Images: Barbara Kruger


"The Postmodern"

Approaches to Po-Mo

Martin Irvine
Communication, Culture & Technology Program
Georgetown University

[Version 9.9.13]

Postmodernity vs.
the Postmodern vs.

Approaching the Main Questions

Postmodernism/Postmodernity is associated with an awareness of societal and cultural transitions after World War II and the rise of mass-mediated consumerist popular culture in the 1960s-1970s. In culture and the arts, interpreters of this era describe the kinds of cultural hybrids that emerge from mixing (or rendering inoperative) the categories of "high" and "low" cultures, and hybrids in cultural forms that have developed in regions where local identities seek definition against, or in dialog with, Western "hegemonic" cultures (the mixing of "official" cultures and those defined as "other" in modernist ideologies). Postmodern views of history and national identity typically cancel a commitment to modern "master narratives" or "metanarratives" like progress and goal-directed history, and disrupt myths of national and ethnic identities as "natural" foundations of "unity."

Complicating the study of "postmodernism" is the wide range of terms and assumptions in statements and arguments from different schools of thought and movements in the arts. In all the discourse, we need to differentiate the terms and concepts of the postmodern (as a condition of a historical era) or postmodernity (as simply what we are in whether we know it or not), and postmodernism (reflected in movements with varying levels of intention and self-awareness),

When interpreters of culture discuss postmodern strategies or features in architecture, literature, philosophy, and the arts, this usually includes uses of irony, parody, sampling, mixing "high" and "low" (popular) cultural sources, horizontal vs. vertical analysis, and mixing historical and cultural sources and styles. The view that cultural hierarchies (high/low; official/local; dominant culture/subcultures) are unstable and constructed and that history is not a source of authority underlies the creation of many forms of pastiche (combinations from unrelated sources), collage, parody, and nostalgic stylization where earlier, historically situated styles are abstracted and imitated as stylization.

Some scholars see the macro context of "the postmodern condition" within functions of globalization and the information/network society. The global economic system since the 1960s has moved toward the international merging of cultures and the global marketing of cultural goods.

Many see the features of postmodernism that are associated with the self-reflexive critique of society, culture, politics, and economics as already part of modernism, and thus an extension of "modernism." But whatever the phase of "modernity" we accept now includes abandoning the hope or belief in the necessary progressive movement of history toward a goal, an end, a fulfillment.

The post-postmodern viewpoint (wherever we are today after having absorbed the issues in postmodernism) seems to be taking the "postmodern condition" (postmodernity) as a given and creating new remixed works disassociated from the modern-postmodern arguments and oppositions. The post-postmodern takes the "always already" mixed condition of sources, identities, and new works as a given, not a question or problem. The metaphors of "network" and "convergence" in creative subcultures (e.g., musicians, artists, designers, writers) are seen to be live operations or conditions received and re-performed, not just abstractions. From this more recent perspective, living in remixed hybridity is thus obligatory, not a choice, since it is the foundation for participating in a living, networked, globally connected culture.

We could also argue that the terms in the discourses about the postmodern are no longer be useful, or need to be redefined to be useful for today. Either way, the point is thinking through the problems and seeing if there are terms that do useful cultural work for us.

Primary Problem:
Constructing Trajectories of History and Culture

Talking about "the postmodern" or "postmodernism" presupposes there is/was something known as "modernism" from which, or against which, something can be "post".

For philosophers, historians, artists, and theorists who have developed arguments about these historical moments or movements, "Modernism/ Modernity" and "Postmodernism" are all caught up in a web of discourses with assumptions and ideologies that need a self-reflexive critique.

Much of the debate presupposes the possibility of a critique of history, conceptualized as having a trajectory, goal, end (telos > teleology), which was, or was not, fulfilled in the modernist philosophies, hopes, and aspirations of the 1930s-1950s.

And since around 2000, a new debate on the "post-postmodern" has opened up. There is a shared sense in many areas of cultural practice and university research that many of the issues in postmodernism are over or assumed, and the we are now in a different global moment, however that it to define.

What was Modernism?

As we know, each discourse concerned with history constructs its own historical objects. Postmodern theory constructs an image of modernism. Was there ever a pre-postmodern consensus about history, identity, core cultural values?


the idea of the postmodern or postmodernity as an historical condition or position (political/ economic/ social), an era we're still supposedly in regardless of anyone's state of awareness.

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

Jean-François Lyotard:
"Simplifying to the extreme, I define the postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives."
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 but contingent and constructed (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:
Postmodernity 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. The grand linear narrative of art history and Western cultural history is exposed as ideological and constructed for class interests.

The Postmodern and Globalization

From Homi Bhabha, "The Location of Culture"

If the jargon of our times - postmodernity, postcoloniality, postfeminism - has any meaning at all, it does not lie in the popular use of the 'post' to indicate sequentiality - after-feminism; or polarity - anti-modernism. These terms that insistently gesture to the beyond, only embody its restless and revisionary energy if they transform the present into an expanded and ex-centric site of experience and empowerment.
The wider significance of the postmodern condition lies in the awareness that the epistemological 'limits' of those ethnocentric ideas are also the enunciative boundaries of a range of other dissonant, even dissident histories and voices - women, the colonized, minority groups, the bearers of policed sexualities.
The very concepts of homogenous national cultures, the consensual or contiguous transmission of historical traditions, or 'organic' ethnic communities - as the grounds of cultural comparativism - are in a profound process of redefinition.

Ways of working with the term postmodern Uses of the term "postmodern"

after modernism
subsumes, assumes, extends the modern or tendencies already present in modernism, not necessarily in strict chronological succession, or working out questions and problems implicit in modernism without a break from core assumptions

contra modernism
subverting, resisting, opposing, or countering features of modernism

equivalent to "late capitalism"
culture dominated by post-industrial, consumerist, multi- and trans-national capitalism, beginnings of globalization

the historical era following the modern
an historical time-period marker, recognizing cultural, ideological, and economic shifts without a new trajectory (triumphalism) or privileging of values

artistic and stylistic eclecticism (aesthetic postmodernism)
hybridization of forms and genres, combining "high" and "low" cultural forms and sources, mixing styles of different cultures or time periods, dehistoricizing and re-contextualizing styles in architecture, visual arts, literature, film, photography

"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

Crises in the Representation of History

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?

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

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.

Critique: note the image of the past and origins presupposed in the view of history and the postmodern, the sense of Hegelian trajectories with no possible future in view to be argued for.

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.
Progress accepted as driving force behind history.

Suspicion and rejection of Master Narratives for history and culture; local narratives, ironic deconstruction of master narratives: counter-myths of origin.
"Progress" seen as a failed Master Narrative.
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.
Paradigms: The Library and The Encyclopedia.
Navigation through information overload, information management; fragmented, partial knowledge; just-in-time knowledge. 
Paradigms: 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: Internet file sharing, the Web and Web 2.0.
Centering/centeredness, centralized knowledge and authority. 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 and Berlin. 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.


The literature in all fields on the questions of modernism/modernity, postmodernism/postmodernity, and the more recent questions about the post-postmodern is vast. The following works (spanning philosophy, art theory, architecture, and cultural theory) have played a major role in defining the discourse and arguments of this field of study, or are useful syntheses for orientation and overviews.

  • Anderson, Perry. The Origins of Postmodernity. London, UK: Verso, 1998.
  • Aylesworth, Gary. “Postmodernism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, n.d.
  • Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.
  • Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Edited by Michael W. Jennings and et al. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
  • ———. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, 217-252. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. [Older version in English.]
  • Bertens, Hans. The Idea of the Postmodern: A History. 1st ed. New York, NY and London, UK: Routledge, 1995.
  • Best, Steven, and Douglas Kellner. Postmodern Theory. 1st ed. New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 1991.
    ———. The Postmodern Turn. New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 1997.
  • Bourriaud, Nicolas. Altermodern: Tate Triennial. London; New York: Tate Publications and Harry Abrams, 2009.
  • ———. Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World. 2nd ed. New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2005.
  • Buskirk, Martha. The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.
  • Crimp, Douglas. On the Museum’s Ruins. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993.
  • Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.
  • Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Corrected ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
  • Drolet, Michael, ed. The Postmodernism Reader: Foundational Texts. New York, NY and London, UK: Routledge, 2003.
  • Foster, Hal. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. New York: New Press, 2002.
  • Foster, Hal, Rosalind Krauss, Yves-Alain Bois, and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh. Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004.
  • Foucault, Michel. Language, Counter Memory, Practice. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980.
  • ———. The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language. New York,  NY: Pantheon, 1982.
  • ———. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. Vintage, 1990.
  • Habermas, Juergen. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures. Translated by Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1987.
  • Haraway, Donna J. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. 1st ed. Routledge, 1990.
  • Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York, NY and London, UK: Routledge, 1988.
  • ———. Politics of Postmodernism. 2nd ed. New York, NY and London, UK: Routledge, 2002.
  • Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987.
  • Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991.
  • ———. The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998. London, UK; New York, NY: Verso, 1998.
  • Jencks, Charles. Language of Post-Modern Architecture. 5th ed. New York, NY: Rizzoli, 1988.
  • Letham, Jonathan. “The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism.” Harper’s Magazine, 2007.
  • Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
  • McCaffery, Larry. Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk & Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 1991.
  • Natoli, Joseph P. A Postmodern Reader. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993.
  • Pieterse, Jan Nederveen. Globalization and Culture: Global Mélange. Second Edition. Lanham, MD; Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.
  • Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. 2nd ed. Princeton  N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980.
  •  ———. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • Sandler, Irving. Art Of The Postmodern Era: From The Late 1960s To The Early 1990s. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1996.
  • Smith, Terry, Okwui Enwezor, and Nancy Condee, eds. Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.
  • Venturi, Robert, Steven Izenour, and Denise Scott Brown. Learning from Las Vegas - Revised Edition: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. Revised. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1977.