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What is Postmodernism?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Postmodernism is a broad term used to describe movements in a wide range of disciplines, including art, philosophy, critical theory, and music. Many view it as a response to the preceding modernist movement, but where modernism simply reacts against classical concepts, particularly in the arts and literature, things that are postmodern take this reaction to its extreme conclusion. Indeed, some see it not as a separate movement, but simply as a continuation of the modernist struggle.

The word itself has been used so widely as to strip it of much of its meaning. There is hardly a discipline of the arts or social sciences that has not spawned numerous movements given this label, and the aims of many of these movements seem to be contrary to one another. Nonetheless, most of the time when the term is applied, it indicates one of a smaller handful of meanings.

In a pejorative sense, postmodernism implies an almost nihilistic outlook, stripping whatever the targeted sphere of any innate meaning. Views seen as being very relativist are often given this label in an effort to disparage them.

In the creative disciplines, such as painting, literature, music, and sculpture, postmodernism tends to lean heavily on using forms not traditionally perceived as artistic. Heavy use of kitsch or overly simplistic styles are two examples of this mode. Many artists appropriate earlier modernist and classical works and combine or alter them to create a new, ironic piece. In literature particularly, but also in much theater, traditional barriers between audience and narrator are broken down. A self-awareness of a character's role as a character in a novel is a prime example of this mode. Many would argue that the presence of a self-aware irony is a necessary cornerstone of any work claiming to be part of this movement.

In critical theory and philosophy, postmodernism serves as a striking counterpoint to classical foundations of philosophy. While earlier philosophers and theorists were devoted to the ongoing exploration of a universal system, postmodernists focus on the role of that search in creating what is known as truth itself. To most of these theorists, it is the discourse itself that gives rise to any sort of perceived universality.

Architecture that falls under this category — exemplified by the school known as deconstructivist architecture — tends to invert traditional elements, such as placing interior elements on the exterior, and visa versa. It might also place symbolic elements in highly visible and thought-provoking locations, and emphasize jarring and discordant aesthetics.

Fundamentally, postmodernism may best be viewed as any form of thought and action that places an emphasis on a strongly ironic self-consciousness, intentional discontinuity with other elements of a work, or knee-jerk responses without self-censoring. It is based on preconceived notions of what is proper but done with a spirit of liveliness and joyousness, verses modernism's rather dismal view of this subjectivity.

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Discussion Comments

By anon313968 — On Jan 15, 2013

I respectfully submit postmodernism is the philosophical root cause of the moral free-fall Western civilization finds itself in.

Ideas have consequences. Consider the logical implications of a society bereft of absolute meaning -- staggering! Moreover, consider the devolution of societal strands such as education, politics, ubiquitous mass media, corporations, etc. Such a society is absent of all meaning, save tragedy.

By backdraft — On Dec 15, 2012

@anon27029 - One of the fundamental principles of postmodernism across disciplines is a suspicion and even a rejection of the notion of absolute meaning.

We want to believe certain immutable truths about certain core principles, but on close examination these often prove incomplete, false, or more complicated than initially thought.

I think that President Obama does display certain postmodernist principles because he acts as a pragmatist and rarely falls prey to ideology. He does not operate according to a rigid worldview, but rather one that is adaptive and responsive to circumstances. Whether this is a strength or a weakness is for you to decide.

By Belted — On Dec 15, 2012

I am typically not a fan of postmodernist literature, particularly the high postmodernism of someone like Pynchon. But one of my all time favorite books is House Of Leaves by Mark Danielewski.

It is basically a horror story, but it uses many of the formal tricks that have defined postmodernist literature. There are tons of footnotes, odd formatting choices and even moments where you have to turn the page upside down. Far from being annoying, this experimentation is thrilling and it really magnifies the tension of the story.

By Ivan83 — On Dec 14, 2012

I was interested to the point of obsession with postmodernism when I was in college. But I look back now and feel like this is mostly a youthful folly. Now, postmodernism not only doesn't interest me, it pretty deeply offends me.

It is essentially a nihilistic philosophy that is great at pointing out what is strange or wrong with things but terrible at offering any solutions. There is no ethic at the center of it, in fact, it resists the whole notion of ethics. Who wants to believe in something that essentially tells us that nothing means anything? That is a hard way to go through life.

By anon164267 — On Mar 31, 2011

postmodernism is something of a continuation of modernism but sometimes gives a jerk to modernist views. Any views on this idea?

By anon52937 — On Nov 17, 2009

"Many" articles? That's just one article. I've never heard him described that way ....

By anon27029 — On Feb 23, 2009

How does the philosophy of postmodernism relate to President Obama? Many articles have labeled him as someone who believes "truth is often just a matter of perspective." (USA Today, August 5, 2008) Could you address this?

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