of what he called postmodernism. Though Jencks was at first hesitant to apply the term “postmodernism” in a positive sense (preferring terms such as “radical eclecticism”), he soon adopted postmodernism as a positive designation, revising his book a year later to include a vision of the postmodern as a new kind of “double-coding,” in which architecture could employ both modern and historical aspects in a single structure.
Meanwhile, by the time the work of architects such as Venturi and Jencks was published, other observers were beginning to detect similar developments outside of architecture. The recognition of postmodernism as a new literary phenomenon was spearheaded by the Egyptian-born American critic Ihab Hassan (1925–2015), who, in a series of critical works, attempted to describe the new phenomenon. Clearly influenced by the carnivalesque, anti-authoritarian energies of the oppositional political movements of the 1960s, Hassan saw postmodernism as a radical, subversive tendency through which literature could challenge both the cultural and the political status quo. He saw modernism and postmodernism as employing many of the same aesthetic strategies, but for vastly different purposes, with postmodernism becoming a sort of ultra-modernism that was more daring than modernism and that overcame the conservative limitations of mainstream modernism. Modernism ultimately emerges in the view of Hassan (and many others) as a conservative, elitist movement, while postmodernism emerges as a brash challenge to the very values that modernism supports. In works such as the essay “POSTmodernISM” (1971) and the volumes The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature (1971), The Right Promethean Fire: Imagination, Science, and Cultural Change (1980), and The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture (1987), Hassan outlined his influential theory of the subversive nature of postmodernist literature. However, by the end of the 1980s, his enthusiasm for the revolutionary possibilities of the movement seemed to have waned.
Meanwhile, in France, Jean-François Lyotard (1924–1998), especially in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), gave the theorization of postmodernism a more philosophical turn. Envisioning postmodernism as a challenge to the rationalist principles of the Enlightenment, Lyotard saw it as being particularly informed by a strong skepticism toward grand “totalizing metanarratives,” which he explicitly associated with authoritarian structures of power. As opposed to this totalizing tendency, Lyotard (here and elsewhere in his work) celebrated the tendency toward fragmentation in postmodernist art and literature as an anti-authoritarian gesture.
The critical literature on postmodernism is vast and diverse. Much of it, like Lyotard, envisions postmodernism as a radical new cultural challenge to authority, though few have been able to articulate exactly what this new art really does to change the social and political status quo. Indeed, Perry Anderson convincingly argues, in his careful examination of the origins of the historical concept of postmodernity, that the work of theorists such as Hassan, Lyotard, and Jencks (and even the ostensible leftist Jürgen Habermas), while ostensibly viewing postmodernism as emancipatory, is thoroughly underwritten (and undermined) by a thinly-disguised, Cold War–informed polemic against Marxism and socialism. Indeed, the grand metanarratives decried by Lyotard and other postmodern champions of fragmentation are, for Anderson, simply coded stand-ins for the Marxist model of history. Thus, despite their seeming diversity (and its overt celebration of diversity) Anderson sees in most earlier theorizations of postmodernism and postmodernity a strange ideological consistency in their aversion to the central principles of classical Marxism:
“The idea of the postmodern, as it took hold in this conjuncture, was in one way or another an appanage of the Right. Hassan, lauding play and indeterminacy as hallmarks of the postmodern, made no secret of his aversion to the sensibility that was their antithesis: the iron yoke of the Left. Jencks celebrated the passing of the modern as the liberation of consumer choice, a quietus to planning in a world where painters could trade as freely and globally as bankers. For Lyotard the very parameters of the new condition were set by the discrediting of socialism as the last grand narrative—ultimate version of an emancipation that no longer held meaning. Habermas, resisting allegiance to the postmodern, from a position still on the Left, nevertheless conceded the idea to the Right, construing it as a figure of neo-conservatism. Common to all was a subscription to the principles of what Lyotard—once the most radical—called liberal democracy, as the unsurpassable horizon of the time. There could be nothing but capitalism. The postmodern was a sentence on alternative illusions” (45–46).
In short, the liberation driven by postmodernism is merely the false freedom of the “free” market, as captured by the alternative suggestion by Mark Fisher that a better term for postmodernism might be “capitalist realism,” underwritten by the notion of the famous slogan of Conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that “there is no alternative” to capitalism.
Anderson cites with approval the theorization of postmodernism by Jameson, which sees postmodernism not as a radical, subversive gesture, but just the opposite. Jameson’s vision of postmodernism, developed throughout the 1980s, is summed up in his 1991 book Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, where he outlines what he sees as the important formal characteristics of postmodernist art and (more importantly) suggests the ways in which those characteristics relate to larger trends in the globalized world of late capitalism. Jameson’s book still stands as the single most important theoretical analysis of postmodernism as a cultural phenomenon.
For Jameson, the most important compositional strategy of postmodernist art and literature is pastiche, by which he means the borrowing of styles and motifs from the art and literature of the past. These borrowings, however, are carried out without any attempt to engage the original source in critical dialogue. Moreover, they ignore the fact that these originals were produced in a different historical context, so that the strategies used within them might mean something completely different than what they mean in the contemporary world. Styles and motifs borrowed from different cultures and (particularly, as emphasized by Jameson) from different time periods can be freely intermixed within the same postmodernist work, which tends to give postmodernist works a markedly ahistorical quality, with little or no sense of the historical process. Indeed, this loss of historical sense is a crucial characteristic of postmodernist literature for Jameson. It encompasses not just an inability to envision the past as a different time that led to the present by specific historical processes, but also an inability to imagine historical processes that lead to a future that is fundamentally different from the present. In short, postmodernist art is particularly lacking in the kind of utopian energies through which art, in the past, has helped to inspire social and political change.
Jameson also emphasizes that postmodernist artists employ this technique of pastiche because they are incapable of developing and maintaining the kind of distinct, individual styles that marked the work of the great modernist artists. Indeed, Jameson is consistently positive in his figuration of modernism as a sort of last wave of artistic resistance to the growing hegemony of capitalism in the modern world. Postmodernism, then, is the art that appears after this resistance has collapsed, leaving capitalism free to advance without opposition from this art. This unfettered capitalism, among other things, leads to a radical fragmentation of experience—both because of the tendency of capitalism to compartmentalize various phenomena for more efficient management and because the emphasis on innovation and expansion in capitalism lends an ephemeral quality to all aspects of existence. Importantly, Jameson relates the lack of distinct individual styles among postmodernist artists to the fact that they themselves lack the kind of stable, continuous identity that is needed to anchor such a style.
The psychic fragmentation that Jameson sees as central to the lives of individuals under late capitalism is also directly related to the formal fragmentation that he sees as crucial to postmodern art. In postmodernist literature, in particular, narratives, characters, and even language itself tend to be fragmented and unstable, in dramatic opposition to the stable, autonomous characters and linear, rational narratives that are typical of realist literature. Importantly, however, while modernist literature is also often formally fragmented, this fragmentation, according to Jameson, is enlisted in a battle against the ideology of realism, which is essentially the same as the ideology of capitalism in its classic stage. In the postmodern era, however, the ideology of capitalism has become powerful and versatile enough to encompass both realism and anti-realism, leaving literature no position from which to mount a subversive assault on capitalism unless it arises from a cultural position that is distinctly outside the capitalist norm. By this view, much postcolonial literature would qualify as a sort of pocket of resistance to the global spread of capitalism, as might marginalized Western literatures such as gay or lesbian literature.
Postmodernism in Fiction
Postmodern fiction has received a great deal of critical attention. Book-length studies such as those by Brian McHale and by Linda Hutcheon provide excellent overviews of the phenomenon up to the time of their publication in the late 1980s, when postmodernism was first beginning to emerge as a fully-formed cultural phenomenon. Postmodern literature has been very much dominated by the novel, and it was the work of important American novelists such as William Gaddis, John Barth, Ishmael Reed, Kurt Vonnegut, E. L. Doctorow, Kathy Acker, and Thomas Pynchon that was central to the early development of the very notion that a new era of cultural production was underway. Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) is still considered the epitome of postmodern fiction. This complex novel, rooted in history but not overly concerned with historical accuracy, playful and fun but difficult to interpret, and filled with allusions to both literature and popular culture, is a textbook case of postmodern fictional techniques. Indeed, this novel occupies somewhat the same position with regard to postmodernism that Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) occupies with regard to modernism. On the other hand, postmodern fiction is still evolving, so that the canon of postmodern fiction is not well established. Indeed, in some ways, postmodernism is by nature opposed to the establishment of a stable canon of “classics” given that it (like the late capitalism from which it arises) is constantly changing. In addition, postmodern literature lacks the monumental quality of some of the greatest modernist literature, partly because of its own playfulness and because literature itself no longer has the cultural power it once did, having been supplanted by film, television, and the internet as the central cultural forces in contemporary society. Postmodernism is also a much broader phenomenon than modernism. Modernism was something of a localized protest against mainstream trends in Western culture, while postmodernism as a whole is the Western mainstream—and it is rapidly expanding beyond the West to become the global mainstream.
Some of the greatest works of postmodern literature have been produced by writers outside the Western mainstream. The Colombian Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) became one of the founding texts of the postmodern mode known as “magic realism,” in which strange and even supernatural events are presented as if they are perfectly ordinary and unsurprising, thus attempting to capture some of the sense of the strangeness of life in certain parts of the world. But this phenomenon was not limited to the postcolonial world. For example, one of the founding works of magic realism, even before One Hundred Years of Solitude, was The Tin Drum (1959), by the German writer Günter Grass, whose home country definitely saw its share of strangeness during his lifetime. But it was One Hundred Years of Solitude that truly ignited magic realism as a phenomenon in world literature. The success of this text helped propel García Márquez to the Nobel Prize in Literature, while also helping to inspire writers around the world to write in the mode of magic realism.
García Márquez, understandably, was particularly influential in Latin America, but magic realism was also produced by African writers, Caribbean writers, and others. A particularly important and influential example of the mode was Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1980), written by a writer born to a Muslim family in India, but who grew up primarily in Britain (and who now lives and works in America). Rushdie thus epitomizes the global nature of postmodernism. Because of the immense success of Midnight’s Children—and then the controversies over his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses (which caused some high-ranking Muslim clerics to demand that he be killed)—Rushdie became (and possibly remains) the most famous living writer in the world.
Anderson, Perry. The Origins of Postmodernity. London: Verso, 1998.
Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? London: Zero Books, 2009.
Hassan, Ihab. “POSTmodernISM.” New Literary History 3 (1971): 5-30.
Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1987.