Postmodern Music Definition Essay


Postmodernism is best understood by defining the modernist ethos it replaced - that of the avant-garde who were active from 1860s to the 1950s. The various artists in the modern period were driven by a radical and forward thinking approach, ideas of technological positivity, and grand narratives of Western domination and progress. The arrival of Neo-Dada and Pop art in post-war America marked the beginning of a reaction against this mindset that came to be known as postmodernism. The reaction took on multiple artistic forms for the next four decades, including Conceptual art, Minimalism, Video art, Performance art, and Installation art. These movements are diverse and disparate but connected by certain characteristics: ironical and playful treatment of a fragmented subject, the breakdown of high and low culture hierarchies, undermining of concepts of authenticity and originality, and an emphasis on image and spectacle. Beyond these larger movements, many artists and less pronounced tendencies continue in the postmodern vein to this day.

Key Ideas

Postmodernism is distinguished by a questioning of the master narratives that were embraced during the modern period, the most important being the notion that all progress - especially technological - is positive. By rejecting such narratives, postmodernists reject the idea that knowledge or history can be encompassed in totalizing theories, embracing instead the local, the contingent, and the temporary. Other narratives rejected by postmodernists include the idea of artistic development as goal-oriented, the notion that only men are artistic geniuses, and the colonialist assumption that non-white races are inferior. Thus, Feminist art and minority art that challenged canonical ways of thinking are often included under the rubric of postmodernism or seen as representations of it.

Postmodernism overturned the idea that there was one inherent meaning to a work of art or that this meaning was determined by the artist at the time of creation. Instead, the viewer became an important determiner of meaning, even allowed by some artists to participate in the work as in the case of some performance pieces. Other artists went further by creating works that required viewer intervention to create and/or complete the work.

The Dada readymade had a marked influence on postmodernism in its questioning of authenticity and originality. Combined with the notion of appropriation, postmodernism often took the undermining of originality to the point of copyright infringement, even in the use of photographs with little or no alteration to the original.

The idea of breaking down distinctions between high and low art, particularly with the incorporation of elements of popular culture, was also a key element of postmodernism that had its roots in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the work of Edgar Degas, for example, who painted on fans, and later in Cubism where Pablo Picasso often included the lyrics of popular songs on his canvases. This idea that all visual culture is not only equally valid, but that it can also be appreciated and enjoyed without any aesthetic training, undermines notions of value and artistic worth, much like the use of readymades.

Most Important Art

Marilyn Diptych (1962)

Artist: Andy Warhol

This series of silkscreen prints of Marilyn Monroe was taken from her image in the film, Niagara and reproduced first in color, and then in black and white. They were made in the months after her death in 1962 by Warhol who was fascinated by both the cult of celebrity and by death; this series fused these interests. The color contrasted against the monochrome that fades out to the right is suggestive of life and death, while the repetition of images echoes her ubiquitous presence in the media. This work can be conceived of as postmodern in many senses: its overt reference to popular culture/low art challenges the purity of the modernist aesthetic, its repetitive element is an homage to mass production, and its ironic play on the concept of authenticity undermines the authority of the artist. The use of a diptych format, which was common in Christian altarpieces in the Renaissance period, draws attention to the American worship of both celebrities and images. All of these translate into an artwork that challenges traditional demarcations between high and low art and makes a statement about the importance of consumerism and spectacle in the 1960s.

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Postmodern Art Artworks in Focus:

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The first signs of postmodernism were evident in the early twentieth century with Dada artists who ridiculed the art establishment with their anarchic actions and irreverent performances. The term, however, was not used in the contemporary sense until 1979 in the philosopher J.F. Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition. In art, the term is usually applied to movements that emerged beginning in the late 1950s in reaction to the perceived failures and/or excesses of the modernist epoch.


From the late nineteenth to the mid twentieth century, art as well as literature, science, and philosophy was defined by a sense of progress and technological advancement, brought about by the industrial revolution and affiliation with the positivity of modern life. Artists such as Paul Cézanne and Piet Mondrian strove to find a universal means of expression through the increasing abstraction of their subject. Other artists who focused on the subjective and the forbidden, such as Salvador Dalí or Marcel Duchamp were seen as outliers in this emphasis on progress and rationality and their work became precursors to postmodernism. By the 1930s in certain artistic circles, the process of painting, once the means to depict a subject through the use of line, color, and form, became the subject itself. This emphasis on formalism was first observed and championed in the U.S. by Clement Greenberg, an art critic and fierce proponent of modernism. His theoretical writings are often seen as the antithesis of postmodernism because of their advocating of artistic purity and for their singular focus on formalism at the expense of subject matter. By the time the Abstract Expressionists were painting in New York lofts in the 1940s, representation had been entirely eliminated in favor of a direct gestural expression that focused on paint application rather than narrative. Fundamental to the modernist avant-garde artist was individuality, autonomy, and the tendency for radical experimentation in search of an ultimate truth or meaning.

The Modernist-Postmodernist Crossover

By the middle of the century, the Western world had experienced a major paradigm shift: two devastating world wars, millions of lives lost, communist ideologies shattered, and nuclear weapons utilized. The modernist optimism that had dominated in a pre-war world now seemed irrelevant, outdated, and doomed to fail. Europe was no longer the center of modern art or the avant-garde. The focus of the art world now moved to New York City and to the Abstract Expressionists who were flourishing in a new era of reinvigorated post-war capitalism. This group, however, was still very much marked by their modernism, with the movement staunchly supported by Greenberg as a high art toward which all art had been inexorably moving since the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, outside this high art enclave, America in the 1950s was experiencing a consumerist and cultural boom as well as a stormy political climate. Once Abstract Expressionism became a mainstream movement, young artists began to question it for its lack of reference both to the state of the world and to the flourishing popular culture of which its artists were a part. Motivated by these feelings and with a desire to create an art that acknowledged everyday life, artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg began to experiment with new styles that borrowed and recreated imagery from the mass culture that surrounded them. The Neo-Dada style with which they would become associated was arguably the first of the genuinely postmodern art movements. These artists were influenced by John Cage, and many of their experiments would give rise to Pop art and Minimalism.

Concepts and Styles

Postmodernism cannot be described as a coherent movement and lacks definitive characteristics. It can be better understood instead as a set of styles and attitudes that were affiliated in their reaction against modernism. A new approach to popular culture and the mass media emerged in the 1950s, sparking a wave of art movements that reintroduced representation from disparate sources and experimented with image, spectacle, aesthetic codes, disciplinary boundaries, originality, and viewer involvement in ways that challenged previous definitions of art.

High vs. Low culture

"High culture" is a term used to describe traditional fine arts, such as painting and sculpture. The term is commonly employed by the art critic to evoke class, quality, and authenticity. It is also used to distinguish types of art media and disciplines from the "low," "kitsch," or popular culture of mass-produced commodities, magazines, television, and pulp fiction that took America by storm in the post-war consumerist boom. In his definitive essay 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch,' Clement Greenberg warned the modernist avant-garde against association with what he considered philistine outpourings. Greenberg proposed instead that artists' concerns should be reserved for an art that could transform society. The postmodernists, in response, embraced the "popular" wholeheartedly and made it central to their work. Pop artists recreated the mundane objects of consumerism, but used humor and irony to transform these into gigantic soft forms (Claes Oldenburg) or into cultural icons (Andy Warhol) while the Minimalists used industrial materials to create repetitive forms reminiscent of the industrial production line. The "popular" emerged as both the subject and the medium for many artists and commercialism was embraced. This focus on "low" culture stretched the definition of art, while also providing social critique.

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Image and Spectacle

In this new era of consumerism and television, advertising and the mass media became increasingly pervasive. In 1968, for example, the American public witnessed uncensored footage of the Vietnam War in their own homes for the first time, providing a stark disconnect with their own comfortable lives as they witnessed the horrors of war over dinner. Images on the screen were reflecting a new reality and it was often more difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction, particularly with the widespread use of advertising. Jean Baudrillard, a prominent French philosopher, called this situation "hyperreality," likening postmodern existence to a flickering TV screen: immediate, shifting, and fragmented, with no underlying truth. These new ideas inspired artists, such as Barbara Kruger, who began to depict the surface rather than any truth or deeper meaning. Style and spectacle, rather than substance, was where meaning was created. This focus on surface is one of the key components of Kruger's I Shop therefore I Am (1987) as well as much of Pop art. Simultaneously, a camp aesthetic was born, particularly evident in fashion and music, that drew from past styles of Gothic and Baroque; the more dazzling, flamboyant, and shocking - the more effective. The work of Jeff Koons is a good example of this aspect of postmodern art.

Mixing of Aesthetic Codes

Modernism had first emerged in nineteenth century France in rebellion against the historical and figurative preoccupation of the French Academy and its dominance over artistic taste. The avant-garde movements that followed in the early twentieth century gradually eliminated any references to a context or subject, in search of a pure and unmediated form of visual expression that was radical and new. This trend reached its apogee with Abstract Expressionism, which championed non-representational painting. However, in the decades that followed the movement, painting as a medium was considered cliche with little room left for experimentation. With the advent of postmodernism, some artists began exploring past styles and media - particularly painting - as part of the postmodern aesthetic that brought back both the historical and the subjective but with a purposeful lack of stylistic integrity or unity.

Artists such as Gerhard Richter playfully mixed aesthetic codes and genres, displacing existing meaning in structures and creating new ones. Using methods of parody and pastiche, old ideas could be recreated in new contexts. As the Dadaists had done earlier, other artists used collage, assemblage, and bricolage that juxtaposed text, image, and found objects to create layered surfaces. This mixing of codes is particularly evident in the architecture of the 1980s and 1990s, such as The Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, UK that combines features from two different historical periods into one visual spectacle. In film, the effect could be enhanced considerably. For example, Quentin Tarantino's, Pulp Fiction (1994) defies traditional narrative, drawing from multiple genres and offering a fragmented montage of characters and plots in an arbitrary order. Many artists also turned to multimedia technologies during the 1960s and 1970s, relishing the new opportunities that they were afforded to combine media and to create spectacle and sensation.

There were not just opportunities with new multimedia technologies; from the 1950s and 1960s onwards, there was a significant crossover between artistic disciplines as traditional categories were superseded. A popular postmodernist phrase was "anything goes," which referred both to this growing convergence culture as well as to the collapse of the distinction between "good" and "bad" taste and the difficulty of assigning value or judging works of art based on traditional criteria as in the case with Jeff Koons. Artists adopted the mechanisms of both art and non-art forms, such as advertising, using a multitude of media to convey multiple messages.

Originality and Authenticity

In 1911, Marcel Duchamp placed a urinal signed with a fictional name in an exhibit and called it art. In doing so he mocked the entire foundations on which the institution of art had been built. Traditionally, uniqueness and originality gave an artwork its value or "aura," both in symbolic and monetary terms, and was a concept preserved through modernist art criticism. In 1936, cultural theorist, Walter Benjamin, wrote a seminal essay entitled "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," which radically reworked this view, laying charges of elitism at the feet of key figures such as Greenberg. Benjamin claimed that reproduction, through printing and other methods, could achieve the democratization of art because of its lower commodity value and increased accessibility to the masses.

Pop artists, minimalists, performance artists, conceptual artists, and others adopted Benjamin's ethos, interpreting his words through a diverse range of media and techniques that undermined concepts of authenticity and value and distorted commoditization. Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol mass-produced bags and mugs, screen printed with iconic imagery. Oldenburg, who fervently embraced the notion that anything could and should be art, opened a store that was devoted to selling such cheap examples of art, with prices starting at $21.79. Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt exhibited their repetitive forms, but left control of their arrangement to the curator; Allan Kaprow, Marina Abramovic, and the Fluxus artists put on performances in which the audience and not the artist determined their form and meaning. Artists of all stripes, including Warhol, Richter, and Koons, were known for their appropriation of photographic and other imagery. Within Feminist art of the 1970s and again in the 1990s, among certain artists there was a surge of interest in the idea of collective authorship that further undermined traditional ideas of creativity and artistic genius that had been in place since the Renaissance. Artists such as Philippe Parreno and Daniel Buren were increasingly concerned with the social process of art making rather than the art object, and placed the creation of meaning at the point of interaction. This new practice became known as Relational Aesthetics, and resisted commoditization of art through its performative nature, providing both an institutional and modernist critique.


The postmodern pursuit for a democratic art extended beyond reproduction, appropriation, and experiments in collective authorship. Modernist art was not just seen as elitist but also as white, Western, and male-dominated. Postmodernism coincided with the rise in Feminism, the civil rights movement, the fight for LGBT rights and postcolonial thought, and provoked a concern for a more pluralist approach; in other words, many artists such as Kara Walker and Felix Gonzalez-Torres began to address subjects from multiple perspectives to include the viewpoints of previously underrepresented positions. In addition, philosophers at the time, like Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci, were turning to the ideas of post-structuralism, which understood society's institutions, such as prisons and hospitals, as being underpinned by shifting rather than stable systems giving them a lack of coherent meaning. The impact on the arts was the increased representation of diverse, multicultural identities and also a playful treatment of identity and the self, evident in the early works of artists such as Barbara Kruger or Cindy Sherman. This is true of Sherman in particular, whose work focuses on the rift between an identity constructed through film or other media and the reality of women's experiences. In doing so, Sherman draws the audience's attention to the means of production and its polysemic nature, highlighting the fact that a work of art can be interpreted in any number of ways by an audience, thus resisting master narratives and the ultimate authority of the artist.

Later Developments

There are currently two main theoretical approaches to understanding postmodernism, its relation to modernism, and its place in the contemporary art world.

Continual Build-up on Modernism

One argument is that postmodernism both disrupts and continues modernism as there is evidence of both existing in contemporary art, which is a term that broadly refers to any art created within the last twenty years, thus encompassing all art production of any style. The attitudes and styles that mark postmodernism can be understood as paradigmatic shifts that mark a rupture or crisis in cultural history. From this viewpoint, the impact of postmodern, post-colonial and post-feminist thought has sparked a sea of change in art, described by feminist writers such as Rosalind Krauss and Suzanne Lacy. Certainly, the diverse, ephemeral, globally focused, cross disciplinary, and collaborative nature of contemporary art practice is informed by postmodernist attitudes and appears both persistent and transformative. Postmodernism claims to close the gap between "high" and "low" culture and "good" and "bad" taste, yet there is evidence that these distinctions remain. In the early 1990s, a group of young Goldsmiths College students put together a graduate show called Sensations - a highly postmodern concept. The reaction was unprecedented. Public and critics alike expressed shock and appall at the provocative imagery and explicit references to subjects of "bad" taste. The group became known as the Young British Artists (YBAs) and sparked a revival in conceptual art using shock tactics to question art's meaning, as Duchamp had done nearly 80 years earlier. Their notoriety has persisted, as has the furor over Sensations, providing evidence for some that the old taste hierarchies of modernism live on. With this argument, postmodernism has not replaced modernism but coexists alongside it.

The Age of Post Postmodernism

Another view, which has recently emerged in a small but persuasive body of writing, argues that we have moved on into a post postmodernist era. Some writers and critics claim that postmodernism is outdated and they question the value of a movement sustained by superficiality, cynicism, and nihilism. Some even argue for a return to the principles of modernism, albeit in different forms. Edward Docx calls this post-postmodern era the "Age of Authenticity" characterized by a revival of authenticity and craftsmanship over style and concept. Other monikers include "alter modernism," which is Nicolas Bourriaud's term for the "nonstop communication and globalization" culture of today, and "pseudo modernism," which was coined by Alan Kirby. Kirby claims there has been a shift from audience spectatorship to a more active yet trivial participation, evident in reality TV voting culture. These attempts to claim the end of postmodernism are wide-ranging and generally nonconsensual but are united in elements of their critique. They are all weary of the relentlessness of postmodern irony, and yearn for some return to truth and reality. In different ways they undermine postmodernism's dominance as a way of thinking or as an attitude to life, reducing it instead to one movement in a long history of movements, one that is now in its demise.


Dr. Mary Klages, Associate Professor, English Department, University of Colorado, Boulder

Postmodernism is a complicated term, or set of ideas, one that has only emerged as an area of academic study since the mid-1980s. Postmodernism is hard to define, because it is a concept that appears in a wide variety of disciplines or areas of study, including art, architecture, music, film, literature, sociology, communications, fashion, and technology. It's hard to locate it temporally or historically, because it's not clear exactly when postmodernism begins.

Perhaps the easiest way to start thinking about postmodernism is by thinking about modernism, the movement from which postmodernism seems to grow or emerge. Modernism has two facets, or two modes of definition, both of which are relevant to understanding postmodernism.
The first facet or definition of modernism comes from the aesthetic movement broadly labeled "modernism." This movement is roughly coterminous with twentieth century Western ideas about art (though traces of it in emergent forms can be found in the nineteenth century as well). Modernism, as you probably know, is the movement in visual arts, music, literature, and drama which rejected the old Victorian standards of how art should be made, consumed, and what it should mean. In the period of "high modernism," from around 1910 to 1930, the major figures of modernism literature helped radically to redefine what poetry and fiction could be and do: figures like Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Proust, Mallarme, Kafka, and Rilke are considered the founders of twentieth-century modernism.

From a literary perspective, the main characteristics of modernism include:

1. an emphasis on impressionism and subjectivity in writing (and in visual arts as well); an emphasis on HOW seeing (or reading or perception itself) takes place, rather than on WHAT is perceived. An example of this would be stream-of-consciousness writing.

2. a movement away from the apparent objectivity provided by omniscient third-person narrators, fixed narrative points of view, and clear-cut moral positions. Faulkner's multiply-narrated stories are an example of this aspect of modernism.

3. a blurring of distinctions between genres, so that poetry seems more documentary (as in T.S. Eliot or ee cummings) and prose seems more poetic (as in Woolf or Joyce).

4. an emphasis on fragmented forms, discontinuous narratives, and random-seeming collages of different materials.

5. a tendency toward reflexivity, or self-consciousness, about the production of the work of art, so that each piece calls attention to its own status as a production, as something constructed and consumed in particular ways.

6. a rejection of elaborate formal aesthetics in favor of minimalist designs (as in the poetry of William Carlos Williams) and a rejection, in large part, of formal aesthetic theories, in favor of spontaneity and discovery in creation.

7. A rejection of the distinction between "high" and "low" or popular culture, both in choice of materials used to produce art and in methods of displaying, distributing, and consuming art.

Postmodernism, like modernism, follows most of these same ideas, rejecting boundaries between high and low forms of art, rejecting rigid genre distinctions, emphasizing pastiche, parody, bricolage, irony, and playfulness. Postmodern art (and thought) favors reflexivity and self-consciousness, fragmentation and discontinuity (especially in narrative structures), ambiguity, simultaneity, and an emphasis on the destructured, decentered, dehumanized subject.

But--while postmodernism seems very much like modernism in these ways, it differs from modernism in its attitude toward a lot of these trends. Modernism, for example, tends to present a fragmented view of human subjectivity and history (think of The Wasteland, for instance, or of Woolf's To the Lighthouse), but presents that fragmentation as something tragic, something to be lamented and mourned as a loss. Many modernist works try to uphold the idea that works of art can provide the unity, coherence, and meaning which has been lost in most of modern life; art will do what other human institutions fail to do. Postmodernism, in contrast, doesn't lament the idea of fragmentation,provisionality, or incoherence, but rather celebrates that. The world is meaningless? Let's not pretend that art can make meaning then, let's just play with nonsense.

Another way of looking at the relation between modernism and postmodernism helps to clarify some of these distinctions. According to Frederic Jameson, modernism and postmodernism are cultural formations which accompany particular stages of capitalism. Jameson outlines three primary phases of capitalism which dictate particular cultural practices (including what kind of art and literature is produced). The first is market capitalism, which occurred in the eighteenth through the late nineteenth centuries in Western Europe, England, and the United States (and all their spheres of influence). This first phase is associated with particular technological developments, namely, the steam-driven motor, and with a particular kind of aesthetics, namely, realism. The second phase occurred from the late nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century (about WWII); this phase, monopoly capitalism, is associated with electric and internal combustion motors, and with modernism. The third, the phase we're in now, is multinational or consumer capitalism (with the emphasis placed on marketing, selling, and consuming commodities, not on producing them), associated with nuclear and electronic technologies, and correlated with postmodernism.

Like Jameson's characterization of postmodernism in terms of modes of production and technologies, the second facet, or definition, of postmodernism comes more from history and sociology than from literature or art history. This approach defines postmodernism as the name of an entire social formation, or set of social/historical attitudes; more precisely,this approach contrasts "postmodernity" with "modernity," rather than "postmodernism" with "modernism."

What's the difference? "Modernism" generally refers to the broad aesthetic movements of the twentieth century; "modernity" refers to a set of philosophical, political, and ethical ideas which provide the basis for the aesthetic aspect of modernism. "Modernity" is older than "modernism;" the label "modern," first articulated in nineteenth-century sociology, was meant to distinguish the present era from the previous one, which was labeled "antiquity." Scholars are always debating when exactly the "modern" period began, and how to distinguish between what is modern and what is not modern; it seems like the modern period starts earlier and earlier every time historians look at it. But generally, the "modern" era is associated with the European Enlightenment, which begins roughly in the middle of the eighteenth century. (Other historians trace elements of enlightenment thought back to the Renaissance or earlier, and one could argue that Enlightenment thinking begins with the eighteenth century. I usually date "modern" from 1750, if only because I got my Ph.D. from a program at Stanford called "Modern Thought and Literature," and that program focused on works written after 1750).

The basic ideas of the Enlightenment are roughly the same as the basic ideas of humanism. Jane Flax's article gives a good summary of these ideas or premises (on p. 41). I'll add a few things to her list.

1. There is a stable, coherent, knowable self. This self is conscious, rational, autonomous, and universal--no physical conditions or differences substantially affect how this self operates.
2. This self knows itself and the world through reason, or rationality, posited as the highest form of mental functioning, and the only objective form.
3. The mode of knowing produced by the objective rational self is "science," which can provide universal truths about the world, regardless of the individual status of the knower.
4. The knowledge produced by science is "truth," and is eternal.
5. The knowledge/truth produced by science (by the rational objective knowing self) will always lead toward progress and perfection. All human institutions and practices can be analyzed by science (reason/objectivity) and improved.
6. Reason is the ultimate judge of what is true, and therefore of what is right, and what is good (what is legal and what is ethical). Freedom consists of obedience to the laws that conform to the knowledge discovered by reason.
7. In a world governed by reason, the true will always be the same as the good and the right (and the beautiful); there can be no conflict between what is true and what is right (etc.).
8. Science thus stands as the paradigm for any and all socially useful forms of knowledge. Science is neutral and objective; scientists, those who produce scientific knowledge through their unbiased rational capacities, must be free to follow the laws of reason, and not be motivated by other concerns (such as money or power).
9. Language, or the mode of expression used in producing and disseminating knowledge, must be rational also. To be rational, language must be transparent; it must function only to represent the real/perceivable world which the rational mind observes. There must be a firm and objective connection between the objects of perception and the words used to name them (between signifier and signified).

These are some of the fundamental premises of humanism, or of modernism. They serve--as you can probably tell--to justify and explain virtually all of our social structures and institutions, including democracy, law, science, ethics, and aesthetics.

Modernity is fundamentally about order: about rationality and rationalization, creating order out of chaos. The assumption is that creating more rationality is conducive to creating more order, and that the more ordered a society is, the better it will function (the more rationally it will function). Because modernity is about the pursuit of ever-increasing levels of order, modern societies constantly are on guard against anything and everything labeled as "disorder," which might disrupt order. Thus modern societies rely on continually establishing a binary opposition between "order" and "disorder," so that they can assert the superiority of "order." But to do this, they have to have things that represent "disorder"--modern societies thus continually have to create/construct "disorder." In western culture, this disorder becomes "the other"--defined in relation to other binary oppositions. Thus anything non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-hygienic, non-rational, (etc.) becomes part of "disorder," and has to be eliminated from the ordered, rational modern society.

The ways that modern societies go about creating categories labeled as "order" or "disorder" have to do with the effort to achieve stability. Francois Lyotard (the theorist whose works Sarup describes in his article on postmodernism) equates that stability with the idea of "totality," or a totalized system (think here of Derrida's idea of "totality" as the wholeness or completeness of a system). Totality, and stability, and order, Lyotard argues, are maintained in modern societies through the means of "grand narratives" or "master narratives," which are stories a culture tells itself about its practices and beliefs. A "grand narrative" in American culture might be the story that democracy is the most enlightened (rational) form of government, and that democracy can and will lead to universal human happiness. Every belief system or ideology has its grand narratives, according to Lyotard; for Marxism, for instance, the "grand narrative" is the idea that capitalism will collapse in on itself and a utopian socialist world will evolve. You might think of grand narratives as a kind of meta-theory, or meta-ideology, that is, an ideology that explains an ideology (as with Marxism); a story that is told to explain the belief systems that exist.

Lyotard argues that all aspects of modern societies, including science as the primary form of knowledge, depend on these grand narratives. Postmodernism then is the critique of grand narratives, the awareness that such narratives serve to mask the contradictions and instabilities that are inherent in any social organization or practice. In other words, every attempt to create "order" always demands the creation of an equal amount of "disorder," but a "grand narrative" masks the constructedness of these categories by explaining that "disorder" REALLY IS chaotic and bad, and that "order" REALLY IS rational and good. Postmodernism, in rejecting grand narratives, favors "mini-narratives," stories that explain small practices, local events, rather than large-scale universal or global concepts. Postmodern "mini-narratives" are always situational, provisional, contingent, and temporary, making no claim to universality, truth, reason, or stability.

Another aspect of Enlightenment thought--the final of my 9 points--is the idea that language is transparent, that words serve only as representations of thoughts or things, and don't have any function beyond that. Modern societies depend on the idea that signifiers always point to signifieds, and that reality resides in signifieds. In postmodernism, however, there are only signifiers. The idea of any stable or permanent reality disappears, and with it the idea of signifieds that signifiers point to. Rather, for postmodern societies, there are only surfaces, without depth; only signifiers, with no signifieds.

Another way of saying this, according to Jean Baudrillard, is that in postmodern society there are no originals, only copies--or what he calls "simulacra." You might think, for example, about painting or sculpture, where there is an original work (by Van Gogh, for instance), and there might also be thousands of copies, but the original is the one with the highest value (particularly monetary value). Contrast that with cds or music recordings, where there is no "original," as in painting--no recording that is hung on a wall, or kept in a vault; rather, there are only copies, by the millions, that are all the same, and all sold for (approximately) the same amount of money. Another version of Baudrillard's "simulacrum" would be the concept of virtual reality, a reality created by simulation, for which there is no original. This is particularly evident in computer games/simulations--think of Sim City, Sim Ant, etc.

Finally, postmodernism is concerned with questions of the organization of knowledge. In modern societies, knowledge was equated with science, and was contrasted to narrative; science was good knowledge, and narrative was bad, primitive, irrational (and thus associated with women, children, primitives, and insane people). Knowledge, however, was good for its own sake; one gained knowledge, via education, in order to be knowledgeable in general, to become an educated person. This is the ideal of the liberal arts education. In a postmodern society, however, knowledge becomes functional--you learn things, not to know them, but to use that knowledge. As Sarup points out (p. 138), educational policy today puts emphasis on skills and training, rather than on a vague humanist ideal of education in general. This is particularly acute for English majors. "What will you DO with your degree?"

Not only is knowledge in postmodern societies characterized by its utility, but knowledge is also distributed, stored, and arranged differently in postmodern societies than in modern ones. Specifically, the advent of electronic computer technologies has revolutionized the modes of knowledge production, distribution, and consumption in our society (indeed, some might argue that postmodernism is best described by, and correlated with, the emergence of computer technology, starting in the 1960s, as the dominant force in all aspects of social life). In postmodern societies, anything which is not able to be translated into a form recognizable and storable by a computer--i.e. anything that's not digitizable--will cease to be knowledge. In this paradigm, the opposite of "knowledge" is not "ignorance," as it is the modern/humanist paradigm, but rather "noise." Anything that doesn't qualify as a kind of knowledge is "noise," is something that is not recognizable as anything within this system.

Lyotard says (and this is what Sarup spends a lot of time explaining) that the important question for postmodern societies is who decides what knowledge is (and what "noise" is), and who knows what needs to be decided. Such decisions about knowledge don't involve the old modern/humanist qualifications: for example, to assess knowledge as truth (its technical quality), or as goodness or justice (its ethical quality) or as beauty (its aesthetic quality). Rather, Lyotard argues, knowledge follows the paradigm of a language game, as laid out by Wittgenstein. I won't go into the details of Wittgenstein's ideas of language games; Sarup gives a pretty good explanation of this concept in his article, for those who are interested.

There are lots of questions to be asked about postmodernism, and one of the most important is about the politics involved--or, more simply, is this movement toward fragmentation, provisionality, performance, and instability something good or something bad?......

.....This association between the rejection of postmodernism and conservatism or fundamentalism may explain in part why the postmodern avowal of fragmentation and multiplicity tends to attract liberals and radicals. This is why, in part, feminist theorists have found postmodernism so attractive, as Sarup, Flax, and Butler all point out.

On another level, however, postmodernism seems to offer some alternatives to joining the global culture of consumption, where commodities and forms of knowledge are offered by forces far beyond any individual's control. These alternatives focus on thinking of any and all action (or social struggle) as necessarily local, limited, and partial--but nonetheless effective. By discarding "grand narratives" (like the liberation of the entire working class) and focusing on specific local goals (such as improved day care centers for working mothers in your own community), postmodernist politics offers a way to theorize local situations as fluid and unpredictable, though influenced by global trends. Hence the motto for postmodern politics might well be "think globally, act locally"--and don't worry about any grand scheme or master plan.
All materials on this site are written by, and remain the propery of, Dr. Mary Klages, Associate Professor, English Department, University of Colorado, Boulder. You are welcome to quote from this essay, or to link this page to your own site, with proper attribution. For more information, see Citing Electronic Sources.
The Flax article referred to is Jane Flax, "Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist Theory," in Linda J. Nicholson, ed., Feminism/Postmodernism, Routledge, 1990.
The Sarup article referred to is Chapter 6, "Lyotard and Postmodernism," in Madan Sarup's An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism, University of Georgia Press, 1993.

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