Attempts to define postmodernism tend to begin by noting how difficult the theory is to define. Despite my best efforts the present attempt will be no different. The difficulty of defining postmodernism stems in part from its awareness of and suspicion toward the very notion of anything as final and authoritative as a definition. In order to get at an understanding of postmodernism, we must first make a distinction between postmodern culture and postmodern theory.
The “Introduction to the Postmodern” section in The College of Liberal Arts at Purdue’s Introductory Guide to Critical Theory begins by making such a distinction. Postmodern culture is life in the present, in the state of “postmodernity,” and postmodern theory is formulated by critics to describe and understand the complexities of the present, as well as the ways in which various types of art express the truths of those complexities. According to the Guide: “One symptom of the present’s complexity is just how divided critics are on the question of postmodern culture, with a number of critics celebrating our liberation and a number of others lamenting our enslavement” (Felluga Postmodern). More will be said below on these two critical schools.
The discussion of postmodern culture and postmodern theory (and by extension postmodern art) differs from discussion of, say, modernism, in that the historical-cultural period discussed as “postmodern” tends to line up more directly with the period in art known as “postmodern”. In contrast, the outset of “modern” in history is sometimes placed as far back as the Renaissance, while modernism in art is typically defined as beginning around the dawn of the 20th Century. Here I would gently suggest that for postmodernism this temporal lining up of both the historical and the artistic is not simply a phonological quirk, but also a reflection of the acceleration of culture and the destabilization of time through reflexivity and reference that postmodern theory and art utilize and document.
One of the defining texts of postmodern theory is Jean-François Lyotard’s 1979 book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, which brought the term into use in philosophy and critical theory. Lyotard offers a refreshingly succinct view of the meaning of postmodernism: “Simplifying in the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives” (Lyotard xxiv). Per Lyotard, postmodernism is a theory that questions the validity of large, all-encompassing systems of philosophy or viewpoints of the world and how the world works. Herein lies the difficulty. There is a paradox at the core of postmodern theory: it is a theoretical framework (read: a system, a meta-narrative) which questions the usefulness of theoretical frameworks for describing reality.
Of course, none of this, even still, gets at what postmodernism is in a concrete sense. I want to assert that postmodern art and its corresponding theory are characterized by awareness. Postmodernism’s skepticism toward systems that are meant to apply universally stems from our historical moment: the tendency of such systems to predictably collapse is well-documented, i.e. we are historically aware of this tendency, and we are therefore skeptical of such systems.
It is this characteristic awareness that makes postmodernism not only connect with, but become recognizable as, the condition of life from the second half of the twentieth century to the present.
Although postmodernism continues using many of the same techniques as modernism, as Felluga notes, postmodernism can be understood as a “more radical break” with the past, and one that responds to several different cultural currents. The transition point from modernism to postmodernism is often placed, somewhat retroactively, at the end of World War II. This make sense given that the distrust of dogmatic ideological constructs that characterizes postmodernism can be seen as stemming from the failure of the ideology-driven modernists to prevent the horrors of the war. (Felluga notes that “bold manifestos...for an improved future” were common to modernism in both political and artistic spheres.) Post-WWII also saw a number of then-new media come to a theretofore unseen prominence: TV, film, and popular music (and, later, the computer).Part of the difficulty in defining postmodernism is its call to consider extra-textual considerations in order to make meaning from texts. It is hard to define a theory that asks us to consider so much information as relevant to understanding art.
In further pages on this path, we will explore the way different characteristic techniques of postmodernism are present in Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea, and, in the process, understanding of both postmodernism and O’Connor’s novel will be deepened.
Duncan, Dawn. "Introduction to Postmodernism: Notes from Dr. Dawn Duncan." Web. 30 March, 2016.
Felluga, Dino. “General Introduction to Postmodernism.” Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. 31 January 2011. Purdue U. Web. February 29, 2016.
Peter, Ian. “History of the World Wide Web.” Ian Peter’s History of the Internet. NetHistory. 2004. Web. 30 March, 2016.