English 651:  Literary Theory

The Poetics of Postmodernism

Professor Joseph Conte

Fall 2004



Although the mass media have adopted the term “postmodern” (either as a high gloss shorthand for technological advances or, in disparaging contexts, as a synonym for factitious philosophizing) to describe the current period in cultural history, there have been a number of competing and often irreconcilable definitions of the poetics of postmodernism.  If we accept Jean-François Lyotard’s proposition that the postmodern is defined by “incredulity toward metanarratives,” it’s no wonder that there have been so many differing petit récits regarding the quality, product, and theory of postmodernism.  We’ll begin our reading, then, with Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, paying particular attention to his claims for the impact of science and informational technology in the postindustrial age.  The issue of historical periodization and/or cultural shift arises in Ihab Hassan’s The Postmodern Turn, which argues that postmodern indeterminacy and immanence represent a rupture from—rather than a belated version of—modernism.  Linda Hutcheon, in The Politics of Postmodernism, investigates the function of irony and parody in mass media and high art forms, relating these methods to feminist practice.  Frederic Jameson counters with a less flattering description of art, literature, and popular culture as pastiche occasioned by an overheated consumer economy in his analysis of late capitalism, most recently collected in The Cultural Turn:  Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998.  Jameson’s position is supported in part by a reading of Perry Anderson’s historical overview, The Origins of Postmodernity.

Particularly relevant to the problem of provenance in American culture, Jean Baudrillard argues that the simulacrum has been substituted for the real, making it impossible to trace our cultural icons to some authoritative source.  In defense of popular culture we’ll visit one of the inaugural essays in the field, Leslie Fiedler’s “Cross the border—close that gap:  Postmodernism.”  Additional supporting arguments for Buffalo as the birthplace of postmodern theory can be found in the novelist John Barth’s essays, “The Literature of Exhaustion” and “The Literature of Replenishment,” which offer the complementary view from the heights of self-conscious artifice and reflexive fiction.  Critical theory, however, has had no exclusive purchase on postmodernity.  The eclectic appropriations of postmodern architecture and the visual arts are the subject of Charles Jencks’s What is Post-Modernism?.   Following on Lyotard’s prospectus for the new sciences, we’ll read one account of the field of cybernetics, Donna J. Harraway’s Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, and another on the segue of mass media and digital information systems, Mark Poster’s The Information Subject.  At various points in the semester we’ll consult Hans Bertens’s history of the period, The Idea of the Postmodern.

The preceding description necessarily presents contending arguments regarding postmodernism, and so it remains a reading list rather than offering a metanarrative of its own.  Our discussion will be studded with as many references to individual works of postmodern art, architecture, poetry, fiction, and digital media as time permits.

Seminar participants who are registered intensively will be required to make a twenty-minute oral presentation and produce a twenty-page research paper.


Last revised on Monday, August 2, 2004.
Copyright © 2004 Joseph M. Conte. All Rights Reserved.