Postmodernism: Introductory Notes (Part 1)

(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).
[More later]

(Featured image (Vero Beach, FL. Shopping mall, c.1995) borrowed from Dr. Tom Paradis’s website).

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