Introduction to the Postmodern
CHALLENGES to anyone
trying to explain its major precepts in a straightforward fashion.
For one, we need to make a distinction between postmodern culture
and postmodernist theory:
Postmodern Culture or "Postmodernity":
Our current period in history has been called by many the postmodern
age (or "postmodernity") and many contemporary critics
are understandably interested in making sense of the time in which
they live. Although an admirable endeavor, such critics inevitably
run into difficulties given the sheer complexity of living in history:
we do not yet know which elements in our culture will win out and
we do not always recognize the subtle but insistent ways that changes
in our society affect our ways of thinking and being in the world.
One symptom of the present's complexity is just how divided critics
are on the question of postmodern culture, with a number of critics
celebrating our liberation and a number of others lamenting our
enslavement. In order to keep clear the distinction between postmodernity
and postmodernism, each set of
modules includes an initial module on how each critic makes
sense of our current postmodern age (or "postmodernity").
Postmodern Theory or "Postmodernism":
I will attempt to be consistent in using "postmodernism"
to refer to a group of critics who, inspired often by the postmodern
culture in which they live, attempt to rethink a number of concepts
held dear by Enlightenment humanism and many modernists, including
subjectivity, temporality, referentiality, progress, empiricism,
and the rule of law. "Postmodernism" also refers to the
aesthetic/cultural products that treat and often critique aspects
of "postmodernity." The
modules introduce some of the important concepts that have been
introduced by postmodernist theorists to supplant or temper the
values of traditional humanism. Given how the "postmodern"
refers to our entire historical period, some of the theorists who
have influenced postmodern theory are included not in the Modules
but in other sections of this Guide to Theory. Judith Butler's use
of the concept of performativity, for example, has been extremely
influential on postmodernism but I have chosen to discuss her in
Modules under Gender and Sex. The same may be said about Michel
Foucault, who I discuss in the
Modules for New Historicism.
Before I turn to a quick overview of the theorists discussed in the
Postmodernism Modules, I will begin by offering up a necessarily
truncated historical overview in order to situate postmodernity within
the major historical movements that have shaped subjectivity in the
Western hemisphere over the last four thousand years. In other words,
one cannot properly understand our current age without understanding
exactly what came before. How can we understand the full force of
that "post" without understanding not only the modern but
also the premodern?
Social History of the Western Subject
One way to understand
the transformative but largely unnoticed changes effected by new technologies
is to think about the way that the printed word changed our way of thinking
about the world. That can then help students to start thinking about the
ways postmodern technologies (like the computer, the television, film,
and mechanical image production) might be subtly but fundamentally changing
our way of thinking about the world around us. An exercise I find useful
when I introduce orality to students is to ask the question: "What is
a tree?" as I did on Aug. 29, 2000 in a class that started with Homer's
Odyssey. As my students most ably responded on that day, a tree
is a plant with bark, branches, and leaves. A taxonomy of different examples
was given (ash, oak, etc.), categorized by conifer and deciduous kinds.
Photosynthesis and oxygenation were mentioned as important aspects of
a tree's life cycle, and then different uses for trees were mentioned
(paper, construction, shade, etc.). The class unanimously agreed with
this definition. I then explained that studies of those oral cultures
that still exist in the former Yugoslavia have asked the same question
of non-literate people. Surprisingly, there too the response to the question
was, for the most part, unanimous and yet completely different from our
own: a tree is like a man whose arms reach up to heaven but whose roots
are caught in hell. Why this incredible difference in response? Can we
not even agree on an issue as fundamental as the answer to the question:
"What is a tree?"
Well, the REASON we, in a literate culture, can
all unanimously agree with this definition is that we automatically turn
to our communal literate sourcethe dictionary, which structures
our experience of the world through the conventions of science and taxonomy
(hence the class' use of such scientific language as "photosynthesis,"
"conifer," "deciduous," and "oxygenation,"
terms that clearly suggest that individuals were drawn to language of
a different register than quotidian speech). In an oral culture, there
is no written source to which people can turn; there are instead only
oral stories. As a result, oral society was different from our own in
a number of fundamental ways:
written laws: without a book of rules to establish precedent,
justice had to be determined by way of competing accounts and in a case-by-case
manner. Examples in the Odyssey include the fact that Telemachus
and the suitors in Book II must engage in a contest of storytelling
before the elders of Ithaca in order to determine who is in the right;
another example is how Helen and Meneláus engage in a storytelling
contest of sorts in Book IV, with the prize being the very reputation
of Helen. In such a society, a leader like Odysseus must have not only
martial strength and skill but also a knowledge of common stories (that
can be called on as we call on precedent) and also a certain amount
of rhetorical guile (which is why Odysseus keeps getting placed in situations
where he has no men, weapons, armor, or even clothes).
is based on what is relevant in the present: the stories that
are told by rhapsodes
change as social situations change. A story about a king who had three
sons can, within a few decades, turn into a story about a king who had
two sons if the third son's line never continued. By the same token,
we can often detect clues of earlier times through story elements that
persist even after Greek society was transformed by new technologies.
In the Odyssey, for example, we can detect layers of archaeology
(elements from the bronze age and iron age coexist, for example, as
do eating habits from earlier stages in the development of Greek society).
3) no authors:
in an oral society, there is no "author" in the modern sense, since
stories are passed on for hundeds of years by many generations of rhapsodes.
As a result, there is some question about who exactly "Homer" might
be, whether the authorship of both the Iliad and Odyssey
can be attributed to this one figure, and whether the very idea of associating
a single figure with these two tales is not a mere fiction. The very
idea of authorship and of the ownership of original work are integrally
connected to the establishment of literate culture (which allows you
to keep records of original authorship). Copyright is only possible
after copywright, you might say.
4) no private self:
subjectivity appears to be directed outward to others and performative
situations. Even classical architecture favors an atrium structure oriented
to public spaces with no doors and little privacy. Public baths are
popular. Some critics have characterized this culture of public-oriented
selves "shame culture." In a shame culture, everything occurs,
as it were, on the surface of things. Emotions are extreme and public
because, as scholars have argued, people in this culture do not have
our modern sense of subjectivity or of a private self. What therefore
becomes important are questions of honor and shame, which is why, for
example, Odysseus must immediately respond to the challenge of Euryalus
during the Phaeacian games in Book VIII of the Odyssey. Questions
of propriety and reputation become paramount, since in an oral society
collective memory is only preserved through the stories that others
tell about you.
5) no inalienable human rights: Punishment
is severe and, ideally, public, in order to illustrate the power and
superiority of the punishing authority, eg. Odysseus' extremely violent
and brutal punishment of his unfaithful slaves and of the suitors seeking
Penelope's hand. (For the importance of this shift in the idea of punishment,
see the New Historicism Module on Foucault and the carceral.)
And yet, there is no sense that Odysseus has any
"right" to be a leader. He remains a leader only so long as
his power of might and his power of words enables him to stay in power.
Were he to be defeated and enslaved, the best he could then do is to
become a worthy slave (which is why, I think, so much time is spent
with Eumáios, himself of aristocratic blood, in Books XIV to
XVI). There is also no sense ever that there is any moral wrong in enslaving,
raping, or decimating one's defeated enemies.
6) no money:
as one of my students, Stacey Morgan, brilliantly put it in that Aug.
29 class, "you could not buy more than you already have."
Money, production, consumption and labor could not be understood as
abstract quantitites that could be bought and sold on the open market
(as they are through stocks, bonds, loans, and interest accretion in
a transnational economy of limitless investment and speculation). Instead
you paid the individual craftsman directly through barter and, thus,
through a direct valuation of that laborer's particular product. You
are by force closer to, as my student Meg Young-Spillers put it, the
"materiality" of the individual's labor. Meg thus used the
very terminology employed by Marx in the nineteenth century to critique
7) gift society:
a barter economy often relies on a gift economy for stability. That
is, one cements bonds between people through the circulation of gifts.
Examples include: a) hospitality: indeed, one is not even supposed to
ask the identity of a stranger in the Odyssey until after one
has showered him with gifts; this act allows for bonds to form even
among enemies. It is no mere coincidence that the most powerful God,
Zeus, is precisely the God of hospitality; b) women as gifts; that is,
they are circulated through marriage and dowry to cement social bonds.
This could be done within ruling families (Alcínuous and Arétë,
for example, are uncle and niece, which allows them to keep power "within
the family") or between principalities to escape the threat of
war (Alcínuous, for example, offers his daughter, Nausícaa,
to Odysseus); c) sacrifice, which could be seen as the religious equivalent
or analog of the gift.
Doré engraving of Milton's Paradise Lost
In the Renaissance, we witness the beginning of the movement into what
some have termed a "guilt culture," although we are still clearly
in a transitional period. This transition (including the transition into
a monotheistic belief system) is aided by the movement into literate culture;
indeed, the Renaissance is also significant because of the introduction
of print reproduction (what is sometimes referred to as the Gutenberg
revolution, after Johann Gutenberg, who is credited with the invention
of the printing press or, more properly, movable type).note
When one can write down and then print scripture, as Gutenberg did, the
Bible becomes something that achieves the effect of permanence, therefore
leading to the belief that one should not change it or even represent
it (as the Puritan iconoclasts, for example, believed). The writing down
of scripture and then its publication in the vernacular, however, also
brings religion to the individual reader. (As a result, the Puritans also
opposed the hierarchical organization of Roman Catholicism, particularly
the episcopacy [bishops], since they argued that each individual has the
ability to access the word of God through the written word without the
aid of such intermediaries.)
The Renaissance is also a time of questioning and scientific discovery
(acceptance of a Copernican vs. a Ptolemaic universe; advances in the
natural sciences; questioning of the literal truth of the Bible); and
a time of political revolution, particularly Oliver Cromwell's Republic
(ideas circulating, if not implemented, during the Republic included the
extension of suffrage; freedom of religion; freedom of the press; a social
contract between rulers and ruled). Another significant shift from oral
culture is the movement into a monotheistic belief system and, hence,
the beginning of the internalization of epic values. A helpful text to
think through this transition is John Milton's Paradise Lost, which
tends to relegate the values of an oral, polytheistic shame culture to
Satan and his cohort. The real epic battle here occurs internally as Eve
must struggle against temptation. In a guilt culture, on the other hand,
identity suddenly becomes "vertical," existing on a deep scale
of internal struggle (think, for example, of the Freudian superego,
model of human subjectivity). In short, the private self is invented.
In this post-Christian culture, we are all always already guilty, thanks
to the original sin that Milton puts at the center of his monotheistic
epic vision. By this same logic, we are also all equal (no one deserves
to throw the first stone): slavery, warfare for mere material gain, misogyny,
and rape must therefore be seen as morally corrupt. Every person according
to this system, no matter how lowly, possesses certain inalienable rights
that must never be denied.
One can see elements of this transition in the movement from the Old
Testament's "jealous God," Jahweh, to the sacrificing Christ
of the New Testament. Indeed, the New Testament at various points must
actively rewrite those passages in the Old Testament more evocative of
the older shame culture, for example the following lines from Leviticus,
19. And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour; as he hath done,
so shall it be done to him;
20. Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused
a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again.
21. And he that killeth a beast, he shall restore it: and he that
killeth a man, he shall be put to death.
Compare that to Matthew, Chapter 5:38-45:
38. Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and
a tooth for a tooth:
39. But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall
smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
43. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour,
and hate thine enemy.
44. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you,
do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully
use you, and persecute you;
45. That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven:
for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth
rain on the just and on the unjust.
The same logic of transition can be said to drive the movement from Roman
Catholicism's emphasis on public ceremony, church hierarchy, and conspicuous
iconography to the Protestant (and especially Puritan) belief that each
individual must approach God privately through Biblical reading and self-discipline.
Reynold's The Fourth Duke and Duchess (1778)
Frears' Dangerous Liaisons
Wren's St. Paul's Cathedral (1675-1710)
As one name for this period, the Restoration, suggests, this was to a
large extent a time of retrenchment. The monarchy in England is restored
in 1660, after which the press and some literature is censored just as
some religious sects are outlawed. The culture seems to subscribe more
to the values of a shame culture rather than a guilt culture (external
experience, social reputation, etiquette, and courtliness). Even represented
family situations (for example, Sir Joshua Reynold's painting, The Fourth
Duke and Duchess with their Familyat left) underlines the formal
and performative aspects of what is clearly a scene (complete with
curtain and stage). Stephen Frears explores this aspect of eighteenth-century
society in his film Dangerous Liaisons, from which comes the second
image on the left. This is the Age of Reason. Hierarchy, convention and
the status quo are valued. Neoclassical Architecture tends to be ordered,
balanced, symmetrical (eg. Christopher Wren's St. Paul's Cathedralon
the left); however, the emphasis on reason also leads to the precepts
of eighteenth-century humanism, which set up the values that facilitate
the French Revolution. These values are logical by-products of the move
into a guilt culture, as explained in the previous section on the Renaissance.
Mary Klages provides a helpful listing of some of these humanist notions
introduction to postmodernism:
1. There is a stable, coherent,
knowable self. This self is conscious, rational, autonomous,
and universalno physical conditions or differences substantially
affect how this self operates.
2. This self knows itself and the world through
reason, or rationality, posited as the highest
form of mental functioning, and the only objective form.
3. The mode of knowing produced by the objective
rational self is "science," which can
provide universal truths about the world, regardless of the individual
status of the knower.
4. The knowledge produced by science is "truth,"
and is eternal.
5. The knowledge/truth produced by science (by the rational objective
knowing self) will always lead toward progress and perfection.
All human institutions and practices can be analyzed by science (reason/objectivity)
6. Reason is the ultimate judge of what is true, and therefore of what
is right, and what is good (what is legal and what is ethical). Freedom
consists of obedience to the laws that conform
to the knowledge discovered by reason.
7. In a world governed by reason, the true will always be the same
as the good and the right (and the beautiful); there can be no
conflict between what is true and what is right (etc.).
8. Science thus stands as the paradigm for any and all socially useful
forms of knowledge. Science is neutral and objective;
scientists, those who produce scientific knowledge through their unbiased
rational capacities, must be free to follow the laws of reason, and
not be motivated by other concerns (such as money or power).
9. Language, or the mode of expression used in producing and disseminating
knowledge, must be rational also. To be rational, language
must be transparent; it must function only to represent the real/perceivable
world which the rational mind observes. There must be a firm and objective
connection between the objects of perception and the words used to name
them (between signifier and signified).
These are some of the fundamental premises of humanism, or of modernism.
They serveas you can probably tellto justify and explain
virtually all of our social structures and institutions, including democracy,
law, science, ethics, and aesthetics.
M. W. Turner's Snowstorm (exhibited in 1842)
Martin's The Bard (1817)
David Friedrich's Wanderer in the Mists (1818)
Blake 's illustration for Gray's The Progress of Poesy
Fuseli 's The Nightmare (1781)
This period is marked by a number of revolutions and other transformative
changes in society:
The American Revolution begins in 1775; the
Declaration of Indepedence is drafted in 1776.
The French Revolution occurs in 1789, which
led (in France) to the execution of the king and also aided the subsequent
rise of the middle classes. The fact of the revolution in France led
many in England to fear a similar revolution in Britain, either by the
middle classes or, worse, the lower classes. The developing madness
of King George in England throughout this period did not help in bolstering
the image of the aristocracy in the minds of the English.
The rise of the middle classes in England and
America. Both countries became increasingly reliant for their wealth
on industry and business. This fact also led, of course, to the rise
of capitalism as the predominant way to conceive of business relations.
In Britain, this rise culminated in the British Reform Bill of 1832,
which extended the vote to the richest members of the middle classes.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, the vote would gradually
be extended to all men (although the vote would not be extended to women
until the twentieth century).
The Industrial Revolution and the related changes
occurring in the scientific exploration of the physical world, which
increasingly ushered in our modern forms of medicine and science.
Urbanization: as industry became the major money-maker
in the nineteenth century and as new machines made farm labour less
necessary, people entered the cities in droves to begin working in factories
and sweat shops. The resulting pollution led in England to the "London
fog," which was really the result of coal pollution mixing with
the humidity in the air.
Increasing literacy rates: more and more middle-class
men, middle-class women and even lower-class people were learning how
to read. This expansion of the reading audience made it possible for
our modern mass market to become possible. That is, the book industry
could now make a profit by selling inexpensive books to an extremely
large number of consumers. This change was made possible by both the
increase in literacy rates and the new technologies (Stanhope iron press,
Fourdrinier continuous paper-making machine, pulp paper, Plaster-of-Paris
method of stereotyping) that made possible the production of cheap books
in mass quantities.
Some of the effects of these changes on the idea of the subject include
the following: As each individual subject is seen as valued, a new emphasis
is placed on internal feelings and inspiration, leading William Wordsworth
in his Prelude to move epic form away from external battles and
inwards towards the formation of an individual subject. The rise of urbanization
leads to a counter-reaction: artists begin to extol the value of nature,
including sublime landscapes like mountains and oceans that would have
been considered forbidding by early-eighteenth-century aestheticians.
We are also presented with the formation of the Romantic hero (Promethean,
sometimes Satanic, solitary, self-exiled, in search of extremes in nature
and the self, tormented by inner guilt). We are now firmly entrenched
in guilt culture, which is reflected in the revolutionary changes in politics,
ideology, and state institutions. We therefore see the rise of autobiography
as a genre (with Wordsworth's Prelude as itself a good example).
We also begin to see the rise of the novel in this period as an emergent
mass market begins to target the newly literate middle classes. Some other
elements of Romanticism include:
1) a valuation of originality over convention.
J. M. W. Turner's paintings are a good example, since, in paintings
like "SnowstormSteamboat Off a Harbor's Mouth" (1842)on
the lefthe is so far ahead of his time that he is anticipating
impressionism by decades. (Although the painting was first exhibited
in 1842, Turner is usually associated with Romantic sensibilities.)
By many accounts, Turner also pushed himself to achieve such originality
of conception. According to his own account, the veracity of which has
been questioned, he had himself tied to the mast of a ship on which
he was travelling so that he could see the effect of snow falling about
him, which then inspired "Snowstorm." Indeed, Turner's originality
often made his contemporary critics balk.
2) a desire to champion the rights of the oppressed,
as in, for example, the colonized in Martin's "The Bard"
or the poor and destitute in Blake's engraving of Thomas Gray's "The
Progress of Poesy"both on the left. The representation of
the poet in both Martin's "The Bard" and Blake's engraving,
as a result, underlines the rebellious power of the poet. In Blake's
representation, the represented poet-prophet even goes so far as to
take on the divine power of God.
3) a new emphasis on individualism, expressed,
for example, in the solitude of the individual in Caspar David Friedrich's
"Wanderer" and Martin's "The Bard" (both on the
left). Indeed, in Friedrich's painting, we are no longer given a subject
on display (with conspicuous signs of that subject's place in the social
world) but a nondescript figure. We are made to acknowledge not the
subject's social self but the effect of the landscape on the mind of
the subject, who does not even turn his face to us. We are thus also
invited to take on his point-of-view; we are invited to experience his
emotions before the grandeur of the scene before him. There is also
a sense here that the subject is noteworthy not because of any social
position but because of what he experiences and does (in this case,
the achievement of this isolated and dangerous prospect). By this token
and thanks to the anonymity of the turned-away subject, we are made
to conclude that anyone can achieve the same experience. We are not
given the trappings of a particular class or rank but the experiences
of a human being. The isolated nature of this figure further serves
to underline his individuality, compared to the clear signs of human
society in eighteenth-century representations of people and landscape.
4) a desire to abandon oneself to nature, emotion,
and the body. The sublime exemplifies this desire to push oneself
to the limits of bodily and perceptual endurance in order to experience
new and alternate states of being. The use of drugs is another example
of this general tendency, best explored perhaps in de Quincey's Confessions
of an English Opium-Eater and in Coleridge's Preface to "Kubla
5) a degree of irrationality. Indeed, the abandonment
of oneself to emotion, mentioned in the previous point, often included
the exploration of irrational states of mind, as in, for example, Henry
Fuseli's "The Nightmare" (1781). Indeed, de Goya goes so far
as to suggest, in his etching, "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,"
that the Age of Reason by necessity includes, perhaps even entails,
a shadow side of Unreason. The new valuation of sublime landscapes is
similarly an effort to appreciate that in nature which is not utilitarian,
not ordered, not balanced, not symmetrical.
Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience (1853)
The increasing rise in literacy rates and the final establishment of
the middle class as the dominant ruling class, not to mention the formation
of a mass market, help to establish the novel as the middle class' primary
artistic form in this period. The Victorian novel in many ways turns away
from the exotic experimentation of Romantic poetry and instead offers
a critique of Romantic ideals, thus helping to effect a transition into
the bourgeois, domestic values of the period (approximately 1832-1898).
By implicitly critiquing certain aspects of the Romantic ideology (the
search for transcendence, the Romantic hero, the self-exile of the creator,
the Promethean myth), a number of domestic novels instead underscore such
middle-class values as domesticity, duty, responsibility, work, conservative
social reform, empiricism, utilitarianism, and realism. Victorian architecture
(particularly the centrality of the hearth and the separation of rooms
by hallways) helps to establish spaces where private identity and domesticity
can be established. A primary figure of the period is the "Angel
in the House," the perfect self-sacrificing and self-disciplining
domestic housewife, who is implicitly or explicitly contrasted to the
demonic whore-woman. The woman in Hunt's painting, The Awakening Conscience
(on the left), is poised between these two possibilities for female subjectivity.
Picasso 's Woman in the Studio (1956)
"Modernity" is as slippery a term as "postmodernity";
indeed, some scholars date the "modern subject" as emerging
as early as the Renaissance (thanks to the sorts of changes in thinking
that I discuss above under "Renaissance"). Usually, though,
when someone refers to the "modern period," they mean the period
from about 1898 to the second world war. This is a time of wild experimentation
in literature, music, art, and even politics. There is still a belief
among many thinkers in concepts such as truth and progress; however, the
means taken to achieve utopic goals are often extreme. This is the period
that saw such revolutionary political movements as fascism, nazism, communism,
anarchism, and so on. Indeed, "isms" abound as various groups
establish bold manifestos outlining their visions for an improved future.
Manifestos about artistic form are just as widespread and, like the political
manifestos, often radically different one from the next (eg. surrealism,
dadaism, cubism, futurism, expressionism, existentialism, primitivism,
minimalism, etc.). In general, this radicalism is driven by a sense that
Enlightenment values may be suspect. Modernists therefore participate
in a general questioning of all the values held dear by the Victorian
period (narrative, referentiality, religion, progress, bourgeois domesticity,
capitalism, utilitarianism, decorum, empire, industry, etc.). Many modernists
also tend to take the Romantic exploration of the irrational, the primitive,
and the unconscious to darker extremes, as in, for example, Joseph Conrad's
Heart of Darkness (1899), James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake,
or Antonin Artaud's surrealism. In general, there is a fear that things
have gone off track (a feeling exacerbated by World War I) and that we
need to follow radically new paths if we are to extricate ourselves. Some
of the features of modernist aesthetic work include:
1) self-reflexivity (as in Picasso's Woman in
the Studio on the left).
2) an exploration of psychological
and subjective states, combined sometimes with a rejection of
realism or objective representation (as in expressionism or stream-of-consciousness
3) alternative ways of thinking about representation
(eg. cubism, which attempts to see the same event or object from multiple
perspectives at the same time).
4) radical experimentation in form, including
a breakdown in generic distinction (eg. between poetry and prose, with
the French prose poem and the poetic prose of Gertrude Stein or Virginia
Wolf as prominent examples).
5) fragmentation in form and representation
(eg. T. S. Eliot's "Wasteland").
6) extreme ambiguity and simultaneity in structure
(eg. William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, which offers
the same events from radically different focalized
7) some experimentation in the breakdown between high
and low forms (eg. Eliot's and Joyce's inclusion of folk and
pop-cultural material in their work), though rarely in a way that is
easily understandable by the general masses.
8) the use of parody and irony in artistic creation
(eg. James Joyce's Ulysses or the creations of the surrealists
and dadaists), though again in a way that tends to be difficult for
the mass consumer to understand.
Campbell's Tomato Soup (1968)
Gehry 's Nationale-Nederlanden Building, Prague (1992-96)
Lichtenstein 's Masterpiece (1962)
One of the problems in dealing with postmodernism is in distinguishing
it from modernism. In many ways, postmodern artists and theorists continue
the sorts of experimentation that we can also find in modernist works,
including the use of self-consciousness, parody, irony, fragmentation,
generic mixing, ambiguity, simultaneity, and the breakdown between high
and low forms of expression. In this way, postmodern artistic forms can
be seen as an extension of modernist experimentation; however, others
prefer to represent the move into postmodernism as a more radical break,
one that is a result of new ways of representing the world including television,
film (especially after the introduction of color and sound), and the computer.
Many date postmodernity from the sixties when we witnessed the rise of
postmodern architecture; however, some critics prefer to see WWII as the
radical break from modernity, since the horrors of nazism (and of other
modernist revolutions like communism and Maoism) were made evident at
this time. The very term "postmodern" was, in fact, coined in
the forties by the historian, Arnold Toynbee.
Some of the things that distinguish postmodern aesthetic work from modernist
work are as follows:
1) extreme self-reflexivity. Postmodernists
tend to take this even further than the modernists but in a way that
tends often to be more playful, even irreverant (as in Lichtenstein's
"Masterpiece" on the left). This same self-reflexivity can
be found everywhere in pop culture, for example the way the Scream
series of movies has characters debating the generic rules behind the
horror film. In modernism, self-reflexivity tended to be used by "high"
artists in difficult works (eg. Picasso's painting above); in postmodernism,
self-reflexive strategies can be found in both high art and everything
from Seinfeld to MTV. In postmodern architecture, this effect is achieved
by keeping visible internal structures and engineering elements (pipes,
support beams, building materials, etc.). Consider, for example, Frank
Gehry's postmodern Nationale-Nederlanden Building, which plays with
structural forms but in a decidedly humorous way (which has led to the
nickname for the building, Fred and Ginger, since the two structures—clearly
male and female—appear to be dancing around the corner).
2) irony and parody. Connected to the former
point, is the tendency of postmodern artists, theorists, and culture
to be playful or parodic. (Warhol and Lichtenstein are, again, good
examples.) Pop culture and media advertising abound with examples; indeed,
shows or films will often step outside of mimetic representation altogether
in order to parody themselves in mid-stride. See especially the Hutcheon
module on parody, which discusses this element in particular.
3) a breakdown between high and low cultural forms.
Whereas some modernists experimented with this same breakdown, even
the modernists that played with pop forms (eg. Joyce and Eliot) tended
to be extremely difficult to follow in their experimentations. Postmodernists
by contrast often employ pop and mass-produced objects in more immediately
understandable ways, even if their goals are still often complex (eg.
Andy Warhol's commentary on mass production and on the commercial aspects
of "high" art through the exact reproduction of a set of Cambell's
Soup boxeson the left). We should, however, keep in mind that
Warhol is here clearly following in the modernist tradition of
"ready-mades," initiated by Marcel Duchamp, who used everyday
objects in his art exhibits (including, for example, a urinal for his
work, Fountain) . (Click
here for selected works by Duchamp.)
4) retro. Postmodernists and postmodern culture
tend to be especially fascinated with styles and fashions from the past,
which they will often use completely out of their original context.
Postmodern architects for example will juxtapose baroque, medieval,
and modern elements in the same room or building. In pop culture, think
of the endlessly recycled tv shows of the past that are then given new
life on the big screen (Scooby-Doo, Charlie's Angels,
and so on). Jameson and Baudrillard tend to read this tendency as a
symptom of our loss of connection with historical temporality.
5) a questioning of grand narratives. Lyotard
sees the breakdown of the narratives that formerly legitimized the status
quo as an important aspect of the postmodern condition. Of course, modernists
also questioned such traditional concepts as law, religion, subjectivity,
and nationhood; what appears to distinguish postmodernity is that such
questioning is no longer particularly associated with an avant-garde
intelligentsia. Postmodern artists will employ pop and mass culture
in their critiques and pop culture itself tends to play with traditional
concepts of temporality, religion, and subjectivity. Think of the popularlity
of queer issues in various media forms or the tendency of Madonna videos
to question traditional Christianity ("Like a Prayer"), gender
divisions ("What It Feels like for a Girl"), capitalism ("Material
Girl"), and so on. Whether such pop deconstructions have any teeth
is one of the debates raging among postmodern theorists.
6) visuality and the simulacrum
vs. temporality. Given the predominance of visual media (tv,
film, media advertising, the computer), both postmodern art and postmodern
culture gravitate towards visual (often even two-dimensional) forms,
as in the "cartoons" of Roy Lichtenstein (example on the right).
A good example of this, and of the breakdown between "high"
and "low" forms, is Art Spiegelman's Maus, a Pulitzer-prize-winning
rendition of Vladek Spiegelman's experiences in the Holocaust, which
Art (his son) chooses to present through the medium of comics or what
is now commonly referred to as the "graphic novel." Another
symptom of this tendency is a general breakdown in narrative linearity
and temporality. Many point to the style of MTV videos as a good example.
As a result, Baudrillard and others have argued (for example, through
the notion of the simulacrum)
that we have lost all connection to reality or history. This theory
may help to explain why we are so fascinated with reality television.
Pop culture also keeps coming back to the idea that the line separating
reality and representation has broken down (Wag the Dog, Dark
City, the Matrix, the Truman Show, etc.).
7) late capitalism. There is also a general
sense that the world has been so taken over by the values of capitalist
acqusition that alternatives no longer exist. One symptom of this fear
is the predominance of paranoia narratives in pop culture (Bladerunner,
X-Files, the Matrix, Minority Report). This fear is, of
course, aided by advancements in technology, especially surveillance
technology, which creates the sense that we are always being watched.
8) disorientation. MTV culture is, again, sometimes
cited as an example as is postmodern architecture, which attempts to
disorient the subject entering its space. Another example may be the
popularity of films that seek to disorient the viewer completely through
the revelation of a truth that changes everything that came before (the
Sixth Sense, the Others, Unbreakable, the Matrix).
9) secondary orality. Whereas literacy rates
had been rising steadily from the introduction of print through the
modern period, postmodern society has seen a drastic reversal in this
trend as more and more people are now functionally illiterate, relying
instead on an influx of oral media sources: tv, film, radio, etc.. The
culture still very much relies on print to create these media outlets
(hence the term secondary orality); however, it is increasingly
only a professional, well-educated class that has access to full print-
and computer-literacy. An ever larger percentage of the population merely
ingests orally the media that is being produced.
in her books The Politics of
Postmodernism and the Poetics of Postmodernism, has outlined
some of the major aesthetic features of postmodern literature, particularly
of what she terms "historiographic metafiction." Her discussion
of parody and irony has also been highly influential, helping scholars
and students alike think through the value and effectiveness of various
postmodern artistic forms. She thus provides a positive spin on the
strategies of postmodern works.
is the sobering critical counter-voice to Hutcheon's theories. Painting
a bleak picture of the future, Baudrillard critiques what he sees
as the emptying out of all materiality in a culture increasingly governed,
he argues, by the postmodern simulacrum.
like Baudrillard, offers a critical view of our present age,
in particular the dangers of multi-national capitalism. He also warns
against the dangers that result from what he sees as our society's
loss of connection with history and with the suffering of the oppressed.
Proper Citation of this Page:
Felluga, Dino. "General
Introduction to Postmodernism." Introductory Guide to Critical
Theory. Date of last update, which you can find on the home
page. Purdue U. Date you accessed the site. <http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/postmodernism/modules/introduction.html>.
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