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While I've always had a general idea about what it means for a book or a theorist to be "post-modern" or "modern", I'd be really interested to hear a succinct comparison of the two "-isms." I know its a tall order, but does someone want to give it a shot?

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There are a few things that postmodern literature does differently than modernist literature:

  • Doesn't seek or offer solutions to problems. Modernist writers tackle the chaos of life and generally emerge with at least a partial promise of hope. Postmodern writers rarely imply that the world will ever become less absurd than it is. Ex: Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle presents a completely broken society with no possibility for salvation.
  • Has no specific meaning. This doesn't mean that it has no meaning at all, but rather the reader has to create the meaning through interpretation. Postmodern literature rarely has any didactic qualities like a "moral to the story." When there is a given "meaning" in a work, it is often accompanied with a contradicting or inconsistent counterpart. Ex: Calvino's Invisible Cities portrays lots of different interpretations of what a city is, all of them equally valid but inconsistent, and most have no single explicit "point."
  • Symbols and tradition are incorporated in order to tear down their meaning rather than to build from it. Borges' Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote famously uses the text of Don Quixote in order to change its meaning entirely.
  • Lacks an ending in any traditional sense. The famous final line of Eliot's modernist poem Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock "Till human voices wake us, and we drown." could never exist in postmodern writings. Postmodern writing rarely has any conclusion, putting the burden on the reader to put the pieces together. Ex: Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49 which presents an overload of information throughout the novel but never fully explains its significance, or Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five which simply ends without any climax or satisfying conclusion.
  • Plays with the structure of the text. Ex: Danielewski's House of Leaves incorporates vital plot information in the footnotes, appendixes, and index of the novel. Also think of genres such as altered books, graphic novels, or interactive fiction which are all notable for their creativity of their structure.

This is by no means a complete list, but it covers many main points.

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I'm honored that this was chosen as the correct answer! However, I'm no authority on the topic and, as I mentioned, this list is less than complete. If you found my answer helpful then you may want to read a more comprehensive piece on the subject (such as en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodern_literature) –  jbpjackson Aug 25 '11 at 1:59

Some critics, such as Annie Dillard in her book Living By Fiction, argue that post-modernism (in literature) is actually just "contemporary modernism", and that there are no significant differences between them.

Note that, for example, most of the points raised in the answer by @jbpjackson above would apply to Joyce's "Ulysses", which is sometimes categorized as the pinnacle of modernism.

Also note that I am speaking strictly about "modernism" and "post-modernism" in their literary sense; the application of these terms in different domains (such as architecture or philosophy) is quite different.

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Modernism is a method that you apply to other things in e.g. deconstruction, where the protagnoist of a fantasy story is explicitly racist, a deconstruction of the normal hatred for Orcs. The reason Post-Modernism is Modernism is then simple: Instead of applying the methods of Modernism to Enlightenment writings or a Homeric Epic, you apply Modernism... to Modernism. The deconstruction of Modernism is Postmodernism is Modernism. –  medivh Jul 4 '13 at 19:10

Modernism is characterized by a loss of faith in the "transcendental signified"—or a kind of generalized loss of faith—yet unlike postmodernism is still somewhat nostalgic for the time when that faith was intact. Postmodernism is further decentered.

While modernism blurs the distinction between high and low art, postmodernism rejects it.

However, in an addendum to his influential book, The Postmodern Condition, Jean-François Lyotard argues that every work of art is, in fact, post-modern at the very moment of its production:

A work can become modern only if it is first postmodern. Postmodern, then, is not modern in its end, but in the nascent state, and this state is constant.

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The answers are directed post modern and modern literature and not to theory. The modern age is generally thought of as starting during the Renaissance with the rise of the age of reason in world views and analysis. The post modern age has been said by some to have started with the end of world war 2 - when 2 non-European armies met for the first time in Berlin after conquering all of Europe, putting an end to the many wars that European countries had waged against each other for many centuries. If I remember correctly most deconstruction theory, which is considered post modern, arose after this time.

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It took me a while to work out which two non-European armies met there - USA & Russia? –  Mozibur Ullah Feb 19 '13 at 4:15
    
USA and USSR, there was no separate Russia at the time. –  artm Feb 19 '13 at 7:16

Some would say that postmodernism is an historico-cultural extension of late modernity. As such its topicality is relegated broadly to socio-political phenomena (often continental philosophy) that is seen as dissident to its modernist predecessor(s). As for postmodernity's departure from modernity; it's hard to say.

Here's one problem: perspectivism is a view that denounces the singularity/selfsameness/autonomy of a so-called "truth". One form of perspectivism is cultural relativism which says the same for a cultural praxis, or social more, as perspectivism does for truth. However cultural relativism is a primarily western idea not often held by those respective cultures within its scope. That said, you can understand how an idea, originally "postmodern", is suspect to false alternatives in turn deferring its authority back to "modern" thought -- rather a failed enterprise in overcoming the andro-logico-Eurocentrism of modernism.)

What makes postmodernity problematic also beautifully points to its own self-consciouness; its evasiveness towards meaning and understanding challenges whether there is any such thing as meaning or understanding reaffirming its suspicion of these primarily modern notions -- in-so-far also reaffirming its right to separation (whether it be a separation by historico-cultural context or, ironically, by the autonomy of its truth).

So to not answer your question postmodernity isn't wanting of your inquiry!

...But on a more serious note some of the things touched upon, of course, raise more problems -- and so to be more succinct -- here's a brief rundown of some (post)modern viewpoints.


Topics and themes relevant to postmodernism:

semiotics, emancipatory politics, the morphology of self (anti-essentialism), cultural relativism, late capitalism, transnationalism, telematics, pro-sex feminism (e.g. Lydia Lunch), interstitial space (the metropolis), cyberculture, multivalency of accountancy/agency/authorship, absurdity, hermeneutics, science fiction, critical theory, post-marxian critique, diaspora, expression (anti-discursive practices), immanence, simulation, situational international (SI), deconstruction, etc.


As opposed to:

logic, nature (selfhood), (western) enlightenment, capitalism, fixed social narratives, authorship, clarity, explanation/utterance, individualism, truth, unified history (progress/development), transcendence, dialectics, essentialism, universality, autonomy, structuralism, etc.


Not all items are necessarily in opposition to one another and this list isn't exhaustive. That said I hope some of this provided some fodder for better understanding the differences.

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