Modernism and Postmodernism


“I am a modern African”—Manthia Diawara


What does modern mean, to a European, to an African, in terms of 1500? In terms of the present in Europe, with the Cartesian subject set against an Africa deemed “traditional.” What is traditional in Europe.


--Modernity is defined against notions of tradition.

--Modernity: new and challenging, disruptive of tradition, of what is now considered old, antiquated, or just widely accepted.

--Range of media for expression of modernism: architecture, painting, drama, film

Current sense of modernism: 1.Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment; in drama, in the well-made play, in naturalism; 3. painting which breaks with realism verse, the break with fixed forms, like the sonnet or ballad; 5.avant-gardism of 1920s, starting with futurism, dadaism, constructivism, surrealism, and, in art, cubism, and abstract expressionism. Finally neo-realism.


Hi modernism of 1930s: Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner, Joyce, Beckett, Eliot, Yeats, Pound; the generation of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. The Jazz Age; the speakeasy; the Chaplin movie, Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel, “Un chien andalou.”


--Complex, ironic, experimental, self-reflexive. Reference to high culture, and, if to pop culture, then “quoting” rather than being: maintains distinction between high and pop culture.

Fits generation of African writers, especially Soyinka and Christopher Okigbo, J.P Clark, Aime Césaire, Okot p’Bitek. One could add a few other poets, but this is not typical of African,  or African-American, writing which is now considered postcolonial, and has a different emphasis.


One could trace “traditional” conventions and forms from Shakespeare, Donne, Dickenson; then the break with the e.e. cummings poems. Link Williams to focus on self-enclosed text.


Multiplicity of directions, depending on the country, period, artist; e.g. marvelous realism chez Carpentier ca.1940s (Kingdom of this World, 1949).


Crisis in representation~social and political identities. Resulting from the modernization of capital, from classical free market to monopoly state capitalism and imperialism. Triumph of anonymous forces over the individual. Death of representation which no longer provides the subject with cognitive access to the object. Barthes and Foucault: death of the author, end to expressive realism with an author whose intention can be read through text, whose expression is presented in the text, to be transmitted to the reader. End to reassuring, comforting realism as genre that reinforces dominant symbolic order, its values of the normal and natural; end of the language that sustains that order, with its normative speech and rules that reflect the authority and values of the dominant class.


Distance between high art and popàrt as transcending temporality, e.g. myth of Odysseus for Joyce, the search for Christ figures.


Instead of the linear narrative linked to external, objective reality, now the stream of consciousness which is direct expression of the unconscious, closest to one’s subjectivity.


Change in the 1960s. Decade of the Beatles, of culmination of giant skyscrapers, with the sense of cool, powerful, purenes; paintinghad accepted as dominant form abstract expressionism. Now need to go beyond,to feel differently. Ironic and parodic forms with pop art; more felt than cognitively grasped op art. By the end of the decade US, along with UK, leading trends in postmodernism, along with pop culture and music; Vietnam war intensifying.

--What had been marginal and subversive, like Impressionism, or complex stream of consciousness or free verse was now accepted as dominant and canonical. Serious. In need of its opposite  to generate sense of innovation.


Postmodernism was the answer. A style closer to pop and often frivolous—e.g. architecture that turns back from pure lines and truth to material to decoration, to playing at styles of past, for fun. Literature does the same.

1.first trait of pomo—its reaction against some quality of high modernism.

2.effacement of boundaries, esp. between hi and pop art, e.g. Beatles, MTV; between theory and literature, between philosophy and theory. Pomo comes after a range of grand narratives: Lyotard end of metanarratives and of grand narratives, such as 1.Freudianism (though not Lacan); 2.Marxism (though not leftist thought); 3.eventually, national liberation, though not democracy; 4. Structuralism as comprehensive system for reading cultures and societies as sign systems patterned after language. Passage from dominance of Existentialism to Structuralism to Poststructuralism to Deconstruction: from Sartre to Levi-Strauss; or, on another track, from Saussure to Jakobson, Greimas, Barthes, Foucault, Derrida.   Systematic reading of signs as coded, and to be decoded like a language, ruled by the binary operations of metaphor and metonymy, synchronic-diachronic patterns; with levels of communication with messages from sender to receiver—all now challenged by post-structuralists who see play in the system, its voids or absences, its unstated propositions and presuppositions; its failures to account for change, rather than seeing system as static form. Shift with Derrida to central importance of difference rather than presence. Difference now basis of meaning; deferring of settled meaning as process of signifying now replaces emphasis on signifier; and process of signifying, for Derrida, one of continual passage along signifying chain.


End of History as meaningful site of progressive change, as teleological, e.g.Christianity, Marxism; and even Freudianism, with the goal of cure and normalcy. End of God and man as site of basis for Truth or Meaning; end of liberal humanism; anti-foundational; anti-originary; end of universal truths, of transcendental signifiers, now seen as lacking foundation. Pomo as anti-Enlightenment, anti-progress; anti-historicist, anti-teleological.

Yet, not relativist, though commonly taken as such.

Pastiche, instead of parody; in contrast with postcolonialism, for which parody, e.g.popaul cartoons in Le Messager, still grounded in protest politics.


PomoL: Simulacrum--like supplement—copy or imitation without an original. (Baudrillard, Derrida) End of unified subject [Lacanian misrecognition as basis for ego], of author as origin of meaning in text, or o f text even. Individualism and sense of individual style now supplanted by infinite regress with discourse analysis, with genre studies—not a quest for the author as source of meaning, or meaning itself as basis for textual analysis, but attention focused on language (Bakhtine, Foucault, Barthes; Lacan, unconscious structured like a language); and by infinite multiplication, duplication of works (commercial exploitation of commodity object, its fetishization), e.g.Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, or piracy of DVDs as visual culture site of pop mass media.


Culture of “late, multinational capitalism,” i.e.globalization, see from western p.o.v.


Brand names, to west, tied to figures like Michael Jordan (or Jackson)—as seen from west. But in Chinese factories, the t-shirts and running shoes are seen as unreachable objects (or were seen as such) created for foreigners and for profit while factory workers, generally, work for a pittance.


Bonaventure Hotel vs. African market. Soyinka poem vs. Williams poem. Mix of 2 in Brathwaite: Jamaica as site of science fiction,pop, African, Jamaican hi and lo references.


If pomo is culture of late capitalism, with virtual images and perpetual present as defining characteristics for the west, what does culture of late capitalism mean for the non-western world? What is globalization from 3d world p.o.v.? Globalization>outsourcing labor to China and India, and to a lesser extend Latin America; there they manufacture goods that they themselves mostly can’t afford to buy (less true of India). This is changing in China and somewhat in India—but not for most people everywhere. History seen from each P.O.V.: progress at cost of self-rejection for 3d world.

Culture produced in the west, from western p.o.v. was called colonial literature. Now poco lit is from p.o.v. of formerly colonized people, and exported to educated intelligentia, elite, in west. Poco is generally taken from Said’s beginnings as study of relationship between 3d world and west; not area study in isolation. So issues of domination, race, black identity or Asian identity, black pride, are in reaction to white supremacy (as in U.S.) or colonialism (with the two linked)—recognition of colonial values impregnating westernthought and culture (e.g.Britishness, English literature, ideals of progres and continuous linear temporality; racism; all need Other. Focus on anti-colonialism, liberation struggles, national liberation, revolutionary movements, Che Guevara, Black Panthers, ideals of Cabral, Marx, ANC, struggle of liberational left versus imperialism, colonialism and neocolonialism; Algeria,Vietnam, Mau Mau, Cuba, 3d worldism, and now Iraq, with anti-globalization movement descendent of above movements, but with loss of left idealism, with disillusionment in USSR, Cuba, Guinea, Tanzania, Communism in E. Europe; China’s cultural revolution, N. Korea s aberration.

--Alliances, as in Black Atlantic, without leftist dogmatism as basis for alignment—new Left without Marxist parties; struggle between old notion of liberationist ideal now become original Afrocentrism vs. post-structuralist Race theorists, like Gates, Baker,and especially Glissant—now to include Gikandi, Mudimbe. Spivak and Bhabha.

African literature between old anti-colonials like Oyono and Beti and new world of Beyala and Okri, Bekolo. Ben Okri, Sony Labou Tansi—magic abiku, mammy watta realism; mtv vs. older Things Fall Apart ethnographic truths


Even in Appiah’s distinction between pomo and poco, his humanism vd. What he views as relativism. However, différance and deferral are not relativism; discourse analysis isn’t relativist. Where is the place for commitment to struggle for rights and well-being of Africans in a postmodern world?


If globalized capitalism produced pomo, globalization had to operate in a west linked to the 3d world (i.e.IMF, World Bank),  neo-liberal economy, unequal conditions of trade, subsidies and tariffs. This is pomo viewed from above (that ignore that connection) and from below (that is obsessed with receiving in terms of that connection).Frontier between the two rigidly policed, e.g., TV in Africa heavily borrows from west; TV in west ignores emissions from 3d world; just as Spanish building electric fence around southern Mediterranean. Whereas European tourists flood into Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Senegal, Kenya, without needing visas. How does postmodernism view this compared with poco. Spivak: subaltern can’t speak; strategic essentialism. Bhabha: colonial subject marked by hybridity, mimicry, contradictions between humanist rhetoric and inhuman practices.

Describe: 1.Guelwaar and Faat Kine. 2.Run Lola Run; 3.Ben Okri’s Famished Road; 4.Nigerian videos; 5.Hotel Rwanda; 6.Marjolin Satrapi’s Persepolis; 7.Les Saignantes;  Quartier Mozart. How do they fit into a world of late capitalism, globalization, and poco.

With respect to: --Continuous, linear temporality (historicism, progress): end of progressivism and of dialectical historicism or teleologies; life within perpetual present, no more sense of history, much less explanatory power of history.

--unified subject (identity politics) (loss of self, of individualism, of personal and private, of sense identity; self given through other, split through other, méconnaissance: constructed sense of self> self given unified or monadic identity through act of méconnaissance; ideology working as form of méconnaissance, imaginary relation used to construct unified self.

--model of fetish (hides repressed work, repressed desire), without access to that which is repressed: simulacrum

--constructedness (cultural, historical, contingent) of sense of self, of values, of epistemologies, of systems. Focus on process of construction (signifier) rather than object constructed; on site of subjectivity, site of enunciation, site of production, rather than meaning, produced meaning, signified.

--end of systems, of metanarratives, of privileged languages or higher discourses

--end of frontier

--globalized economy

--end to humanist idealism, to humanism, of ego as center of self. Modernism’s subjectivity versus postmodernism’s loss of subjectivity

--ontological uncertainty (absence of centers, absence of presence); contingency, radical indeterminancy. Loss of sense of location of self, of human body, in space; loss of cognitive mapping of sense within external space; inability to place oneself within networks, hotel, communication, scientific, interpersonal, linguistic

--postness /Being modern/being hybrid/ being multiple/misrecognition/uncertainty/ambivalence.

--parody or mockery of seriousness of high modernism (doesn’t apply entirely to dadaism)

Surface and play over depth and seriousness. End of sense of scandal! I.e. pastiche over parody: end to subversiveness or power of subversive


--end of reference or meaning, in favor of performance: self-reflexive

--shift of seriousness associated with subversion or perversion to play in challenge to dominant orders: Hassan: ambiguity, discontinuity, heterodoxy, pluralism, randomness, revolt, perversion, deformation: decentering, deconstruction, decomposition, demystification, disjunction, deferring

--transformation of reality into images, into virtual reality; fragmentation of time into perpetual presents: standardizations of global consumerist capitalism, consumerist societies.

--yet, continuities and discontinuities with modernism, even with realisms