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Postmodernity (also called post-modernity or the postmodern condition) is a term used by philosophers, social scientists, art critics and social critics to refer to aspects of contemporary art, culture, economics and social conditions that are the result of the unique features of late 20th century and early 21st century life. Among these features are included globalization, consumerism, the fragmentation of authority, and the commoditization of knowledge. (See Modernity)


Brief Introduction to the Uses of the Term

The term postmodernity is used in a number of ways. Most generally, postmodernity is the state or condition of being postmodern (i.e., after or in reaction to what is modern), particularly in reference to postmodern art and postmodern architecture. In philosophy and critical theory, postmodernity more specifically refers to the state or condition of society which is said to exist after modernity. A related term is postmodernism, which refers to movements, philosophies or responses to the state of postmodernity, or in reaction to modernism.

Most theorists of postmodernity view it as a historical condition that marks the reasons for the end of modernity, which is defined as a period or condition loosely identified with the Industrial Revolution, or the Enlightenment. One "project" of modernity is said to have been the fostering of progress, which was thought to be achievable by incorporating principles of rationality and hierarchy into aspects of public and artistic life. (see also post-industrial, Information Age). This usage is ascribed to the philosophers Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard. Lyotard understood modernity as a cultural condition characterized by constant change in the pursuit of progress, and postmodernity to represent the culmination of this process, where constant change has become a status quo and the notion of progress, obsolete. Following Ludwig Wittgenstein's critique of the possibility of absolute and total knowledge, Lyotard also further argued that the various "master-narratives" of progress, such as positivist science, Marxism, and Structuralism, were defunct as a method of achieving progress.

The literary critic Frederic Jameson and the geographer David Harvey have identified post-modernity period with "late capitalism" or "flexible accumulation;" that is, the stage of capitalism following finance capitalism. This stage of capitalism is characterized a high degree of mobility of labor and capital, and what Harvey called "time and space compression." They suggest that this coincides with the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system which they believe defined the economic order following the second World War. (See also Consumerism, Critical theory)

Many philosophers, particularly those seeing themselves as being within the modern project use post-modernity with the reverse implication: the presumed results of holding post-modernist ideas. Most prominently this includes Jürgen Habermas and others who contend that post-modernity represents a resurgence of long running counter-enlightenment ideas.

"Post-modernity" is also used to demark a period in architecture beginning in the 1950's in response to the International Style, or an artistic period characterized by the abandonment of strong divisions of genre, "high" and "low" art, and the emergence of the global village. Postmodernity is said to be marked by the re-emergence of surface ornament, reference to surrounding buildings in urban architecture, historical reference in decorative forms, non-orthogonal angles such as the Sydney Opera House and the buildings of Frank Gehry.

Descriptions of postmodernity

Philosophy and Critical Theory

Within philosophy and critical theory the use of the term "post-modernity" tends to cluster around two bodies of opinion. One which argues that the modern project is completed, and that post-structuralism, and specifically with anti-foundationalist ideas, must be incorporated into, or supplant, modern notions of criticism. For this group the work of Lyotard, Baudrillard, Foucault and Jameson represents a definitive reply to the modern project. In general the belief in this range of opinion is that post-modernity, as a condition, precedes acceptance of postmodernism. In this context it is a neutral to positive term, neutral in that it is a state of affairs, but positive in that it is generally presented as dispensing with restricting assumptions or structures of the previous period.

The other prominent position in philosophy is generally associated with modern critical theory, particularly with Jürgen Habermas. It argues that the modern project is not finished, and that universality cannot be so lightly dispensed with. In general, the use of the term in this context argues that postmodernity is a consequence of holding postmodern ideas. It is generally a negative term in this context.

Social Sciences

In a sociological context postmodernity can be said to focus on the conditions of life which became increasingly prevalent in the late 20th century in the most industrialized nations. These include the ubiquity of mass media and mass production, the unification into national economies of all aspects of production, the rise of global economic arrangements, and shift from manufacturing to service economies. Variously described as consumerism or, in a Marxian frame work as late capitalism: namely a context where manufacturing, distribution and dissemination have become exceptionally inexpensive, but social connection and community have become more expensive.

The sociological view of postmodernity as a condition ascribes it to more rapid transportation, wider communication and the ability to abandon standardization of mass production, leading to a system which values a wider range of capital than previously, and allows value to be stored in a greater variety of forms. David Harvey argues that the condition of post-modernity is the escape from "Fordism", a term coined in reference to Island by Aldous Huxley.

Artifacts of postmodernity include the dominance of television and popular culture, the wide accessibility of information and mass and telecommunications. Postmodernity also exhibits a greater resistance to making sacrifices in the name of progress, including such features as environmentalism and the growing importance of the anti-war movement. Postmodernity in the industrialised core is marked by increasing focus on civil rights and equal opportunity, as seen by such movements as feminism and multi-culturalism, as well as the backlash against these movements.

For social, political , technological , and economic determinists , postmodernity is a major cause of the emergence of postmodernism and postmodern culture. For others, it is a mode of society which go hand in hand with postmodernism. Postmodernity may be a reason for some to choose postmodernism as a way of life, epistemological, ethical, or aesthetic position.

As a stylistic approach

Main Article Postmodern architecture

The term "post-modernity" is used, particularly in architecture and literature, to denote a stylistic approach to forms and use, with origins in the 1950's and continuing through the present.

General usage

In a general sense, postmodernity is the state or response to a society which has evolved from modernity. It can mean the personal response to a post-modern society, the conditions in a society which make it post-modern or the state of being that is associated with a post-modern society. In most contexts, postmodernity should not be confused with post-modernism, which is the self-conscious adoption of post-modern traits in art, literature and society.

Postmodernity versus post-modernism

There are multiple positions on the differences between postmodernity and post-modernism.

One position says that post-modernity is a condition or state of being, or is concerned with changes to institutions and conditions (Giddens 1990) - where as postmodernism is an aesthetic, literary, political or social philosophy that consciously responds to post-modern conditions, or seeks to move beyond or critique modernity.

Brief history of postmodernity

Postmodernity has been said to have gone through two relatively distinct phases: the first phase beginning in the 1950's and running through the end of the Cold War, where analog dissemination of information produced sharp limits on the width of channels, and encouraged a few authoritative media channels, and the second beginning with the explosion of cable television, internetworking and the end of the Cold War and the expansion of "new media" based on digital means of information dissemination and broadcast.

The first phase of postmodernity overlaps the end of modernity and is regarded by many as being part of the modern period (see lumpers/splitters, periodization). In this period there was the rise of television as the primary news source, the decreasing importance of manufacturing in the economies of Western Europe and the United States, the increase of trade volumes within the developed core. In 1967-1969 a crucial cultural explosion took place within the developed world as the baby boom generation, which had grown up with postmodernity as their fundamental experience of society, demanded entrance into the political, cultural and educational power structure. A series of demonstrations and acts of rebellion - ranging from nonviolent and cultural, through violent acts of terrorism - represented the opposition of the young to the policies and perspectives of the previous age. Central to this was opposition to the Algerian War and the Vietnam War; to laws allowing or encouraging racial segregation; and to laws which overtly discriminated against women, and restricted access to divorce. The era was marked by an upswing in visible use of marijuana and hallucinogens and the emergence of pop cultural styles of music and drama, including rock music. The ubiquity of stereo, television and radio helped make these changes visible to the broader cultural context.

This period is associated with the work of Marshall McLuhan, a philosopher who focused on the results of living in a media culture, and argued that participation in a mass media culture both overshadows actual content disseminated, and is liberating because it loosens the ability of local social normative standards.

The second phase of postmodernity is visible by the increasing power of personal and digital means of communication, including fax machines, modems, cable, and eventually high speed internet. This led to the creation of the new economy, whose supporters argued that the dramatic fall in information costs would alter society fundamentally. The simplest demarcation point is the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the liberalisation of China. For a period of time it was believed that this change ended the need for an overarching social order, which was called "The End of History" by Francis Fukuyama. However, such predictions, in light of subsequent events, seem extremely naive. Internetworking in particular has altered the condition of postmodernity dramatically: digital production of information allows individuals to manipulate virtually every aspect of the media environment, from the source code of their computers, to the wikipedia project itself. This condition of digitality has brought producers of content in conflict with consumers over intellectual capital and intellectual property.

In the 1990's a debate grew as to whether the present was a "high modernity" or whether postmodernity should be regarded separately. In general those who believe that postmodernity is a separate condition acknowledge a transition where postmodernity, sometimes hyphenated, is an extension of modernity.

In this period it began to be argued that digitality, or what Esther Dyson referred to as "being digital", had emerged as a separate condition from post-modernity. Those holding this position argued that the ability to manipulate items of popular culture, the world wide web, the use of search engines to index knowledge, and telecommunications were producing a "convergence", which would be marked by the rise of "participatory culture" in the words of Henry Jenkins and the use of media appliances , such as Apple's iPod.

Criticisms of Post-Modernity

Criticisms of the post-modern condition can broadly be put into four catagories: criticisms of post-modernity from the perspective of those who reject modernism and its offshoots, criticisms from supporters of modernism who believe that post-modernity lacks crucial characteristics of the modern project, critics from within post-modernity who seek reform or change based on their understanding of post-modernism, and those who believe that post-modernity is a passing, and not a growing, phase in social organization.

Anti-Modern Critiques

Many philosophical movements reject both modernity and post-modernity as healthy states of being. Many of these are associated with cultural conservatism, and with some branches of christian theology. In this view post-modernity is seen as a rejection of basic spiritual or natural truths, and the emphasis on material and physical pleasure is explicitly a rejection of inner balance and spirituality.

Many of these critiques attack, specifically, the perceived "abandonment of objective truth" as being the crucial unacceptable feature of the post-modern condition, often with the aim of offering a metanarrative that provides exactly this truth.

Modernist Critiques of Post-Modernity

Critic Timothy Bewes called Post-Modernity "an historical blip", a "cynical reaction" against the Enlightenment, and against the progress of the modern project. This viewpoint, that features attributed to post-modernity, including consumerism, are "kitsch" and a turning away from fundamental deep structure and uncompromising progress is one which is leveled by art critic Robert Hughes as well. Instead, from this viewpoint, post-modernity is a subsidiary historical moment in a larger modern period.

James Fowler argues that post-modernity is characterized by the "loss of conviction", and Grenz concurs, saying that post-modernity is a period of pessimism contrasting with modernity's optimism.

However, the most influential proponent of this critique is Jürgen Habermas, who contends that all responses to modernity abandon either the critical or rational element in philosophy, and that the post-modern condition is one of self-deception over the uncompleted nature of the modern project. He argues that without both critical and rational traditions, society cannot value the individual, and that social structures will tend towards totalitarianism. From his perspective, universalism is the fundamental requirement for any rational criticism, and to abandon this is to abandon the liberalizing reforms of the last two centuries.

This argument is then extended to state that Post-modernity is counter-enlightenment,(See The Enlightenment, modern responses). Richard Wolin in his book The Seduction of Unreason argues that key advocates of post-modernity began with a fascination for fascism. This is related to the theory that Romanticism is a reactionary philosophy and that Naziism was an outgrowth of Romanticism, a widely held viewpoint among modernist philosophers and writers. They argue that the cultural particularlity, and identity politics of post-modernity, by which they mean the consequences of holding to post-structuralist views, is "what Germany had from 1933-1945". They further argue that post-modernity requires an acceptance of "reactionary" criticisms that amount to anti-Americanism.

Post-modernists, including Lyotard and Stanley Fish, see Habermas' problem is that he desires to rationalize universalism, and that the entire critique rests on the modernists insufficient faith in social mechanisms to work. (See post-empiricism ).

This debate is seen by philosophers such as Richard Rorty as being a debate between modern and post-modern philosophy rather than being related to the condition of post-modernity per se. It also grows out of a common agreement on both sides that modernity is rooted in a rationalized set of Enlightenment values, which were ascribed to that period by the early modern.

(See also Hypermodernity)

Critiques within Post-Modernity

The range of critiques of the post-modern condition from those who generally accept it is quite broad, and impossible to easily summarize, since the debate is contemporary and on going. The list below includes some which have generated controversy and interest, and is not intended to be taken as comprehensive or exclusive.

One criticism is phrased as "The future ain't what it used to be". In this view, the world "promised" in the late 1960's and early 1970's has not arrived, and instead, the current incarnation of society is, somehow, less appealing, or at least less advanced than the "postmodernity" envisioned previously.

Another criticism leveled at post-modernity from within is expressed by author David Foster Wallace, who argues that the trend towards more and more ironic and referential expression has reached a limit, and that a movement back towards "sincerity" is required, where the artist actually says what he intends to have taken as meaning.


  • Anderson, Perry (1998) The Origins of Postmodernity, London: Verso
  • Giddens, Anthony (1990) The Consequences of Modernity, Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Harvey, David (1990) The Condition of Postmodernity. An enquiry into the origins of cultural change, Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Ihab Hassan, From Postmodernism to Postmodernity: the Local/Global Context (2000), text online.
  • Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998) was a French philosopher and literary theorist well-known for his embracing of postmodernism after the late 1970s. He published "La Condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir" (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge) (1979)

Studies in postmodernity

Last updated: 10-19-2005 00:27:32
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