Date of Award

Spring 2016

Degree Type

Honors Project


College of Liberal Arts

First Advisor

Mark Olson


While postmodern theory and literature is typically viewed as either “anti-humanist” or a rejection of Humanism, this essay reconsiders these assumptions by exploring ethical questions in early postmodern novels and theory, referred to as “proto-postmodernism.” For proto-postmodernists such as Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, Ralph Ellison, Joseph Heller, and Kurt Vonnegut, Humanism—the ethical framework that asserts a centered “self” and a collective “metanarrative” of human progress—causes and legitimates violence, yet in their theories and literature, they promote the humanist value of dignity in their critiques of modern ethics and politics. To examine this hybrid stance toward Humanism, the first section situates the “humanistic counter-humanism” of proto-postmodern ethico-political commitments as a “third way” out of the modern/postmodern binary. After establishing the possibilities proto-postmodernism offers for reevaluating Humanism, the second section frames Arendt’s and Camus’s theories on totalitarianism using Jean-François Lyotard’s concept of the metanarrative, forefronting how Humanism’s logic inverts into an “immanent anti-humanism.” With the gap between Humanism’s ethical claims and its violent consequences now exposed, the final section uses Camus’s concepts of “absurdity” and “rebellion” as well as Arendt’s “two-in-one” and “representative thinking” to interpret the ethics suggested in Ellison’s Invisible Man, Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, Heller’s Catch-22, and Camus’s The Fall. Seeking to preserve and affirm human dignity, these texts resist Humanism by representing its modes of thought and communication that open the (im)moral space for violence. Because of its ethical stance against Humanism, proto-postmodernism constructs an ethical foundation for “post-postmodern” theory and literature that revitalizes humanist values.