What is Postmodernism?

I’ve been reading an excellent introductory guide to critical theory entitled Beginning Theory by Peter Barry. It’s so clear and well-written and to the point that I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning more about this area of literary studies. I’ve been reading the chapter on postmodernism which is admirably lucid and so I thought I’d try and do a bit of a synthesis here, as well as adding some of my own (far from authoritative) thoughts on the matter.

So postmodernism refers to a general cultural practice, a kind of spirit that infuses a wide range of cultural artefacts (literature, film, architecture) and defines the age and mindset in which they were produced. Deciding when postmodernism begins is the kind of thing you could probably turn into a fun board game for academics. It’s not really possible to say, hmmm, well, clearly the tide turned on 23rd October 1979, around about teatime, and so there are probably still critics out there arguing that for all this endless talk about postmodernism, it hasn’t truly happened yet. And there are probably others identifying its elements in eighteenth century works by Voltaire, for all I know. But for the sake of argument we’ll call it a paradigm shift in thinking that was defined as we know it in 1979 by Jean-Francois Lyotard in his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. The tricky thing about postmodernism is that it requires you to understand what modernism is first, and heaven only knows the arguments are still going on about that, too! But looking just at literature, a selection of the great modernist writers would include James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Proust and Kafka. So we can see from these authors that a certain experimentalism enters into the way the world is viewed. The emphasis now is on sense perception, impressions, feelings, stream of consciousness rather than on a realistic perspective coming from an omnipresent point of view. What it’s like to be an individul experiencing life is paramount, resulting in fragmentation, lack of closure, and a certain navel-gazing preoccupation with the act of recording in language what happens outside of it.

So does postmodernism continue and extend the precepts of modernism or does it oppose it? Ah, tricky. The change is more in terms of attitude, but as we all know and tell our children, attitude makes a whole world of difference. Now one way of looking at modernism is to see it as the end of a story that began in the Enlightenment, when there was a lot of excitement about the perfectability of the human race. It was generally thought that if you ditched superstition and blind habit and applied reason and logic to all situations in a cool-as-a-cucumber kind of way, we would all live happily ever after. Alas, it transpired that humans are terrible at learning from previous errors, and reason and logic are themselves products of language to which the external world is generally indifferent.  Certainty about what we could know and control for sure shrank to the size of, well, the modernist field of sense perception. One way to look at this is to see it as the demise of what Lyotard calls ‘metanarratives’, great overarching stories that were intended to make sense of the world and everything in it, like religion, or science, or the history of progress.  All we are left with is lots of mini-narratives that are contingent, ephemeral, provisional and relative. In other words, I can only ever speak for myself.

Now modernism is understood (mostly in retrospect) as the lament for the loss of the grand narratives, as well as for the belief in fairly useful things like truth and reality. Postmodernism looks at the same situation and celebrates it; has one great big, boisterous, out of hand, neighbours-calling-the-police type party with it.  Postmodernism sees those old fixed systems of belief that we all had to tediously subscribe to as claustrophobic and constraining. It doesn’t believe in those ritzy little distinctions that cause so much grief like the ones between high and low art, it revels in the gaudy and the cross-pollinated and the subversive and it mixes it all up in its brightly coloured plastic crucible with the advertising slogan on the side. I tend to think of postmodernism as that which is irrevocably cross-bred, like a Vivienne Westwood outfit that uses the gentry’s tweed to make a studded and leather-trimmed corset. It’s very experimental in its way, it’s often also ugly, and it delights in surface without depth. Graphic sex and violence are very much part of the postmodern where nothing is left to the imagination, all must be put on bold display. And it’s a throwaway culture, not built to last or built to linger, not least because it certainly doesn’t mystify or attempt to be enigmatic.

So postmodernism is a way of saying: this is all there is. You can either moan about the passing of great noble hopes, or you can live in the moment for all it’s worth (which is about 55p). As befitting a mixed-up miscegenated movement I think it’s divided between its good and bad parts. Its dismissal of depth in favour of surface always distresses me, until I realise that depth is something that is endemic to all human creativity; no matter how much we try and make everything visible there will always be the part that resists, that eludes, that taunts and entices. A wholescale abandonment of truth is equally alarming, until of course we recognise that there will always be truths of all shapes and sizes, same as there ever were. But for me the postmodern is probably summed up in that strange recommendation we so regularly exhort one another to embrace, which is ‘to live in the moment.’ In the postmodern worldview, the moment is all there is, in a radical way. And yet what would our grandparents have thought of us if we had made the same suggestion to them? They would have had no idea that there was any other way to live. So for me, the postmodern is also bound up with the media, and the strange, image-driven, hidden-story-ridden kind of lives we lead, in which we have to remind ourselves to live in the moment, because there are so many other virtual places we could be. For me, postmodernism arises out of the sheer complexity of the world we’ve created for ourselves, and whilst it’s every bit a part of that crippling sophistication, it’s also pretending to a kind of wild and spontaneous simplicity that it never really achieves. Its a form of manic distraction from its own longings for comfort and stability in an increasingly out of control world.


20 thoughts on “What is Postmodernism?

  1. Litlove: Thanks for another incisive insight to a topic; I liked your take on this very much. Am not sure I’m understanding you on one small point, however. You write this:

    “And yet what would our grandparents have thought of us if we had made the same suggestion [to live in the moment] to them? They would have had no idea that there was any other way to live.”

    It might be that my background gets in the way. My grandparents very much did *not* live in the moment. They lived with a belief in a future moment which was to be, if they kept behaving themselves (as I’ve been led to believe they did), heavenly. They also did things “for the children.”

    Their belief was in the future, and in sacrificing short term comforts or pleasures for long term gains. This might be more an American phenomenon, for all I know. I once looked at some old photos with my grandmother, and commented on how her mom, great-grandma (born circa 1870), never smiled.

    “Her life was hard,” grandma (b. 1908) was quick to let me know. Very much with a moral element, as if to say: not like yours. You have it good because of her sacrifices.

    If I had suggested living in the moment to my grandparents, it would have been taken as a danger sign by them (rightly so) that I was back-sliding from a righteous path.

    I suspect I’ve taken this off on some other tanjent–sorry for that. But am simply not sure we’re starting from the same point. I suspect you are saying that our grandfolks’ generation wouldn’t be able to start from the same concepts of modernism and post-modernism, yes? As they had no or different notions of these ideas? (My grandparents very much had a sense of “modern” but it was probably synonymous with “progress” tempered by “too much secular change” for them.)

    Bu that’s a minor ? that popped up, back-noggin. Again, thanks for such a lucid analysis of a most-slippery topic.

  2. Dear Ben, it’s quite possible I’m generalising out of a different mind set altogether. My grandparents all saw one if not two world wars, and their general inclination (none of them being particularly religious) was to just get on with things, as they were. There was far less of the social and financial aspirations that dog our generations, and with no television let alone an internet, the mass media had yet to be invented to taunt them with all they hadn’t got, and all they could yet be (in virtual worlds). That was all I really meant. But very interesting to hear about the different attitude your own grandparents had and I can quite see what you mean!

  3. Not Voltaire, but Laurence Sterne! Sterne is an early embodiment of postmodernism! Just kidding 🙂

    This is a very useful overview, and I’m glad to hear the book is so readable, in case I want to read up on the subject.

  4. You could also mention the broad stylistic choices that tend to make a work postmodern. You do a good job of fleshing out the basic mindset that underlies the postmodern mindset, but I personally find it more useful to define it in terms its characteristics: things like preoccupation with identity issues, experimentation with form, and metafiction.

  5. Dorothy – LOL about Sterne! You crack me up! And yes, it covers all the different theories, from structuralism through to feminism, queer theory, postcolonialism, narrativity, psychoanalysis, new historicism and so on. A very useful little book. Semanticdrifter – hello and welcome to the site. Yes, you certainly can look at postmodernism that way, but I didn’t choose that route myself as its characteristics don’t distinguish it much from modernism, which was equally interested in experiments in form and subjectivity and so on, although the way they play out is different. It was that difference in approach that I wanted to clarify. Oh and I guess you could also mention parody and pastiche as a postmodern characteristic too.

  6. Kia ora from New Zealand, Litlove,

    I have been enjoying your thoughts and comments about Postmodernism. I’m a retired academic – an architect who has taught Architecture, Cultural Studies, Media Studies and critical Theory at major Universities in Britain, the US and New Zealand. You might like to have a look at my website http://www.TonyWardEdu.com. It has about 60 downloadable PDFs on all of these subject areas, and in particular, emphasising the emancipatory potential of Critical Postmodernism. Hal Foster distinguishes two kinds of Postmodernism – the Postmodernism of reaction and the Postmodernism of Resistance. (Foster, H. (ed), The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture, Bay Press, Port Townsend, 1983). It’s a good read. Anyway, check out my website and see if there is anything there that interests you.

  7. So my “modern” life, where I read instant best-sellers which I forget as I close the last page, where I watch graphic TV scenes of bullets travelling through internal organs, where cricket has been reduced to a three hour hit and giggle which we are expected to take seriously, where celebrity is far more important that ability and where my membership of S.K.I.N. (Spend Kids’ Inheritance Now) is a necessary part of life, is truly post-modernist. In fact it could be that I have never lived in a modern world. My entire existence has been a post-modernist farce.

  8. Litlove! I’ve actually read something that you’ve written about. This is a big day. I read Barry’s chapter to get ready for a presentation about “Grendel” by John Gardner because I seriously had no idea what postmodernism was. I ended up drawing a crude diagram of a classical piece of architecture, then a pile of rubble to represent modernist’s picking apart enlightenment ideas. Then I drew a new structure–just a box with a little door on one side and window in the top corner–to represent modernist’s new concepts. Then, to show postmodernists ideas, I drew a Mickey Mouse on the box house, and some graffiti, and a jack- in-the-box coming out of the top. Too show that postmodernists were not just exercising frivolity I drew a machine gun with barbed-wire on the other side of the roof. The class, and I, all understood some general things about postmodernism after that. Barry’s explanation helped me to at least enter this world with a concept of sorts. I’m so glad you brought that experience back.

  9. Can I add my plug for the Barry. I came across it as the set text for a course I was Externally Examining for another University and promptly rushed out and bought my own copy. As an undergrad, introduction it’s superb.

    My problem with the idea of living in the moment (which is something that in one sense I know I need to do more) is that so often rather than meaning inhabiting the moment it can be used to mean living without any concern for anyone else. I suspect I’m not a postmodernist.

  10. How does dadaism fit in with all this? I would expound at length and most wittily too but I fear it’s a Monday morning, the fluorescent lighting is particularly bad today and my tea has yet to revive me. Andy Warhol is postmodern, yes? The glam embracement of media, understanding art as pop, praising the ephemeral, lauding the lowest common denominator as the highest expression of our communality. Postmodernism sounds boring, brash, gaudy and self absorbed, a recycling of the Dadaisitc impulse welded with YouTube and the bleeding edge of pornography that’s so boring it’s mere anatomy class.

  11. A very nice synthesis indeed! I would love to get hold of that book. It sounds like a fantastic guide for undergraduates, especially, who are just getting started and need something concise and clear (or for those of us who are not undergraduates that need a refresher or a way to teach it lucidly).

    I read an especially good comparison/contrast of Modernism and Postmodernism once (though, of course, the source leaves me right now when I want to mention it). I used it in my thesis quite a bit, and many of its points have stuck with me. It was very helpful to hear the two movements discussed together so as to recognize one for what the other was not, etc. They tend to bleed together so easily.

  12. This isn’t the book that was making you fall asleep is it? And where were you when I had to take theory in grad school? It was one very painful semester of everyone taking things way too seriously. Your description of postmodernism as “one great big, boisterous, out of hand, neighbours-calling-the-police type party” made me laugh.

  13. Wairere – hello and welcome to the site! Thanks so much for the very useful
    link to yours – I’ll certainly be coming over to read your pdfs! Archie –
    your comment made me laugh and laugh! All I can say in response is: yes. Ian
    – yay! How nice for us to coincide on a book! Although of course if we all
    had your excellent and spot on drawing to hand, we wouldn’t have needed the
    explanation! Ann – Isn’t the Barry good? I am delighted to have your
    endorsement. I see quite what you mean about living in the moment, but one
    way to look at it is to see that it means you are even more there for
    people, given that the bit that would otherwise be in la-la land is fully
    engaged as well. Phil – no need to apologise for it being Monday – I quite
    understand! Dadaism was distinctly anti-art, and anti-meaning (and right at
    the beginning of the century, although you probably knew that), whereas
    postmodernism would certainly claim itself as art, even if it’s not in the
    shape we expect it to come. Equally it would also be very interested in
    meaning, whilst recognising that meaning to be plural and unfixed. Other
    than that, the performative, parodic elements and the sense of mixed genres
    are indeed similar. Andi – I agree with you – I found it difficult to
    discuss postmodernism without going via modernism! And I do recommend the
    Barry – it’s an excellent starting point. Stefanie – I really like theory
    but the last thing anyone should do is take it seriously 🙂 and no – this is
    indeed not the book that was making me fall asleep – this one was very good
    at keeping me awake, I’m happy to say!

  14. I have always wondered what exactly postmodernism was? It’s one of those terms thrown around a lot but I can’t seem to wrap my brain around what exactly it means. It makes a lot of sense in terms of media and living in the moment. I suppose academics like to categorize and place everything neatly in its place, but I suppose it is not always so simple. If Woolf, Joyce and Kafka were modern, who is an example of postmodern?

  15. Thanks for the very witty thoughts on postmodernism – you have written about it with such enviable (and totally helpful) clarity! I am grateful. I too have read “Beginning Theory,” and enjoyed it tremendously. It left me wishing he could have gone on for longer, and about more theoretical approaches, because it is rare for an author (even of an introduction to theory) to write so eloquently but approachable about the subject.

  16. Danielle – excellent question. I had to think hard about this, but Jasper Fforde springs instantly to mind. I believe Murakami is considered postmodern but I’ve never read him, so am unsure. Julian Barnes can be postmodern-lite, Michel Houellebecq for the French, Thomas Pynchon or Don Delillo (probably, again haven’t read them) for American lit. And oh the academic mania for categorisation – still, it keeps us off the streets and out of trouble! Sycorax Pine – hello and welcome! I do agree – it’s very rare to find theory written about in a way that is approachable, but Barry certainly manages that. I’m delighted to find another fan of the book and thank you so much for your kind words!

  17. Forgive me while I mete out a response based perhaps too much on minced words.

    I caught something in your language that was fairly interesting (to me, at least). You mention, at different moments that “Postmodernism looks at the same situation [the loss of the grand narrative] and celebrates it,” and later that “postmodernism is a way of saying: this is all there is. You can either moan . . . or live in the moment for all it’s worth”. Further on, you state that “In the postmodern worldview, the moment is all there is, in a radical way.” And finally, you state that Poo is a “manic distraction”, and this it is a longing for comfort in an “out of control world.”

    I feel that postmodernism has garnered a poor reputation over the years, and perhaps deservedly so. It is a little too easy for the world to look down on an entire aesthetic and cultural movement when some of your greatest standard-bearers are the likes of Derrida, Lyotard, Boudrillard and Jameson. Boudrillard’s hyperreal can be far too depressing (as any pop-culture theorist will tell you vis-a-vis _The Matrix_ – Welcome to the desert of the real), for instance, while Jameson’s downright refusal to even acknowledge PoMo in favour of the marxist-critical stage of late capitalism stresses the absolute loss of Self to a mindless, yet ever-expanding conceptual “market”.

    But post-modernism doesn’t have to be so bleak.

    Post-modernism can teach us not that the grand narratives have necessarily been lost, but that the entire concept of them have been undermined by a more thorough understanding of things. While some may criticise that all that remains after we’ve thrown The Enlightenment Project out the window is a callous relativity that erodes any value in anything, we must remember that “what’s left” after the foundations have been swept away can be as much liberating as it can be despressing. My thoughts turn here to Hutcheon’s thorough summation of post-modernism from the late 1980s, _The Poetics of Postmodernism_. Hutcheon asks the reader to not necessarily embrace post-modernism, but not to reject it, either. In a text useful for beginners and advanced scholars alike, Hutcheon makes the case that our aesthetics and values have changed, and that it is futile to fight with that. Rather, we can identify post-modernism’s required interplay with, and rejection of modernism to achieve of a better understanding of things. Hutcheon explains that truth, or any other value, is not absent in postmodernism so much as we have learned it to be a value unto itself, and therefore a reflection of ourselves, too. Hutcheon is incredibly and refreshingly optimistic about post-modernism, which is something we all could use a little more of (in my opinion)..

    Anyway, nice article. Perhaps I was preaching to the converted in this response – I apologise if I was.

    (sidenote: I wonder what Baudrilllard would have thought of the digital simulacra of yourself you created with your recent avatar. The internet really is one giant hyperreal if you want it to be.)


  18. Pingback: A postmodern generation and a roll call. « derivative

  19. Derivative – you express it beautifully! I am indeed in complete agreement with you, but I thank you for balancing out so very well the picture I’d painted. I think postmodernism is interestingly ambivalent (it certainly makes me feel ambivalent) and it’s too easy to come down on the side of pessimism about it, when it has much to offer. I’m coming over to see what you’ve written on the topic now.

    Oh and Baudrillard would have instantly gone and made a meez of himself, I am quite convinced! I am sorry he didn’t live to enjoy internet games – he would have loved them and written on them at length.

  20. I think one of the problems people have with labels like modern and post-modern is how loose they are and how far stretched. I believe George III considered himself to be very modern, no?

    When a group of French painters began experimenting with new techniques it was at first called “The New Painting.” A lousy name. “Impressionism” is much better at giving all a clear sense of mewaning — however unclear the brushstrokes themselves seemed to early critics.

    Likewise, when the Ramones and then the Sex Pistols made a new racket, the moniker “Punk” succinctly summed it up. “New Wave ” is so amorphous I’ve heard people use it to describe 80s techno-pop and deny that some of its early purveyors, The Talking Heads, Devo, Costello, etc. were even New Wave.

    Post-modern needs better PR, I think.

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