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doCarmo's Notes on POSTMODERNISM

Postmodernism is something that's been happening in -- or to -- the world since about 1960, though that date depends on which particular philosopher/cultural pundit/art critic you're listening to. The first thing we've really got to acknowledge at the outset, though, is that there's actually a number of postmodernisms. This is because the word means different things to different thinkers in different fields -and so there are three types of postmodernism I want to think about here: postmodernism as a philosophy, postmodernism as an artistic style, and postmodernism as a historical period.

Postmodernism: A Philosophy
In the late 1960s and early '70s, philosophers like Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, and Jean-Francois Lyotard (all these guys are French, incidentally) started formulating philosophies they thought were well suited for -- or even necessitated by -- our information-drenched, increasingly globalized world. These guys' ideas are diverse, and it's a little dangerous to lump them all together, but I think we can identify at least three big, recurring trends in their thinking: 1. Postmodernist philosophers are intensely wary of rationality as a way of dealing with the world; 2. Postmodernist philosophers advocate for multiplicity and difference, rebuffing calls for totalization and regimentation at every turn; 3. Postmodernist philosophers believe all "truth" is socially and historically constructed, not fixed, eternal, or written in the stars. We can probably address the first two of those at the same time. It's because they're so distrustful of rationality -- of all modes of thought that break the world into schemas, systems, and categories -- that postmodernist thinkers advocate for multiplicity and difference, railing against demands for totalization and regimentation wherever they find them. They want us to give up all "totalizing" principles and ideas and accept a world full of ungovernable, irreconcilable differences instead. Postmodernist philosophers don't much care for the big ideas we've come up with to explain human nature or human history. They don't, for instance, like psychoanalysis (Freud's gift to the world) because it too reductively says all people everywhere struggle to resolve the same internal psychological conflicts. They're wary of Marxism, because it's also too reductive with its suggestion that all societies will eventually mature into communist societies. They don't much care for free-market capitalism, either, though, since it too would "totalize" the world, making everyone everywhere participate in a single global economy and a single consumer culture. And they're not too hot on religion -- the fundamentalist sorts, at least -- because it too can take on an absolutist, ours-is-the-only-path-to-truth stance. Also, postmodernist philosophers don't just throw out totalizing theories like those mentioned above ("metanarratives," they sometimes call those theories). They also discard the ideas that have long undergirded those theories. They don't want to hear any more, for instance, about notions of a self, or "subject," as philosophers like to call it: they believe each of us is a multiplicity of socially-learned selves, not a self-contained, monadic, self-determined individual. They shudder at the word teleology, which names the idea that history and human society are moving in some unavoidable, pre-ordained direction. And the idea of representation, or the notion that a word or image can stand in for some absent "real" thing, also goes out the window. Postmodernists don't denounce these theories and ideas because they're vicious or because they want to wreak havoc in the world. They do it, actually, because they want us to become better, more humane people. "Totalizing" theories and ideas, they say, too often become the whips and clubs we use to inflict uniformity and predictability on the world and our fellow citizens in it. Let's let all that go, they say, and accept some unexplainability, unpredictability, and difference instead. Maybe we'll all live longer. About that third item above -- the one that says postmodernists believe all "truth" is fabricated: it's true. Nothing is absolute for the postmodernist. We construct the truths and principles we live by depending on who we are, where we are, and when we are. Marx, for instance, may have believed all humanity is destined for a workers' revolution, that it's as inevitable as tomorrow morning. But a postmodernist

would say Marx was seeing the "truth" of a white male philosopher with certain personal experiences living in a certain part of Europe at a certain moment in the 19th century. What seemed universally true and imminent for him where and when he lived may look anything but from our own vantage point early in the 21st century. It bears noting here too that the many civil-rights movements of recent decades have a distinctly postmodernist flavor. They've insisted to us that the male version of history isn't the only version, that "white" isn't synonymous with "normal," and that there's no reason "queer" can't be synonymous with normal. These movements have persuaded most modern Westerners to respect differences instead of hierarchizing them. So again: all truths, for the postmodernist philosopher, are temporary truths that reflect the interests of the people who construct them. And postmodernists would like us to recognize this not because they're hateful but because we're less likely, they say, to use our "truths" as weapons if we remember they are only temporary and constructed.

Postmodernism: An Artistic Style

There are, of course, lots of different "arts" out there: theater, dance, music, painting, sculpture, architecture, film, and (of course) various genres of literature, to name just a few. Since there are so many arts, it's a little dicey to generalize about how to recognize postmodernist style in all of them. And this explanation being mainly for lit students, I'll probably concentrate here on artistic traits you can readily find within postmodernist literary works. But not exclusively. Some of the traits described below can be found easily enough in theater, film, music, painting, etc. Anyway: you can tell postmodernist art when you see it because... 1. It's self-referential. In other words, it refers to itself, or is about itself. Postmodernist artists often refuse to let their works be simply or totally about something else. Their works are about themselves as works of art, and they constantly draw attention to themselves as artifices instead of trying to be windows on some sort of reality beyond themselves. John Barth's "Life Story" is a great example: it's a short story that is its own first-person narrator, telling about nothing more than how it came to be written. (When fiction writers go in for these sorts of escapades, it's often called "metafiction.") 2. It's "intertextual." That is, it's art that often likes to be about some other work of art, or some other "text." A famous pop artist named Roy Lichtenstein loved painting images taken right out of comic books. That's "intertextuality," even if in a visual rather than written medium. He made art about somebody else's art. Similarly, a writer named John Gardner wrote a novel in the '70s called Grendel that's a funny retelling of the medieval classic Beowulf. That's intertextuality, too. 3. It's category-defying, often in befuddling ways. We might go to the museum and realize the security guard in the corner watching us is actually a wax dummy. We might go to a concert where the pianist sits in front of the piano and does nothing for four minutes. We might read a novel whose author has for some reason indulged in hundreds of tedious faux-scholarly footnotes. All of this could easily be postmodernist. Postmodernist artists love to defy our expectations and do things they're not "supposed" to do -- maybe to remind us that the rational categorizations we often use to understand art never work as well or as perfectly as we like to think they do. 4. It's "pastiched." Fancy French word, that. "Pastiche," to recent art critics, is the practice of borrowing elements of different genres and different styles from lots of different historical periods, then mixing them all together in a single work of art. It creates a kind of historical collage. It's how you get a building like Charles Moores' Piazza d'Italia in New Orleans, which looks like a classical Roman building all done up in Las Vegas-style neon lights. Or it's how you get a novel like Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, which mixes up the war genre with sci-fi. The postmodernist artist who creates a pastiche sees all of art history as a big toybox full of fun things to play with and stick together in new and interesting ways. 5. It's not snobbish. In fact, postmodernist art can be very "pop." It often draws its subject matter from the realm of popular culture and employs pop-culture forms and genres. Thus you have an acclaimed, capital-L Literary author like Joyce Carol Oates writing a novel about Marilyn Monroe's life (Blonde, it's called). Or you have Andy Warhol painting Campbell's soup cans. Or you have Art Spiegelman creating a moving account of the Nazi holocaust in the form of a comic book featuring cats and mice as

characters. Most postmodernist artists don't draw the sorts of distinctions between "high" and "low" culture many artists of the past did -- and so they defy yet another mode of categorization. 6. It gets fact and fiction all mixed up. Postmodernist artists -- fiction writers especially -- aren't much interested in the distinction between real and make-believe. They often make famous "real" historical figures interact with fictional characters in their works, and they often re-tell "actual" textbook history in peculiar, unsettling, often illuminating ways. David Foster Wallace's story "Lyndon," which has President Lyndon Johnson interacting with other characters who are totally invented, is a great example. And the intent, maybe, is to remind us there is no such thing as "real" or "true" history; it's always a story someone tells. Mixing fact and fiction is a way to amplify this idea.

Postmodernism: A Historical Period

It's the historical period, many cultural critics say, we're living in now -- and have been since about 1960, depending (as I remarked at the top of this ever-growing document) on whose opinion you're hearing. What characterizes this postmodern historical moment of ours? Well.... 1. It's info- and image-laden. We modern Western folks are truly swamped by texts and images flying at us from computer and TV and movie screens, billboards, magazines, newspapers, storefronts, etc., etc., etc. Our inundation with all this stuff has led, a French philosopher named Jean Baudrillard says, to a "precession of simulacra." What does that mean? It means that images and simulations often now seem to precede everything in the real world: the pictures come first, and "reality" dutifully imitates. 2. It's global. We've got multinational corporations selling their wares in every corner of the globe. We've got people in Siberia and Sri Lanka watching re-runs of The Cosby Show. We've got McDonald's opening across the street from Tianenmen Square in China. We've got new mosques opening in New York City almost daily. We can easily imagine an Indian lawyer educated in New Delhi starting a practice in Peoria, Illinois. We can just as easily imagine someone having a business meeting in London tomorrow but needing to be in L.A. by tomorrow night. We may have parents born and raised in Louisiana who can't get enough of a certain Celtic folk band. In the postmodern era, that which is over there very comes over here -- and vice versa -- in a hurry. 3. It's schizoid. We might feel we're one person when talking to our bosses and somebody else when talking to our kids, our lawyers, or our pastors. We might go to a Chinese place for lunch and a Mexican place for dinner. We might, watching TV, flip back and forth between an NBA game, a VH-1 "Behind the Music" show on KISS, and an old Humphry Bogart flick on AMC. We might see a Shakespearean tragedy at our college one night and go for a Bollywood movie the next. We might have been at an art museum an hour and a half ago and find ourselves in a business meeting now. Being schizoid and fragmented eventually starts to feel like our modus operandi. It's the sort of experience people used to take LSD to have. 4. Its past is present. In the postmodernist era, it's strange how the past seems to stick around forever, at least in surfaces and images. We've got our bellbottom jeans. We've got our Three Stooges and Little Rascals movies on cable TV. We've got every edition of every New York Times ever published available to us on the Web. We've got our antique car shows at the local conference center. We've got our Beatles and Miles Davis CDs. We've got "historical" movies like Ali, Braveheart, Titanic, and Saving Private Ryan, not to mention scores of recent Jane Austen movies. In the postmodern world, nothing seems ever to vanish into the past. It lives on and on -- at least on our screens, our stereos, and in our fashions. It can make us feel nostalgic for times we didn't even live in, which is a characteristically postmodern feeling if ever there was one. 5. It's "postindustrial." Yes, we still need steel and lumber and cars and buildings and factories. But the new economy, the postindustrial economy, seems more oriented towards creating, managing, moving, and selling abstract goods like information than solid tangible goods like the ones your parents or grandparents may have helped produce. It's all well and good to be able to rivet steel, sew a shirt, fix a car, or build a house. But the worker who wants to get ahead these days may need to know a little more about circuits and networks, databases and bandwidth, web pages and content providers. Information, not sweat, seems to be what makes the new, postmodern world go around. Back to my homepage