I think it’s sad that so many articles about modernism and postmodernism in literature mystify rather than demystify the terms. Asked to explain what postmodernism is, some authors attempt instead to smother the term in academic terminology, as if this amounted to an explanation. Other authors settle on giggly “I don’t know what it means! Do you know what it means?” formulations, implying that the term has no real meaning at all.
We can look to other fields for answers. In architecture “modernism” and “postmodernism” are perfectly understood, and it turns out the definitions that hold for these terms in the field of architecture hold up fairly well in the field of literature.
Walking near L’Enfant Plaza in Washington DC recently, I noticed a curious building, the national headquarters of the Department of Education, that stood as a perfect example of the difference between modernism and postmodernism.
The main structure is an example of classic modernism — clean lines, functional and accessible, devoid of decoration. Buildings like these were all the rage in the middle decades of the 20th Century.
But then there’s this “little red schoolhouse” in front, obviously a later addition, probably intended to make this center of education policy feel less harsh, cold and bureaucratic. The little red schoolhouse is a perfect example of postmodernism. It softens and humanizes the severe modernist purity of the building behind it. It is entirely decorative (it has no function) and frankly nostalgic.
t’s important to emphasize that this small building is not actually a little red schoolhouse. If it were one, it wouldn’t be a postmodern structure — it would be a little red schoolhouse. This building is not a thing, it’s a message. Postmodernism is always intentional.
One reason it’s sometimes hard to talk about postmodernism today is that modernism — the thing that postmodernism rebels against — is not well understood. The field of architecture can help here too. The modernist movement emerged in the early 20th Century as a bold attempt to sweep humanity clean from its roots, to reinvent familiar forms in styles that had no reference to past traditions, ethnic traditions or religious traditions. It must be pointed out that architural modernism and communism (and Communism) often walked hand-in-hand. The modernist style in architecture was also known as the “International Style”.
The United Nations headquarters in Manhattan — a straight block, a monolith — is a perfect example of a modernist building. James Joyce is a classic example of a modernist writer because he attempted to follow a strict method in his composition, to strip his words of all artifice, pretension and gimmickry, to present pure thought.
Modernism itself is a reaction — the primal reaction against “nature”, against conservatism and traditionalism. It’s clear, though, that once exposed to the harsh discipline of modernism, people yearn for their traditions back. This is why postmodern architects like Philip Johnson and Frank Gehry were able to thrive after the fashion for strict modernist architecture began to fade in the second half of the 20th Century.
The same thing happened in literature. The unpalatable modernist works of Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner and Ezra Pound lost ground to fresher, less ideological and more frankly traditional prose voices: the chatty tone of Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon’s playful linguistic games, William S. Burroughs’s nods to pulp fiction and noir.
In both architecture and literature, postmodernism is an attempt to reconcile the intellectual vigor of modernism with the pleasurable and significant trappings of traditionalism. The postmodern touch amounts to an embrace of the familiar human sensibilities that modernism tried to sweep away.
Of course, the literary terms “modernism” and “postmodernism” have gone on to develop various other implied meanings and sub-meanings (even while the architectural terms remain widely understood). The example from architecture does seem to point to the most central meaning of the term, and maybe it will help us have better discussions about these words if we can agree on what the words actually mean.