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04 What is postmodernism?


This article is from the Postmodern FAQ, by Van Piercy vpiercy@indiana.edu with numerous contributions by others.

04 What is postmodernism?

Here are three published definitions from "standard" reference
works (cross-references are cited below in the FAQ bibliography section):

(A) "Post-modernism[:] The break away from 19th-century values is often
classified as modernism and carries the connotations of transgression
and rebellion. However, the last twenty years has seen a change in this
attitude towards focussing upon a series of unresolvable philosophical
and social debates, such as race, gender and class. Rather than
challenging and destroying cultural definitions, as does modernism,
post-modernism resists the very idea of boundaries. It regards
distinctions as undesirable and even impossible, so that an almost
Utopian world, free from all constraints, becomes possible.
"It must be realized though, that post-modernism has many
interpretations and that no single definition is adequate. Different
disciplines have participated in the post-modernist movement in
varying ways, for example, in architecture traditional limits have
become indistinguishable, so that what is commonly on the outside of a
building is placed within, and vice versa. In literature, writers adopt
a self-conscious intertextuality sometimes verging on pastiche, which
denies the formal propriety of authorship and genre. In commercial
terms post-modernism may be seen as part of the growth of consumer
capitalism into multinational and technological identity.
"Its all-embracing nature thus makes post-modernism as relevant to
street events as to the *avant garde*, and as such is one of the major
focal points in the emergence of interdisciplinary and cultural
Marion Wynne-Davies. First Prentice Hall edition, copyright 1990 by
Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd. 812-13)

(B) "Postmodernism and postmodernity[,] a cultural and ideological
configuration variously defined, with different aspects of the general
phenomenon emphasized by different theorists, postmodernity is seen as
involving an end of the dominance of an overarching belief in scientific
rationality and a unitary theory of PROGRESS, the replacement of
empiricist theories of representation and TRUTH, and increased
emphasis on the importance of the unconscious, on free-floating signs
and images, and a plurality of viewpoints. Associated also with the
idea of a postindustrial age (compare POSTINDUSTRIAL SOCIETY [Daniel
Bell]), theorists such as BAUDRILLARD (1983) and Lyotard (1984) make
central to postmodernity a shift from a `productive' to a `reproductive'
social order, in which simulations and models--and more generally,
signs--increasingly constitute the world, so that any distinction
between the appearance and the `real' is lost. Lyotard, for example,
speaks especially of the replacement of any *grand narrative* [les
grands recits] by more local `accounts' of reality as distinctive of
postmodernism and postmodernity. Baudrillard talks of the `triumph of
signifying culture.' Capturing the new orientation characteristic of
postmodernism, compared with portrayals of modernity as an era or a
definite period, the advent of postmodernity is often presented as a
`mood' or `state of mind' (see Featherstone, 1988). If modernism as a
movement in literature and the arts is also distinguished by its
rejection of an emphasis on representation, postmodernism carries this
movement a stage further. Another feature of postmodernism seen by
some theorists is that the boundaries between `high' and `low' culture
tend to be broken down, for example, motion pictures, jazz, and rock
music (see Lash, 1990). According to many theorists, postmodernist
cultural movements, which often overlap with new political tendencies
and social movements in contemporary society, are particularly
associated with the increasing importance of new class fractions, for
example, `expressive professions' within the service class (see Lash and
Urry, 1987)." (David Jary and Julia Jary. eds. THE HARPER COLLINS
DICTIONARY OF SOCIOLOGY. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. 375-6)

(C) "Postmodernism[:] A portmanteau term encompassing a variety of
developments in intellectual culture, the arts and the fashion industry
in the 1970s and 1980s. Among the characteristic gestures of
postmodernist thinking is a refusal of the `totalizing' or
`essentialist' tendencies of earlier theoretical systems, especially
classic Marxism, with their claims to referential truth, scientificity,
and belief in progress. Postmodernism, on the contrary, is committed to
modes of thinking and representation which emphasize fragmentations,
discontinuities and incommensurable aspects of a given object, from
intellectual systems to architecture.
"Postmodernist analysis is often marked by forms of writing that are
more literary, certainly more self-reflexive, than is common in critical
writing - the critic as self-conscious creator of new meanings upon the
ground of the object of study, showing that object no special respect.
It prefers montage to perspective, intertextuality to referentiality,
`bits-as-bits' to unified totalities. It delights in excess, play,
carnival, asymmetry, even mess, and in the emancipation of meanings
>from their bondage to mere lumpenreality.
Theorists of postmodernism include Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze
and Felix Guattari, Fredric Jameson, Paul Virilio, Dick Hebdige,
Jean-Francois Lyotard, among others; a list whose maleness has not
gone unnoticed (see Propyn 1987), but which may immediately be countered
by reading the exemplary essay by Meaghan Morris (1988) which moves
easily among postmodernism's sense of multiple mobilities, bodily,
temporal and textual, without ever claiming postmodernist status for
itself." (Tim O'Sullivan, John Hartley, Danny Saunders, Martin
Montgomery and John Fisk. eds. KEY CONCEPTS IN COMMUNICATION AND
CULTURAL STUDIES. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 1994. 234-4)


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