Postmodernism: Introductory Notes (Part 1 to Conclusion)

(These are my notes on the first handout for my summer 2010 course. See the handout entitled: “Postmodernism: An Introduction” on the course website).

This handout has been excerpted from the Blackwell anthology entitled From Modernism to Postmodernism, a book I strongly recommend as an introductory volume for postmodernism. In this introductory chapter, the editor attempts to provide a brief overview of the major debates and explanations of modernity and postmodernity. Though a bit oversimplified, this chapter should be a good start for all those not familiar with postmodernism.

The editor begins the discussion of the postmodern within the metaphor of the family (which is ironic as the nuclear modern family is itself one of the concepts challenged in postmodernism), but with that of a dysfunctional family. This metaphor is helpful in explaining that there is no consensus about what is postmodernism: in fact a unitary consensus would be a very un-postmodern thing. Thus, from the outset, even without having read much about the term postmodern, we get a feeling that the term is likely to be very hard to pin down. The editor describes these varied approaches to describing the postmodern in the following words:

The members of the postmodern family not only express conflicting views, but are interested in barely overlapping subject matters: art, communications media, history, economics, politics, ethics, cosmology, theology, methodology, literature, education. Some of the most important members of the family refused to be called by the family name. And there are distant relations who deny that they are related at all. (1)

Quite a dysfunction ‘family’ for sure. So, their views on the concept, or the movement, are, at best, conflicting, and not all of them come from a single discipline or field of study. There are, of course, varied views on the postmodern, for example, for some it is: “a final escape from the stultifying legacy of modern European theology, metaphysics, authoritarianism, colonialism, racism, and domination” (1). To some it “represents the attempt by disgruntled left-wing intellectuals to destroy Western civilization,” [Glenn Beck would think thusly], and to some others it is a collection of “hermetically obscure writers who are really talking about nothing at all” (1). So, as is obvious, there is neither a consensus nor a favorable or unfavorable view of postmodernism. The editor rightly points out that “postmodernism deserves careful, sober scrutiny, devoid of trendy enthusiasm, indignant condemnation, or reactionary fear” (2).

The French Connection

Like in so many other intellectual debates, here too, the French are partially to blame. The editor suggests, and I agree, that when “philosophers use the word ‘postmodernism’ they mean to refer to a movement that developed in France in the 1960s:” Poststructuralism. Here are some of the main assumptions/ debates of the poststructuralist movement:

  • It “denies the possibility of objective knowledge of the real world” (2).
  • No “univocal (single, or primary) meaning of words and texts” (2).
  • No “unity of human self, the cogency of the distinctions between rational inquiry and political action, literal and metaphorical meaning, science and art, and even the possibility of truth itself” (2).
  • Rise of feminism and “multiculturalism” and a tendency to challenge the established order.

History of Postmodernism

The editors suggest that though there are coincidences between feminism, multiculturalism, and postmodernism, they are, however, not one and the same thing but rather different fields with certain overlaps. The editors also suggest that, in a way, “postmodernism is the latest wave in the critique of the Enlightenment” (2). The editors aim to provide a detailed account of postmodernism by providing a context for, what they term, “philosophical postmodernism” (3). This takes them to an explanation of a history of postmodernism.

The term “postmodernism,” was first used in 1917 by the “German Philosopher Rudolf Pannwitz to describe the ‘nihilism‘ of twnetieth-century Western culture” (3). It appeared again in the work of Frederico de Onis “in 1934 to refer to the backlash against literary modernism” (3). Bernard Iddings Bell used it in 1939 as a term to mean “the recognition of the failure of secular modernism and return to religion” and the historian Arnold Toynbee used it to mean “the post-World War I rise of mass society” (3).

The term appeared in literary criticism in the 1950s and 1960s, referring to the “reaction against aesthetic modernism” and entered usage into architecture in 1970s. In the 1980s it entered philosophy specifically “the French poststructuralist philosophy” (3) and to signify a “reaction against modern rationalism, utopianism, and . . . foundationalism” (3). The term also entered social science and the hard sciences around the same time. During this time the term also got connected to “the concept of ‘postindustrialism’” (3). Despite the varied fields of study and various usages of the term, one could trace some commonalities among many of its usages by locating its main points of focus:

  • “A recognition of pluralism and indeterminacy” (4) in opposition to unitary drive of modernism.
  • “A new focus on representation or images, or information or cultural signs” (4).
  • “An acceptance of play and fictionalization in cultural fields that had earlier sought a serious, realist truth” (4).

The New French Philosophers of the 1960s: In the 1960s a new group of young French philosophers rose to challenge the normative assumptions of established French philosophy. This challenge was posed to the established philosophies of “Marxism and existentialism” and “phenomenology and psychoanalysis” (4). The two leading names of the old guard: Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The old guard viewed “the individual human subject or consciousness as alienated in contemporary society, estranged from his or her authentic modes of experience or being” (4). The reasons could be “capitalism,” “scientific naturalism, ” “repressive social mores,” “religion,” and “bureaucratically organized social life” (4). The editor sums up the main project of the old French philosophers, those challenged by the new French philosophers, as follows:

To diagnose contemporary alienation they produced an historical analysis of how human society and the human self develop over time [synhcronic view], in order to see how and why modern civilization had gone wrong. What was needed, it seemed, was a return to the true, or authentic, or free, or integrated human self as the center of lived experience. This meant not an abandonment of modern industry, technology, and secularism, but some reconstruction of society (for Marx), or of moral culture (for Freud), or our openness to the vicissitudes of our own authentic experience (for phenomenology and existentialism. (4-5)

This was the dominant view in Post-World War II France and seemed to have affected, to some extent, even the philosophical thought in the United States and this is what the new French Philosophers start challenging in the 1960s. Three big names: Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Gilles Deleuze. All influenced by structuralism (Ferdinand de Saussure and Calude Levi-Strauss), the young philosophers rejected the synchronic view of history and the self and focused, instead, on the deep structures of history, language, and subject formations. Thus, while the new philosophers rejected the “scientific pretensions” (5) of structuralism, they did, as poststructuralists, dispense with any idea of an authentic self, originary culture, or, for that matter, objectivity. Their critique of the normative order, individualism, reason, and objective knowledge radically changed the French philosophy and “served to undermine the claims to legitimacy by academic authorities and the state” (6) thus undermining the political and social hegemony of the West.

The British and American Scene

During the 1960s a “quieter change” was taking place in the British and American philosophy. The reigning strain of philosophy in the US and Britain was Logical Empiricism, also known as positivism. The main assumption of these sort of approaches to philosophical inquiry was as follows:

Philosophy was to shed its metaphysical musings and ethical pretensions and concern itself with logic, the clarification of science’s method and results, and the dismissal of traditional philosophical questions through a careful analysis of linguistic errors. (6)

Various challenges were posed to this strain of philosophical thought. Kurt Godel, for example, showed that “a complete and consistent logic complex enough to include arithmetic. . . was impossible” (6). Thus, by 1960s the American and British philosophers were becoming “dubious about the canonical aims of modern philosophy and the ultimate hopes of rational inquiry” (7). [nonfoundationalism].

Meanwhile, in the fields of art, literature, music, and architecture new challenge to the established order were emerging and the varied responses to modernism from different fields can be summed up as follows:

Literature: “Literary irony and camp seemed to capture the sensibility of the time more than the seriousness of modernist search for the alienated soul and the essence of reality” (8).

Art: This period saw the rise of art that “renounced unity of style for pastiche” (8). The distinctions between high and low art were erased and the “superficial, hedonistic marketplace was . . . abandoned in an anti-heroic embrace of pop culture” (8).

Architecture: This is where postmodernism had its widest influence.

By the 1970s, psotmodernism had become a widely sued term in the US. It was Ihab Hassan, who became one of its chief exponents and “connected literary, philosophical, and social trends under the term” (9). As stated earlier, it was in the field of American Architecture that the postmodern had the most wide-ranging impact, and Charles Jenks “applied it to architecture in 1975” (9).

Three Major Books:

  • Jenks, Charles. The Language of Postmodern Architecture, (1977).
  • Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. [English version], (1979).
  • Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. (1979).

Out of the three books mentioned above, all influential in their own right, the most influential in the American philosophical context was that by Richard Rorty. For it was “partly through Rorty’s influence that in the 1980s postmodernism came to have a meaning for most American philosophers” (9).

Other Factors in the Rise of Postmodernism

  • The editor lists the following events, ideas, and material conditions that contributed to the rise of postmodernism as a viable philosophy and movement:
  • A reaction to modernity and a desire to return to earlier and traditional cultural forms.
  • The decline of Marxism and the death of the idea of socialist utopia after Stalin. (Publicized in detail through the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in 1973).

With this brief history of the postmodern, the editor then turns to providing a brief discussion of the modern or the modernity itself. As so much of what postmodern is about cannot be really understood without a good grasp of modernity, the modern, or modernism itself.

What is Modern?

Treating the modern and modernity as two distinct, though connected, concepts, the editor provides some of the following insights about the modern, modernity, and modernism. Modern, “derived from the Latin modo” means “of today” or “what is current” (11). As expected it has always been used to differentiate the contemporary from the past. Modernity, however, is quite a different bag of worms. “It has a relatively fixed reference in contemporary intellectual discussion” (11). It refers to:

the new civilization developed in Europe and North America over the last several centuries and fully evident by the early twentieth century. “Modernity” implies that this civilization is modern in strong sense that it is unique in human history. (11)

What makes this civilization unique? A general consensus does exits and points to the following unique characteristics: “powerful technique for the study of nature [Science] . . . new machine technologies . . . and [new] modes of industrial production that [lead] to an unprecedented rise in material living standards” (11). The scholars also list certain other common characteristics of modernity:

  • Capitalism
  • Secularism
  • Liberal democracy
  • Individualism
  • Rationalism
  • Humanism

As is obvious, this is a highly technologized definition of modernity and does not offer much in terms of what kind of human is the subject of this modernity. As Peter Burger asks: “Are we simply ancient Egyptians in airplanes?” (11). So, the question that needs answered is as to what kind of human is the modern human? And it is this question, of the human and human societies, that makes modernity a controversial subject of study because of the intangible nature of the question itself.

The Positive Self-Image of Modern West and Modernity: Here is how the West has presented a positive self-image of western modernity over time:

A civilization founded on scientific knowledge of the world and rational knowledge of value, which places the highest premium on individual human life and freedom and believes that such freedom and rationality will lead social progress through virtuous, self-controlled work, creating a better material, political, and intellectual life for all. (12)

Of course, this positive self-presentation has been challenged by many. Some call it “ethnic and class domination,” “European Imperialism,” “anthropocentrism, the destruction of nature, the dissolution of community and tradition” and the “death of individuality in bureaucracy” (12).

Thus, it becomes evident that modernity is quite a graspable concept when posited in the realm of tangible material progress, but becomes a highly contested concept if one were to focus on the nature of the human and the impact of Western modernity on nature and Europe’s others. The postmodern, in a way, responds to this problem of modernity.

What is Postmodernism?

Toward the end of the introductory chapter, the editor attempts to provide a “meaning” of postmodernism. I, however, consider the question of meaning as un-postmodern and would, therefore, provide a summary of the editor’s concluding remarks without invoking the word “meaning.” The editor provides the details about the postmodern under three possible registers:

  • The most famous postmodern themes and ideas that appear in postmodern works.
  • The different claims made by the postmodernists.
  • Some of the issues that divide postmodernists. (14)

The Themes: The editor recognizes five possible themes, four of which are “objects of” Postmodrenism’s “criticism” and one “constitutes its method. Postmodernism typically criticizes:

  • Presence or Presentation (versus representation and construction) (14).
  • Origin (versus phenomenon) (14).
  • Unity (versus plurality) (14)
  • Transcendence (versus . . . immanence) (14)

Presence: Postmodernism denies that “anything is ‘immediately present’, hence independent of signs, language, interpretation,disagreement” (14). In some cases, the postmodernists argue that “presentation actually presupposes representation” (14). This leads to the discussion of representation of things rather than the discussion of “the thing” (14) itself. “There is nothing outside the Text” (14).

Origin: “is the notion of the source of whatever is under consideration, a return to which is often considered the aim of rational inquiry” (14). Postmodernism denies any such possibility of return to an origin an d is thus “intentionally superficial . . . by regarding the surface of things, the phenomena, as not requiring a reference to anything deeper or more fundamental” (15). E. g. No need to decipher the authorial intention in deciphering a text.

Unity: In postmodernism, all unities are plural and are constructed through exclusions. (15)

Transcendence: The denial of transcendence is crucial to postmodernism (15). Nothing is unmotivated or pure; everything is affected by the immanent domain of politics, culture, and language.

Characteristic Strategy of Postmodernism–Constitutive Otherness

All normative systems are constituted through an “active process of exclusions, opposition,and hierarchization” (16). Thus, to normalize one point of view another must be represented as outside, as other, of the normative and official view. Thus, what is at the margins of a text, for the postmodernist, constitutes and stabilizes the text. Thus, the idea of finding the very navel of the text, where the text undermines its own logic (Derrida). “Every text is built on some kind of exclusion or repression, hence it belies itself and, when read carefully, undermine sits own message” (17). The “privileged theme” often depends on what the “marginalized element” of the text” (17).

Types of Postmodernism

Historical Postmodernism: Postmodernism as an historical claim as modernity is at an end. (17)

Methodological Postmodernism: Rejects the possibility of establishing the foundations (17). Is purely negative: challenges everything without offering an alternative vision.

Positive Postmodernism: it offers an alternative, but there are problems with offering an alternative especially since postmodernism is also supposed to be antifoundational.

On the whole, while it may be hard to grasp this concept, it is important to, at least, familiarize ourselves with Postmodernism.


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(Featured image borrowed from Dr. Tom Paradis’s website).