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Bouguerra and Djamai 1

Chahinez Bouguerra and Abd Elkader Djamai

Supervisor: Ms Meriem Chebel


22 April 2018

Postmodern Literature and the Question of Dehumanization in Dystopia: From the

Optimistic Old to the Pessimistic Novelty

As defined by Brian Duignan, Postmodernism, also spelled post-modernism, in

Western philosophy, is a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad scepticism,

rejection, particularly the rejection of cultural progress, subjectivism, or relativism, a general

suspicion of reason, and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and

maintaining political and economic power. It emerged as a direct response to, and departure

from, the modernist themes that were first articulated during the Enlightenment. The term

‘postmodernism’ describes not only the era following modernism but also the set of ideas and

concepts that appear in a wide range of disciplines, such as: architecture, music, literature, art,

technology, communications, and so many others. The exact date or event that has sparked

this movement is quite unclear and hard to detect as plenty have been suggested by different

figures. The closest date to be accurate is by the end of World War II in 1945 (Shmoop

Editorial Team)

Postmodernism had based its own concepts on the scepticism of other philosophical

and scientific viewpoints. Sims validates this idea in the introduction of his book, the

Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, and says, “To move from the modern to the

postmodern is to embrace scepticism about what our culture stands for and strives for.” (vii) It

is difficult for anyone to understand postmodernism. To define it, one would inevitably fall
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into a paradoxical dilemma because its own concepts and principals are not safe and are under

the scope of its scepticism. Postmodernists believe that reality is conceptual and is a result of

scientific practice, social and historical backdrops, and individual perception of the ‘truth’

Thus, there are no certain or definite facts. This rejects the modernist concept of having a

natural and objective reality unaffected by human beings.

Postmodern literature and postmodernism are much like in the sense that it is a

daunting task to provide a universal definition for either. This is due to the fact that the latter

is largely characterized by a state of skepticism which makes it hard to define what literature

can be approached as postmodern and what cannot. But generally, postmodern literature

presents a depiction of the postmodern life and culture through a heavy reliance on specific

narrative techniques, such as fragmentation, paradox, and the unreliable narrator. Writers of

this era, who are seen as reacting against the tenets of modernism, are highly inspired by

numerous past works as they often:

point to early novels and story collections as inspiration for their experiments

with narrative and structure: Don Quixote, 1001 Arabian Nights, The

Decameron, and Candide, among many others. In the English language,

Laurence Sterne's 1759 novel The Life and Opinions of TristramShandy,

Gentleman, with its heavy emphasis on parody and narrative experimentation,

is often cited as an early influence on postmodernism. There were many 19th

century examples of attacks on Enlightenment concepts, parody, and

playfulness in literature, including Lord Byron's satire, especially Don Juan;

Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus; Alfred Jarry's ribald Ubu parodies and his

invention of 'Pataphysics; Lewis Carroll's playful experiments with

signification; the work of IsidoreDucasse, Arthur Rimbaud, Oscar Wilde.

(Charman and chaudhary 189-90)

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Furthermore, in postmodern literature, having an original and authentic work is not as

imposed and necessary as in the precedent eras. This is not done for the sake of claiming to be

new, but rather to make use of the old literary forms, allusions, genres, and old literature that

is facing ‘an exhaustion’, according to John barth’s essay “The Literature of Exhaustion.”

This would help bring out a new creative meaning that is totally different from what is known.

Using this would also clarify the distinction between the old and current styles of presenting

reality. Postmodern literature manifests itself through the smart use of various features and

techniques in literary works.

One of the most dominant devices in postmodern literary works is metafiction. The

latter represents a major example of the self-awareness touch we usually find in postmodern

works as it is about the text referring to itself and the principals of its making. The use of

metafictional elements points out the fiction’s fictionality as “metafiction is 100% aware of

the fact that it's fiction. Some literature may try to be naturalistic or realistic, but

postmodernism doesn't hide what it is. In fact, it flaunts it.” (Shmoop Editorial Team)

When wanting to employ metafiction in a literary work, the author would have two options in

doing so, either to use a direct addressing to the audience, or to use the numerous techniques

available, such as parody, allusion, quotation, paraphrasing, and so many others.

Another significant aspect of postmodern literature is intertextuality which beholds a

slight connection to metafiction. For postmodern writers, it is clear that texts do not occur in

isolation, but rather, they are the product of old existing ones used in different cultural

contexts. The idea of texts being connected undermines the concept of authorship. Roland

Barthes summed this up when he defined the text as “a multidimensional space in which a

variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.” (146) The relation between the

old texts and the new ones is what came to be known as intertextuality (coined by Julia
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Kristeva in 1966). This link between the texts is highlighted through the use of direct

references, quotes, and other techniques such as pastiche that is used to celebrate and the

works which are being followed as a model (usually to deliver a message about the themes

used in the works).

A distinctive reoccurring theme of postmodern literature is paranoia, and representing

the world as a paranoiac, unstable place. The paranoid anxieties were reflected in postmodern

literature through the “the distrust of fixity, of being circumscribed to any one particular place

or identity, the conviction that society is conspiring against the individual, and the

multiplication of self-made plots to scheming of others.” (Sim 130) Postmodernism flourished

during the mid-twentieth century in which technology and the media were developing at a

high rate. This played a factor, beside the cold war, in scaring people as they were left

powerless and hunted by their visions of conspiracy of the system in which a protagonist of a

novel must fight. Besides that, the idea of having no control over their lives, and the order

being imposed on the world, was enough reason to horrify postmodern writers.

A prevalent theme in postmodern literature is Irony. The sense of everything has been

done has urged postmodernists to approach serious topics such as death in an ironic and

cynical way. In order to form a clear idea about irony in postmodernism, one must turn

backward to the circumstances which led to the birth of postmodernism itself. World War II

and its horrors have claimed millions of souls all around the globe. The absurd is arguably the

most accurate description of the outcome. Postmodern minds regard such grand tragedies and

many other events, concepts, and usually morose situations, as a subject of irony and

cynicism. Irony is employed in literature for a humorous and comical effect which drives us

to speak of black humour and the playful view in postmodern literature. In their use of black

humour, postmodernist writers take serious subjects and implement a comic effect throughout

the narration;
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Indeed, much of the use of irony in the work of Joseph Heller (who

was initially called a black humorist, and only later labeled postmodernist)

iscolored toward comic effects. In addition to being illustrative of irony,

his novel Catch-22 also provides a good example of humor, black (or dark)

humor notably, since it includes playfulness in a plot with an otherwise

humorless subject. The prevailingly tragic themes, such as the Second

WorldWar, battle injuries and death are for the most part treated humorously.

(Knežević 240)

It was inevitable for technology to infiltrate all aspects of human life. Literature was

no exception as society and human beings became excessively reliant on technology, from the

simplest everyday tasks to the large-scale practices. The overwhelming advancement and the

incessant presence of technology, along with some elements of paranoia, are vastly

incorporated in postmodern literature as one theme, which is technoculture. The theme of

technoculture is apparent in dystopian postmodern works to convey a cautionary depiction of

a ruined and devastated state of society and the world.

Many authors of the postmodern age have used science fiction techniques to

address aspects of social life that were continuously being affected by the

excessive use of technology. Anti-utopian/ apocalyptic or dystopian themes

surfaced more after the World Wars ended, and people in general started losing

hope in the progress of civilization. For example Don DeLillo’sWhite Noise

(1985) is a satirical novel which talks about T.V sets, rampant consumerism,

media saturation, disintegration of families and disasters that human-made

technology can cause. (Anwar 1-2)

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Hyperreality is a notion that has become frequently associated with postmodernism. It

is a sign that refers to something that does not really exist. Hyperreality was coined by Jean

Baudrillard in his book Simulacra and Simulation, in which he theorises that hyperreality is a

situation where reality has been replaced by its signifier.

... Reality itself founders in hyperrealism, the meticulous reduplication of the

real, preferably through another, reproductive medium, such as photography.

From medium to medium, the real is volatilized, becoming an allegory of

death. But it is also, in a sense, reinforced through its own destruction it

becomes a reality for its own... (Baudrillard 1018)

It is clear that the notion of the absence of the physical reality in hyperreality complies with

the postmodern concept of having no absolute truth or certainty in facts and even reality.

Thus, hyperrealism happens to be a prominent theme in postmodern writings.

Magic realism is another literary genre and a narrative strategy used in postmodern

literature which implements an element of the supernatural and fantasy that can only be

explained through magic into a realistic setting. It shares many similarities with concepts of

postmodern writings such as metafiction, discontinuity, and parody. It is worth the mention

that many postmodern writers such as Thomas Bernhard, Angela Carter, ItaloClvino,and John

Banville, can be categorized as magic realists. Theo D’haen, the Belgian critic, had

commented on Richard Todd’s essay "Convention and Innovation in British Fiction 1981-

1984" by saying "he sees these novels [Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus, Salman

Rushdie's Shame, and D.M. Thomas's The White Hotel] as achieving their magic realist

program by way of the very same techniques usually singled out as marking postmodernism."

(D’haen 5)
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All in all, postmodern literature utilizes the different techniques to react to modernist

styles and concepts in a parodying manner to provide an interesting view on subjects that have

been handled in the past. Also, it reflects the cultural and social tendencies of society both

high and low while also drawing a futuristic and pessimistic vision of the world. Postmodern

literature is the application of postmodern principals in writings which had and still are

blessing us with some of the greatest pieces of literature.

Have you ever wished to be a part of what is known as a ‘utopian society’? That is, for

people, to live in the most perfect conditions and harmony possible “in which all need and

want have been removed and conflict is eliminated” (Lee 35) surrounding all aspects. It

represents a paradise of some sort. But as the literal meaning of the term Utopia denotes, it is

nothing but an illusion for such ideals to exist. Regardless of this fact, people never cease to

strive for it. With the latest achievements in technology, and aspects needed for a better and

easy way of living, life has actually started to improve at an unexpected rate. This was a

turning point for people as they started to believe that all what has threatened their life before

has no longer become a big of a deal. Medicine has improved and many illnesses are

becoming curable. Life conditions have started changing to the better. A realization of the

long awaited utopian dream would start taking place on earth. Little is it known that this path

would be leading the way to the polar opposite of the fictional utopia, a dystopia. That is

explained as “imaginary worlds in which the worst of all possible social conditions pertains.”

(Lee 35) This would be due to technology taking over, not as the science fiction dream of

healing diseases and fixing the world’s problem, but as a tool to observe and control people.

So instead of taking them out of their misery, technology would actually make it worse.

People’s main concern would soon become the survival from the nightmarish world and the

oppression imposed on them by the mind-controlling propaganda.

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In this new imperfect world, where inequality would prevail, and ethics and human morals

would disappear, a major characteristic of the dystopian society would become clear. That is

individuals getting stripped of their own humanity. This dehumanization is the result of the

strong wanting to feed on the weak, for they are psychologically convinced that the latter are

subhuman. Besides that, the conditions the world would have reached would put the power in

the hands of the wrong people. And as Sir John Acton best explained it when he states that,

“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” As defined by Merriam-

Webster online dictionary, dehumanize is “to deprive of human qualities, personality, or

spirit.” These qualities are what constitute the person’s ‘humanness’ which is, according to

Kelman Herbert, divided into two major features. The first is one’s right to have an identity of

their own, to be free and independent in making personal choices. The second feature lies

within the fact of being integrated in a society where mutual respect and care exists among

people (48-52). The results of such dehumanization would make people live in constant

oppression and fear for their lives. They would lose their identity in favor of the powerful

ones among them.

In conclusion, human’s dissatisfaction with their lives and their constant aspiration for

a world of fantasy and perfection, may lead them to horrific consequences. The chances of

their dreams being realized are as narrow as having a coin dropped facing the wanted side.

Only in this case, the two faces of the coin are either a world of utopia, or a dystopia. There is

no in-between. Due to this, people may end up shocked by “the contrast between their bright

hopes and grim realities.” (Rodden 136) that would strip them of their valuable possessions,

and most importantly, the right to be a human, with all what the word carries in meaning.

Literature reflects what is under the sun as much as a mirror reflects every object that

a light falls on. Following this logic, “The wildest fantasies of science fiction writers have a

way of becoming scientific fact” (Anwar 246). Among these wildest fantasies is having the
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world close to a nightmarish state where everything seems to be unpleasant. This has led to

the emergence of dystopian fiction which is a genre that illustrates a speculative vision on

society, usually but not necessarily, set in a post-apocalyptic world. Dystopian novels present

elements of dissolution of both society and the individual identity of humans, and

dehumanization. The latter is largely manifested, in stories, through the use of protagonists

whose humanness and normal life are stolen due to the hopeless state they live in. Dystopian

fiction is considered to be a parodying reaction to utopian fiction, a genre that traces back to

the late 16th century until the mid-20th century which depicts the world in a problem-free state

where no wars, poverty, or issues of any sort take place. It is worth the mention that dystopian

fiction became highly associated with postmodern literature as it gained a larger exposure

during the postmodern movement rise to dominance in literature, mainly because they share

similar pessimistic and sceptical viewpoints on society as well as reflecting the current issues

in an intense and more dismal description. It is not an exaggeration to state that both

postmodern literature and dystopian fiction come from a similar, if not an identical mind-set.

The interrelation of both is noticeable in the works that defined both genres by the second half

of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century.

Among these works is 1984, a dystopian novel published in 1949 by the English

author George Orwell. During the reign of postmodern writing, 1984 had reinforced the

postmodern attachment to the future as it is often a reoccurring theme in postmodern works of

literature. The story is set in Oceania, one of three separate ‘Superstates’ in a post-war yet still

conflicting world. A profound observation is unnecessary to conclude that the dystopian novel

shares a similar vision of the future to that of postmodern literature, a pessimistic vision of

war, lack of individualism, and dehumanization. The ‘Superstate’ is ruled by a totalitarian

government named ‘the Party’. The protagonist is Winston Smith, an outer party official, who

discovers that the government is constantly altering the truth about history. He is faced with
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the dilemma of separating the truth from falsehood since “who controls the past…controls the

future, who controls the present controls the past” (Orwell 37). This highlights the concept of

instability of reality and truth that the postmodernist movement built itself upon.

Dehumanization appears clearly in the novel. The Party criminalizes thought and any sort of

original creativity or will. The Party also dictates the citizens’ feelings and demeanours

through law, violence, and surveillance as it obligates them to show constant spurious

satisfaction and optimism toward the policies undertaken. Dehumanization is exhibited in this

case, for the citizens are deprived from the freedom of thought and will as they gradually lose

their humane characteristics to become more like machines and less like humans. Elements

that characterise postmodern literature such as lost, loneliness, and isolation are present in

1984 and perhaps most noticeably through the tragic ending of the story. Winston Smith, the

protagonist, is psychologically tortured to believe in the Party’s ideals and that his real

memories are false with the passage under announcing the psychological death of the


He was not cheering any longer. He was back in the Ministry of Love, with everything

forgiven, his soul white as snow. He was in the public dock, confessing everything,

implicating everybody. He was walking down the white-tiled corridor, with the feeling

of walking in sunlight, and an armed guard at his back. The long-hoped-for bullet was

entering his brain. (Orwell 375)

Orwell’s 1984 was a reflection of the current issues at the time. It served as a warning

from totalitarian policies rather than a prophetic vision on the world’s outcome. It also

illustrated the postmodern dystopian novel beautifully and adequately.

Among the widely known dystopian literature of today is Suzanne Collins’ series, The

Hunger Games. It is a young adult kind of series (after the success of 1993’s the Giver by

Lois Lowry, dystopian literature aimed more at the young adult audience rather than the adult)
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whose settings depicts a dystopian society, Panem, mainly through the use of a controlling

and oppressive government known as the Capital. In the story, the elements of dystopia

manifest themselves in the way inhabitants of Panem, which is divided into thirteen districts,

are oppressed and ruled majorly by the use of force and the implementation of fear. Besides

that, the freedom of thought and will are highly absent in the story. These people, who are

obliged to work in the favor of the Capital, suffer from an extreme financial crisis in addition

to being put under the scrutiny of ‘Peacekeepers’ whose work is to maintain order and make

sure that no word is said about the totalitarian government. Another major characteristic of

dystopia portrayed in this work is the way people, mainly children, are dehumanized. Their

lives are considered to be worthless and forgettable as they are annually forced to be taken as

tributes and participate in what is known as ‘The Games. The latter is assumed to be a way

put by the government to celebrate the absence of war, but, in fact, the last thing these games

depict is a celebration. Rather, they represent a battle of survival between the tributes only for

the entertainment of the powerful Capital. This displays an example about how absolute

power can be blinding and helps get rid of all the morality and ethics that once gave sense of

the equality that should be present among human beings. Thus, it is safe to say that “the

Hunger Games is a prime example of contemporary dystopian fiction in the young adult

genre” (Stoner 1).

In conclusion, the dystopian genre of literature, which derives from its utopian

counterpart, has evolved through time to become among the prevailing devices in the

postmodern age as well as becoming many people’s favorite kind of read. As any other

literary device, Dystopia, which is easily recognized in the literary works, is used to deliver a

message to the audience. Writers of dystopia use it in a smart fictional manner to discuss the

problems of reality as they seek to educate and increase awareness of the hearing. Dystopian

fiction also serves as a warning about the affairs of the government as well as a tool to express
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the concerns about the issues concerning humanity and society (Literary Devices Editors).

These functions have positively affected the dystopian genre overall, from setting its pillars as

an established genre to popularizing it, as works of dystopia continuously secure positions in

the rankings of the bestselling novels. Besides that, it is worthy to note that nowadays

dystopian literature is highly dedicated to the young adult audience due to the decreasing

focus on the political commentary, that was once the majority’s main concern, and the

increasing focus on the concept of self-identity. (Stoner 25)

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International Journal of Language and Literature 4.1 (2016) :246-249. Print.

---. "Technoculture and Postmodernism: An Analysis of Bradbury's Selected Short

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