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I was wondering how some of you might define the term, postmodern. I feel like we should define it first if we are going to examine it. I understand the period that postmodernism describes, I understand some of its central features (i.e. metafiction), and I know which works typify postmodernity, but I still find it hard to distill an essence, for lack of a better word. I'm sure my confusion is partly due to the fact that I am not yet well read in criticism/theory. I also think that it has to do with the fact that the word "postmodern," as Dr. B suggests in his course description, is employed so indiscriminately both inside and outside of literary discourse. Correct me if I'm wrong, but in the visual arts, "postmodern" doesn't seem to possess the same gravitas since more recent/contemporary movements have been broken down into more descriptive sub-categories. Anyhow, replies appreciated.


Holly Hammond

Responding to Brandon,

Like you, I am also not a postmodern scholar, my period being earlier. However, for my purposes (psychoanalysis, feminism, cultural studies) and from what I've gleaned from professors like John Cawelti is that the postmodern has a great deal to with fragmentation (think Lacan's "mirror stage," here). This fragmentation can operate on many levels, as you might already guess from your invocation of the term "metafiction," such as in relation to the canon, literary genre—in our case at the moment, novel—personhood + identity, the body, etc. I find investigating fragmentation useful because often times when I find fissures or missing pieces (or when I _don't find_, I should say, information), that's where the interesting part lies. I take my cue from Lynda Zwinger who has impressed upon me many times, especially in regards to my James scholarship, that examining what's missing is often a great place to being a critical inquiry. An investigation like this could take you in many directions, such as examining missing memory, the epitaphic moments or images in a text, or the usurpation of personhood or land.

In terms of _Beloved_ I'm focusing at present on the fissure of bonds between Sethe/Paul D and Sethe/Denver (the ghost beloved herself filling in the triangulation of the two duos).

Hope I've been useful!


Charles Newman, in his book The Post-Modern Aura, defines postmodern art as a “commentary on the aesthetic history of whatever genre it adopts.” Jane Hutcheon expands this in her book The Poetics of Postmodernism by suggesting that irony reigns as the technique of postmodern writers—that the inherit commentary on genre (that Newman proclaims) reveals a definite irony, which is the main break between postmodernism and other literary stages (mainly modernism I guess).

Hence postmodernism would be defined primarily as form rather than content. (However, Charlie talked to us the first day about postmodernism of content, which is harder for me to try and define.) In other words, “metafiction” is probably a form of ironic commentary on the genre of fiction, the commentary probably being something about the imaginary constructs of a fictional realm. What becomes interesting, then, about postmodern literature is its acknowledgment that now everything is beyond the real—that past, present, and future and all representations thereof are just that—representations. In our discussion tonight of history and its representations, we might decide if a narrativized history (as all history is) does not function the same as fiction itself. Doctorow’s Ragtime seemed to demonstrate this idea well; to approach the real, if that is what we intend to do, fiction is just as (in)valid an option as history.

Finally, defining postmodernism seems to be everyone’s concern whenever they write something about it, so I am guessing that your idea of it is as correct as anyone else’s. Maybe the definition of postmodernism will be slowly and slyly revealed to us as the semester wears on. Perhaps that is the point of postmodern inquiry: to find out what the damn thing is.


My plan was to deliberately withhold definitions for a while, after the first week, in order to permit us to inhabit the literary texts we encountered -- Marquez, Morrison, Serros, Palmer -- with less reserve, more fullness than might be the case if we were preoccupied with matching those texts up to a standard.

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