Death of the Critic

Postmodernist Theory

Written by: Tom Blaich

As this site moves forward and we begin to introduce more complex topics it will become useful for us to give a primer in some of the themes and ideas that we are talking about. We've done a little bit of this already, but we will be digging in a little deeper into the topics in question. Death of the Critic is, at its heart, a critical website where we try to take a deeper look at different aspects of media. From movies to games to music and more, we aim to enhance the discussion around media in order to deepen our knowledge and understanding.

Let’s talk about schools of theory. When we critique, frequently we do so through a specific lens. Works can have a lot of meaning hidden deep within them, and if we aimed to fully analyze a book, movie, or game, we could easily fill an entire book. So we use these schools of theory as a way to focus in on one particular area of a work. This helps us hone in on a specific idea and expand upon it more fully than if we had tried to do a very broad reading. By centering on one aspect, the analysis becomes more clear and focused.

Postmodernist Theory is much different than anything else that we have looked at so far. We looked at Structuralism a few weeks back, and its take on literature, where order and form are tantamount to meaning. In comparison to Structuralism’s structure, Postmodernism is anarchy. Postmodernism is all about breaking down certainties, things that many texts follow. It is about the rejection of form instead of its strict adherence to it.

Postmodernist theory is again an offspring of a broader school of thought, Postmodernism, which also contains the idea of “Poststructuralism”. As theorists and authors moved through the 20th century, they began to reject and question the ideas behind Structuralism and modernism, moving expressly in the opposite direction, seeing what meaning could be derived by a work explicitly moving away from pre-established forms, narratives, ideas, and archetypes. They questioned why authors felt the need to follow these forms and what structures might be in place to perpetuate these ideas through literatures.

You can see Postmodernism used with Structuralist Theory. What it means when a text adheres to an established narrative as versus when it breaks free. Why a work chooses to follow some rules and not others. To Postmodernist critics, there is no one “Truth”, and indeed, the pursuit of a singular truth is a fallacy in and of itself. The truth is different for every culture and person, shaped by individual ideas and social experiences across the globe. It looks at the experiences of the “other” and how they are cast aside in favor of the “normal”.

There are broad power structures interested in maintaining the status quo through these forms and archetypes. Why are Christ-like figures so prevalent in media, and why are characters with these virtues universally considered good, even when a large number of creators and members of the audience are not Christian? Why are Middle Eastern countries always the aggressors in action movies? Why are many of our superheroes uber-rich?

Postmodernism questions the use of form in the exact opposite way that Structuralism does. Structuralism looks at form in a positive light, bringing order to chaos and providing an intrinsic meaning to a work through its inclusion. Postmodernism sees it as imposing unnatural order on natural chaos in an attempt to make works conform to the “norm”. It questions why a work chooses to follow along with the formula and what it means by breaking it.

Further Reading:
The Death of the Author - Roland Barthes
The Foucault Reader - Michel Foucault
Complexity and Postmodernism - Paul Cilliers


Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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