You shouldn’t feel confident that you have grasped the meaning of the word postmodernism until you can 1), explain why the term cannot be defined in a sharply focused way; and 2), nonetheless explain it with reference to a small range of examples.
We can say that postmodernism is what you get if you add up a number of significant historical yet contemporary phenomena in such a way that the result is more than the sum of the parts. You couldn’t, therefore, explain postmodernism by just using one of these diverse phenomena. Some of the phenomena can be regarded as “finding problems with” or problematizing. But postmodernism is not just a skeptical response to what came before it. The key phenomena of postmodernism should be understood as affirmations.
A phenomenon is something that appears, i.e., we must be aware of its existence in some form. The question of whether the thing corresponds to the form in which it appears is of no matter for the moment, but it will become crucial. The phenomena of postmodernism take a wide variety of forms and must be found across a number of domains, so we will be drawing on theory (and philosophy); writing (literary and popular); history and politics (world historical developments in the wake of modernity and colonialism); architecture (and urbanism); mass media; visual culture (photography, film, electronic media); and society. Each of these domains impact on postmodernism in differing ways but none of them should be left out, for reasons that will become clearer but having essentially to do with the problem of boundaries and frontiers, hence the first phenomenon:
If we begin now with our distinction between “modern” and “postmodern” we will eventually be in a position to define the differences between them properly, but we should not go too fast. Defining a difference is the same as drawing a boundary and defending a frontier and, as we know from the field of politics and history, boundaries and frontiers are not discovered; they are asserted, policed and legislated. One of the most persistent phenomena associated with postmodernism concerns the problematization of the way frontiers are asserted, policed, and maintained. In philosophy the difference between concepts, for instance, must be kept as clear and distinct as possible (ideally, of course, absolutely so). Sometimes this is possible but never without the threat of confusion. The threat of confusion, from a postmodernist point of view, turns up as being at the same time the possibility of clarity, so we would not want to push it to the outside in the way that philosophy has until recently persistently attempted to do. This would be the first instance of the difference between modern and postmodern. The former would keep a boundary secure between what is valued and what threatens the valued thing. The latter has begun to realize—in all kinds of different ways—that this strategy of inclusion and exclusion tends to be built on paradoxical grounds that, in the full logic of the paradox, must include as part of its own condition the thing that is perceived as a threat, hence the second phenomenon.
If the grounds of our exclusions and inclusions (and the frontiers and boundaries we draw between them) are paradoxical then we need to rethink the whole notion of grounds—along with notions like foundation, origin, beginning, etc. One of the most starkly consistent yet despised phenomena of postmodernism can be understood as the general disappearance of notions of origin, source, ground and foundation. In fact such grounds often turn out to have been cleverly disguised theoretical fictions—inventions disguised as facts—and are often revealed in the great myths that have governed our attitudes to the world in general for thousands of years. Recently these kinds of myths have been identified as the basis for “grand narratives” (examples of which include not only the great world religions but also the philosophical and political narratives of progress and/or revolution, like Humanism, Marxism, Communism, and most recently, liberalism. A grand narrative does not just appear in terms of myths of foundation but also in terms of myths of destination.
A destination (look out for the etymological echo with destiny) is some time or place or condition that a modern would have marked out in advance or assumed would be marked out in advance even if it is not visible as such. In literature, for instance, it is traditionally assumed that the author has already determined where his or her readers are going to end up. In that case the potential for reading is economized upon as much as possible, we cannot have too many wayward readers for a classical text, according to that assumption. However, from the postmodernist perspective, you cannot divorce the potential for reading from the possibilities of writing generally. No possible waywardness? Then no straight and narrow either. There are two postmodernist responses in the sphere of literature. The first is the strategy of reading differently—you might read according to the conditions of possibility for reading (see Roland Barthes and poststructuralists like Julia Kristeva and others, and see deconstruction). The second is the strategy of writing differently, that is, writing according to the conditions that make writing possible. Here you get the first of our affirmations:
The performative is that aspect of a text or institution that can be revealed at the level of its functioning or acting—it is institution in act. On this we witness a major turnaround between modern and postmodern conceptions. For a classical or modern frame of mind (in Singapore you say “mindset”) our actions, thoughts, perceptions etc., all come from a deeper determination (God, the Good, Freedom, Law, the Author, Sovereign, etc.,). This conception can be generalized as the difference between the empirical (experience) and the transcendental (the realm according to which the empirical is constructed and determined). Certain sociologists like to think that they can do without a notion of the transcendental altogether and they therefore busy themselves by dismissing all abstract philosophy and theory and referring only to “real life,” which they sometimes say is, “out there.” With the “inductive” method you can gather your information until you have enough to make a secure generalization (for instance you might make a general hypothesis about increasing economic returns on the following observation: shopping centers in Singapore tend to each specialize in a particular kind of product, e.g. shoes or specs; therefore the economic return is likely to be greater if you set up shop in a place where shops selling your product already do a roaring trade). However this method betrays a concept of empirical-transcendental difference in two ways. First the aim is to tease out underlying laws (the laws according to which you get all these specs shops in the same place). Secondly, a notion of “life” is introduced in advance as “that which appears,” a notion that in advance determines the relations between objects as “empirical entities” and which, thus, governs the laws at which you want to arrive. The empirical thus becomes the unquestioned transcendental of the transcendental (the laws). In other words the whole thing is entirely consumed in its own circularity (you get all these specs shops in one place because there are all these specs shops in one place). Postmodernism takes a completely different tack. The relation between empirical and transcendental (real X ideal; concrete X abstract; etc.) is replaced entirely by a conception of the difference between an event (whether it’s an action or a statement) and its performance. The performance of an event is discovered when you see its actual conditions of possibility, which are performance itself. It’s like watching a bad soap opera on television. You no longer see the characters but you see actors with props speaking memorized lines. The performative draws attention to performativity in general. So with our (“straw-man”) sociologist we see that, in the performative dimension, the meaning of the exercise—discovering underlying laws—serves (or functions) to ground a humanities academic activity is a way that makes it look as if it’s a scientific one (allowing the academic institution to call its humanities faculty a social science one instead). The social sciences thus produce a simulation of the sciences at the performative level on the assumption that we will only pay attention to the level of the statement and its subject (i.e., the wonderful insight about specs shops in Singapore shopping malls). Performativity has been discovered in the way it functions by many so-called postmodern thinkers. Michel Foucault, for instance, showed that the the Prison System in Europe functions to reinforce and maintain the authority of the law by pathologizing crime (a criminal is treated by a range of disciplines—medical, psychological, sociological—in much the same way that all modern subjects are, in so far as they are members of an institution, so students and their examinations and record cards serve to maintain the disciplinary normativity of the institution at the level of its own performativity). Postmodernist texts, on the contrary, expose and affirm the conditions of their own performativity and thus we find a significant number of incidences of self-reflexivity.
At this stage we should draw attention to another important distinction. What we have thus far been concerned with can be grasped as a kind of intentional postmodernism—a postmodernism that knows what it is doing. This, of course, is not the intentionality of traditional critics and philosophers who need to know what’s going to come out in the end. Rather, a certain amount of not knowing has become essential, but this is of a very special kind and not an excuse for ignorance or silliness, as some people have thought. The not knowing concerns the problematised aspects: frontiers, origins and destinations. This openness to what lies outside, this refusal to settle on a mythical origin, this expectation of surprise instead of destination, each of these can be grasped as characteristic of postmodernism. But postmodernism has come to mean, also, something perhaps better described as the postmodern condition. Here postmodernism would not be intentional but more the function of the condition of things as they are today. So postmodern culture exhibits a tendency to compulsively refer to itself (auto-referentiality): TV is about TV at its performative level; Cinema is about Cinema; buildings refer to their being buildings in a way that produces, each time, an unintentional satire, a tissue of empty quotations where even values become iconic representations for the purposes of reference (and self-reference) and have no intrinsic value in themselves. But because of the curious overlapping between intentional (enlightened, knowing and self-knowing) postmodernism and the one that seems little more than the empty circulation of images and commodities in the era of high capitalism we have learned to be rather cautious when condemning things out of hand.
At first sight it looks as if we have the ingredients for constructing a paradigm of good and bad postmodernism—the first a knowing, educated, sophisticated irony about who and what and where we are—a playful but fundamentally ethical affirmation of repetition and difference, sampling, citing, quoting and simulating existence with no origin or with origin already in representation, with no identity but what emerges out of repetition and difference (history as repetition, origin as difference). The second would thus be the bad, the empty repetitions of image and simulacrum circulating without end. But that wouldn’t be very postmodernist. The charge against the empty repetition would be made from the classical or modern perspective, desiring of a ground for its own fullness, for its own depth of purpose and essence, its own emptiness reflected back to it as its own perverse double (which it is). Capitalism comes out of modernity—it is not an accident that happens to it as if from some hostile outside. Instead we have to find a way of remaining true to the systems we repeat (classical and modern systems) while affirming what they could not affirm—the repeatability that produces both the good and bad as repetitions of the same.
So we add up a number of phenomena. In the example of literary theory we might trace a number of developments that are not necessarily that clearly related but nonetheless add up to the situation we call postmodernism today.
The Rhetorical Ground
A recent return of interest to the ancient art of rhetoric (or persuasion) illustrates the kind of ground that postmodernism has replaced the old classical and modern grounds with. In fact rhetoric has always grounded all knowledge and experience—even the devaluation of rhetoric in the elevation of a transcendental idea is rhetorical. So we can follow tropes, decipher images, trace patterns as they assert, maintain and deny arguments and institutions of all kinds. Remember here that we follow the pattern of substitutions (tropes) and thus we remain in the general field of repetition.
What we learn from Structuralism (but that is not the only discourse that would teach us this) is that we begin with the doubling into signifier/signified, performative/performed, enunciation/statement, that so much of the postmodernist turn emphasizes—there is no origin as such but for this infernal interminable, doubling repetition. The signifier is, thus, not a static, objectifiable, material empirical unit, but the performance of some statement in an institutionalized setting.
The most profound lesson of psychoanalysis—our unconscious is that which reveals the function of conscious, intentional statements and actions. The deep underside of consciousness is nothing more than the locus of substitutions.
Deconstruction is one of the names for the conditions that have replaced the classical and modern concepts of ground, origin and destination—iterability (repeatability in difference) is another. In this sense deconstruction might be the ground of postmodernism.
Simulation and Performative
It may be that Jean Baudrillard presents us with a rather pessimistic outlook upon a world without value, without thought, a world where behind the surface of its shifting images lies no alternative depth, no solid ground, no reality as such, no body. In this sense, the world is already naked—what you see is what you get and nothing beyond the shifting auto-referentiality of the electronic image occupies the space once reserved (in classical and modern times) for reference.
However, if this is all we see then we have failed to account for the performative aspect of Baudrillard’s presentation—his thought and the assertion of a value over and above both the mythical values of the tradition and the empty values of the commodity as image—the value of a critical thinking that has become aware of the conditions of its own production and has learned to affirm them—postmodernism.
Postmodernism and Postcolonialism: my page.
Mary Klages’ Postmodernism site at Colorado is useful short overview that won’t send you too far astray.
Alan Liu’s Lyotard Auto-Différend Page is an example of postmodern experimentation in itself.
The most radical and probably most effective form that postmodernism takes would be in the works of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, whose collaborations from the late 1960s through to their last works in the 90s have created the most significant impact—they are still, needless to say, not well understood.
Deleuze and Guattari on the Web contains a wide range of very useful links for those who want to explore.
The same guy (Alan Taylor) has done the same for Baudrillard: Baudrillard on the Web.