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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 post-structuralism.[4]

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


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.[13][14] 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".[15]

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."[16] In 1926, Bernard Iddings Bell, president of St. Stephen's College (now Bard 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.[17][18] 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.[19][20][21]

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".[22]

In 1942, the literary critic and author H. R. Hays describes postmodernism as a new literary form.[23] 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.[24] Postmodernism in architecture was initially marked by a re-emergence of surface ornament, reference to surrounding buildings in urban settings, historical reference in decorative forms (eclecticism), and non-orthogonal angles.[25] Most scholars today agree postmodernism began to compete with modernism in the late 1950s, and gained ascendancy over it in the 1960s.[26]

In 1979, it was introduced as a philosophical term by Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.[27]


Postmodernism is an intellectual stance or mode of discourse[1][2] which challenges worldviews associated with Enlightenment rationality dating back to the 17th century.[4] Postmodernism is associated with relativism and a focus on the role of ideology in the maintenance of economic and political power.[4] Postmodernists are "skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person".[28] It considers "reality" to be a mental construct.[28] Postmodernism rejects the possibility of unmediated reality or objectively-rational knowledge, asserting that all interpretations are contingent on the perspective from which they are made;[5] claims to objective fact are dismissed as naive realism.[4]

Postmodern thinkers frequently describe knowledge claims and value systems as contingent or socially-conditioned, describing them as products of political, historical, or cultural discourses[29] and hierarchies.[4] Accordingly, postmodern thought is broadly characterized by tendencies to self-referentiality, epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, and irreverence.[4] Postmodernism is often associated with schools of thought such as deconstruction and post-structuralism.[4] Postmodernism relies on critical theory, which considers the effects of ideology, society, and history on culture.[30] Postmodernism and critical theory commonly criticize universalist ideas of objective reality, morality, truth, human nature, reason, language, and social progress.[4]

Initially, postmodernism was a mode of discourse on literature and literary criticism, commenting on the nature of literary text, meaning, author and reader, writing, and reading.[31] Postmodernism developed in the mid- to late-twentieth century across many scholarly disciplines as a departure or rejection of modernism.[32][9][10] As a critical practice, postmodernism employs concepts such as hyperreality, simulacrum, trace, and difference, and rejects abstract principles in favor of direct experience.[citation needed]



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

Modern architecture, as established and developed by Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, was focused on:

  • the attempted harmony of form and function;[33] and,
  • the dismissal of "frivolous ornament."[34][35][page needed]
  • the pursuit of a perceived ideal perfection;

They argued for architecture that represented the spirit of the age as depicted in cutting-edge technology, be it airplanes, cars, ocean liners, or even supposedly artless grain silos.[36] Modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is associated with the phrase "less is more".

Critics of Modernism have:

  • argued that the attributes of perfection and minimalism are themselves subjective;
  • pointed out anachronisms in modern thought; and,
  • questioned the benefits of its philosophy.[37][full citation needed]

The intellectual 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.[38] His magnum opus, however, is the book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, first published in 1977, and since running to seven editions.[39] Jencks makes the point that Post-Modernism (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."[40] 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.[41]

Graphic design[edit]

Early mention of postmodernism as an element of graphic design appeared in the British magazine, "Design".[42] 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."[43]


Jorge Luis Borges' (1939) short story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote", is often considered as predicting postmodernism[44] and is a paragon of the ultimate parody.[45] Samuel Beckett is also considered an important precursor and influence. Novelists who are commonly connected with postmodern literature include Vladimir Nabokov, William Gaddis, Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, Pier Vittorio Tondelli, John Hawkes, William S. Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth, Robert Coover, Jean Rhys, Donald Barthelme, E. L. Doctorow, Richard Kalich, Jerzy Kosiński, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon[46] (Pynchon's work has also been described as high modern[47]), Ishmael Reed, Kathy Acker, Ana Lydia Vega, Jáchym Topol and Paul Auster.

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.[48] 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)[49] follows Raymond Federman's lead in now using the past tense when discussing postmodernism.


American singer-songwriter Madonna

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."[50] 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.

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".[51]

In the late-20th century, avant-garde academics labelled American singer Madonna, as the "personification of the postmodern",[52] with Christian writer Graham Cray saying that "Madonna is perhaps the most visible example of what is called post-modernism",[53] and Martin Amis described her as "perhaps the most postmodern personage on the planet".[53] She was also suggested by literary critic Olivier Sécardin to epitomise postmodernism.[54]


In the 1970s, a disparate group of post-structuralists in France developed a critique of modern philosophy with roots discernible in Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, and Martin Heidegger.[55] Although few themselves relied upon the term, they became known to many as postmodern theorists.[56] 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.[55]

Structuralism and post-structuralism[edit]

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.[57]

Like structuralists, post-structuralists 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.[58] Structuralists explore how the subjects of their study might be described as a set of essential relationships, schematics, or mathematical symbols. Post-structuralism, by contrast, is characterized by new ways of thinking through structuralism, contrary to the original form.[59]


One of the most well-known postmodernist concerns is deconstruction, a theory for philosophy, literary criticism, and textual analysis developed by Jacques Derrida.[60] 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 nothing outside the 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.[61] 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.[62]

The Postmodern Condition[edit]

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

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...."[63] 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.[63]

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.[64] 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[65] 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.[66]

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.[67] 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.[68] Postmodernity of 'resistance' seeks to deconstruct modernism and is a critique of the origins without necessarily returning to them.[69] 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'.[70]

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.[71] 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.[71][72]


Since the late 1990s, there has been a growing sentiment in popular culture and in academia that postmodernism "has gone out of fashion".[73] Others argue that postmodernism is dead in the context of current cultural production.[74][75][76]


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:[77][78]

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.[79]

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.[80] 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.

Some criticism responds to postmodernist skepticism towards objective reality and claims that truth and morality are relative, including the argument that this relativism is self-contradictory. In part in reference to postmodernism, conservative English philosopher Roger Scruton wrote, "A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is 'merely relative,' is asking you not to believe him. So don't."[81] In 2014, the philosophers Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn wrote: "the statement that 'No unrestricted universal generalizations are true' is itself an unrestricted universal generalization. So if relativism in any of its forms is true, it's false."[82] Some responses to postmodernist relativism argue that, contrary to its proponents' usual intentions, it does not necessarily benefit the political left.[82][83] For example, the historian Richard J. Evans argued that if relativism rejects truth, it can legitimize far-right pseudohistory such as Holocaust denial.[83]

Further lines of criticism are that postmodernist discourse is characterized by obscurantism, that the term itself is vaguely defined, and that postmodernism lacks a clear epistemology. The linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky accused postmodernist intellectuals of failing to meaningfully answer questions such as "what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn't already obvious, etc.?"[84] 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".[85] 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."[86]

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.[87][88]

Criticism by postmodernists themselves[edit]

The French psychotherapist and philosopher, Félix Guattari, rejected its theoretical assumptions by arguing that the structuralist and postmodernist visions of the world were not flexible enough to seek explanations in psychological, social, and environmental domains at the same time.[89] In an interview with Truls Lie, Jean Baudrillard noted: "[Transmodernism, etc.] are better terms than "postmodernism". It is not about modernity; it is about every system that has developed its mode of expression to the extent that it surpasses itself and its own logic. This is what I am trying to analyze." "There is no longer any ontologically secret substance. I perceive this to be nihilism rather than postmodernism."[90]

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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