Postmodernism and the Acoustic Environment of the Vietnam War in Tim O`Brien`s “The Things They Carried”

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

19 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents


An Attempted Definition of the Term Postmodernism

Was Vietnam a Postmodern War?

Is The Things They Carried Postmodern Literature?

Use of Sound in The Things They Carried

List of Works Cited


We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won't allow them to write “fuck" on their airplanes because it's obscene! - Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando)

Hey soldier, do you know who's in command here?

Soldier: Ain't you? - Cpt. Willard (Martin Sheen)

[Explaining why the helicopters play music during air assaults] We use Wagner. It scares the shit out of the slopes. My boys love it! - Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) These three quotes, taken from the 1979 movie Apocalypse Now, all highlight different aspects of postmodern literature and postmodern warfare. They stand representatively for different parts of analysis as they will appear in this seminar paper. The first one highlights the changes which the movement of postmodernism brought to literature, exemplified here by the sliding signifier, the fact that the connotation of a word changes depending on its context. The conversation between Captain Willard and a nameless soldier, which takes place in a besieged remote jungle outpost, stands for the part of my research where I will try to find out whether the Vietnam War, with its often chaotic and surreal atmosphere, can be seen as a postmodern war. Additionally, I am going to examine whether a specific example of American Vietnam War literature, in this case The Things They Carried by Tim O‟Brien, can also be considered postmodern literature. Finally, the famous helicopter attack scene from the movie, with its cynical use of awe-inspiring music as a weapon, will serve as a basis for an analysis of the way in which sound, noise, and silence are used in postmodern literature, but especially in [The] Things [They Carried].

During the course of this seminar paper, I will show how O‟Brien describes the Vietnam War and its accompanying acoustic environment as a loud and chaotic cacophony, where no clear boundaries and no easily identifiable enemy exist. Thereby, and by the way in which O‟Brien employs characteristics typical for postmodern fiction, the novel can be seen as an exemplary postmodern representation of the Vietnam War. For the understanding and distinction of the terms postmodernism and postmodernity I will include a discussion of their characteristics.

An Attempted Definition of the Term Postmodernism

The Oxford English Dictionary describes postmodernism as “the state, condition, or period subsequent to that which is modern; spec. in architecture, the arts, literature (…) characterized by a rejection of ideology and theory in favour of a plurality of values and techniques“. Bibby adds some additional factors, which distinguish modernism from postmodernism: While modernism intended to "„make it new‟, postmodernism has made nostalgia, pastiche, and simulacrum its standards". Furthermore, modernism rejected all attempts of fragmentation "as a tragic existential condition that must be resisted", while postmodernism relied on it (Bibby Post-Vietnam, 145). Typical for postmodernist prose is the preference for a multiplicity of plots, meanings, and interpretations, which often frustrates the reader‟s desire for a clear and stringent storyline, as it is the case in Thomas Pynchon‟s novel V for example. (Hogue 46).

Postmodernism differs from postmodernity in that the latter denotes a certain condition of society after modernity, whilst postmodernism is the application of postmodern philosophy and theory on arts, architecture or literature (Hutcheon 23). Bran defines the term postmodern as an adjective, which refers to a movement in literature dated between 1950 and 1990, and which describes a certain aesthetic and style which was unique to literature with that denotation. Postmodernism, and the related adjective postmodernist, "refer[s] to a set of ideas developed from philosophy and theory and related to aesthetic production" (Bran 2). In this seminar paper, I will therefore use Hutcheon‟s definition of the term postmodern to refer to the specific characteristics of postmodernism which can be found in O‟Brien‟s book.

Reasoning about the language of postmodernism, Gregson goes back to Swiss linguist De Saussure, and his distinction between real objects and language. De Saussure named these real objects „referents‟, which he claimed had no representation in words (linguistic „signs‟). He divided these „signs‟ into two terms. He defined one as „the signifier‟, “the sound of the word (sound-image)", and the other as „the signified‟, the concept that comes to mind when hearing the sound (as quoted in Gregson 3). The fact that there exists no relation between the sound of a word and its linguistic concept, is seen by Gregson as a main divider between realist and post-modernist literature (3). Gregson notes that the sound image does not describe the actual physical sound, but rather the impression of the sound that is created in our mind (154). Bran takes up this idea, and shows how postmodern fiction is characterised by it: "Specific words in a literary text mean what they mean because of how they relate to other words in the text and to other literary texts rather than how they relate to the real world (7)".

Carpenter presents an example for the sliding signifier by highlighting the way in which the meaning of words is altered when used in times of war (48): "I learned that words make a difference. It's easier to cope with a kicked bucket than a corpse; if it isn't human, it doesn't matter much if it's dead. And so a VC nurse, fried by napalm, was a crispy critter. A Vietnamese baby, which lay nearby, was a roasted peanut (O‟Brien 267). Postmodern writers are aware of how words are given a new meaning. As single signs only form a meaning when they are linked to each other, Gregson is convinced that in postmodernism "the world can only be understood in a structured, as opposed to a „real‟, way. This general disbelief in language leads to a general and typical questioning of realism in postmodern literature (3). As a consequence thereof, the distinction between reality and artificiality becomes difficult or even impossible, and especially claims of authenticity, as they appear frequently in Things, have to be regarded with suspicion (Gregson 4).

Gregson calls the departure "away (…) from representation”, (2) and Lyotard‟s rejection of metanarratives, such as progress or enlightenment, central characteristics of postmodernism. Lyotard was convinced that for example the metanarrative of progress had been destroyed by the horror of the industrialised murder in Auschwitz (as quoted in Gregson 7). Hutcheon notes that the "process of making stories out of chronicles, of constructing plots out of sequences, is what postmodern fiction underlines", which in her mind serves to make visible the "act of imposing order on that past, of encoding strategies of meaning-making through representation" (63). Furthermore, unlike authors of other movements, postmodernists often appear in their texts (Hutcheon 64). And Bran writes that the main point of postmodern fiction is not primarily defined by what it tells the reader, but rather by reminding us that we read fiction, and by bringing us "to reflect upon the process of deriving meaning from narrative" (185).

Hutcheon adds for consideration that the term postmodernism has been discussed so controversially, that each discussion about its characteristics necessarily also has to consider what it does not include (1). A main characteristic, she goes on, is that we have to acknowledge that everything that we consider natural, such as our surroundings, our technology, our way of life, is in fact cultural, either developed or altered by us (3). What she calls postmodernism is "where documentary historical actuality meets formalist self- reflexivity and parody" (7). Her definition equals the one of historiographic metafiction, an additional characteristic of postmodern literature. Metafiction, described by the OED as “fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions”, was used in particular during the 1960s and 70s avant-garde, and has thus come to be seen as a central feature of postmodernist writing (Clarke 131). What distinguishes the postmodern way of historiographic metafiction from similar attempts of other movements, is its awareness of the paradox of its own meaning-making, which creates facts out of events, and challenges both the "conventions of novelistic realism and historiographic reference" (Hutcheon 75).


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Postmodernism and the Acoustic Environment of the Vietnam War in Tim O`Brien`s “The Things They Carried”
University of Basel
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postmodernism, acoustic, environment, vietnam, o`brien`s, things, they, carried”
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MA Urs Endhardt (Author), 2013, Postmodernism and the Acoustic Environment of the Vietnam War in Tim O`Brien`s “The Things They Carried”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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