The term postmodernism is sometimes applied to the literature and art after World War II (1939-45), when the effects on Western morale of the first war were greatly exacerbated by the experience of Nazi totalitarianism and mass extermination, the progressive devastation of the natural environment, and the omnious fact of overpopulation. Postmodernism involves not only a continuation, somtimes carried to an extreme, of the contertraditional experiments of modernism, but also diverse attempts to break away from modernist forms which and, inevitably, become in their turn conventional, as well as to over-throw the elitism of modernist "high art" by recourse to the models of "mass culture" in film, television, newspaper cartoons, and popular music. Many of the works of postmodern literature-- by Jorge Luis Borges, Thomas Pynchon, Roland Barthes, and many others-- so blend literary genres, cultural and stylistic levels, the serious and the playful, that they resist classification according to traditional literary rubrics. And these literary anomalies are paralleled in other arts by phenomena like pop art, op art, the musical compositions of John Cage, and the films of Jean-Luc Godard and other directors.
An undertaking in some postmodernist writings is to subvert the foundations of our accepted modes of thought and experience as to reveal the "meaninglessness" of existence and the underlying "abyss," or "void," or "nothingness" on which any supposed security is conceived to be precariously suspended. Postmodernism in literature and the arts has parallels with the movement known as poststructualism in linguistic and literary theory; poststructuralists undertake to subvert the fondations of language in order to show that its seeming meaningfulness dissipates, for a rigorous inquirer, into a play of conflicting indeterminacies, or else to who that all forms of cultural discourse are manifestations of the ideology, or of the relations and constructions of power, in contemporary society.
Taken from M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 6th Ed. (1993), without permission. All rights reserved.
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