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Postmodernism is a word that describes a kind of response to culture and thought. The term has been used in many different ways at different times, but there are some things in common.

Postmodernism rejects the idea of objective truth and universal social progress. Starting with the 18th century Enlightenment, and for more than a century, there was widespread belief that science, and knowledge, would improve the world. Social progress would be inevitable. Modernism in particular held these beliefs.

Postmodernism challenges all this certainty. Postmodernist thought is an intentional departure from modernist approaches that had previously been dominant. Postmodernism has influenced many cultural fields, including literary criticism, philosophy, sociology, linguistics, architecture, visual arts, and music.

Although the term was first used around 1870, its modern appearance was to express criticism of modern architecture. In 1949 the term was used to describe a dissatisfaction with modern architecture, leading to the postmodern architecture movement. Postmodern architecture returns to surface ornament, historical reference in decorative forms, and non-orthogonal angles (less box-like shapes).

Postmodernist ideas can be seen in philosophy, the analysis of culture and society, literature, architecture, and design. Changes in history, law and culture came in the late 20th century. These developments were a re-evaluation of the entire Western value system: (love, marriage, popular culture, and a shift from industrial to service economy). All that took place since the 1950s and 1960s, and are described with the term Postmodernity,[2] as opposed to Postmodernism, a term referring to an opinion or movement. Whereas something being “Postmodernist” would make it part of the movement, its being “Postmodern” would place it in the period of time since the 1950s, making it a part of contemporary history.

Contested definitions

The term “Postmodernism” is often used to refer to different, sometimes contradictory concepts. Conventional definitions follow:

Compact Oxford English Dictionary: “a style and concept in the arts characterized by distrust of theories and ideologies and by the drawing of attention to conventions”.

Merriam-Webster: Either “of, relating to, or being an era after a modern one”, or “of, relating to, or being any of various movements in reaction to modernism that are typically characterized by a return to traditional materials and forms (as in architecture) or by ironic self-reference and absurdity (as in literature)”, or finally “of, relating to, or being a theory that involves a radical reappraisal of modern assumptions about culture, identity, history, or language”.

American Heritage Dictionary: “Of or relating to art, architecture, or literature that reacts against earlier modernist principles, as by reintroducing traditional or classical elements of style or by carrying modernist styles or practices to extremes: ‘It [a roadhouse] is so architecturally interesting … with its postmodern wooden booths and sculptural clock.'”

While the term “Postmodern” and its derivatives are freely used, with some uses apparently contradicting others, those outside the academic milieu have described it as merely a buzzword that means nothing. Dick Hebdige, in his text ‘Hiding in the Light’, writes:

“When it becomes possible for a people to describe as ‘postmodern’ the décor of a room, the design of a building, the diegesis of a film, the construction of a record, or a ‘scratch’ video, a television commercial, or an arts documentary, or the ‘intertextual’ relations between them, the layout of a page in a fashion magazine or critical journal, an anti-teleological tendency within epistemology, the attack on the ‘metaphysics of presence’, a general attenuation of feeling, the collective chagrin and morbid projections of a post-War generation of baby boomers confronting disillusioned middle-age, the ‘predicament’ of reflexivity, a group of rhetorical tropes, a proliferation of surfaces, a new phase in commodity fetishism, a fascination for images, codes and styles, a process of cultural, political or existential fragmentation and/or crisis, the ‘de-centring’ of the subject, an ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, the replacement of unitary power axes by a plurality of power/discourse formations, the ‘implosion of meaning’, the collapse of cultural hierarchies, the dread engendered by the threat of nuclear self-destruction, the decline of the university, the functioning and effects of the new miniaturised technologies, broad societal and economic shifts into a ‘media’, ‘consumer’ or ‘multinational’ phase, a sense (depending on who you read) of ‘placelessness’ or the abandonment of placelessness (‘critical regionalism’) or (even) a generalised substitution of spatial for temporal coordinates – when it becomes possible to describe all these things as ‘Postmodern’ (or more simply using a current abbreviation as ‘post’ or ‘very post’) then it’s clear we are in the presence of a buzzword”.

British historian Perry Anderson’s history of the term and its understanding, ‘The Origins of Postmodernity’, explains these apparent contradictions, and demonstrates the importance of “Postmodernism” as a category and a phenomenon in the analysis of contemporary culture.

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Last updated: April 3, 2014 at 11:41 am

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Occult World is online since February 23, 2003 . First as and then as Occult World is a project to collect articles about interesting topics - concerning the mysterious world we live in. Occult World is a project by Occult Media.