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Postmodernism: Philosophical Aspects
‘Postmodernism’isatermthatdeﬁessimpledeﬁnition.Although earlier uses are recorded, the term has beenwidely used since the 1960s to refer to a range of antimodernist attitudes and strategies in art criticism,architecture, and literary criticism. References topostmodernism in philosophy and social theory didnot become common before they appeared in thework of Lyotard and Rorty during the early 1980s.Philosophical postmodernism quickly became asso-ciated with the idea of a ‘crisis’ in representation,abandonment of the belief in a universal subjectof reason and value, and the rejection of uni-tary schemas of progress inherited from the En-lightenment. In place of these foundational motifs of modern thought, postmodernism emphasized dif-ference, diversity and irreducible conﬂict in humanaﬀairs rather than unity and the possibility of harmony.There are several reasons why postmodernismshould be ‘a particularly unstable concept’ (Bertens1995, p. 12). First, the concept of postmodernismstands in a variety of complex relations to otherconceptssuchasmodernism,poststructuralism,decon-structionism, modernity and postmodernity. Sincethe meaning of these concepts is equally uncertain, soour understanding of ‘postmodernism’ will be aﬀectedby the particular meaning attached to these relatedconcepts. Second, to the extent that postmodernism isconsidered a cultural movement alongside others suchas romanticism, positivism, or structuralism, then ittoo will encompass a variety of distinct aesthetic andintellectual strategies. Bertens’
The Idea of Post
modernism: a History
begins with illustrations of thesometimes contradictory ways in which the term hasbeen employed. For example, by 1970 modern pain-ting had long abandoned the idea that representationor narrative were essential to its art. In explicitreaction against modernism understood as the self-reﬂexive exploration of the formal possibilities of painting, postmodern painting involved a repriseof representation and narrative. In a similarfashion, postmodern architecture rejected the for-malism of the postwar International style and re-embracedhistoricalandvernacularstyles.Bycontrast,at least in some of its manifestations, literary post-modernism involved a move in the opposite directionaway from narrative and representation towards aform of radical self-reﬂexivity. Bertens concludesthat, depending on the artistic discipline, ‘post-modernism is either a radicalization of the self-reﬂexive moment within modernism, a turning awayfrom narrative and representation, or an explicitreturntonarrativeandrepresentation.Andsometimesit is both’ (Bertens, 1995, p. 5). In view of the manydiﬀerent phenomena to which it has been applied, itis common for discussions of postmodernism, tobegin, as this one has, with the claim that the termhas no clear meaning (Eco 1985, p. 65, Rorty 1999,p. 262).
Just as modernism is often regarded as a response tothe process of modernization which transformed thematerial conditions of European society during thenineteenth century, so postmodernism is often pres-ented as a consequence of the restructuring of capi-talism at the end of the twentieth century. Thehistorical period of modernity which extends from themiddle of the eighteenth through to the middle of thetwentieth century saw the development of industrialcapitalistinfrastructure and meansofproductionsuchasrailways,automobiles,airtransport,electricity,andtelegraphicandtelephoniccommunication.Italsosawthe growth and modernization of cities, the spread of public schools, hospitals, and prisons, and the deve-lopment of bureaucratic and rational procedures forthe government of social life. ‘Modernism’ is com-monly used to refer to an artistic sensibility whichembraced innovation and change. In its early stages,modernism involved a positive sense of living at thedawn of a new era. To be modern implied an heroiccommitment to action and to revolutionizing oneself 11872