Literary and Critical Theory Postmodernism
Hans Bertens
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0081


The terms “postmodern” and “postmodernism” first of all referred to new departures in the arts, in literature, and in architecture that had their origins in the 1950s and early 1960s, gained momentum in the course of the 1960s, and became a dominant factor in the 1970s. After their heyday in the 1980s, postmodern innovations had either run their course or were absorbed by the mainstream, if not commercialized by the advertising industry. On a more intangible level, the terms referred to the new “postmodern” sensibility that had given rise to those innovations, but that also manifested itself more broadly in, for instance, the so-called counterculture of the later 1960s. This postmodern sensibility was irreverent, playful, and ironic. It rejected the distinction between high art and popular culture and demystified the status of art and the artist. Its articulation in the form of literary criticism—where the label “postmodern” first gained wide currency—prefigured the theory-driven criticism that arose in the course of the 1970s and that was heavily indebted to French poststructuralism. In the next decade, this postmodern criticism or critique, an amalgam of poststructuralist ideas and assumptions, branched out into all directions, making itself felt in historiography, ethnography, musicology, religious studies, management and organization studies, legal studies, leisure studies, and other areas that unexpectedly experienced a postmodern moment, or even a more lasting postmodern reorientation. Finally, and at its most encompassing level, the term postmodern was applied to late-20th-century Western society as a whole. The argument here was that somewhere in the postwar period modernity had given way to a postmodernity that recognizably constituted a new economic and sociocultural formation. There was not much agreement as to the exact turning point, or on the nature, of the new “postmodern condition,” but its theorists, most of whom saw it as inextricably entangled with capitalism, even if some emphasized its emancipatory pursuit of heterogeneity and difference, argued that it was here to stay. If it did, it soon was left to its own devices. We have since the turn of the century not heard much about postmodernity. Postmodern criticism has fared better and though it, too, would seem to have run out of steam in the new millennium, it has fundamentally changed our perspectives on literature, architecture, the arts, and a host of other subjects, not the least of which is the rational, self-determined subject of Enlightenment humanism.


A good starting point is Butler 2002 which in spite of its brevity covers most of the essentials. While recognizing postmodernism’s importance and its positive contributions, it questions much of postmodern thought. Malpas 2005 is another short introduction and usefully juxtaposes modern and postmodern positions. Woods 2010 is the most thorough of introductions to postmodernism. Bertens 1995 is a wide-ranging study that traces the origins and rise of postmodernism as an intellectual concept and its dissemination into ever more disciplines. Connor 1997 focuses on postmodernism as the key to late-20th-century culture, discussing its impact in areas ranging from legal theory to style and fashion. Sim 2011 collects thoughtful essays on diverse aspects of postmodernism and provides a glossary of postmodern terms. Taylor and Winquist 2002 offers a wealth of information on postmodernism and everything relevant to its trajectory. Bertens and Natoli 2002 covers the key figures in the debate on postmodernism. McHale 2015, trying to answer the question, “What was postmodernism?,” looks back on postmodernism with the advantage of hindsight. Natoli and Hutcheon 1993 and Jencks 2011 are readers that offer selections of important contributions to the debate, with Jencks including contributions on the impact of postmodernism in fields which have been relatively neglected.

  • Bertens, Hans. The Idea of the Postmodern: A History. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

    Traces the rise of postmodern thought from its beginnings in 1960s literary criticism to its global dissemination some twenty years onward, on the way offering detailed discussions of all major contributors to, and detractors of, postmodern theorizing. Sees postmodernism as part of the widespread postwar revaluation of values that also led to feminism and processes of decolonization.

  • Bertens, Hans, and Joseph Natoli, eds. Postmodernism: The Key Figures. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 2002.

    Fifty-three short and accessible essays on writers, philosophers, critics, and artists who have made important contributions to postmodernism in all its different aspects.

  • Butler, Christopher. Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    An excellent and accessible, but by no means uncritical, introduction. (“We should be prepared to see many postmodernist ideas as very interesting and influential, and as the key to some good experimental art—but at best confused and at worst simply untrue”) (p. 12).

  • Connor, Steven. Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary. 2d ed. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1997.

    A wide-ranging and highly insightful survey of postmodern artistic practices and theories. But also offers chapters on postmodern social and legal theory and postmodern cultural politics. Impressive but not without its challenges.

  • Jencks, Charles, ed. The Post-Modern Reader. 2d ed. Chicester, UK: Wiley, 2011.

    Gathers twenty-six texts on postmodernism in general and on more specific subjects such as postmodern architecture, literature, and such relatively neglected topics as economics, sociology, and science. Includes texts by important figures—Jane Jacobs, John Barth, Umberto Eco, and others—who usually do not feature in anthologies.

  • Malpas, Simon. The Postmodern. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

    Discusses the differences between modern and postmodern architecture, arts, and literature, but also between modern and postmodern views of the subject, of history, and of politics. A good introduction.

  • McHale, Brian. The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139108706

    An important and comprehensive survey by one of postmodernism’s most prominent theorists. Periodizes the successive phases that McHale distinguishes within postmodernism’s history.

  • Natoli, Joseph, and Linda Hutcheon, eds. A Postmodern Reader. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

    Collects essays and excerpts that have shaped the debate on modernism/postmodernism and on postmodern criticism. Includes contributions by Cornell West, bell hooks, and Houston A. Baker Jr. that discuss postmodernism from an Afro-American perspective.

  • Sim, Stuart, ed. The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism. 3d ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2011.

    Presents some twenty quite accessible articles discussing postmodernism’s impact in widely varying areas, including the usual suspects—philosophy, the various arts, popular culture—but also postcolonial criticism and organization theory. Ends with what amounts to a substantial and useful dictionary of postmodern terminology.

  • Taylor, Vincent E., and Charles E. Winquist, eds. The Encyclopedia of Postmodernism. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

    Is what it claims to be. A truly exhaustive source of information on every aspect of postmodernism and postmodern theorizing and of everything conceivably relevant to postmodernism’s cultural and philosophical origins and its subsequent development.

  • Woods, Tim. Beginning Postmodernism. 2d ed. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2010.

    A clear and accessible introduction to postmodernism that, apart from architecture, literature, and the arts, also discusses the postmodern impact on popular culture, cultural theory, the social sciences, and philosophy. The most basic introduction to postmodern practice and theory.

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