In the mind of an avid—or even slightly aware—reader, certain dates of the last three centuries denote massive literary movements. This vague timeline sits comfortably nestled in the conscious of literary enthusiasts: In the early 18th century, the stodgy Enlightenment came into power; within the century, an unprecedented flourish of political and poetic expression concurrent with the French Revolution dethroned the Enlightenment, and established Romanticism—the sublime, humanity untethered from logic—in its place. As Romanticism evolved in American Literature, the twin impulses of the early-to-mid 19th century grew: Transcendentalism and Gothicism. By the middle of the 20th century, Realism and Naturalism had taken the reins, and within a few decades Modernism—encouraged by the World Wars—sat in its throne at the head of literary art worldwide.
At this point, we can take a breath: From here, it becomes increasingly clear that literature falls victim of a devaluation rather than a renaissance. Dadaism, Surrealism and the OULIPO—each originating in France—cheapened and stretched the bounds of traditional expressionist literature. Modernism as a serious emotional reaction to conservative Realism begins to fail, and, in the early 1950s, Postmodernism moves in, bringing its (unwieldy) baggage.
In this era, psychoanalysis, plurality, irony, and skepticism become the hallmarks of literature. Geographically, Postmodernism denotes a period where, due to ever expanding forces of globalization, normative literature no longer happens in separate quadrants, relegated to European, American, Asian spheres; these denotations stand now as political descriptors rather than literal delineations. The “realities” of previous years are foregone in favor of a scathing appraisal about the nature of life, and humanity in it.
We know the fathers of some movements, but not others.
Each of us can identify a work of Postmodernism fairly readily; we know what Postmodernism “looks” like. However, interestingly enough, the authors that founded the postmodern aesthetic are mostly ignored or unknown, certainly in the halls of academia. This troubles me; we can easily identify the figureheads of other movements: Kant, Franklin, and Spinoza for the Enlightenment; Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley for Romanticism; Whitman, Emerson, Poe, Melville for Transcendentalism/Gothicism—etc, etc.
Postmodernism’s representatives, on the other hand, are little known. It’s easy to point out postmodern authors and their work, but not so easy to choose the “founders”—if such a stiff term here applies—of the movement. In few classes are the patriarchs of postmodernism taught. Though there are many wonderful examples of the aesthetic, its founding principles are being lost. “Postmodern” has become a popular catch phrase like “hipster” or “beat,” or something readily aligned with David Foster Wallace—even though his work is close to inscrutable without a firm foot in the basics of the theory.
I hope in this essay to recover Postmodernism from history’s abstruse gape. For my purposes here, I will list the three kings of postmodernism—one philosopher, one writer, and one semiotician—who not only established the principles of the aesthetic, but also employed them to wonderful results. It is important that the reader not consider these writers a totalizing list of postmodern influencers, but rather primers or professors of the style. The three I am about to list (suspenseful, no?) are not the ‘first’ apostles of postmodernism, but they are the most distinguished, most self-aware, and in my quiet opinion, the best. The three are Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Donald Barthelme.
Most postmodern innovation comes from the French.
Barthes was born in 1915, while Derrida and Barthelme were born fifteen years later, within a year of each other. Barthes was a literary theorist and semiotician who examined the structure of sentences and their effect in a larger narrative; the work I’ve chosen to briefly feature below is From Work to Text, an essay from his lauded piece Images—Music—Text (1977). Derrida was a philosopher and literary theorist who proposed the critical theory deconstructionism, and eschewed long-standing binaries of textual appraisal; we’ll be looking over his work Of Grammatology (1967). Barthelme, a lauded author of (surrealist) fiction, radically reinvented and refreshed the structure, conduct, and mode of the short story; I’ll discuss his story, Indian Uprising (1968).
I review these works briefly below, discussing the most obvious theories and styles in order to produce an abridged, coherent, and accessible argument for a more serious consideration of postmodernism; in the space allotted, my analysis will be fatefully macroscopic—however, I strongly urge the reader to find these authors as soon as possible. They engineered the course of modern thought. By considering these artists’ works together, it will be evident that: The growth of postmodernism is beholden to simple logic; Postmodernism, as a movement, did not have a conscious aesthetic until the later half of the 20th century—though the over-zealous like to peg its commencement as early as ’45; and that literary theory is essential and necessary to a powerful aesthetic.
Oh—as a quick and premonitory note, the selection of two Frenchmen does not betray a bias, but instead an important and oft-overlooked fact: Most literary innovation of the last century did not come out of the United States. On the contrary, it mostly came out of France. And, of course, some readers will disagree with my selection; I cannot offer a selection of three postmodernists that will please everyone—undoubtedly, there are many great proponents of the aesthetic. However, in peaceful reflection or measured research, I believe the reader will find those that I have chosen excellent, or at the very least, important.
Central to any emergent movement is the proposition of a core set of theories that make the proposed movement unique, different—and often opposed—to what came before. The theories catalyze a change in perception and interpretation of the value of reading that precedes a shift in literary conduct. In the case of postmodernism, Roland Barthes was one of the first to create a new signification of critical interpretation. In Modernism and preceding movements, the reader interacted with a concrete, unchanging work. The work was subject of certain interpretations, without specific plurality; certain interpretations were right, and others wrong.
A dashing Roland Barthes
In response to the absurdity of a single, knowable interpretation, Barthes makes a revolutionary division: He splits the Text from the Work. The work, basically, is the individual writing of the book—it exists almost as a separate, noumenal object. Contrastingly, the Text is the multifaceted, live, and indefinable body of words as it is perceived by a reader; a reader who, necessarily, brings a host of personal and external contexts to the act of reading, coloring the text in multitudinous ways. On this dichotomy, he writes:
The work is a fragment of substance, occupying a portion of the space of books (in a library, for example); the Text on the other hand is a methodological field.
In Barthes theory, there exists no single ‘definition’ for a literary work; there are no equations or certainties or moralizations that allow a reduced, correct interpretation of a Text. “The Text is not to be thought of as an object that can be computed,” Barthes writes. “What constitutes the Text is, on the contrary (or precisely), its subversive force in respect of the old classifications.”
It is important to Barthes to emphasize the mutability of the Text. “[The Text] is plural. This is not simply to say that it has several meanings, but that it accomplishes the very plural of meaning: an irreducible (and not merely an acceptable) plural.” With this straightforward framework, Barthes revolutionizes the idea of what a literary work is—it is not, he writes, something that can be pinned down, or dissected. It is live, and personal, and indefinable. Postmodernism rests on this sturdy foundation.
Derrida, building upon the idea of the Text, distinguished between the Text and work as considered socially, historically, and politically. Derrida, like Barthes, noticed that past ways of considering texts had been absolutely, absurdly flawed. Since the ancient Greeks, Derrida found, literary criticism and appraisal had been couched in structures and complexes of historical nonsense. Derrida noticed that the texture of our human culture is founded in binaries—such as presence/absence, good/bad, right/wrong—that share no apparent correlation in reality.
Derrida called these pairings, simply enough, “binary oppositions.” These oppositions to which we’re predisposed allow the propagation of inaccurate biases that damage our interpretation and perception of literary works. He argued that the foundation of the West was in these “violent hierarchies,” where “one of the two terms governs the other.” For example, when we appraise Milton’s Paradise Lost on the basis of Satan’s inherit badness and God’s innate goodness, we read God’s character with favor, changing the text in major and damaging ways. From this understanding of the falseness of binaries, Derrida famously wrote, “There is nothing outside the text.” This means, simply, that no reader can access a literary work without bringing to it an entire reality, a matrix of experience.
A text cannot, Derrida posits, be accessed from a distant and objective plane, but rather must be considered as a system of symbols, rendered in each reader’s individual reality. “From the moment there is meaning, there are nothing but signs. We think only in signs,” Derrida writes. Therefore, it’s difficult to differ between signs-as-literature, and signs-as-reality; ultimately, we must consider the text as an inextricable facet of existence. From this solid theoretical parapet, Derrida develops his most important critical theory in Of Grammatology: Deconstructionism.
The theory champions a leaving behind of all boarders and considering a text as an interwoven, borderless field of symbols. He says of the theory: “One of the definitions of what is called deconstruction would be the effort to take this limitless context into account, to pay the sharpest and broadest attention possible to context, and thus to an incessant movement of recontextualization.” Working from Barthes’ delineation between work and lively Text, Derrida extends the essence of verbal enterprise into a vast, indiscernible, all-encompassing tapestry from which no reader can separate themselves. Each new text becomes an integral asset of its reader’s existence.
Donald Barthelme, homely looking.
Donald Barthelme was not a theorist or philosopher, and actually shied away from the label “postmodern” his entire life. However his writing so strongly values and employs the principles established by Barthes and Derrida, that to ignore him as a master and father of the postmodernist generation would be an exercise in absolute ignorance. His texts are multifaceted, methodological, and varied; he employs a vast swath of various styles and forms to create an often humorous, reductive, ironic, or satiric commentary on our culture and conduct.
Though postmodern authors have come before him, I strongly believe—and with evidence—that his work most clearly and skillfully represents the aesthetic, and exercises its province with the greatest effect. A work of his that accessibly espouses these values is The Indian Uprising, a multidimensional story of love and war. In the story, Indians are attacking the narrator’s city, and simultaneously—though in spatial and temporal remove—the narrator experiences various romances of odd and impressive sorts.
We defended the city as best we could. The arrows of the Comanches came in clouds. The war clubs of the Comanches clattered on the soft, yellow pavements. There were earthworks along the Boulevard Mark Clark and the hedges had been laced with sparkling wire. People were trying to understand. I spoke to Sylvia. “Do you think this is a good life?” The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. “No.”
In this story, Barthelme establishes a clear binary between man/woman, but he undercuts it at every possible moment; he highlights the clichéd connection between warfare and love, but also reduces it to absurdity. Throughout the plot of these various romances—one violent, one human—a meta-narrative is maintained, in which the speaker feels watched, filmed, recorded.
And when they shot the scene in the bed I wondered how you felt under the eyes of the cameraman, grips, juicers, men in the mixing booth: excited? Stimulated? And when they shot the scene in the shower, I sanded a hollow-core door working carefully against the illustrations in texts and whispered instructions form one who had already solved the problem.
Nothing, assuredly, is more postmodernist than this impulse of removed, mysterious scrutiny. This story, though it’s unsexy to say it, astounds me. Barthelme somehow maintains a coherent and interesting plot structure while also calling it into question at every available point. The reader here sees a jumbling of disparate elements, a pseudo-dreamscape where the interactions of characters and the effects of those interactions are considered simultaneously. Ultimately, the narrator finds no answer to his romantic and textual investigations:
I decided I knew nothing. Friends put me in touch with a Miss R., a teacher, unorthodox they say, excellent they said, successful with difficult cases, steel shutters on the windows made the house safe…”You know nothing,” she said, “you feel nothing, you are locked in a most savage and terrible ignorance, I despise you, my boy, mon cher, my heart.” You may attend but you must not attend now, you must attend later, a day or a week or an hour, you are making me ill…
Investigation without result, overarching scrutiny, the uncertainty and warfare of a textual nature—these are the hallmarks of a postmodern aesthetic, which Barthelme employs masterfully time and again to impressive ends. His work draws no clear boarders, offers no responsible parties; in the end, his writing answers only to the intricate twists of a jumbled reality, not unlike our own.
Inarguably, these three authors solidified a generation of contemporary thought, the effects of which are immeasurable. Building on the precepts of each other’s work, they improved and refined a radical aesthetic, heretofore unrivaled. Each played their part: Barthes made the simple but important distinction between a lifeless work—an impractical noumen—and the lively, vital Text as irreducible object. Derrida dissolved the boundaries and binaries of obsolete tradition in order to propose a Text that not only left its work, but also became an irremovable element of the reader’s reality. Barthelme employed these philosophies—the text-as-borderless—to make works of fluid, boundless, and multileveled proportion.
Together, these masters solidified the postmodernist generation. The postmodern literary work is not one that can be reduced to simple appraisals and interpretations; instead, it is an ineffable, impressive, and interwoven catalogue of symbols that contribute to the reader’s grand experience—an addition that influences the reader’s reception of every critical work thenceforth.
The Bestseller list is sort of boring.
Unfortunately, best-seller lists and popular e-books have little examples of such a finely tuned postmodernism. Instead, many writers have retreated into a purposefully ignorant romanticism. The label “postmodern” is used thoughtlessly to describe a range of production from boy bands to t-shirts. This dilution of terms does a disservice to all of us who hope to react, originally, to the philosophies that precede us.
We must own this generation, and either perpetuate it or destroy it; in any case, we should not reduce it to trends in popular culture, music, and fashion. It is my desperate hope these masters will be excavated from literary obscurity, and that their impressive works will gain the attention and audience that they truly deserve. Otherwise, the potency of these artful philosophies may be forever lost to the worst of attitudes—indifference.
Christian Harder is an undergraduate writer at Virginia Tech in literature who believes in innovations in form and style. He believes politics, preaching, and political correctness have no place in art and remains wary of the effect large cultural institutions and popular trends have on an otherwise intelligent public. He anticipates attending graduate school come next year. Harder maintains his website Pages to Pixels.
INcredible article!!! Thanks for another great read!
Well I agree, it’s a goddam shame that most of Barthelme’s books are out of print (I humbly suggest though that your excellent description of what he did also describes Beckett’s fiction). It comes as a surprise to me (who knows nothing of academic trends) that Barthes and Derrida are being left behind in academia. I was under the impression that they – the latter in particular – were very well known.