Postmodern Use of Parody and Pastiche

Postmodern literature’s celebratory mode of experimentation found new impetus with the usage of parody and pastiche. While a parody imitates the manner, style or characteristics of a particular literary work/ genre/ author, and deflates the original by applying the imitation to a lowly or inappropriate subject, pastiche literally means to combine, or “paste” together, multiple elements. Pastiche, thus, can be seen as a representation of the chaotic, pluralistic, or information-drenched aspects of postmodern society. Both pastiche and parody, are intertextual in nature; Pastiche, in postmodern literature, is a homage to or a parody of past styles.

Pastiche can be a combination of multiple genres to create a unique narrative or to comment on situations in postmodernity. In novels, William S. Burroughs combines science fiction, detective fiction and westerns; Margaret Atwood combines science fiction and fairy tales; Umberto Eco combine’s detective fiction, fairy tales, and science fiction; Derek Pell relies on collage and noir detective, erotica, travel guides, and how-to manuals, and so on.

Though pastiche commonly refers to the mixing of genres, the work may include elements like metafiction and temporal distortion. Thomas Pynchon includes in his novels elements from detective fiction, science fiction, and war fiction; songs; pop culture references; well-known, obscure, and fictional history mixed together; real contemporary and historical figures (Mickey Rooney and Wernher Von Braun for example); a wide variety of welt-known, obscure and fictional cultures and concepts.

In Robert Coover‘s 1977 novel The Public Burning, Coover mixes historically inaccurate accounts of Richard Nixon interacting with historical figures and fictional characters such as Uncle Sam and Betty Crocker. Pastiche can also refer to compositional technique, for example the cut-up technique employed by William S Burroughs. Another example is BS Johnson‘s 1969 novel, The Unfortunates, which was released in a box with no binding so that readers could assemble it however they chose.

Fredric Jameson claimed that “the general effect of parody is, whether in sympathy or with malice, to cast ridicule.” For Jameson, pastiche or “black parody” is more significant with postmodernism, as the fragmentation of literature has eliminated “the very possibility of a linguistic norm, in terms of which one could ridicule private languages or idiosyncratic styles.” If there is no norm, then what he describes as the satiric impulse, must be absent, and the textual imitation exists without the necessary intention to produce humour. Thus, pastiche, according to Jameson, lacks the ulterior motive of parody, which is to inspire laughter in the reader.

Like Jameson, Linda Hutcheon seeks to differentiate between parody and pastiche, but as she has expanded the possibilities of parody, the split suggested by Jameson three years earlier is not sufficient. In her definition of the two forms, she agrees with Jameson that parody’s “ulterior motive” is lacking in the “empty realm of pastiche”, but separates them by claiming that “parody is transformational in its relationship to other texts; pastiche is imitative.” For Hutcheon, pastiche becomes parody, when the simulation is significantly changed from that which has been simulated. Linda Hutcheon indicates that “parody is unavoidable for postmodernism”, similarly, certain aspects of postmodernism are always present in works of parody. The intertextual nature of both parody and pastiche situates them firmly within the infinite text.

Pastiche is therefore a kind of permutation, a shuffling of generic and grammatical tics. The mere presence of pastiche in postmodernist writing is not in itself unique. The infancy of the novel form itself was marked by a succession of parodies, from Samuel Richardson to Laurence Sterne. Yet as John Barth points out in his essay The Literature of Exhaustion (1967) and its sequel The Literature of Replenishment (1980), there is certainly something peculiar and distinctive about the contemporary mania for impersonation.

Barth‘s earlier essay epitomizes a mood in the late 1960s, when critics such as Susan Sontag were busy greatly exaggerating rumours about the death of the novel. The traditional devices of fiction seemed clapped out, unable to capture the complexities of the electronic age. At first it was thought that Barth, by stressing the exhaustion of both realism and modernism, had not only joined the novel’s funeral procession, but was volunteering to be chief pall-bearer. However, the critics overlooked his claim (reasserted in the later essay) that the corpse could be revivified by stitching together the amputated limbs and digits in new permutations: by pastiche, in other words. Pastiche, then, arises from the frustration that everything has been done before. As Fredric Jameson notes in Postmodernism and Consumer Society (1983), ‘the writers and artists of the present day will no longer be able to invent new styles and worlds … only a limited number of combinations are possible; the most unique ones have been thought of already’. So instead of honing an unmistakable signature like D. H. Lawrence or Gertrude Stein, postmodernist writers tend to pluck existing styles higgledy-piggledy from the reservoir of literary history, and match them with little tact.

This explains why many contemporary novels borrow the clothes of different forms (for example: the western, the sci-fi yarn and the detective tale). The impulse behind this cross-dressing is more spasmodic than parodic. These genres provide ready-made forms, ideal for postmodernist miscegenation. The western, as Philip French observes, is ‘a hungry cuckoo of a genre … ready to seize anything that’s in the air from juvenile delinquency to ecology’. In other words, it is already a bastardized form. Examples of the postmodern western include The Hawkline Monster (1974) by Richard Brautigan, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969) by Ishmael Reed, and The Place of Dead Roads (1984) by William Burroughs. S

Science-fiction is another popular source for postmodernist pastiche. Some critics assert that it is the natural companion to postmodernist writing, because of their shared ontological occupations. (See especially Solaris (1961) by Stanislaw Lem, Cosmicomics (1965) by Italo Calvino, and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut.) Lastly, the detective genre is another candidate for the post of true companion of postmodernism. The pursuit of clues appeals to the postmodernist writer because it so closely parallels the hunt for textual meaning by the reader. The most popular  postmodernist detective fictions are The Name of the Rose (1984) by Umberto Eco, The New York Trilogy (1987) by Paul Auster and Hawksmoor (1985) by Peter Ackroyd.

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8 replies

  1. Great work! I am so happy I discovered this website!


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