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“Post-modern, if it means anything, is best kept to refer to styles or movements within literature, painting, the plastic arts, and architecture,” argues Anthony Giddens. “It concerns aspects of aesthetic reflection upon the nature of modernity”. Giddens, in fact, also links it to Nietzsche and Heidegger, and an abandonment of the Enlightenment project of rational criticism. Postmoderns, though, Giddens continues, have nothing better to offer in the place of the ideals of the Enlightenment.

Functional housing unit in Marseilles by Le Corbusier
Karl Stas

One thing is certain about postmodernism: the uses of the word display such a diversity of meanings, that it defies simple definition. In architecture, for example, post-modernism has been taken to mean the overcoming of earlier, rigid conventions underlying modernist tastes (as exemplified by Le Corbusier’s functionalism) in favour of a more eclectic, playful and non-functional esthetic.


This photo taken at Oberlin College shows how Robert Venturi exercised architectural wit: an exaggerated classical column is placed inside a stark, purely functional space.


The “postmodern” novel, in contrast, could be described as embodying an experimentalism with narrative form, though which a rejuvenation of the established conventions of the form itself is sought (by way of a retention and redeployment of those conventions in the name of an avant-gardism which harks back to modernism). Writers often associated with post-modernism include Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray.


Perhaps the most coherent account of what constitutes post-modernism has been offered by the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Lyotard provides an account of postmodernity which stresses the collapse of “grand narratives” (e.g. Marxism), and their replacement with “little narratives” in the wake of technologies which have transformed our notion of what constitutes knowledge. To what extent, the view offered in this text concentrates on the epistemology of postmodernity, i.e. the postmodern conceived of in terms of a crisis in our ability to provide an adequate, “objective” account of reality.

In the essay “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?”, Lyotard offers an analysis of Kant’s notion of the sublime.

The Sublime evoked by Caspar David Friedrich’s "Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog"
Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, Kunsthalle, Hamburg

The sublime, Kant argues, is a feeling aroused in the spectator by the presentation to the intellect of something which defies conceptualisation. Likewise, Lyotard holds, the postmodern can be characterised as a mode of expression which seeks to put forward new ways of expressing the sublime feeling. In other words. Postmodernism is an avant-garde aesthetic discourse, which seeks to overcome the limitations of traditional conventions by searching for new strategies for the project of describing and interpreting experience. Significantly, Lyotard argues that the postmodern ought not to be understood in terms of an historical progression which signals a present departure from a past modernism. Rather, modernism is in fact characterised as a response to a set of concerns which are themselves already postmodern. According to Lyotard, modernism embodies a nostalgic yearning for a lost sense of unity, and constructs an aesthetics of fragmentation in the wake of this. Postmodernism, in contrast, begins with this lack of unity but, instead of lamenting it, celebrates it – a claim from which his more recent work has strayed. On the one hand, Lyotard has sought to redefine it in terms of a “rewriting” of the project of modernity (cf. the essays collected in The Inhuman). On the other hand, a work like The Differend: Phrases in Dispute at least hints that postmodernism may be considered in a rather less positive (and more modest) light than that afforded it in The Postmodern Condition: “an old man who scrounges in the garbage-heap of finality looking for leftovers...  a goal for a certain humanity” (The Differend).


Modernism and Postmodernism.

Modernism is an experiment in finding the inner truths of a situation. It can be characterized by self-consciousness and reflexiveness. This is very closely related to Postmodernism (Sarup 1993).

Postmodernism. “There is a sense in which if one sees modernism as the culture  of modernity, postmodernism is the culture of postmodernity” (Sarup 1993).

“Modern, overloaded individuals, desperately trying to maintain  rootedness and integrity...ultimately are pushed to the point where there is little reason  not to believe that all value-orientations are equally well-founded. Therefore,  increasingly, choice becomes meaningless. According to Baudrillard (1984: 38-9), we must  now come to terms with the second revolution, “that of the Twentieth Century, of  postmodernity, which is the immense process of the destruction of meaning equal to the earlier destruction of appearances. Whoever lives by meaning dies by meaning" (Ashley  1990).Ryan Bishop, in a concise article in the Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology (1996), defines post-modernism as an eclectic movement, originating in aesthetics, architecture and philosophy. Postmodernism espouses a systematic skepticism of grounded theoretical perspectives. Applied to anthropology, this skepticism has shifted focus from the observation of a particular society to the observation of the (anthropological) observer.

Postmodernity concentrates on the tensions of difference and similarity erupting from processes of globalization: the accelerating circulation of people, the increasingly dense and frequent cross-cultural interactions, and the unavoidable intersections of local and global knowledge.

According to Rosenau, postmodernists can be divided into two very broad camps, Skeptics and Affirmatives.  Skeptical Postmodernists are extremely critical of the  modern subject. They consider the subject to be a “linguistic convention”  (Rosenau 1992:43). They also reject any understanding of time because for them the modern  understanding of time is oppressive in that it controls and measures individuals. They  reject Theory because theories are abundant, and no theory is considered more correct that  any other. They feel that “theory conceals, distorts, and obfuscates, it is  alienated, disparated, dissonant, it means to exclude, order, and control rival powers” (Rosenau 1992: 81). Affirmative Posmodernists also reject Theory by  denying claims of truth. They do not, however, feel that Theory needs to be abolished but  merely transformed. Affirmatives are less rigid than Skeptics. They support movements  organized around peace, environment, and feminism (Rosenau 1993: 42).

"Postmodernists are suspicious of authoritative definitions and singular narratives of any trajectory of events.” (Bishop 1996: 993). Post-modern attacks on ethnography are based on the belief that there is no true objectivity. The authentic implementation of the scientific method is impossible.