I once asked a group of my students if they knew what the term postmodernism meant: one replied that it’s when you put everything in quotation marks. It wasn’t such a bad answer, because concepts such as “reality”, “truth” and “humanity” are invariably put under scrutiny by thinkers and “texts” associated with postmodernism.
Postmodernism is often viewed as a culture of quotations.
Take Matt Groening’s The Simpsons (1989–). The very structure of the television show quotes the classic era of the family sitcom. While the misadventures of its cartoon characters ridicule all forms of institutionalised authority – patriarchal, political, religious and so on – it does so by endlessly quoting from other media texts.
This form of hyperconscious “intertextuality” generates a relentlessly ironic or postmodern worldview.
Relationship to modernism
The difficulty of defining postmodernism as a concept stems from its wide usage in a range of cultural and critical movements since the 1970s. Postmodernism describes not only a period but also a set of ideas, and can only be understood in relation to another equally complex term: modernism.
Modernism was a diverse art and cultural movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries whose common thread was a break with tradition, epitomised by poet Ezra Pound‘s 1934 injunction to “make it new!”.
The “post” in postmodern suggests “after”. Postmodernism is best understood as a questioning of the ideas and values associated with a form of modernism that believes in progress and innovation. Modernism insists on a clear divide between art and popular culture.
But like modernism, postmodernism does not designate any one style of art or culture. On the contrary, it is often associated with pluralism and an abandonment of conventional ideas of originality and authorship in favour of a pastiche of “dead” styles.
The shift from modernism to postmodernism is seen most dramatically in the world of architecture, where the term first gained widespread acceptance in the 1970s.
One of the first to use the term, architectural critic Charles Jencks suggested the end of modernism can be traced to an event in St Louis on July 15, 1972 at 3:32pm. At that moment, the derelict Pruitt-Igoe public housing project was demolished.
Built in 1951 and initially celebrated, it became proof of the supposed failure of the whole modernist project.
Jencks argued that while modernist architects were interested in unified meanings, universal truths, technology and structure, postmodernists favoured double coding (irony), vernacular contexts and surfaces. The city of Las Vegas became the ultimate expression of postmodern architecture.
Theorists associated with postmodernism often used the term to mark a new cultural epoch in the West. For philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, the postmodern condition was defined as “incredulity towards metanarratives”; that is, a loss of faith in science and other emancipatory projects within modernity, such as Marxism.
Marxist literary theorist Fredric Jameson famously argued postmodernism was “the cultural logic of late capitalism” (by which he meant post-industrial, post-Fordist, multi-national consumer capitalism).
In his 1982 essay Postmodernism and Consumer Society, Jameson set out the major tropes of postmodern culture.
These included, to paraphrase: the substitution of pastiche for the satirical impulse of parody; a predilection for nostalgia; and a fixation on the perpetual present.
In Jameson’s pessimistic analysis, the loss of historical temporality and depth associated with postmodernism was akin to the world of the schizophrenic.
Postmodern visual art
In the visual arts, postmodernism is associated with a group of New York artists – including Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman – who were engaged in acts of image appropriation, and have since become known as The Pictures Generation after a 1977 show curated by Douglas Crimp.
By the 1980s postmodernism had become the dominant discourse, associated with “anything goes” pluralism, fragmentation, allusions, allegory and quotations. It represented an end to the avant-garde’s faith in originality and the progress of art.
But the origins of these strategies lay with Dada artist Marcel Duchamp, and the Pop artists of the 1960s in whose work culture had become a raw material. After all, Andy Warhol was the direct progenitor of the kitsch consumerist art of Jeff Koons in the 1980s.
Postmodern cultural identity
Postmodernism can also be a critical project, revealing the cultural constructions we designate as truth and opening up a variety of repressed other histories of modernity. Such as those of women, homosexuals and the colonised.
The modernist canon itself is revealed as patriarchal and racist, dominated by white heterosexual men. As a result, one of the most common themes addressed within postmodernism relates to cultural identity.
American conceptual artist Barbara Kruger’s statement that she is “concerned with who speaks and who is silent: with what is seen and what is not” encapsulates this broad critical project.
The discourse of postmodernism is associated with Australian artists such as Imants Tillers, Anne Zahalka and Tracey Moffatt.
Australia has been theorised by Paul Taylor and Paul Foss, editors of the influential journal Art & Text, as already postmodern, by virtue of its culture of “second-degree” – its uniquely unoriginal, antipodal appropriations of European culture.
If the language of postmodernism waned in the 1990s in favour of postcolonialism, the events of 9/11 in 2001 marked its exhaustion.
While the lessons of postmodernism continue to haunt, the term has become unfashionable, replaced by a combination of others such as globalisation, relational aesthetics and contemporaneity.
Post-modernism is a school of thought or a tendency in contemporary culture which rejects modernism. It is characterized by the rejection of objective truth and global cultural narrative. It emphasizes the role of language, power relations, and motivations. It attacks the use of sharp classifications such as male versus female, straight versus gay, white versus black, and imperial versus colonial. It has been described by Fredric Jameson as the "dominant cultural logic of late capitalism".
Although the term 'post-modernism' was first used around the 1870s in various areas, as a general theory of an historical movement the term was first used in 1939 by the historian Arnold J. Toynbee: "Our own Post-Modern Age has been inaugurated by the general war of 1914- 1918". Later in 1949, the term was used to describe dissatisfaction with modern architecture, which led to the post-modern architecture movement that is marked by the re-emergence of surface ornament, reference to surrounding buildings in urban architecture, historical reference in decorative forms, and non-orthogonal angles.
Subsequently, the term 'post-modernism' was applied to a whole host of movements that reacted against modernism many in art, music, and literature and are typically marked by revival of traditional elements and techniques. In critical theory, post-modernism is used to refer to a point of departure for works of literature, drama, architecture, cinema, journalism, and design, as well as in marketing and business and in the interpretation of law, culture, and religion in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
These days, a new term 'post-modernity' is being used to describe post-modernist ideas in philosophy and the analysis of culture and society including re-evaluation of the entire Western value system (love, marriage, popular culture, shift from industrial to service economy, etc.) that took place since the 1950s, with a peak in the Social Revolution of 1968. Since post-modernism refers to an opinion or movement, something being 'post-modernist' would make it part of the movement. On the other hand, something being 'post-modern' would place it in the period of time since the 1950s, making it a part of contemporary history.
Post-modernist thought is an intentional departure from 'modern' scientific mentality developed during the Enlightenment. For postmodernists, 'modernism' began in the seventeenth century and ended sometime between 1945 and the present. Modernism was characterized by the ascendancy of science and reason as means for both understanding and explaining the world.
It was often associated with identity, unity, authority, and certainty, while post-modernism is often associated with difference, separation, textuality, and scepticism. On the other hand, if one associates modernity with the rise and globalization of capitalism, and accepts that this phenomenon is itself a form of cultural and economic imperialism, then post-modernism can be represented as having radical potential in the attempt to formulate a defense of difference.
Post-modernist writers respond to perceived failures of rational and scientific approaches to economics, politics, society, and morality to ensure progress. They especially cite failures of theories like Marxism, utilitarianism, and Freudianism. Post-modernism is open to the charges both of relativism and conservatism. Relativism, because, if all that we have access to are local knowledge’s, practices, and so on, we can have no justifiable reason to judge other localities and their practices.
Conservatism, because if we cannot judge even our own localities (institutions, practices, societies, etc.) in the light of standards or principles external to them, it is unclear what justification we could ever have for changing them. Post-modernism has influenced many cultural fields, including literary criticism, linguistics, architecture, visual arts, and music.
The movement of post-modernism began with architecture, as a response to the perceived blandness, hostility, and utopianism of the modern movement. Modernism was criticised for being focused on the pursuit of a perceived ideal perfection, and an attempted harmony of form and function. The critics of modernism argued that the attributes of perfection and minimalism themselves were subjective, and pointed out anachronisms in modern thought.
Definitive post-modern architecture such as the work of Michael Graves rejects the notion of a 'pure' form or 'perfect' architectonic detail. Instead it conspicuously draws from all methods, materials, forms and colours available to architects. Post-modernist architecture favours personal preferences and variety over objective, ultimate truths or principles. In fact, it is this atmosphere of criticism, scepticism, and emphasis on difference over and against unity that distinguishes many post-modernisms.
Literary post-modernism officially began in the United States with the first issue of boundary 2, subtitled "Journal of Postmodern Literature and Culture", which appeared in 1972. The integral figures in the intellectual and artistic exposition of post-modernism at the time were David Antin, Charles Olson, John Cage, and the Black Mountain College school of poetry and arts.
Even today, boundary 2 remains an influential journal in post-modernist circles. Some other significant contributions to post-modern culture from literary figures include Jorge Luis Borges, William S. Burroughs, and Samuel Beckett.
Jorge Luis Borges experimented in metafiction and magical realism, while William S. Burroughs wrote the prototypical post-modern novel Naked Lunch and developed the cut up method (similar to Tristan Tzara's "How to Make a Dadaist Poem") to create other novels such as Nova Express. Samuel Beckett attempted to escape the shadow of James Joyce by focusing on the failure of language, schizophrenia, and humanity's inability to overcome its condition, themes later to be explored in such works as Waiting for Godot.
Although the term had been used by many others like Charles Olson earlier, the Arab-American theorist Ihab Hassan was one of the first to use the term in its present form in his book The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature (1971). In the book, Hassan traces the development of what he called '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 nouveali roman.
Later on, Jean-Francois Lyotard wrote a short but influential work The Postmodern Condition: A report on knowledge (1979) and Richard Rorty wrote Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes are other influential writers in the 1970s post-modern theory.
In classical music, the advent of musical minimalism in the 1970s paved way for the post-modern impulse. Composers such as Terry Riley, John Adams, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, and Lou Harrison produced music with simple textures and relatively consonant harmonies. While some composers have been influenced by popular music and world ethnic musical traditions, not all post-modern 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.
The hallmarks of the postmodern influence in musical composition are eclecticism and freedom of expression, in reaction to the rigidity and aesthetic limitations of modernism.