© 2021, by M. Keith Booker
The concept of world literature has its roots in the Enlightenment confidence that the rationalist values of modern Europe were universal in their theoretical validity (even if they were never applied universally in practice). By this view, all great literature, regardless of its origins, should have certain things in common and should display certain aesthetic characteristics—which were, of course, the characteristics of European literature. World literature was first discussed as a concept by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the early nineteenth century—but world literature at this time largely meant European literature from various countries, and its study was designed to establish a sense of pan-European literary community. Over time, the definition of “world literature” has gradually expanded, but it was not really until the explosion of interest in postcolonial literature in the latter part of the twentieth century that non-Western literatures began to get their due in studies of world literature.
In the meantime, the last several decades have seen a radical advancement in the process of globalization, through which (driven by the global expansion of the capitalist system) 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. This does not mean, however, that postmodernism exerts no gravitational pull there. It simply means that other forces (like Islam in the Middle East) still have power there as well and that these forces are not necessarily aligned with capitalism—or might even be aligned against it.
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 alternative suggestion by Mark Fisher that a better term for postmodernism might be “capitalist realism,” underwritten by the notion of the famous Thatcherite slogan 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. For Jameson, postmodernism is the direct expression of the “cultural logic of late capitalism.” It is the artistic form that arises when capitalist modernization nears completion and when commodification has engulfed virtually everything, including art and culture. 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 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 remains) the most famous living writer in the world.
The status of Midnight’s Children as perhaps the most important British novel of the past half century is, among other things, an indicator of the multicultural nature of contemporary British society. Indeed, the most prominent British novel of the twenty-first century thus far was another multicultural novel, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), written by a woman who was the daughter of an English father and a Jamaican mother. White Teeth shows the clear influence of Midnight’s Children, as do so many novels of the past forty years. Indeed, Rushdie has been so influential that the current generation of Anglophone Indian novelists has often been referred to as “Rushdie’s children.”
The Contemporary Convergence of Arab and American Culture
In the year 2021, radical Islamist imams in the Middle East are at this moment furiously conjuring up fatwas against the evils of America and American culture. In retaliation for the threat to their beliefs that they find in Western culture and American foreign policy, extremist Islamist groups—their minds apparently immersed in the eighth century despite their facility with high-tech weaponry and communications—are no doubt currently planning more terrorist attacks against targets in the West. These Arabs live in a harsh and morally rigid world starkly opposed to the seductive gleam of Western consumer culture. On the other hand, their world is also starkly opposed to the world in which the majority of people in most Arab countries live their daily lives. Severe-looking Muslim men in flowing beards and robes walking down the street in an American town might make many nervous, but many Arabs would be made uncomfortable by this sight in their own towns as well. For every staunchly anti-American Arab who thinks American culture is a tool of Satan, many more Arabs are clustered around their television sets in modern living rooms that look like they might be in Peoria, watching Arabic-dubbed versions of the latest American action movies via satellite television, rooting for the same heroes that American audiences root for. And three- and four-year-old girls all over the Arab world are gleefully dancing and singing tunes from Frozen and dreaming of becoming Disney princesses, children of their age often exposed to so much American popular culture that they speak English as well or better than Arabic.
Phenomena such as the popularity of American film and television in the Arab world are a key example of global popular culture. In addition, the Arab world now has its own thriving culture industry, producing music, television, and film that draw strongly upon Middle Eastern cultural traditions but that are also heavily influenced by Western models and are beginning to be exported to other parts of the world. Netflix, for example, is now actively involved, not only in offering its content in the Arab world, but also in acquiring original programming produced in the Arab world and then in distributing this content around the world. In addition, the Arab world now has its own version of many popular television franchises, such as Arab Idol or Arabs Got Talent, as well as its own versions of most popular television genres, such as game shows and talk shows.
Music videos (commonly referred to as “video clips” in the Arab world) are a particularly prominent part of the Arab music industry. Sexy female pop singers such as Lebanon’s Elissa, Nancy Ajram, Myriam Fares, and Haifa Wehbe or Egypt’s Ruby and Sherine have remained wildly popular despite (often quite harsh) criticisms that their video clips are immoral, a fact that can be taken as a sign of the power of modernizing forces in Arab culture, forces that are by no means overmatched by the power of Islamic conservatism. The polished recordings (and video clips) of modern Arab pop stars are clearly influenced by both Western recording technologies and Western musical and visual styles. Moreover, in addition to serving essentially as advertisements for the stars who appear in them, video clips often show their stars living romanticized and luxurious Western lifestyles, which increases the fantasy effects and thus the auras of these stars, but also represents an implicit endorsement of such lifestyles. This materialist aspect of video clips understandably reinforces the concern of some in the Arab world that the clips are undermining traditional Islamic values. And they no doubt do carry with them a certain suggestion that Western modernity (i.e., capitalism) brings with it wealth, luxury, and fun—not to mention sexual gratification—unavailable in a strictly traditional Muslim (or, for that matter, Christian) climate.
Arab literature is also showing an increasing influence of Western literary models, though this influence has, in fact, been present at least since the nineteenth century. The Arabic-language novelist who is best known in the Western world is undoubtedly Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz (1911–2006), the first (and so far only) Arab writer to when the Nobel Prize in Literature. Mahfouz, with the Cairo Trilogy (1956–1957), became an important figure in world literature more than sixty years ago, publishing novels that were not only overtly modern in form (Mahfouz has often been compared with Western novelists such as Charles Dickens or Honoré de Balzac) but were explicitly about the process of modernization in an Egypt transformed by a number of forces, including contact with the West. And Mahfouz was only the forerunner of many more recent Arab novelists whose work has engaged in significant dialogues with Western literature.
Indeed, contemporary Arab literature shows strong signs of precisely the kind of transnational flows and resultant cultural convergences that are found in Arab film, music, and television. For example, Lebanon’s Elias Khoury has for some time been producing fiction that many critics have regarded as postmodern, while important writers of Arab literature are beginning more and more to write primarily in English—as in the case of Sudan’s Leila Aboulela or Libya’s Hisham Matar, both of whom live in London, or Egypt’s Ahdaf Soueif, who lives in Cairo. This phenomenon goes beyond Arabs to other Middle Eastern writers, as when the distinguished Turkish novelist Elif Şafak also now writes largely in English. And it should be noted that even the recent retelling of One Thousand and One Nights (2014)by Lebanon’s Hanan al-Shayk, well established as a writer in Arabic, was written in English, thus making it more accessible to a Western audience. Finally, some of the trendiest recent novels in Arabic clearly follow along the lines of Western postmodern models, including such examples as the hip Banat al-Riyad (2005, available in English as Girls of Riyadh); Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Egyptian dystopian novel Utopia (2009); Ahmed Alaidy’s Egyptian cyberpunk novel An takoun Abbas El Abd (2003, available in English as Being Abbas el Abd); and Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013) by Iraq’s Ahmed Saadawi, which builds upon the legacy of Mary Shelley’s classic story to express the horrors of contemporary Baghdad, in a mode that also draws upon magic realism.
Anderson, Perry. The Origins of Postmodernity. London: Verso, 1998.
Booker, M. Keith, and Isra Daraiseh. Consumerist Orientalism: The Convergence of Arab and American Popular Culture in the Age of Global Capitalism. London: I. B. Tauris, 2019.
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.
 The material in this section is explored in much more detail by Booker and Daraiseh.
 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.