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The term "Postmodernism" refers to a philosophical and cultural movement that is notoriously difficult to define, but distinguished largely by its rejection of modernism. The term is hard to define precisely due to one of its central premises: the rejection of "meta-narratives[?]", ways of thinking that unite knowledge and experience[?] to seek to provide a definitive, universal truth. Also adding confusion to the debate[?] surrounding its definition and significance is the fact that modernity and modernism are not easy to define. One popular definition is that, given the symptoms[?] of modernism, postmodernism is the pill taken to alleviate those symptoms.

Postmodernists claim that modernity was characterised by a monolithic[?] mindset impossible[?] to maintain in the culturally diverse and fragmented world (which is sometimes referred to as postmodernity) that we live in today. Postmodernism, instead, embraces fluid, and multiple perspectives[?], typically refusing to privilege any one 'truth claim' over another. Ideals of universally applicable truths give way to provisional, decentred, local petit recits which, rather than referencing some underlying universal reality, 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, not measured against all encompassing universal structures. In this sense, postmodernity owes much to its allied school of thought, post-structuralism (or deconstructionism) which sought to destabilise the relationship between language and the objects to which it referred.

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 'hyper-reality[?]'.

Postmodernism has applications in many modern academic and non-academic disciplines; philosophy, 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.

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 (http://www.dhalgren.com/Doom/)).

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.

Table of contents

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 post-modernism is difficult to pinpoint, if not simply impossible. Some theorists reject that such a distinction even exists, viewing post-modernism, for all its claims of fragmentation and plurality, as still existing within a larger a 'modernist' framework. The philosopher Jurgen 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, with the work of Wittgenstein and his philosophy of action, 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 modernist 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.

The use of the term

In an essay From Postmodernism to Postmodernity: the Local/Global Context, [1] (http:www.ihabhassan.com/postmodernism_to_postmodernity.htm) Ihab Hassan point out a number of instances in which the term postmodernism is 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 piece 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'.

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 think semi-marxistically 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, I. M. Pei, John Burgee and Ricardo Boffil

Postmodernism in literature

Modernist literature has commonly relied on an objective and omniscient point of view (think of the role of a narrator in a third-person narrated novel). Perhaps Joyce's Ulysses may be the best example, but anything by Dickens or Tolstoy may serve.

For a good study of modernism, see Marshall Berman's All That is Solid Melts into Air.

Among popular and influential examples of post-modern literature are Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot and works by Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth[?], and Kurt Vonnegut.

Some suggest Douglas Adams' series Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency as a humorous introduction to postmodern ideas. Some postmodern philosophy may also appear is his better known work, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

But some people think that modernity has reached its end; there will be no more progress, just more combinations and re-combinations of what we now have. They feel that the Enlightenment project is bankrupt, that there will be no more progress -- and they celebrate this, they feel that the new global economy, the "information age" has liberated us from everything that the enlightenment sought, unsuccessfully, to liberate us from. These are people who looked to post-modern art and architecture for inspiration in a new philosophy. The leading proponent of this attempt to bring post-modernism into philosophy is Lyotard[?] who wrote a short book called The Postmodern Condition. Guy Debord is another important post-modernist philosopher.


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 deconstructionism 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.

Post-Modernism vs. 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 and 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 the structural analysis carried a somewhat anti-Enlightenment message, revealing that rationality can be found in the minds of "savage" people, just in different forms than 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 may be found in their respective attitudes towards both the demise of the projects of the enlightenment and modernity that one most clearly sees the difference between the two: post-structuralism is fundamentally ambivalent, while post-modernism is decidedly celebratory.

Another is the nature of the two positions. While post-structuralism is a position in philosophy, emcompassing 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 judgements 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 objectivity, evident in most contemporary critical theorists, that is the common point of attack for postmodernist critics. Many critics characterise postmodernism as a temporary phenomenon that can't be adequately defined simply because, as a philosophy at least, it doesn't represent anything more substantial than a series of disparate conjectures allied only in their distrust of modernism.

Indeed, there seems 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.

Despite its ability to challenge the status quo and shake the foundations of ingrained ideologies, many theorists think postmodernism is on decidedly shaky epistemological grounds. 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. This is the common approach of left academics with Marxist leanings, such as Terry Eagleton[?], Fredric Jameson[?] (Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism[?]), and David Harvey[?] (The Condition of Postmodernity), whose attacks on the philosophy of postmodernism have been frequent and scathing.

Such critics see postmodernism as, essentially, a kind of semantic gamesmanship, more sophistry than substance. Postmoderism'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 a physicist wrote a deliberately and obviously nonsensical article purportedly about interpreting physics and mathematics in terms of postmodern theory which was nevertheless published by a journal of postmodern thought.

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.

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