What is Postmodernism?

People have given me different definitions of “postmodernism” as applied to culture, art, and film.

So give me a crash course, please. What it is, history of the movement etc.

Man, this is a difficult subject, but I think it will lead to a great discussion. To kick things off, here are just a few thoughts.

Postmodernism can refer to a rough span of time, beginning (more or less) in the 1950s in America and continuing at least into the 1980s. It also refers to a body of culture, literature and art produced during this time. You can also use postmodernism to look at culture, literature, and art of other times – it is possible, for example, to create a postmodern interpretation of Hamlet.

Roughly, postmodern ideas were emmerging in various disciplines in the 1950’s, in the 1960s these new ideas were beginning to be seen as components of a larger, widespread change in philosophy, and then formally investigated and defined by scholars such as Lyotard in the 1970s.

Postmodernism can be seen in contrast to modernism, although it is probably more accurate to say that while postmodernism rejects some principles of modernism, there are many areas of modernism that postmodernism preserves and builds upon. It’s an evolution, not an opposite.

As you mention in the OP, postmodern can be used to describe a huge variety of things, and its characteristics seem to differ depending on whether you are talking about the fine arts, music, literature, culture, philosophy, history, design, or whatever.

One concept which does seem to bind together all of these various manifestations of the postmodern is an interest in multiple views – the idea that there is no one, fixed meaning or interpretation of a play, book, etc, but rather that it varies depending on the viewpoint of the audience and/or participants, and the experiences that they bring to any particular work or topic. There is also an awareness of the author (author as creator – so that could mean the photographer, or the painter, etc), and an understanding that the author’s own view is one of several that may be applied. It rejects the idea of an ultimate “correct” interpretation, and embraces the theory that the “truth” is enhanced, rather than obscured, by the fragmentation that results from multiple viewpoints. In terms of culture, where there is not always a clear author of a concept, the idea of authorship is still present in that one’s own unique set of experience provides a frame of reference that has a validity simply because it exists. Wow, I don’t think I’ve written such a smarmy sentence since grad school.

My own formal background is in art history, and I have a layman’s familiarity with literature. Just about any generalization of postmodernism you can make, someone else will be able to find an example of where it doesn’t hold true.

Architecturally, it was almost a retro movement against saltine-crackerbox ugly skyscrapers, against functionalism without ornamentation.

Somehow, it is associated with a truly evil philosophical and theoretical perspective that is generally called “poststructuralism” and which revolves around a process called “deconstruction”.

The “posties” take on the sacred cattle of canonical excellence and proven knowledge by ripping apart the culturally-based assumptions that come into play in setting up standards of excellence. That isnt’ all bad when applied in (for example) the field of English lit crit or art crit.

In philosophy and the social sciences, however, the “posties” assert that excellence, as an abstract category, does not exist and is a phony prop for the prevailing winners in the “discourse” (an ongoing struggle to define reality, ultimately about power and power alone)–that in reality there IS no reality, just your “reality” (socially constructed by your location in time and space, you ARE your context) and my “reality” and his “reality” and her “reality” and none of them are “better” than anyone else’s.

These folks are intellectually dishonest. They deliberately write in the most opaque language possible and try to create an environment in which failure to understand and discuss their incredibly dense theories disqualifies people from the debate. Example:

(Donna Haraway)

(translation: this theorist Zilhman has done a no-no in postie terms by generalizing about the hypothetical situation or experiences of women in the era before agriculture, while Hrdy has said that you can’t say anything meaningful about them in general because they were all different and in different specific situations, which is good in postie terms although it makes it awfully damn difficult to say anything except “generalizations are evil”)

Stupid $@#@!~T^!%&)%^~ posties cost me any remaining chance of a graduate degree and finished off the women’s movement in academia but good, as I knew they were gonna.

Wow! You weren’t kidding about opaque. That’s truly some ghastly dreck.

Ran across an old copy of UTNE Reader from '94 or '95 that was all about postmodernism and gathered from the background that, at least in architecture, it meant that you were free to grab unrelated chunks of styles from any previous period in history and jam them together indiscriminately, in a sort of compulsory eclecticism. In shorthand, I tend to think of any kind of pitched roof with a circular or arched window shape underneath it - as seen on the higher grades of modular homes.

But, as always, YMMV

you know, po-mo?


weird for the sake of being weird.

In philosophy/history of science, po-mo has two things to say:

-The direction of science is often influenced by non-scientific considerations: politics, economics, etc. This much I think is a valid and important point.

-Science therefore is no different from any other belief system.

For example, Andrew Pickering writes in the conclusion to Constructing Quarks (p.413):

Well, maybe if you don’t care about framing an accurate view! :rolleyes:

Superficially, this is correct, but the reason goes much deeper than that. Modernism was the strongest force in architecture in the early 20th century, exemplified by Corbusier’s Vilal Savoye, and Mies van der Rohe’s IIT College of Architecure and Seagram’s Building. Itself a reaction to the supposed excesses of previous generations, Modernism sought to strip away away everything that wasn’t necessary to the function of the building, their unofficial motto being “Form follows function.”
Beginning in the Fifties, architects began to rebel against this viewpoint, mostly because they saw it (rightly, IMO) as unfeeling, and unconnected to actual human existence. Thus, Postmodernism. One thing that Modernism did succeed in doing was a severing of architecural design from the past, allowing architects to do whatever they felt was right, without worrying about whether or not it in the proper style. Postmodernists began by simply borrowing whatever architectural features they felt were appropriate to the building. Often these features were distorted or stylized, and generally tacked onto the facade of the building. In this, Hometownboy is correct. Underneath all of the surface features, Postmodern buildings usually used the same steel and concrete structural elements developed by the Modernists, just covered over by plaster and other applied elements. For this they have often been accused of dishonesty, but that’s really a judgement call.
A few oft cited examples of Postmodern buildings are Robert Venturi’s house for his mother, Michael Graves’ Portland Building and on a slightly more eccentric note, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.
That’s the gist of it, in architecure. I’ve no idea how Postmodernism relates to other disciplines.

Where was this thread when I was writing my Postmodernism paper a few months ago?

Anyhow, my friend the art student says: "Postmodernism is stuff that reminds you of other stuff but isn’t as good."

Which sums it up nicely, IMO, if somewhat cynically.

I haven’t studied “po-mo”, but I find your statement about its application to science interesting:

I agree wholeheartedly with the first point. James Burke has given some very interesting examples of it in his books. One debatable (but interesting) suggestion has Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Theorem emanating, in part, from German philosophical attitudes at the time.

But I take issue with the seciond part. I realize that you’re being colloquial for the sake of space and for SDMB irony, but if that’s the conclusion of postmodernist philosophy on science I gotta disagree. The whole point of the Scientific Method is that it’s self-correcting. In other words, if your ideas don’t mesh with reality, then experiment will soon show this to be the case. To use the above example, even if Heisenberg had been inspired to come up with the Uncertainty Principle because of German Philosophy, it wouldn’t have survived this long in the world of physics if it didn’t have a verifiable existence. It has since been adopted by folks with completely different cultural backgrounds, and I submit that it would have arisen from an entirely different mindset in answer to other issues if it hadn’t been formulated when and where it was.

In other words, there’s an entire universe out there that exists quite independently of human beings, their worldview, or philosophies. Science as we have it today is supposed to unravel, explain, and measure this, regardless of the religious beliefs and political philosophy of the seekers. If they pursue a partisan solution (Lamarckism, or creation science), the Universe will knock them on their ass.

Yes, science is self-correcting, but consider the implications of that.

If what we “know” today is subject to correction in the future, then do we really “know” it, or do we simply “believe” it, based on the available evidence at present?

We think of science as objective fact, but often there are competing theories advanced to explain these facts. These theories are then subject to later change and revision, so what’s “true” today may be “false” tomorrow.

I’m not arguing that this makes science no different than any other belief system, but it is in flux, not solid as we sometimes (perhaps carelessly) imagine.


Well FriendRob was taking Andrew Pickering as an example of a “postmodernist” in the sociology of science. He’s a leading figure in the Edinburgh School in the field and a large part of what they’re about is questioning just what “experiment” shows about “reality”. I suspect Pickering might (rightly or wrongly) simply dismiss your counter-argument as hopelessly naive.

More generally, I’ve always felt that postmodernism does tend to mean rather different things in different fields. The architectural use of the term in particular seems rather narrow and undeniably useful. In other fields (including the sociology of science at times) it can tend towards little more than a term of abuse. Then you get cases like cinema; the timing was such that there aren’t any premodern films, so isn’t film in general just, well, modern.

Then there’s Umberto Eco’s oft-quoted example:

“I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, “I love you madly,” because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say, “As Barbara Cartland would put it , I love you madly.” At this point, having avoided false innocence, he will nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her, but he loves her in an age of lost innocence.”

Postscript to The Name of the Rose (Harcourt Brace Jonanovich, 1984) p67.

Incidentally, I’ve always presumed that the use of Our Lady in Pink in this example was adopted by William Weaver as a translator’s English equivalent for some Italian romantic novelist in the original. Can anybody who’s read it in the original shed any light on who Eco did use to make his point ?

Cal - If it wasn’t clear from my post, well, I gotta disagree, too. (Seeing as I’m a scientist and all.) As you remarked, I was caricaturing the po-mo position. And not all po-mos would say anything like the second statement. (Pickering pisses me off, tho.) But others take the randomness and unpredictability of QM and chaos theory and interpret it to mean that reality is created by the observer, or we can’t really know anything anyway (ignoring your very correct point that QM is still around because it is successful, not because it’s philosophically pleasing.)

The more scientifically sophisticated po-mos take a view along the lines of what ScriptAnalyst said.

BTW the physics community at least has rejected the idea that QM was influenced by German philosophy in any significant way. Basically the timing is all wrong: major developments in QM happened before the philosophical developments that are supposed to “explain” QM. I’ll see if I can dig up a cite on this.

I can’t pass up this opportunity to pass on a quip from a friend of mine…

I was looking over a new house, and debating what to do with the living room, and, facetiously, I said I wanted to decorate it in a post-modern style.

His response: “You want to decorate the room with pictures of other rooms?”

Summed it up nicely, I thought.

Ironic, innit?