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Department of English and Literary Studies,
Prince AbubakarAudu University, Anyigba, Nigeria


Department of English,
Benue State University, Makurdi, Nigeria


This study extrapolates the aesthetics of postmodernism as a theoretical category. In this connection, the study briefly examines the problematics of definition associated with the concept essentially because of its ambivalent nature and paradoxical nexus with its root precursor, modernism. The study then distils some of the main features and purviews of postmodernism by major theorists like Jean-FracoisLyotard and Jean Baudrillard, as well as some key arguments in connection with the concept by scholars like Frederick Jameson, Terry Eagleton, Christopher Norris, Alan Sokal, and Jean Bricmont. The study posits that such contestations on the concept is show that it is a worthy site for intellectual engagements and a viable tool for textual interpretation and analysis.

Keywords: Postmodernism, modernism, text, ambivalence, analysis.  


This study is a critical exploration of the aesthetics of postmodernism as a theoretical purview. In the pursuit of this objective, it should be understood that the first challenge which confronts the critic of postmodernism is the wave of discourse and counter-discourse which circumscribes the concept. This challenge is explained by the complex nature of postmodernism itself. To this end, Ramen Sharma and PreetyChaudhary contend that postmodernism “is hard to define and there is little agreement on the exact characteristics, scope, and importance of postmodern literature” (189). J. A. Cuddon corroborates this view by describing postmodernism simply as “an eclectic approach” (qtd. in Barry 83) to the representation and interpretation of human life. By describing this concept as eclectic, Cuddon suggests that postmodernism is a variegated and nebulous concept, and, by implication, indefinable. The fact that postmodernism is almost definition-shy is ensconced by the fact that it is multidisciplinary in character and orientation. Accordingly, Margaret Drabble describes this concept as the “ensemble of cultural features characteristic of Western societies in the aftermath of artistic Modernism” (“Postmodernism”). Going by these remarks, postmodernism could be regarded as a promiscuous theoretical concept which dovetails into several areas of academic and critical enquiries including architecture, literature, philosophy, anthropology, painting, music, theatre, sculpture, and more. It is to this end that Julie M. Albright asserts that postmodernism demonstrates a remarkable “orientation toward knowledge that encompasses a wide range of theories and theorists, drawing from the fields of philosophy, sociology, linguistics, and others” (“Postmodernism”).

Also, postmodernism derives its complexities from its interconnection with its precursor, the modernist literary theory. In this context, the prefix, “post”, in the word is very suggestive as it creates the impression at surface level that the advent of postmodernism marks the end of the modernist project. But Ramen Sharma and PreetyChaudhary debunk such assumption. They argue that the prefix, “post”, in postmodernism or any of its other variants – postmodern, postmodernist, postmodernity, and their hyphenated and capitalised forms (Post-Modern, Post-Modernist, Post-Modernity, etc.) – “does not necessarily imply a new era. Rather, it could also indicate a reaction against modernism in the wake of the Second World War” (192). What this implies is that rather than signifying the end of modernism, postmodernism is seen as both a counter-discourse to, as well as an extension of its modernist forebear. Apart from modernism, postmodernism maintains a filial relationship with other theoretical formulations like poststructuralism, postcolonialism, post-Marxism, and so on. For instance, Edward Said is quoted by MariangelaPalladino as saying that “[i]n the West, post-modernism has seized upon the ahistorical weightlessness, consumerism, and spectacle of the new order. To it are affiliated other ideas like post-Marxism and post-structuralism” (“History, Postcolonialism and Postmodernism” 53). Veeramani agrees with Said by stating that some of the common theoretical categories such as poststructuralism, feminism, postcolonialism, and new historicism are the “schools of postmodernism” (24). The implication of this is that postmodernism is more than just a theory. It is a movement, an umbrella term under which disparate theoretical concepts as the ones mentioned above form a complex association. This is because it shares some basic tenets and practitioners with some of these theories. Among the wealth of theoretical postulations available on this subject matter, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s rejection of grand narratives and Jean Baudrillard’s cognition of contemporary culture as “a process of simulacra” (1) are perhaps the most important. For this reason, this study examines their contributions to postmodernist discourses, as well as some of the responses generated therefrom, shortly.

Polemics and Theoretical Conceptualisation

Stephen R. C. Hicks sees postmodernism as an instrument, “an activist strategy” which is capable of undermining “the coalition of reason and power” (3). This submission supports Frank Lentricchia’s view that postmodernism “seeks not to find the foundation and the conditions of truth but to exercise power for the purpose of social change” (qtd. in Hicks 3). The above assumption underscores the fact that postmodernism is preoccupied with ontological issues which border on the challenges of human life, societal progress, political power, and social change. From a philosophical perspective, Stuart Sim understands postmodernism as “a form of scepticism – scepticism about authority, received wisdom, cultural and political norms, etc.” (1). Sim’s opinion is based on Jean-Francois Lyotard’ssceptical approach to the canonisation of grand narratives such as modernism, the Enlightenment, Marxism, religion, and science, which are held to be the universal repertoires of wisdom, knowledge, and truth, and, as such, can neither be challenged nor questioned. This scepticism towards metanarratives as signifying practices is summarised and projected by the Lyotardian view of postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives” (xxiv). Over the years, the reaction to modernism as a token metanarrative has remained a definite and defining centre of debates in postmodernist theorisation.

What the foregoing discussion presupposes is that postmodernism is characteristically ambivalent. This ambivalence is enabled by the fact that the concept is seen to be simultaneously a rejection as well as a continuation of the modernist tradition. This ambivalent situation is fundamental to some of the controversies which continue to plague postmodernist discourse from its inception till date. But from whichever perspective the concept is considered and understood, one thing that is certain and common to all conjectures on postmodernism is that the concept is essentially a reappraisal and a redefinition of the modernist approach to literary production and reception. MojganEyvazi, ShirinPourebrahim, and NasimSahebazamni succinctly summarise the basic components and common features of postmodernism in their submission that

postmodern literature relies heavily on fragmentation, temporal distortion, paranoia, intertextuality, irony, playfulness, black humour, paradox, allusions and references, technoculture and hyperreality, fabulation, metafiction, magic realism, pastiche and parody. (154)

This submission is apt even though some of these features do not merely predate postmodernism but are also manifest in various forms in other aesthetic domains. For instance, irony and humour are manifest in satire; fragmentation and some forms of distortions are characteristic of modernism; allusions and references are aspects of most forms of artistic creations since the classical era. The peculiarity of the postmodern purview however derives essentially from the centrality of playfulness as an aesthetic feature with a unifying potential in a collage of disparate elements and ambivalent practices. In exploring serious, usually traumatic and tragic human experiences such as war, death, maladministration, poverty, and pandemics, postmodernism deploys these aesthetic features in a playful way to mock the tragedies of life and inspire laughter in the midst of the unending challenges of contemporary existence.

The origin of postmodernism is, like its definition, steeped in a maze of controversies. This is because, as Roger Webster observes, there is no clear-cut “boundary in chronological, aesthetic or political terms” (122) between modernism and postmodernism. He however stresses that postmodernism blossomed in the period following the Second World War. Scholars of the theory such as Michael Ryan, Hans Bertens, Antony Easthope, and Linda Hutcheon agree that the term, postmodernism, came into prominence in the 1960s following the rise of Civil Rights Movement in America. However, Peter Barry contends that it is only in the 1980s that postmodernism assumes its current bearings and usage (81). In the light of the above, postmodernism is clearly a literary and aesthetic movement which emerged in the later part of the twentieth century as an alternative response to the chaos and anarchy which have continued to define and traumatise humanity into the twenty-first century. The available wealth of postmodernist literature includes Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, NgugiwaThiong’o’sWizard of the Crow, Ben Okri’sThe Famished Road, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children, and Paul Auster’sThe New York Trilogy. The leading theorists of postmodernism are Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Frederick Jameson. But Lyotard and Baudrillard are believed to have had greater impacts on the theoretical trajectories of postmodernism than the others. These trajectories include Lyotard’s repudiation of metanarratives and Baudrillard’s notions of simulation and hyperreality. Since they are widely considered the greatest exponents of postmodernism, this study recognises the need to summarise their theoretical views here vis-à-vis some of the responses to their theoretical postulations.

As mentioned earlier, one of the central theses of postmodernist discourse is the rejection of the modernist conception of the world. According to Jean-Francois Lyotard, the postmodern is described as “incredulity toward metanarratives” (xxiv). Metanarratives – a term frequently used interchangeably with grand narratives – refer to forms of discourse such as Marxism and modernism which “claim to provide universal explanation and the authority this gives them” (Sim 261). Such theories usually packaged as ends in themselves and as custodians of universal knowledge and authority are dismissed by Lyotard on the ground that they are “implicitly authoritarian, and that by the late twentieth century, they have lost all claim to authority” (Sim 262). Thus, postmodernism holds that “the major grand narratives of the recent past … no longer command credibility, and lie in ruins” (Habib 248). Proponents of the modernist tradition have been variously charged with elitism, sophistication, and a radical or high-handed innovation and experimentation in their aesthetic approach. This leads to the development of complex aesthetic tendencies including the multiple narrative points of view, stream of consciousness or interior monologues, fragmented structure, and similar artistic tendencies in the works of modernist writers. It is this elaborate artistic approach that postmodernist scholars find “deeply offensive and repulsive” (Barry 84). Thus, the view that postmodernism “reject[s] the elitism, sophisticated formal experimentation and tragic sense of alienation to be found in the modernist writers” (Selden and Widdowson 177) is valid.

Having repudiated some of the novel ideas implicit in, and peculiar to modernism, postmodernist thinkers adopt and stretch what they can from modernist aesthetics to forge an alternative approach of representing history and reality. They do this by textualising history and reality in “the world of images and simulations which characterise the contemporary age of mass consumption and advanced technologies” (Selden and Widdowson 174-175). In addition, the quest for an alternative tradition in postmodernist aesthetics manifests itself through a consistent recourse to what Abrams and Harpham refer to as the “models to the ‘mass culture’ in film, television, newspaper cartoons, and popular music” (“Modernism and Postmodernism”). In other words, as Jean Baudrillard’s analysis of modern culture and society reveals, “reality has in the late capitalist era been replaced by codes of signification. What we are now witnessing is a ‘procession of simulacra’ a series of images which do not even claim to represent reality but offer themselves in its place” (Habib 251). In this context, postmodernism dovetails into the domain of popular culture where the distinction between high and low culture is erased. Postmodernist scholars are essentially concerned with ontological issues in a literary text. As Veeramani succinctly puts it, “if modernism is epistemological, postmodernism is ontological” (23). The term, ontology, is used here as a signification for the nature of human existence. Thus, postmodernism is concerned with the issues of human existence – social, political, economic, historical, moral, and cultural. The implication of this is that postmodernism is interested not only in the way and manner in which reality is constructed in a literary work; it is also interested in how far, that is, the extent to which literature responds to reality in its diverse forms and manifestations. Writers of postmodernist persuasion often portray such serious and negative realities in ironic and humorous ways. In this way, the devices of irony, humour, and parody become some of the essential elements of the postmodernist aesthetic tradition. Furthermore, the concern for “ontological uncertainty” as Selden and Widdowson describe it, “results in a loss of fixed points of reference. Neither the world nor the self any longer possesses unity, coherence, meaning. They are radically ‘decentred’” (178). This disposition could be responsible for the evident lack of thematic and stylistic unity in postmodernist literature. In another development, postmodernist writers deny the traditional boundaries of discourse embodied in the distinction between “high” and “low” cultures inherent in modernist aesthetics. This blurring of artistic boundaries in postmodernist art is significant because it gives prominence to popular culture within the tradition. Equally significant in this context is the fact that the rejection of artistic boundaries in postmodernism inheres in the mixing of literary genres and styles. To this end, postmodernism is marked by the fusion of literary forms, styles, and genres given the fact that prose spills freely into the domain of poetry and poetry itself is increasingly suffused with dramatic qualities, and vice versa.

Intertextuality is another concept that is prominent in postmodernist discourse. As Abrams and Harpham explain, intertextuality is a term used to signify the multiple ways in which any one literary text is in fact made up of other texts, by means of its open or covert citations and allusions, its repetitions and transformations of the formal and substantive features of earlier texts, or simply its unavoidable participation in the common stock of linguistic and literary conventions and procedures that are “always already” in place and constitute the discourses into which we are born. (“Text and Writing”) 

The foregoing remarks underscore the assumption in the field of intertextual studies which reinforces the postmodernist perception that no literary work is completely original, nor are they self-reliant. This perception is underscored by the fact that literary texts exist in relation to others since they derive their being from existing literary forms and techniques. A literary text is therefore an intertext of another if it echoes, imitates, or is influenced directly or indirectly by an earlier text. The influence could be through imitation, quotation, allusion, translation, repetition/ reprint. In this case, an intertext may promote, advance, question, refute, or correct the ideas, concepts, sensibilities, and the style implicit in its precursor(s). The implication of the above contention is that intertextuality deflects attention away from the author to the text by paying particular attention to the influence of one text on another to undergird the postmodernist notion of “the death of the author”.

            At this juncture, it is necessary to consider the theoretical theses of Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard from a gamut of postmodernist voices including those of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan, among others. The theoretical articulations of both Lyotard and Baudrillard are isolated for consideration here because they are, as Selden and Widdowson rightly posit, “the two major ‘narratives’ of what constitute postmodernism, and which other commentators concur with or refuse to varying degrees” (175). The study equally explores briefly the argument against postmodernism by some of its detractors whose views now form part of the larger body of postmodernist discourse. Notable figures among the anti-postmodernist scholars are the Marxists: Frederick Jameson, Terry Eagleton, Christopher Norris; and the scientists: Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont.

The Lyotardean Conception of Postmodernism

Jean-Francois Lyotard’s notion of the postmodern is that it is, first and foremost, a cultural phenomenon. Lyotard considers postmodernism as a term which is used to designate “the state of our culture following the transformations… since the end of the nineteenth century… [of] science, literature and the arts” (xxiii). His idea of the postmodern is anti-foundational in outlook. The concept of anti-foundationalism is invoked here as a referent to the long held suspicion in some philosophical circles towards the notion of origins – a suspicion that would manifest its most extreme form in the Nietzschean notion of “the death of God”. Lyotard’s anti-foundationalism does not appear to be disputing the existence of God in this explicit form. Rather, his version of postmodernism disputes, as Stuart Sim explains, long held notions of “authority, received wisdom, cultural and political norms… [and] the validity of the foundations of discourse” (3). Lyotard posits that discourse embodies all forms of knowledge – narrative and scientific – and knowledge itself is dynamic since it is “altered as societies enter what is known as the postindustrial age and cultures enter what is known as the postmodern age” (3). The dynamic nature of knowledge would therefore fuel a negative attitude towards certain foundations of knowledge such as modernism, Marxism, science, religion, and the Enlightenment idea of progress which claim to possess universal authority and are thus not amenable to any form of transformation or change. These foundations of discourse are constitutive of what Lyotard describes as grand narratives or meta-narratives. Christopher Butler’s insistence that “[t]hese metanarratives traditionally serve to give cultural practices some form of legitimation or authority” (13) does very little to save them from the growing suspicion such that, by the late twentieth century, “they have lost all claim to authority” (Sim 262), and “no longer command credibility…” (Habib 248). The scepticism towards these metanarratives manifests itself in the outright rejection and repudiation by the Lyotardeanschool of postmodernist thought which sees postmodernism simply as “incredulity toward metanarratives” (xxiv). In an attempt to ensure that the quest for knowledge is not endangered with the rejection of grand narratives, Lyotard advocates that micro, little, or local narratives be instituted in place of the former “if we wish to stand up against authoritarianism”. (Sim 262)

The Baudrillardean Version of Postmodernism

            Jean Baudrillard’s version of postmodernism is predicated on what he describes as “simulation”. In his analysis of modern culture and society, Baudrillard adopts a cynical approach by expressing the view that reality in the contemporary era has been subverted and replaced by images or codes of signification which he describes as “a procession of simulacra” (1). He believes that “the postmodern world is a world of simulacra, where we could no longer differentiate between reality and simulation. Simulacra represented nothing but themselves: there was no other reality to which they referred” (Sim 11). For Baudrillard, therefore, the postmodern world is a world governed by a system of signs. It is a world in which no sense of reality is left. He proposes the concept of hyperreality to explain that signs are more real than reality. In his words:

[t]he real… is no longer really the real, because no imaginary envelops it anymore. It is a hyperreal, produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere. By crossing into a space whose curvature is no longer that of the real, nor that of truth, the era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referentials…. It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real…. (2)

Given the above view, Baudrillard goes on to postulate that Disneyland – a model of fantasy in the American imagination – and television, are now respectively constitutive of American reality, and that the Gulf War was only a media spectacle as it did not really happen. This particular conception of the postmodern has attracted some dissenting views to postmodernism, notable among which is Christopher Norris whose opinion is discussed below, along with those of Frederick Jameson, Terry Eagleton, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. As the following illustrations show, some of the most intense arguments against postmodernism emanate from Marxists and scientists. This is not surprising considering the fact that Marxism and science are some of the grand narratives which postmodernism repudiates.

Dissenting Views on Postmodernism

Although Frederick Jameson is primarily a Marxist, he is now ironically acknowledged for his contributions to postmodernist discourse. His book titled Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism is, in essence, the response of a typical Marxist to the views articulated by both Lyotard and Baudrillard who are, according to Selden and Widdowson, two of the most influential postmodern thinkers (185). Seeing that Marxism has come under severe criticism from postmodernism, Jameson attempts to reverse the negative attitude towards it. His response to Lyotard’s conception of Marxism as a grand narrative which should be rejected is a critique of postmodernism which he describes as “the cultural logic of late capitalism”, to invoke the title of his book referred to above. What this implies is that, as far as Jameson is concerned, postmodernism shares an abiding relationship with capitalism and capitalism is, in the tradition of Marxist theory, something that should be done away with.

Terry Eagleton is another Marxist scholar who has lent his voice to postmodernist discourse. Like Jameson, Eagleton is direct and unpretentious in his critique and denunciation of postmodernism, describing it as a mere “illusion”. Like Jameson and Eagleton, Christopher Norris is a Marxist scholar and, as a Marxist scholar, he does not have kind words for postmodernism. But unlike Jameson and Eagleton whose arguments are directed especially against the Lyotardean suspicion of metanarratives, Norris is especially provoked by the Baudrillardean conception of the postmodern in which reality is perceived to dissolve and implode into a series of images which are now said to constitute reality. This conception of the postmodern results in Baudrillard stating that the Gulf War is a media show (something like a video game) as it never really took place. In Norris’s view therefore, postmodernism is dismissed as an “uncritical theory”. In his book titled Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War, Norris simply refutes postmodernism’s conception of the world of signs, simulation and hyperreality for the reason that Selden and Widdowson have given as the “irresponsible sophistry” (181) of such a world. Some of the most provocative arguments against postmodernism are those advanced by the scientists, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. Like their Marxist counterparts, these scholars are evidently irritated by postmodernism for its scepticism and rejection of metanarratives which include science. In the introduction to their provocative work titled Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science, Sokal’s and Bricmont’s concern with this development is manifest. They lament what they consider to be theexplicit rejection of the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment, by theoretical discourses disconnected from any empirical test, and by a cognitive and cultural relativism that regards science as nothing more than a “narration”, a “myth” or a social construction among many others. (1)

Furthermore, they are displeased by what they describe as postmodernism’s “abuse of science”. In their work mentioned above, Sokal and Bricmont make painstaking attempts at demonstrating that postmodern intellectuals such as Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Lucy Irrigary, Jean Baudrillard, and Gilles Deleuze “have repeatedly abused scientific concepts and terminology, either using scientific ideas totally out of context, without giving the slightest justification” (x). They argue that by using scientific concepts that they are least familiar with, postmodernist theorists are seeking cheap erudition and this quest for cheap erudition lures them into the realms of vague and abstract intellection. In the light of this, they dismiss postmodernism as a “fashionable nonsense”. The use of the oxymoron, “fashionable nonsense”, by these scholars reveals the confusion and contradictions inherent in their views. In other words, although Sokal and Bricmont are opposed to postmodernism, the oxymoron clearly reveals that there is something “fashionable” or attractive in it and this attraction for the theory does not help their argument against it.


            This study has critically reviewed the aesthetics of postmodernism. The study traced the beginnings of this theoretical concept to the high modernist project. In the course of the study, the various features and shades of postmodernism were also highlighted. Some of the key features and basic assumptions of the theory highlighted include intertextuality, irony, humour, blurring of aesthetic boundaries, and popular culture; and the major shades of the concept discussed are essentially the Lyotardean and Baudrillardean versions of postmodernism. Finally, the study assessed the dissenting views on postmodernism including those of Jameson, Eagleton, Norris, Sokal and Bricmont, and concludes that, in spite of these disputations, postmodernism remains an engaging site for intellectual discourse especially in the analysis and interpretation of texts. 

Works Cited

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Notes on the authors

GamboSani, Ph.D, lectures in the Department of English and Literary Studies, Prince AbubakarAudu University, Anyigba, Kogi State, Nigeria.

Moses Tsenongu, Ph.D, is a professor of English at Benue State University, Makurdi, Benue State, Nigeria. He is widely published in reputable journals.

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