The term postmodernism (according to the Latin etymology, postmodern literally means "after what is now") refers to a philosophical and cultural movement, the central premise of which is the rejection of all "metanarratives" (ways of thinking that unite knowledge and experience to seek to provide a definitive, universal truth).

There is also the term postmodernity. This term refers to a set of perceived (sociological, technological, &c.) conditions, which are distinctly different from the conditions of modernity. The discussion of postmodernity is the discussion of these conditions. Postmodernism is the intellectual (cultural, artistic, academic, and philosophical) response to these conditions.

And then there is the term postmodern, which is an adjective used to describe a thing that is either a condition of postmodernity or a response to postmodernity. Beyond this relationship, the term is meaningless in itself. But when combined with a condition or response, it is used to refer to a set of ideas which seek to interpret the condition or response. For example, one may refer to postmodern architecture, postmodern literature, postmodern culture, postmodern philosophy, &c. The fact that there is no one underlying meta-narrative for defining "postmodern", but that the definition is instead fragmented, makes it difficult for those not aware of this fragmentation to understand what it means to be "postmodern".

Table of contents
1 Brief outline of postmodernism
2 History of postmodernism
3 Postmodernism in art
4 Postmodernism in economics
5 Postmodernism in architecture
6 Postmodernism in literature
7 Deconstructionism
8 Postmodernism in philosophy
9 Postmodernism and Post-Structuralism
10 Postmodernism and its critics
11 Postmodern principles of interpretation
12 Further Reading
13 See also
14 External links

Brief outline of postmodernism

Postmodernism is notoriously difficult to define, in large part because one has to first understand modernism before one can understand postmodernism, and modernism (and modernity) are themselves not easy to define.

Postmodernists claim that modernity was characterised by a monolithic mindset impossible to maintain in the culturally diverse and fragmented world (ie, postmodernity) that we live in today. Postmodernism, instead, embraces fluid and multiple perspectives, typically refusing to privilege any one 'truth claim' over another. Utopian ideals of universally applicable truths give way to provisional, decentered, local petit recits which, rather than referencing some underlying universal 'Truth', point only to other ideas and cultural artefacts, themselves subject to interpretation and re-interpretation.

The role of individuals (and especially the individual body) and action is emphasised over standardized or canonical forms of knowledge. Knowledge is interpreted according to our own 'local' experiences, rather than measured against all-encompassing universal structures. In this sense, postmodernity owes much to its allied school of thought, post-structuralism (or deconstruction) which sought to destabilise the relationship between language and the objects to which it referred. This has manifested itself in the arts as decontextualised 'cut-ups' of sound and visual media.

Postmodernists often express a profound skepticism regarding the Enlightenment quest to uncover the nature of truth and reality. Perhaps the most striking examples of this skepticism are to be found in the works of French cultural theorist, Jean Baudrillard. In his book Simulations, he contends that social 'reality' no longer exists in the conventional sense, but has been supplanted by an endless procession of simulacra. The mass media, and other forms of mass cultural production, generate constant re-appropriation and re-contextualisation of familiar cultural symbols and images, fundamentally shifting our experience away from 'reality', to 'hyperreality'.

Postmodernism has applications in many modern academic and non-academic disciplines; philosophy, theology, art, architecture, film, television, music, sociology, fashion, technology, literature, and communications are all heavily influenced by postmodern trends and ideas, and are rigorously scrutinised from postmodern perspectives.

Postmodernism has usually been understood as a phenomenon taking place primarily within Western countries. However, theorists have argued for the existence of non-Western national varieties such as Russian postmodernism [1], with also Japanese and Latin American and other variants.

In Western countries, postmodern culture is ubiquitous and permeates every aspect of our daily lives. From film and television programs to political personas and our daily clothes, postmodernity, it has been stated, "is the very air we breathe". (Steven Shaviro, Doom Patrols).

Note: It may be helpful to distinguish between postmodernism in its philosophical, theoretic sense, and as a cultural phenomenon that can be observed in daily life — often referred to as 'Postmodernity'. Examples of postmodernity in action abound in Western society; in fact, Wikipedia is a good example of a postmodern project.

Also note: "post-modern" tends to be used by critics, "postmodern" by supporters. This may be because postmodern is considered merely a symbol and its meaning (as obtained through simple linguistic analysis) can be ignored.

History of postmodernism

Postmodernism was first identified as a theoretical discipline in the 1980s, but as a cultural movement it predates them by many years. Exactly when modernism began to give way to postmodernism is difficult to pinpoint, if not simply impossible. Some theorists reject that such a distinction even exists, viewing postmodernism, for all its claims of fragmentation and plurality, as still existing within a larger 'modernist' framework. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas is a strong proponent of this view.

The theory gained some of its strongest ground early on in French academia. In 1979 Jean-François Lyotard wrote a short but influential work The Postmodern Condition : a report on knowledge. Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes (in his more post-structural work) are also strongly influential in postmodern theory. Postmodernism is closely allied with several contemporary academic disciplines, most notably those connected with sociology. Many of its assumptions are integral to feminist and post-colonial theory.

Some identify the burgeoning anti-establishment movements of the 1960s as the earliest trend out of cultural modernity toward postmodernism.

Tracing it further back, some identify its roots in the breakdown of Hegelian idealism, and the impact of both World Wars (perhaps even the concept of a World War). Heidegger and Derrida were influential in re-examining the fundamentals of knowledge, together with the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and his philosophy of action, Soren Kierkegaard's and Karl Barth's important fideist approach to theology, and even the nihilism of Nietzsche's philosophy. Michel Foucault's application of Hegel to thinking about the body is also identified as an important landmark. While it is rare to pin down the specific origins of any large cultural shift, it is fair to assume that postmodernism represents an accumulated disillusionment with the promises of the Enlightenment project and its progress of science, so central to modern thinking.

The movement has had diverse political ramifications: its anti-ideological insights appear conducive to, and strongly associated with, the feminist movement, racial equality movements, homosexual rights movements, most forms of late 20th century anarchism, even the peace movement and various hybrids of these in the current anti-globalization movement. Unsurprisingly, none of these institutions entirely embraces all aspects of the postmodern movement, but reflect or, in true postmodern style, borrow from some of its core ideas.

Early usage of the term

In an essay From Postmodernism to Postmodernity: the Local/Global Context, [1] Ihab Hassan points out a number of instances in which the term postmodernism was used before the term became popular:

  • John Watkins Chapman, an English salon painter, in the 1870s, to mean Post-Impressionism.
  • Federico de Onís, 1934, to mean a reaction against the difficulty and experimentalism of modernist poetry. (The term was postmodernismo)
  • Arnold Toynbee, in 1939, to mean the end of the "modern," Western bourgeois order dating back to the seventeenth century.
  • Bernard Smith, in 1945, to mean the movement of Socialist Realism in painting
  • Charles Olson, during the 1950s,
  • Irving Howe and Harry Levin, in 1959 and 1960, respectively, to mean a decline in high modernist culture.

Also, many cite Charles Jencks (1977) "The Language of Postmodern Architecture" among the earliest works which shaped the use of the term today.

Postmodernism in art

Postmodernist art may be seen as a reaction to the reductionism and abstraction of Modernism.

Where modernists desired to unearth universals or the fundamentals of art, postmodernism aims to unseat them, to embrace diversity and contradiction. A postmodern approach to art thus rejects the distinction between 'low' and 'high' forms. It rejects rigid genre boundaries and favours eclecticism, the mixing of ideas and forms. Similarly, it promotes parody, irony, and playfulness, commonly referred to as "joissance" by certain postmodern theorists. Unlike modern art, postmodern art does not approach this fragmentation as somehow faulty or undesirable, but rather celebrates it. As the gravity of the search for underlying truth is relieved, it is replaced with 'play'. As postmodern icon David Byrne, and his band Talking Heads said: 'Stop making sense'.

Andy Warhol is an early example of postmodern art in action, with his appropriation of common popular symbols and "ready-made" cultural artefacts, bringing the previously mundane or trivial onto the previously hallowed ground of 'high art'.

See also: Postmodern music

Postmodernism in economics

In economics, Postmodernism refers to multinationalist, consumer-based capitalism, as opposed to the monopoly capitalism associated with modernism through the first half of the 20th century, or market capitalism before that. Some echo Marxism in arguing that the shift in mode and technology of production may have precipitated or at least emphasized the change to modernism and then to postmodernism.

Postmodernism in architecture

As with many cultural movements, one of postmodernism's most pronounced and earliest ideas can be seen in architecture. The functional, mostly bland forms and spaces of the modernist movement are replaced by unapologetically bold aesthetics; styles collide, form is adopted for its own sake, and new ways of viewing familiar styles and space abound.

Classic examples of modern architecture are the Empire State building or the Chrysler building. A classic example of post-modernist architecture is the ATT building in New York, which, like modernist architecture, is a skyscraper relying on steel beams and with lots of windows — but, unlike modern architecture, it borrows elements from classical (Greek) style. Post-modern buildings are usually not so grand and imposing as modern skyscrapers; they are more playful, and, often through the use of mirrored glass that reflects the sky and surrounding buildings, call attention to their environment rather than to themselves.

Postmodern architects include: Philip Johnson(later works), John Burgee, Robert Venturi, Ricardo Boffil

Postmodernism in literature

It can be said that postmodern writing does not so much set itself against modernist literature, as develop its themes through to a logical conclusion. Modernist authors had already begun to move away from the 19th Century 'realist' notion that a novel must 'tell a story' from an 'objective' and 'omniscient' point of view; instead, they began to embrace subjectivism, turning from external reality to examine inner states of consciousness (eg, Virginia Woolf; see also Molly Bloom's interior monologue in Joyce's Ulysses), and fragmentariness in narrative- and character-construction (eg, the Swedish dramatist Strindberg; the Italian author Pirandello; Woolf again).

Strindberg, for example, began to conceive of a kind of drama in which characters were "patched together as is the human soul", as he put it - that is, without 'fixed' identities, remaining in a fragmentary state evocative of the modern world. Joyce's Ulysses, again, is modernist because it shows a chaotic multiplicity of perspectives and narrative styles, rather than adhering to a consistent and 'omniscient' method of narration.

Postmodernists, likewise, are much concerned with the fragmentariness of contemporary experience, the artificiality of identity and meaning, and with the ultimately subjective nature of all experience. Unlike modernist writers, however, they tend to celebrate this rather than regarding it as evidence of some sort of crisis. The tortured, isolated anti-heroes of, say, Knut Hamson or Samuel Beckett, and the nightmare world of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, make way in postmodernist writing for the playfully deconstructed and self-reflexive narrators of novels by John Fowles, John Barth, or Julian Barnes. Meanwhile, authors such as Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon in the novel Gravity's Rainbow, satirise paranoid system-building of the kind associated, by postmodernists, with Enlightenment modernity.


Deconstruction was a tool of postmodernism that was itself constructed by the philosopher and textual artist Jacques Derrida. He played with words, putting them together with unique combinations of punctuation to make points about, in essence, how meaningless words are and the ways in which we give them meaning. The term deconstruction itself is Destruct + Construct. By analyzing an idea and breaking it into pieces, you are simultaneously asserting its existence. If it did not exist and was not of importance, you would not be analyzing it. Also, you are in the process of defining it and reifying its existence as you name its pieces. Most people use deconstruction simply to mean the analysis of the binaries within an idea. Understanding that this analysis recreates the binaries is more difficult to grasp.

Postmodernism in philosophy

Many figures in the 20th century philosophy of mathematics are identified as "postmodern" due to their rejection of mathematics as a strictly neutral point of view. Some figures in the philosophy of science, especially Thomas Samuel Kuhn and David Bohm, are also so viewed. Some see the ultimate expression of postmodernism in science and mathematics in the cognitive science of mathematics, which seeks to characterize the habit of mathematics itself as strictly human, and based in human cognitive bias.

For further information, see Postmodern philosophy.

Postmodernism and Post-Structuralism

In terms of frequently cited works, postmodernism and post-structuralism overlaps quite significantly. Some philosophers, such as Francois Lyotard, can legitimately be classified into both groups. This is partly due to the fact that both modernism and structuralism owe much to the Enlightenment project.

Structuralism has a strong tendency to be scientific in seeking out stable patterns in observed phenomena - an epistemological attitude which is quite compatible with Enlightenment thinking, and incompatible with postmodernists. At the same time, findings from structuralist analysis carried a somewhat anti-Enlightenment message, revealing that rationality can be found in the minds of 'savage' people, just in forms differing from those that people from 'civilized' societies are used to seeing. Implicit here is a critique of the practice of colonialism, which was partly justified as a 'civilizing' process by which wealthier societies bring knowledge, manners, and reason to less 'civilized' ones.

Post-structuralism, emerging as a response to the structuralists' scientific orientation, has kept the cultural relativism in structuralism, while discarding the scientific orientations.

One clear difference between postmodernism and poststructuralism is found in their respective attitudes towards the demise of the project of the Enlightenment: post-structuralism is fundamentally ambivalent, while postmodernism is decidedly celebratory.

Another difference is the nature of the two positions. While post-structuralism is a position in philosophy, encompassing on views on human being, language, body, society, and many other issues, it is not a name of an era. Post-modernism, on the other hand, is closely associated with "post-modern" era, a period in the history coming after modern age.

Postmodernism and its critics

Charles Murray, a strong critic of postmodernism, defines the term:

"By contemporary intellectual fashion, I am referring to the constellation of views that come to mind when one hears the words multicultural, gender, deconstruct, politically correct, and Dead White Males. In a broader sense, contemporary intellectual fashion encompasses as well the widespread disdain in certain circles for technology and the scientific method. Embedded in this mind-set is hostility to the idea that discriminating judgments are appropriate in assessing art and literature, to the idea that hierarchies of value exist, hostility to the idea that an objective truth exists. Postmodernism is the overarching label that is attached to this perspective." [1]

It is this underlying hostility toward the concept of objectivity, evident in many contemporary critical theorists, that is the common point of attack for critics of postmodernism. Many critics characterise postmodernism as an ephemeral phenomenon that cannot be adequately defined simply because, as a philosophy at least, it represents nothing more substantial than a series of disparate conjectures allied only in their distrust of modernism.

This antipathy of postmodernists towards modernism, and their consequent tendency to define themselves against it, has also attracted criticism. It has been argued that modernity was not actually a lumbering, totalizing monolith at all, but in fact was itself dynamic and ever-changing; the evolution, therefore, between 'modern' and 'postmodern' should be seen as one of degree, rather than of kind - a continuation rather than a 'break'. One theorist who takes this view is Marshall Berman, whose book All That is Solid Melts into Air (a quote from Marx) reflects in its title the fluid nature of 'the experience of modernity'.

As noted above (see History of postmodernism), some theorists such as Habermas even argue that the supposed distinction between the 'modern' and the 'postmodern' does not exist at all, but that the latter is really no more than a development within a larger, still-current, 'modern' framework. Many who make this argument are left academics with Marxist leanings, such as Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, and David Harvey, who are concerned that postmodernism's undermining of Enlightenment values makes a progressive cultural politics difficult, if not impossible. How can we effect any change in people's poor living conditions, in inequality and injustice, if we don't accept the validity of underlying universals such as the 'real world' and 'justice' in the first place? How is any progress to be made through a philosophy so profoundly skeptical of the very notion of progress, and of unified perspectives?

Such critics may argue that, in actual fact, such postmodern premises are rarely, if ever, actually embraced — that if they were, we would be left with nothing more than a crippling radical subjectivism. That the projects of the Enlightenment and modernity are alive and well can be seen in the justice system, in science, in political rights movements, in the very idea of universities; and so on.

There seems, indeed, to be a glaring contradiction in maintaining the death of objectivity and privileged position on one hand, while the scientific community continues a project of unprecedented scope to unify various scientific disciplines into a theory of everything, on the other. Hostility toward hierarchies of value and objectivity becomes similarly problematic when postmodernity itself attempts to analyse such hierarchies with, apparently, some measure of objectivity and make categorical statements concerning them.

Such critics see postmodernism as, essentially, a kind of semantic gamesmanship, more sophistry than substance. Postmodernism's proponents are often criticised for a tendency to indulge in exhausting, verbose stretches of rhetorical gymnastics, that sound important but don't appear to have any discernible meaning. The more brave of the postmodernists may argue that this is precisely the point. This tendency is parodied by the "Postmodern essay generator", a computer program whose output is meaningless essays which appear unnervingly similar to the actual writings of many followers of postmodernism, and, more notoriously, by the Sokal Affair in which Alan Sokal, a physicist wrote a deliberately nonsensical article purportedly about interpreting physics and mathematics in terms of postmodern theory which was nevertheless published by a journal of postmodern thought. Sokal also co-authored Fashionable Nonsense, which criticizes the abusive use of scientific terminology in intellectual writing and finishes with a critique of some forms of postmodernism.

Whatever its philosophical value, postmodern phenomena can be observed in nearly all areas of Western capitalist cultures, and a postmodern theoretical approach can help explain much of this cultural condition, irrespective of whether it offers a coherent, functional epistemology.

Postmodern principles of interpretation

Further Reading

  • Berman, Marshall All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (ISBN 0140109625)
  • Harvey, David The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (ISBN 0631162941)
  • Jameson, Fredric Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (ISBN 0822310902)
  • Lyotard, Jean-Francois The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (ISBN 0816611734)

See also

External links

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