Modernism and Postmodernism in Concrete

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.

33 Responses

  1. I just have to call you out
    I just have to call you out on this: “The unpalatable modernist works of…William Faulkner,” because I’ve been re-reading (or reading for the first time) a bunch of Faulkner this summer (I’m having my own personal Faulkner Fest 09!) and I’m sorry, but the dude’s amazing. I guess I’m curious what (to you) makes his work “unpalatable.” (And you do know you’re not supposed to eat it, right?) When I think of some of his more commonly read work, likeThe Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, the most challenging of the bunch is The Sound and the Fury, but by no means is it unreadable, and it’s not that hard to follow once you give in to the rhythm of it (and the last half of the book is really pretty straightforward narrative that fills in many of the blanks from the earlier, more difficult sections). I’d agree with anyone that it can be challenging, but it’s not unapproachable. As I Lay Dying may change perspective in each chapter, but the narrative keeps moving forward and its thread is easy to follow. On top of this, his use of language is often stunning and its rhythm rings so true. Plus his use of humor is wonderfully dark. I know that a lot of this boils down to personal preference, but I just have to stand up for Faulkner because I love his books. I get what he was up to and I respect it so much. So there.

  2. That’s exactly the problem.
    That’s exactly the problem. I was trying to eat it.

  3. I remember the “group read”
    I remember the “group read” or “book club” we had up in here(was it the one and only ?) the choice was “As I Lay Dying”, seemed ok to me, you musta been grittin yer teeth.

    I just read “The Geography of Nowhere” about how the advent of the automobile ruined american community, towns, local economy, the environment and architecture. Square boxes and parking lots with nothing people or community oriented anymore just automobile thoroughfares.

  4. The problem with eating
    The problem with eating Faulkner is all the history. History doesn’t go down smooth – it’s gritty. But grits is good.

    PS. Jamelah, I think Levi is speaking metaphorically and refers to all makers of dairy products. That is, Asher doesn’t find Faulkner unpalatable, but the trend was toward chattier books and thus Faulkner was, to the postmodernist readers, unpalatable. Of course they were was wrong about Faulkner as they were about disco.

    Faulkner. IS. God.

  5. It’s ironic: postmodernism
    It’s ironic: postmodernism emerged at about the same time as deconstruction, which sees (to simplify) language as constructed of binaries and fatally destabilized by the fact that one of the pair is always privileged over the other (white/black, male/female etc). And yet many of the classic presentations of postmodernism (by Ihab Hassan, Fredric Jameson, and yours too) set up a binary modernism/postmodernism pairing, and then privilege the more recent term! Check out your phrasing: “The unpalatable modernist works… lost ground to fresher, less ideological and more frankly traditional prose voices etc”.

    This unstable binary seems to me in dire need of interrogation, for many reasons. Not least of these is the mounting evidence that we have now left behind a postmodernism which belongs to history.


  6. Haven’t read much Faulkner,
    Haven’t read much Faulkner, but I do appreciate a good literary bunfight.
    If there’s anything I can do to throw fuel on the literary toast…

  7. Ever listen to the
    Ever listen to the conservative, nostalgic, kinda Rocky Horror-ish (at times) Fleshtones? Nice thing about them though is (barring, say, the album produced by Peter Buck) they’re all the best 1960s garage bands rolled up into one

  8. I tried to eat some Faulkner
    I tried to eat some Faulkner last summer. I thought I was missing out on something so I put some on my plate, but as soon as I swallowed I had to vomit it up.

    Sorry, but I just don’t get him. I guess that would be correctly described as ‘unpalatable’.

    But hey, everyone’s different.

  9. Alan, I definitely agree with
    Alan, I definitely agree with you that binary thinking — modernism vs. postmodernism — isn’t always fruitful. For the purpose of this article, it is necessary to establish the binary relationship, but other good articles could be written to examine ways in which modernism and postmodernism are similar rather than separate. I also think it’s fair to say that postmodernism is often a subset of modernism — it’s a way of making modernism taste better.

    The irony should not be lost that even our principal modernists — those who should, by definition, work with no reference at all to historical or traditional forms — end up only resorting to new ways of incorporating traditional forms. Pablo Picasso threw away the history of European art, but brought in the historical influence of African art. Joyce could not present “pure thought” without invoking Homer. T. S. Eliot is often called a modernist but no writer could be more seeped in literary history — he may have been the first postmodernist.

  10. Oscar Wilde said it was just
    Oscar Wilde said it was just a question of time before the modern fashion became wonderfully unfashionable, before finding its true location in the old fashioned.

  11. I suppose when it comes down
    I suppose when it comes down to it, there are worse things to eat than books.

    I also suppose I sounded a little cranky in my earlier comment, but it’s just that Faulkner is my homeboy. I think the comparison to architecture and literature is an interesting one and I can’t say I ever thought of it that way before. I reread what you wrote, while trying to properly caffeinate myself this morning, and I appreciate what you’re saying, that in a way, postmodernism humanizes the cold intellectualism of modernism. Is that a fair way of putting that or do I need another delicious caffeinated beverage? If I’m wrong, that’s okay, just checking.

    I guess, though, if I can come back to it now, I wouldn’t lump Faulkner together with Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. I suppose if I were to lump him together with anyone, I’d say he’s closer to Joyce (even though as a preference matter, I like Faulkner roughly a billion times more). Levi, you’ve said enough to me in the past about Faulkner to lead me to believe that you don’t like him much (if at all), and I respect that… I mean, the world of literature is big enough for us all to like and dislike as we please. (Though I am honestly curious, because I can’t remember if you ever said — is it The Sound and the Fury that turned you off?) But I think at the very least, Faulkner deserves his due as one of the greats. Reading his work this summer has made me appreciate him all the more.

  12. A really good example of
    A really good example of post-moderninst archetecture is La Grande Arche of La Défense in Paris. It’s an arch, but more of the idea of an arch, rather than an in-your-face conquerer’s arch like the Arche de Triomphe. Take that, you vanguished armies! See it here:

    A good post-modernist writer, as you say, is Burroughs, not only in the Naked Lunch era, but also later works like The Cities of the Red Night, The Western Lands, and The Place of Dead Roads. I also like David Foster Wallace, who is perhaps the illegitimate child of Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon.

    For modernist reading pleasure, I have to go with T.S. Eliot, but Prufrock, not the Wasteland; Kafka; and my beloved Proust. Hemingway is listed as a modernist writer in some books, but I just re-read some of his stuff and I find it dated, particularly “The Sun also Rises.” I think “A Farewel to Arms” stands up ok, however.

    This brings us back to archetecture, specifically modernist, to “round it” as the Stones say in the song “All My Love’s in Vain”. Chicago is a virtual laboratory of the modern. We have Mies Van der Rohe au go go. The campus of ITT on the near south side is a paradise of Meisien glass and steel.Check it out if you’re ever in town.

    I had “The Light in August” with a pesto sauce and a bottle of chianti, and I have to admit it was quite tasty. No amount of barbeque sauce or ketchup, however, with induce me to take a bite out of “The Sound and the Fury”. This book truly defines unpalatable modernism. Even salt doesn’t help.

  13. I agree Levi that modernism
    I agree Levi that modernism reacted or was a binary component of a historical movement in Dickens or Wordsworth for example, I’m curious about Goethe fitting into the scheme the historical movement implies because from what I’ve read of Faust Goethe can be differentiated from Trollope or George Eliot for example, but what agreeing with the reactive component of modernism implies is disagreeing with the inutility of binary constructions–I doubt in other words constructing something as black/white or male/female implies a privilege. I was going to defend Faulkner but he looks pretty well done.

  14. I get it. PoMo is
    I get it. PoMo is pretentious or kitschy.

    Fleshtones are still around? Wow.

  15. I’ve always thought of
    I’ve always thought of literature in terms of architecture. The foundation, the rooms, the decorative trim…all important, but you need a good foundation to build on. A lot of young readers try to copy postmodern writers without studying the craft of writing. It’s like building a crazy funhouse with no blueprints. You end up with the two-way mirror turned backwards and the receding hallway doesn’t go anywhere, causing bottleneck and gridlock among the visitors.

    Yes, there are exceptions to every rule – I’m generalizing.

    I’ve only read one Faulkner book, The Unvanquished, which we read in an American Lit class, and I liked it okay. Wrote a paper on how the narrator’s soldier father seemed bigger than life, up on his big horse, and how he didn’t seem so big standing next to you. Come to think of it, that was in the first chapter, so I may not have finished the entire book. Well, things were hectic at the time.

    Michael, at your suggestion I’m reading Swann’s Way by Proust. You were right. Top notch. I really have to relax to take it all in, which is what I need right now. Sometimes it sends me into reveries. And I will read it all. And then maybe eat it, just to fit in.

  16. If a hallmark of
    If a hallmark of postmodernism is the lack of distinction between “high art” and “low art,” then Eliot can in no way be considered the first postmodernist, as these distinctions were intrinsic to his being and his art.

    Pound’s command to “Make it new” might well be corollary to what you identify as “new ways of incorporating traditional forms” among postmodernists. Pound came closer than Eliot to embracing “low art,” so he’d be my pick for the proto-postmodernist gig.

    I do think of Beckett as the “ultimate” modernist. I’m reminded of this as “beckett” is the anti-spam word for this post…

    Now spam…. Spam is postmodern.

  17. Thinking of literature in
    Thinking of literature in terms of architecture has its limitations,not least because it direct the reader into the cul de sac of Structuralism, both literally and psychologically- a bunch of bricks is a reconstructed deconstructed structure.
    Has anyone ever thought of architecture in terms of literature. Is there a novel like the Manhattan skyline out there, or an architect like Joyce.

  18. Hey look it’s Alan
    Hey look it’s Alan Kirby!

    Rather than define down these -isms, why don’t we all just admit that just about all literature, and especially American literature, since Wordsworth has been some form or phase of Romanticism. Face it — no matter what kind of architecture we prefer, no matter which ‘binary’ we choose — we’re all just latter-day Romantics.

    Now can we finally start talking about what comes next after Romanticism?

    Oh, and f you can’t read Faulkner for pleasure, then I have nothing but pity for you. Faulkner is our greatest African American writer.

  19. jeeezuus, I know we(humans)
    jeeezuus, I know we(humans) need to classify and label and group things. But, when it comes to stuff like this I think we might be getting carried away, It’s kinda making my head spin. In art I can realize a distinction like the pre-photo era, where people painted things then, that can now be photographed. But, wasting thought cycles about who is post-modern and who is grouped with who to me seems better spent on starting the next book.

  20. Duncan, some architects are
    Duncan, some architects are like writers in that they present a theme in their work. Japanese architect Arata Isozaki designed the Team Disney Building in Orlando, Florida, with a “Yin-yang theory of positive and negative space,” according to Jackie Craven on, “Because the offices were to be used by time-conscious executives, he wanted the architecture to make a statement about time.”

    It happens that I’m now reading In Search of Lost Time: Swan’s Way, by Proust, with its themes of memory and time.

  21. Bill – keep reading Proust.
    Bill – keep reading Proust. And allow plenty of time for revery. Also, make note of all the writers, artists and musicians he mentions. Just by doing a quick search on who they are, what their major works were, and where they fit historically will give you a huge education in European culture. Then, of course, some of the artists are fictional, such as Vinteuil. Trying to figure out what real-life artist they may or may not represent is another Proustian diversion. Bon lectuer!

  22. why don’t we all just admit
    why don’t we all just admit that just about all literature, and especially American literature, since Wordsworth has been some form or phase of Romanticism.

    Because that’s simplistic and not representative of the diverse reality of literature, American or not.

    In art I can realize a distinction like the pre-photo era, where people painted things then, that can now be photographed.

    You’d be making an arbitrary measure based on a technological advance. Such a term is unlikely to have any meaning or application. Have people stopped painting? Then what does “pre-photo” mean in relation to painting? Did the advent of photography lead to any innovations in painting? However, it would be interesting to see you develop this further: pre-oil, pre-acrylic, etc.

    These discussions follow a pattern: someone proposes an alternative interpretation of a term like “postmodern.” Others engage with their analysis or opinions. Soon there arises a contingent of people decrying “pigeon-holing” or complex systems of classification. Next, the name-calling begins…

    (Now, the skyline-as-novel… the city-as-novel… this one has my head hoppin’…)

  23. All Isms are as important as
    All Isms are as important as their effect on happiness.

  24. John Keats had serious
    John Keats had serious objections to prisms, because they reduced colour to straight lines and robbed it of its universal shape and influence on almost everything.
    All isms have the same effect on the world.

  25. All isms have the same effect
    All isms have the same effect on the world.

    What ism designates the phobic and often paranoid rejection of isms?

  26. Er – hi Muzzy! Do I know
    Er – hi Muzzy! Do I know you?

    Faulkner is, if anything, underrated.

  27. Isms. It’s semantics, sure,
    Isms. It’s semantics, sure, but it’s important semantics. The question isn’t where you stand on classification, that’s just trying to say >Exactly What We Mean<. A rejection of “isms” is really just a dedication to ones ignorance. Not in an insulting way . . I don’t need to be a gourmet chef to appreciate the difference between a great meal and a greater meal, but gourmet chefs need the classification in the perfection of their art. That’s isms. But it’s not just about quality. Most people can tell the difference between fresh ground pepper and pepper ground a few weeks ago, but certain food critics can tell the difference between brand, season, and region.

    Literature however, like all arts, has the dubious job of also trying to refine a meaning out of the life journey. So does understanding the intricacies of the isms make you a better critic, yes. Does it make you a better reader and it’s appreciation in turn cause the book to have a more potent affect on you? Who knows.

    But my gourmet chef better sure as sin know the ins and outs of his food, just like the good author (whose food we’re sampling, whether it’s Faulkner or whomever) needs to know the isms. Because it’s not until you’ve fully realized what you’re doing (usually, by defining it) that you can perfect it.

  28. Some writers write to the ist
    Some writers write to the ist or the ism’ at that point it is viable for a reader or critic to ask, is that literature or politics or worse propaganda. Ojectivity can be an empitical pain in the elbow as well.

  29. Non-ismism, yet with an
    Non-ismism, yet with an enthusiasm which could be described as “ismistic”

    Hence the Early 90’s avant guard movement, ismistic nonismsim.

  30. Personally, I thought you
    Personally, I thought you meant that Faulkner was “unpalatable” to the people that wanted their traditions. Of course, once you’ve had your freedom, you feel uncomfortable and would enjoy your regulations once more.
    Am I correct in thinking so?

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