Broadly and variously defined, postmodernism refers to a specific period of time that began in the 1940s, a style of literature, architecture, art philosophy, or the plight of Western society in post-capitalist age. This movement encompasses a set of critical and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, and hyperreality to break apart or deconstruct other the structural elements achieved through modernism, including temporality, presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and meaning achieved through unity. The term “postmodernism” first entered the philosophical lexicon in 1979, with the publication of The Postmodern Condition, by Jean-François Lyotard, in which Lyotard utilizes Ludwig Wittgenstein’s model of language games and concepts taken from speech act theory to account for “a transformation of the game rules” for science, art, and literature. For Lyotard, postmodern thought can best be summed up as “incredulity towards meta narratives.” According to Lyotard, postmodernists eschew “grand narratives” that attempt to account for, explain, and compartmentalize human life and history; there is no clearly defined, collective meaning and for the postmodern world, there is no mourning of the loss of meaning because the outcome of one’s own experience and condition will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than exact and universal.
Jean Baudrillard, another influential postmodernist, deviates slightly from standard principles and presents a highly dystopic definition of the postmodern world, stating that we have lost what is “real” and that we have nothing left except a preoccupation with its disappearance. The loss of certain historical myths, the onslaught of mediatization, the spread of the kitsch, and consumerism all combine together to form this postmodern, apocalyptic present. Generally speaking, postmodern critics, largely inspired by the postmodern world in which they live, attempt to rethink and reconfigure a number of concepts touted by Enlightenment humanism and modernism including subjectivity, temporality, progress, empiricism, and the rule of law. Without the required modern unity of the subject and the pressure of seeking cohesive meaning in a modern state, the faculties are set free to operate on their own, thus constantly inventing, reinventing and recreating imagination, understanding, and reason.
RESOURCES FOR FURTHER EXPLORATION
General Information on Postmodernism and Critical Theory
Comprehensive guides especially helpful for those interested in other theories, such as Gender and Sex, Marxism, Narratology and New Historicism.
Specific Postmodern Definitions and Information
Find out more about the movement here, including specifics on criticism, language, construction, and Jacques Derrida.
Key Figures of the Postmodern Movement
Browse the following list in order to research other influential postmodern critics.
Consult this website for more information regarding Michel Foucault and his critique of modernity.
The Frankfurt Society and Its Influences
Find out more about the contributions—and controversy—of the Frankfurt Society here.
Read excerpts from The Postmodern Condition and find out more about Lyotard’s “language games” here.
Published by Johns Hopkins University Press, Postmodern Culture is the leading electronic journal for contemporary and interdisciplinary thought. Conduct research and search for articles of interest here.