©2021, by M. Keith Booker
The term “postmodernism” has become a central part of the jargon of literary and cultural criticism, though understandings of the phenomenon of postmodernism have varied widely among professional scholars and critics. The term has also gained wide currency in more popular discourse, as when the cable channel MTV ran a late-night program in the late 1980s and early 1990s called PostModern MTV that featured music videos by “alternative” artists such as The Cure and Depeche Mode. But exactly what was meant by “postmodern” in this MTV series was never quite clear, other than the fact that it seemed to indicate something outside the pop music mainstream.
Academic critics have also had considerable disagreement about the nature of postmodernism, largely because the phenomenon is still evolving, giving us little historical distance from which to view it. It is also the case that most observers have read postmodernism against modernism, but our understanding of modernism is still evolving as well. Thus, the Egyptian American critic Ihab Hassan, one of the first important critics to call attention to postmodernism as a literary phenomenon in the 1960s, cast modernism in a conservative, authoritarian light as opposed to the subversive energies he associated with the new postmodernist literature. When Hassan attempts to characterize postmodernism in his landmark essay “POSTmodernISM,” he does so largely by seeing postmodernism as an extension of modernism, but with more democratic and revolutionary energies—in keeping with the 1960s context in which Hassan was working at the time. For Hassan, both modernism and postmodernism are informed by the following characteristics:
(2) technologism (including reactions to technology like Bergsonian time and dissociation of sensibility)
(3) dehumanization (essentially an end to the old realism, affecting the sense of the self—style takes over: let life and the masses fend for themselves)
(4) primitivism (use of archetypes and the return of Dionysus)
(6) antinomianism (iconoclasm, schism, excess, movement toward apocalypse)
In this essay, Hassan’s principal interest is in postmodernism, but he still discusses it in terms of these “rubrics” developed from modernism, concluding that a central difference between the two movements has to do with the questions of order and authority:
whereas Modernism created its own forms of Authority, precisely because the center no longer held, Postmodernism has tended toward Anarchy, in deeper complicity with things falling apart . . . the Authority of Modernism . . . rests on intense, elitist, self-generated orders in times of crisis, of which the Hemingway Code is perhaps the starkest exemplar, and Eliot’s Tradition or Yeats’ Mythology is a more devious kind. (29)
Subsequent critics of postmodernism have often moved in this same direction, pointing out the elitism of modernism and criticizing its lack of engagement with historical reality. Andreas Huyssen, for example, has criticized modernism as an elitist form designed to preserve a distinction between high and low art that is essentially class-based. For him, postmodernist literature bridges that gap, refusing to privilege what has traditionally been regarded as high culture over the more popular forms that have arisen in the twentieth century. On the other hand, according to Fredric Jameson, America’s most important Marxist critic at the end of the twentieth century and the most important theorist of postmodernism, such criticisms of modernism fail to place the movement in its proper historical perspective. For Jameson, it is not modernism, but postmodernism that is the ultimate artistic reflection of bourgeois ideology. Postmodernism is the kind of art that arises when the historical process of capitalist modernization is essentially complete; modernism, on the other hand, appears at a time when this process is still underway. Modernism, for Jameson, continues to reflect vestiges of older forms of social organization, deriving energy from “the coexistence of realities from radically different moments of history” (Postmodernism 307). The sense of the new in modernism is so intense because the old still exists to provide contrasts; in the age of postmodernism, everything is new, so that, in a sense, nothing is, the very category of the new having lost any real meaning. Modernism, according to Jameson, is driven by the “myth of producing a radically new Utopian space capable of transforming the world itself (Postmodernism 104), while postmodernism simply accepts the world as it is and contains virtually no utopian energies whatsoever. Moreover, Jameson argues that the various forms of modernism, however variable, share an unmitigated hostility toward the capitalist market, while the various forms of postmodernism, which can be equally variable, share an affirmation of that market (Postmodernism 304–05). Even modernism’s notorious subjectivism, for Jameson, has a strong utopian component, suggesting the possibility of an impending transformation of the self from the older bourgeois model. Postmodernism, in short, announces the ultimate triumph of capitalist modernization, while modernism functions as a last-ditch attempt at resistance against the growing hegemony of capitalism and of bourgeois ideology, driven by the belief that there are alternatives, thanks to the surviving energies of the Second International (Postmodernism 313).
Many accounts of modern literary history are built upon a narrative of movement from the dominance of realism in the nineteenth century, through the challenges to realism offered by modernism, to the eventual emergence of postmodernism. However, as Jameson’s discussions of literary history emphasize, modernism differs from both realism and postmodernism because it was never a dominant form during its initial run; it was instead a marginal form opposed to a still dominant realism. From this point of view, postmodernism can be seen as what modernism is when it becomes dominant, losing its oppositional energies and becoming thoroughly conscripted as what Jameson calls “the logic of late capitalism.”
One thing that is clear is that many observers, in the 1960s and 1970s, noted that a new form of cultural production seemed to be emerging. Many also noted that the formal characteristics of this new cultural form—its self-conscious experimentalism, its violations of the conventions of realism—resembled those of modernism. Thus, this new phenomenon came to be called “postmodernism,” indicating both its similarities to modernism and the fact that it seemed aware of its belatedness—as opposed to the modernist sense of seeking to do something new. In any case, postmodernism occurred under very different historical circumstances than did modernism and seemed to take a different—less serious, more playful—attitude toward its own project.
Actually, the phenomenon of postmodernism in its contemporary sense was first noticed (and named) in the 1950s in relation to architecture, where the turn to a new style of production was immediately obvious. Modernist architecture—the so-called “international style”—was marked by simplicity and practicality, by the kinds of stark, rectangular forms to be found in the conventional skyscrapers that sprang up around the world in the early and middle part of the twentieth century and in phenomena such as the “Bauhaus” architecture in Germany and the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) in America. However, while Wright’s designs employed many of the efficient, economical aspects of modernist architecture, his insistence on developing designs that were in harmony with the natural environment and with the natural inclinations of human beings acknowledged some of the dehumanizing limitations of modernist architecture. These limitations, by the 1950s, led to the development of new forms of architecture that were less rigidly functional and more ornamental, combining aspects of different architectural styles from different historical periods.
This new, self-consciously eclectic form of architecture came to be recognized as a genuine departure, especially as theorized by architect Robert Venturi, who countered the telling dictum of the important modernist architect Mies van der Rohe (1866–1969) that “less is more” with his own declaration that “less is a bore.” Venturi’s principal theorization of this new form of architecture is contained in his influential 1972 book (co-authored with his wife Denise Scott Brown and with Steven Izenour) Leaving Las Vegas.
Venturi and his associates correctly surmised that something was happening here in contemporary architecture though what it was wasn’t exactly clear. It was Charles Jencks, with Language of Post-modern Architecture (1977) who for the first time clearly articulated these new developments within the context of what he called postmodernism. Though Jencks was at first hesitant to apply the term “postmodernism” in a positive sense (preferring terms such as “radical eclecticism”), he soon adopted postmodernism as a positive designation, revising his book a year later to include a vision of the postmodern as a new kind of “double-coding,” in which architecture could employ both modern and historical aspects in a single structure.
Meanwhile, by the time the work of architects such as Venturi and Jencks was published, other observers were beginning to detect similar developments outside of architecture. The recognition of postmodernism as a new literary phenomenon was spearheaded by the Egyptian-born American critic Ihab Hassan (1925–2015), who, in a series of critical works, attempted to describe the new phenomenon. Clearly influenced by the carnivalesque, anti-authoritarian energies of the oppositional political movements of the 1960s, Hassan saw postmodernism as a radical, subversive tendency through which literature could challenge both the cultural and the political status quo. As noted above, he saw modernism and postmodernism as employing many of the same aesthetic strategies, but for vastly different purposes, with postmodernism becoming a sort of ultra-modernism that was more daring than modernism and that overcame the conservative limitations of mainstream modernism. Modernism ultimately emerges in the view of Hassan (and many others) as a conservative, elitist movement, while postmodernism emerges as a brash challenge to the very values that modernism supports. In works such as the essay “POSTmodernISM” (1971) and the volumes The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature (1971), The Right Promethean Fire: Imagination, Science, and Cultural Change (1980), and The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture (1987), Hassan outlined his influential theory of the subversive nature of postmodernist literature. However, by the end of the 1980s, his enthusiasm for the revolutionary possibilities of the movement seemed to have waned.
Meanwhile, in France, Jean-François Lyotard (1924–1998), especially in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), gave the theorization of postmodernism a more philosophical turn. Envisioning postmodernism as a challenge to the rationalist principles of the Enlightenment, Lyotard saw it as being particularly informed by a strong skepticism toward grand “totalizing metanarratives,” which he explicitly associated with authoritarian structures of power. As opposed to this totalizing tendency, Lyotard (here and elsewhere in his work) celebrated the tendency toward fragmentation in postmodernist art and literature as an anti-authoritarian gesture.
The critical literature on postmodernism is vast and diverse. Much of it, like Lyotard, envisions postmodernism as a radical new cultural challenge to authority, though few have been able to articulate exactly what this new art really does to change the social and political status quo. Indeed, Perry Anderson convincing argues in his careful examination of the origins of the historical concept of postmodernity that the work of theorists such as Hassan, Lyotard, and Jencks (and even the ostensible leftist Jürgen Habermas), while ostensibly viewing postmodernism as emancipatory, is thoroughly underwritten (and undermined) by a thinly-disguised, Cold War–informed polemic against Marxism and socialism. Indeed, the grand metanarratives decried by Lyotard and other postmodern champions of fragmentation are, for Anderson, simply coded stand-ins for the Marxist model of history. Thus, despite their seeming diversity (and its overt celebration of diversity) Anderson sees in most earlier theorizations of postmodernism and postmodernity a strange ideological consistency in their aversion to the central principles of classical Marxism:
The idea of the postmodern, as it took hold in this conjuncture, was in one way or another an appanage of the Right. Hassan, lauding play and indeterminacy as hallmarks of the postmodern, made no secret of his aversion to the sensibility that was their antithesis: the iron yoke of the Left. Jencks celebrated the passing of the modern as the liberation of consumer choice, a quietus to planning in a world where painters could trade as freely and globally as bankers. For Lyotard the very parameters of the new condition were set by the discrediting of socialism as the last grand narrative—ultimate version of an emancipation that no longer held meaning. Habermas, resisting allegiance to the postmodern, from a position still on the Left, nevertheless conceded the idea to the Right, construing it as a figure of neo-conservatism. Common to all was a subscription to the principles of what Lyotard—once the most radical—called liberal democracy, as the unsurpassable horizon of the time. There could be nothing but capitalism. The postmodern was a sentence on alternative illusions. (45–46).
In short, the liberation driven by postmodernism is merely the false freedom of the “free” market, as captured by alternative suggestion by Mark Fisher that a better term for postmodernism might be “capitalist realism,” underwritten by the notion of the famous Thatcherite slogan that “there is no alternative” to capitalism.
Anderson cites with approval the theorization of postmodernism by Jameson, which sees postmodernism not as a radical, subversive gesture, but just the opposite. For Jameson, postmodernism is the direct expression of the “cultural logic of late capitalism.” It is the artistic form that arises when capitalist modernization nears completion and when commodification has engulfed virtually everything, including art and culture. Jameson’s vision of postmodernism, developed throughout the 1980s, is summed up in his 1991 book Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, where he outlines what he sees as the important formal characteristics of postmodernist art and (more importantly) suggests the ways in which those characteristics relate to larger trends in the globalized world of late capitalism. Jameson’s book still stands as the single most important theoretical analysis of postmodernism as a cultural phenomenon.
For Jameson, the most important compositional strategy of postmodernist art and literature is pastiche, by which he means the borrowing of styles and motifs from the art and literature of the past. These borrowings, however, are carried out without any attempt to engage the original source in critical dialogue. Moreover, they ignore the fact that these originals were produced in a different historical context, so that the strategies used within them might mean something completely different than what they mean in the contemporary world. Styles and motifs borrowed from different cultures and (particularly, as emphasized by Jameson) from different time periods can be freely intermixed within the same postmodernist work, which tends to give postmodernist works a markedly ahistorical quality, with little or no sense of the historical process. Indeed, this loss of historical sense is a crucial characteristic of postmodernist literature for Jameson. It encompasses not just an inability to envision the past as a different time that led to the present by specific historical processes, but also an inability to imagine historical processes that lead to a future that is fundamentally different from the present. In short, postmodernist art is particularly lacking in the kind of utopian energies through which art, in the past, has helped to inspire social and political change.
Jameson also emphasizes that postmodernist artists employ this technique of pastiche because they are incapable of developing and maintaining the kind of distinct, individual styles that marked the work of the great modernist artists. Indeed, Jameson is consistently positive in his figuration of modernism as a sort of last wave of artistic resistance to the growing hegemony of capitalism in the modern world. Postmodernism, then, is the art that appears after this resistance has collapsed, leaving capitalism free to advance without opposition from this art, which, among other things, leads to a radical fragmentation of experience—both because of the tendency of capitalism to compartmentalize various phenomena for more efficient management and because the emphasis on innovation and expansion in capitalism lends an ephemeral quality to all aspects of existence. Importantly, Jameson relates the lack of distinct individual styles among postmodernist artists to the fact that they themselves lack the kind of stable, continuous identity that is needed to anchor such a style.
The psychic fragmentation that Jameson sees as central to the lives of individuals under late capitalism is also directly related to the formal fragmentation that he sees as crucial to postmodernism art. In postmodernist literature, in particular, narratives, characters, and even language itself tend to be fragmented and unstable, in dramatic opposition to the stable, autonomous characters and linear, rational narratives that are typical of realist literature. Importantly, however, while modernist literature is also often formally fragmented, this fragmentation is enlisted in a battle against the ideology of realism, which is essentially the same as the ideology of capitalism in its classic stage. In the postmodern era, however, the ideology of capitalism has become powerful and versatile enough to encompass both realism and anti-realism, leaving literature no position from which to mount a subversive assault on capitalism unless it arises from a cultural position that is distinctly outside the capitalist norm. By this view, much postcolonial literature would qualify as a sort of pocket of resistance to the global spread of capitalism, as might marginalized Western literatures such as gay or lesbian literature. But most Western literature and culture would have little chance to strike truly telling blows against capitalism.
Anderson, Perry. The Origins of Postmodernity. London: Verso, 1998.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. 1981. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.
Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? London: Zero Books, 2009.
Hassan, Ihab. “POSTmodernISM.” New Literary History 3 (1971): 5-30.
Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.
Jenks, Charles. The Language of Post-modern Architecture. 1977. 4th ed. New York: Rizzoli, 984.
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
 The Second International, formed a meeting in Paris on July 14, 1889, remained the primary international organization for the promotion of socialism and workers’ rights until 1916. Among other things, the Second International marked the emergence of Marx as the leading thinker whose work drove the socialist movement. It also united workers around the globe in a concerted effort that, among other things, provided a central impetus for both governments and capitalists to institute reforms in areas such as public education and working-class suffrage, as well as the beginnings of modern social safety-net systems such as the kind that would grow into the Social Security system in the U.S. The Second International also established May 1 as International Workers’ Day and March 8 as International Women’s Day, holidays that are still observed around the world today. It finally fell apart in the midst of World War I, when rivalries among nations began to supersede international working-class solidarity.