Postmodernity (also spelled post-modernity or the pejorative postmodern condition) is generally used to describe the economic and/or cultural state or condition of society which is said to exist after modernity. Some schools of thought hold that modernity ended in the late 20th century, replaced by post-modernity, while others would extend modernity to cover the developments denoted by Postmodernity and into the present.
In a 1994 speech in Philadelphia, Czech Republic President, Vaclav Havel, defined the modern world as the almost five centuries from the discovery of America to the first moon landing in 1969. Havel gave a hopeful description of the subsequent postmodern world as one based on science, and yet paradoxically “where everything is possible and almost nothing is certain.”
Modernity is defined as a period or condition loosely identified with the Progressive Era or 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 postindustrial, Information Age).
The term postmodernity is used in a number of ways. Those who see it as a positive development will generally view modernity as obselescent or as an outright failure. The latter reject modernism and consider it a flaw in humanity's evolution leading to disasters like Auschwitz and Hiroshima.
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 architecture, and postmodern art in general (literature, etc., see postmodernism). In philosophy and critical theory, postmodernity more specifically refers to the state or condition of society which is said to exist after modernity.
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. 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 metanarratives of progress - such as positivist science, Marxism, and structuralism - were defunct as methods of achieving progress.
The literary critic Fredric Jameson and the geographer David Harvey have identified postmodernity with "late capitalism" or "flexible accumulation;" that is, the stage of capitalism following finance capitalism. This stage of capitalism is characterized by 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 postmodernity with the reverse implication: the presumed results of holding postmodernist ideas. Most prominently this includes Jürgen Habermas and others who contend that postmodernity represents a resurgence of long running counter-enlightenment ideas.
The relationship between "postmodernity" and critical theory, sociology and philosophy is fiercely contested. The terms postmodernity and postmodernism are often hard to distinguish, and the former often dependent on his latter antecedent. This debate has two distinct elements that are often confused: (1) the nature of contemporary society and (2) the nature of the critique of contemporary society.
The first of these debates is concerned with accounting for the changes that have taken place between the past 25 and 50 years. There are broadly three principal camps. First, theorists such as Callinicos (1991) and Calhoun (1995) offer a conservative position on the nature of contemporary society underplaying the significance and extent of socio-economic changes emphasising a continuity with the past. Second, is a range of theorists who have tried to theorise the present as a significant development of the modern project into a second phase that is distinct from the first but modernity nevertheless. This has been termed the "second" or "risk" society by Ulrich Beck (1986), "late" or "high" modernity by Giddens (1990, 1991), "liquid" modernity by Zygmunt Bauman (2000), and the "network" society by Castells (1996, 1997). Third, are those theorists who argue that contemporary society has moved into a phase distinct from modernity, an era literally "post" modernity. The most prominent proponents of this position are Lyotard and Baudrillard.
The second group, often confused with the first, tackles another set of issues altogether concerning the nature of critique. These debates are often a replaying of debates over (what can be crudely termed) universalism and relativism, where modernism is seen to represent the former and postmodernity the latter.
A sophisticated rendition of this debate can be found between Seyla Benhabib (1995) and Judith Butler (1995) in relation to feminist politics. Benhabib argues that postmodern critique comprises three main elements: an anti-foundationalist conception of the subject and identity, the death of History (and notions of teleology and progress), and the death of Metaphysics defined as the search for objective Truth - which can all have strong and weak variations. Benhabib argues forcefully against these positions as she holds that they undermine the basises from which a feminist politics can be founded as strong versions of postmodernity remove the possibility for agency, sense of self-hood, and the appropriation of women’s history in the name of an emancipated future. The denial of normative ideals removes the possibility for utopia, central for ethical thinking and democratic action.
Butler responds to Benhabib by arguing that her use of "postmodernism" is an expression of a wider paranoia over anti-foundationalist philosophy, in particular, poststructuralism.
Butler uses this debate over the definition of "postmodernism" to demonstrate how philosophy is implicated in power relationships. She defends poststructuralist critique by arguing that the critique of the subject is not the end but the beginning of analysis as the questioning of accepted "universal" and "objective" norms is the first task of enquiry.
There is no simple definition of a postmodern theorist as the very definition of postmodernity itself is contested, as the Benhabib-Butler debate demonstrates. For example, Michel Foucault rejected the label of postmodernism explicitly in interviews, but is seen by many, such as Benhabib, to advocate a form of critique that is "postmodern" as it breaks with the utopian and transcendental nature of "modern" critique by calling universal norms of the Enlightenment into question. Giddens (1990) rejects this characterisation of modern critique by pointing out that a critique of Enlightenment universals were central to philosophers of the modern period, most notably Nietzsche. The debates continue.
Another 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.
Jameson highlights a number of phenomena which he views as distinguishing postmodernity from modernity. The first is "a new kind of superficiality" or "depthlessness", in which models which once explained people and things in terms of an "inside" and an "outside" (such as hermeneutics, the dialectic, Freudian repression, the existentialist distinction between authenticity and inauthenticity, and the semiotic distinction of signifier and signified) have been rejected.
Second is a rejection of the modernist "Utopian gesture", evident in Van Gogh, of the transformation through art of misery into beauty, whereas in the postmodernism movement the object world has undergone a "fundamental mutation", has "now become a set of texts or simulacra" (Jameson 1993:38).
Whereas modernist art sought to redeem and sacralize the world, to give life to world (we might say, following Graff, to give the world back the enchantment that science and the decline of religion had taken away from it), postmodernist art bestows upon the world a "deathly quality… whose glacéd X-ray elegance mortifies the reified eye of the viewer in a way that would seem to have nothing to do with death or the death obsession or the death anxiety on the level of content" (ibid.).
Graff identifies the origins of this transformative mission of art in the attempted substitution of art for the social role of religion as giving meaning to the world. Art was supposed to re-imbue the world with the meaning, which the rise of science and Enlightenment rationality had removed. However, in the postmodern period this task is finally revealed as a futile one.
Thirdly, Jameson identifies a feature of the postmodern age as the "waning of affect". He notes that not all emotion has disappeared from the postmodern age, but that it lacks a particular kind of emotion such as that found in "Rimbaud's magical flowers 'that look back at you'". He notes that "pastiche eclipses parody," as "the increasing unavailability of the personal style" leads to pastiche becoming a universal practice.
Jameson argues that distance "has been abolished in the new space of postmodern[ity]. We are submerged in its henceforth filled and suffused volumes to the point where our now postmodern bodies are bereft of spatial co-ordinates". This "new global space" constitutes postmodernity's "moment of truth". The various other features of the postmodern which he identifies "can all now be seen as themselves partial (yet constitutive) aspects of the same general spatial object"
To Jameson, the postmodern era has seen a change in the social function of culture. He identifies culture in the modern age as having a property of "semi-autonomy", its "existence… above the practical world of the existent". But in the postmodern age, culture has been deprived of the autonomous status it once possessed. Rather, the cultural has expanded, to consume the entire social realm, such that it all becomes cultural.
In the Postmodern age, "critical distance" has become outmoded. This is the assumption that culture can be positioned outside "the massive Being of capital", upon which left-wing theories of cultural politics are dependent. Jameson argues that "the prodigious new expansion of multinational capital ends up penetrating and colonizing those very pre-capitalist enclaves (Nature and the Unconscious) which offered extraterritorial and Archimedean footholds for critical effectivity". (Jameson 1993:54)
The understanding as a continuation of modernity is ascribed to the philosophers Jean-François Lyotard (above) and Jean Baudrillard. Lyotard understood modernity as a cultural condition characterized by constant change in the pursuit of progress, and postmodernity as 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 period has had diverse political ramifications: its anti-ideological ideas appear to have been conducive to, and strongly associated with, the feminist movement, racial equality movements, gay rights movements, most forms of late 20th century anarchism, and even the peace movement, as well as various hybrids of these in the current anti-globalization movement. Unsurprisingly, none of these institutions entirely embraces all aspects of the postmodern movement in its most concentrated definition, but they reflect, or borrow from, some of its core ideas.
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. By literary critic Fredric Jameson and the geographer David Harvey it was described as consumerism or, in a Marxian framework as late capitalism: namely a context where manufacturing, distribution and dissemination have become exceptionally inexpensive, but social connection and community have become more expensive. Other thinkers assert that postmodernity is the natural reaction to mass broadcasting and a society conditioned to mass production and mass politics. Related to this critical perspective on the economic, political and ideological realities of capitalist modernity is the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, who informs the versions of postmodernism elaborated by such authors as Murphy and Bielskis. On their account, MacIntyre's postmodern revision of Aristotelianism poses a challenge to the kind of consumerist ideology that now promotes capital accumulation.
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 postmodernity is the escape from "Fordism", a term coined by Antonio Gramsci to describe the mode of industrial regulation and accumulation which prevailed during the keynesian era of economic policy in OECD countries (basically from the early 1930s to the 1970s). Fordism for Harvey is associated with Keynesianism, the first concerning methods of production and capital-labor relations, and the latter concerning economic policy and regulation. Post-fordism is therefore one of the basic aspects of the condition of postmodernity in Harvey's point of view.
Artifacts of postmodernity include the dominance of television and popular culture, the wide accessibility of information and mass 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. As such, the postmodern political sphere is marked by multiple arenas and possibilities of citizenship and political action concerning various forms of struggle against oppression or alienation (around themes such as gender or ethnicity), whilst in the modernist point of view the political arena remains significantly restricted to class struggle.
Theorists such as Michel Maffesoli believe that postmodernity is corroding the circumstances that provide for its subsistence and this will eventually result in a decline of individualism and the birth of a new neo-Tribal era.
The argument for the necessity of the term states that economic and technological conditions of our age have given rise to a decentralized, media-dominated society in which ideas are simulacra and only inter-referential representations and copies of each other, with no real original, stable or objective source for communication and meaning. Globalization, brought on by innovations in communication, manufacturing and transportation, is often cited as one force which has driven the decentralized modern life, creating a culturally pluralistic and interconnected global society lacking any single dominant center of political power, communication, or intellectual production. The postmodern view is that inter-subjective knowledge, and not objective knowledge is the dominant form of discourse under such conditions, and the ubiquity of copies and dissemination fundamentally alters the relationship between reader and what is read, between observer and the observed, between those who consume and those who produce. Not all people who use the term postmodern or postmodernism see these developments as positive. Users of the term often argue that their ideals have arisen as the result of particular economic and social conditions, including what is described as "late capitalism" and the growth of broadcast media, and that such conditions have pushed society into a new historical period. In "Spaces of Hope", David Harvey argues that the postmodern political movements were indirectly responsible for weakening class issues (in the Marxist sense) and the critical consciousness of this field of action, which in his opinion are now more significant than they were during the Fordist period. For Harvey, this class conflict is far from solved (something postmodern theorists ignore, according to his argument): globalization made it more difficult for labor organizations to tackle underpaid work in poor conditions without labor rights, and the amount of surplus value being earned by corporations is far larger nowadays exactly because of this difference between high prices paid by western consumers and low wages earned by southeast-Asian laborers.
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 postmodern society, the conditions in a society which make it postmodern or the state of being that is associated with a postmodern society. In most contexts, postmodernity should not be confused with postmodernism, which is the self-conscious adoption of postmodern traits in art, literature and society. This article tries to focus on the moral and social parallels and therefore has overlapping terminology and critics.
Postmodernity has been said to have gone through two relatively distinct phases: the first phase beginning in the 1950s 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 authority 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 in 1991. 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, now are seen by many as 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 1990s 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 postmodernity. 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 the postmodern condition can broadly be put into four categories: criticisms of postmodernity from the perspective of those who reject modernism and its offshoots, criticisms from supporters of modernism who believe that postmodernity lacks crucial characteristics of the modern project, critics from within postmodernity who seek reform or change based on their understanding of postmodernism, and those who believe that postmodernity is a passing, and not a growing, phase in social organization.
Many philosophical movements reject both modernity and postmodernity as healthy states of being. Some of these are associated with cultural and religious conservatism. In this view postmodernity 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 postmodern condition, often with the aim of offering a metanarrative that provides exactly this truth.
However, these critiques sometimes result not from a faith in traditional authority but rather from a reasonable belief in the disjunction that objective knowledge must be either obtainable in all domains, or obtainable in no domain. Then from the fact that such domains as physics and chemistry are not seriously taken to be subjective or relative in any meaningful sense by most of postmodernity; it follows that ethics, politics, and the good life in general are not relative or subjective either. This view has been mentioned by Allan Bloom, among others.
Christian writers tend to look askance at the postmodernist era as ideologically agnostic and replete with moral relativism or situation ethics. 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.”
One of America’s premier Christian leaders, Dr. James Dobson, sees postmodernism as a system of thought that negates moral certainty. As of 2/2008 his webpage states: "Here at Focus on the Family, we understand the noun 'postmodernism' to refer to a philosophy or mindset that rejects the value of rational thought, denies the existence of moral and spiritual absolutes, and affirms the right and power of the individual to invent his or her own 'reality.' This way of thinking is incompatible with the Christian perspective because it denies the existence of a truth that is valid for all people at all times. In other words, it rejects the claims of the Gospel on principle, without even granting it a hearing."
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. Since 1963 they have employed a gradualist and stealthy top-down revolution to make this inanimate deity the governing paradigm of America’s culture and future society. We see much the same ongoing pattern of power plays imposed upon once Christian cultures in Europe and elsewhere.
Critic Timothy Bewes called postmodernity "an historical blip", a "cynical reaction" against the Enlightenment, and against the progress of the modern project. This viewpoint, that features attributed to postmodernity are "kitsch" and a turning away from fundamental deep structure and uncompromising progress, is one which is levelled by art critic Robert Hughes as well. Instead, from this viewpoint, postmodernity is a subsidiary historical moment in a larger modern period.
James Fowler argues that postmodernity is characterized by the "loss of conviction", and Grenz concurs, saying that postmodernity 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 postmodern 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 postmodernity is counter-enlightenment (see The Enlightenment, modern responses). Richard Wolin in his book The Seduction of Unreason argues that key advocates of postmodernity began with a fascination for fascism. This is related to the theory that Romanticism is a reactionary philosophy and that Nazism was an outgrowth of Romanticism, a widely held viewpoint among modernist philosophers and writers. They argue that the cultural particularlity, and identity politics of postmodernity, by which they mean the consequences of holding to poststructuralist views, is "what Germany had from 1933-1945". They further argue that postmodernity requires an acceptance of "reactionary" criticisms that amount to anti-Americanism. Postmodernists, including Lyotard and Stanley Fish, see Habermas' problem as being that he desires to rationalize universalism, and that the entire critique rests on the modernists' insufficient faith in social mechanisms to work.
This debate is seen by philosophers such as Richard Rorty as being a debate between modern and postmodern philosophy rather than being related to a condition of postmodernity 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.
The range of critiques of the postmodern 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.
Another criticism levelled at postmodernity 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 speaks with an intended, concrete, static meaning.