In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Postmodernism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Reference
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Literary Theory
  • Drama and Performance
  • Poetry
  • The “End” of Postmodernism

British and Irish Literature Postmodernism
Tim Woods
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 August 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0048


“Postmodernism” has been a notoriously difficult term to define, and it has had a complicated history across various disciplines. Nevertheless, the idea largely emerged in the late 1950s in the humanities to indicate a sense that modernism had been superseded by a new cultural, aesthetic, and critical agenda. Some theorists have treated “postmodernism” as an epochal or historical term, while others have regarded it as an aesthetic or formal characteristic that is not limited to a particular era. Initially, it found its principal purchase in cultural philosophy, literature, architecture, art, and cultural theory, but it has subsequently affected and influenced debates across a wide range of disciplines, including international politics, psychology, law, history, sociology, and even town planning and medicine. As its concepts and ideas found purchase within intellectual debates, many saw in postmodernism an emancipation from the institutional straitjacketing of culture, while others, in turn, regarded postmodernism as an abandonment of social and intellectual responsibility that was symptomatic of a cultural decline with the ascendancy of late capitalism. Despite this wrangle over its political and ideological implications, in broad philosophical terms postmodernism tends to focus on reconceptualizing notions of subjectivity and gender, concepts of temporality, history, space, and place, and the relationships of power between races, ethnicities, and different cultural spheres of influence across global communities. The advent of postmodern thought has been a story of uneven development across various disciplines. This has meant that in certain disciplines where postmodern theory arrived early, there has been little recent theoretical development of postmodern ideas, while some disciplines have seen major theoretical discussions emerging since around 1990. However, since postmodernism has been around in intellectual debates since the 1960s, we have reached a stage where a history of postmodernism can now be written. Furthermore, it would be fair to say that more recently, across disciplines like literature, art, and history, the debate has switched from discussing the opportunities opened up by postmodern ideas to considerations of whether it has had its day and what its trajectory and future legacy to theoretical and cultural concerns might be.

General Overviews and Reference

The difficulties in unraveling the nuances and explaining the refinements of the concept of postmodernism have led to numerous attempts to illuminate the term. Ranging between approving and fiercely skeptical tones, such introductory books are nevertheless useful springboards for diving into more detailed investigations. Appignanesi and Garratt 1995 is part of a longstanding series that seeks to offer cultural explanations through the medium of the cartoon and is very accessible for that reason. Silverman 1990 and Tester 1993 offer sets of essays on the impact that postmodernism has had on a variety of disciplines. Although most of the overviews are introductory by nature, Taylor and Winquist 1998 seeks to provide a thorough coverage of the different fields influenced by postmodernism, stretching to four volumes of extracts, manifestos, and key essays. Generally, these books are best read in conjunction with others, and Taylor and Winquist 2001 is a very helpful short-entry companion that can act as a supplementary aide to most overviews on the subject. One major source of research discussion that has rapidly become the standard journal for the cultural concept is Postmodern Culture, whose very digital medium facilitates debates about the innovative formal and experimental styles of postmodern literature and culture. Madsen 1995 and McCaffery 1986 between them provide excellent specialist bibliographical sources to support the bibliographies found in most reference books and general introductions.

  • Appignanesi, Richard, and Chris Garratt. Postmodernism for Beginners. Cambridge, UK: Icon, 1995.

    Offering the series’ familiar cartoon-style approach to intellectual concepts and ideas, this book covers postmodernism across art, theory, and history in an approachable and humorous fashion.

  • Madsen, Deborah. Postmodernism: A Bibliography, 1926–1994. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004647282

    An exhaustive bibliographical list of articles and books that engage with postmodernism.

  • McCaffery, Larry, ed. Postmodern Fiction: A Bio-bibliographical Guide. Westwood, CT: Greenwood, 1986.

    The scope of the work is broad, with European and Latin American influences well represented. Recommended for research that emphasizes fiction of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

  • Postmodern Culture. 1990–.

    Postmodern Culture has become the leading electronic journal of interdisciplinary thought on contemporary cultures. As an entirely web-based journal, PMC publishes still images, sound, animation, and full-motion video as well as text.

  • Silverman, Hugh J., ed. Postmodernism: Philosophy and the Arts. New York: Routledge, 1990.

    A range of readable essays, in which the first part raises general theoretical questions about the language and politics of postmodernism, and the second part focuses on some particular “sites”—architecture, painting, literature, theater, photography, film, television, dance, fashion. Contains a helpful bibliography of books, articles, and journals on postmodernism.

  • Taylor, Victor E., and Charles E. Winquist, eds. Postmodernism: Critical Concepts. 4 vols. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

    Seeking exhaustive coverage of the whole range of the humanities and some social sciences, this is a monumental multivolume collection of key essays and theorists. The four volumes are organized into “Foundational Essays,” “Critical Texts,” “Disciplinary Texts: Humanities and Social Sciences,” and “Legal Studies, Psychoanalytic Studies, Visual Arts and Architecture.”

  • Taylor, Victor E., and Charles E. Winquist, eds. Encyclopedia of Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 2001.

    Organized alphabetically, this is a thorough coverage of the ideas that led up to postmodernism, its key concepts, key theorists, major works, and targeted supplementary reading lists. Written in dictionary-style short entries, it is also helpfully cross-referenced.

  • Tester, Keith. The Life and Times of Postmodernity. London: Routledge, 1993.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203216989

    This book offers an introductory albeit skeptical appraisal of postmodernism as a “great transformation.” It regards postmodernism as a reflection of the problems of modernism, focusing on issues of identity, nostalgia, technology, responsibility, and the other.

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