The term “postmodernism” means, literally speaking, “after modernism.” It also can mean “moving beyond” or “opposing.” To understand what postmodernism is we must understand how it differs from modernism, the period that came before it, which spanned from approximately 1915 to 1960. In 1924 the writer Virginia Woolf wrote “in or about December, 1910, human character changed…All human relations have shifted—those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relationships change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics and literature.” She was dealing with what we can characterize as the development of the modernist sensibility.
The term “modern” comes from the fifth-century Latin word modernus, which was used by historians and others to differentiate the pagan era from the Christian era. As Bryan S. Turner explains in his book Theories of Modernity and Postmodernity, modernism involves a rejection of history and of the notion of differentiation. We can see this in modernist architecture which tends to be stylistically pure while postmodernist architecture often blends many different styles in a building. We can compare the modernist work of the Dutch architect Mies van der Rohe, with his “glass curtain walls” and the work of the postmodernist architect Philip Johnson, whose AT&T skyscraper has a Roman colonnade on the street level, a neoclassical midsection and a Chippendale pediment on its top. This means that postmodernism involves a kind of cultural eclecticism and de-differentiation.
After 1960 postmodernism became what might described as a “cultural dominant.” This is the term that Frederic Jameson uses to characterize postmodernism. He argues that postmodernism is actually an advanced form of modernism and is characterized by the capitalism that flourished during that period. This is made clear in the title of his book: Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. As he explains in this book, postmodernism involves a “break” from modernism (1991: 2):
[There is] one fundamental feature of all the postmodernisms … namely the effacement in them of the older (essentially high-modernist) frontier between high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture…The postmodernisms have, in fact, been fascinated precisely by this whole “degraded” landscape of schlock and kitsch, of TV series and Reader’s Digest culture, of advertising and motels, of the late show and the grade-B Hollywood film, of so-called paraliterature, with its airport paperback categories of the gothic and the romance, the popular biography, the murder mystery, and the science fiction or fantasy novel….
Postmodernism, he adds, is the culture of figures such as Andy Warhol, Philip Glass, Thomas Pynchon and Ishmael Reed and movements such as pop art, photorealism, and the nouveau roman.
Some theorists argue that postmodernism is not just an “advanced” or different form of modernism and is considerably different from it in important ways. These critics suggest that postmodernism has an identity of its own. Postmodernism, these theorists assert, helps explain what has been going on in American culture and in many other cultures since approximately 1960, when the influence of modernism started fading. The argument that Virginia Woolf made about the changes brought on by modernism can be made about postmodernism, who argue that around 1960 another important change occurred in our sensibilities, as we moved into a postmodern era. There are some scholars who argue that postmodernism is passé and that we now live in a post-postmodernism period, but none of them have been able to think up a suitable name for this period.
There is a considerable amount of debate about modernism and postmodernism in our universities and some critics of postmodernism suggest it is or was nothing more than a fad popularized by French and continental intellectuals while defenders of postmodernism argue that postmodernist theory is necessary to explain the world we now live in. The defenders of postmodernism believe that it represents an important “cultural mutation” that has occurred in since 1960 and this mutation in beliefs, attitudes, philosophies and aesthetic sensibilities is what is explained by theorists of postmodernism.
Postmodernism also develops around the same time as capitalism becomes dominant and thus postmodernism is associated with mass consumption which dominates fashion and shapes peoples lifestyles. According to postmodern theorists, we live now in a world dominated by signs, by simulations, by media, and by images. As a result of this, our sense of reality has been undermined and our modernist attitudes about elite culture and popular culture have been discarded. The pastiche becomes a dominant mode in postmodernism culture and eclecticism rules. This sensibility is expressed in Jean-Francois Lyotard’s book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, when he writes (1984:76):
Eclecticism is the degree zero of contemporary general culture: one listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald’s food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and “retro” clothes in Hong Kong; knowledge is a matter for TV games. It is easy to find a public for eclectic works. By becoming kitsch, art panders to the confusions which reigns in the “taste” of patrons. Artists, gallery owners, critics and the public wallow together in the “anything goes,” and the epoch is one of slackening. But this realism of the “anything goes” is in fact that of money; in the absence of aesthetic criteria, it remains possible and useful to assess the works of art according to the profit they yield. Such realism accommodates all tendencies, just as capital accommodates all “needs,” providing that the tendencies and needs have purchasing power. As for taste, there is no need to be delicate when one speculates or entertains oneself.
Lyotard points out that there is, in fact, a unifying factor beneath the seeming randomness and eclecticism of postmodern culture, namely that of money. The question eclecticism raises is whether there can ever be an end to the eclecticism and experimentation in lifestyles that it reflects.
Let me summarize now some of the differences between postmodernism and modernism, which have been mentioned or implied in the discussion above. If modernism involves making distinctions between between the elite arts and popular culture, postmodernism involves what can be described as de-differentiation. It breaks down the distinctions between the elite arts and popular culture and revels in experimentation and in mass mediated culture. Modernism involves an attitude of “high seriousness” towards life while postmodernism involves an ironic attitude and a kind of playfulness. In postmodernist societies, people “play” with their identities, changing them when they feel bored with their old ones. Postmodernism also involves stylistic eclecticism with the pastiche as a dominating metaphor.
Modernist believe we can know reality and postmodernists argue that this is not possible, that we are always being misled by illusions, simulacra, and hyperreality, the term the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard uses for the world of images and simulations that pervade everyday life.. Postmodernism is the realm of consumer culture, in contrast to what we might call the production culture of modernism. The heroes of postmodernism tend to be celebrities and entertainment figures, whose tastes and consumption habits are held up as models to us all.
The British historian Arnold Toynbee is credited with being one of the first writers to use them term in his multi-volume epic work, A Study of History whose first volume appeared in 1934. The term started becoming more popular in the Sixties. Bernard Rosenberg, a sociologist, used the term in an introduction he wrote to Mass Culture. He writes, “First besieged with commodities, postmodern man himself becomes an interchangeable part in the whole cultural process.” (1957: 4) In this passage,
Rosenberg ties postmodernism to the mass media and the rise of consumer culture and suggests a process of dehumanization is at work in postmodernist cultures.
This relationship between postmodernism and consumer cultures is one that many other postmodernist theorists have made. In his essay
Rosenberg connected postmodernism with what has been called “cultural homogenization” on a global level which differs from the view of many postmodern theorists that it leads to the opposite, a kind of anarchic hyper-differentiation in people.
Charles Jencks, an architect known for designing postmodern buildings, sees postmodernism as inherently democratic and as a reflection of the multicultural, multiethnic societies in which we now live. He uses the term “double-coding” to mean using different aesthetic styles used in a building. Thus, in one building you can find styles connected both to modernism and postmodernism which relate to the many different socio-economic classes and ethnic groups which will use the building, groups with different levels of taste and sophistication. The great postmodern architects such as Robert Venturi, Robert Stern and Michael Graves use both popular and elitist styles in their buildings to appeal to the varying tastes of people who see and use their buildings.
One of the most useful characterizations of postmodernism appears in Ellis Cashmore and Christ Rojek’s anthology, Dictionary of Cultural Theorists. In their introduction to the book, they suggest that in postmodernity, what seemed to be fixed and universal categories and certainty found in modernism become replaced by an inability to accept any agreed upon cultural boundaries or certainties. Under postmodernism, they argue, we have abandoned a belief in scientific rationality and all-embracing theories of truth and of progress. (1999: 6)
This notion is found in one of the most celebrated descriptions of postmodernism, made by the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. He writes in his influential book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (
) 1984: xxiv: University of Minnesota Press
Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in turn presupposes it. To the obsolescence of the metanarrative apparatus of legitimation corresponds, most notably, the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university institution which in the past relied on it. The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. (1984: xxiv)
According to Lyotard, we no longer have faith in the great all-encompassing, narratives or systems of thought (as manifested in philosophy, political ideologies and religions) that have provided us with ways of behaving and apprehending the world. In a postmodern world, we have many different narratives fighting for our acceptance and this has led to a crisis of legitimation. Whose ideas are correct? How do we distinguish between right and wrong? Our incredulity toward these metanarratives has made it impossible, it would seem, to answer these questions.
Postmodernism may seem, at first sight, to be relativistic but it may not actually be relativistic. That is one of the controversies about postmodernism. The problem can be stated as follows: just because you don’t accept one “universal” standard doesn’t mean you cannot have any standards at all. Postmodernists may not believe in metanarratives but that doesn’t mean they don’t believe in any narratives. This is because we all need narratives, of one sort of another, to live. But how does one decide which narratives are valid?
Nietzsche faced this problem in his book The Will to Power. In this book he wrote that he had an aversion to any “one total view of the world.” He added that there are only interpretations, not facts. This notion is basic to postmodern thought, which argues that there are “countless meanings” or ways of looking at things, which is what Nietzsche called “perspectivism.” The more perspectives you have on something, he suggested, the closer you get to apprehending it as it really is.
Postmodernism raises the question of whether we can establish just societies without universally accepted belief in notions such as equality, democracy and the rule of law. Many postmodernist theorists, with their focus on cultural phenomenon, do not answer these questions but it is inherent in the logic of postmodernist thought that one can have just and democratic societies in ones characterized by postmodernist culture. We can cite the examples of
America and Japan, which are often held us as exemplars of postmodern democratic societies.
Some theorists argue that there are two kinds of postmodernism—“conservative” and “critical” postmodernism. It is conservative postmodernist thought that tends towards relativism and an “anything goes” attitude while critical postmodernist thought attempts to deal with the limitations and the failures of modernism and find ways of creating societies that are more just and more democratic.
If you search for “modernism” in Google you find there are 9, 370,000 web sites that deal with the subject. If you search for “postmodernism” in Google you find there are 5,580,000 web sites devoted to it. There is also a program you find on Google called the “postmodern essay generator” that creates different parodies of postmodernist thought each time you click on it. These parodies use the names of well known postmodernist thinkers such as Baudrillard and Lyotard and the language of postmodernist thought, such as simulacra, hyperreality, and eclecticism, to ridicule the subject. They also include titles of make-believe books by make-believe authors.
Google also informs us that there 18,100 web sites that deal with post-postmodernism. What the Google searches reveal is that modernism and postmodernism (and, if it actually exists, post-postmodernism) remain as subjects of considerable interest, contention, conflict, and perhaps confusion, to contemporary cultural theorists. We may not be able to define postmodernism precisely or to everyone’s satisfaction and we may not be able to distinguish it from modernism, but as we look around the world we live in, with its remarkable and “strange” new buildings, with its shopping malls and its Disneylands, with films such as Rashomon and Blue Velvet, and with our media saturated societies, we cannot help but think that whatever postmodernism may be, it certainly has led to profound changes in our societies. These changes, it can be argued, reflect that impact of postmodernism on our cultures and character.