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The term and its use have a wide variety of different meanings in different disciplines, and the existence of post-modernism as a coherent set of ideas is often debated. The most commonly cited area of disagreement comes from disagreements over what the basis for knowledge and political philosophy should have.
Modernism is usually said to frame itself as the culmination of the Enlightenment's quest for an authoritatively-rational aesthetics, ethics, and knowledge. In contrast postmodernism is usually held to be concerned with how the authority of those would-be-ideals, sometimes called metanarratives, are subverted through fragmentation, consumerism, and deconstruction. This dichotomy is somewhat problematic, since it ignores the strong emphasis on irrationalism and fragmentation within modernism. For this reason postmodernism can equally be seen as a development of aspects of modernism while rejecting others, in particular the emphasis on authenticity. Jean-François Lyotard famously described postmodernism as an "incredulity toward metanarratives" (Lyotard, 1984). Postmodernism attacks the notions of monolithic universals and encourages fractured, fluid and multiple perspectives and is marked by an increasing importance in the ideas from the Sociology of knowledge.
A related term is postmodernity, which refers to the state of things after modernity. This includes a focus on the sociological, technological, and other conditions that distinguish the Modern Age from what is thought to have arisen thereafter. Postmodernism, on the other hand, denotes intellectual, cultural, artistic, academic, and philosophical responses to the condition of postmodernity. Another related term is postmodern, an adjective used to describe either a condition of, or a response to, postmodernity. For example, one may refer to postmodern architecture, postmodern literature, postmodern culture, postmodern music and postmodern philosophy.
Brief outline 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 both 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 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 Simulations, he contends that social 'reality' no longer exists in the conventional sense, but has been supplanted by an endless procession of simulacra. The mass media, and other forms of mass cultural production, generate constant re-appropriation and re-contextualisation of familiar cultural symbols and images, fundamentally shifting our experience away from 'reality', to 'hyperreality'. Along this line, it is significant that the beginning of postmodern architecture is not considered to be the construction of any great building, but the destruction of the modernist Pruitt-Igoe housing project (see Minoru Yamasaki).
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 recits 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 is often used to attack science, 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, pointing, 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.
(Note: "post-modern" tends to be used by critics, "postmodern" by supporters. This may be because postmodern is considered merely a symbol and its meaning (as obtained through simple linguistic analysis) can be ignored.)
Postmodernism was first identified as a theoretical discipline in the 1980s, but as a cultural movement it predates them by many years. Exactly when modernism began to give way to postmodernism is difficult to pinpoint, if not simply impossible. 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 action, Soren Kierkegaard's and Karl Barth's important fideist approach to theology, and even the nihilism of Nietzsche's philosophy. Michel Foucault's application of Hegel to thinking about the body is also identified as an important landmark. While it is rare to pin down the specific origins of any large cultural shift, it is fair to assume that postmodernism represents an accumulated disillusionment with the promises of the Enlightenment project and its progress of science, so central to modern thinking.
The movement has had diverse political ramifications: its anti-ideological insights appear conducive to, and strongly associated with, the feminist movement, racial equality movements, homosexual rights movements, most forms of late 20th century anarchism, even the peace movement and various hybrids of these in the current anti-globalization movement. Unsurprisingly, none of these institutions entirely embraces all aspects of the postmodern movement, but reflect or, in true postmodern style, borrow from some of its core ideas.
Early usage of the term
In an essay From Postmodernism to Postmodernity: the Local/Global Context,  Ihab Hassan points out a number of instances in which the term postmodernism was used before the term became popular:
- John Watkins Chapman , an English salon painter, in the 1870s, to mean Post-Impressionism.
- Federico de Onís , 1934, (postmodernismo) to mean a reaction against the difficulty and experimentalism of modernist poetry.
- Arnold J. Toynbee, in 1939, to mean the end of the "modern," Western bourgeois order dating back to the seventeenth century.
- Bernard Smith, in 1945, to mean the movement of socialist realism in painting.
- Charles Olson, during the 1950s.
- Irving Howe and Harry Levin , in 1959 and 1960, respectively, to mean a decline in high modernist culture.
Postmodernism in language
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.
More 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". 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.
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.
Postmodernism in 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. Andy Warhol is an early example of postmodern art in action, 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.
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.
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, the advocates of post-modern 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
Main article: Deconstruction
Deconstruction is a tool of postmodernism that was itself constructed by the philosopher and textual artist Jacques Derrida. His work argues that all texts are polysemous (have more than one 'meaning') and that this can be demonstrated by close textual analysis. To 'deconstruct' a text, therefore, is to show the internal tensions and contradictions within it, as it attempts (and inevitably fails) to provide one coherent and singular 'meaning'. Most people use deconstruction simply to mean the analysis of the binaries within an idea.
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.
Postmodernism and post-structuralism
In terms of frequently cited works, postmodernism and post-structuralism overlap quite significantly. Some philosophers, such as Francois Lyotard, can legitimately be classified into both groups. This is partly due to the fact that both modernism and structuralism owe much to the Enlightenment project.
Structuralism has a strong tendency to be scientific 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.
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.
Post-Modernity and digital communications
Technological utopianism is a common trait in Western history - from the 1700's when Adam Smith essentially labelled technological progress as the source of the Wealth of Nations, through the novels of Jules Verne in the late 1800's, through Winston Churchill's belief that there was little an inventor could not achieve. Its manifestation in the 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 others were calling television "a vast wasteland".
The second wave of technological utopianism associated with post-modern 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 post-modern novel, which deals with the experience of structuring "truth" from fragments.
Postmodernism and its critics
Charles Murray, a strong critic of postmodernism, defines the term:
- "By contemporary intellectual fashion, I am referring to the constellation of views that come to mind when one hears the words multicultural, gender, deconstruct, politically correct, and Dead White Males. In a broader sense, contemporary intellectual fashion encompasses as well the widespread disdain in certain circles for technology and the scientific method. Embedded in this mind-set is hostility to the idea that discriminating 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." 
Though Murray's arguments against postmodernism are far from facile, critics have cautioned that Murray's own work in The Bell Curve arrives at racist conclusions through research and argumentation that show flagrant disregard for the very 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 (a quote from Marx) reflects in its title the fluid nature of 'the experience of modernity'.
As noted above (see History of postmodernism), 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 (philosopher) , 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 may argue that, in actual fact, such postmodern premises are rarely, if ever, actually embraced — that if they were, we would be left with nothing more than a crippling radical subjectivism. That the projects of the Enlightenment and modernity are alive and well can be seen in the justice system, in science, in political rights movements, in the very idea of universities; and so on.
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 attempt by postmodernists to impose their own political agenda on the sciences. Meanwhile, other critics claim that postmodernism is nothing but a new trend of solipsism, and a complete withdrawal from the political sphere.
Whatever its philosophical value, postmodern phenomena can be observed in nearly all areas of Western capitalist cultures, and a postmodern theoretical approach can help explain much of this cultural condition, irrespective of whether it offers a coherent, functional epistemology.
- Berman, Marshall All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (ISBN 0140109625)
- Harvey, David The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (ISBN 0631162941)
- Jameson, Fredric Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (ISBN 0822310902)
- Lyotard, Jean-Francois The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (ISBN 0816611734)
- Sokal, Alan and Jean Bricmont Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science (ISBN 0312204078)
- Anti-globalization movement
- Critical theory
- Late capitalism
- New Age
- Social construction
- Sokal Affair
- Emerging Church
- Postmodernism and its Critics at the University of Alabama Department of Anthropology
- What is Postmodernism?
- Introduction to Postmodernism (Lecture; PDF)
- A discussion of postmodernism by the biologist Richard Dawkins
- Post-Modernism, Art Educators, and Art Education
- The Postmodernism Generator : a source of free content, content-free, randomly generated postmodernist essays
- "The Questions of Postmodernism" by David Lehman (Jacket #4, July 1998)
- An Introduction to Postmodernism by Paul Newall, aimed at beginners.