The Postmodern Challenge
Today I was challenged to define postmodernism in ten words or less. I offered, proudly and tautologically, “Postmodernism is what comes after Modernism.” Pride and tautologies aside, a succinct definition of postmodernity is something I was reluctant to provide the graduate courses on postmodernism I taught in Winter 2005 and Winter 2006. My reluctance is lifting.
Postmodernism is a broad social and cultural movement beginning in the middle part of the twentieth century (1955 is an early date) with distinct manifestations in painting, sculpture, architecture, music, philosophy, and literature. Postmodernism is often associated with fragmentation, decentering/decentralization, non-linearity, and relativism. Another important aspect of postmodernism, especially literary and philosophical postmodernism, is a crisis in representation and the destabilization of identity. Regarding a crisis of representation as a hallmark of postmodernism, Jean-François Lyotard has gone so far as to “define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives” (xxiv).
Postmodernism is also associated with the globalization of politics and economic production. After the 1950s and the second World War, nuclear capability so dominated political discourse that the terms “first world,” “second world,” and “third world,” became synonymous with global economic ranking. In the era of the postmodern, industrial production became less a determinant of economic power while the production and organization of information became more of one. Multinational corporations also exerted massive economic and political influence by creating workforces in different regions of the world for specialized roles in a global system of production and distribution. This global system of production and its social, economic, and political effects comprise postmodernism's historical background. Indeed, much of postmodern culture can be understood as an effect of this stratified global economic system.
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1979.