Postmodernism is an aesthetic, literary, political or social philosophy, which was the basis of the attempt to describe a condition, or a state of being, or something concerned with changes to institutions and conditions (as in Giddens, 1990) as postmodernity. In other words, postmodernism is the "cultural and intellectual phenomenon", especially since the 1920s' new movements in the arts, while postmodernity focuses on social and political outworkings and innovations globally, especially since the 1960s in the West.
The term postmodern is described by Merriam-Webster as meaning either of, relating to, or being an era after a modern one or 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), or finally of, relating to, or being a theory that involves a radical reappraisal of modern assumptions about culture, identity, history, or language.
The American Heritage Dictionary describes the meaning of the same term as Of or relating to art, architecture, or literature that reacts against earlier modernist principles, as by reintroducing traditional or classical elements of style or by carrying modernist styles or practices to extremes: “It [a roadhouse]is so architecturally interesting . . . with its postmodern wooden booths and sculptural clock” (Ruth Reichl, Cook's November 1989).
Postmodernity is a derivative referring to non-art aspects of history that were influenced by the new movement, namely developments in society, economy and culture since the 1960s. When the idea of a reaction or rejection of modernism was borrowed by other fields, it became synonymous in some contexts with postmodernity. The term is closely linked with poststructuralism (cf. Jacques Derrida) and with modernism, in terms of a rejection of its bourgeois, elitist culture.
The term was first used around the 1870s in various areas. For example, John Watkins Chapman avowed "a postmodern style of painting" to get beyond French Impressionism Then, J.M.Thompson, in his 1914 article in The Hibbert Journal (a quarterly philosophical review), used it to describe changes in attitudes and beliefs in the critique of religion: "The raison d'etre of Post-Modernism is to escape from the double-mindedness of Modernism by being thorough in its criticism by extending it to religion as well as theology, to Catholic feeling as well as to Catholic tradition" ('Post-Modernism, J.M.Thompson, The Hibbert Journal Vol XII No.4 July 1914 p.733).
In 1917 Rudolf Pannwitz used the term to describe a philosophically oriented culture. Pannwitz's idea of post-modernism came from Nietzsche's analysis of modernity and its ends of decadence and nihilism. Overcoming the modern human would be the post-human. But, contrary to Nietzsche, Pannwitz also includes nationalist and mythical elements.
It was used later in 1926 by B.I.Bell in his "Postmodernism & other Ess." In 1925 and 1921 it had been used to describe new forms of art and music. In 1942 H. R. Hays used it for a new literary form but as a general theory of an historical movement it 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."
In 1949 it was used to describe a dissatisfaction with modern architecture, leading to the postmodern architecture movement. Postmodernism in architecture 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. It may be a response to the modernist architectural movement known as the International Style.
The term was applied to a whole host of movements, many in art, music, and literature, that reacted against modernism, and are typically marked by revival of traditional elements and techniques. Walter Truett Anderson identifies postmodernism as one of four world views. These four worldviews 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 civilisation and the neo-romantic in which truth is found either through attaining harmony with nature and/or spiritual exploration of the inner self.
Notwithstanding the foregoing distinctions, both terms can be synonymous and interchangeable in common parlance, given the fluidity and ongoing evolution of their definitions.
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 reflexitivity, 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-centring’ 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 miniaturised 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 generalised 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.
The movement of Postmodernism began with architecture, as a reactionary movement against the perceived blandness and hostility present in the Modern movement. Modern Architecture as established and developed by masters such as Walter Gropius and Philip Johnson was focused on the pursuit of an ideal perfection, 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 rejects the notion of a 'pure' form or 'perfect' architectonic detail, instead conspicuously drawing from all methods, materials, forms and colors available to architects. Postmodern architecture began the reaction against the almost totalitarian qualities of Modernist thought, favoring personal preferences and variety over objective, ultimate truths or principles. It is this atmosphere of criticism, skepticism and subjectivity that defines the postmodern philosophy.
Art and literature of the early part of the 20th century play a significant part in shaping the character of postmodern culture. Dadaism attacked notions of high art in an attempt to break down the distinctions between high and low culture; Surrealism further developed concepts of Dadaism to celebrate the flow of the subconscious with influential techniques such as automatism and nonsensical juxtapositions (evidence of Surrealism's influence on postmodern thought can be seen in Foucault's and Derrida's references to Rene Magritte's experiments with signification).
Some other significant contributions to postmodern culture from literary figures include the following: Jorge Luis Borges experimented in metafiction and magical realism; William S. Burroughs wrote the prototypical postmodern 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 and humanity's inability to overcome its condition, themes later to be explored in such works as Waiting for Godot. Writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus drew heavily from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and other previous thinkers, and brought about a new sense of subjectivity, and forlornness, which greatly influenced contemporary thinkers, writers, and artists. Karl Barth's fideist approach to theology and lifestyle, brought an irreverence for reason, and the rise of subjectivity.
Postcolonialism after World War II contributed to the idea that one cannot have an objectively superior lifestyle or belief. This idea was taken further by the anti-foundationalist philosophers: Heidegger, then Ludwig Wittgenstein, then Derrida, who examined the fundamentals of knowledge; they argued that rationality was neither as sure nor as clear as modernists or rationalists assert. Both World Wars contributed to postmodernism; it is with the end of the Second World War that recognizably postmodernist attitudes begin to emerge.
It is possible to identify the burgeoning anti-establishment movements of the 1960s as the constituting event of postmodernism. The theory gained some of its strongest ground early on in French academia. In 1971, the Arab-American Theorist Ihab Hassan was one of the first to use the term in its present form (though it had been used by many others before him, Charles Olson for example, to refer to other literary trends) in his book: The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature; in it, 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 nouveau roman. In 1979 Jean-François Lyotard wrote a short but influential work The Postmodern Condition: A report on knowledge. Richard Rorty wrote Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes are also influential in 1970s postmodern theory. Authors such as Graham Swift adopted postmodern techniques in their literary work to create an ambiguous style of writing.
Influencer Year Influence Karl Barth c.1925 fideist approach to theology brought a rise in subjectivity Martin Heidegger c.1927 rejected the philosophical grounding of the concepts of "subjectivity" and "objectivity" W.V.O. Quine c. 1951 developed the theses of indeterminacy of translation and ontological relativity, and argued against the possibility of a priori knowledge. Argued that we can never satisfactorily know what a word "means." Ludwig Wittgenstein c.1953 anti-foundationalism, on certainty, a philosophy of language Thomas Samuel Kuhn c.1962 posited the rapid change of the basis of scientific knowledge to a provisional consensus of scientists, popularized the term "paradigm shift" Jacques Derrida c.1967 re-examined the fundamentals of writing and its consequences on philosophy in general; sought to undermine the language of western metaphysics (deconstruction) Michel Foucault c.1975 examined discursive power in Discipline and Punish, with Bentham's panopticon as his model, and also known for saying "language is oppression" (Meaning that language was developed to allow only those who spoke the language not to be oppressed. All other people that don't speak the language would then be oppressed.) Jean-François Lyotard c.1979 opposed universality, meta-narratives, and generality Richard Rorty c.1979 argues philosophy mistakenly imitates scientific methods; advocates dissolving traditional philosophical problems; anti-foundationalism and anti-essentialism Jean Baudrillard c.1981 Simulacra and Simulation - reality disappears underneath the interchangeability of signs
The term "deconstruction" comes from Martin Heidegger, who calls for the destruction or deconstruction (the German "Destruktion" connotes both English words) of the history of ontology. The point, for Heidegger, was to describe Being prior to its being covered over by Plato and subsequent philosophy. Thus, Heidegger himself engaged in "deconstruction" through a critique of post-Socratic thought (which had forgotten the question of Being) and the study of the pre-Socratics (where Being was still an open question).
In later usage, a "deconstruction" is an important textual "occurrence" described and analyzed by many postmodern authors and philosophers. They argue that aspects in the text itself would undermine its own authority or assumptions and that internal contradictions would erase boundaries or categories which the work relied on or asserted. Poststructuralists beginning with Jacques Derrida, who coined the term, argued that the existence of deconstructions implied that there was no intrinsic essence to a text, merely the contrast of difference. This is analogous to the idea that the difference in perception between black and white is the context. A deconstruction is created when the "deeper" substance of text opposes the text's more "superficial" form. This idea is not isolated to poststructuralists but is related to the idea of hermeneutics in literature; intellectuals as early as Plato asserted it and so did modern thinkers such as Leo Strauss. Derrida's argument is that deconstruction proves that texts have multiple meanings and the "violence" between the different meanings of text may be elucidated by close textual analysis.
Popularly, close textual analyses describing deconstruction within a text are often themselves called deconstructions. Derrida argued, however, that deconstruction is not a method or a tool but an occurrence within the text itself. Writings about deconstruction are therefore referred to in academic circles as deconstructive readings.
Deconstruction is far more important to postmodernism than its seemingly narrow focus on text might imply. According to Derrida, one consequence of deconstruction is that the text may be defined so broadly as to encompass not just written words but the entire spectrum of symbols and phenomena within Western thought. To Derrida, a result of deconstruction is that no Western philosopher has been able to escape successfully from this large web of text and reach that which is "signified", which they imagined to exist "just beyond" the text.
The more common use of the term is the more general process of pointing to contradictions between the intent and surface of a work and the assumptions about it. A work then "deconstructs" assumptions when it places them in context. For example, someone who can pass as the opposite sex may be said to "deconstruct" gender identity, because there is a conflict between the superficial appearance and the reality of the person's gender.
Usually in the continental tradition, the terms structuralism or poststructuralism are used. Maurice Merleau-Ponty is seen as the biggest contributor to structuralism, which is epitomized in the philosophy of Claude Levi-Strauss. Michel Foucault was also a structuralist but then turned to what would be termed poststructuralism, although he himself declined to call his work either poststructuralist or postmodern. Structuralism historically gave way to poststructuralism; often the role of postmodernism within the analytic tradition is played down, although works by major figures of the analytic tradition in the 20th century, including those of Thomas Kuhn and Willard Van Orman Quine, show a similarity with works in the continental tradition for their lack of belief in absolute truth as well as in the pliability of language.
In the continental tradition, most works argue that power dissimulates and that society constructs reality, while its individuals remain powerless or almost powerless. Often, both continental and analytic sources argue for a renewed subjectivity, borrowing heavily from Immanuel Kant, while they largely reject his a priori/a posteriori distinction. They both minimize discussions of practical ethics, instead borrowing heavily from post-Holocaust accounts of the need for an ethics of responsibility, which is very rarely practically defined.
One of the large differences between analytic postmodern sources and continental postmodern sources is that the analytic tradition by and large guards at least some of the tenets of liberalism, while many continental sources flirt with, or completely immerse themselves in, Marxism.
Recently, it is noticeable that some of the ideas found in poststructuralism and postmodernism, as the lack of belief in absolute truth or the idea of a reality constructed, is promoted in a new paradigm within constructivist epistemology.
The term postmodernism, when used pejoratively, describes tendencies perceived as relativist, counter-enlightenment or antimodern, particularly in relation to critiques of rationalism, universalism or science. It is also sometimes used to describe tendencies in a society that are held to be antithetical to traditional systems of morality. Elements of the Christian Right, in particular, have interpreted postmodern society to be synonymous with moral relativism and contributing to deviant behavior. See, Postmodernity, subsection "Anti-postmodernity critiques."
The criticisms of postmodernism are often complicated by the still-fluid nature of the term , and in many cases the criticisms are clearly directed at poststructuralism and the philosophical and academic movements that it has spawned rather than the broader term postmodernism .
The linguist Noam Chomsky has suggested that postmodernism is meaningless because it adds nothing to analytical or empirical knowledge. He asks why postmodernist intellectuals won't respond as "people in physics, math, biology, linguistics, and other fields are happy to do when someone asks them, seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn't already obvious, etc? These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can't be met, then I'd suggest recourse to Hume's advice in similar circumstances: to the flames.
There are lots of things I don't understand — say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat's last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I'm interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. — even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest --- write things that I also don't understand, but (1) and (2) don't hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven't a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of "theory" that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) ... I won't spell it out.|30px|30px|Noam Chomsky
Josh McDowell & Bob Hostetler offer the following definition of postmodernism: “A worldview characterized by the belief that truth doesn’t exist in any objective sense but is created rather than discovered.”… Truth is “created by the specific culture and exists only in that culture. Therefore, any system or statement that tries to communicate truth is a power play, an effort to dominate other cultures.”
In the introduction to his Treatise on Twelve Lights, Robert Struble, Jr. states: "The postmodernist worldview dismisses all forms of absolutism from eras past, especially Judeo-Christian faith and morals; yet the postmodernists idolize absolutely their new secular trinity of tolerance–diversity–choice.
Rousseau (Cornell UP, 2006), 309-327.