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Saturday, July 29, 2006

Modernism and Postmodernism

Following are the notes of my lectures on the essay by MH Abrams on 'Modernism and postmodernism'.

• Term used to identify new and distinctive features in the subjects, forms, concepts and styles of literature and the other arts in the early decades of the last century (20th) esp. after WWI(1914-1918)
• Features: Involves a deliberate and radical break with some of the traditional bases not only of Western art but of Western culture in general.
• Important Precursors: Friedrich Nietzsche (1890-1915) Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, James G. Frazer. (His Golden Bough stressed the correspondence between central Christian tenets and pagan, often barbaric myths and rituals.
• Location: Some locate it in 1890’s. High modernism came after WWI.
• 1922 appearance of modernist innovations – James Joyce’s Ulysses, Ezra Pound’s Cantos, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Virginia Wolf’s Jacob’s Room + other experimental works.
• Reason: War had shaken faith in the continuity of Western civilization and raised doubts about the adequacy of traditional literary modes to represent the harsh and dissonant realities of the postwar world. ‘The inherited mode of ordering a literary work, which assumed a relatively coherent and stable social order could not accord the “immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”
• Eliot experimented with new forms and a new style that would render contemporary disorder, often contrasting with the lost order and integration that had been based on the religion and myths of the cultural past.
• In The Waste Land (1922) Eliot replaced the standard flow of poetic language by fragmented utterances and substituted for the traditional coherence of poetic structure a deliberate dislocation of parts in which very diverse components are related by connections that are left to the reader to discover or invent.
• Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) & more radical Finnegans Wake (1939) subvert the basic conventions of earlier prose fiction by breaking up the narrative continuity, departing from the standard ways of representing characters and violating the traditional continuity, departing from the standard ways of representing characters and violating the traditional syntax and coherence of narrative language by the use of stream of consciousness and other innovative modes of narration.
• Gertrude Stein –experimented with writing that achieved its effects by violating the norms of Standard English syntax and sentence structure.
• Parallel experiments in Literature : Expressionism and surrealism
• Modernist paintings and sculpture: Cubism, Futurism and Abstract Expressionism
• Music: Violations of standard conventions of melody, harmony and rhythm by the modernist musical composers Stravinsky and Schoenberg et al.
• Prominent feature of modernism – avant-garde- a small self-conscious group of artists and authors who deliberately undertake, in Ezra Pound’s phrase, to “make it new”.
• By violating the accepted conventions and proprieties, not only of art but of social discourse, they set out to crate ever-new forbidden, subject matters. Frequently avant-garde artists represent themselves as “alienated" from the established order, against which they assert their own autonomy; a prominent aim is to shock the sensibilities of the conversional reader and to challenge the norms and pieties of the dominant bourgeois culture.


• Term applied to the literature and art after WW II (1939-45)
• Effects on Western morale of the first war were greatly exacerbated by the experience of Nazi totalitarianism and mass extermination, the threat of total destruction by the atomic bomb the progressive devastation of the natural environment and the ominous fact of overpopulation.
• Postmodernism: 1. Experiments of extreme modernism 2. Diverse attempts to break away form modernist forms which had become conventional, 3. Overthrow elitism of modernist “high art” by recourse to the models of “mass culture” in films, television, newspaper cartoon and popular music.
• Postmodern literatures by Jorge Luis Borges, Thomas Pynchon, Roland Barthes blend literary genres, cultural and stylistic levels, the serious and the playful that they resist classification according to traditional literary rubrics.
• Parallels in art: pop art, op art, musical compositions of John Cage and the films of Jean-Luc Godard
• Purpose : At times to subvert the foundations of our accepted modes of thought and experience so 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.
• Parallel in linguistics and literary theory- post structuralism
• Poststructuralists undertake to subvert the foundations of language in order to show that its seeming meaningfulness dissipates, for a rigorous inquirer into a play of conflicting indeterminacies, or else to show that all forms of cultural discourse are manifestations of the ideology or of the relations and constructions of power in contemporary society.

• Abrams, MH. A Glossary of Literary Terms, VI Ed. Bangalore: Prism Books, 1993, pp 118-121.

Anil Pinto, Dept of Media Studies;

1 comment:

swetha said...

thanks sir...