The Historical Context of Postmodernism, Part Two


Part Two

Defining Postmodernism is a difficult process. Even though it is now fashionable to declare Postmodernism as “dead” or “over,” one should proceed with caution before burying the body. Unlike Modernism, which emerged from the Enlightenment hundreds of years ago, Postmodern ideas are essentially a mid century phenomenon, meaning that the entire body of knowledge is only sixty odd years old. We do not yet have the kind of historical perspective on Postmodernism that allows a single compact definition. Postmodernism was not just an academic event, the purview of ivory tower academics, it was also a cultural event that expanded beyond its European origins to the new global society.

The intellectuals, for all their removed condition, predicted with astonishing perception the impact of Postmodernism upon society. It should be emphasized that one of the first and most significant elucidators of Postmodernism, Jean-François Lyotard wrote his diagnosis in response to technological changes and how the computerized societies of the twentieth century have impacted the legitimation of knowledge. The Report was commissioned in the late 1970s by the Conseil des Universités of the Quebec government in order to assess the confluence of computer technology, science and knowledge—how in this new age was knowledge be formed? Lyotard’s answers would be not only precise but prophetic.

As Lyotard stated,

I will use the term modem to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the her- meneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth.

He continued,

Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodem as incredulity toward meranarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in rum presupposes it. To the obsolescence of the mctanarrative apparatus of legitimation corresponds; most notably, the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university institution which in the past relied on it.

Although Lyotard correctly pointed to the end of the “metanarrative,” or the one overarching tale that explains everything, this metanarrative had spawned metanarratives for each intellectual, social, political and cultural field. The metanarrative implies as “master narrative,” or an idea that masters both nature and culture. One of the first tasks of Postmodern thinkers was to interrogate and dismantle the metanarrataive of the Enlightenment. In philosophy, this reexamination consisted of re-reading and re-writing the entire philosophical project of the eighteenth century. In art, the metanarrative was called “Modernism” and referred to a particular aspect of art, called avant-garde, that stemmed from the painting of Édouard Manet and the urban culture in Paris.

This metanarrative, like all metanarratives, was only as strong as what it excluded and what forms of art making were pushed aside to make room for a seamless story. As previous posts pointed out, the metanarrative of Modernism began to break down in the mid 1950s as new ideas about what art could be began to be exhibited. Neo-Dada and Pop Art and Minimal Art and Conceptual Art and Feminist Art and Pluralism all contained elements or aspects of Postmodernism and contributed to the demise of Modernism.

The art world did not systematically begin to examine Postmodern theory until the 1980s when it became obvious that the succession of movements and “isms” had ceased. Clearly, the idea that art evolves in one singular straight line was no longer tenable. Once authority had been questioned and it was evident that there was no single ruling intellectual or artistic force, Modernism was replaced by Postmodernism. It is important to understand that the art world comprehension of Postmodernism was somewhat limited and crude. Postmodernism was understood as an old-fashioned dialectic (one of the models questioned by Postmodern thinkers) as an oppositional force to Modernism.

Modernism was based upon a set of social, political and philosophical assumptions which were embedded in the Enlightenment. These assumptions were essentially optimistic: human beings would improve as they elevated themselves politically and economically through social equality. People, ordinary people, could come together and govern themselves for their mutual benefit. As history moved forward, now that they were in charge of their own destinies, people would also progress morally and ethically.

History proved this optimistic hypothesis to be wrong. Far from improving humanity, modern technology merely allowed people to kill each other more efficiently. After the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the mood after (or “post”) the war was pessimistic. It was clear that a line had been crossed and that an era had come to an end. Humanity had revealed itself to be fatally flawed and trust in the good will of people had been lost. Although the sense of failure and disillusionment had yet to be named, Modernism had come to an end in the rubble and terror “after Auschwitz.”

The optimistic and progressive metanarrative of Modernism hid another assumption: that everyone agreed that the social and political principles of the Enlightenment were superior to all other philosophical systems. The Enlightenment was Eurocentric, secular, and, in favoring “progress,” left tradition behind, but not all societies agreed with this forward thrust into the “modern.” The Second World War shattered the illusion that there could be one objective truth, the truth of the science and philosophy of the Enlightenment. The only truth was that there was no truth.

Germany refused the onrush to the modern and substituted social hysteria and cultural subjectivity for scientific thinking. The Myth of the Third Reich was an alternative “truth”–the Nazi narrative of the way the world should be. Japan also rejected the Eurocentric extension of power into Asia and substituted its own cultural imperatives for the Enlightenment principles of progress. Twenty years after the Second World War, the nations of the Middle East also rejected modernity and its insistence on gender and class equality and enlightened secularism. In other words, the metanarrative of the Enlightenment which purported to be based on the objective and provable truth of science would be met with a refusal to accept that imposed imperative. In the post-war period, it became clear that subjectivity or local narratives had dislodged the certainty of the eighteenth century and “post” modern doubt was dominant.

The Enlightenment itself was a belief system—it substituted a belief in religion with a belief in human reason. Faced with the extremes of historical conditions, the powers of the human intellect had broken down, revealing the dark side of the mind as the European culture descended into an irrational madness. It is important to note that Postmodernism was a European invention and not an American one because it was Europe that experienced the worst effects of the Second World War. Instead of creating a continent of free people, the War had cut Europe in half, condemning the eastern nations to lives of autocratic arbitrary rule.

In the free zone, the Cold War stifled real political and social progress. In the west, the forces of the status quo had a firm hold but there were those who hoped for change. By the 1960s, idealism evaporated after the uneasy Spring of student uprisings and the reassertion of dogmatic authority, and the European intellectuals simply lost their belief in the revolutionary process that should had led to greater emancipation. Once the grand idée was dead, unity was impossible and philosophers sheltered themselves into small conclaves of thought. This disunity signified and end of “meaning” as a singular belief system. The permanent modernist revolution gave way to a Postmodern critique of the Enlightenment as if to find out how the culture could have gone so far astray from its initial promise.

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

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