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"The Postmodern"

Postmodernity vs.
the Postmodern vs.
Approaching the Main Questions
Postmodernism/Postmodernity is associated with an awareness of societal and cultural transitions after World War II
and the rise of mass-mediated consumerist popular culture in the 1960s-1970s. In culture and the arts, interpreters of
this era describe the kinds of cultural hybrids that emerge from mixing (or rendering inoperative) the categories of
"high" and "low" cultures, and hybrids in cultural forms that have developed in regions where local identities seek
definition against, or in dialog with, Western "hegemonic" cultures (the mixing of "official" cultures and those defined
as "other" in modernist ideologies). Postmodern views of history and national identity typically cancel a commitment
to modern "master narratives" or "metanarratives" like progress and goal-directed history, and disrupt myths of
national and ethnic identities as "natural" foundations of "unity."
Complicating the study of "postmodernism" is the wide range of terms and assumptions in statements and arguments
from different schools of thought and movements in the arts. In all the discourse, we need to differentiate the terms
and concepts of the postmodern (as a condition of a historical era) orpostmodernity (as simply what we are in whether
we know it or not), andpostmodernism (reflected in movements with varying levels of intention and self-awareness),
When interpreters of culture discuss postmodern strategies or features in architecture, literature, philosophy, and the
arts, this usually includes uses of irony, parody, sampling, mixing "high" and "low" (popular) cultural sources, horizontal
vs. vertical analysis, and mixing historical and cultural sources and styles. The view that cultural hierarchies (high/low;
official/local; dominant culture/subcultures) are unstable and constructed and that history is not a source of authority
underlies the creation of many forms of pastiche (combinations from unrelated sources), collage, parody, and nostalgic
stylization where earlier, historically situated styles are abstracted and imitated as stylization.
Some scholars see the macro context of "the postmodern condition" within functions of globalization and the
information/network society. The global economic system since the 1960s has moved toward the international
merging of cultures and the global marketing of cultural goods.
Many see the features of postmodernism that are associated with the self-reflexive critique of society, culture, politics,
and economics as already part of modernism, and thus an extension of "modernism." But whatever the phase of
"modernity" we accept now includes abandoning the hope or belief in the necessary progressive movement of history
toward a goal, an end, a fulfillment.
The post-postmodern viewpoint (wherever we are today after having absorbed the issues in postmodernism) seems
to be taking the "postmodern condition" (postmodernity) as a given and creating new remixed works disassociated
from the modern-postmodern arguments and oppositions. The post-postmodern takes the "always already" mixed
condition of sources, identities, and new works as a given, not a question or problem. The metaphors of "network" and
"convergence" in creative subcultures (e.g., musicians, artists, designers, writers) are seen to be live operations or
conditions received and re-performed, not just abstractions. From this more recent perspective, living in remixed
hybridity is thus obligatory, not a choice, since it is the foundation for participating in a living, networked, globally
connected culture.
We could also argue that the terms in the discourses about the postmodern are no longer be useful, or need to be
redefined to be useful for today. Either way, the point is thinking through the problems and seeing if there are terms
that do useful cultural work for us.

Primary Problem:
Constructing Trajectories of History and Culture
Talking about "the postmodern" or "postmodernism" presupposes there is/was something known as "modernism"
from which, or against which, something can be "post".
For philosophers, historians, artists, and theorists who have developed arguments about these historical moments or
movements, "Modernism/ Modernity" and "Postmodernism" are all caught up in a web of discourses with assumptions
and ideologies that need a self-reflexive critique.
Much of the debate presupposes the possibility of a critique of history, conceptualized as having a trajectory, goal, end
(telos > teleology), which was, or was not, fulfilled in the modernist philosophies, hopes, and aspirations of the 1930s1950s.
And since around 2000, a new debate on the "post-postmodern" has opened up. There is a shared sense in many areas
of cultural practice and university research that many of the issues in postmodernism are over or assumed, and the we
are now in a different global moment, however that it to define.

What was Modernism?

As we know, each discourse concerned with history constructs its own historical objects. Postmodern theory
constructs an image of modernism. Was there ever a pre-postmodern consensus about history, identity, core cultural

the idea of the postmodern or postmodernity as anhistorical condition or
position (political/ economic/ social), an era we're still supposedly in regardless
of anyone's state of awareness.
vs. an intentional movement in the arts, culture, philosophy, and politics that
uses various strategies to subvert what is seen as dominant in modernism or

Jean-Franois Lyotard:
"Simplifying to the extreme, I define the postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives."
The postmodern as a historical/cultural "condition" based on a dissolution of master narratives or metanarratives
(totalizing narrative paradigms like progress and national histories), a crisis in ideology when ideology no longer seems
transparent but contingent and constructed (see The Post-Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge).

Frederic Jameson:
Postmodernism as a movement in arts and culture corresponding to a new configuration of politics and economics,
"late capitalism": transnational consumer economies based on global scope of capitalism (See Postmodernism, or The
Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism).

Post-Modern Artists' views:

Postmodernity as a phase of knowing and practice, abandoning the assumptions, prejudices, and constraints of
modernism to embrace the contradictions, irony, and profusion of pop and mass culture. "High" and "low" culture/art
categories made useless and irrelevant, art from outsider and non-Western cultures embraced, consumer society
turned inside out. The grand linear narrative of art history and Western cultural history is exposed as ideological and
constructed for class interests.

The Postmodern and Globalization

From Homi Bhabha, "The Location of Culture"

If the jargon of our times - postmodernity, postcoloniality, postfeminism - has any meaning at all, it
does not lie in the popular use of the 'post' to indicate sequentiality - after-feminism; or polarity - antimodernism. These terms that insistently gesture to the beyond, only embody its restless and
revisionary energy if they transform the present into an expanded and ex-centric site of experience
and empowerment.
The wider significance of the postmodern condition lies in the awareness that the epistemological
'limits' of those ethnocentric ideas are also the enunciative boundaries of a range of other dissonant,
even dissident histories and voices - women, the colonized, minority groups, the bearers of policed
The very concepts of homogenous national cultures, the consensual or contiguous transmission of
historical traditions, or 'organic' ethnic communities - as the grounds of cultural comparativism - are in
a profound process of redefinition.

Ways of working with the term postmodern

Uses of the term "postmodern"
after modernism
subsumes, assumes, extends the modern or tendencies already present in modernism, not necessarily in strict
chronological succession, or working out questions and problems implicit in modernism without a break from core
contra modernism
subverting, resisting, opposing, or countering features of modernism
equivalent to "late capitalism"
culture dominated by post-industrial, consumerist, multi- and trans-national capitalism, beginnings of
the historical era following the modern
an historical time-period marker, recognizing cultural, ideological, and economic shifts without a new
trajectory (triumphalism) or privileging of values
artistic and stylistic eclecticism (aesthetic postmodernism)
hybridization of forms and genres, combining "high" and "low" cultural forms and sources, mixing styles
of different cultures or time periods, dehistoricizing and re-contextualizing styles in architecture, visual
arts, literature, film, photography
"global village" phenomena: globalization of cultures, races, images, capital, products"information age"
redefinition of nation-state identities, which were the foundation of the modern era; dissemination of
images and information across national boundaries, a sense of erosion or breakdown of national,
linguistic, ethnic, and cultural identities; a sense of a global mixing of cultures on a scale unknown to preinformation era societies.

Postmodernity, History, Mediation, and Representation

Crises in the Representation of History
Postmodern historians and philosophers question the representation of history and cultural identities: history as
"what 'really' happened" (external to representation or mediation) vs. history as a "narrative of what happened" a
"mediated representation" with cultural/ideological interests.
Art works are likewise caught up in the problem of representation and mediation--of what, for whom,
from what ideological point of view?

"history is only accessible to us in narrative form". History requires representation, mediation, in
narrative, a story-form encoded as historical.
Dissolution of the transparency of history and tradition: Can we get to the (unmediated) referents of
Multiculturalism, competing views of history and tradition.
Shift from universal histories, from the long dure (long time-span of historical periods), to local and
explicitly contingent histories. History and identity politics: who can write or make art? for whom? from
what standpoint?

Walter Benjamin's recognition of the non-neutrality of history:

"Where are the empathies [of traditional historicism?] The answer is inevitable: with the victor. Hence empathy with
the victor invariably benefits the rulers. Historical materialists know what that means. Whoever has emerged
victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are
lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural
treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment... They owe their existence not only to the
efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries.
There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism... [A historical materialist]
regards it as his task to brush history against the grain."
"For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to
disappear irretrievably."
(From "Theses on the Philosophy of History" in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt)

Working with Frederic Jameson's categories ( Postmodernism and Consumer Society )

(1) "the transformation of reality into images" (cf. Debord and Baudrillard)
(2) "the fragmentation of time into a series of perpetual presents"
"the erosion of the older distinction between high culture and so-called mass or popular culture" (Jameson).
Pastiche and parody of multiple styles: old forms of "content" become mere "styles"

stylistic masks, image styles, without present content: the meaning is in the mimicry
"in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to
speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum" (Jameson).
No individualism or individual style, voice, expressive identity. All signifiers circulate and recirculate
prior and existing images and styles.
The postmodern in advertising: attempts to provide illusions of individualism (ads for jeans, cars, etc.)
through images that define possible subject positions or create desired positions (being the one who's
cool, hip, sexy, desirable, sophisticated...).
"our fed by postmodernism in all the arts and is inconceivable without it" (Jameson)
Po-Mo as late capitalism: transnational capitalism without borders, only networks and info flows.

Some features of postmodern styles:

Nostalgia and retro styles, recycling earlier genres and styles in new contexts (film/TV genres, images, typography,
colors, clothing and hair styles, advertising images)
"History" represented through nostalgic images of pop culture, fantasies of the past. History has become
one of the styles; historical representations blend with nostalgia.
"the disappearance of a sense of history, the way in which our entire contemporary social system has
little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past, has begun to live in a perpetual present and
in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions of the kind which all earlier social formations have had in
one way or another to preserve... The information function of the media would thus be to help us to
forget, to serve as the very agents and mechanisms of our historical amnesia" (Jameson).
Jameson's own nostalgia? Did this ever exist?
Culture on Fast Forward: Time and history replaced by speed, futureness, accelerated obsolescence.
Critique: note the image of the past and origins presupposed in the view of history and the postmodern,
the sense of Hegelian trajectories with no possible future in view to be argued for.

The Modern and the Postmodern:

Contrasting Tendencies

he features in the table below are only often-discussed tendencies, not absolutes. In fact, the tendency to see
things in seemingly obvious, binary, contrasting categories is usually associated with modernism. The tendency
to dissolve binary categories and expose their arbitrary cultural co-dependency is associated with
postmodernism. For heuristic purposes only.



Master Narratives and metanarratives of history,

culture and national identity as accepted before
WWII (American-European myths of progress).
Myths of cultural and ethnic origin accepted as
Progress accepted as driving force behind

Suspicion and rejection of Master Narratives for

history and culture; local narratives, ironic
deconstruction of master narratives: countermyths of origin.
"Progress" seen as a failed Master Narrative.

Faith in "Grand Theory" (totalizing explanations

in history, science and culture) to represent all
knowledge and explain everything.

Rejection of totalizing theories; pursuit of

localizing and contingent theories.

Faith in, and myths of, social and cultural unity,

hierarchies of social-class and ethnic/national
values, seemingly clear bases for unity.

Social and cultural pluralism, disunity, unclear

bases for social/national/ ethnic unity.

Master narrative of progress through science

and technology.

Skepticism of idea of progress, anti-technology

reactions, neo-Luddism; new age religions.

Sense of unified, centered self; "individualism,"

unified identity.

Sense of fragmentation and decentered

self; multiple, conflicting identities.

Idea of "the family" as central unit of social

order: model of the middle-class, nuclear family.
Heterosexual norms.

Alternative family units, alternatives to middleclass marriage model, multiple identities for
couplings and childraising. Polysexuality,
exposure of repressed homosexual and
homosocial realities in cultures.

Hierarchy, order, centralized control.

Subverted order, loss of centralized control,


Faith and personal investment in big politics

(Nation-State, party).

Trust and investment in micropolitics, identity

politics, local politics, institutional power

Root/Depth tropes.
Faith in "Depth" (meaning, value, content, the
signified) over "Surface" (appearances, the
superficial, the signifier).

Rhizome/surface tropes.
Attention to play of surfaces, images, signifiers
without concern for "Depth". Relational and
horizontal differences, differentiations.

Crisis in representation and status of the image

after photography and mass media.

Culture adapting to simulation, visual media

becoming undifferentiated equivalent forms,
simulation and real-time media substituting for
the real.

Faith in the "real" beyond media, language,

symbols, and representations; authenticity of

Hyper-reality, image saturation, simulacra seem

more powerful than the "real"; images and texts
with no prior "original".
"As seen on TV" and "as seen on MTV" are more
powerful than unmediated experience.

Dichotomy of high and low culture (official vs.

popular culture).
Imposed consensus that high or official culture is
normative and authoritative, the ground of value
and discrimination.

Disruption of the dominance of high culture by

popular culture.
Mixing of popular and high cultures, new
valuation of pop culture, hybrid cultural forms
cancel "high"/"low" categories.

Mass culture, mass consumption, mass

Demassified culture; niche products and


marketing, smaller group identities.

Art as unique object and finished work

authenticated by artist and validated by agreed
upon standards.

Art as process, performance, production,

Art as recycling of culture authenticated by
audience and validated in subcultures sharing
identity with the artist.

Knowledge mastery, attempts to embrace a

totality. Quest for interdisciplinary harmony.
Paradigms: The Library and The Encyclopedia.

Navigation through information overload,

information management; fragmented, partial
knowledge; just-in-time knowledge.
Paradigms: The Web.

Broadcast media, centralized one-to-many

communications. Paradigms: broadcast
networks and TV.

Digital, interactive, client-server, distributed,

user-motivated, individualized, many-to-many
media. Paradigms: Internet file sharing, the Web
and Web 2.0.

Centering/centeredness, centralized knowledge

and authority.

Dispersal, dissemination, networked, distributed


Determinacy, dependence, hierarchy.

Indeterminacy, contingency, polycentric power


Seriousness of intention and purpose, middleclass earnestness.

Play, irony, challenge to official seriousness,

subversion of earnestness.

Sense of clear generic boundaries and

wholeness (art, music, and literature).

Hybridity, promiscuous genres, recombinant

culture, intertextuality, pastiche.

Design and architecture of New York and Berlin.

Design and architecture of LA and Las Vegas

Clear dichotomy between organic and inorganic,

human and machine.

Cyborgian mixing of organic and inorganic,

human and machine and electronic.

Phallic ordering of sexual difference, unified

sexualities, exclusion/bracketing of pornography.

Androgyny, queer sexual identities,

polymorphous sexuality, mass marketing of
pornography, porn style mixing with mainstream

The book as sufficient bearer of the word.

The library as complete and total system for
printed knowledge.

Hypermedia as transcendence of the physical

limits of print media.
The Web as infinitely expandable, centerless,
inter-connected information system.