Telling Stories in the Wake of Postmodernism

by Jonathan Wood

1. The post-postmodern world

The modern age, with all its dreams of utopia and Enlightenment ideals, came to a crashing halt in the first half of this century, buried under the bodies of a generation lost fighting both for and against totalitarianism and fascism. With two world wars within forty years, it was all too clear that the projects started three and a half centuries before had failed. The scientific method was not flawless, our rational thoughts were undone by our subconscious, utopia remained inaccessible. In recognition of this, the postmodern age was born.

As modernism marked the last gasp of the modern age, so postmodernism has marked the debut of the postmodern one. Its hallmarks have been: our recognition that the great meta-narratives that shaped the previous epoch (most notably the myth that as time passes humanity progresses) are false; that objectivism is unattainable; and that we are forever trapped in our own contexts, unable to escape our own histories. No longer could science, religion, nor philosophy pretend to offer up an all-encompassing solution to life's woes. Each, instead, became just one potential narrative, one potential truth. At best, universalism was viewed with nostalgia, at worst with horror. As the literary critic Terry Eaglton said at the beginning of the postmodern age:

We are now in the process of wakening from the nightmare of modernity, with its manipulative reason and fetish of the totality, into the laid-back pluralism of the postmodern, that heterogeneous range of life-styles and language games which has renounced the nostalgic urge to totalize and legitimate itself . . . . Science and philosophy must jettison their grandiose metaphysical claims and view themselves more modestly as just another set of narratives.1

The great thinkers of postmodernism have gone even further. They have shown that no text, no attempt to discover the underlying truths of the universe, can achieve its goal. Any intended meaning in a text is lost in internal contradictions, in the self-referential echoes that confound the telling of truths. And, indeed, no objective truth is even attainable because no such thing can truly exist. One man's utopia is another man's hell. Relativism reigns supreme.

This situation is indeed a significant improvement on what came before. We have at least diagnosed the ailments of modernity. And yet postmodernism (not to be confused with postmodernity, or the postmodern age, just as modernism is not to be confused with modernity or the modern age) has failed to provide a solution to these problems. As Gary Brent Madison says, after everything has been deconstructed, dismantled, rendered into its (apparently) nonsensical parts:

[A]ll that remains is the ultimately meaningless play of words which refer not in any way to "reality" but only to more and more other words, in an endless drift, deferral, or dissemination of undecidable meaning (différance), words without end, an abyssmal labyrinth in which we are forever condemned to wander aimlessly about.2

Essentially we are left with nihilism. It may be playful nihilism, nihilism with a sense of humor, but it is nihilism all the same.

Since the mid-nineties, philosophers have been ringing the death knell of postmodernism. As Alan Kirby points out in his essay, "The Death of Postmodernism And Beyond," anyone born after 1980 was born after the majority of the great postmodern texts were written. Now he sees postmodernism limited to "children's cartoons like Shrek and The Incredibles, as a sop to parents obliged to sit through them with their toddlers."3 In its wake, he sees rising an aesthetic he labels pseudo-modernism. Kirby states that the hallmark of texts that arise as a product of pseudo-modernism is audience participation:

Postmodernism conceived of contemporary culture as a spectacle before which the individual sat powerless, and within which questions of the real were problematised. It therefore emphasised the television or the cinema screen. Its successor [...] makes the individual's action the necessary condition of the cultural product.4

He goes on to give examples such as the TV show Big Brother (which relies on audience voting to generate future content in the form of eliminations), contemporary news shows (whose content is heavily dependent on viewer emails and text messages), and computer games (which require player input if anything is ever to be achieved). The apotheosis of this aesthetic is, though, the internet, with each "individual clicking on his/her mouse to move through pages in a way which cannot be duplicated, inventing a pathway through cultural products which has never existed before and never will again."5

Kirby is not, however, a great supporter of these new products. Rather he sees them as vacuous distractions that die sad, empty deaths once the moment has passed, once the audience can no longer interact. He sees the ideology behind these products as reflecting "ignorance, fanaticism and anxiety: Bush, Blair, Bin Laden, Le Pen and their like on one side, and the more numerous but less powerful masses on the other."6 The end result of this is that:

This pseudo-modern world, so frightening and seemingly uncontrollable, inevitably feeds a desire to return to the infantile playing with toys which also characterises the pseudo-modern cultural world. Here, the typical emotional state, radically superseding the hyper-consciousness of irony, is the trance—the state of being swallowed up by your activity. In place of the neurosis of modernism and the narcissism of postmodernism, pseudo-modernism takes the world away, by creating a new weightless nowhere of silent autism.7

There are certainly merits to Kirby's argument. In the wake of 9/11 it does seem that there was a cultural slip, motivated by fear, back towards the certainties of modernism. But, had postmodernism managed to offer an alternative to the salve of modernism, maybe this slide towards false utopian promises and supposedly infallible ideologies could have been avoided.

This situation however, appears to be changing. The current disastrous war(s) in the Middle East, the collapsing U.S. economy, rocketing fuel prices—all these indicators point to the fact that modernism has once more proved itself incapable of adapting itself to the world such as it is. There is an increasingly wide realization that a new solution is necessary. And yet still the question remains: what is that solution? Kirby, along with the other Postmodernists, has none to give.

A more fruitful strand of thought presents itself under the label of New Sincerity. In the words of Jesse Thorn, one of its foremost proponents: "Think of it as irony and sincerity combined like Voltron, to form a new movement of astonishing power. Or think of it as the absence of irony and sincerity, where less is (obviously) more."8 In New Sincerity, admirable/sincere Enlightenment goals—the search for Utopia, the desire for equality between all—can once more be undertaken, and yet at the same time it is recognized that achieving these goals is fraught with danger. Postmodernism (shorthanded here as irony) has sign-posted the pitfalls, and it is now the task of a new generation to pick a path between them. Yet, as positive as this sentiment is, and as much as it points society once more towards worthy goals, proponents of New Sincerity are vague on how best these goals are to be achieved (other than Jesse Thorn's excellent yet ultimately dissatisfying advice to "be more awesome."9).

So once more we return to the philosophical void, the void which threatens to turn post-postmodernism into pseudo-modernism. We are unable to find a "true" answer to the problems of modernity, because, as the postmodernists have pointed out, there is no such thing as "truth."

And yet there is a problem in this last statement, an inherent contradiction. The problem lurks in the definition of the word "truth." Gary Brent Madison skewers this problem neatly in his essay, "Coping with Nietzsche's Legacy: Rorty, Derrida, Gadamer":

If Derrida rejects the notion of truth altogether, it is because . . . he equates truth with representation. [The philosopher] Gadamer breaks with this understanding of truth and proposes a quite different, genuinely postmodern conception of truth. Truth is not something simply to be discovered ("represented") but something to be made—through the exercise of communicative rationality.10

In other words, the definition of truth used by postmodernists, such as Derrida, is essentially a modernist one. A truly postmodern conception of truth is one that recognizes that truth is momentary, incomplete, and constantly under revision. But this momentary truth is no less true for that. Problems only arise when we fail to recognize that what is true is only true for that moment. As long as we are constantly revising our notion of truth, are always open to updating it with newly acquired information, then we can progress in this world. Here the skepticism of postmodernism meets the optimism of modernism and a route between the pitfalls finally begins to appear.

This approach to the world and what it offers has been dubbed (rather unfortunately) phenomenological hermeneutics. It assumes, as postmodernism does, that we approach a text with a certain set of cultural and historical biases. It also asks, as postmodernism does, that we recognize that we have these biases. Yet in phenomenological hermeneutics there is the recognition that these biases are essential for us to gain even a rudimentary understanding of the text. What's more, it recognizes that as we read/view/hear the text, we must also be open to revising our biases, and as we revise these biases, we also revise our understanding of the text, which in turn further affects our biases and so on and so forth in constant, ever-evolving dialog.

Thus, while an objective utopia can never actually be achieved, the search for that utopia is not fruitless. For along the way temporary, relative utopias can be achieved. And, as long as those searching for utopia realize that their utopia is subjective, that it will need constant revision, the gap between subjective and objective utopia, while it cannot be overcome, can be narrowed.

2. Telling stories in a post-postmodern world

How can this understanding of the world, this concept of truth evolving in a dialog, be applied to the world of fiction? The key lies back with Kirby and his identification of the new media that marks the post-postmodern age. Big Brother, contemporary news shows, video games—they all exist in a dialog with their audience. The end product of these texts, their ultimate "truth" is (in part) determined by the input of the audience. And the reason for the success of shows such as Big Brother or American Idol is that the audience feels empowered in creating the show's climax, in creating its highs and lows. The reason the video game industry is set to eclipse the movie industry is because players are able to be invest themselves in the actions of their on-screen homunculi, as they themselves are responsible for those actions.

Of course, video games and reality television shows have not truly provided the cultural highlights of the past two decades, but that does not mean that these nascent forms cannot be expanded from their basic tenets. Indeed, several art forms that have appeared in the past two decades have begun to do exactly that.

The first of these forms is hypertext. At its most basic level, hypertext consists of a series of pages connected via links. The method of linking can vary. It can be strictly linear as is often the case when traditional texts are converted into an on-line format. However, linear texts do not achieve the dialogic evolution of narrative truth that best expresses our current situation in the world. It is when narrative fractures, becomes non-linear, when the reader picks their own path through the text that hypertexts start to lend themselves towards the model offered by phenomenological hermeneutics. Then, as Sergio Cicconi put it in his essay, "The Shaping of Hypertextual Narrative":

[T]he events of a narrative cell are not left behind once the reader jumps to a new cell. The consequences of an event are kept in the characters' memory and are moreover used to modify the plot. . . . Such references to other narrative cells are chronologically, spatially or logically either subsequent or preceding; moreover, at times, they are references to passages of the story already read, but that gain new meaning, given the fact that once one goes back to a passage already encountered, unavoidably one knows elements of the story that could have not been known at a first reading.11

In other words, the process of reading hypertext directly mirrors the idea that the truth of a text is under constant revision and, in many ways, is an exemplary mode of expression in this post-postmodern period.

Hypertext is, of course, not without its limitations. It is restricted to the Internet, which is not a medium that lends itself to lengthy works of art. It is rare that a reader will read more than a few pages in any one sitting, and there is ever the problem of remunerating artists producing internet-based texts, a problem that may dissuade some authors from experimenting with the form. Still, as we are more and more connected to the world wide web, the more opportunities readers have to connect with these texts and discover their pleasures.

A second art form that lends itself to expressing/reflecting a post-postmodern worldview is interactive fiction. Interactive fiction bridges the gap between video game and novel by conveying all its information in a textual manner, yet it relies upon user-input to generate its content. By entering commands, the reader shapes the actions of the narrative within a framework provided by the author. An exemplar of this medium is Slouching Towards Bedlam by Daniel Ravipinto and Star Foster. Here two different set of commands entered by the reader can (and almost certainly will) lead to two completely different sets of experience. These different experiences subsequently effect the final actions of the reader, which can lead to radically different endings. Here then, again, the "truth" of the work is negotiated between reader and author.

While it too is limited in its accessibility due to its electronic format, interactive fiction, by creating a dialog between reader/player and author/designer, empowers the former to bring and draw meaning from the text. The reader's investment in the narrative and their identification with the characters in increased immeasurably.

Of the more popular mediums, video games, while lagging behind hypertext and interactive fiction in their current level of storytelling, do perhaps show the most promise for adapting the lessons of these two less accessible mediums to a broader audience. The award-winning game Bioshock, with its references to Ayn Rand and Dostoevsky, has already proven that video games are no by necessity intellectually bankrupt. Now developers such as Bioware and Bethesda Softworks are creating games that feature large, open worlds where self-directed exploration leads players/readers encountering story elements in a unique order that they themselves are partly responsible for creating. What is more, the order in which story elements are encountered affects the manner in which the player handles that encounter and both what they experience and how they experience it later on, producing myriad possibilities. Provided with this ability to so strongly influence the narratives of a video game, players can experience moments of emotional (if not intellectual) profundity.

At the current level of development, players are still not entirely free, and subplots are frequently more malleable than more linear main plots, yet the seeds for an entirely dialogic text have been sown. The potential merely has to be unlocked. And it is potential well worth unlocking, for the reward of dialogic narratives is not simply greater emotional involvement on the part of reader/player. It is something far greater. For, by allowing readers to negotiate their own imperfect endings, these narratives provide those readers with lessons that can be applied outside of the text's safe framework and in the real world itself. These texts equip readers with the tools to enter a larger dialog and to start negotiating a path away from pseudo-modernism and rather towards a better, albeit temporary, utopia.


1 Terry Eaglton, "Awakening from modernity." Times Literary Supplement, 20 February 1987 (quoted in Harvey, op cit). [back]

2 Garry Bren Madison, "Coping with Nietzsche's Legacy: Rorty, Derrida, Gadamer." The Focusing Institute. 2003. [back]

3 Alan Kirby, "The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond." Philosophy Now. 2006. [back]

4 Ibid. [back]

5 Ibid. [back]

6 Ibid. [back]

7 Ibid. [back]

8 Jesse Thorn. "A Manifesto for the New Sincerity." The Sound of Young America. February 17, 2006. [back]

9 Ibid. [back]

10 Garry Brent Madison, "Coping with Nietzsche's Legacy: Rorty, Derrida, Gadamer." The Focusing Institute. 2003. [back]

11 Sergio Cicconi. "The Shaping of Hypertextual Narrative." Essays on hypertext theory and hyperfiction. 2000. [back]

Jonathan Wood is an Englishman in New York. He writes odd little things that show up in odd little places, including Weird Tales, Chizine, Fantasy Magazine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He can be found on-line at