Postmodernist Reading: Method and Application

by P. Biprachand

Literature is not simply a window to reality. It is a deeply processed medium. Therefore we have to know about genre and technique that create a vision of the world, become aware of how certain forms illuminate certain things or don’t…Modernism and postmodernism have made us more aware of the complexities of the art form.

—Homi K. Bhabha (2004)

The advent of Postodernism: a historical necessity

The ultra-modernism of the 1960s and 1970s in the case of the first world countries, and of the 1980s and 1990s in the case of the second world countries has produced not only quantitative changes in the material world but also qualitative changes in our behavior and attitude. The truth is that a deliberate change in one’s attitude within the ambit of one’s historical experiences can be mainly attributed to one’s failure to realize one’s dreams and aspirations. What a pity that ‘modernisation’ and ‘modernism’ have also failed like the highly promising isms and ideologies of the previous ages to satisfy mankind’s inner urges to make a better world to live in. Subsequently this mythical beliefs (simulations) and practical approaches (codes) have also been changed distinctively from the modernist construct. The salient features of the changes include

– a shift from the universal to the local,
– the unprecedented recognition being given to emerging sub-cultures,
– a growing aptitude to revert to the past in search of identity, and
– subversion of iconoclastic images.

Significantly this change in man’s attitude has given way to a shift of the ‘center’ from the universal to the local in the contemporary discourses. It is as if when things fall apart and the center cannot hold, a natural process of ‘decentering’ starts.

So the advent of post-modern phenomenon/discourses was inevitable in the course of mankind’s history which is now termed as postmodernism. It had to come to supplement ‘modernism’, if not substitute it. After all ‘the world is always in constant motion, change and development’ as Karl Marx has said. Mankind’s belief and ready response to ‘grand narratives’ or totalizing theories had also to change, if not out of choice, then, out of compulsion, and if not deliberately as the modernist did, then, spontaneously.

What is postmodernism?

From a sociological point of view, postmodernism (not post-modernism) is basically an attitude—the way one looks at, responds to and interprets the multiple activities of life, which are going on at present. This attitude is discernible through one’s reaction and responses, either at the individual or collective level, which are expressed in various forms of physical and mental activities, such as art, literature, politics and even agriculture and so on.

To quote Jeremy Hawthorn (2003), postmodernism is “the aspects of a more general human condition in the ‘late capitalist’ world of the post-1950s which have an all-embracing effect on life, culture, ideology and art”. In the words of Prof. Kh. Kunjo Singh (2006) of Manipur University, postmodernism “is a mood of radical indeterminacy and a love of self-conscious skepticism toward previous certainties, in personal, intellectual and political life”. It is, thus, clear that postmodernism is not a stringent movement as modernism was once; it is rather a tendency or attitude toward the contemporary history.

The uniqueness of postmodernism lies in its stance against totalizing theories and in its emphasis on immediateness. In its inquisitiveness it tries to encompass the whole body of epistemological and ontological discussions in a typically discursive manner. The traditional proverb ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ is indicative of a typically postmodern mind.

As a matter of fact, there are still people who think that postmodernism is non-existent as yet, and it is only a continued part of modernism, and it is in its fluid stage. These are also true, but only a half-baked truth. We should look at the other side of the coin too in order to conceive it in its totality. To put it plainly a post-modernist tendency may possibly develop even in a particular socio-cultural space, where there is the least contact with modernity or modernism, provided that the mode of life in the given space has been affected either by modernism or modernization even at a minimal degree.

Post-modernism may not be fully conceptualized as yet. However, some aspects of it are well discernible, thanks to the contributions of scholars such as Umberto Echo, Ihab Hassan, Linda Hutcheon and Mark Currie who have systematized the concept of postmodernism to a possible extent so far. These discernible aspects may be listed as follows:

1. A concern for the present or the immediate as against the modernist’s anxiety for the future, which is of course part and parcel of traditional ethical values. [Incredulity of the metanarratives, as called by Jean Francois Lyotard.]
2. A belief that ‘grand narratives prevent the full development of individuals and cultures, thereby emphasizing the diversity of individual and mini-narratives. Lyotard calls this the delegitimization of grand narratives, and the need for ‘agnostics’.
3. A rejection of the modernist concern for humanity at large on the basis of a fixed ideology. Lyotard refers to this tendency as ‘anti-foundationalism’ and ‘paganism’ where ‘one judges without criteria’.
4. Search for identity at various levels and various capacities such as gender, nationalism, human right activism, ethnicity, etc. Also referred to as ‘local over the universal’ by many, Stuart Hall calls it identity politics.
5. Indifferent attitude toward the world, instead of being nihilistic or nostalgic.
6. Breaking down of the distinction between the real and the illusory, between the superficiality and depth, whereby the image/model becomes more real than the real. Baudrillard referred to this phenomenon of the loss of the real as ‘hyperreality’.
7. Looking back to the past, or the search for roots, with which parallel attitude of regaining a renewed faith in nature alongside an enthusiasm in ecology. ‘Reversibility’ as propounded by some scholars has close proximity to this.
8. A general concern for the ‘popular culture’, by rejecting iconoclasm, and also ‘artistic aura’ of modernism.

Here, it is noteworthy that the most cardinal points among the ones given above are 1 and 2. The rest might be considered as their corollaries. For example, whenever our concern is about immediate problems (presentism), automatically our interest in the large-scale spaces (the universal) also shifts to our immediate environment (the local), which is to say that our immediate/nearest concern takes precedence over the distant/universal concern in any given circumstances. In other words ‘nowness’ obviously corresponds to ‘hereness’.

Preoccupation in the postmodern literary criticism

The definitions (if we may call them definitions) of postmodernism are of two types. The first type is historiographic in approach, whereas the second type is symptomatic in essence. The first type, exemplified by Jeremy Hawthorn’s statement quoted earlier in this essay, gives a bird’s eye-view of the postmodern situation. The second type investigates the psychic orientation of a postmodernist mind—how a postmodernist responds to his environment in a specifically different way from a modernist. For example, a postmodernist is self-conscious, self-contradictory and self-undermining unlike a modernist. This attitude has a lot to do with a modernist writer’s choice of themes/subject matter and treatment of his genre/techniques.

The important thing is that symptomatic definitions enable a literary critic to look into the creative mannerisms of a postmodern writer, since a writer habitually displays the maximum of the characteristic impulses, attitudes and mannerisms of his/her times in his/her works. This has further privileged a literary critic to invent a string of plausible methods and approaches in the study of postmodern writing;, and this is how we are enabled to discover a particular technique/style in a contemporary text and call it essentially postmodern technique/style by virtue of its virtual connectivity with a postmodern attitude. For example, the abundant use of playful parody and irony is remarkable in a postmodern narrative, and this penchant may be related to the postmodernist attitude of indifference, self-reflexiveness and rejection of iconoclasm.

Also, scholars like Mark Currie discover that postmodernism valorizes the local over the global. This particular tendency of the postmodernist mindset has given birth to the themes of identity in many literary works, wherein valorization of the local history, local culture and local politics have been given main emphasis. Examples may be cited from the novels,  Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie, 1981), Beloved (Tony Morrison, 1987), Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe, 1958), Snow (Orhan Pamuk, 2002 (trans 2004)), and Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s the Buru Quartet tetralogy novels—Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind, 1980), Anak Semua Bangsa (Child of All Nations, 1980), Jejak Langkah (Footsteps, 1985) and Rumah Kaca (House of Glass, 1988), etc. The struggle of Oliver Twist or the journey of David Copperfield or the hopes and frustrations of Dr. Zivago were more universal than local. But the crisis faced by Sethe in Beloved or the dilemma of Saleem Sinain in Midnight’s Children are more local both in character and spirit. Postmodern reading demands a fair amount of the knowledge of local history, local politics and the legend of the people and anything place-specific in the text in order to appreciate it better.

Again, the postmodern condition of ‘loss of reality’ (as propounded by Baudrillard) may be held responsible for the typical use of fantasy or magic realism in postmodern fictions. Examples are found in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude apart from Salman Rusdie’s Midnight’s Children and Satanic Verses. The return of the ghost of the baby girl Beloved as a grown-up girl in the person of another female who calls herself Beloved in Morrison’s novel Beloved is told in a fusion of myth and reality. Likewise in García’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, historical fact and fantasy are interwoven effectively in recounting the epic story of six generations of the founding family of the town of Macondo. Likewwise in Guntur Grass’s The Tin Drum we find that Oskar Matzerorth, the protagonist refuses to grow as a protest against the cruelties of German people and he communicates the other people through his drum only. These are a few examples of magic realism as a narrative technique, being employed brilliantly in some of the contemporary fictions.

Another interesting feature of postmodern fiction is the use of ‘rupturing effect’. This is a deliberate interruption of the narration by the narrator’s comments, often assuring the shape of a commentary on the act of reading and writing. For example, Orhan Pamuk begins his novel The New Life (Eng. Tr. 1997) with the sentence “I read a book one day and my whole life was changed.” Salman Rusdie begins his Midnight’s Children with

I was born in the city of Bombay…once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from that date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it’s important to be more… On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Oh, spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence.” (Midnight’s Children, 1995, p. 9)

The first example from Pamuk is a commentary on reading (Mukherjee, 2005), and the second one from Rushdie a commentary on writing. Rushdie’s style is rather a monologue, a commentary on how he progresses, or improves himself in the art of writing, nay, the art of effective communication. It also appears to us that the author is giving us a commentary of the process of his self-learning/self-teaching as an art form wherein his psycho-motor cognitive skill is repeatedly being challenged, wherein he finds himself in a hypnotic-like condition to call his past experiences, just to grasp the right word in a right order to enable the reader to fully empathize with him. This particular technique can also be attributed to a postmodernist attitude of self-reflexiveness, indifference and a reaction against the poetics of modernism.

Hyperreality is another domain where postmodernist mind takes recourse to in his disbelief of the ontological propositions. This particular tendency facilitates a ‘quintessential matrix of postmodernism’, i.e. hyperreality to be used as a narrative technique. For example, in Vijay Tendulkar’s The Vultures, the deliberate and schematic hiding of one’s evil designs and perfidious nature under the garb of magnanimous dispositions is projected by means of “a verbal/dramatic construct of nightmarish images” (Dharan, 2002). This is so because a linear way of narration will be inadequate here to show the complex human nature within the conventional framework of a dramatic representation. Therefore, a certain dramatic manipulation of the images of the real and the simulated real is to be employed.

In regard to the fusion of reality and myth, the past and the present, the border-crossing of genres, excessive emphasis on subjective views and experiences which are typical of postmodern style and technique, Nicola King explains:

Consistency of consciousness and a sense of connectivity between actions and events of past and the experience of the present would appear to be integral to a sense of personal identity. (King, p. 000)

And no doubt the search for personal identity is the crux of postmodern man.

According to David Lodge, there are five techniques typical of postmodern fiction. They are (i) contradiction, (ii) permutation, (iii) discontinuity, (iv) randomness, and (v) excess. Contradiction is the technique where the writer cancels itself out as it goes along. This is seen in the opening line of Midnight’s Children too. Permutation is where the writer incorporates ‘alternative narrative lines in the same text’. This can be seen in Pablo Neruda’s poem I’m explaining a few things where the poet says:

Come and see the blood in the streets
Come and see
The blood in the streets
Come and see the blood in the streets

Discontinuity means the disruption of the continuity of the writer’s discourse by unpredictable swerves of tone, metafictional asides to the reader, blank spaces in the text, contradiction and permutation. Randomness is also a kind of discontinuity produced by composing ‘according to a logic of the absurd’. And excess refers to the technique of taking ‘metaphoric or metonymic devices to excess to destruction’.

The need of precaution in postmodern literary criticism

Even though some aspects of postmodernism are well-discernible, most part of it is lying unexplored. In this regard John Urry (200x) says that it seems as though the signifier ‘postmodern’ is free-floating. Due to this there could be variations in the opinions of one scholar and another. For example, some scholars consider Samuel Beckett a modernist while others regard him as a postmodernist. Likewise, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf also face the problem of categorization. Many scholars may not be happy when somebody calls Chinua Achebe a postmodernist.

One important question is whether postmodernism is within the perimeter of postcolonialism or the vice versa. Majority of the views is that postmodernism has a wider connotation; therefore, it encompasses postcolonialism within its fold. This is also a challenging topic.

These days there is a fashion to brand icons like Gautama Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi as postmodernists (Sharma, 2006; Rudolph & Rudolph, 2006). Shakespeare is also postmodernized now-a-days; however, these exercises are not always safe, and may invite sharp reactions. A genuine investigation is sure to win more applauds than criticism.

A typical postmodernist attitude may seem to be lacking in depth and seriousness by virtue of its inherent love of parody, and denaturalization/delegitimization of grand narratives but it always asks a pertinent question about the meaning of life, about the validity of the present condition as an inevitable moment of history. Despite its indifferent and undermining attitudes, its interest in the epistemological and ontological questions impels him to be contemplative, sober and extremely committed.

Another important preoccupation is that the postmodernist attitude of self-reflexiveness, self-consciousness and self-identity sometimes may stand in the way of any egalitarian proposition, thereby making hindrances to mankind’s noble task of bringing about universal brotherhood. This is what the present-day world is actually witnessing in this era of postmodernism at every nook and corner of the planet. Therefore, we do sometimes need a rethinking of our attitudes and a reassessment of our responses to the changing phenomenology. Guarding ourselves against personal whims and sentimentalism is the watchword if we ever wish to retain the beauty of human civilization.

In a nutshell, it may be summarized that a postmodern writer may be writing somewhat effortlessly compared to a modern writer, but a postmodern critic’s job needs more precautions on many accounts. Postmodern critique offers abundant room of whimsicalities, oscillations and even self-contradiction on the part of a literary critic.

Works Cited:

Bhabha, H. K. (2004, August 22). (G. Ramnarayan, Interviewer) The Hindu. In this interview Homi K. Bhabha first talks about literature in general, and then about novel in particular.

Dharan, N. (2002, June). Vijay Tendulkar’s The Vultures: A Postmodernist Reading. The Quest, 16(1).

Hawthorn, J. (2003). A Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory. London: Arnold.

Mukherjee, M. (2005, May 5). My Name is Pamuk. The Hindu.

Rudolph, L. I., & Rudolph, S. H. (2006). Postmodern Gandhi and Other Essays: Gandhi in the World and at Home. New Delhi, Delhi, India: Oxford University Press.

Rushdie, S. (1995). Midnight’s Children. London: Random House.

Sharma, J. (2006, July 4). Ghandhi as Postmodern Thinker. The Hindu.

Singh, K. K. (2006). The Basics of Postmodernism. In M. K. Ray (Ed.), Studies in Literature in English (Vol. XII, pp. 191-196). New Delhi, Delhi, India: Atlantic.

Urry, J. (2002). The Tourist Gaze (2nd ed.). Sage.

About the author:
P. Biprachand (pen name of P. Birchandra, b. 1960) is an Asst Professor in English at Manipur College, Imphal. A poet and critic of very fine sensibility, he was Secretary of Sahitya Seva Samiti, Kakching, Editor of Sahityagi Pao (a respected Manipuri literary  monthly published by Writers’ Forum, Imphal), and is currently the Asst Secretary of Critics’ Forum, Manipur, member of Manipuri Sahitya Parisha, Naharol Sahitya Premi Samiti and Manipur Film Journalist and Critics’ Association. He contributes to the Poknapham poetry and articles on art, literature, culture and social commentaries using another pen name, B.C. Khuman. His published books include Taibangsi Fajei (The World is Beautiful, children’s poetry, 2000), Ichel Machagi Iraokhol (The Murmur of Small Streams, shot stories, 2002) and Keidoungei Okkani Eibu Taramna (poetry, 2010).

Mr. Biprachand has written one article for Cottage Reader so far–Postmodernist Reading: Method and Application.


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