Finally, it must be clear that our business is not to supply reality but to invent allusions to the conceivable which cannot be presented.
-- Jean-François Lyotard, “What is Postmodernism?” (1979/1984)
Thus, features of postmodernity that appear to characterize some of the historical experiences I describe here can be seen to derive to a great extent from the inventions and innovations of marginalized global peoples struggling to materially imagine themselves out of present, discrepant conditions of modernity.
-- Neferti X.M. Tadiar, Things Fall Away (2009)
What is postmodernism? Or perhaps we should ask, what was postmodernism?
Many critics use “postmodernity” to describe a historical period that emerged sometime after 1945 (starting dates vary). In this account, postmodernity is an era marked by transformations in political economy (transnational capitalism, a growing service sector, neoliberalism), in cultural forms (aesthetic pastiche, metafiction, intertextuality), and in critical theory (post-structuralism, deconstruction, anti-essentialism). But this period also saw the rise of major anti-colonial resistance, civil rights and race radical struggles, and feminist and gay/lesbian/queer social movements, conditions that are not always addressed in the concept of “postmodernity.” In more recent years, struggles over globalization, migration, and mass incarceration have revealed the connections between broader political economic change and struggles for race, gender, and sexual liberation. And yet these recent years are not always considered “postmodern.” Instead, since the 1990s critics have not always been clear if we are still in living in the condition of postmodernity or if we have entered some other, brave new era.
This class will explore the historical conditions of postmodernity through the lens of literary fiction. Despite the description above, which sounds like we will focus primarily on historical summaries of the broader period, we will spend the majority of our class time reading a few very difficult novels closely and carefully. This class is a chance to hone your analysis of literary language in a context that is historically and politically rich. The stakes of these novels are high – they participate in efforts to shape the meaning of history and politics, but they do so in ways that are aesthetically challenging and formally complicated. So while we will read some critical pieces to help situate us in the broader period, we will focus primarily on reading “postmodern” novels and figuring out whether the term illuminates or mystifies the major struggles and possibilities of the period.
Primary Texts are likely to include:
Thomas Pynchon, Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony (1977)
Don DeLillo, White Noise (1985)
Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)
Karen Tei Yamashita, Through the Arc of the Rainforest (1990)
Short Fiction TBA