From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

(Redirected from Post-modernism)
Jump to: navigation, search
This article needs to be cleaned up to conform to a higher standard of quality.
This article has been tagged since October 2005.
See Wikipedia:How to edit a page and Category:Wikipedia help for help, or this article's talk page.

Postmodernism series

Previous: Modernism

Postmodern philosophy
Postmodern architecture
Postmodern literature
Postmodern music
Critical theory
Minimalism in Art
Minimalism in Music

Postmodernism is any of a wide-ranging set of developments in critical theory, philosophy, architecture, art, literature, and culture, which are generally characterized as either emerging from, in reaction to, or superseding modernism.


Uses of the term

In architecture, art, music and literature, postmodernism is a name for many stylistic reactions to, and developments from, modernism. Postmodern style is often characterized by eclecticism, digression, collage, pastiche, and irony. Some artistic movements commonly called postmodern are pop art, architectural deconstructivism, magical realism in literature, maximalism, and neo-romanticism. Postmodern theorists see postmodern art as a conflation or reversal of well-established modernist systems, such as the roles of artist versus audience, seriousness versus play, or high culture versus kitsch.

In sociology, postmodernism is described as being the result of economic, cultural and demographic changes (related terms in this context include post-industrial society and late capitalism) and it is attributed to factors such as the rise of the service economy, the importance of the mass media and the rise of an increasingly interdependent world economy. See also postmodern, information age, globalization, global village, media theory.

As a cultural movement, postmodernism is an aspect of postmodernity, which is broadly defined as the condition of Western society after modernity. The adjective postmodern (in slang abbreviated to pomo) can refer to aspects of either postmodernism or postmodernity. According to postmodern theorist Jean-François Lyotard, postmodernity is characterized as an "incredulity toward metanarratives", meaning that in the era of postmodern culture, people have rejected the grand, supposedly universal stories and paradigms such as religion, conventional philosophy, capitalism and gender that have defined culture and behavior in the past, and have instead begun to organize their cultural life around a variety of more local and subcultural ideologies, myths and stories. Furthermore, it promotes the idea that all such metanarratives and paradigms are stable only while they fit the available evidence, and can potentially be overturned when phenomena occur that the paradigm cannot account for, and a better explanatory model (itself subject to the same fate) is found. See La Condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir (The Post Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge[1984]) in [Lyotard [1979]], and the results of acceptance of postmodernism is the view that different realms of discourse are incommensurable and incapable of judging the results of other discourse, a conclusion he drew in Le Différend (1984).

In philosophy, where the term is extensively used, it applies to movements that include post-structuralism, deconstruction, multiculturalism, gender studies and literary theory, sometimes called simply "theory". It emerged beginning in the 1950s as a critique of doctrines such as positivism and emphasizes the importance of power relationships, personalization and discourse in the "construction" of truth and world views. In this context it has been used by many critical theorists to assert that postmodernism is a break with the artistic and philosophical tradition of the Enlightenment, which they characterize as a quest for an ever-grander and more universal system of aesthetics, ethics, and knowledge. They present postmodernism as a radical criticism of Western philosophy. Postmodern philosophy draws on a number of approaches to criticize Western thought, including historicism, and psychoanalytic theory.

The term postmodernism is also used in a broader pejorative sense to describe attitudes, sometimes part of the general culture, and sometimes specifically aimed at critical theories perceived as relativist, nihilist, counter-Enlightenment or antimodern, particularly in relationship to critiques of rationalism, universalism, or science. It is also sometimes used to describe social changes which are held to be antithetical to traditional systems of philosophy, religion, and morality.

The role, proper usage, and meaning of postmodernism remain matters of intense debate and vary widely with context.

The development of postmodernism

Features of postmodern culture begin to arise in the 1920s with the emergence of the Dada movement, which featured collage and a focus on the framing of objects and discourse as being as important, or more important, than the work itself. Another strand which would have tremendous impact on post-modernism would be the existentialists, who placed the centrality of the individual narrative as being the source of morals and understanding. However, it is with the end of the Second World War that recognizably post-modernist attitudes begin to emerge.

Central to these is the focusing on the problems of any knowledge which is founded on anything external to an individual. Post-modernism, while widely diverse in its forms, almost invariably begins from the problem of knowledge which is broadly disseminated in its form, but not limited in its interpretation. Post-modernism rapidly developed a vocabulary of anti-enlightenment rhetoric, used to argue that rationality was neither as sure or as clear as rationalists supposed, and that knowledge was inherently linked to time, place, social position and other factors from which an individual constructs their view of knowledge. To escape from constructed knowledge, it then becomes necessary to critique it, and thus deconstruct the asserted knowledge. Jacques Derrida argued that to defend against the inevitable self-deconstruction, or breaking down, of knowledge, systems of power (called hegemony) would have to postulate an original utterance, the logos. This "privileging" of an original utterance is called "logocentrism".

Instead of rooting knowledge in particular utterances, or "texts", the basis of knowledge was seen to be in the free play of discourse itself, an idea rooted in Wittgenstein's idea of a language game. This emphasis on the allowability of free play within the context of conversation and discourse leads postmodernism to adopt the stance of irony, paradox, textual manipulation, reference and tropes.

Armed with this process of questioning the social basis of assertions, postmodernist philosophers began to attack unities of modernism, and particularly unities seen as being rooted in the Enlightenment. Since Modernism had made the Enlightenment a central source of its superiority over the Victorian and Romantic periods, this attack amounted to an indirect attack on the establishment of modernism itself. Perhaps the most striking examples of this skepticism are to be found in the works of French cultural theorist, Jean Baudrillard. In his book Simulacra and Simulation(1981), 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 therefore has an obvious distrust toward claims about truth, ethics, or beauty being rooted in anything other than individual perception and group construction. Utopian ideals of universally applicable truths or aesthetics give way to provisional, decentered, local petit récits which, rather than referencing an underlying universal truth or aesthetic, point only to other ideas and cultural artifacts, themselves subject to interpretation and re-interpretation. The "truth", since it can only be understood by all of its connections is perpetually "deferred", never reaching a point of fixed knowledge which can be called "the truth." This emphasis on construction and consensus often breeds antagonism with scientific thinking, as the Sokal Affair shows.

Postmodernism is often used in a larger sense, meaning the entire trend of thought in the late 20th century, and the social and philosophical realities of that period. Marxist critics argue that post-modernism is symptomatic of "late capitalism" and the decline of institutions, particularly the nation-state. Other thinkers assert that post-modernity is the natural reaction to mass broadcasting and a society conditioned to mass production and mass political decision making. The ability of knowledge to be endlessly copied, defeats attempts to constrain interpretation, or to set "originality" by simple means such as the production of a work. From this perspective, the schools of thought labelled "postmodern" are not as widely at odds with their time period as the polemics and arguments appear to point, for example, to the shift of the basis of scientific knowledge to a provisional consensus of scientists, as posited by Thomas Kuhn. Post-modernism is seen, in this view, as being conscious of the nature of the discontinuity between modern and post-modern periods which is generally present.

Postmodernism has manifestations in many modern academic and non-academic disciplines: philosophy, theology, art, architecture, film, television, music, theatre, sociology, fashion, technology, literature, and communications are all heavily influenced by postmodern trends and ideas, and are thoroughly scrutinised from postmodern perspectives. Crucial to these are the denial of customary expectations, the use of non-orthogonal angles in buildings such as the work of Frank Gehry, and the shift in arts exemplified by the rise of minimalism in art and music. Post-modern philosophy often labels itself as critical theory and grounds the construction of identity in the mass media.

Postmodernism was first identified as a theoretical discipline in the 1970's, but as a cultural movement it predates them by many years. Exactly when modernism began to give way to postmodernism depends on the observer and the theoretical framework. 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, which has aspects of a lumpers/splitters problem: is the entire 20th century one period, or two distinct periods?

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 language, Søren 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, writers such as John Ralston Saul among others have argued 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 ideas appear conducive to, and strongly associated with, the feminist movement, racial equality movements, gay 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 in its most concentrated definition, 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:

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


Main article: Deconstruction

Deconstruction is a term which is used to denote the application of post-modern ideas of criticism, or theory, to a "text" or "artifact". A deconstruction is meant to undermine the frame of reference and assumptions that underpin the text or the artifact.

In its original use, a "deconstruction" is an important textual "occurrence" described and analyzed by many postmodern authors and philosophers. They argued that aspects in the text itself would undermine its own authority or assumptions, that internal contradictions would erase boundaries or categories which the work relied on or asserted. Post-structuralists beginning with Jacques Derrida, who coined the term, argued that the existence of deconstructions implied that there was no intrinsic essence to a text, merely the contrast of difference. This is analogous to the scientific idea that only the variations are real, that there is no established norm to a genetic population, or the idea that the difference in perception between black and white is the context. A deconstruction is created when the "deeper" substance of text opposes the text's more "superficial" form. This too is not an idea isolated to post-structuralists, but is related to the idea of hermeneutics in literature, and was asserted as early as Plato, and by modern thinkers such as Leo Strauss. Derrida's argument is that deconstruction proves that texts have multiple meanings, and the "violence" between the different meanings of text may be elucidated by close textual analysis.

Popularly, close textual analyses describing deconstruction within a text are often themselves called deconstructions. Derrida argued, however, that deconstruction is not a method or a tool, but an occurrence within the text itself. Writings about deconstruction perhaps are referred to in academic circles as deconstructive readings, in conformance with this view of the word.

Deconstruction is far more important to postmodernism than its seemingly narrow focus on text might imply. According to Derrida, one consequence of deconstruction is that the text may be defined so broadly as to encompass not just written words, but the entire spectrum of symbols and phenomena within Western thought. To Derrida, a result of deconstruction is that no Western philosopher has been able to successfully escape from this large web of text and reach the purely text-free "signified" which they imagined to exist "just beyond" the text.

The more common use of the term is the more general process of pointing to contradictions between the intent and surface of a work, and the assumptions about it. A work then "deconstructs" assumptions when it places them in context. For example, someone who can pass as the opposite sex is said to "deconstruct" gender roles, because there is a conflict between the superficial appearance, and the reality of the person's gender.

Postmodernism's manifestations

Postmodernism in language

Important to postmodernism's role in language is the focus on the implied meaning of words and forms the power structures that are accepted as part of the way words are used, from the use of the word "Man" with a capital "M" to refer to the collective humanity, to the default of the word "he" in English as a pronoun for a person of gender unknown to the speaker, or as a casual replacement for the word "one". This, however, is merely the most obvious example of the changing relationship between diction and discourse which postmodernism presents.

An important concept in postmodernism's view of language is the idea of "play" text. In the context of postmodernism, play means changing the framework which connects ideas, and thus allows the troping, or turning, of a metaphor or word from one context to another, or from one frame of reference to another. Since, in postmodern thought, the "text" is a series of "markings" whose meaning is imputed by the reader, and not by the author, this play is the means by which the reader constructs or interprets the text, and the means by which the author gains a presence in the reader's mind. Play then involves invoking words in a manner which undermines their authority, by mocking their assumptions or style, or by layers of misdirection as to the intention of the author.

Another key concept is the view that people are, essentially, blank slated linguistically, and that social acclimation, cultural factors, habituation and images are the primary ways of shaping the structure of how people view the outside world. For this reason Postmodernism in language is associated with post-structuralism and associated theories of nurture-driven intellectual development.

This view of writing is not without harsh detractors, who regard it as needlessly difficult and obscure, and a violation of the implicit contract of lucidity between author and reader: that an author has something to communicate, and shall choose words which transmit the idea as transparently as possible to the reader. Thus postmodernism in language has often been identified with poor writing and communication skills. The term pomobabble came to be within pop culture to illustrate this trend.

Postmodern philosophers are often regarded as difficult to read, and the critical theory that has sprung up in the wake of postmodernism has often been ridiculed for its stilted syntax and attempts to combine polemical tone and a vast array of new coinages. However, similar charges could be levelled at the works of previous eras, such as the works of Immanuel Kant, as well as at the entire tradition of Greek thought in antiquity.

Postmodernism in art

Main article: Postmodern art

Where modernists hoped 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 art forms. It rejects rigid genre boundaries and favors eclecticism, the mixing of ideas and forms. Partly due to this rejection, it promotes parody, irony, and playfulness, commonly referred to as jouissance by 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."

Post-modernity, in attacking the perceived elitist approach of Modernism, sought greater connection with broader audiences. This is often labelled "accessibility" and is a central point of dispute in the question of the value of postmodern art. It has also embraced the mixing of words with art, collage and other movements in modernity, in an attempt to create more multiplicity of medium and message. Much of this centers on a shift of basic subject matter: postmodern artists regard the mass media as a fundamental subject for art, and use forms, tropes, and materials - such as banks of video monitors, found art, and depictions of media objects - as focal points for their art. With his "invention" of "readymade", Marcel Duchamp is often seen as a forerunner on postmodern art. Where Andy Warhol furthered the concept with his appropriation of common popular symbols and "ready-made" cultural artifacts, bringing the previously mundane or trivial onto the previously hallowed ground of high art.

Postmodernism's critical stance is interlinked with presenting new appraisals of previous works. As implied above the works of the "Dada" movement received greater attention, as did collagists such as Robert Rauschenberg, whose works were initially considered unimportant in the context of the modernism of the 1950s, but who, by the 1980s, began to be seen as seminal. Post-modernism also elevated the importance of cinema in artistic discussions, placing it on a peer level with the other fine arts. This is both because of the blurring of distinctions between "high" and "low" forms, and because of the recognition that cinema represented the creation of simulacra which was later duplicated in the other arts.

See also: Contemporary art

Postmodernism in architecture

Main article: Postmodern architecture

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

Architects generally considered postmodern include: Peter Eisenman, Philip Johnson (later works), John Burgee, Robert Venturi, Ricardo Bofill, James Stirling, Charles Willard Moore, and Frank Gehry.

Postmodernism in literature

Main article: Postmodern literature

Postmodern literature argues for expansion, the return of reference, the celebration of fragmentation rather than the fear of it, and the role of reference itself in literature. While drawing on the experimental tendencies of authors such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf in English, and Borges in Spanish, who were taken as influences by American postmodern works by authors such as Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, William Gaddis, David Foster Wallace and Paul Auster, the advocates of postmodern literature argue that the present is fundamentally different from the modern period, and therefore requires a new literary sensibility.

Postmodernism in music

Main article: Postmodern music

Postmodern music is both a musical style and a musical condition. As a musical style, postmodern music contains characteristics of postmodern art—that is, art after modernism (see Modernism in Music). eclecticism in musical form and musical genre, and often combines characteristics from different genres, or employs jump-cut sectionalization (such as blocks). It tends to be self-referential and ironic, and it blurs the boundaries between "high art" and kitsch. Daniel Albright (2004) summarizes the traits of the postmodern style as bricolage, polystylism, and randomness.

As a musical condition, postmodern music is simply the state of music in postmodernity, music after modernity. In this sense, postmodern music does not have any one particular style or characteristic, and is not necessarily postmodern in style or technique. The music of modernity, however, was viewed primarily as a means of expression while the music of postmodernity is valued more as a spectacle, a good for mass consumption, and an indicator of group identity. For example, one significant role of music in postmodern society is to act as a badge by which people can signify their identity as a member of a particular subculture.

Postmodernism in political science

Many situations which are considered political in nature, can not be adequately discussed in traditional realist and liberal approaches to political science. Brief examples include the situation of a “draft-age youth whose identity is claimed in national narratives of ‘national security’ and the universalizing narratives of the ‘rights of man,’” of “the woman whose very womb is claimed by the irresolvable contesting narratives of ‘church,’ ‘paternity,’ ‘economy,’ and ‘liberal polity.’ In these cases, there are no fixed categories, stable sets of values, or common sense meanings to be understood in their scholarly exploration. Liberal approaches to not aid in understanding these types of situations; there is no individual or social or institutional structure whose values can impose a meaning or interpretive narrative.

In these margins, people resist realist concepts of power which is repressive, in order to maintain a claim on their own identity. What makes this resistance significant is that among the aspects of power resisted is that which forces individuals to take a single identity or to be subject to a particular interpretation. Meaning and interpretation in these types of situations is always uncertain; arbitrary in fact. The power in effect here is not that of oppression, but that of the cultural and social implications around them, which creates the framework within which they see themselves, which creates the boundaries of their possible courses of action.

Postmodern political scientists, such as Richard Ashley, claim that in these marginal sites it is impossible to construct a coherent narrative, or story, about what is really taking place without including contesting and contradicting narratives, and still have a “true” story from the perspective of a “sovereign subject,” who can dictate the values pertinent to the “meaning” of the situation. In fact, it is possible here to deconstruct the idea of meaning. Ashley attempts reveal the ambiguity of texts, especially Western texts, how the texts themselves can be seen as "sites of conflict" within a given culture or worldview. By regarding them in this way, deconstructive readings attempt to uncover evidence of ancient cultural biases, conflicts, lies, tyrannies, and power structures, such as the tensions and ambiguity between peace and war, lord and subject, male and female, which serve as further examples of Derrida's binary oppositions in which the first element is privileged, or considered prior to and more authentic, in relation to the second. Examples of postmodern political scientists include post-colonial writers such as Frantz Fanon, feminist writers such as Cynthia Enloe, and postpositive theorists such as Ashley and James Der Derian.

Postmodernism in philosophy

Main article: Postmodern 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.

The term "Neo-liberalism" has been used in a theological sense as a drive to deliberately modify the beliefs and practices of the church (especially evangelical) to conform to post-modernism, for more on this please see emergent church.

Postmodernism and post-structuralism

In terms of frequently cited works, postmodernism and post-structuralism overlap quite significantly. Some philosophers, such as Jean-François 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 views on human beings, 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 the modern age.

Postmodernity and digital communications

Technological utopianism is a common trait in Western history — from the 1700s when Adam Smith essentially labelled technological progress as the source of the Wealth of Nations, through the novels of Jules Verne in the late 1800s (with the notable exception of his then-unpublished Paris in the 20th Century), through Winston Churchill's belief that there was little an inventor could not achieve. Its manifestation in post-modernity was first through the explosion of analog mass broadcasting of television. Strongly associated with the work of Marshall McLuhan who argued that "the medium is the message", the ability of mass broadcasting to create visual symbols and mass action was seen as a liberating force in human affairs, even at the same time Newton N. Minow was calling television "a vast wasteland".

The second wave of technological utopianism associated with postmodern thought came with the introduction of digital internetworking, and became identified with Esther Dyson and such popular outlets as Wired Magazine. According to this view digital communications makes the fragmentation of modern society a positive feature, since individuals can seek out those artistic, cultural and community experiences which they regard as being correct for themselves.

The common thread is that the fragmentation of society and communication gives the individual more autonomy to create their own environment and narrative. This links into the postmodern novel, which deals with the experience of structuring "truth" from fragments.

Postmodernism and its critics

The term post-modernism is often used pejoratively to describe tendencies perceived of as Relativist, Counter-enlightenment or antimodern, particularly in relationship to critiques of Rationalism, Universalism or Science. It is also sometimes used to describe tendencies in the society which are held to be antithetical to traditional systems of morality.

The most prominent recent criticism of postmodern art is that of John Gardner. Gardner wrote that the classification "post-modern" / "modern" applied to the art of his time was an evasion, a stab at nothing - i.e., a move to elude the basic function of criticism, which, as Gardner called it, is to judge art's moral value.

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]

Though Murray's arguments against postmodernism are far from facile, critics have cautioned that Murray's own work in The Bell Curve arrives at racially-charged conclusions through research and argumentation that may not live up to the standards he defends.

One example is the figure of Harold Bloom, who has simultaneously been hailed as being against multiculturalism and contemporary "fads" in literature, and also placed as an important figure in postmodernism. If even the critics cannot keep score as to which side of a supposedly clear line figures stand on, the best conclusion that can be drawn is that conclusions about membership in the post-modern club are provisional.

Central to the debate is the role of the concept of "objectivity" and what it means. In the broadest sense, denial of objectivity is held to be the post-modern position, and a hostility towards claims advanced on the basis of objectivity its defining feature. 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 (1982) (a quote from Marx) reflects in its title the fluid nature of "the experience of modernity."

As noted above, 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 (social geographer), 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? The critics charge that the postmodern vision of a tolerant, pluralist society in which every political ideology is perceived to be as valid, or as redundant, as the other, may ultimately encourage individuals to lead lives of a rather disastrous apathetic quietism. This reasoning leads Habermas to compare postmodernism with conservatism and the preservation of the status quo.

Such critics often 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.

To some critics, 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, which critics feel sound important but are ultimately meaningless. (Some postmodernists may argue that this is precisely the point.) In the Sokal Affair, 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 the Left-leaning Social Text, a journal which he and most of the scientific community considered as postmodernist. Notable among Sokal's false arguments published in Social Text was that the value of π changed over time and that the strength of Earth's gravity was relative to the observer. Sokal claimed this highlighted the postmodern tendency to value rhetoric and verbal gamesmanship over serious meaning. Sokal also co-wrote Fashionable Nonsense, which criticizes the inaccurate use of scientific terminology in intellectual writing and finishes with a critique of some forms of postmodernism. Ironically, postmodern literature often self-consciously plays on the format and structure of scientific writing, emphasizing the distinction between the complex content of the world and its understanding in written form. To borrow a phrase from René Magritte, some postmodern literature and art says "This is not a pipe", pointing out that the form of technical writing is not necessarily connected to its content. The Sokal affair also generated political controversy, with conservative pundits parading it as proof of the irrelevance of the academic left, while leftists criticized Sokal of serving a conservative agenda. Sokal, meanwhile, identified himself as an "unabashed Old Leftist."

Some critics feel that postmodernism is so strongly linked to politics that it does not qualify as a philosophy. These critics claim that, inasmuch as many postmodernist arguments rely on charges of racism and ethnocentrism in traditional Western science, it is little more than an out. Clearly postmodern thought has never been able to establish a logical or philosophical basis for itself, relying instead on anti-rational rejection of premises and presuppositions. This strikes many critics as inherently illogical.

Other critics attack postmodernist thought from a theological perspective, arguing that a blanket condemnation of absolutes carries implications for morality, ethics and spirituality. Few would agree that basic moral standards are random individual or social constructions. Further, absolute anti-rational perspectives comprise a profound worldview but are so general and limited as to offer little to satisfy man's search for, truth, meaning and purpose. From this perspective postmodernism is itself a false theology offering nothing more than repackaged cynicism and nihilism.

Although Ken Wilber embraces many aspects of post-modernism, he distinguishes between a healthy form and an unhealthy 'extreme' form. Inherent in the extreme version is the irreconcilability of the performative contradiction. Wilber argues postmodernism must take the stance that its view is 'better' than what preceded it (modernity, Enlightenment, meta-narratives, positivism, etc.). This intrinsic and silent judgement that postmodernism imposes on its predessors is in itself not only a value judgement (a thing it often rejects), but a hierarchy in itself (a hierarchy of values). Wilber claims his recent work in Integral theory addresses these performative contradictions, while retaining many of the important contributions of postmodernism. Wilber's approach is distinguished from other critiques by asking a different question. It does not ask whether postmodernism, or modernism, or any other system of thought as 'correct' or 'not correct'. Rather, it asks what are the emergent qualities of 'consciousness' that allow all of these systems of thought to arise in the first place? And, what important aspect of truth do they have to contribute?

Relationship between modernism and postmodernism

The relationship between modernism and postmodernism, can best be examined through the works of several authors, some of whom argue for such a distinction, while others call it into question. Following a methodology common among the authors whose work this article examines, a number of artists and writers commonly described as modernist or postmodernist will be considered, although it is noted that this classification is at times controversial. Although useful distinctions can be drawn between the modernist and postmodernist eras, this does not erase the many continuities present between them.

It is important to acknowledge that the very notion of modernity and modernism is problematic. Etymologically, it comes from Latin modo, meaning just now. (OED 2nd Ed.) Pinkey notes that the term modernism refers to "merely the empty flow of time itself" (Pinkey, 1989:42). "Modernity can only define itself in terms of a temporal break with an organic past", (ibid) or, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, "[i]n Historical use commonly applied (in contradistinction to ancient and mediæval) to the time subsequent to the middle ages". (Oxford English Dictionary, 1989) Its nature as a term is inherently indexical or deictic: every period which compares and contrasts itself to previous periods is modern in its self-understanding. Indeed, [Jürgen] Habermas observes that "[p]eople considered themselves modern during the period of Charles the Great, in the 12th century, as well as in France of the late 17th century...the term 'modern' appeared and reappeared exactly during those periods in Europe when consciousness of a new epoch formed..." (Habermas, 1981:147)

Postmodernism is an even more problematic term, paradoxically meaning (if we take its Latin origins literally) 'after just now'. Indeed, Jean-François Lyotard describes it as "the paradox of the future (post) anterior (modo)." Its paradoxical nature might lead one to question whether it is in fact distinct from the modern period. "Postmodernism has the essential double meaning, the continuation of modernism and its transcendence." (Lyotard 1984:759) (Jencks, 1986:21).

Further reading

  • Ashley, Richard and Walker, R. B. J. (1990) “Speaking the Language of Exile.” International Studies Quarterly v 34, no 3 259-68.
  • Berman, Marshall (1982) All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (ISBN 0140109625)
  • Harvey, David (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (ISBN 0631162941)
  • Hicks, Stephen R. C. (2004) Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (ISBN 1592476465)
  • Jameson, Fredric (1991) Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (ISBN 0822310902)
  • Lyotard, Jean-François (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (ISBN 0816611734)
  • Sokal, Alan and Jean Bricmont (1998) Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science (ISBN 0312204078)
  • Norris, Christopher (1990) What's Wrong with Postmodernism: Critical Theory and the Ends of Philosophy (ISBN 0801841372)
  • Veith Jr., Gene Edward (1994) Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (ISBN 0891077685)

See also

Theoretical postmodernism

Cultural and political postmodernism

External links

Personal tools