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Avant-garde / Modernism / Postmodernism
All I can try to do in less than half an hour today is to sketch in extremely rapid overview some of the theoretical positions underlying the terms avant-garde, modernism, and postmodernism, peppering them with some examples inevitably torn out of context and simplified to fit the framework of my argument. But I'll have achieved what I intended if I can encourage you to follow up through the bibliography some of these ideas.
The terms 'modernity' and 'modernism' are perplexing enough without the addition of the prefix 'post-'. Even the attempt to historicize modernity, to try and define its boundaries historically, is a paradoxical task because, in the words of Tony Pinkney (see bibliography), modernity's awareness of itself as modern announces [Q] "merely the empty flow of time itself" [U], and its self-periodization is offered only as a break with the "mythic or circular temporality" (or non-temporality) of the organic community. This is to say that modernity can only define itself in terms of a temporal break with an organic past, but it is a break that has always already occurred no matter which moment one chooses as its starting point. Needless to say, this understanding of the infinite expandability of the modern, and the infinite regress of its origins, itself remains caught up within modernism's internal ideology.
Some commentators attempt to align modernity with the rise of the bourgeoisie during the 19th Century, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and its embrace of rationalism and positivism. Such arguments then see modernity as the culmination of Enlightenment rationality, with its beliefs in science and progress. The argument is often loosely based on Theodor Adorno's and Max Horkheimer's foundational text, Dialectic of Enlightenment, which, written in 1944 towards the end of the Nazi terror, proclaims that [Q] "Enlightenment is totalitarian". Enlightenment rationality is seen as a mode of thought so bound up with knowledge as a form of mastery, that it is destined to reach its grizzly culmination in the rationalized and technologized slaughter of the Nazi concentration camps, as well as, with hindsight, in the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In many such accounts, the Messianic faith of modernity reaches its end in those techno-scientific slaughterhouses too, and the post-war world, dominated economically and culturally by the United States of America, emerges into its post-modern dawn.
Other, more economically grounded arguments, such as David Harvey's meticulously argued book, or Fredric Jameson's more sweeping account, lay less stress on thought or rationality, and more on ideology and the rise of industrial capitalism, with its unleashing of the mobilizing forces of "creative destruction", following Marx's view of capitalism as simultaneously a dissolving and a creative force. It is the phase of capitalist expansion during the 19th Century, with its radical restructuring of social relations, that distinguishes the modern epoch from everything that comes before. Capitalism, in the Marxist view, is seen as "a social system internalizing rules that ensure it will remain a permanently revolutionary and disruptive force in its own world history" (Harvey, p. 107), or to quote Marx and Engels directly:
Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier times. All fixed, fast-frozen relationships, with their train of venerable ideas and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become obsolete before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face with sober sense the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men. (The Communist Manifesto, cit. Harvey, pp. 99-100)
For Harvey, very crudely, capitalism has experienced, from the mid 19th Century onwards, repeated crises of overaccumulation, leading to a phenomenon he terms "time-space compression", after Marx's idea that capitalism is driven through the desire for faster and faster turnover to the "annihilation of space by time". This leads to fundamentally new and disorientating experiences of space and time and in turn to crises in spatial-temporal representation, issuing in strong æsthetic responses. One such period occurs from the 1870s to the 1930s, when capitalism finds a spatial fix to the crisis of overaccumulation in rapid Imperial expansion. Under this argument, the modernist city is, of necessity, the Imperialist city. The latest bout of time-space compression, for Harvey, is the transition, starting in the late 1960s, from Industrial Fordism -- Ford's famous rationalization of capitalist production via the assembly-line -- to a new capitalist regime of "flexible accumulation". It is this shift that marks the transition from modernity to postmodernity within the terms of this argument. The wholesale capitalist takeover of the sphere of culture and representation together with the æsthetic responses generated by this, are part and parcel of this attempt to outline the historical condition of postmodernity.
We have however jumped too far ahead of ourselves, and we need to go back and ask ourselves what continuities and discontinuities there might be between the terms modernism and modernity, let alone between postmodernism and postmodernity. Modernism may of course be considered as a cultural reaction to modernity, whether to the economic, social, or technological environment of high capitalism. If we accept this notion of cultural 'reaction' to a social environment, then we should expect modernism to be sometimes engaged with, and sometimes distanced from and critical of, the experience of modernity. It might try to engage, for example, with heightened experiences of speed and turnover within the urban environment, or it might withdraw from the shocks and jolts of an alienated and alienating social environment into an æsthetic world nostalgic for the lost myths governing an ordered and organic sense of community. Or it might partake of both of these impulses at the same time, becoming internally split, or schizophrenic.
This is more or less the thesis on modernism of Peter Bürger's now classic text, Theory of the Avant-Garde, which attempts to elaborate a theory of the cultural movements extending from the turn of the century until the Second World War. Bürger distinguishes quite sharply between modernism, and what he terms the historical avant-garde or, elsewhere, the revolutionary avant-garde. Modernism, what is even termed æsthetic modernism, is understood by Bürger as a self-protective gesture. Modernist texts -- of which The Waste Land is usually taken as a paradigm -- attempt to forestall their own consumption in the undifferentiated homogenization of either bourgeois utilitarianism, or, at a later stage, of mass-industrial capitalism. The modernist text draws its discourse protectively around itself, resisting its reduction to the status of a mere commodity, in an antagonistic relationship to modernity. While on the one hand it 'thickens its textures' to forestall logical reduction, on the other it is still governed by a desire to re-organize the shattered fragments of modernity into an organic, meaningful whole. Tony Pinkney puts it succinctly in his introduction to Raymond Williams' book The Politics of Modernism, claiming that the great prototypes of twentieth century urban modernism, The Waste Land and Ulysses, are internally split -- there is a dissociation in these works [Q] "between texture and structure, between heightened or even pathological subjectivity and the static absolutist myths which govern these texts" (p. 13).
The important point for Bürger, however, is that the schizoid modernist artefact is unable to recognize its own protective gestures as ideological, nor does it call into question its own institutional status as art: indeed, it can align itself with a highly reactionary politics by highlighting and reinforcing the self-defining institutional role of autonomous art in the face of the 'masses' or 'crowd'. For, under the terms of this argument, the supposed 'autonomy' of art within bourgeois society, as a privileged realm of free play, is in fact in the service of that selfsame bourgeois, capitalist system, providing it with a safety-valve, a neutralized, institutionalized space in which it is possible to believe that one is free.
The avant-garde, on the other hand, is precisely that which recognizes the unpolitical impulses of modernism for what they are and rejects the illusion of æsthetic autonomy within a self-reinforcing 'high' culture. The avant-garde tends to a much more productive acceptance of the energies of popular culture and even mass culture, and, in opposition to high culture as such, attempts to dissolve art into social life, to make its transformatory æsthetic projects into projects for the transformation of the whole of the social sphere, and not of a privileged minority. Walter Benjamin's famous essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' (1936), with its embracing of the politically demystifying possibilities inherent in the mass reproduction of artefacts, the way mass reproduction destroys the aura of distance and autonomy surrounding the work of art, is in clear contrast both to the modernist's lament at the cheapening of art and, as we shall see later, to the postmodern embrace of the mass-reproduced artefact as an emptied-out simulacrum.
Eliot's writings on art and tradition may be taken as emblematic of modernism's problematic relationship to high-cultural tradition. Erik Svarny in a book called The Men of 1914 (pp. 172-3) points out that in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' there is a curious semantic undecidability given to words like "conformity" and "order" in which the relationship of modern art to tradition slips insidiously between the construction of tradition as an infinitely rewritable text -- a co-hering and con-forming of past and present -- and the establishment of tradition as an authority from whose order the present gains its meaning in conformity. Eliot's poetical texts, too, hover between on the one hand a desperate heterogeneity of clashing discourses which comprise the 'unreal' City, fragmented quotations of tradition as a lost totality which can no longer give any coherent structure to the present, and on the other, the attempt to salvage some sense of 'order' by shoring up identity with these fragments of previous discourses, "these fragments I have shored against my ruins" and "shall I at least set my lands in order?" (The Waste Land, p. 79).
Eliot declared in 1923 that the "mythical method" of Joyce's Ulysses was [Q] "simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history [ . . . ] It is, I seriously believe, a step towards making the modern world possible for art". Eliot, a paradigm of modernism within this argument, whose Waste Land gives us an apocalyptic vision of a sexually (read racially) degenerate, tinned baked-bean-eating mass bourgeoisie, proposes ultimately to bring the modern world into line with the higher aims of art, whereas, it is argued, the artists and thinkers of the revolutionary avant-garde, from the surrealists to Walter Benjamin, are looking for an art form that would turn the forms of ruling culture, æsthetic or otherwise, against themselves.
Theories of modernism, which for Schulte-Sasse include much post-structuralist textual theory from Barthes to Derrida and Kristeva, privilege those modernist authors who foreground their signifying material, seeing in the distorting and disruptive effects of textuality -- the semiotic elements of language -- an inherently revolutionary process at work, one which disturbs and finally undoes all totalizing ideologies. Thus, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Lautréamont, Joyce, Céline, Robbe-Grillet and Celan are held up as paradigms of an inherently disruptive 'modern' writing, sometimes even of a 'feminine' writing, which, beyond or rather despite any political 'content' which their texts might contain, just is revolutionary. Politicized theories of the avant-garde, on the other hand, such as those of Walter Benjamin and Peter Bürger, where they pay attention to æsthetic principles tend instead to stress the techniques of fragmentation and montage. Montage and collage are terms which describe a non-hierarchical way of incorporating diverse fragments within the work of art without subsuming them to any totalizing æsthetic order, indeed disrupting any such notion (e.g. Cubism). The emphasis on fragments, or heterogeneous 'chips' of unarticulated experience, is seen as setting up a tension between the annihilated vision of the present as a debased fragment of lost totality and the transformatory, liberating power of remembrance which those fragments enclose, precisely because they liberate us from totality. This radical dialectical vision is perhaps best summed up in Walter Benjamin's description of Paul Klee's 'Angelus Novus', often termed the Angel of History:
[The Angel's] eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. ('Theses on the Philosophy of History', p. 249)
For Bürger, the avant-garde's heroic attempt to sublate art into life, to destroy the autonomous category of art and turn it into praxis, failed, possibly because the bourgeois culture industry was able to incorporate and neutralize even its most radical gestures. Terry Eagleton's essay on 'Capitalism, Modernism, and Postmodernism' interprets postmodernist culture precisely in terms of an emptied-out or hollow version of the revolutionary avant-garde's desire to erase the boundaries between culture and society, claiming that postmodernism [Q] "mimes the formal resolution of art and social life attempted by the avant-garde while remorselessly emptying it of its political content; Mayakovsky's poetry readings in the factory yard become Warhol's shoes and soup-cans" [U].
Eagleton's analysis is hostile to postmodernist culture on account of its ''depthless, styleless, dehistoricized, decathected surfaces'' (p. 132), but above all because it abolishes critical distance and expels political content in its conflation of itself with the form of the stereotype. It nevertheless provides an interesting characterization of the phenomenon which shows how it has developed from a peculiar combination of, on the one hand, æstheticist modernism, from which it inherits the fragmentary or schizoid self, self-reflexivity and fetishism, and on the other, the revolutionary avant-garde, from which it inherits the breakdown of the barriers between art and social life, the rejection of tradition, and pastiche quotation of commodified social relations (p. 146f). For Eagleton, as for a number of commentators, postmodernism does not in any way transcend the politico-æsthetic debates of modernism and the avant-garde, but is seen rather as a collapse into an endless miming of the earlier debates now emptied of any political content. Postmodernism is not a new departure, but is seen as a culture still caught within the very terms of high modernity.
Fredric Jameson, in his programme piece on 'Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism', claims that postmodernism is characterized not by parody, which has a critical ulterior motive, but by pastiche, which is a kind of neutral or ''blank parody'', the imitation of dead styles, pure 'simulacrum' or identical copy without source (pp. 16-18). By way of response, Eagleton argues that if postmodernism parodies anything, it is parodying, in the form of a sick joke, the serious attempts by the revolutionary avant-garde of the 1930s to dismantle the frontiers between art (as institution) and life (as social praxis). This, he suggests, represents an ultimate irony in that postmodernism achieves this crossover in a way which would have horrified the early practitioners: instead of either resisting commodification in the way that modernism did by withdrawing into self-reflexive, auto-telic isolation, or else passing over into revolutionary social praxis in the ways proposed by the avant-garde, the postmodern artefact sweeps away this opposition by 'discovering' that, since the whole social sphere has already been commodified and æstheticized, turned over to ceaseless mechanical reproduction in the compulsive repetition of the market place, it might as well give up all claims to separate status and simply 'copy the copy', become one more commodity/stereotype -- a 'simulacrum', copy of the copy for which there never was any 'original'. Whereas this miming of mime might in the 1930s have carried a revolutionary force, an explosive anti-mimetic, anti-representational power, it has now collapsed into mere tautology and compulsive repetition: [Q] "if art no longer reflects, it is not because it seeks to change the world rather than mimic it, but because there is in truth nothing there to be reflected, no reality which is not itself already image, spectacle, simulacrum, gratuitous fiction" (Eagleton, p. 133).
The various arguments over the political 'effectiveness' or otherwise of postmodern artefacts (by which is meant the possibilities they provide for intervention and socio-political change of the commodified relations of 'late capitalism') turn on whether or not any critical stance is maintained in this conflation of artefact and commodity/stereotype, of which Andy Warhol's reproduced images of Marilyn Monroe, fetishized women's shoes or brand-name soup cans have themselves become the stereotypical example, postmodernism's 'already made'. While Eagleton and Jameson argue that postmodernism is characterized precisely by its disinterest in politics, by its blank pastiche, and ultimately by its complicity with doxa and stereotype, Linda Hutcheon in her The Politics of Postmodernism suggests that postmodernism is characterized, rather, by a double-coding, being undecidably ''both complicitous with and contesting of the cultural dominants within which it operates'' (p. 142). One of Hutcheon's main arguments is that [Q] although ''the postmodern has no effective theory of agency that enables a move into political action, it does work to turn its inevitable ideological grounding into a site of de-naturalizing critique'' (p. 3), which is to say that it carries out a work of 'de-doxification' in contrast to Eagleton's view of it as entirely complicit with the doxa or stereotype. I would like to suggest that it is not enough to look for a critical 'intention' inhering in Warhol's soup cans, indeed ultimately it is futile to try to do so -- and I would add that taking these prints as the paradigmatic example of postmodernist æsthetics is itself highly problematic and tends to lead to a flattening out of the debate which some attention to postmodernist narrative might help to resolve. Instead it would be much more fruitful to focus on reception, to look to a strategy of 'reading' the social and cultural sphere which places the onus of the construction of 'meaning' on the viewer/spectator/reader as opposed to the artist/producer/author. Postmodernism may in fact be at its most effective as a strategy for interrogating the way we read socio-cultural codes and objects which surround us.
One of the problems surrounding the debate on postmodernism turns on its lack of a theory of agency. For Jean-François Lyotard, the postmodern condition can be defined in terms of what he calls the "death of metanarratives", of the "grands récits" of modernity from scientific rationalism, through psychoanalysis, to Marxism. The postmodern era no longer believes in grand narratives of human progress, or in the possibility of an all-encompassing rational standpoint from which it is possible to know the human mind, nor in any grand transformatory political project. The human subject has been colonized by a wholly libidinalized capitalist economy which keeps us in pursuit of the latest commodity. We are the sum of the stereotypes against which we measure our identity, and there is no human agent in control of his/her subjectivity.
In many ways this vision is in stark contrast to one of the most important political movements to have made a successful transition from its foundation at the heart of modernity to the postmodern era, namely feminism. Linda Hutcheon has argued that because feminism sets itself a very precise agenda for social and political change, it tends to maintain a certain critical distance from postmodernism. For example, feminism needs a theory of agency, and needs to be able to understand cultural dominants in terms of 'master' discourses, i.e., literally discourses of the 'Master' which can be contested and overturned, all of which, we are told, postmodernism no longer believes in. It is also likely that the political agendas of various feminisms [Q] ''would be endangered, or at least obscured by the double coding of postmodernism's complicitous critique'' (p. 152). Nevertheless, she argues that there has been an important interchange of techniques and purpose between feminism and postmodernism. Feminism has perhaps to some extent rewritten postmodernism's 'blank parody' (can we any longer refrain from applying a critical feminist reading to Warhol's prints of Marilyn Monroe?), and some feminist practitioners have taken on board postmodern play with stereotype, in ways that provoke a rethinking of our strategies of reading those stereotypes: [Q] ''By using postmodern parodic modes of installing and then subverting conventions, such as the maleness of the gaze, representation of woman can be 'de-doxified''' (p. 151).
Similar to the feminist critique and transformation of the political (non)content of postmodernist culture is that being undertaken by postcolonial critics. Kumkum Sangari, for example, in her essay 'The Politics of the Possible', on the epistemological framing of 'Third World' cultural products by Western postmodernism, argues that postmodern preoccupation with the crisis of meaning does not have universal validity outside of the specific historical conjuncture from which it emerges and which it is completely unable to acknowledge. The dismantling of the "unifying" intellectual traditions of the West [Q] "denies to all the truth of or the desire for totalizing narratives" (p. 243), and, what is worse, for non-Western or peripherically Western countries, postmodernism's denial of agency "preempts change by fragmenting the ground of praxis" (p. 240) at precise moments when such cultures may be engaging in an attempt to produce meaningful historical and/or national narratives (p. 242). Even radical Western theorists of postmodernity, she argues, fail to unpick this new "master narrative" which provides an unexamined frame through which all culture, Western or otherwise, is reduced to the non-dynamics of the Same. [Q] "From there it continues to nourish the self-defining critiques of the West, conducted in the interest of ongoing disruptions and reformulations of the self-ironizing bourgeois subject" (p. 243).
I want to finish this far too hasty birdseye view of the modernism/postmodernism debate with a quotation from Derek Gregory's Geographical Imaginations, itself something of a pastiche of various commentators' views, from Manuel Castells through David Harvey to Fredric Jameson, which underlines from a Marxist perspective the continuity, rather than the disjuncture, between the shrinking experience of space and speedup of time of the modern era, with its rapid global colonization, and an analagous but possibly even more intensified shrinkage of space which we are experiencing towards the end of the Second Christian Millennium:
the emergent forms of high modernity, perhaps even of postmodernity, depend upon tense and turbulent landscapes of accumulation whose dynamics are so volatile and whose space-economies are so disjointed that one can glimpse within the dazzling sequences of deterritorialization and reterritorialization a new and intensified fluidity to the politico-economic structures of capitalism; that the hyper-mobility of finance capital and information cascading through the circuits of this new world system, surging from one node to another in nanoseconds, is conjuring up unprecedented landscapes of power in which, as Castells put it, "space is dissolved into flows," "cities become shadows," and places are emptied of their local meanings; and that ever-extending areas of social life are being wired into a vast postmodern hyperspace, an electronic inscription of the cultural logic of late capitalism, whose putative abolition of distance renders us all but incapable of comprehending -- of mapping -- the decentred communication networks whose global webs enmesh our daily lives. (Gregory, pp. 97-98)
An arbitrary annotated bibliography
Berman, Marshall. All That is Solid Melts into Air. The Experience of Modernity. London: Verso, 1982. [A classic. The title cites Karl Marx's famous description of modernity in The Communist Manifesto.]
Brooker, Peter, ed. and intr. Modernism/Postmodernism. Longman Critical Readers. Harlow: Longman, 1992. [Contains a useful collection of modernist/avant-garde documents by Adorno, Brecht, Lukacs, Benjamin, as well as some fundamental postmodernist ones by Baudrillard, Lyotard, Jameson, etc.]
Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Trans. from the German by Michael Shaw. Theory and History of Literature #4. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984 (1974). [The classic account of the avant-garde project as an attempt to transform the "bourgeois institution of art", arguing that avant-garde art is characterized by an awareness of art's complicity, in its very "autonomy", with the bourgeois social order.]
Docherty, Thomas, ed. and intr. Postmodernism: A Reader. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993. [A very useful postmodernist reader with good introductions by Docherty.]
Eagleton, Terry. 'Capitalism, Modernism and Postmodernism'. Against the Grain: Essays 1975-1985. London: Verso, 1986. 131-47. [Polemic and lively response to Fredric Jameson's programme piece on postmodernism (below). It is highly critical of postmodernism's apolitical/complicitous impulses (as opposed to the historical avant-garde). Has a lot to say about avant-garde/modernism too.]
---. The Illusions of Postmodernism. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996. [A slightly belated attempt to convince us that we never really believed in the more extreme dictates of postmodern theory; useful in countering its worst excesses.]
---. Walter Benjamin, or, Towards a Revolutionary Criticism. London: Verso, 1981. [A brilliant reading of Walter Benjamin's work through the lens of post-structuralist theories, with the aim of shaking up the latter and producing a genuinely political criticism.]
Gregory, Derek. Geographical Imaginations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1994. [An excellent overview of trends in cultural theory from the perspective of cultural geography. Has a lot to say about modernity, postmodernity, post-colonial theory, etc. See in particular Chapter 3, 'City/commodity/culture: spatiality and the politics of representation', and Chapter 4, 'Uncovering postmodern geographies'.]
Haraway, Donna J. Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience. New York and London: Routledge, 1997. [A fascinating account of the interfaces between feminism, postmodernism, information technology, and (biomedical) technoscience, concentrating on the proliferating, haunting, hybrids (OncoMouse, FemaleMan) which are materialized from these encounters.]
Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990. [A highly influential Marxist cultural/economic account of the transition from modernity to postmodernity. Includes a reading of Blade Runner and Wings of Desire (Chapter 18).]
Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. New Accents. London: Routledge, 1989. [Good, if at times over-eclectic, introduction to the notion of postmodern narrative as "historiographic metaficiton" and to postmodernism's difficult relationship to left and feminist politics.]
Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture and Postmodernism. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1986. [A classic.]
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London and New York: Verso, 1991. [Rewritten versions of influential polemical essays that set the agenda for the political debate surrounding postmodernism, including the title piece originally published in what was a major running debate in New Left Review (1984).]
Pinkney, Tony. 'Modernism and Cultural Theory', editor's introduction to Raymond Williams, The Politics of Modernism (below). 1-29. [A very good, sophisticated, overview of the relationship between modernism, Williams' thought, and modern cultural theory.]
Poggioli, Renato. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Trans. Gerald Fitzgerald. Cambridge Mass.: 1968. [Still cited, but surpassed by Bürger.]
Sangari, Kumkum. 'The Politics of the Possible'. In Abdul R. JanMohamed and David Lloyd (eds.), The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse. Oxford and New York, 1990. 216-45. [An account of the problems involved in the application of postmodern categories to non- or peripherically-Western societies, comparing Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie.]
Schulte-Sasse, Jochen. 'Theory of Modernism versus Theory of the Avant-Garde'. Introduction to Bürger (above). vii-xlvii. [A very useful overview of Bürger's theory, and its limitations, in relation to modernist/post-structuralist theories.]
Williams, Raymond. The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists. Ed. and Introduced by Tony Pinkney. London: Verso, 1989. [A posthumously published collection of Williams' later writings on modernism. See also Pinkney (above).]
Dr. Mary Klages, Associate Professor, English Department, University of Colorado, Boulder
Postmodernism is a complicated term, or set of ideas, one that has only emerged as an area of academic study since the mid-1980s. Postmodernism is hard to define, because it is a concept that appears in a wide variety of disciplines or areas of study, including art, architecture, music, film, literature, sociology, communications, fashion, and technology. It's hard to locate it temporally or historically, because it's not clear exactly when postmodernism begins.
Perhaps the easiest way to start thinking about postmodernism is by thinking about modernism, the movement from which postmodernism seems to grow or emerge. Modernism has two facets, or two modes of definition, both of which are relevant to understanding postmodernism.
The first facet or definition of modernism comes from the aesthetic movement broadly labeled "modernism." This movement is roughly coterminous with twentieth century Western ideas about art (though traces of it in emergent forms can be found in the nineteenth century as well). Modernism, as you probably know, is the movement in visual arts, music, literature, and drama which rejected the old Victorian standards of how art should be made, consumed, and what it should mean. In the period of "high modernism," from around 1910 to 1930, the major figures of modernism literature helped radically to redefine what poetry and fiction could be and do: figures like Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Proust, Mallarme, Kafka, and Rilke are considered the founders of twentieth-century modernism.
From a literary perspective, the main characteristics of modernism include:
1. an emphasis on impressionism and subjectivity in writing (and in visual arts as well); an emphasis on HOW seeing (or reading or perception itself) takes place, rather than on WHAT is perceived. An example of this would be stream-of-consciousness writing.
2. a movement away from the apparent objectivity provided by omniscient third-person narrators, fixed narrative points of view, and clear-cut moral positions. Faulkner's multiply-narrated stories are an example of this aspect of modernism.
3. a blurring of distinctions between genres, so that poetry seems more documentary (as in T.S. Eliot or ee cummings) and prose seems more poetic (as in Woolf or Joyce).
4. an emphasis on fragmented forms, discontinuous narratives, and random-seeming collages of different materials.
5. a tendency toward reflexivity, or self-consciousness, about the production of the work of art, so that each piece calls attention to its own status as a production, as something constructed and consumed in particular ways.
6. a rejection of elaborate formal aesthetics in favor of minimalist designs (as in the poetry of William Carlos Williams) and a rejection, in large part, of formal aesthetic theories, in favor of spontaneity and discovery in creation.
7. A rejection of the distinction between "high" and "low" or popular culture, both in choice of materials used to produce art and in methods of displaying, distributing, and consuming art.
Postmodernism, like modernism, follows most of these same ideas, rejecting boundaries between high and low forms of art, rejecting rigid genre distinctions, emphasizing pastiche, parody, bricolage, irony, and playfulness. Postmodern art (and thought) favors reflexivity and self-consciousness, fragmentation and discontinuity (especially in narrative structures), ambiguity, simultaneity, and an emphasis on the destructured, decentered, dehumanized subject.
But--while postmodernism seems very much like modernism in these ways, it differs from modernism in its attitude toward a lot of these trends. Modernism, for example, tends to present a fragmented view of human subjectivity and history (think of The Wasteland, for instance, or of Woolf's To the Lighthouse), but presents that fragmentation as something tragic, something to be lamented and mourned as a loss. Many modernist works try to uphold the idea that works of art can provide the unity, coherence, and meaning which has been lost in most of modern life; art will do what other human institutions fail to do. Postmodernism, in contrast, doesn't lament the idea of fragmentation,provisionality, or incoherence, but rather celebrates that. The world is meaningless? Let's not pretend that art can make meaning then, let's just play with nonsense.
Another way of looking at the relation between modernism and postmodernism helps to clarify some of these distinctions. According to Frederic Jameson, modernism and postmodernism are cultural formations which accompany particular stages of capitalism. Jameson outlines three primary phases of capitalism which dictate particular cultural practices (including what kind of art and literature is produced). The first is market capitalism, which occurred in the eighteenth through the late nineteenth centuries in Western Europe, England, and the United States (and all their spheres of influence). This first phase is associated with particular technological developments, namely, the steam-driven motor, and with a particular kind of aesthetics, namely, realism. The second phase occurred from the late nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century (about WWII); this phase, monopoly capitalism, is associated with electric and internal combustion motors, and with modernism. The third, the phase we're in now, is multinational or consumer capitalism (with the emphasis placed on marketing, selling, and consuming commodities, not on producing them), associated with nuclear and electronic technologies, and correlated with postmodernism.
Like Jameson's characterization of postmodernism in terms of modes of production and technologies, the second facet, or definition, of postmodernism comes more from history and sociology than from literature or art history. This approach defines postmodernism as the name of an entire social formation, or set of social/historical attitudes; more precisely,this approach contrasts "postmodernity" with "modernity," rather than "postmodernism" with "modernism."
What's the difference? "Modernism" generally refers to the broad aesthetic movements of the twentieth century; "modernity" refers to a set of philosophical, political, and ethical ideas which provide the basis for the aesthetic aspect of modernism. "Modernity" is older than "modernism;" the label "modern," first articulated in nineteenth-century sociology, was meant to distinguish the present era from the previous one, which was labeled "antiquity." Scholars are always debating when exactly the "modern" period began, and how to distinguish between what is modern and what is not modern; it seems like the modern period starts earlier and earlier every time historians look at it. But generally, the "modern" era is associated with the European Enlightenment, which begins roughly in the middle of the eighteenth century. (Other historians trace elements of enlightenment thought back to the Renaissance or earlier, and one could argue that Enlightenment thinking begins with the eighteenth century. I usually date "modern" from 1750, if only because I got my Ph.D. from a program at Stanford called "Modern Thought and Literature," and that program focused on works written after 1750).
The basic ideas of the Enlightenment are roughly the same as the basic ideas of humanism. Jane Flax's article gives a good summary of these ideas or premises (on p. 41). I'll add a few things to her list.
1. There is a stable, coherent, knowable self. This self is conscious, rational, autonomous, and universal--no physical conditions or differences substantially affect how this self operates.
2. This self knows itself and the world through reason, or rationality, posited as the highest form of mental functioning, and the only objective form.
3. The mode of knowing produced by the objective rational self is "science," which can provide universal truths about the world, regardless of the individual status of the knower.
4. The knowledge produced by science is "truth," and is eternal.
5. The knowledge/truth produced by science (by the rational objective knowing self) will always lead toward progress and perfection. All human institutions and practices can be analyzed by science (reason/objectivity) and improved.
6. Reason is the ultimate judge of what is true, and therefore of what is right, and what is good (what is legal and what is ethical). Freedom consists of obedience to the laws that conform to the knowledge discovered by reason.
7. In a world governed by reason, the true will always be the same as the good and the right (and the beautiful); there can be no conflict between what is true and what is right (etc.).
8. Science thus stands as the paradigm for any and all socially useful forms of knowledge. Science is neutral and objective; scientists, those who produce scientific knowledge through their unbiased rational capacities, must be free to follow the laws of reason, and not be motivated by other concerns (such as money or power).
9. Language, or the mode of expression used in producing and disseminating knowledge, must be rational also. To be rational, language must be transparent; it must function only to represent the real/perceivable world which the rational mind observes. There must be a firm and objective connection between the objects of perception and the words used to name them (between signifier and signified).
These are some of the fundamental premises of humanism, or of modernism. They serve--as you can probably tell--to justify and explain virtually all of our social structures and institutions, including democracy, law, science, ethics, and aesthetics.
Modernity is fundamentally about order: about rationality and rationalization, creating order out of chaos. The assumption is that creating more rationality is conducive to creating more order, and that the more ordered a society is, the better it will function (the more rationally it will function). Because modernity is about the pursuit of ever-increasing levels of order, modern societies constantly are on guard against anything and everything labeled as "disorder," which might disrupt order. Thus modern societies rely on continually establishing a binary opposition between "order" and "disorder," so that they can assert the superiority of "order." But to do this, they have to have things that represent "disorder"--modern societies thus continually have to create/construct "disorder." In western culture, this disorder becomes "the other"--defined in relation to other binary oppositions. Thus anything non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-hygienic, non-rational, (etc.) becomes part of "disorder," and has to be eliminated from the ordered, rational modern society.
The ways that modern societies go about creating categories labeled as "order" or "disorder" have to do with the effort to achieve stability. Francois Lyotard (the theorist whose works Sarup describes in his article on postmodernism) equates that stability with the idea of "totality," or a totalized system (think here of Derrida's idea of "totality" as the wholeness or completeness of a system). Totality, and stability, and order, Lyotard argues, are maintained in modern societies through the means of "grand narratives" or "master narratives," which are stories a culture tells itself about its practices and beliefs. A "grand narrative" in American culture might be the story that democracy is the most enlightened (rational) form of government, and that democracy can and will lead to universal human happiness. Every belief system or ideology has its grand narratives, according to Lyotard; for Marxism, for instance, the "grand narrative" is the idea that capitalism will collapse in on itself and a utopian socialist world will evolve. You might think of grand narratives as a kind of meta-theory, or meta-ideology, that is, an ideology that explains an ideology (as with Marxism); a story that is told to explain the belief systems that exist.
Lyotard argues that all aspects of modern societies, including science as the primary form of knowledge, depend on these grand narratives. Postmodernism then is the critique of grand narratives, the awareness that such narratives serve to mask the contradictions and instabilities that are inherent in any social organization or practice. In other words, every attempt to create "order" always demands the creation of an equal amount of "disorder," but a "grand narrative" masks the constructedness of these categories by explaining that "disorder" REALLY IS chaotic and bad, and that "order" REALLY IS rational and good. Postmodernism, in rejecting grand narratives, favors "mini-narratives," stories that explain small practices, local events, rather than large-scale universal or global concepts. Postmodern "mini-narratives" are always situational, provisional, contingent, and temporary, making no claim to universality, truth, reason, or stability.
Another aspect of Enlightenment thought--the final of my 9 points--is the idea that language is transparent, that words serve only as representations of thoughts or things, and don't have any function beyond that. Modern societies depend on the idea that signifiers always point to signifieds, and that reality resides in signifieds. In postmodernism, however, there are only signifiers. The idea of any stable or permanent reality disappears, and with it the idea of signifieds that signifiers point to. Rather, for postmodern societies, there are only surfaces, without depth; only signifiers, with no signifieds.
Another way of saying this, according to Jean Baudrillard, is that in postmodern society there are no originals, only copies--or what he calls "simulacra." You might think, for example, about painting or sculpture, where there is an original work (by Van Gogh, for instance), and there might also be thousands of copies, but the original is the one with the highest value (particularly monetary value). Contrast that with cds or music recordings, where there is no "original," as in painting--no recording that is hung on a wall, or kept in a vault; rather, there are only copies, by the millions, that are all the same, and all sold for (approximately) the same amount of money. Another version of Baudrillard's "simulacrum" would be the concept of virtual reality, a reality created by simulation, for which there is no original. This is particularly evident in computer games/simulations--think of Sim City, Sim Ant, etc.
Finally, postmodernism is concerned with questions of the organization of knowledge. In modern societies, knowledge was equated with science, and was contrasted to narrative; science was good knowledge, and narrative was bad, primitive, irrational (and thus associated with women, children, primitives, and insane people). Knowledge, however, was good for its own sake; one gained knowledge, via education, in order to be knowledgeable in general, to become an educated person. This is the ideal of the liberal arts education. In a postmodern society, however, knowledge becomes functional--you learn things, not to know them, but to use that knowledge. As Sarup points out (p. 138), educational policy today puts emphasis on skills and training, rather than on a vague humanist ideal of education in general. This is particularly acute for English majors. "What will you DO with your degree?"
Not only is knowledge in postmodern societies characterized by its utility, but knowledge is also distributed, stored, and arranged differently in postmodern societies than in modern ones. Specifically, the advent of electronic computer technologies has revolutionized the modes of knowledge production, distribution, and consumption in our society (indeed, some might argue that postmodernism is best described by, and correlated with, the emergence of computer technology, starting in the 1960s, as the dominant force in all aspects of social life). In postmodern societies, anything which is not able to be translated into a form recognizable and storable by a computer--i.e. anything that's not digitizable--will cease to be knowledge. In this paradigm, the opposite of "knowledge" is not "ignorance," as it is the modern/humanist paradigm, but rather "noise." Anything that doesn't qualify as a kind of knowledge is "noise," is something that is not recognizable as anything within this system.
Lyotard says (and this is what Sarup spends a lot of time explaining) that the important question for postmodern societies is who decides what knowledge is (and what "noise" is), and who knows what needs to be decided. Such decisions about knowledge don't involve the old modern/humanist qualifications: for example, to assess knowledge as truth (its technical quality), or as goodness or justice (its ethical quality) or as beauty (its aesthetic quality). Rather, Lyotard argues, knowledge follows the paradigm of a language game, as laid out by Wittgenstein. I won't go into the details of Wittgenstein's ideas of language games; Sarup gives a pretty good explanation of this concept in his article, for those who are interested.
There are lots of questions to be asked about postmodernism, and one of the most important is about the politics involved--or, more simply, is this movement toward fragmentation, provisionality, performance, and instability something good or something bad?......
.....This association between the rejection of postmodernism and conservatism or fundamentalism may explain in part why the postmodern avowal of fragmentation and multiplicity tends to attract liberals and radicals. This is why, in part, feminist theorists have found postmodernism so attractive, as Sarup, Flax, and Butler all point out.
On another level, however, postmodernism seems to offer some alternatives to joining the global culture of consumption, where commodities and forms of knowledge are offered by forces far beyond any individual's control. These alternatives focus on thinking of any and all action (or social struggle) as necessarily local, limited, and partial--but nonetheless effective. By discarding "grand narratives" (like the liberation of the entire working class) and focusing on specific local goals (such as improved day care centers for working mothers in your own community), postmodernist politics offers a way to theorize local situations as fluid and unpredictable, though influenced by global trends. Hence the motto for postmodern politics might well be "think globally, act locally"--and don't worry about any grand scheme or master plan.
All materials on this site are written by, and remain the propery of, Dr. Mary Klages, Associate Professor, English Department, University of Colorado, Boulder. You are welcome to quote from this essay, or to link this page to your own site, with proper attribution. For more information, see Citing Electronic Sources.
The Flax article referred to is Jane Flax, "Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist Theory," in Linda J. Nicholson, ed., Feminism/Postmodernism, Routledge, 1990.
The Sarup article referred to is Chapter 6, "Lyotard and Postmodernism," in Madan Sarup's An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism, University of Georgia Press, 1993.