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Neue Staatsgalerie (1977–84), Stuttgart, Germany, designed by architects James Stirling and Michael Wilford, showing an eclectic, postmodern mix of classical architecture and colorful ironic detailing.

Postmodernism is an intellectual stance or mode of discourse[1][2] characterized by skepticism towards scientific rationalism and the concept of objective reality (as opposed to subjective reality). It questions the "grand narratives" of modernity, rejects the certainty of knowledge and stable meaning, and acknowledges the influence of ideology in maintaining political power.[3][4] Objective claims are dismissed as naïve realism,[5] emphasizing the conditional nature of knowledge.[4] Postmodernism embraces self-referentiality, epistemological relativism, moral relativism, pluralism, irony, irreverence, and eclecticism.[4] It opposes the "universal validity" of binary oppositions, stable identity, hierarchy, and categorization.[6][7]

Emerging in the mid-twentieth century as a reaction against modernism,[8][9][10] postmodernism has permeated various disciplines[11] and is linked to critical theory, deconstruction, and poststructuralism.[4]

Critics argue that postmodernism promotes obscurantism, abandons Enlightenment rationalism and scientific rigor, and contributes little to analytical or empirical knowledge.[12]

The problem of definition[edit]

"Postmodernism" is "a highly contested term",[13] referring to "a particularly unstable concept",[14] that "names many different kinds of cultural objects and phenomena in many different ways".[15] Critics have described it as "an exasperating term"[16] and claim that its indefinability is "a truism".[17] Put otherwise, postmodernism is "several things at once".[16] It has no single definition, and the term does not name any single unified phenomenon, but rather many diverse phenomena: "postmodernisms rather than one postmodernism".[18][19][20]

Although postmodernisms are generally united in their effort to transcend the perceived limits of modernism, "modernism" also means different things to different critics in various arts.[21] Further, there are outliers on even this basic stance; for instance, literary critic William Spanos conceives postmodernism, not in period terms, but in terms of a certain kind of literary imagination so that pre-modern texts such as Euripides' Orestes or Cervantes' Don Quixote count as postmodern.[22]

Nevertheless, attempting to generalize, scholar Hans Bertens offers the following:

If there is a common denominator to all these postmodernisms, it is that of a crisis in representation: a deeply felt loss of faith in our ability to represent the real, in the widest sense. No matter whether they are aesthestic [sic], epistemological, moral, or political in nature, the representations that we used to rely on can no longer be taken for granted.[23]

This has taken many forms.

Historical overview[edit]

The term first appeared in print in 1870,[24][25] but it only began to enter circulation with its current range of meanings in the 1950s—60s.[26][13][27]

Early appearances[edit]

The term "postmodern" was first used in 1870 by the artist John Watkins Chapman, who described "a Postmodern style of painting" as a departure from French Impressionism.[24][28] Similarly, the first citation given by the Oxford English Dictionary is dated to 1916, describing Gus Mager as "one of the few 'post' modern painters whose style is convincing".[29]

Episcopal priest and cultural commentator J. M. Thompson, in an 1914 article, uses the term to describe changes in attitudes and beliefs in the critique of religion, writing, "the raison d'être of Post-Modernism is to escape from the double-mindedness of modernism by being thorough in its criticism by extending it to religion as well as theology, to Catholic feeling as well as to Catholic tradition".[30] In 1926, Bernard Iddings Bell, president of St. Stephen's College and also an Episcopal priest, published Postmodernism and Other Essays, which marks the first use of the term to describe an historical period following modernity.[31][32] The essay criticizes lingering socio-cultural norms, attitudes, and practices of the Enlightenment. It is also critical of a purported cultural shift away from traditional Christian beliefs.[33][34][35]

The term "postmodernity" was first used in an academic historical context as a general concept for a movement by Arnold J. Toynbee in an 1939 essay, which states that "Our own Post-Modern Age has been inaugurated by the general war of 1914–1918".[36]

In 1942, the literary critic and author H. R. Hays describes postmodernism as a new literary form.[37] Also in the arts, the term was first used in 1949 to describe a dissatisfaction with the modernist architectural movement known as the International Style.[38]

Although these early uses anticipate some of the concerns of the debate in the second part of the 20th century, there is little direct continuity in the discussion.[39] Just when the new discussion begins, however, is also a matter of dispute. Various authors place its beginnings in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.[40]

Theoretical development[edit]

In the mid-1970s, the American sociologist Daniel Bell provided a general account of the postmodern as an effectively nihilistic response to modernism's alleged assault on the Protestant work ethic and its rejection of what he upheld as traditional values.[41] The ideals of modernity, per his diagnosis, were degraded to the level of consumer choice.[42] This research project, however, was not taken up in a significant way by others until the mid-1980s when the work of Jean Baudrillard and Fredrick Jameson, building upon art and literary criticism, reintroduced the term to sociology.[43]

Discussion about the postmodern in the second part of the 20th century was most articulate in areas with a large body of critical discourse around the modernist movement. Even here, however, there continued to be disagreement about such basic issues as whether postmodernism is a break with modernism, a renewal and intensification of modernism,[15] or even, both at once, a rejection and a radicalization of its historical predecessor.[21]

According to scholar Steven Connor, discussions of the 1970s were dominated by literary criticism, to be supplanted by architectural theory in the 1980s.[44] Some of these conversations made use of French poststructuralist thought, but only after these innovations and critical discourse in the arts did postmodernism emerge as a philosophical term in its own right.

In literary and architectural theory[edit]

The poet Robert Creeley in 1972

According to scholar Ian Buchanan, the Black Mountain poets Charles Olson and Robert Creeley first introduced the term "postmodern" in its current sense during the 1950s.[13] Their stance against modernist poetry – and Olson's Heideggerian orientation – were influential in the identification of postmodernism as a polemical position opposed to the rationalist values championed by the Enlightenment project.[39]

During the 1960s, this affirmative use gave way to a pejorative use by the New Left, who used it to describe a waning commitment among youth to the political ideals socialism and communism.[13] The literary critic Irving Howe, for instance, denounced postmodern literature for being content to merely reflect, rather than actively attempt to refashion, what he saw as the "increasingly shapeless" character of contemporary society.[45][13]

In the 1970s, this changed again, largely under the influence of the literary critic Ihab Hassan's large-scale survey of works that he said could no longer be called modern. Taking the Black Mountain poets an exemplary instance of the new postmodern type, Hassan celebrates its Nietzschean playfulness and cheerfully anarchic spirit, which he sets off against the high seriousness of modernism.[13][46]

(Yet, from another perspective, Friedrich Nietzsche's attack on Western philosophy and Martin Heidegger's critique of metaphysics posed deep theoretical problems not necessarily a cause for aesthetic celebration. Their further influence on the conversation about postmodernism, however, would be largely mediated by French poststructuralism.[47])

If literature was at the center of the discussion in the 1970s, architecture is at the center in the 1980s.[44] The architectural theorist Charles Jencks, in particular, connects the artistic avant-garde to social change in a way that captures attention outside of academia.[13] Jenckes, much influenced by the American architect Robert Venturi,[48] celebrates a plurality of forms and encourages participation and active engagement with the local context of the built environment.[49] He presents this as in opposition to the "authoritarian style" of International Modernism.[15]

The influence of poststructuralism[edit]

In the 1970s, postmodern criticism increasingly came to incorporate poststructuralist theory, particularly the deconstructive approach to texts most strongly associated with Jacques Derrida.[50] Derrida attempted to demonstrate that the whole foundationalist approach to language and knowledge was untenable and misguided. He was also critical of what he claimed to expose as the artificial binary oppositions (e.g., subject/object, speech/writing) that he claims are at the heart of Western culture and philosophy.[51] It is during this period that postmodernism comes to be particularly equated with a kind of anti-representational self-reflexivity.[52]

In the 1980s, some critics begin to take an interest in the work of Michel Foucault. This introduces a political concern about social power-relations into discussions about postmodernism.[53] Much of Foucault's project is, against the Enlightenment tradition, to expose modern social institutions and forms of knowledge as historically contingent forces of domination.[51] He aims detotalize or decenter historical narratives to display modern consciousness as it is constituted by specific discourses and institutions that shape individuals into the docile subjects of social systems.[54]

This is also the beginning of the affiliation of postmodernism with feminism and multiculturalism.[55] The art critic Craig Owens, in particular, not only made the connection to feminism explicit, but went so far as to claim feminism for postmodernism wholesale,[56] a broad claim resisted by even many sympathetic feminists such as Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson.[57]

In social theory[edit]

Although postmodern criticism and thought drew on philosophical ideas from early on, "postmodernism" was only introduced to the expressly philosophical lexicon by Jean-François Lyotard in his 1979[a] The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.[58][13] In this influential work, Lyotard offers the following definition: "Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives [such as Enlightenment progress or Marxist revolution[13]]".[59] In a society with no unifying narrative, he argues, we are left with heterogeneous, group-specific narratives (or "language games", as adopted from Ludwig Wittgenstein[13]) with no universal perspective from which to adjudicate among them.[60]

Jean-Francois Lyotard, photo by Bracha L. Ettinger, 1995

According to Lyotard, this introduces a general crisis of legitimacy, a theme he adopts from the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, whose theory of communicative rationality Lyotard rejects.[61][62] While he was particularly concerned with the way that this insight undermines claims of scientific objectivity, Lyotard's argument undermines the entire principle of transcendent legitimization.[63][64] Instead, proponents of a language game must make the case for their legitimacy with reference to such considerations as efficiency or practicality.[13] Far from celebrating the apparently relativistic consequences of this argument, however, Lyotard focused much of his subsequent work on how links could be established, particularly with respect to ethics and politics.[65]

Nevertheless the appearance of linguistic relativism inspired an extensive rebuttal by the Marxist critic Fredrick Jameson.[66] Building upon the theoretical foundations laid out by the Marxist economist Ernst Mandel[13] and observations in the early work of the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard,[67] Jameson develops his own conception of the postmodern as "the cultural logic of late capitalism" in the form of an enormous cultural expansion into an economy of spectacle and style, rather than the production of goods.[68][13]

Baudrillard broke with Marxism, but continued to theorize the postmodern as the condition in which the domain of reality has become so heavily mediated by signs as to become inaccessible in itself, leaving us entirely in the domain of the simulacrum, an image that bears no relation to anything outside of itself.[69] Scholars disagree about whether his later works are intended as science fiction or truthful theoretical claims.[70]

In the 1990s, postmodernism became increasingly identified with critical and philosophical discourse directly about postmodernism or the postmodern idiom itself.[71] No longer centered on any particular art or even the arts in general, it instead turns to address the more general problems posed to society in general by a new proliferation of cultures and forms.[44] It is during this period that it also comes to be associated with postcolonialism and identity politics.[42]

Around this time, postmodernism also begins to be conceived in popular culture as a general "philosophical disposition" associated with a loose sort of relativism. In this sense, the term also starts to appear as a "casual term of abuse" in non-academic contexts.[42] Others identify it as an aesthetic "lifestyle" of eclecticism and playful self-irony.[40]

In various arts[edit]


Ray and Maria Stata Center (2004), designed by the Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, Massachusetts

Scholarship regarding postmodernism and architecture is closely linked with the writings of critic-turned-architect Charles Jencks, beginning with lectures in the early 1970s and his essay "The Rise of Post Modern Architecture" from 1975.[72] His magnum opus, however, is the book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, first published in 1977, and since running to seven editions.[73]

Jencks makes the point that postmodernism (like modernism) varies for each field of art, and that for architecture it is not just a reaction to modernism but what he terms double coding: "Double Coding: the combination of Modern techniques with something else (usually traditional building) in order for architecture to communicate with the public and a concerned minority, usually other architects."[74]

In their book, "Revisiting Postmodernism", Terry Farrell and Adam Furman argue that postmodernism brought a more joyous and sensual experience to the culture, particularly in architecture.[75] For instance, in response to the modernist slogan of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe that "less is more", the postmodernist Robert Venturi rejoinded that "less is a bore".[76]

Graphic design[edit]

Early mention of postmodernism as an element of graphic design appeared in the British magazine, "Design".[77] A characteristic of postmodern graphic design is that "retro, techno, punk, grunge, beach, parody, and pastiche were all conspicuous trends. Each had its own sites and venues, detractors and advocates."[78]


In 1971, the American scholar Ihab Hassan published The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature, an early work of literary criticism from a postmodern perspective that traces the development of what he calls "literature of silence" through Marquis de Sade, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett, and many others, including developments such as the Theatre of the absurd and the nouveau roman.

In Postmodernist Fiction (1987), Brian McHale details the shift from modernism to postmodernism, arguing that the former is characterized by an epistemological dominant and that postmodern works have developed out of modernism and are primarily concerned with questions of ontology.[79] McHale's second book, Constructing Postmodernism (1992), provides readings of postmodern fiction and some contemporary writers who go under the label of cyberpunk. McHale's "What Was Postmodernism?" (2007)[80] follows Raymond Federman's lead in now using the past tense when discussing postmodernism.


American singer-songwriter Madonna

The composer Jonathan Kramer has written that avant-garde musical compositions (which some would consider modernist rather than postmodernist) "defy more than seduce the listener, and they extend by potentially unsettling means the very idea of what music is."[81][page needed] In the 1960s, composers such as Terry Riley, Henryk Górecki, Bradley Joseph, John Adams, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, and Lou Harrison reacted to the perceived elitism and dissonant sound of atonal academic modernism by producing music with simple textures and relatively consonant harmonies, whilst others, most notably John Cage challenged the prevailing narratives of beauty and objectivity common to Modernism.[citation needed]

Author on postmodernism, Dominic Strinati, has noted, it is also important "to include in this category the so-called 'art rock' musical innovations and mixing of styles associated with groups like Talking Heads, and performers like Laurie Anderson, together with the self-conscious 'reinvention of disco' by the Pet Shop Boys".[82]

In the late-20th century, avant-garde academics labelled American singer Madonna, as the "personification of the postmodern",[83] with Christian writer Graham Cray saying that "Madonna is perhaps the most visible example of what is called post-modernism",[84] and Martin Amis described her as "perhaps the most postmodern personage on the planet".[84] She was also suggested by literary critic Olivier Sécardin to epitomise postmodernism.[85]

In theory[edit]

In the 1970s, a disparate group of poststructuralists in France developed a critique of modern philosophy with roots discernible in Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, and Martin Heidegger.[86] Although few themselves relied upon the term, they became known to many as postmodern theorists.[87] Notable figures include Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, and others. By the 1980s, this spread to America in the work of Richard Rorty and others.[86]


Structuralism is a philosophical movement that was developed by French academics in the 1950s, partly in response to French existentialism, and often interpreted in relation to modernism and high modernism. Thinkers include anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, semiotician Algirdas Greimas, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and literary theorist Roland Barthes.[88]

Like structuralists, poststructuralists start from the assumption that people's identities, values, and economic conditions determine each other rather than having intrinsic properties that can be understood in isolation.[89] While structuralism explores how meaning is produced by a set of essential relationships in an overarching quasi-linguistic system, poststructuralism accepts this premise, but rejects the assumption that such systems can ever be fixed or centered.[90]


Deconstruction is a practice of philosophy, literary criticism, and textual analysis developed by Jacques Derrida.[91] Derrida's work has been seen as rooted in a statement found in Of Grammatology: "Il n'y a pas de hors-texte" ("there is no outside-text"). This statement is part of a critique of "inside" and "outside" metaphors when referring to the text, and is a corollary to the observation that there is no "inside" of a text as well.[92] This attention to a text's unacknowledged reliance on metaphors and figures embedded within its discourse is characteristic of Derrida's approach. Derrida's method sometimes involves demonstrating that a given philosophical discourse depends on binary oppositions or excluding terms that the discourse itself has declared to be irrelevant or inapplicable. Derrida's philosophy inspired a postmodern movement called deconstructivism among architects, characterized by a design that rejects structural "centers" and encourages decentralized play among its elements. Derrida discontinued his involvement with the movement after the publication of his collaborative project with architect Peter Eisenman in Chora L Works: Jacques Derrida and Peter Eisenman.[93]

The Postmodern Condition[edit]

Jean-François Lyotard is credited with being the first to use the term "postmodern" in a philosophical context, in his 1979 work The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. In it, he follows Wittgenstein's language games model and speech act theory, contrasting two different language games, that of the expert, and that of the philosopher. He talks about the transformation of knowledge into information in the computer age and likens the transmission or reception of coded messages (information) to a position within a language game.[3]

Lyotard defined philosophical postmodernism in The Postmodern Condition, writing: "Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives...."[94] where what he means by metanarrative (in French, grands récits) is something like a unified, complete, universal, and epistemically certain story about everything that is. Against totalizing metanarratives, Lyotard and other postmodern philosophers argue that truth is always dependent upon historical and social context rather than being absolute and universal—and that truth is always partial and "at issue" rather than being complete and certain.[94]

In society[edit]

Urban planning[edit]

Modernism sought to design and plan cities that followed the logic of the new model of industrial mass production; reverting to large-scale solutions, aesthetic standardisation, and prefabricated design solutions.[95] Modernism eroded urban living by its failure to recognise differences and aim towards homogeneous landscapes (Simonsen 1990, 57). Jane Jacobs' 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities[96] was a sustained critique of urban planning as it had developed within modernism and marked a transition from modernity to postmodernity in thinking about urban planning.[97]

The transition from modernism to postmodernism is often said to have happened at 3:32 pm on 15 July in 1972, when Pruitt–Igoe, a housing development for low-income people in St. Louis designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki, which had been a prize-winning version of Le Corbusier's 'machine for modern living,' was deemed uninhabitable and was torn down.[98] Since then, postmodernism has involved theories that embrace and aim to create diversity. It exalts uncertainty, flexibility and change and rejects utopianism while embracing a utopian way of thinking and acting.[99] Postmodernity of 'resistance' seeks to deconstruct modernism and is a critique of the origins without necessarily returning to them.[100] As a result of postmodernism, planners are much less inclined to lay a firm or steady claim to there being one single 'right way' of engaging in urban planning and are more open to different styles and ideas of 'how to plan'.[101]

The postmodern approach to understanding the city were pioneered in the 1980s by what could be called the "Los Angeles School of Urbanism" centered on the UCLA's Urban Planning Department in the 1980s, where contemporary Los Angeles was taken to be the postmodern city par excellence, contra posed to what had been the dominant ideas of the Chicago School formed in the 1920s at the University of Chicago, with its framework of urban ecology and emphasis on functional areas of use within a city, and the concentric circles to understand the sorting of different population groups.[102] Edward Soja of the Los Angeles School combined Marxist and postmodern perspectives and focused on the economic and social changes (globalization, specialization, industrialization/deindustrialization, neo-liberalism, mass migration) that lead to the creation of large city-regions with their patchwork of population groups and economic uses.[102][103]


Since the late 1990s, there has been a growing sentiment in popular culture and in academia that postmodernism "has gone out of fashion".[104] Others argue that postmodernism is dead in the context of current cultural production.[105][106][107]


The connection between postmodernism, posthumanism, and cyborgism has led to a challenge to postmodernism, for which the terms Post-postmodernism and postpoststructuralism were first coined in 2003:[108][109]

In some sense, we may regard postmodernism, posthumanism, poststructuralism, etc., as being of the 'cyborg age' of mind over body. Deconference was an exploration in post-cyborgism (i.e. what comes after the postcorporeal era), and thus explored issues of postpostmodernism, postpoststructuralism, and the like. To understand this transition from 'pomo' (cyborgism) to 'popo' (postcyborgism) we must first understand the cyborg era itself.[110]

More recently metamodernism, post-postmodernism and the "death of postmodernism" have been widely debated: in 2007 Andrew Hoberek noted in his introduction to a special issue of the journal Twentieth-Century Literature titled "After Postmodernism" that "declarations of postmodernism's demise have become a critical commonplace". A small group of critics has put forth a range of theories that aim to describe culture or society in the alleged aftermath of postmodernism, most notably Raoul Eshelman (performatism), Gilles Lipovetsky (hypermodernity), Nicolas Bourriaud (altermodern), and Alan Kirby (digimodernism, formerly called pseudo-modernism). None of these new theories or labels have so far gained very widespread acceptance. Sociocultural anthropologist Nina Müller-Schwarze offers neostructuralism as a possible direction.[111] The exhibition Postmodernism – Style and Subversion 1970 –1990 at the Victoria and Albert Museum (London, 24 September 2011 – 15 January 2012) was billed as the first show to document postmodernism as a historical movement.


Criticisms of postmodernism are intellectually diverse. Since postmodernism criticizes both conservative and modernist values as well as universalist concepts such as objective reality, morality, truth, reason, and social progress, critics of postmodernism often defend such concepts from various angles.

Media theorist Dick Hebdige criticized the vagueness of the term, enumerating a long list of otherwise unrelated concepts that people have designated as postmodernism, from "the décor of a room" or "a 'scratch' video", to fear of nuclear armageddon and the "implosion of meaning", and stated that anything that could signify all of those things was "a buzzword".[112] The analytic philosopher Daniel Dennett criticized its impact on the humanities, characterizing it as producing "'conversations' in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster."[113]

Criticism of postmodernist movements in the arts include objections to departure from beauty, the reliance on language for the art to have meaning, a lack of coherence or comprehensibility, deviation from clear structure, and consistent use of dark and negative themes.[114][115]

See also[edit]

Culture and politics
  • Defamiliarization – Artistic technique of presenting common things in an unfamiliar or strange way
  • Second modernity – Industrial society transformed into a more reflexive network society or information society
Opposed by
  • Altermodern – term for art that reacts against standardisation and commercialism
  • Remodernism – Present-day modernist philosophical movement


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