Postmodernism is characterised by an ‘incredulity towards meta narratives’ (Lyotard), that is, a distrust of any large scale explanation of how the world works, so history and religion, for example, are viewed merely as constructed narratives we apply to the world to give it meaning. This idea is related to the trauma of postmodernism in that this trauma is caused by such rejection of meta narratives because it undermines previously held certainties of how the world works. This particular trauma is a major concern in postmodernist texts and it is often represented by the way in which a text is devoid of meaning. For example, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves constantly prevents the reader from imposing any meaning onto the text. Indeed, it is never resolved how or why the interior dimensions of house in the novel exceed that of its exterior. Such lack of closure is brought home to the reader in Footnote 123 at the centre of the novel in particular. It is a lengthy footnote in the shape of a key with a line running through it, giving the appearance of a crossed out key and thereby suggesting that there is no meaning or ultimate ‘answer’ to this text. Similarly, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 is a novel concerned with connection and meaninglessness and throughout there are continual patterns of promised revelations that never happen. O’Donnell in New Essays on The Crying of Lot 49, for instance, notes the novel’s concern with ‘the fear that, in the end, nothing makes sense’ (1-2).
The trauma of postmodernism and a general anxiety over the meaninglessness of existence are similarly expressed in popular culture. The film Ghost World is a prime example of this. Ghost World narrates the life of Enid Coleslaw, a high school graduate who discovers everything she encounters in her life to be utterly meaningless. The film opens, for example, with Enid’s graduation ceremony and the typical inspirational speech presented by one of the high achieving students at her school is filled with stock phrases and empty cliches that do not really add up to anything. Enid and her friend Rebecca are shown to be aware of this as they clearly appear bored and exchange knowing glances. The rest of the film consists of a series of scenes depicting Enid and Rebecca drifting from one location to the next such as their local diner or music store and we as an audience expect something significant to happen each time they visit one of these locations in order to drive the plot forward but nothing does. The film reflects the trauma of postmodernism and the meaninglessness of life then in its strcutre as well because there is little or no narrative progression. Narratives are usually divided into three parts: set up, conflict and resolution. While the plot is set up in that Enid and Rebecca are introducted, there is neither a conflict nor resolution in this film. For example, Enid meets Seymour, a collector of vintage memorabilia and the audience expects their relationship to lead to some resolution, i.e., Seymour introduces Enid to a particular band, this inspires her to learn guitar and she then decides to join a music group and becomes a famous musician thus giving her life and this film meaning. The end. However, such conventional narrative structure is subverted in that their relationship merely fizzles out and becomes another ‘thing’ Enid encounters on her seemingly endless series of pointless experiences. Moreover, the film ends with Enid leaving town on a bus in search of meaning elsewhere. However, there is no resolution here because the ending consists of Enid once again drifitng to another location and it is thereby suggested that she will encounter a further series of experiences that will inevitably add up to nothing. Like House of Leaves and The Crying of Lot 49 then, Ghost World is representative of the trauma of postmodernism in that it similarly suggests life to be like Seymour’s collection of plastic memorabilia: artificial, constructed and ultimately, meaningless.
Here is a scene where Enid shows advertising and the media to be pointless:
This scene is also an example of Ghost World‘s critique of consumerism. For further information on Ghost World and its relation to commodity culture see here:
Danielewski, Mark. Z. House of Leaves. New York: Manchester University Press, 2011. Print.
Ghost World. Terry Zwigoff. United Artists, 2001. Film.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester: Manchester U.P., 1983. Print.
O’Donnell, Patrick. New Essays on The Crying of Lot 49. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Print.
Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. London: Picador, 1979. Print.