Part of my work in these past two weeks has been gaining an understanding of the “modernist” and “postmodernist” literary voices, and how the voice of the beat generation is defined. Modernism and postmodernism are not just stylistic differences; they indicate a certain perspective and ideology held by writers. Like all literary movements, they hold a unique philosophy at heart. I believe that an understanding of this is essential to our reception of any given piece of literature, and awareness of the philosophical agenda behind the writing can more accurately put what is said into context. When you take that a step further and analyze the philosophy of writing in relation to the author’s social and historical context, to some degree, you can excavate the psychology behind the written work.
In short–there are (at least) three layers of context to take into consideration:
- the society
- the literary/artistic period produced by society and reasons for its development
- the author’s personal background in relation to their patron literary movement and society, and the perspective that these collectively produce
Modern and postmodern literature are deeply defined by their heavy use of narrative mode. What sets them apart are their differing stances on the concept of “self”. To paraphrase Professor Jane Flax of American University’s contribution to Lester Faigley’s Fragments of Rationality, the relationship between modernism and postmodernism is as follows:
“….. ‘Modernism’ usually refers to Neo-Classical, Enlightenment assumptions [about] the role [that] reason, or rationality, or scientific reasoning, play in guiding our understanding of the human condition and, in extreme cases of Postmodern theory, nature itself. Postmodernism …..challenges those basic assumptions.”
Modernist literature sees the individualized “self” as being independent of/undefined by a surrounding culture and society. Conventional rationality and scientific evidence are accepted as a basis for attaining knowledge. The modernist individual basically rejects their context as a contributing factor to their identity and development, but uses systems generated by their surrounding context in order to gain understanding, and perceive knowledge achieved through such systems as being of reasonable value. These systems are objective, and universally determine truth.
Postmodernism developed in response to this philosophy, which it rejects by arguing that rationality and science are man-made ideologies, and thus no more valid than conclusions reached using any other method of explanation. The postmodern individual “self” is conceptual; composed of one’s own direct social and cultural experiences and context. There is no universal system for assessing truth, nor is there objectivity. Established “truths” are relative only to their cultural (or individual) contexts–which is why postmodern authors are well-known for their use “unreliable narrators”, which “…[expose] irrationality at the roots of a supposedly rational world”. (Michael Andre-Bossy, via wikipedia)
Thus concludes my sloppy overview of postmodernism. An explanation of how postmodern literature surfaced in context of 1950’s post-war America is soon to follow! It is super duper cool.Bear with me–this stuff has got more layers than an onion.
The Beats: why they were only sorta-kinda postmodern
Scholarly Racism: “Colorblind” Philosophy & The tacit whitewashing of literature
AND THEN I’M GONNA PUT IT ALL TOGETHER
AND (if, and only if, you didn’t see this coming) IT WILL BLOW YOUR MIND