Literature - Postmodern Literary Criticism

Literature - Postmodern Literary Criticism

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Postmodern Literary Criticism


Postmodernism attempts to call into question or challenge the notion of a single absolute unified master narrative without simply replacing it with another. It is a paradoxical, recursive, and problematic method of critique.


It encourages transcendence through or in spite of limitation, while simultaneously decentering the concept of absolute transcendence. To this end, it encourages the development of a heightened sense of self in relation to itself and the world around it.


            Postmodernism assumes an ontology of fragmented being. Where modernism asserts the primacy of the subject in revealing universal truth, postmodernism challenges the authority of the subject and, thus, universal truth based on it. Modernism and postmodernism, however, draw upon distinctly different epistemological modes: critical and dogmatic.


            Modernism posits itself as a source of dogmatic knowledge. Dogmatic knowledge is an unchanging, absolute ideology. It has found the Truth or believes it is possible to acquire it. Knowledge is objective, tangible and quantifiable. The dogmatic mode attempts to subordinate further critical thinking in order to spread knowledge of Truth.


            Postmodernism, on the other hand, aspires to reflect the critical. Critical knowledge is a process, rather than product. Absolute knowledge is unattainable, conditional, and provisional at best. Any unequivocal sense of the real is rendered superfluous. Truth, therefore, remains elusive, relativistic, partial, and always incomplete; it cannot be learned in totality. "Truth itself is a contingent affair and assumes a different shape in the light of differing local urgencies and convictions associated with them" (Fish 207). Critical knowledge has no choice but to exercise complicity with the cultural historical context in which it is hopelessly mired. As Lee Patterson states, "Even scholars who are dealing with chronologically and geographically distant materials are in fact examining a cultural matrix within which they themselves stand, and the understandings at which they arrive are influenced not simply by contemporary interests but by the shaping past that they are engaged in recovering" (259).


            Postmodern literary criticism asserts that art, author, and audience can only be approached through a series of  mediating contexts. "Novels, poems, and plays are neither timeless nor transcendent" (Jehlen 264). Even questions of canon must be considered within a such contexts. "Literature is not only a question of what we read but of who reads and who writes, and in what social circumstances...The canon itself is an historical event; it belongs to the history of the school" (Guillory 238,44).

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Annabel Patterson articulates the decline of authorial power as a transition from autonomous art to Foucault's notion of anonymous discourse (143). Authors cannot hide their meanings in texts because authors themselves are transparent, culturally determined entities (A. Patterson 144). The judgment of the critic is, therefore, also "always interested or prejudicial", because the critic him or herself "must always belong to a group, a time, a place" (Guillory 235-7). Thus literary truth is not indicative of any transcendent quality, but a matter of consensus. (Guillory 235). Thus, as Lee Patterson states, "texts do not merely reflect social reality but create it" (260).


            Literature and its interpretations are, thus, at some very fundamental level, statements of contextual power, validating certain concepts of truth and excluding or opposing others. Each statement is an attempt to preserve and/or challenge certain power relations. "Becoming aware that everything is rhetorical is the first step in countering the power of rhetoric and liberating us from its force" (Fish 217-18). Must authors or critics be aware of their own mediating contexts in order to transcend them? Myra Jehlen seems to answer yes when she states, "If literature speaks gender along with class and race, then the critic has to read culture and ideology" (264). Put another way, though, postmodernism may possess the potential to launch an authentic critique of literature or society, or is its ultimate function may be to underscore existing power structures by providing a safe release for dissenting views.


            Literature may teach or question the nature of being, but its power to effect authentic political change upon society remains patently suspect from a postmodern perspective. Postmodernism itself seems trapped in a critical feedback loop. "Against the fantasy of transcendence, a criticism conscious of literature's and its own sexual politics affirms the permanent complexity of engagements and interactions" (Jehlen 265). By simultaneously recognizing and marginalizing various cultural 'others', however, we disempower them in terms of working collectively toward a common political goal. The postmodern proclivity is to promote balkanization as it underscores the fragmented nature of human existence.


            We have arrived at the heart of the postmodern paradox: the possibility of provisional transcendence. "Are we obliged to say that there is no domain of aesthetic value, or that the pleasure experienced in works of art can always be reduced to the pleasure of seeing our social identities or beliefs mirrored in the work?" (Guillory 237). Is this the "postmodern desert" Larry McCaffrey describes in his essay "Desert of the Real", "inhabited by people who are, in effect, consuming themselves in the form of images and abstractions through which their desires, sense of identity, and memories are sold back to them as products" (McCaffrey 6). Is this the condition of postmodernity? In many ways postmodernism does seem to be the next logical step in the evolution of the late capitalist, post-industrial, emerging information based economy. Postmodernism does question the validity of any absolute master narrative of transcendent truth, but does that mean, necessarily, that postmodernism rejects the notion or worth of any foundation of any kind? Is a qualified or provisional literary or critical foundation worthless? This may, in fact, be the most crucial and most difficult question postmodernism attempts to ask.



Works Cited


Fish, Stanley. "Rhetoric" Critical Terms for Literary

Study. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin.

Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.


Guillory, John. "Canon" Critical Terms for Literary Study.

Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago:

The University of Chicago Press, 1995.


Jehlen, Myra. "Gender" Critical Terms for Literary Study.

Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago:

The University of Chicago Press, 1995.


McCaffrey, Larry. Introduction: "Desert of the Real." 

Storming the Reality Studio. Larry McCaffrey, ed.

Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1992. 1-16.


Patterson, Annabel. "Intention" Critical Terms for Literary

Study. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin.

Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.


Patterson, Lee "Literary History" Critical Terms for

Literary Study. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas

McLaughlin. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.
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