What the hell is postmodernism?

According to Giddens (1990), postmodernism refers to “the styles or movements within literature, painting, the plastic arts, and architecture. It concerns aspects of aesthetic reflection upon the nature of modernity.”

Post-modernity, which should be contrasted with postmodernism, refers to the “trajectory of social development is taking us away from the institutions of modernity towards a new distinct type of social order. . .that we have discovered that nothing can be known with certainty. . .that history is devoid of teleology and consequently no version of “progress” can plausibly be defended; and that a new social and political agenda has come into being with the increasing prominent of ecological concerns and perhaps of new social movements generally.”

So what the hell is postmodernism?

In my opinion, no academic can concisely explain postmodernism. The reason is because the idea of postmodernism is sort of bullshit. The past half-century has witnessed accelerations in flows of media and communications and there have been some profound implications of these accelerations. The arts have grappled to attempt and make sense of these changes, but the sheer pace of these changes have surpassed our ability to consistently interpret them. Think about a teenager going through adolescence – the changes in his physiological state surpass his own conscioussness of these changes. What you get is some 6’2 pimply-faced man-child who acts like a sissy because he doesn’t realize his own strength and physical presence. Actually, he is absolutely confused about who he is. This confusion is postmodernism. Postmodernism reflects more on the thinkers who are classified as postmodern than it does on anything that is actually going on in my opinion.

Contrast with Enlightenment Ideology

An aspect of enlightenment thought involves the idea that language is transparent. Words serve as representations of thoughts or things, but don’t have any function beyond that. Modern societies depend on the idea that signifiers always point to signifieds. In postmodernism, there are only signifiers. There is no permanent reality – there are only surfaces; no depth. This is closely aligned with what Baudrillard suggests in his ideas about simulacra – that there are no originals, only copies.

Contrast with Modernism

Modernism refers to the broad aesthetic movements of the twentieth century whereas modernity refers to a set of philosophical, political, and ethical ideas which provide the basis for the aesthetic aspect of modernism. Postmodernism shares similar aesthetics with modernism – rejecting boundaries between high and low forms of art, emphasizing pastiche, parody, bricolage, etc. It differs dramatically in its attitude towards these trends. Modernism presents the fragmentation of human subjectivity as something tragic (i.e. The Wasteland) whereas postmodernism does not lament this state; but celebrates it. One of the most significant differences between modernism and postmodernism is the concern for universality or totality. While modernist artists aimed to capture universality or totality in some sense, postmodernists have rejected these ambitions as “metanarratives.”

Factors leading to postmodernism (aka aesthetic confusion)

Economic Factors

In order to understand the context surrounding postmodernism, it it important to examine the thoughts surrounding fordism. The underlying assumption in a fordist model is that “different patterns of consumer taste can be mapped fairly predictably along classic dimensions of social structure” (Orgad, 2006). The characteristics fo the fordist model include a structure of mass production of standardized goods intended for mass consumption; an inflexible, mechanised production line; rigid and repetitive routines of labour, with the end goal of aggregating consumers into mass and undifferentiated markets through standard demographic categories.

After the early 1970s, a post-fordist model began to emerge. This new model valued the importance of configurability and customization far more than the earlier fordist model. The trend was towards small production areas that could produce more customized goods, aided by computer and information technologies. Much of these trends can be referred to as flexibilization, a move from more standardized products sold to homogenized mass markets, to more segmented and targeted markets. In this trend, lifestyle categories begin to replace social structure categories.

According to Slater (1997), consumer culture can be characterized by an increased commodification and commercialization of everyday life; increase in cultural reproduction; and identity projects. According to Slater, we perceive ourselves as individuals. In our consumer choices of goods, services, and experiences, we engage in identity projects – making decisions about who we are. Our increasing role as consumers, and our act of presentation through consumption, have contributed to an aestheticisation of everyday life, in which the saturation of signs and images in the postmodern age contributes to what Baudrillard refers to as “the loss of the real,” or what Debord refers to as “the society of the spectacle.”

In this context, we are beginning to have a sense of depthlessness. Consumption is no longer about needs but has become more about signification through consumptive choices. Furthermore, television has played a prominent role in the development of depthlessness. Signs become disconnected from their social context, resulting in a certain amount of indifference.

Semiological Factors

The move from structuralism to post-structuralism has had some influence on postmodernism. One of the main contributions of post-structuralist thought is that all denotation is connotation. What we are consequently left with is reality composed of systems of representation. Shifts in semiotics have lead to a greater sense of intertextuality. Intertextuality refers to how signs necessarily relate to one another. Text is read in relationship to other text, thus a range of textual references is brought to bear on a text.

Baudrillard gives the term simulacrum a specific meaning in the context of semiotics, extending from a common one: a copy of a copy which has been so dissipated in its relation to the original that it can no longer be said to be a copy. The simulacrum stands on its own as a copy without a model. Simulation is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality; a hyperreal. It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. In the 180s, Baudrillard further developed the idea of simulation, arguing that the logic of simulation had overtaken claims to an underlying social relaity, to the point where such simulacra come to constitute the real itself. Baudrillard pointed to Disneyland, which he explained is a simulacra of the reality of America. Pastiche involves the proliferation and fragmentation of social codes. It describes the toneless quotation of earlier artistic styles in contemporary or postmodern works. Pastiche is further defined in the section on Jameson.

Technological Factors

The past half-century has seen an increase in the proliferation of ICTs and acceleration in the flow of media. Our shift into what some have termed ‘The Information Age’ has been accompanied by a dematerialization of objects and commodities, which involves the idea that non-material goods are playing an ever greater role in the economy and consumption. This trend also effects material commodities, providing them with a greater non-material component. There is also an increased mediation of goods, which has been referred to as the phantasmagoria of signs; and the process of production is increasingly governed by non-material functions.

This dematerialization (or digitalization?) process has resulted in a perceived state of instability, transgression, and the blurring of boundaries and distinctions. Things that inhabited different worlds and value systems, and were consumed by different audiences, now occupy a single cultural space (Slater, 1997). Some of the boundaries that start to become blurred include high culture vs. mass culture; truth vs. fiction; mind vs. body; science vs. art; and the public vs. private.

According to Jameson, in the postmodern era, the subject mebcomes more fragmentary, as the subject approaches a society within which one finds the end of historicity. The ‘real’ diminishes while schizophrenia flourishes. The breakdown of the relationship between signifiers between the subject and how he or she contemplates society results in a schizophrenic reality.

Key Contributions to Postmodernism

* Jean Baudrillard
* Frederic Jameson


Flew, T (2002), New Media, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Orgad, S (2006), ‘Postmodern and Consumer Culture’, Media Theories and Concepts MC400, London School of Economics, London.