Postmodernism and Salman Rushdie

Term Paper 2004 17 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature




1. Postmodernism as a general phenomenon
1.1. A chronological categorization
1.2. Postmodernism as a western movement

2. The social circumstances that led to the postmodern movement
2.1. The Enlightenment
2.2. Social and cultural conscience

3. The specific features of postmodern literature
3.1. Fragmentation
3.2. Discontinuity and Deconstruction
3.3. Meta-narrative
3.4. Metafiction
3.5. Pastiche
3.6. Magic Realism.

4. Typical postmodern authors

5. Salman Rushdie
5.1. Life and Works
5.2.The Fatwa

6. The Writer Salman Rushdie
6.1. The postcolonial Writer
6.2. The postmodern Writer

7. Postmodern example Shame
7.1. Shame
7.2. Text




This essay deals with postmodernism and its different realizations of the term in literature and about one of the most recognizable authors of this period, Salman Rushdie. First of all, we would like to give a brief overview of the history of postmodernism, whereas we see that it is rather difficult to find a clear and satisfying definition of this expression. We try to name and shortly explain the main features of postmodern literature and to inform the reader about some of the most typical authors of this period. In the second part of this essay we want to clarify the referred attributes of postmodernism with the example of Salman Rushdie whose book Shame, or at least some passages of it, will be part of a closer analysis.

1. Postmodernism as a general phenomenon

Postmodernism is not only a literary phenomenon, but it is also a concept that appears in a wide variety of disciplines or areas of study, including art, music, fashion, film, architecture, sociology, communications, and technology. The Affix “post” within the term compels us to divide up into periods as it logically indicates a period that has to take place after Modernism, but it is usually interpreted as marking an abrupt break between the “before” and the “post”. With postmodernism, the break between “before” and “after” is posited quite radical, functioning as a subversion of modernism and structuralism.

1.1. A chronological categorization

It is difficult to locate postmodernism temporally or historically, because one cannot exactly pinpoint when modernism began to give way to postmodernism. While it is also rare to pin down the specific origins of any large cultural shift, it is fair to assume that postmodernism represents an accumulated disillusionment with the promises of the Enlightenment project and its progress of science, so central to modern thinking. Postmodernism was first identified as a theoretical discipline in the 1980s, but it traces its roots to the movements of structuralism and its counter-reaction, post-structuralism, mainly in the French-speaking intellectual community of the 1960s and 1970s. Structuralism is considered to be either the last stage of modernism or the immediate precursor of postmodernism. The great spokesman for structuralism in this period was the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss who argued that the patterns of human culture, from village architecture to premodern myths, had the subtle regularities of mathematical structures. The structuralists were often inspired by the successes of modern linguistics, first in using meaning to analyze the seemingly mathematical regularities of the sound systems of language by Roman Jakobson1, and later in Noam Chomsky’s2 use of transformations which is regarded as the heart of quasi-mathematical structuralism to illuminate regularities in syntactic rules. Culture, language, and thought were all to be brought at last into the modern fold of mathematically regular sciences. But despite his unintentional affinity to postmodernism, Noam Chomsky has also written strong refutations of deconstructionist and postmodern criticisms of science which elucidate what kind of bewildering and confusing effects postmodern literature sometimes has on the reader:

I have spent a lot of my life working on questions such as these, using the only methods I know of; those condemned here as “science,” “rationality,” “logic,” and so on. I therefore read the papers with some hope that they would help me “transcend” these limitations, or perhaps suggest an entirely different course. I'm afraid I was disappointed. Admittedly, that may be my own limitation. Quite regularly, “my eyes glaze over” when I read polysyllabic discourse on the themes of poststructuralism and postmodernism; what I understand is largely truism or error, but that is only a fraction of the total word count. True, there are lots of other things I don't understand: the articles in the current issues of math and physics journals, for example. But there is a difference. In the latter case, I know how to get to understand them, and have done so, in cases of particular interest to me; and I also know that people in these fields can explain the contents to me at my level, so that I can gain what (partial) understanding I may want. In contrast, no one seems to be able to explain to me why the latest post-this-and-that is (for the most part) other than truism, error, or gibberish, and I do not know how to proceed.3

1.2. Postmodernism as a western movement

Postmodernism has usually been understood as a phenomenon taking place primarily within Western countries. However, theorists have argued for the existence of non-Western national varieties such as Russian postmodernism as well as Japanese, Latin American, and other variants. In Western countries, postmodern culture is ubiquitous and permeates every aspect of our daily lives. Moreover, the twentieth century presented a great deal of targets for several lobby groups, and so the postmodern movement had and still has diverse political ramifications: its anti-ideological insights appear conducive to, and strongly associated with, the feminist movement, racial equality movements, homosexual rights movements, most forms of late twentieth century anarchism, even the peace movement and various hybrids of these in the current anti-globalisation movement. Unsurprisingly, none of these institutions entirely embraces all aspects of the postmodern movement, but reflect or, in true postmodern style, borrow from some of its core ideas.

2. The social circumstances that led to the postmodern movement

2.1. The Enlightenment

Before understanding literary postmodernism, one must first understand modernism and modernity, which themselves are not easy to define, by examining this phenomenon with the eyes of a sociologist. From the postmodern perspective, modernity was a continuation of the Enlightenment, a striving for unity, universality, certainty, and high-minded truths. These truths defined a widely-accepted boundary between what was the “centre” or “focus” of society and what was the “margin” or “periphery. The Enlightenment, and the historical period that it brought in, it can be argued, is characterised by three major features:

- Intellectually, there was the power of reason over ignorance;
- There was the power of order over disorder; and
- There was the power of science over superstition.

From a sociological view, these three features were regarded by many as universal values. It was believed that through these the old ruling classes with their outmoded ideas could be defeated. Modernity was “revolutionary” and in many respects the French Revolution of 1789 was the personification of these features. They heralded the advent of capitalism as a new mode of production and a transformation of the social order. These basic beliefs provided the basis upon which humanity was to be able to achieve progress. Instead of looking backwards to a “Golden Age”, enlightenment was now seen as possible in the present through the application of reason. It was through reason that enlightenment, the conceiving of infinite possibilities, would enable the emancipation of humanity to take place: emancipation from ignorance, poverty, insecurity and violence.

2.2. Social and cultural conscience

Until quite recently, there was a common belief that despite all the trials and tribulations suffered throughout the world, there was a general movement towards human emancipation. It was felt that society moved on. There were blips in this movement, and it was not smooth: wars and famines, natural and man-made disasters took place but they were usually overcome. Culturally, the growth and influence of the media whether it is the advertising industry, television or film has also led to tremendous changes in how people see the world. Many postmodernists would argue that image is everything, image is reality. Following their perception, Disneyland, MTV, Mc Donald’s would be real life. Put in very simple words: Real life is what we see on television, television becomes real life.

Another aspect that led to a broader social and political consciousness amongst postmodern authors and theorists was the fact that, after the end of World War II and with the beginning of the Cold War Conflict, the world lived under constant nuclear threat and, with the progression of modern industrialisation, a deteriorating geosphere. But at the same time globalisation ensured that the world had become a place of faster communication, mass mediated reality, a greater diversity of cultures and mores and of a consequent pluralism.

3. The specific features of postmodern literature

The exceptional qualities of postmodern literature are not always easy to distinguish from those of modern literature, but artistic and philosophical works of postmodernism tend to embrace fluid and multiple perspectives, eclecticism, irony, the breaking of barriers, the reversal of roles, and the conflation of opposites. Given a choice between two dichotomous ideals, works of postmodernism tend to emphasize the ideal that in modernism was considered subordinate or inferior. For example, works of postmodernism often favour matter over mind, machine over man, writing over speech, form over substance, surface over depth, feminine over masculine, derivative over original, kitsch over fine art, and localism over universalism. Thus, postmodernism can be characterised by a rejection of absolute truths and grand narratives explaining the progressive evolution of society. At the same time it has brought to the surface a multitude of different perspectives on society and an appreciation of different cultures. It has highlighted globalisation on the one hand and localisation on the other, the celebration of difference and the search for commonality.


1 Roman Jakobson, “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances.” In Fundamentals of Language. The Hague: Mouton, 1956.

“Linguistics and Poetics.” In Style in Language, edited by Thomas A. Sebeok. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1960.

2 Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1957.

Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1965.

3 www.chomsky.info/articles/1995----02.htm


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University of Hamburg – Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
Postmodernism Salman Rushdie



Title: Postmodernism and Salman Rushdie