"The Postmodern," 

Approaches to Po-Mo

Postmodernity vs.
the Postmodern vs.


  • the idea of the postmodern or postmodernity as a historical (political/economic/social) condition (an era we're still supposedly in whether we know it not)

  • vs. an intentional movement in arts, culture, philosophy, and politics that uses various strategies to subvert what is seen as dominant in modernism or modernity.

What was Modernism? Po-Mo theory constructs a specific image of modernism. Was there a pre-Po-Mo consensus about history, identity, core cultural values? A discourse with a constructed historical object? A dispersed, intentional cultural movement? Why is Pollock a modernist and Warhol a postmodernist?

Jean-François Lyotard: The postmodern as a historical/cultural "condition" based on a dissolution of master narratives or metanarratives (totalizing narrative paradigms like progress and national histories), a crisis in ideology when ideology no longer seems transparent (see The Post-Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge)

Frederic Jameson: Postmodernism as a movement in arts and culture corresponding to a new configuration of politics and economics, "late capitalism": transnational consumer economies based on global scope of capitalism. (See Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism)

Post-Modern Artists' views: Po-Mo as a phase of knowing and practice, abandoning the assumptions, prejudices, and constraints of modernism to embrace the contradictions, irony, and profusion of pop and mass culture. "High" and "low" culture/art categories made useless and irrelevant, art from outsider and non-Western cultures embraced, consumer society turned inside out.

Ways of working with the idea of the "postmodern" Uses of the term "postmodern" 
  1. after modernism (subsumes, assumes, extends the modern or tendencies already present in modernism, not necessarily in strict chronological succession)
  2. contra modernism (subverting, resisting, opposing, or countering features of modernism)
  3. equivalent to "late capitalism" (post-industrial, consumerist, and multi- and trans-national capitalism)
  4. the historical era following the modern (an historical time-period marker)
  5. artistic and stylistic eclecticism (hybridization of forms and genres, mixing styles of different cultures or time periods, de- and re-contextualizing styles in architecture, visual arts, literature)
  6. "global village" phenomena: globalization of cultures, races, images, capital, products ("information age" redefinition of nation-state identities, which were the foundation of the modern era; dissemination of images and information across national boundaries, a sense of erosion or breakdown of national, linguistic, ethnic, and cultural identities; a sense of a global mixing of cultures on a scale unknown to pre-information era societies)

Postmodernity, History, Mediation, and Representation

Postmodern historians and philosophers question the representation of history and cultural identities: history as "what 'really' happened" (external to representation or mediation) vs. history as a "narrative of what happened" a "mediated representation" with cultural/ideological interests.

Art works are likewise caught up in the problem of representation and mediation--of what, for whom, from what ideological point of view?

Jameson: "history is only accessible to us in narrative form". History requires representation, mediation, in narrative, a story-form encoded as historical.

Dissolution of the transparency of history and tradition: Can we get to the (unmediated) referents of history?

Multiculturalism, competing views of history and tradition.

Shift from universal histories, from the long durée (long time-span of historical periods), to local and explicitly contingent histories. History and identity politics: who can write or make art? for whom? from what standpoint?

Walter Benjamin's recognition of the non-neutrality of history:

"Where are the empathies [of traditional historicism?] The answer is inevitable: with the victor. Hence empathy with the victor invariably benefits the rulers. Historical materialists know what that means. Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment... They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism... [A historical materialist] regards it as his task to brush history against the grain." 

"For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably." 

(From "Theses on the Philosophy of History" in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt) 

Working with Frederic Jameson's categories ("Postmodernism and Consumer Society") (1) "the transformation of reality into images" (cf. Debord and Baudrillard)

(2) "the fragmentation of time into a series of perpetual presents"
  • "the erosion of the older distinction between high culture and so-called mass or popular culture" (Jameson).

  • Pastiche and parody of multiple styles: old forms of "content" become mere "styles"

  • stylistic masks, image styles, without present content: the meaning is in the mimicry

  • "in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum" (Jameson).

  • No individualism or individual style, voice, expressive identity. All signifiers circulate and recirculate prior and existing images and styles.

  • The postmodern in advertising: attempts to provide illusions of individualism (ads for jeans, cars, etc.) through images that define possible subject positions or create desired positions (being the one who's cool, hip, sexy, desirable, sophisticated...).

  • "our advertising...is fed by postmodernism in all the arts and is inconceivable without it" (Jameson)

  • [Understood by Warhol, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Kruger, Ruscha]

  • Po-Mo as late capitalism: transnational capitalism without borders, only networks and info flows.

Some features of postmodern styles:

  • Nostalgia and retro styles, recycling earlier genres and styles in new contexts (film/TV genres, images, typography, colors, clothing and hair styles, advertising images)

  • "History" represented through nostalgic images of pop culture, fantasies of the past. History has become one of the styles; historical representations blend with nostalgia.

  • "the disappearance of a sense of history, the way in which our entire contemporary social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past, has begun to live in a perpetual present and in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions of the kind which all earlier social formations have had in one way or another to preserve... The information function of the media would thus be to help us to forget, to serve as the very agents and mechanisms of our historical amnesia" (Jameson).

  • Jameson's own nostalgia? Did this ever exist?

  • Culture on Fast Forward: Time and history replaced by speed, futureness, accelerated obsolescence.

The Modern and the Postmodern: Contrasting Tendencies The features in the table below are only often-discussed tendencies, not absolutes. In fact, the tendency to see things in seemingly obvious, binary, contrasting categories is usually associated with modernism. The tendency to dissolve binary categories and expose their arbitrary cultural co-dependency is associated with postmodernism. For heuristic purposes only.

Master Narratives and metanarratives of history, culture and national identity as accepted before WWII (American-European myths of progress). Myths of cultural and ethnic origin accepted as received. Suspicion and rejection of Master Narratives for history and culture; local narratives, ironic deconstruction of master narratives: counter-myths of origin.
Faith in "Grand Theory" (totalizing explanations in history, science and culture) to represent all knowledge and explain everything. Rejection of totalizing theories; pursuit of localizing and contingent theories.
Faith in, and myths of, social and cultural unity, hierarchies of social-class and ethnic/national values, seemingly clear bases for unity. Social and cultural pluralism, disunity, unclear bases for social/national/ ethnic unity.
Master narrative of progress through science and technology. Skepticism of idea of progress, anti-technology reactions, neo-Luddism; new age religions.
Sense of unified, centered self; "individualism," unified identity. Sense of fragmentation and decentered self; multiple, conflicting identities.
Idea of "the family" as central unit of social order: model of the middle-class, nuclear family. Heterosexual norms. Alternative family units, alternatives to middle-class marriage model, multiple identities for couplings and childraising. Polysexuality, exposure of repressed homosexual and homosocial realities in cultures.
Hierarchy, order, centralized control. Subverted order, loss of centralized control, fragmentation.
Faith and personal investment in big politics (Nation-State, party). Trust and investment in micropolitics, identity politics, local politics, institutional power struggles.
Root/Depth tropes.
Faith in "Depth" (meaning, value, content, the signified) over "Surface" (appearances, the superficial, the signifier).
Rhizome/surface tropes. 
Attention to play of surfaces, images, signifiers without concern for "Depth". Relational and horizontal differences, differentiations.
Crisis in representation and status of the image after photography and mass media. Culture adapting to simulation, visual media becoming undifferentiated equivalent forms, simulation and real-time media substituting for the real.
Faith in the "real" beyond media, language, symbols, and representations; authenticity of "originals." Hyper-reality, image saturation, simulacra seem more powerful than the "real"; images and texts with no prior "original". 
"As seen on TV" and "as seen on MTV" are more powerful than unmediated experience.
Dichotomy of high and low culture (official vs. popular culture).
Imposed consensus that high or official culture is normative and authoritative, the ground of value and discrimination.
Disruption of the dominance of high culture by popular culture.
Mixing of popular and high cultures, new valuation of pop culture, hybrid cultural forms cancel "high"/"low" categories.
Mass culture, mass consumption, mass marketing. Demassified culture; niche products and marketing, smaller group identities.
Art as unique object and finished work authenticated by artist and validated by agreed upon standards. Art as process, performance, production, intertextuality. 
Art as recycling of culture authenticated by audience and validated in subcultures sharing identity with the artist.  
Knowledge mastery, attempts to embrace a totality. Quest for interdisciplinary harmony.
The encyclopedia.
Navigation through information overload, information management; fragmented, partial knowledge; just-in-time knowledge. 
The Web.
Broadcast media, centralized one-to-many communications. Paradigms: broadcast networks and TV. Digital, interactive, client-server, distributed, user-motivated, individualized, many-to-many media. Paradigms: Napster and the Web.
Centering/centeredness, centralized knowledge. Dispersal, dissemination, networked, distributed knowledge
Determinacy, dependence, hierarchy. Indeterminacy, contingency, polycentric power sources.
Seriousness of intention and purpose, middle-class earnestness. Play, irony, challenge to official seriousness, subversion of earnestness.
Sense of clear generic boundaries and wholeness (art, music, and literature). Hybridity, promiscuous genres, recombinant culture, intertextuality, pastiche.
Design and architecture of New York. Design and architecture of LA and Las Vegas
Clear dichotomy between organic and inorganic, human and machine. Cyborgian mixing of organic and inorganic, human and machine and electronic.
Phallic ordering of sexual difference, unified sexualities, exclusion/bracketing of pornography. Androgyny, queer sexual identities, polymorphous sexuality, mass marketing of pornography, porn style mixing with mainstream images.
The book as sufficient bearer of the word.
The library as complete and total system for printed knowledge.
Hypermedia as transcendence of the physical limits of print media.
The Web as infinitely expandable, centerless, inter-connected information system.

Martin Irvine, 2003