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Sunday, December 12, 2010


Postmodernism literally means 'after modernism'. While "modern" itself refers to something "related to the present", the movements modernism and postmodernism are understood as cultural projects or as a set of perspectives. It is used in critical theory to refer to a point of departure for works of literature, drama, architecture, cinema, journalism and design, as well as in marketing and business and in the interpretation of history, law, culture and religion in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

In one of the seminal works on the topic, philosopher and literary critic Fredric Jameson describes postmodernism as the "dominant cultural logic of late capitalism", that is, as the cultural practices that are organically bound to postmodernism's historical economic correspondent ("late capitalism", a period sometimes called financial capitalism, postindustrialism, consumer capitalism, globalization). In this understanding, the period of postmodernism's dominance begins early in the Cold War and continues through to the present.[1]

Postmodernism can also be understood as a reaction to modernism. Following the devastation of fascism and World War II many intellectuals and artists in Europe became distrustful of the whole modernist political, economic, and aesthetic project. Whereas modernism was often associated with identity, unity, authority, and certainty, postmodernism is often associated with difference, separation, textuality, skepticism.

History of the term

The term was first used around the 1870s in various areas. For example, John Watkins Chapman avowed "a postmodern style of painting" to get beyond French Impressionism Then, J.M.Thompson, in his 1914 article in The Hibbert Journal (a quarterly philosophical review), used it to describe changes in attitudes and beliefs in the critique of religion: "The raison d'etre of Post-Modernism is to escape from the double-mindedness of Modernism by being thorough in its criticism by extending it to religion as well as theology, to Catholic feeling as well as to Catholic tradition" ('Post-Modernism, J.M.Thompson, The Hibbert Journal Vol XII No.4 July 1914 p. 733).

In 1917 Rudolf Pannwitz used the term to describe a philosophically oriented culture. Pannwitz's idea of post-modernism came from Nietzsche's analysis of modernity and its ends of decadence and nihilism. Overcoming the modern human would be the post-human. But, contrary to Nietzsche, Pannwitz also includes nationalist and mythical elements.

It was used later in 1926 by B.I.Bell in his "Postmodernism & other Ess." In 1925 and 1921 it had been used to describe new forms of art and music. In 1942 H. R. Hays used it for a new literary form but as a general theory of an historical movement it was first used in 1939 by the historian Arnold J. Toynbee: "Our own Post-Modern Age has been inaugurated by the general war of 1914-1918."

In 1949 it was used to describe a dissatisfaction with modern architecture, leading to the postmodern architecture movement.[6] Postmodernism in architecture is marked by the re-emergence of surface ornament, reference to surrounding buildings in urban architecture, historical reference in decorative forms, and non-orthogonal angles. It may be a response to the modernist architectural movement known as the International Style.

The term was applied to a whole host of movements, many in art, music, and literature, that reacted against modernism, and are typically marked by revival of traditional elements and techniques. Walter Truett Anderson identifies postmodernism as one of four typological world views. These four worldviews are the postmodern-ironist, which sees truth as socially constructed, the scientific-rational in which truth is found through methodical, disciplined inquiry, the social-traditional in which truth is found in the heritage of American and Western civilisation and the neo-romantic in which truth is found either through attaining harmony with nature and/or spiritual exploration of the inner self.

Influence and distinction from postmodernity

Postmodernist ideas in philosophy and the analysis of culture and society expanded the importance of critical theory and has been the point of departure for works of literature, architecture, and design, as well as being visible in marketing/business and the interpretation of history, law and culture, starting in the late 20th century. These developments — re-evaluation of the entire Western value system (love, marriage, popular culture, shift from industrial to service economy) that took place since 1950's and 1960s, with a peak in the Social Revolution of 1968 — are described with the term postmodernity, as opposed to postmodernism, a term referring to an opinion or movement. Whereas something being "postmodernist" would make it part of the movement, its being "postmodern" would place it in the period of time since the 1950s, making it a part of contemporary history.

Conventional contemporary definitions of "Postmodernism"

Many academicians use the term "postmodernism" in reference to different, even contradictory concepts. The following list includes conventional definitions of the term offered by dictionaries:

  • Compact Oxford English Dictionary: "a style and concept in the arts characterized by distrust of theories and ideologies and by the drawing of attention to conventions."
  • Merriam-Webster: Either "of, relating to, or being an era after a modern one", or "of, relating to, or being any of various movements in reaction to modernism that are typically characterized by a return to traditional materials and forms (as in architecture) or by ironic self-reference and absurdity (as in literature)", or finally "of, relating to, or being a theory that involves a radical reappraisal of modern assumptions about culture, identity, history, or language".
  • American Heritage Dictionary: "Of or relating to art, architecture, or literature that reacts against earlier modernist principles, as by reintroducing traditional or classical elements of style or by carrying modernist styles or practices to extremes: “It [a roadhouse] is so architecturally interesting ... with its postmodern wooden booths and sculptural clock”.

The usage and extent of the concept of ‘postmodernism’

The term "postmodern" and its derivatives are widely applied, with some uses apparently contradicting others. Certain writers, such as Dick Hebdige, contend that "postmodern" is merely a buzzword without any specific content. In Hebdige's ‘Hiding in the Light’, he writes:

When it becomes possible for a people to describe as ‘postmodern’ the décor of a room, the design of a building, the diegesis of a film, the construction of a record, or a ‘scratch’ video, a television commercial, or an arts documentary, or the ‘intertextual’ relations between them, the layout of a page in a fashion magazine or critical journal, an anti-teleological tendency within epistemology, the attack on the ‘metaphysics of presence’, a general attenuation of feeling, the collective chagrin and morbid projections of a post-War generation of baby boomers confronting disillusioned middle-age, the ‘predicament’ of reflexivity, a group of rhetorical tropes, a proliferation of surfaces, a new phase in commodity fetishism, a fascination for images, codes and styles, a process of cultural, political or existential fragmentation and/or crisis, the ‘de-centring’ of the subject, an ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, the replacement of unitary power axes by a plurality of power/discourse formations, the ‘implosion of meaning’, the collapse of cultural hierarchies, the dread engendered by the threat of nuclear self-destruction, the decline of the university, the functioning and effects of the new miniaturised technologies, broad societal and economic shifts into a ‘media’, ‘consumer’ or ‘multinational’ phase, a sense (depending on who you read) of ‘placelessness’ or the abandonment of placelessness (‘critical regionalism’) or (even) a generalised substitution of spatial for temporal coordinates - when it becomes possible to describe all these things as ‘postmodern’ (or more simply using a current abbreviation as ‘post’ or ‘very post’) then it’s clear we are in the presence of a buzzword.

British historian Perry Anderson's history of the term and its understanding, 'The Origins of Postmodernity', explains these apparent contradictions, and demonstrates the importance of "postmodernism" as a category and a phenomenon in the analysis of contemporary culture.

Development of postmodernism

The movement of Postmodernism began with architecture, as a response to the perceived blandness, hostility, and Utopianism of the Modern movement. Modern Architecture, as established and developed by masters such as Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Philip Johnson, was focused on the pursuit of an ideal perfection, harmony of form and functionand dismissal of frivolous ornament. Critics of modernism argued that the attributes of perfection and minimalism themselves were subjective, and pointed out anachronisms in modern thought and questioned the benefits of its philosophy. Definitive postmodern architecture such as the work of Michael Graves rejects the notion of a 'pure' form or 'perfect' architectonic detail, instead conspicuously drawing from all methods, materials, forms and colors available to architects. Postmodernist architecture was one of the first aesthetic movements to openly challenge Modernism as antiquated and "totalitarian", favoring personal preferences and variety over objective, ultimate truths or principles. It is this atmosphere of criticism, skepticism, and emphasis on difference over and against unity that distinguishes many postmodernisms.

Postmodernist Literature

Literary postmodernism was officially coronated in the United States with the first issue of boundary 2, subtitled "Journal of Postmodern Literature and Culture", which appeared in 1972. David Antin, Charles Olson, John Cage, and the Black Mountain College school of poetry and the arts were integral figures in the intellectual and artistic exposition of postmodernism at the time. boundary 2 remains an influential journal in postmodernist circles today.

Some other significant contributions to postmodern culture from literary figures include the following:

It is possible to identify the burgeoning anti-establishment movements of the 1960s as the constituting event of postmodernism. The theory gained some of its strongest ground early on in French academia. In 1971, the Arab-American theorist Ihab Hassan was one of the first to use the term in its present form (though it had been used by many others before him, Charles Olson for example, to refer to other literary trends, as discussed above) in his book: The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature; in it, Hassan traces the development of what he called "literature of silence" through Marquis de Sade, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, Beckett, and many others, including developments such as the Theatre of the Absurd and the nouveau roman. In 1979 Jean-François Lyotard wrote a short but influential work The Postmodern Condition: A report on knowledge. Richard Rorty wrote Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes are also influential in 1970s postmodern theory.

Postmodern music

The postmodern impulse in classical music arose in the 1970s with the advent of musical minimalism. Composers such as Terry Riley, John Adams, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, and Lou Harrison reacted to the perceived elitism and dissonant sound of atonal academic modernism by producing music with simple textures and relatively consonant harmonies. Some composers have been openly influenced by popular music and world ethnic musical traditions. Though representing a general return to certain notions of music-making that are often considered to be classical or romantic[citation needed], not all postmodern composers have eschewed the experimentalist or academic tenets of modernism. The works of Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, for example, exhibit experimentalist preoccupation that is decidedly anti-romantic. Eclecticism and freedom of expression, in reaction to the rigidity and aesthetic limitations of modernism, are the hallmarks of the postmodern influence in musical composition.

Philosophical movements and contributors




Karl Barth


fideist approach to theology brought a rise in subjectivity

Martin Heidegger


rejected the philosophical grounding of the concepts of "subjectivity" and "objectivity"

Thomas Samuel Kuhn


posited the rapid change of the basis of scientific knowledge to a provisional consensus of scientists, coined the term "paradigm shift"

Jacques Derrida


re-examined the fundamentals of writing and its consequences on philosophy in general; sought to undermine the language of western metaphysics (deconstruction)

Black Mountain College Poets


along with foundation of journal boundary 2 and an association with Black Sparrow Press, established postmodernism as a collective aesthetic project

Michel Foucault


examined discursive power in Discipline and Punish, with Bentham's panopticon as his model, and also known for saying "language is oppression" (Meaning that language was developed to allow only those who spoke the language not to be oppressed. All other people that don't speak the language would then be oppressed.)

Jean-François Lyotard


opposed universality, meta-narratives, and generality

Richard Rorty


argues philosophy mistakenly imitates scientific methods; advocates dissolving traditional philosophical problems; anti-foundationalism and anti-essentialism

Jean Baudrillard


Simulacra and Simulation - reality disappears underneath the interchangeability of signs

Fredric Jameson


First expansive theoretical treatment of postmodernism as historical period in a series of lectures at the Whitney Museum, later expanded as Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism

Postmodern(ist) Theory and Aesthetics


One of the most popular postmodernist tendencies within aesthetics is deconstruction. As it is currently used, "deconstruction" is a Derridean approach to textual analysis (typically literary critique, but variously applied). Deconstructions work entirely within the studied text to expose and undermine the frame of reference, assumptions, and ideological underpinnings of the text. Although deconstructions can be developed using different methods and techniques, the process typically involves demonstrating the multiple possible readings of a text and their resulting internal conflicts, and undermining binary oppositions (e.g. masculine/feminine, old/new). Deconstruction is fundamental to many different fields of postmodernist thought, including postcolonialism, as demonstrated through the writings of Gayatri Spivak.


Structuralism was a broad philosophical movement that developed particularly in France in the 1950s, in response to the distinctly modernist existentialism. Many structuralists later moved away from the most strict interpretations and applications of the "structure", and are thus called "poststructuralists" in the United States (the term is uncommon in Europe). The most influential (post)structuralist thinkers include anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, philosophers Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze, and Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser.

(Post)structuralisms emphasize the ways in which the society interacts with the individual and collective, particularly the social construction or structural determination of identities, values, and economies. This is only a brief sketch, however, and most so-called post-structuralists vehemently disagree on such fundamental categories as "the real", "society", "totality", and "history". The main point of unity is the post-structuralist engagement (positive or negative) with the philosophical traditions associated with the figures of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.


Formal, academic critiques of postmodernism can be found in works such as Beyond the Hoax and Fashionable Nonsense.

The term postmodernism, when used pejoratively, describes tendencies perceived as relativist, counter-enlightenment or antimodern, particularly in relation to critiques of rationalism, universalism or science. It is also sometimes used to describe tendencies in a society that are held to be antithetical to traditional systems of morality.

After postmodernism

Recently the notion of the "death of postmodernism" has been increasingly widely debated: in 2007 Andrew Hoborek noted in his introduction to a special issue of the journal Twentieth Century Literature titled "After Postmodernism" that "declarations of postmodernism's demise have become a critical commonplace". A small group of critics has put forth a range of theories that aim to describe culture and/or society in the alleged aftermath of postmodernism, most notably Raoul Eshelman (performatism), Gilles Lipovetsky (hypermodernity), Nicolas Bourriaud (Altermodern), and Alan Kirby (digimodernism, formerly called pseudo-modernism). None of these new theories and labels has so far gained widespread acceptance.


In 1994, the then-President of the Czech Republic and renowned playwright Václav Havel gave a hopeful description of the postmodern world as one based on science, and yet paradoxically “where everything is possible and almost nothing is certain.”

Josh McDowell & Bob Hostetler offer the following definition of postmodernism: “A worldview characterized by the belief that truth doesn’t exist in any objective sense but is created rather than discovered.” Truth is “created by the specific culture and exists only in that culture. Therefore, any system or statement that tries to communicate truth is a power play, an effort to dominate other cultures.”

The Italian medievalist and semiotician Umberto Eco characterised "the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, I love you madly, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland."



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