Post-modernism and post-modernity. Page upon page has been devoted to post-modernism and post-modernity. But what actually are they, and what implications do they have for informal educators? Barry Burke investigates.
Contents: modernism · post-modernism · post-industrial society · post-fordism · disorganised capitalism · implications for informal educators · conclusion · how to cite this article · further reading
Most people recognise that things never stay the same. Greek philosophers were quite aware that society changed continuously. Heraclitus maintained that society was in constant flux, everything was always on the move. You can’t jump in the same river twice, he maintained. Philosophers and thinkers have, throughout time, believed that society moved according to immutable and unchanging laws, that there was a driving force that drove society onward. In modern times we have looked towards the evolution of society as a progressive one. Humankind, as a result of the development of rational and scientific thinking, was not only conquering the world we live in but also looking to the stars.
This progressive movement of society is associated with what has been described as modernity or modernism. It is essentially a historical period in Western culture and has its origins in the Enlightenment at the end of the 18th century. The Enlightenment, and the historical period that it brought in, it can be argued, is characterised by three major features.
- Intellectually, there was the power of reason over ignorance;
- There was the power of order over disorder; and
- There was the power of science over superstition.
These three features were regarded by many as universal values. It was believed that through these the old ruling classes with their outmoded ideas could be defeated. Modernity was ‘revolutionary’ and in many respects the French Revolution of 1789 was the personification of these features. They heralded the advent of capitalism as a new mode of production and a transformation of the social order. These basic beliefs provided the basis upon which humanity was to be able to achieve progress.
Instead of looking backwards to a Golden Age, enlightenment was now seen as possible in the present through the application of reason. It was through reason that enlightenment, the conceiving of infinite possibilities, would enable the emancipation of humanity to take place: emancipation from ignorance, poverty, insecurity and violence. (Leonard 1997:6)
Until quite recently, there was a common belief that despite all the trials and tribulations suffered throughout the world, there was a general movement towards human emancipation. It was felt that society moved on. There were blips in this movement, it was not smooth: wars and famines, natural and man-made disasters took place but these were usually overcome and we all moved on.
However, in the late 1970s, a movement began amongst French intellectuals, that questioned this view of society as moving onwards and upwards, and that there was some unseen driving force within society. It rejected any notion that we were still within the modern era brought in by the Enlightenment, two hundred years ago. The modern world according to these new thinkers had clearly brought in the era of industrial capitalism and scientific thinking but it had also brought in the world of Aushwitz, of the possibility of nuclear war, the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism, of neo-colonialism, Eurocentrism, racism and Third World hunger. If this was the legacy of modernism, it wasn’t very pleasant. Had the ideas of the Enlightenment brought us to this? If it had, they thought, to what extent had it been justified by grand theories of society? Wasn’t it more appropriate to see these theories as quite dangerous? They also felt that if modernism had brought in the type of society loosely described as modern industrial society then surely we had now gone beyond it? Had we not now entered a new age – the age of post-modernism?
So what is post-modernism?
A major problem we have is trying to find a useful definition of post-modernism. Most definitions are hopelessly vague and often inconsistent with each other. There is a considerable amount of confusion about the terms: modernity, modernism, post-modernity and post-modernism. Modernism andpost-modernism have tended to be associated with aesthetic ad intellectual movements such as that in architecture and literature; modernity and post-modernity have tended to be used to refer to changes in social and economic institutions (see Giddens 1990). However, this is not a hard and fast distinction. Much of the talk of post-modernism has been concerned with social and economic change.
To get any further we need to examine distinct trends.
Firstly, there is postmodern art – not just painting and sculpture but also architecture, music, literature, drama etc. It’s main features are a lack of depth and of meaning. There is a diversity of forms and content. The art critic Suzy Gablik gave a talk in Los Angeles where she spoke about the
… multidimensional and slippery space of post-modernism [where] anything goes with anything, like a game without rules. Floating images … maintain no relationship with anything at all, and meaning becomes detachable like the keys on a key ring. Dissociated and decontextualized, they slide past one another failing to link up into a coherent sequence. Their fluctuating but not reciprocal interactions are unable to fix meaning.” (quoted in Callinicos 1989:12).
While this may sound strange, you do not have to go to Los Angeles to see what she was talking about. Throughout the UK, for example, new buildings have been going up over the last decade or so that seem completely out of keeping with anything that has gone before. Many of our cities have been ‘rejuvenated’ by architects who have been given free reign to satisfy their professional fantasies. London Docklands is a good example here. Take the Docklands Light Railway through what used to be one of the world’s busiest ports and you will see post-modern architecture in all its glory. Similarly, adverts and pop videos are good examples of postmodern art. Using operatic arias to promote football matches, classical music to persuade us to fly a particular airline, watching Pavarotti in the Park – there is no longer a distinction between high and popular culture (‘anything goes with anything, like a game without rules’).
Culturally, the growth and influence of the media whether it is the advertising industry, television or film has also led to tremendous changes in how people see the world. Many postmodernists would argue that image is everything, image is reality. Disneyland, MTV, Macdonalds is real life. Real life is what we see on television, television becomes real life. Krishan Kumar maintains that postmodernists see the media in a quite different way to those who regard it as merely a method of communication.
For them the media today do not so much communicate as construct. In their sheer scale and ubiquity they are building a new environment for us, one which demands a new social epistemology and a new form of response. The media have created a new ‘electronic reality’, suffused with images and symbols, which has obliterated any sense of an objective reality behind the symbols … In hyperreality it is no longer possible to distinguish the imaginary from the real …” (Kumar 1997:99).
The second trend within post-modernism is a philosophical one. In the 1970s, the group of French philosophers, I have already mentioned, mainly on the Left, had become disillusioned with the heady days of the late 1960s when Western Europe and the United States were in political turmoil. For a short period in 1968, there seemed a strong possibility that major political changes could take place throughout the Western world as a result of action by students, trade unionists, anti-Vietnam war protesters, liberal Communists and militant Socialists. This was not to be and in France where the struggle was arguably the most intense, this led to a waning of the huge influence previously wielded by the large Communist Party (to which most of these intellectuals owed allegiance). This disillusionment led to their disengagement with politics and their distrust of grand theories, such as Marxism, which they felt attempted but failed to explain the reality of social life and began to form ideas that slotted in to the themes explored by contemporary artists. Despite their many disagreements, they stressed the fragmentary and plural character of reality. They denied human thought the ability to arrive at any objective account of that reality. Any ideology or social theory that justified human action as a means to progress or order was condemned as meaningless. The grand social theory or narrative that justified human activity, whether it was Marxism, liberalism or Fascism is no longer credible, they argued. There are no universal truths. All they have done in the past is legitimate the power of those who know and deny power to those who do not know.
Thirdly, these two trends, in art and philosophy, seemed to reflect what was going on in the social world. It was felt by many, particularly on the British Left, that we were actually living in what they called ‘New Times’. At the heart of these ‘New Times’ was the shift from the old mass-production Fordist economy to a new, more flexible, post-Fordist order based on computers, information technology and robotics. Marxism Today, wrote (in 1988) that our world is being remade.
Mass production, the mass consumer, the big city, big-brother state, the sprawling housing estate, and the nation-state are in decline: flexibility, diversity, differentiation, mobility, communication, decentralization and internationalisation are in the ascendant [my emphasis]. In the process our own identities, our sense of self, our own subjectivities are being transformed. We are in transition to a new era. (quoted in Callinicos 1989:4)
Many people accept that we do live in a different kind of society today to that of a relatively few years ago. However, what type of society is it that we now live in? A number of theories have already been put forward, some of which you may be familiar with.
The concept of the post-industrial society is linked with the work of Daniel Bell. He maintained that there was a progression from traditional society based on agriculture to industrial society based on modern manufacturing industry and then to post-industrial society where the emphasis on the production of goods has been overtaken by the service economy. This post-industrial society, according to Bell, has meant a change in the social structure so that we now live in a ‘knowledge society’ run by university-trained professionals and a technical elite whereas before we lived in an industrial society run by industrialists and employers. Bell’s analysis of the trend away from the traditional industrial base typical of Western Europe and North America won a considerable amount of support but it needs to be looked at with a more critical eye.
In the first place, it was never the case that the majority of the workforce in the UK were ever involved in manufacturing except for a brief period in the 1950s. Usually less than half of the working population were in manufacturing. Secondly, although there has been a shift from manufacturing into the service sector, this can be accounted for by the increased productivity in the manufacturing sector (which means that fewer people can produce more goods). The service sector, on the other hand, is labour-intensive and productivity is relatively poor. This does not mean that the British economy is becoming post-industrial but it does mean that fewer people are employed in the manufacturing sector.
Where Bell was also mistaken is when we look at the social consequences of this change. Bell maintained that the replacement of manufacturing by service industries would usher in the knowledge society and a vast increase in white-collar employment. There would be created an elite of technicians, information experts, computer buffs, systems analysts, financial managers etc. What actually happened was that as the service sector took on more workers, they included not only more managers, executives, professionals and administrators but also more clerical workers who were often low paid and as insecure as any worker in manufacturing industry. Similarly, with the expansion of supermarkets in the retail sector, more and more non-clerical workers were employed at fairly low pay and high levels of insecurity.
Hardly what one would call the ‘knowledge society’.
At the same time that all this was happening, manufacturing actually grew in the Third World so that there has been a considerable growth in the industrial working class world-wide. There is simply no evidence that society as a whole is changing from an industrial to a post-industrial one.
Associated with the journal, Marxism Today, and the writings of Stuart Hall and others, the post-Fordist thesis argues that contemporary capitalism is experiencing a shift in its character. Fordism can be seen as a system of mass production involving the standardization of products; large scale use of dedicated machinery suitable only for a particular product; and the ‘scientific management’ of labour and assembly line production. The high fixed costs involved required guaranteed mass markets. As a result you could say that Fordism was characterised by mass production and mass consumption. This in turn was encouraged by mass advertising, the protection of national markets and intervention by the state to ensure that there were no catastrophic falls in demand.
This actually worked for many years after the Second World War. However at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, Fordism, it is argued, collapsed. In its place, a new variant of capitalism, post-Fordism began to take shape. Just as Fordism was production-led so post-Fordism is consumer-led. The introduction of computers has meant that distribution systems have enabled retailers to avoid overstocking and has allowed mass markets to be split up into the targeting of specific groups. Targeting specific groups of consumers has meant that design has become a major selling point. Henry Ford said that when he brought out his first car, the buyer could have any colour he wanted as long as it was black! Post-Fordist industry cannot do that. Every major car produced today has a number of models the consumer can choose from. Commodities are no longer bought simply for the use value they have, but also for the lifestyle that goes with their design. Just think of Adidas and Nike advertising. Image is all important in the postmodern era.
In addition to this, the new technology, based on computerised systems, means flexibility, smaller plant-size and a different workforce. Large numbers of semi-skilled machine minders are no longer required. What is required is a smaller multi-skilled workforce capable of participating actively in the labour-process. Below this, mainly white, male and relatively well-paid group, is a peripheral workforce, low-paid, temporary, often part-time, often non-white, often female. What post-Fordism has produced, according to the Marxism Today analysis, is an increase in income and freedom for some and a decrease for others.
The problem is that it is not at all clear whether post-Fordism actually exists. There are still mass markets for standardised products. People still want washing machines, fridges and cars. The technology is not necessarily dedicated to one specific product but can be reused for different products and although the workforce has changed, secure and well-paid employment is not necessarily guaranteed for anyone, not just the low-paid. These are important points that the post-Fordists have not quite come to terms with.
A third theory, I want to examine briefly is that of Scott Lash and John Urry. They argue in their book, The End of Organised Capitalism, that Western societies are currently undergoing a transition from‘organised’ to ‘disorganised’ capitalism. Organised capitalism – which existed for most of the twentieth century – involved:
- the concentration of capital; the separation of ownership and control;
- the growth of the professional, managerial and administrative ‘service class’;
- the regulation of national economies by the state in co-operation with business and the trade unions;
- the dominance of manufacturing industry;
- urbanisation; and
- the development of the nation-state.
Disorganised capitalism, which is how Lash and Urry characterised today’s society, consists of the disintegration of state regulation, the expansion of world markets dominated by multinational corporations, the undermining of the nation state, the growth of manufacturing in the Third World and the decline of manufacturing in the West. Accompanying this is the growth of a ‘service class’ that undermines trade unions and the labour movement with the subsequent erosion of class-based politics. Finally, cultural life becomes more fragmented and pluralistic. All of this is reflected in the rise of post-modernism.
To me, a lot of what they say makes sense. The disintegration of the role of the state, particularly in welfare provision; the erosion of trade unionism and the growth of individualism and consumerism; the globalisation of the market and manufacturing; the development and growing influence of the multinational corporation all point to a qualitative change in society.
However, one of the real problems with the concept of post-modernism is that it is all so vague. Henry Giroux writes about its ‘diffuse influence and contradictory character’ (Giroux 1997:117). There is no agreed definition so that it is embraced by both many on the Left and the Right with equal fervour. The emphasis on flexibility and diversity can be seen as both a positive characteristic and as a negative one. It is positive in so far as it draws us away from seeking “the Truth”. There is a complete rejection of any grand theories to explain social phenomena. Iconoclasm is the order of the day. Scepticism replaces certainty. ‘New ideas and fresh conceptualisations, new discourses such as feminist, post-colonial, gay and green discourse have been found necessary to help explain the contemporary condition’ (Usher et al 1997:6). Diverse perspectives are welcomed and difference is celebrated.
On the other hand, Phil Cohen describes what he terms ‘the post-modernist overview’ as one “which does not privilege any of the elements in play … but juggles around trying to keep as many ideas in the air at once as it can’. He warns, however, that ‘in the wrong hands it can quickly degenerate into collage and pastiche in which everything is rendered equivalent in the cultural supermarket of ideas’ (Cohen 1997:390/1). This relativism with everything being rendered equivalent or anything going with anything sits uncomfortably in a world that can be quite frightening for those who hanker after an ordered world. Zygmunt Bauman, one of the foremost writers on post-modernism, sheds some light on its ability to debunk old established ideas and discredit outdated modes of thinking when he describes its ‘all-deriding, all-eroding, all dissolving destructiveness’. post-modernity, according to Bauman ‘does not seek to substitute one truth for another, one life ideal for another … It braces itself for a life without truths, standards and ideals’ (Bauman 1992:vii, viii, ix). It is quite easy to see how the rise of religious fundamentalism, whether Christian, Islamic or Jewish, seems attractive to some people afraid that their world is being undermined. The rise of the Right-wing ‘Moral Majority’ in the United States, the hankering after a return to ‘Victorian values’ in Britain are also examples of how some people have reacted to their fear of change.
However, what does this mean for the informal educator? Do we, in our day-to-day practice, work on the assumption that values are relative? Can we talk about core values? If difference is celebrated, what about commonality, mutuality and co-operation? How do we work in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-faith and pluralist society? Can we talk about informal educators working for ‘the common good’? Is there such a thing as ‘the common good’?
Certainly, these dilemmas are very real. On the one hand, most of us would accept that in any decent society we are all dependent on each other, that we do share many things in common. However, this can appear extremely bland to those who clearly see themselves to be different. It is very easy to marginalize people by ignoring differences. We hear talk about the Scottish nation, the Protestant (or Black) community, the Germans, ‘local youth’ etc. Who decides who is included in these descriptions and who is excluded? The question of identity is crucial here.
In post-modernism, ‘identity is not unitary or essential, it is fluid or shifting, fed by multiple sources and taking multiple forms’ (Kumar 1997:98). We are all unique and have our own distinctiveness but we also have much in common. Being aware of this is essential for informal educators.
Difference and commonality
Take the notions of being black, gay or thin. These are identities that are socially constructed, and given meaning by our fragmented society. However, we have to ask ourselves the question why these socially constructed categories are distinctive and not others. What is so special about skin colour, sexuality or size that we proclaim them as different? Different to what? By accepting these differences and, even more importantly, celebrating these differences, are we not accepting the status quo? He is black, she is gay, they are thin. So what? Are there no grounds for mutuality and association? Should we not question these differences rather than celebrate them?
On the other hand, I can see why, within a fragmented and divided society, those who are regarded as different see those differences as something that should be accepted and not a reason for discrimination or marginalisation. Why shouldn’t black people or gays and lesbians take pride in their blackness or sexuality? Why shouldn’t they organise themselves to counter discriminatory practices in society?
There is a clear difference here in perspectives. Within the realms of youth and community work, informal educators need to be able to respond and influence the dialectic between commonality and difference. Too much emphasis in our practice on commonality can lead us down the road to ignoring the differences between individuals and the diversity of cultures that abound in our localities and in our workplaces. Too much emphasis on difference can lead us down the road to separation, segregation and exclusion.
Welcoming cultural diversity within our changed society does not mean accepting cultural practices and beliefs without question. It means understanding them in context whilst at the same time working ‘not for assimilation but for co-operation on the basis of difference … being in touch with your cultural identity and pre-judgements, having a sense of agency, and looking to an acceptance of diversity and a search for that which is held in common’ (Smith 1994:120/1).
This brings us to the question of human agency. We cab pose the question as to whethersociety was an entity outside of individuals that acts upon them or whether individuals act upon society. We might turn to the problems that C.Wright Mills highlighted between personal troubles and public issues and the need to see the relationship between the two. However, postmodernist writers have tended to move the argument on somewhat. Some of them are distinctively uneasy about the ability of human beings to affect the world we live in. They see us as corks being tossed about in a turbulent sea of change, being pushed one way then another with no ability to affect the direction we want to go in. The human subject is not inherently free ‘but hedged in on all sides by social determinations’ (Layder 1994:95). Michel Foucault, for example, argued at one point that human societies can be seen as places in which forms of knowledge (discourses) exercise power over us through the way we think and the way we behave. The individual is no longer the source of meaning, in line with Enlightenment thinking, but is ‘decentred’. This can be seen as being extremely pessimistic from a humanistic perspective and is a view of human agency that poses important questions for informal educators. Foucault did modify his views somewhat so that he later saw discourses as foci for struggle and resistance. However, the idea of the individual subject as a creative autonomous being was certainly something that Foucault rejected. This is clearly at odds with what many would see as one of the central tenets of informal education – ‘the belief that people can take hold of their lives, can make changes, that they are not helpless in the face of structural forces’ (Smith 1994:119).
In this piece we have looked at the changes that have taken place in society over the last few decades and briefly examined the idea that we have now entered into a new postmodern era. This new era has been characterised by a rejection of absolute truths and grand narratives explaining the progressive evolution of society. At the same time it has brought to the surface a multitude of different perspectives on society and an appreciation of different cultures. It has highlighted globalisation on the one hand and localisation on the other, the celebration of difference and the search for commonality.
Henry Giroux, in analysing some of the central assumptions that govern the discourses of modernism and post-modernism together with postmodern feminism, has summed up what these can mean for educators. In doing this, he did not set up one against the others but tried to see how and where they converged. He maintained that within these three traditions,
pedagogy offers educators an opportunity to develop a political project that embraces human interests that move beyond the particularistic politics of class, ethnicity, race and gender.
This is not a call to dismiss the postmodern emphasis on difference, as much as it is an attempt to develop a radical democratic politics that stresses difference within unity … The struggle against racism, class structures, sexism, and other forms of oppression needs to move away from simply a language of critique, and redefine itself as part of a language of transformation and hope. This shift suggests that educators combine with other cultural workers engaged in public struggles in order to invent languages and provide critical and transformative spaces … that offer new opportunities for social movements to come together. By doing this, we can re-think, and re-experience democracy as a struggle over values, practices, social relations, and subject positions that enlarge the terrain of human capacities and possibilities as a basis for a compassionate social order. (Giroux 1997:128/9)
General texts – modernity and post-modernity
Anderson, P. (1998) The Origins of post-modernity, London: Verso. 160 pages. Traces the genesis, consolidation and consequences of the notion of the postmodern. Places post-modernism in the ‘force field of a déclassé bourgeoisie, the growth of mediatised technology and the historic global defeat of the left symbolized by the end of the Cold War’. Views post-modernism as the cultural logic of a multinational capitalism ‘complacent beyond precedent’.
Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society. Towards a new modernity, London: Sage. Translation of Beck’s 1986 classic. Argues that western industrial society is moving into a ‘post-Enlightenment’ / post-Fordist phase and that this involves a different modernity typified by reflexivity. Industrial society is based on the distribution of goods, while that of a risk society on the distribution of ‘bads’ or dangers. Part one is concerned with ‘living on the volcano of civization: the contours of the risk society; part two looks to the individualization of social inequality: life forms and the demise of tradition; and part three explores reflexive modernization: the generalization of science and politics.
Berman, M. (1983) All That is Solid Melts into Air. The experience of modernity, London: Verso. 320 pages. Very influential reading of modernity (changing social and economic realities) and modernism in art, literature and architecture.
Bernstein, R. J. (1991) The New Constellation. The ethical-political horizons of modernity/post-modernity, Cambridge: Polity. 358 pages. Exploration of modernity / post-modernity as a pervasive mood (a Stimmung). Exploration of thinkers such as Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, Derrida, Rorty and Habermas.
Callinicos, A. (1989) Against post-modernism: a Marxist critique, Cambridge: Polity Press. Excellent critique of ‘post-modern’ thinking.
Giddens, A. (1990) The Consequences of Modernity, Cambridge: Polity Press. 186 + xii pages. Giddens argues that we are living in a period of ‘high’ rather than ‘post’ modernity. Examines themes of security versus risk; and trust versus risk.
Harvey, D. (1990) The Condition of post-modernity. An enquiry into the origins of cultural change, Oxford: Blackwell. 378 + xii pages. Controversial and refreshing critique of post-modernity – with a concern for economic and cultural transformations. Part one deals with the passage from modernity to post-modernity in popular culture; part two with political-economic transformation; part three with the experience of space and time; and part four with the condition of post-modernity.
Jameson, F. (1991) post-modernism. Or, the cultural logic of late capitalism, London: Verso. 460 pages. Key text exploring Jameson’s position.
Jameson, F. (1998) The Cultural Turn. Selected readings on the postmodern 1983 – 1998, London: Verso. 128 pages. Good collection of pieces that provide an introduction to Jameson’s pivotal work around post-modernism.
Lash, S. and Friedman, J. (eds.) (1992) Modernity and Identity, Oxford: Blackwell. 379 pages. Useful collection exploring post-modernity as not the ‘end of the subject’ but the transformation and creation of new forms of subjectivity. Part one deals with cosmopolitan narratives; part two with representation and the transformation of identity; part three with spaces of self and society; and part four looks to modernity and the voice of the other.
Lyotard, J-F. (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A report on knowledge, Manchester: Manchester University Press. 110 + xxv pages. Translation of Lyotard’s very influential 1979 work. Looks at the status of science, technology and the arts, the significance of technocracy, and the way and flow of information are controlled in the Western world. Explores legitimation, language games, modernism, the postmodern perspective, narrative and scientific knowledge, deligitimation, research and education, and postmodern science as the search for instabilities. An appendix contains an essay on ‘What is post-modernism?’
Modernity, post-modernity and education
Briton, D. (1996) The Modern Practice of Adult education. A post-modern critique, New York: SUNY Press. 156 + xiv pages. Challenges depoliticized notions of adult education and argues for a ‘postmodern pedagogy of engagement’.
Edwards, R. (1997) Changing Places? Flexibility, lifelong learning and a learning society, London: Routledge. 214 + x pages. Edwards looks at some of the key discourses that he claims have come to govern the education and training of adults. He looks at the context for such changes and their contested nature. The focus is on how the idea of a learning society has developed in recent years. The usual trip through postmodern thinking is followed by an analysis of the ways in which specific discourses of change have been constructed to provide the basis for a growing interest in lifelong learning and a learning society.
Giroux, H. (1997) ‘Crossing the Boundaries of Educational Discourse: Modernism, post-modernism, and Feminism’ in A. H. Halsey, H. Lauder, P. Brown and A. S. Wells (eds.) Education: Culture, Economy, and Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Usher, R., Bryant, I. and Johnston, R. (1997) Adult Education and the Postmodern Challenge. Learning beyond the limits, London: Routledge. 248 + xvi pages. Follow up to Adult Education as Theory, Practice and Research, this book focuses on the changing contexts of adult learning and the need to go ‘beyond the limits’ of certain current adult education orthodoxies. Examines adult learning in post-modernity; citizenship; governmentality and practice; knowledge-power; self and experience; theory-practice; and research in adult education.
Usher, R. and Edwards, R. (1994) post-modernism and Education, London: Routledge. 246 + x pages. Examines key writers like Lacan, Derida, Foucault and Lyotard. Looks particularly to the self/subject.
Bauman, Z. (1992) Intimations of post-modernity, London: Routledge.
Bell, D. (1973) The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, London: Heinemann.
Cohen, P. (1997) Rethinking the Youth Question: Education, Labour and Cultural Studies, London: Macmillan.
Hall, S. (1996) ‘The meaning of New Times’ in D. Morley and K-H Chen (eds) Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, London: Routledge.
Kumar, K. (1997) ‘The Post-Modern Condition’ in A. H. Halsey, H. Lauder, P. Brown and A. S. Wells (eds.) Education: Culture, Economy, and Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lash, S. and Urry, J. (1987) The End of Organised Capitalism, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Layder, D. (1994) Understanding Social Theory. London: Sage Publications.
Leonard, P. (1997) Postmodern Welfare: Reconstructing an Emanicipatory Project, London: Sage Publications.
Smith, M. K. (1994) Local Education: Community, conversation, praxis, Buckingham: Open University Press.
Acknowledgement: The picture of the Guggenheim Museum is by Pierre Metivier. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) licence. http://www.flickr.com/photos/44921934@N00/4223287
How to cite this article: Burke, Barry (2000) ‘Post-modernism and post-modernity’, the encyclopaedia of informal education, www.infed.org/biblio/b-postmd.htm. Last update: 29-May-2012
© Barry Burke 2000.
I once asked a group of my students if they knew what the term postmodernism meant: one replied that it’s when you put everything in quotation marks. It wasn’t such a bad answer, because concepts such as “reality”, “truth” and “humanity” are invariably put under scrutiny by thinkers and “texts” associated with postmodernism.
Postmodernism is often viewed as a culture of quotations.
Take Matt Groening’s The Simpsons (1989–). The very structure of the television show quotes the classic era of the family sitcom. While the misadventures of its cartoon characters ridicule all forms of institutionalised authority – patriarchal, political, religious and so on – it does so by endlessly quoting from other media texts.
This form of hyperconscious “intertextuality” generates a relentlessly ironic or postmodern worldview.
Relationship to modernism
The difficulty of defining postmodernism as a concept stems from its wide usage in a range of cultural and critical movements since the 1970s. Postmodernism describes not only a period but also a set of ideas, and can only be understood in relation to another equally complex term: modernism.
Modernism was a diverse art and cultural movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries whose common thread was a break with tradition, epitomised by poet Ezra Pound‘s 1934 injunction to “make it new!”.
The “post” in postmodern suggests “after”. Postmodernism is best understood as a questioning of the ideas and values associated with a form of modernism that believes in progress and innovation. Modernism insists on a clear divide between art and popular culture.
But like modernism, postmodernism does not designate any one style of art or culture. On the contrary, it is often associated with pluralism and an abandonment of conventional ideas of originality and authorship in favour of a pastiche of “dead” styles.
The shift from modernism to postmodernism is seen most dramatically in the world of architecture, where the term first gained widespread acceptance in the 1970s.
One of the first to use the term, architectural critic Charles Jencks suggested the end of modernism can be traced to an event in St Louis on July 15, 1972 at 3:32pm. At that moment, the derelict Pruitt-Igoe public housing project was demolished.
Built in 1951 and initially celebrated, it became proof of the supposed failure of the whole modernist project.
Jencks argued that while modernist architects were interested in unified meanings, universal truths, technology and structure, postmodernists favoured double coding (irony), vernacular contexts and surfaces. The city of Las Vegas became the ultimate expression of postmodern architecture.
Theorists associated with postmodernism often used the term to mark a new cultural epoch in the West. For philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, the postmodern condition was defined as “incredulity towards metanarratives”; that is, a loss of faith in science and other emancipatory projects within modernity, such as Marxism.
Marxist literary theorist Fredric Jameson famously argued postmodernism was “the cultural logic of late capitalism” (by which he meant post-industrial, post-Fordist, multi-national consumer capitalism).
In his 1982 essay Postmodernism and Consumer Society, Jameson set out the major tropes of postmodern culture.
These included, to paraphrase: the substitution of pastiche for the satirical impulse of parody; a predilection for nostalgia; and a fixation on the perpetual present.
In Jameson’s pessimistic analysis, the loss of historical temporality and depth associated with postmodernism was akin to the world of the schizophrenic.
Postmodern visual art
In the visual arts, postmodernism is associated with a group of New York artists – including Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman – who were engaged in acts of image appropriation, and have since become known as The Pictures Generation after a 1977 show curated by Douglas Crimp.
By the 1980s postmodernism had become the dominant discourse, associated with “anything goes” pluralism, fragmentation, allusions, allegory and quotations. It represented an end to the avant-garde’s faith in originality and the progress of art.
But the origins of these strategies lay with Dada artist Marcel Duchamp, and the Pop artists of the 1960s in whose work culture had become a raw material. After all, Andy Warhol was the direct progenitor of the kitsch consumerist art of Jeff Koons in the 1980s.
Postmodern cultural identity
Postmodernism can also be a critical project, revealing the cultural constructions we designate as truth and opening up a variety of repressed other histories of modernity. Such as those of women, homosexuals and the colonised.
The modernist canon itself is revealed as patriarchal and racist, dominated by white heterosexual men. As a result, one of the most common themes addressed within postmodernism relates to cultural identity.
American conceptual artist Barbara Kruger’s statement that she is “concerned with who speaks and who is silent: with what is seen and what is not” encapsulates this broad critical project.
The discourse of postmodernism is associated with Australian artists such as Imants Tillers, Anne Zahalka and Tracey Moffatt.
Australia has been theorised by Paul Taylor and Paul Foss, editors of the influential journal Art & Text, as already postmodern, by virtue of its culture of “second-degree” – its uniquely unoriginal, antipodal appropriations of European culture.
If the language of postmodernism waned in the 1990s in favour of postcolonialism, the events of 9/11 in 2001 marked its exhaustion.
While the lessons of postmodernism continue to haunt, the term has become unfashionable, replaced by a combination of others such as globalisation, relational aesthetics and contemporaneity.