What is Postmodernism?

by Philip Damico

The metamodern movement and in turn The Metamodernist blog arose in reaction and opposition to the postmodern era. This article will explain and define postmodernism and analyze it from a metamodern perspective.

Postmodernism arose in the mid 20th century as a movement that subverted modernism in social discourse, literature, architecture, philosophy and cultural criticism. It manifested itself in different ways – obviously postmodern architecture has little in common with postmodern philosophy but for the most part the movement shares a singular overarching idea: that truth, knowledge and reality are constructs wrought throughout the history of social, political and cultural interactions between humanity. Let’s unpack that by discussing the postmodern approach to various institutions and ideas.  

For example, a postmodernist might assert that morality is subjective. Modernism and premodernism placed an emphasis on good vs bad in art and narratives, i.e. the Christians fighting against the Muslims to regain Jerusalem during the Crusades.

Postmodernism politics and philosophy place an emphasis on contextualizing or giving perspective to dogma. For example, in the modern era of objective truth and moral absolutism, the general mores that came with the era lended themselves more towards the rejection of religious outsiders because people took their religions to be the only moral guidelines or grand narratives and all others were incorrect. The postmodern era ushered in an attitude that all religious beliefs are to be respected and accepted. This appears an honorable pursuit at first glance. However, when put into practice, the idea can result in seriously detrimental cultural and political effects. Hypothetically, if a country run by postmodern politicians were experiencing an influx of immigration from a region where the dominant religion supported rape, and occurrences of rape skyrocketed, they might not do anything about the issue on the basis that morality is constructed and every culture has a right to expression of their beliefs. This is both an extreme and large scale example but postmodern thought has reached its way into many facets of our thought processes and social interactions and worldviews and we are affected by it in more ways than we know.

Postmodern moral relativism and deconstruction of absolute truths have not only found their way into our social and political interactions but they’ve also permeated artistic expression. The foremost artforms affected are painting, sculpting and writing. Before the era of postmodernism in art, experimentation remained within the bounds of accepted structures. An experimental book would, rather than experimenting with what a book is, include atypical content, e.g. controversial topics. The postmodern novel experiments with the structure of the novel itself. Christopher Keep of the University of Western Ontario writes: “Among the modernist devices which [postmodern literature] pushes to a new extreme are: the rejection of mimetic representation in favour of a self-referential “playing” with the forms, conventions and icons of “high art” and literature; the rejection of the cult of originality in recognition of the inevitable loss of origin in the age of mass production; the rejection of plot and character as meaningful artistic conventions; and the rejection of meaning itself as delusory.” So it would seem that the realities presented within postmodern literature are not unlike the reality (or realities) postmodernity presents to us in that they are unreliable and inconsistent just as postmodernism supports the idea that reality is subjective. Characteristics of postmodern literature include maximalism, the practice of overdescriptive and tangential passages that leave the reader disoriented, and fragmentation, the practice of creating a chaotic atmosphere and strcture that reflects the postmodern state of the world. Notable postmodern novels include Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

Postmodern painting and sculpture follow the same general idea of subverting what came before when what came before was a focus on recreating reality.

I’ve now introduced you to what postmodernism is and how it appears in art and everyday life. It might not seem so bad, perhaps even an interesting movement that contributes some valuable ideas to the pantheon of ideology. But that is not the case. Postmodernism in action instills within us crippling inaction both on a personal and large scale and a sense of helplessness that it offers no cure for. Why should the postmodernist go on when their beliefs have convinced them that their actions are worth nothing, only to be wiped away and forgotten by all that come after them? The postmodernist is gripped by apathy and will soon find themselves unable to see the point in progressing their own interests or that of their nation or ideology due to a newfound sense of perspective that at first is freeing but soon reveals itself to be a trap. Postmodernists are caught in the realization that all beliefs and schools of thought are equally as “true” as all others, which proves to be completely unhelpful as they cannot choose what to do when all viewpoints are suddenly on the same playing field.

A common postmodern reaction to the horrors from which it was birthed is to embrace them with irony, parody and satire. The postmodern era deconstructed narratives in reality by completely devaluing ideology and turning grand narratives into a shell of what they once were, and this deconstruction seeped into popular culture. Internet memes are a postmodern method of deconstructing ideals as they attack anything and everything, shutting down sincere attempts to communicate and discuss with jeering commentary.

The postmodernist quickly becomes either paralyzed, decadent or reactionary. We see examples of all 3 every day and on many levels. Our peers, celebrities and politicians have fallen prey to the postmodern mindset of cynicism and apathy that has left our society anemic and gasping for breath.

This is where metamodernism comes in. The movement aims to resurrect grand narratives, regain focus on political and social values that postmodernism pointed us away from without us even realizing it while retaining the admittedly useful aspects of postmodernism as we move on to a new era of thought that will save our civilization from postmodern apathy as it continues to take over our collective psyche. Postmodernism is an abyss. It boasts “I am freedom, I will liberate you,” while all along it plans to trap you alone in the dark. 

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2 thoughts on “What is Postmodernism?

  1. It seems that postmodernism’s focus on playing with form and its rejection of authorial intent goes hand in hand – they’re both expressions of rejecting art as a form of communication, the first by throwing out the bridge between artist and audience that form is, and the second by dislodging meaning from intention (something that I find kind of pointless…).

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