Defining Postmodernism


The End of History

“Postmodernism” was a term coined in 1939 by Arnold Toynbee early in the twentieth century to refer to the last quarter of the 19th century, a time where capitalism and imperialism and Western civilization in general began to decline. At first, in the art world, the term simply meant, “after” Modernism; but by the mid 1970s, Postmodernism came to refer more and more to a theoretical stance, rather than to a temporal event. If the temporality of Postmodernism has always been problematic, for there are multiple points of beginning or terminus, then defining the term is also fraught with peril.

First, it is dangerous to attempt to define Postmodernism, which accepts contradictions, as one unified phenomenon is simply absurd. Second, Postmodernism was a discursive field, held more or less loosely together by the artificial boundaries of of the disciplines of literary theory and philosophy within which numerous theories and viewpoints proliferated. Third, the perspective on Postmodernity or the condition of being Postmodern depended upon which nation one was living in or upon which intellectual tradition one was drawing.

It is often said that Postmodernism was founded by French theorists, but this would be a Francophilic perspective. German theorists, notably Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, predicted some of the affects of Postmodernity in culture. The French writers were disillusioned Marxists, but three decades after the Frankfurt School had begun a critique of Marxism in a consumer society. In America, Postmodernism entered into academia as “critical theory,” a smorgasbord of philosophical samplings. But these bits and pieces of “theory” were presented without the cultural underpinnings that generated the authors and Americans assimilated elements without fully comprehending the cultural framework.

For Postmodernism, however, American would have been ground zero. Late capitalism, the founding condition of Postmodernity was at its unapologetic peak in American when Postmodern theories came into vogue. But America lacked the historical experience—the devastation of the Second World War—to understand the defining elements of Postmodern studies—disillusionment, despair, nihilism and hopelessness. One of the first theorists to attempt to define Postmodernism, Ihab Hassan, complained eloquently about the difficulty and isolated “a number of conceptual problems that both conceal and constitute postmodernism itself.” After he had noted his ten problems, Hassan provided the reader with a neat and useful chart comparing Modernism and Postmodernism.

Echoing the pessimism of Postmodernism, Hassan summed up the nature of Postmodernism in one word:

“indetermanence,” which “designate two central, constitutive tendencies in postmodernism: one of indeterminancy, the other of immanence. The two tendencies are not dialectical; for they are not exactly antithetical; nor do they lead to a synthesis. Each contains its own contradictions, and alludes to elements of the other. Their interplay suggests the action of a “polylectic,” pervading postmodernism.”

The “diverse concepts” brought forward by Hassan are all negative, at least when compared to Modernist positivism and optimism: “ambiguity, discontinuity, heterodoxy, pluralism, randomness, revolt, perversion, deformation…(which) subsumes a dozen current terms of unmaking: decreation, disintegration, deconstruction, decenterment, displacement, difference, discontinuity, disjunction, disappearance, decomposition, de-definition, demystification, detotalization, delegitimization” which can lead “to the rhetoric of irony, rupture, silence…loss, perversion, and dissolution..” Hassan’s The Postmodern Turn of 1987 was deeply pessimistic, denoting a singular and significant loss of certainty and unity that occurred with the death of Modernism.

Revising the topic of Postmodernism in the early 21st century, Hassan wrote From Postmodernism to Postmodernity: the Local/Global Context and defined his second term in terms of

…the fluent imperium of technology. Thus I call the second major tendency of postmodernism immanences, a term that I employ without religious echo to designate the capacity of mind to generalize itself in symbols, intervene more and more into nature, act through its own abstractions, and project human consciousness to the edges of the cosmos. This mental tendency may be further described by words like diffusion, dissemination, projection, interplay, communication, which all derive from the emergence of human beings as language animals, homo pictor or homo significans, creatures constituting themselves, and also their universe, by symbols of their own making.

The question is does Postmodern reflect or cause the crisis in confidence in contemporary life? Critical theory tended to be so dense that it is important when defining Postmodernism to isolated two recurring themes: technology and the death of the master narrative, which are entwined. With the demise of the metanarrative comes the end of truth and when truth falls so too does the capacity to represent. One of the earliest writers on Postmodernism was Jean-François Lyotard. In 1984, he attempted to answer the question What is Postmodernism? After a long prologue, he decided,

The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but m order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable. A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by preestablished rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining Judgment, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work. Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for. The artist and the writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done.Hence the fact that work and text have the characters of an event; hence also, they always come too late for their author, or, what amounts to the same thing, their being put into work, their realization (mise en oeuvre) always begin too soon. Post modern would have to be understood according to the paradox of the future (post) anterior (modo).

Although Lyotard was one of the French Postmodern philosophers most concerned with the visual arts, I would argue that his primary impact upon Postmodernism was his attempt to discern the impact of technology upon science and the possibility of forming an entity called “knowledge.” Lyotard critiqued the Enlightenment mode of thinking—now outmoded—and noted the end of “le grand récit” also known as the “master narrative.” Although in 1979 The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge was forty years away from blogging and Facebook, Lyotard understood that technology made possible the “imaginative invention” of what he called “le petit récit” or the little narrative.

Lyotard’s celebration of the singular over the universal followed Theodor Adorno’s critique of the Enlightenment and how the concept of totality resulted in the near extermination of the particular (the Jews). The “Condition” of Postmodernity, for Lyotard, is more than a breakdown of the master narrative, it is also the postindustrial world in which information has become a commodity. If information is a commodity in a consumerist world, then information, like any other commodity, will proliferate into these “little narratives.” In 2002 Ben Dorfman explained the “postmodern condition” in regards to knowledge:

In computerized society, where knowledge is mercantilized, it invades a space formerly occupied only by material production. Thus, knowledge is the only new product worth noticing, at any rate; it is really the only new element (or non-element, as the case might be) emerging from capitalist productivity. However, that knowledge has become a product is also noticeable. This is so not only because it changes the scenery of the capitalist landscape, but because it effects a transformation in the meaning and use of knowledge.

But what is the result of “our” refusal of the “grand narrative” that defined who we were? Without the metanarrative, we have no place in the contemporary and we must refer to the frozen certainty of history. As Dorfman stated,

We have, on one hand, a constant reference to the past – the antecedent to the present. Underneath our dismissal of grand narrative is our nostalgia for it. We wish we had a direction and participated in a story; stories and directions are what grand narrative.

To conclude, computer technology has the capability to disperse such large amounts of information, called “content,” in internet terms, that authority is ended. There is no single source of “knowledge.” There are no “experts” that exist above debate and contradiction. Knowledge becomes local, contingent or used when convenient. With the death of the center and the dissemination of many little stories, an intense subjectivity comes about. The individual who used to define herself within the grand narrative is now part of a local narrative and the old concept of the person as a subject who is part of a larger culture comes to an end. The result is a great hunger for stability and Postmodernism became a “before” instead of an “after” through nostalgia, a return to the past, the last bastion of certainty.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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