September 29, 2020, 11:10:56 AM

Author Topic: Modern and Postmodern narratives  (Read 5189 times)

Offline Yora

Modern and Postmodern narratives
« on: September 16, 2015, 11:52:39 AM »
I have an idea for another thread, but before starting it I feel like it's probably a good idea to check in with the other people here who are somewhat familiar with the subject so that I don't end up starting with a question that is already inherently flawed.

Modernism and Postmodernism are concepts that can get incredibly complex, especially when they are reaching out to include as diverse things as music, painting, and even architecture.
But I think when limiting it to just fiction (literature, movies, TV-shows, videogames) it seems a lot simpler.

My understanding of modernism in that context is that there is a general assumption that the world and human life works by certain rules, even if we're not fully aware of what these rules are and what they really mean. From this assumption follow the believes that there are "best" ways to do things, which are therefore also the "right" ways to do them. There are real and universal truth about the world and life and the main drive behind modernism is to explore the world around us and reflect on what we see to find these best and correct ways to how our lives should be. The idea of "progress" appears to be quite central. Finding the universal truth and applying them to all society is progress. A forward development towards a goal. A goal that is good and desirable. And even with the ups and downs of history, it probably is also inevitable. May be sooner or may be later, but "progress marches on". There is also frequently a notion of "decisive moment" and "outstanding people" who make all the difference. Napoleon losing at Waterloo, Japan attacking Pearl Harbor, Newton discovering gravity. Single actions or descisions shape world history. "Classic" capitalism has often been put next to modernism, and for good reason. The capitalism of the 20th century assumed that entrepeneurs and free markets with prices determined by supply and demand will automatically and inevitably lead to a more efficient economy and improved living conditions for everyone. Because "that's how it works".
Applied to fiction, this means that the plot is already determined to a certain degree. As the story goes on, conflict and dissent are reduced, heroes come out stronger, villains come out worse, and overall the characters and their world makes progress towards becoming better. Even if the hero himself dies or is defeated in other ways, his actions during the story still made progress towards that better future.

In contrast to that, postmodernism rejects the whole idea of "universal" truths or "best" or "right" ways to do things. The postmodern worldview is entirely subjective. Everyone becoming more similar is not automatically a good thing. History is blind and things don't "improve" in the long run, they just become different. They are constantly changing and it can result in either a decrease or increase in suffering on a global scale. People can feel better, but that depends as much on what they consider a good life as on the actual facts of their living conditions. What is good for me may not be good for you, and even if we agree what is good for both of us, it may not be good for others. Dissent of oppinion is not a flaw that will be gradually smothed out as society and culture progresses. It's really a normal state and all values and judgements are opinions that fully apply only to me. I can try to explain my reasons and hope to get others to see things like I do, but I can not claim to know the "right" way to do things and that everyone else is "wrong". In the postmodern worldview the future is entirely uncertain and neither history nor society have any direction towards a goal. It is also highly pluralistic. Everyone needs to find a way of life that works for them, it's completely futile for outsiders to try to "educate" them on the "right" way to do things.
For fiction, this means that the protagonist frequently has to stop and reflect on his situation to reconsider if his oppinions still reflect his new experiences or if he has to change them in the new light. Or if the protagonist does not do it, then the creators of the work make attempts to get the audience to ask themselves if they still agree with his opinions or if they believe that he needs to reconsider. Because in postmodern fiction, the protagonist does not have to be a "hero". The creators don't tell the audience who the heroes are and who the villains. Or who is right and who is wrong. They may have an opinion, but it is their opinion and the audience may have many other opinions. (Which is why it's very popular in postmodern literary criticism to completely ignore who the creator was and what his intention were, and instead to look entirely at what you see in the story.) Postmodern art has a reputation for being nonsensical or even random, and many of the "mainstream" methods used in postmodern fiction revolve indeed on taking something familiar and then having it act in a completely unexpected way. The audience is supposed to ask "Why don't they act how they are supposed to act in this kind of story?" and "Why do they act this way instead?" And ultimately the big question of "Why do characters in this kind of stories actually do generally act in the same way? What does make this conventional way really better than any other possible way?"

I appologize for the excessive use of exclamation marks. But I think when talking from a postmodern perspective that is pretty much inevitable. (And I am aware of the fact that I talk about postmodernism using the word inevitable.  ;D) It's also not a well structured and formally arranged argument but just my thoughts as I try to put them into words, but I think the main idea should come through well enough, even to people who don't know anything about the subject before.

But what do you think about this assesment? Is that a "correct" condensation of the main concepts that underlie modernism and postmodernism? Or is there already a severe flaw or misconception in it? Or at the very least things that would be highly contested by a good number of people with opinions on the topic?
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

Offline DDRRead

Re: Modern and Postmodern narratives
« Reply #1 on: September 16, 2015, 12:35:08 PM »

Applied to fiction, this means that the plot is already determined to a certain degree. As the story goes on, conflict and dissent are reduced, heroes come out stronger, villains come out worse, and overall the characters and their world makes progress towards becoming better. Even if the hero himself dies or is defeated in other ways, his actions during the story still made progress towards that better future.

Don't know much about the two movements, but I think you've definitely got wrong end of the stick here. Modernism was into experimenting with form and the creative process itself, with making stuff new and modernising outdated culture to match the new modern industrial world. Stream of consciousness comes from Modernism as does minimalism.

Offline Yora

Re: Modern and Postmodern narratives
« Reply #2 on: September 16, 2015, 01:13:56 PM »
Looking around some more specifically on this issue, it seems indeed that I threw modernism together with the same thing it began as a reaction against. The idea of the world and life having a clear structure and pattern was something modernists (and postmodernists) clearly rejected.
It seems more like postmodernism also rejecting the modernist reply to 19th century thinking and went for something more radical.

Still trying to figure out what modernism was then...
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

Offline Idlewilder

Re: Modern and Postmodern narratives
« Reply #3 on: September 16, 2015, 01:28:39 PM »
Ok, so, as someone interested in English Literature from an amateur point of view I'm also interested in the differences between these terms and how one followed on from the other. So a few weeks ago I was browsing Reddit and came across this terrific response, with a few hundred upvotes on a subreddit not exactly brimming with traffic:

(Found here: https://www.reddit.com/r/AskLiteraryStudies/comments/280tfl/what_is_modernism_postmodernism_and_modernity/

NOTE: I take no credit for this, just copying the text for anyone who wants to read it on the forum)

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Ok, here goes a wall of text: I'll go chronologically from modernity, through modernism, to postmodernity to postmodernism.

Modernity

is the period after ~1700, approximately, sometimes we discuss things after the Renaissance as "early modern".

The major traits of modernity are: rapid technological and scientific development, globalization, print and then media culture etc.

However, modernity is also defined in a philosophical and historically specific way.

First, modernity was characterized by the entrenchment of humanism: valuing the role of man over nature or God.

Second, the centrality of man and "death of god" meant that societies underwent rapid changes around utopian ideologies around the question of how to live properly: how to organize society and how to understand, shape, or even fix humanity.

Modernism

is when these ideologies became acutely felt across the whole of Western society: in arts and politics.

By "acutely felt" I mean the uprootings and chaos of the French, Communist and fascist and Nazi revolutions, the New Deal, the two world wars etc.

But also, the artistic avant garde, the concurrent revolutions in music, literature art etc.

When people discuss modernism in art and literature, they typically mean works from this period (1790-1950), experimental and interested in testing the limits and potentialities of either their medium or of expression in general.

All these works are typically driven by powerful impulses similar to those that drove political events of the time: the possibility of discovering the essence of humanity, of fundamentally changing the world, unlocking the mysteries if space and the human mind, fixing poverty or inequality or if you want to be more sinister, purging the human race of "impurities", or killing the ruling classes once and for all.

Modernism is of Freud and Picasso, but also of Hitler and Stalinism.

Postmodernity

is the period following WW2.
 Postmodernity is sometimes called late modernism, or late capitalism. It is characterized by a growing, society-wide skepticism and even collapse in faith in modern values.

After the Holocaust, industrial progress no longer seemed to be hurtling humankind to a bright shiny future. After Nagasaki and Hiroshima, wars no longer seemed like glorious affairs (as the futurist manifesto proclaimed just 40 years prior), but carried the potential for total annihilation. Nothing that seemed certain for the modernist activists (be they capitalist or communist or fascist, or anarchist, or even cubist) of the 1920s, seemed as sure in 1960.

Postmodernity was also the time of the Cold War, when the ideologies that only activists lived acutely in the 1920s were suddenly issues of global importance. This made the issues seem more estranged: after the ideological purity of WW2 both the major Empires-- the Americans and Russians-- were suddenly more ambivalent: Russia because the Western way didn't seem nearly as evil as the information emerging about the Gulag.

The same was true in the West because the student and civil rights protest movements made clear that Western liberal democracy had obvious blind spots.

Postmodernity is the time of ambivalence following the certainties of modernism.

Postmodernism

is the philosophical direction that develops as a critique of postmodernity through a critique of modernism.

Much the way postmodernity was just a historical continuation of modernity, postmodernism is a philosophical continuation of modernism.

Modernism is a perpetual declaration: "Man is this! Life is that! Society is the other!" etc.

Postmodernism is the same problems and the same issues, but in a questioning, not a declaratory mode : "Man is this? Life is that? Society is the other? etc"

Since the realization of modernist projects was often so cataclysmic: e.g. again the Holocaust, nukes etc, postmodernism attacked them at their root: claims to Truth.

If the central drive of modernism was finding Truth with a capitol T (and then using that truth to organize life in modernity), the central drive of postmodernism is showing that the very category of "Truth with a capitol T" is a modernist myth, and a very dangerous one at that.

Postmodernism is investment in ambivalence, it takes in the vast confusion of postmodernity and smiles contented: all is in flux, and therefore all is as it should be.

Postmodernism suggests that our societies' neurotic insistence on believing The Truth is both the root and consequence of our societies continuous efforts to impose contingent forms of The Truth through violence and indoctrination.

Postmodernism instead seeks free (well free-er) models of subjectivity and existence: this is a goal straight from modernism, but if modernism started with large "objective" truth claims, postmodernism starts with the subjective: the body, personal experience and identity etc.

e.g.

•Take a medieval country, throw in a printing press, a steam engine and a brutal war machine hellbent on colonizing the globe and let it stir for a few centuries: welcome to modernity! As good as it gets!!

•Within modernity, people attached to one of the many philosophies of Modernism declare marriage abolished and claim free love reigns! Or they declare Revolution on the ruling classes and claim that equality reigns.

•Trouble ensues.

•We never get free love, or equality and we keep marriage and the ruling class, but suddenly issues previously invisible (women's rights, existence of gay people, chronic social inequality etc.) become visible, if confusing. In fact, with the media revolution everything becomes visible, if confusing. Welcome to postmodernity! As good as it gets!(?)

•Then people attached to one of the many philosophies of Postmodernism start asking pesky critical questions about gender inequality, consent, power etc, etc. We still don't get "free love", but people who were previously marginalized can express their love etc. etc.

•same idea more or less applies to every part of Western society, to a certain point of view, in a historically specific context (can you tell I am a postmodernist yet?)

Make Another World.

Offline Yora

Re: Modern and Postmodern narratives
« Reply #4 on: September 16, 2015, 01:43:47 PM »
That would match pretty close to my perception.

But it's really annoying that the sparse sources on modernism on the internet seem to often contradict each other. Objective truth, yes or no?
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

Offline Sammie

Re: Modern and Postmodern narratives
« Reply #5 on: January 26, 2017, 08:37:05 AM »
For reading on postmodernism, I'd recommend Notes in the margins of the novel 'The Name of the Rose' by Umberto Eco (RIP)

Offline Neveesandeh

Re: Modern and Postmodern narratives
« Reply #6 on: November 09, 2019, 03:51:37 PM »
An idea I've come across is that modernism is a reaction to the declining importance of religion in society, and an attempt to replace it with over ideologies (Objectivism and Communism being two examples). Postmodernism in turn is a reaction to the decline of Modernism and opposes any 'big, unifying explanation'. I think a big part of that is a response to WWII, belief in 'big explanations' was considered by postmodernists to be a major cause of the conflict.

I'd say the OP is spot on. My understanding of it was always something along those lines.

Offline Yora

Re: Modern and Postmodern narratives
« Reply #7 on: November 10, 2019, 01:09:17 PM »
I see postmodernism as a clear parallel development to Existentialism. I'm not even sure they are actually different things. Both deal with the question of how you judge things when people no longer believe that there are objective values.
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor