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Period concepts are moving targets, elusive and malleable, none more so than “postmodernism.” When did postmodernism begin (if it ever did), and has it ended yet? Is there a postmodern period style, and if so, what are its features? Is it a specifically aesthetic category, or does it apply to culture and society generally? These and other questions remain literally debatable and unresolved, perhaps unresolvable. Postmodernism has been characterized a multitude of ways, some compatible with each other, others not. No matter how it is characterized, however, the fiction of Thomas Pynchon appears to be universally regarded as central to its canon. For instance, on the first page of his landmark essay on postmodernism, Fredric Jameson includes Pynchon – inevitably, it would seem – on his shortlist of exemplary postmodernists, alongside Andy Warhol, John Cage, Phillip Glass, William Burroughs, Ishmael Reed, the French nouveaux romanciers and others. Indeed, so ubiquitous is Pynchon in the discourses about postmodernism that we might go so far as to say, not that postmodern theory depends on Pynchon's fiction for exemplification, but that, without Pynchon's fiction, there might never have been such a pressing need to develop a theory of literary postmodernism in the first place.
Among the many theories of postmodernism, a few have come to seem indispensable, not because they are incontestable or uncontroversial, but because they empower us to frame useful working hypotheses about specific texts, genres and aesthetic or cultural practices. Adapting a distinction developed in modernist studies, we might differentiate between theories of postmodernism – the aesthetic forms and practices of the postmodern period – and theories of postmodernity – the historical and cultural conditions that presumably gave rise to those forms and practices.
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