Postmodernism

By Deane Barker

This is a philosophy.

(What’s important to note is that almost every resource I read about postmodernism started with a warning along the lines of, “Post-modernism is really hard to define.” If all of the following seems vague and interpretive, then you just might have a perfect understand of postmodernism.)

“Modernism” was the idea that the world is order and structured. Reason prevails, and there are larger purposes to what humans do – we try to please God, or we build successful societies, or we try to perpetuate our gene pool. Humans are part of a larger cultural and societal structure and legacy.

In some senses, “postmodernism” simply succeeded modernism, inasmuch as every philosophy is eventually succeeded by something else. Society tires of the old, has a reaction to it, and creates something new.

There are a variety of characteristics of postmodernism.

  • A rejection of any “grand narrative” of culture. Postmodernism rejects that there is much larger truth to anything. Historically, humans have been driven by over-arching constructs that we rarely even acknowledge: religion, reason, capitalism, etc. Postmodernism rejects that there is any larger narrative to human existence.

  • An embrace of relativism and a rejection of authorities. Everyone is free to develop their own philosophies, and all theories or facts are open for interpretation.

  • The existence of bias in all communication. Nothing is objective. Everything created by humans represents reality filtered through that humans feelings and history. All that really matters is individual experience.

  • Everything is socially determined. Humans are a blank slate and are programmed by society to think and act a certain way, rather than having any natural instincts.

I saw the below definition in multiple resources. It wasn’t sourced at all, so I don’t know who created it, but it kept popping up:

  • Premodernism (up to 1650): God/the supernatural realm furnishes the basis for morality, human dignity, truth, and reason.

  • Modernism (1650-1950s): Morality, human dignity, truth, and reason rest on foundations other than God (reason, science, race, etc.).

  • Postmodernism (1960s – present): All metanarratives (systems or grand stories) are suspect – whether religious or not. No universal foundation for truth, morality, human dignity exists.

We often encounter postmodernism in descriptions of media and art. This usually refers to common themes:

  • Confusion of what’s real what isn’t. We watch a news broadcast, and we think we’re informed and know the “facts,” but we weren’t involved in what happened. All we know is what the media has told us, yet we feel like we know the “truth.”

  • Acceptance of simulation as reality. We talk of things that happen “on the internet,” ignoring that all of it is simply magnetic impulses on a surface somewhere.

  • There is so much media, that it’s possible to find any opinion on any subject. Any concept of the media being authoritative has broken down.

  • Deconstruction of media, meaning techniques like breaking the fourth wall, fractured timelines, untrustworthy narrators, meta-narratives, etc. We can’t even trust that the narrative will be simple anymore – media can jerk us around at the last minute (example: Pulp Fiction)

  • Media has turned back on itself and refers to itself more often than it refers to reality. Much of today’s media is recreations of past media – tropes or cliches that we think represent reality, but only exist in our minds because we’ve seen it in past media. Art has become a pastiche of prior work.

(Note: I’ll keep updating this entry as my understanding develops…which is kind of a postmodern thought, when you think about it.)

Why I Looked It Up

I had always wondered. I saw a YouTube video claiming to explain it, and I fell down a rabbit hole for several hours.

Postscript

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In The Language of God by Francis Collins, I found this:

…the conclusion that the Moral Law exists is in serious conflict with the current post-modernist philosophy, which argues that there are no absolute rights or wrongs, and all ethical decisions are relative.

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In Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, I found this:

Modernists believe in a universal rationality founded on science; postmodernists believe in a multitude of different rationalities and consider science to be only one way of interpreting the world. In other words, modernists are rationalists; postmodernists are relativists.

This again promotes the idea that postmodernism rejects over-arching theories or ways of explaining the world.

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From a video called Why Do Movies Feel So Different Now? (this starts at about 15:06):

Many people began to question whether or not modernist values were actually objectively good and really making things better for everybody. So here postmodernism steps in and importantly, instead of returning to traditional narratives, starts to question the value of narrative itself.

Postmodernism is saying, maybe this idea that we can come to an understanding of the objective truth using science and reason is itself a narrative like the narratives of old in tradition that modernism rejected.

Postmodernism is also looking at things like the rise of fascism in the 20th century and understanding how the narrative surrounding that are part of what made it a powerful force for evil in the 20th century.

Postmodernism in broad strokes is really critiquing modernism by critiquing narrative itself, saying maybe we should be skeptical of any broad overarching narrative that thinks that can explain the world.

When you start to question the value of narrative itself in what is essentially a narrative form, things understandably start to get a little weird. As we move towards the end of the 20th century in film history, we start to see more and more movies that don’t just question and deconstruct modernist values, but which also start to deconstruct the way stories are told in film.

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From The Parasitic Mind:

Postmoderism posits that all knowledge is relative (no objective truths)…

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From The Puzzler:

We already have enough problems in this alleged post-truth era about what constitutes facts and reality. We’re already in a massive epistemic crisis. We’re already in a world of wild conspiracy theories ands flat earthers. Do I really want to embrace the post-modernism I learned in college, the idea of multiple truths, that everything is just competing narratives?

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From Cybertext:

“Afternoon” has often been labeled postmodernist, and it does contain many literally devices typically associated with postmodernism (the metonymic mixing of fragments, and genres, self-commentary and intrusions by the “author,” typographical variation, metaleptic breaks…)

Postscript

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I’ve been watching Moonlighting – the groundbreaking “dramedy” from the 80s – and I feel like it was the first post-modern TV show, specifically in how it was self-aware and broke the fourth wall.

Consider the finale of season 2. At the end, David and Maddie are being chased by the bad guy. They literally run off the shooting set (a hair salon) and into the backlot of the TV studio, as someone on the crew says, “Wait, we have two more minutes of dialog on this set!” A chase ensues through the studio property until they run back onto the Blue Moon office set.

The bad guy is holding them at gunpoint when suddenly a crew member grabs his gun and says he has to get it back to the prop department, as other crew members start to break down the set around them. The actor playing the bad guy complains that he doesn’t know what happens to his character, so David explains to him how his character’s life ends up.

David and Maddie then walk off the now-empty set again, into the parking lot. They have a discussion, still referring to each other as “David” and “Maddie,” even though they should logically be Bruce and Cybill at this point. Then they get into their – presumably personal – cars and drive away, ending the season.

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