Postmodernism is difficult to define. Don DeLillo is recognized as one of America’s premier postmodernist novelists, yet he rejects the term entirely. “If I had to classify myself,” he explains in a 2010 interview in the Saint Louis Beacon, “it would be in the long line of modernists, from James Joyce through William Faulkner and so on. That has always been my model.” Literally, the term postmodernism refers to culture that comes after Modernism, referring specifically to works of art created in the decades following the 1950s. The term’s most precise definition comes from architecture, where it refers to a contemporary style of building that rejects the austerity and minimalism of modernist architecture’s glass boxes and towers; postmodernist architects retain the functionalist core of the modernist building but then decorate their boxes and towers with playful colors, forms, and ornaments that reference disparate historical eras. Indeed, play with media and materials, and with forms, styles, and content is one of the chief characteristics of postmodernist art.
While postmodernist architects play with the material of their buildings, postmodernist writers play with the material that their poems and stories are made of, namely language and the book. Postmodernist writers freely use all the challenging experimental literary techniques developed by the modernists earlier in the twentieth century as well as new, even more experimental techniques of their own invention. In fiction, many postmodernist authors adopt the self-referential style of “metafiction,” a story that is just as much about the process of telling a story as it is about describing characters and events. Donald Barthelme’s postmodernist short story, “The School,” contains metafictional elements that comment on the process of storytelling and meaning-making, as when the narrator describes how the “lesson plan called for tropical fish input” even though all the students in the schoolroom knew the fish would soon die. Who is telling this story? Bartheleme? The unnamed narrator? The lesson plan? The stories that make up history itself are often a playground for postmodernist authors, as they take material found in history books and weave it into new tales that reveal secret histories and dimly perceived conspiracies. David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Consider the Lobster,” is a good example of the narrative excess found in postmodern literature. In this essay written for Gourmet magazine, Wallace uses his visit to the Maine Lobster Festival to tell a history of the lobster since the Jurassic period that eventually turns against the organizers of the festival themselves, who may or may not be covering up the truth about how much lobsters suffer in their cooking pots. The form of the essay cannot even contain Wallace’s ideas, which spill over into twenty excessively long footnotes, many of which are little essays in themselves. In addition to playing with the form of literature and the notion of authorship, postmodernist writers also often play with popular sub-genres such as the detective story, horror, and science fiction. For example, in her poem “Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich evokes both the detective story and science fiction as she imagines a futuristic diver visiting a deep sea wreck in order to solve the mystery of why literature and history have been mostly about men and not women.
Not all works of postmodernist literature are stylistically experimental or playful. Rather, their authors explore the meaning and value of postmodernity as a cultural condition. Several philosophers and literary critics many of whose names have become synonymous with postmodernism itself have helped us understand what the postmodern condition may be. “Poststructuralist” philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard have argued that words and texts do not reflect the world but instead exist as their own self-referential systems, containing and even creating the world they describe. When we perceive the world, Derrida’s philosophy of “deconstruction” claims, we see not things but “signs” that can be understood only through their relation to other signs. “There is no outside the text,” Derrida famously claimed in his book Of Grammatology (1967). In this way, words and books and texts are powerful things, for in them our world itself is created an insight that many postmodernist creative writers share. Baudrillard, in turn, argues in his book, Simulacra and Simulation (1981), that the real world has been filled up with and even replaced by simulations that we now treat as reality: simulacra. These postmodern sensibilities are reflected in both Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “A Supermarket in California,” and our selection from DeLillo’s White Noise. In Ginsberg’s poem, food has become “brilliant stacks of cans” knowable only by their similarity to each other. The “neon fruit supermarket” is not even a simulation of a real farm but instead is a simulacra full of families who have probably never even seen a farm. In DeLillo’s novel, we find the insight that the collected photographs of “the most photographed barn in America” are more real than the physical barn being photographed. Nobody knows why this particular barn is the most photographed barn in America. The barn is famous simply because it is a much-copied text, valued more as a sign in relation to other signs (all those photos of the same thing) than as a thing in itself with a specific history and a particular use. In his book Postmodernism (1991), the leftist critic Frederic Jameson chastises postmodernism for being the “cultural logic of late capitalism,” which for him is a culture that erases the real meanings and relations of things such as the most photographed barn in America, replacing true history with nostalgic simulacra.
The culture of postmodernism in general exhibits a skepticism towards the grand truth claims and unifying narratives that have organized culture since the time of the Enlightenment. In postmodern culture, history becomes a field of competing histories and the self becomes a hybrid being with multiple, partial identities. In his provocative study, The Postmodern Condition (1979), the philosopher Jean Francois Lyotard argues that what defines the present postmodern historical era is the collapse of “grand narratives” that explain all experience, faiths, and truths, such as those found in science, politics, and religion; in place of all-explaining master narratives, he argues, we now know the world through smaller micro-narratives that don’t all fit together into a greater coherent whole. These insights are thoroughly explored in the confessional, feminist, and multicultural American literature of this era, whose authors write from their subjective points of view rather than presuming to represent the sum total of all American experiences, and whose works show us that American history has been far from the same experience for all Americans. For example, both Sylvia Plath and Theodore Roethke have poems about their fathers, but their appreciation of their respective fathers is shaped by both their genders and their own personal histories. Roethke feels a kinship with his father. Plath, however, sees her father as an enemy. The Native American author Leslie Marmon Silko tells her story specifically from the point of view of a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, whose members use old stories about the Yellow Woman and the ka’tsina spirit to understand their tribe’s relationship to the rest of America. In the works of African-American literature in this section, we find similar explorations of cultural identity. James Baldwin uses the African-American music of the blues and jazz to describe the relationship between the two brothers in his story, “Sonny’s Blues.” Ralph Ellison, in the first chapter from his novel Invisible Man (1952), writes about the experience of attending a segregated school that keeps black Americans separate from white Americans. Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, in their stories, explore the hybrid nature of African-American identity itself, showing us the tensions that arise when one’s identity is both American and black.
The varied, playful, experimental literature of postmodernism, the critic Brian McHale helpfully observes in his book Constructing Postmodernism (1993), presents readers not with many ways to know our one world but instead with many knowable worlds created within many disparate works in many different ways. Modernist authors all strove to devise new techniques with which to accurately represent the world, McHale observes. Postmodernist authors, however, are no longer concerned with representing one knowable world but instead with creating many literary worlds that represent a diversity of experiences. Thus, much as the American literature of the contemporary era presents us with a record of how the nation has known, questioned, and even redefined itself, so too does the literature of postmodernism present us with a record of how writers have known, questioned, and even redefined what literature is.