|preceded by Modernism|
Postmodernism (sometimes abbreviated as Po-Mo) is a term applied to a wide-ranging set of developments in critical theory, philosophy, architecture, art, literature, and culture, which are considered to have emerged from, or superseded, modernism, in reaction to it, soon after the end of World War II, which caused people much disillusionment.
Many theorists agree that we can distinguish between two senses of postmodernism: 1) postmodernism as a reaction to the aesthetic "modernism" of the first half of the twentieth century in architecture, art, and literature; and 2) postmodernism as a reaction to the long-standing "modernity" tradition of the Enlightenment from the eighteenth century. To be distinguished from the former which is more aesthetic, the latter is quite often called "postmodernity," referring to more historical and social aspects of postmodernism. The latter is closely linked with post-structuralism (cf. Jacques Derrida's deconstruction), insinuating a rejection of the bourgeois, elitist culture of the Enlightenment. Without this distinction, postmodernism may lack a clear central hierarchy or organizing principle, embodying extreme complexity, contradiction, ambiguity, diversity, and interconnectedness or interreferentiality. But, its general features are usually considered to include: a rejection of grand narratives; a rejection of absolute and universal truth; non-existence of signified; disorientation; a use of parody; simulation without the original; late capitalism; and globalization.
Postmodernism has invited a wide spectrum of criticisms, from conservatives who feel threatened by its rejection of absolute truth, from Marxists who may tend to be allied with the Enlightenment, and from intellectuals who cannot make sense of it. It, however, is welcomed by schools such as feminism. It is even accommodated by Christian theologians as a good opportunity to develop a more convincing, new theology, and some of the examples include Jean-Luc Marion's postmetaphysical theology and John D. Caputo's deconstructive theology in search of a true God.
The question of what postmodernism means is problematic because the notion is complex. Ihab Hassan, one of the first to discuss about postmodernism in the 1960s and 1970s, writes in 2001: "I know less about postmodernism today than I did thirty years ago, when I began to write about it… No consensus obtains on what postmodernism really means."
The historical origins of the term lead back at least to English painter John Watkins Chapman, who was probably the first to use the term "postmodernism." He used it in the 1870s to simply mean what is today understood to be post-impressionism. In 1934, Spaniard Federico de Onis used the word postmodernismo as a reaction against modernist poetry. In 1939, British historian Arnold Toynbee adopted the term with an entirely different meaning: the end of the "modern" Western bourgeois order of the last two- or three-hundred-year period. In 1945, Australian art historian Bernard Smith took up the term to suggest a movement of social realism in painting beyond abstraction. In the 1950s in America, Charles Olson used the term in poetry. Only in the 1960s and 1970s was the term more popularized through theorists such as Leslie Fielder and Ihab Hassan.
Since postmodernism emerged from modernism, it is essential to have some understanding of modernism first, but modernism itself is not a single entity. If we carefully look at modernism, we realize that it has two different facets, or two different definitions: 1) twentieth-century aesthetic modernism, which emerged during the first half of the twentieth century as a reaction to nineteenth-century traditions such as the Victorian tradition; and 2) the much longer historical tradition of "modernity," which started from the humanistic rationalism of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, and which was still continuously influential till the twentieth century. Theorists such as David Lyon and Mary Klages have made this distinction between the two facets of modernism, and also a resultant distinction between two senses of postmodernism as well.
Modernism was a series of aesthetic movements of wild experimentation in visual arts, music, literature, drama, and architecture in the first half of the twentieth century. It flourished especially between 1910 to 1930, the period of "high modernism."
Modernism in this sense was rooted in the changes in Western society at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. It was a trend of thought that affirmed the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environment, with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology, and practical experimentation. Embracing change and the present, it encompassed the works of thinkers who rebelled against nineteenth-century academic and historicist traditions, believing that the traditional forms of art, architecture, literature, religious faith, social organization, and daily life were becoming "outdated." They directly confronted the new economic, social, and political aspects of an emerging fully industrialized world.
The older ideas that history and civilization are inherently progressive, and that progress is always good, came under increasing attack. Arguments arose that not merely were the values of the artist and those of society different, but that society was antithetical to progress, and could not move forward in its present form. Philosophers called into question the previous optimism.
Two of the most disruptive thinkers of the period were, in biology, Charles Darwin and, in political science, Karl Marx. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection undermined religious certainty of the general public, and the sense of human uniqueness among the intelligentsia. The notion that human beings were driven by the same impulses as "lower animals" proved to be difficult to reconcile with the idea of an ennobling spirituality. Marx seemed to present a political version of the same proposition: that problems with the economic order were not transient, the result of specific wrongdoers or temporary conditions, but were fundamentally contradictions within the "capitalist" system. Both thinkers would spawn defenders and schools of thought that would become decisive in establishing modernism.
Of course, there actually were a few reforming spiritual and theological movements around the same time which also reacted against the nineteenth-century traditions. They include Neo-orthodoxy by Karl Barth in Europe, and pentecostalism and fundamentalism in America. But, they seem to have been less visible and less prevalent than activities of radical aesthetic modernism.
Twentieth-century aesthetic modernism took diverse forms such as surrealism, dadaism, cubism, expressionism, and primitivism. These forms were apparently immediate reactions to the Victorian values such as bourgeois domesticity, duty, work, decorum, referentiality, utilitarianism, industry, and realism. Some of the forms of aesthetic modernism naturally resemble Romanticism, which was rejected in the Victorian period. According to Dino Felluga, the features of modernist aesthetic work include:
In order to grasp an idea of what the "postmodernism" movement (in all its variations) is reacting against, one must first have an understanding of the definitive elements of "modernism."
Modernism in the second definition can be traced back to the Enlightenment, which was a humanistic reaction in the eighteenth century to the premodern, medieval type of religious dogmatism which could still be found in Lutheran and Calvinist scholasticism, Jesuit scholasticism, and the theory of the divine right of kings in the Church of England in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Of course, against this premodern type of religious dogmatism, there was another, religiously more profound, reaction in the eighteenth century, expressing itself in Pietism and John Wesley's Methodism. But the humanistic tradition of the Enlightenment was more influential than that.
Since its beginning, this Enlightenment tradition has a long history of philosophical, cultural, social and political development until most of the twentieth century, much longer and older than twentieth-century aesthetic modernism, and it is quite often called "modernity."  This "modernity" tradition of the Enlightenment stressed the importance of the rational human self, objective truth or law, order, progress, etc., and it was behind most of the nineteenth century traditions. So, when the limitations of the nineteenth century were felt, "modernity" served as an indirect background against which twentieth-century aesthetic modernism sprang. When the limitations of "modernity" were more directly felt later in the twentieth century, it issued in a reaction called postmodernism, which, as will be explained below, is of a second kind, i.e., "postmodernity."
Clear thinking professor Mary Klages, author of Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed, lists basic features of "modernity" since the Enlightenment as follows:
Corresponding to the two different facets of modernism, there are two distinguishable senses of postmodernism: 1) postmodernism as a reaction to twentieth-century aesthetic modernism; and 2) postmodernism as a reaction to the "modernity" tradition of the Enlightenment. In order to be distinguished from the former, the latter is quite often called "postmodernity."
Postmodernism as a reaction to twentieth-century aesthetic modernism emerged soon after World War II. It still carried most of the features of twentieth-century aesthetic modernism. So, some have argued that it is essentially just an outgrowth of modernism, and not a separate movement. But, there is a fundamental difference. It is that while aesthetic modernism had presented fragmentation, for example, as something tragic to be lamented (as in Eliots' "The Waste Land"), postmodernism no longer laments it but rather celebrates it. Thus, postmodernism is inclined to stay with meaninglessness, playing with nonsense. Dino Felluga sees this difference and lists some of the things "that distinguish postmodern aesthetic work from modernist work" as follows:
Postmodernism in this sense was much discussed in the 1960s and 1970s by theorists such as Leslie Fielder and Ihab Hassan, although Hassan gradually extended his discussion to a general critique of Western culture, somewhat dealing with postmodernism in the other sense as well. Many other theorists such as Baudrillard, Jameson, and Hutcheson later joined the discussion on postmodernism in the first sense, perhaps having in mind postmodernism in the other sense as well.
Up until the 1970s the discussion on postmodernism was generally confined to postmodernism in its first sense. In 1980, however, Jürgen Habermas's lecture on "Modernity: An Unfinished Project" helped bring a shift in the discussion from postmodernism in its first sense (i.e., a reaction to twentieth-century aesthetic modernism) to postmodernism in the second sense (i.e., postmodernity), ironically because of its strong defense of modernity against postmodernity. Of course, the debate on modernity versus postmodernity had already started with the involvement of critics such as Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, Richard Rorty, and Jacques Derrida in favor of postmodernity, as they felt that the modernity tradition of the Enlightenment was in crisis because of the emergence of problems such as alienation and exploitation within that tradition in spite of its original promise of positive cultural and social development. But, when Habermas was trying to defend modernity as an "unfinished project" we should not abandon yet, it prompted those who were in favor of postmodernity to react. Since then, a large volume of literature has continued to snowball, focusing on postmodernity as the more important facet of postmodernism.
Habermas now became the target of criticism especially from Lyotard, who published The Postmodern Condition in English in 1984, his best-known and most influential work. Lyotard declared the end of the Enlightenment and rejected its tradition of "grand narrative," a totalistic, universal theory which promises to explain and solve all problems by one set of ideas.
After summarizing modernity in terms of order and rationality, Mary Klages lists some of the basic characteristics of postmodernity over against it, as follows:
What should be added to the list as an important aspect of postmodernity is Jacques Derrida's project of deconstruction as an attempt to criticize what is called logocentrism beyond text.
The term "deconstruction," coined by Derrida, came from Heidegger, who called for the destruction or deconstruction (the German "Destruktion" connotes both English words) of the history of ontology. In later usage, "deconstruction" became an important textual "occurrence." According to Derrida, the project of deconstruction implies that there is no intrinsic essence to a text, merely the "play" of difference (which he dubbed différance to capture the French sense of the term meaning both "to differ" and "to defer").
A deconstruction is created when the "deeper" substance of text opposes the text's more "superficial" form. This idea is not unique to Derrida but is related to the idea of hermeneutics in literature; intellectuals as early as Plato asserted it and so did modern thinkers such as Leo Strauss. Derrida's argument is that deconstruction proves that texts have multiple meanings, and that the "violence" between the different meanings of text may be elucidated by close textual analysis. According to Derrida, deconstruction is not a method or a tool but an occurrence within the text itself. Writings about deconstruction are therefore referred to in academic circles as deconstructive readings.
Deconstruction is far more important to postmodernism than its seemingly narrow focus on text might imply. According to Derrida, therefore, one consequence of deconstruction is that the text may be defined so broadly as to encompass not just written words but the entire spectrum of symbols and phenomena within Western thought. To Derrida, a result of deconstruction is that no Western philosophers have been able to escape successfully from this large web of text and reach that which is "signified," which they have imagined to exist "just beyond" the text.
The two different senses of postmodernism are reactions to the two different facets of modernism, respectively. One can observe that the reaction of postmodernity to modernity seems to be more radical than that of aesthetic postmodernism to twentieth-century aesthetic modernism, for whereas postmodernity is a big leap from modernity, aesthetic postmodernism still resembles twentieth-century aesthetic modernism at least in some external ways. Aesthetic modernism was already a very progressive movement in the first half of the twentieth century; so, aesthetic postmodernism, reacting to it, does not have to be a very big leap.
However, it is safe to say that the two different senses of postmodernism cohere and are not separate, even though they are originally two different reactions to the two different facets of modernism, respectively. Timewise, they both started soon after World War II. In terms of content as well, they concur in many respects. They interact, and "the postmodern turn can result from the interaction between" the two "in the postmodern pie." One good example of this interaction is references made by Foucault and Derrida to Belgian artist René Magritte's experiments with signification, with their appreciative understanding of Magritte's suggestion that no matter how realistically the artist can depict an item, verisimilitude is still an artistic strategy, a mere representation of the thing, not the thing itself.
The interaction of the two has resulted in a convergence of them also. Today, as some of the general characteristics of postmodernism as a whole, the following points in more popular terms are mentioned:
Interestingly, postmodernism has invited a wide spectrum of criticisms, not only from conservatives but also from Marxist scholars and other intellectuals.
The term "postmodernism" is sometimes used to describe tendencies in society that are held to be antithetical to traditional systems of morality. Elements of the Christian Right, in particular, have interpreted postmodern society to be synonymous with moral relativism and contributing to deviant behavior. Conservative Christians also criticize postmodernism of being a serious challenge to scripture, creeds and confessions, and ecclesiastical tradition, which they regard as foundations of their faith. Muslim fundamentalism, too, dislikes postmodernity in much the same way, even banning postmodern books such as Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.
Jürgen Habermas, a member of the Frankfurt School who is somewhat connected to Marxism, has an interesting criticism of postmodernity, saying that it is "neo-conservative." According to him, postmodernity is neo-conservative because it is irrational and potentially fascist in its abandonment of the rational program of the modernity tradition of the Enlightenment. Postmodernity, says Habermas, comes from the problematic tradition of what is called the "Counter-Enlightenment," which belittles autonomous rationality of the individual, scientific objectivity, rationalistic universalism, and public law in favor of will, spirit, and imagination. He argues that even though the Enlightenment may not have been perfect, we have to rehabilitate it.
Frederic Jameson, a Marxist, has offered an influential criticism of postmodernism. According to him, what lies behind postmodernism is the logic of "late capitalism," i.e., consumer capitalism, with its emphasis on marketing and consuming commodities, and not on producing them. One serious symptom of postmodernism today, therefore, is that the historical past has been shallowly transformed into a series of emptied-out stylizations, which are then consumed as commodities easily. Jameson relates this symptom to what he calls "pastiche" as contrasted from "parody." While parody can still make a strong political critique to the establishment based on its norms of judgment, pastiche as a juxtaposition of emptied-out stylizations without a normative grounding is "amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter." This also means a loss of our connection to real history. His criticism of postmodernism resembles Jean Baudrillard's based on his notion of "simulacra" (copies) of the past without any connection to real past history.
Alex Callinicos, not quite satisfied with the criticisms by Habermas and Jameson, has presented a stronger criticism. Callinicos blames the irrationalism and tepid relativism of Derrida and others, saying that it is simply constituted by a nihilistic reaction of those disillusioned bourgeois academics who experienced the failure of the student insurrection of Paris 1968 which ruled out any chance of a "people's revolution." Thus, it carries no sense of political resistance at all. Callinicos also attacks the theory of "post-industrial" society, which claims that "post-industrial" society with its mystified structures of global or disorganized capital in the postmodern age is beyond the ken of Marxism. For him, there is no such thing as post-industrial society, and worldwide revolution is still necessary. Still another criticism from him is directed toward the alleged existence of aesthetic postmodernism; according to him, it actually does not exist as it is nothing more than a refinement of aesthetic modernism.
The linguist Noam Chomsky has suggested that postmodernism is meaningless because it adds nothing to analytical or empirical knowledge. He asks why postmodernist intellectuals won't respond as "people in physics, math, biology, linguistics, and other fields are happy to do when someone asks them, seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn't already obvious, etc. These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can't be met, then I'd suggest recourse to Hume's advice in similar circumstances: to the flames."
There are lots of things I don't understand—say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat's last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I'm interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc.—even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest—write things that I also don't understand, but (1) and (2) don't hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven't a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of "theory" that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) … I won't spell it out. Noam Chomsky
The criticism of postmodernism as ultimately meaningless rhetorical gymnastics was demonstrated in the Sokal Affair, where physicist Alan Sokal proposed and delivered for publication an article purportedly about interpreting physics and mathematics in terms of postmodern theory, which he had deliberately distorted to make it nonsensical. It was nevertheless published by Social Text a postmodernist cultural studies journal published by Duke University. Interestingly, editors at Social Text never acknowledged that the article's publication had been a mistake but supported a counter-argument defending the "interpretative validity" of Sokal's article, despite the author's later rebuttal of his own article.
Among the many criticisms, strictly speaking, there are some who have actually stated against postmodernism that the postmodern era has already ended, suggesting the coming of a new age of "post-postmodernism," which is a return of many of the features of modernity. British photographer David Bate observes that postmodernism has been replaced with what he calls "neo-realism" in which the postmodern type of representation no longer exists and instead "descriptive" works as in the photography exhibition in 2003 at the Tate Modern in London called Cruel and Tender: The Real in the Twentieth Century have emerged "to produce a reality as though this is 'as it really is', to make reality certain through realism and without interrogating it." In his essay "The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond," literary critic Alan Kirby argues that we now inhabit an entirely new cultural landscape, which he calls "pseudo-modernism": "Postmodernism conceived of contemporary culture as a spectacle before which the individual sat powerless, and within which questions of the real were problematised. It therefore emphasised the television or the cinema screen. Its successor, which I will call pseudo-modernism, makes the individual's action the necessary condition of the cultural product."
Some feminists such as Julia Kristeva, Jane Flax, and Judith Butler have found postmodernism to be in support of their cause. According to them, the categorization of the male/female binary in society came from the modernity tradition of the Enlightenment, and therefore it must be deconstructed. The gender difference is not naturally given. This position has built on the ideas of not only Simone de Beauvoir but also Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, etc., and it can be called "postmodern feminism" to be distinguished from other branches of feminism.
Some religious people welcome the relativist stance of postmodernism that says that there is no universal religious truth or law, for they believe that it provides an opportunity for interreligious dialogue with a spirit of pluralism. For a completely different reason, conservative believers, who are otherwise far from appreciative of postmodernism, welcome the condition of postmodern vacuum as a good context for evangelism: "A growing number of these Christians are embracing some postmodern ideas—- not uncritically, but believing they offer an authentic context for Christian living and fresh avenues of evangelism."
There are also theologically ambitious Christians who accommodate the challenge of postmodernism in such a creative way as to come up with a more understandable and even convincing, new theology in the midst of postmodern uncertainty. The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology lists seven types of such theologians:
From above, it seems that postmodernism that may have brought a lot of challenges to many people is not necessarily an unpleasant thing but rather a good thing from which something new, truthful, and reliable can be expected to come.
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