Postmodernism is an era and a broad movement that developed in the mid to late 20th century that rejects the idea of objective truth and universal social progress. Starting with the 18th century Enlightenment, and for more than a century there was widespread belief that science and knowledge would improve the world; social progress would be inevitable. Modernism in particular held these beliefs. Postmodernism challenges that notion.
Although the term was first used around 1870, its modern appearance was to express criticism of modern architecture in 1949, leading to the postmodern architecture movement (a return to surface ornament, historical reference in decorative forms, and less boxy shapes). Postmodernism is not a method, but rather a way of approaching traditional ideas and practices in non-traditional ways that deviate from pre-established modes. Postmodernism gained significant popularity in the 1950s and dominated literature and art by the 1960s.
Postmodernism postulates that many, if not all, apparent realities are only social constructs and are therefore subject to change. It claims that there is no absolute truth and that the way people perceive the world is subjective and emphasises the role of language, power relations, and motivations in the formation of ideas and beliefs. In particular it attacks the use of sharp binary classifications such as male versus female, straight versus gay, white versus black, and imperial versus colonial; it holds realities to be plural and relative, and to be dependent on who the interested parties are and the nature of these interests. Postmodernist approaches therefore often consider the ways in which social dynamics, such as power and hierarchy, affect human conceptualizations of the world to have important effects on the way knowledge is constructed and used.
According to the OED postmodernism is: ‘a style and concept in the arts characterized by distrust of theories and ideologies and by the drawing of attention to conventions.’ Merriam-Webster: ‘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).’ However, while the term and its derivatives are freely used, with some uses apparently contradicting others, those outside the academic milieu have described it as merely a buzzword that means nothing.
British media theorist Dick Hebdige, in his text ‘Hiding in the Light,’ 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-centering’ 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 miniaturized 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 generalized 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.’
In addition to the possible terms given, American social scientist Kaya Yilmaz presents the idea that when studying this theory one must remember that there is not one definition, hence the multiple provided. There are three reasons behind the lack of concrete definition. One being that the disposition itself, is that the theory is ‘anti-essentialist and anti-foundationalist.’ The idea of postmodernism in its entirety is not to be clearly defined or predictable. The second reason is that it is a theory that is contrasting and does not have a specific way of presenting or explaining itself. Finally, the theory is not even clearly defined by its inventors and researchers. Those scholars who first founded this ideal intentionally did not give it a clear, concrete diagnosis.
One of the most popular postmodernist tendencies within aesthetics is deconstruction, a Derridean approach to textual analysis. 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 (elements of culture must be understood in terms of their relationship to a larger, overarching system) was a broad philosophical movement that developed particularly in France in the 1950s, partly in response to French Existentialism, but is considered by many to be an exponent of High-Modernism, though its categorization as either a Modernist or Postmodernist trend is contested. Many Structuralists later moved away from the most strict interpretations and applications of ‘structure,’ and are thus called ‘Post-structuralists.’ Though many Post-structuralists were referred to as Postmodern in their lifetimes, many explicitly rejected the term. Though by no means a unified movement with a set of shared axioms or methodologies, Post-structuralism emphasizes the ways in which different aspects of a cultural order, from its most banal material details to its most abstract theoretical exponents, determine one another (rather than espousing a series of strict, uni-directional, cause and effect relationships). Like Structuralism, it places particular focus on the determination of identities, values, and economies in relation to one another, rather than assuming intrinsic properties or essences of signs or components as starting points.
As would be expected, Post-structuralist writing tends to connect observations and references from many, widely varying disciplines into a synthetic view of knowledge and its relationship to experience, the body, society and economy – a synthesis in which it sees itself as participating. Structuralists, while also somewhat inter-disciplinary, were more comfortable within departmental boundaries and often maintained the autonomy of their analytical methods over the objects they analyzed. In short, Post-structuralists, unlike Structuralists, tended to place a great deal of skepticism on the independence of theoretical premises from collective bias and the influence of power, and rejected the notion of a ‘pure’ or ‘scientific’ methodology in social analysis, semiotics, or philosophical speculation. No theory, they said – especially when concerning human society or psychology – was capable of reducing phenomena to elemental systems or abstract patterns.
Aside from the philosophy of post-Modernism is the emerging group within the world population who considers themself to be born into the Post-Modern Era. These world citizens can choose to model their activity from any documented stage of any period in history. Likewise, people are documenting their doings better than their parents ever could in the past. Therefore, the Post-Modern world is confounded with options. She, the post-Modernist, can choose her calling from any set of individual or collective identities. The overwhelming trait of the post-Modernist is the sense of fatalism, in that she must utilize the offerings of history and society. She fits in with a more classless and clanless culture than ever before.
Recently the notions of metamodernism, Post-postmodernism, and the ‘death of postmodernism’ have been increasingly widely debated. 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 have so far gained very widespread acceptance.
After postmodernism was applied to architecture in 1949, its use was expanded to a whole host of movements, many in art, music, and literature, that reacted against tendencies in the imperialist phase of capitalism called ‘modernism,’ and are typically marked by revival of historical elements and techniques. Political scientist Walter Truett Anderson identifies postmodernism as one of four typological world views. These four world views 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 civilization; and the neo-romantic, in which truth is found through attaining harmony with nature and/or spiritual exploration of the inner self.
Postmodernist ideas in philosophy and the analysis of culture and society expanded the importance of critical theory (stresses the examination and critique of society) 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 the 1950s 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.
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 people such as Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Philip Johnson, was focused on the pursuit of a perceived ideal perfection, and attempted harmony of form and function, and 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 and Robert Venturi reject the notion of a ‘pure’ form or ‘perfect’ architectonic detail, instead conspicuously drawing from all methods, materials, forms and colors available to architects. Modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is associated with the phrase ‘less is more’; in contrast Venturi famously said, ‘Less is a bore.’ 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.
Postmodernism is a rejection of ‘totality’ in urban planning, of the notion that planning could be ‘comprehensive,’ widely applied regardless of context, and rational. From the 1920s onwards, the Modern movement sought to design and plan cities which followed the logic of the new model of industrial mass production; reverting to large-scale solutions, aesthetic standardization, and prefabricated design solutions. Postmodern also brought a break from the notion that planning and architecture could result in social reform, which was an integral dimension of the plans of Modernism. Furthermore, Modernism eroded urban living by its failure to recognize differences and aim towards homogenous landscapes. Within Modernism, urban planning represented a 20th Century move towards establishing something stable, structured, and rationalized within what had become a world of chaos, flux, and change. The role of planners predating Postmodernism was one of the ‘qualified professional’ who believed they could find and implement one single ‘right way’ of planning new urban establishments. In fact, after 1945, urban planning became one of the methods through which capitalism could be managed and the interests of developers and corporations could be administered. One of the greater problems with Modernist-style of planning was the disregard of resident or public opinion, which resulted in planning being forced upon the majority by a minority consisting of affluent professionals with little to no knowledge of real ‘urban’ problems characteristic of post-Second World War urban environments; slums, overcrowding, deteriorated infrastructure, pollution, and disease, among others.
These were precisely the ‘urban ills’ Modernism was meant to ‘solve,’ but more often than not, the types of ‘comprehensive,’ ‘one size fits all’ approaches to planning made things worse, and residents began to show interest in becoming involved in decisions which had once been solely entrusted to professionals of the built environment. Advocacy planning and participatory models of planning emerged in the 1960s to counter these traditional elitist and technocratic approaches to urban planning. The transition from Modernism to Postmodernism is often said to have happened at 3:32pm on the 15th of July in 1972, when Pruitt Igoe; a housing development for low-income people in St. Louis, which had been a prize winning version of le Corbusier’s ‘machine for modern living’ was deemed uninhabitable and was torn down. Since then, Postmodernism has involved theories that embrace and aim to create diversity, and it exhaults uncertainty, flexibility, and change . Postmodern planning aims to accept pluralism and heighten awareness of social differences in order to accept and bring to light the claims of minority and disadvantaged groups.
Literary postmodernism was officially inaugurated 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. Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges’s 1939 short story ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,’ is often considered as predicting postmodernism and conceiving the ideal of the ultimate parody. Samuel Beckett is also sometimes seen as an important precursor and influences. Novelists who are commonly counted to postmodern literature include Vladimir Nabokov, William Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, E.L. Doctorow, and Thomas Pynchon.
In 1971, the Arab-American scholar Ihab Hassan published ‘The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature,’ an early work of literary criticism from a postmodern perspective, in which the author traces the development of what he calls ‘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 (a type of experimental 1950s French novel). In ‘Postmodernist Fiction’ (1987), Brian McHale details the shift from modernism to postmodernism, arguing that the former is characterized by an epistemological dominant (related to the nature of knowledge), and that postmodern works have developed out of modernism and are primarily concerned with questions of ontology (the nature of being). In ‘Constructing Postmodernism’ (1992), McHale’s second book, he provides readings of postmodern fiction and of some of the contemporary writers who go under the label of cyberpunk. McHale’s ‘What Was Postmodernism?’ (2007), follows Raymond Federman’s lead in now using the past tense when discussing postmodernism.
Postmodern music is either music of the postmodern era, or music that follows aesthetic and philosophical trends of postmodernism. As the name suggests, the postmodernist movement formed partly in reaction to the ideals of the modernist. Because of this, Postmodern music is mostly defined in opposition to modernist music, and a work can either be modernist, or postmodern, but not both. Music theorist Jonathan Kramer posits the idea (following Umberto Eco and Jean-François Lyotard) that postmodernism (including musical postmodernism) is less a surface style or historical period (i.e., condition) than an attitude. The postmodern impulse in classical music arose in the 1960s with the advent of musical minimalism. Composers such as Terry Riley, Henryk Górecki, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, and Michael Nyman reacted to the perceived elitism and dissonant sound of atonal academic modernism by producing music with simple textures and relatively consonant harmonies, whilst others, most notably John Cage challenged the prevailing narratives of beauty and objectivity common to Modernism. 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, 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.