What Is Postmodernism?
Postmodernism is a broad movement that developed in the mid- to late 20th century across philosophy, the arts, architecture, and criticism, marking a departure from modernism. The term has been more generally applied to the historical era following modernity and the tendencies of this era.
While encompassing a wide variety of approaches and disciplines, postmodernism is generally defined by an attitude of skepticism, irony, or rejection of the grand narratives and ideologies of modernism, often calling into question various assumptions of Enlightenment rationality. Consequently, common targets of postmodern critique include universalist notions of objective reality, morality, truth, human nature, reason, science, language, and social progress. Postmodern thinkers frequently call attention to the contingent or socially-conditioned nature of knowledge claims and value systems, situating them as products of particular political, historical, or cultural discourses and hierarchies. Accordingly, postmodern thought is broadly characterized by tendencies to self-referentiality, epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, and irreverence.
Postmodern critical approaches gained purchase in the 1980s and 1990s, and have been adopted in a variety of academic and theoretical disciplines, including cultural studies, philosophy of science, economics, linguistics, architecture, feminist theory, and literary criticism, as well as art movements in fields such as literature, contemporary art, and music. Postmodernism is often associated with schools of thought such as deconstruction, post-structuralism, and institutional critique, as well as philosophers such as Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and Fredric Jameson.
Criticisms of postmodernism are intellectually diverse, and include assertions that postmodernism promotes obscurantism, and is meaningless, adding nothing to analytical or empirical knowledge.
Postmodernism is an intellectual stance or a mode of discourse that rejects the possibility of reliable knowledge, denies the existence of a universal, stable reality, and frames aesthetics and beauty as arbitrary and subjective. It can be described as a reaction against scientific attempts to explain reality with objective certainty, recognizing that reality is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own personal circumstances. It is characterized by an attitude of skepticism, irony, or rejection toward the grand narratives and ideologies of modernism, often denying or challenging the validity of scientific inquiry, or declaiming the arbitrariness of the aesthetics of artistic works or other artifacts of cultural production, or questioning various assumptions of Enlightenment rationality. Initially, postmodernism was a mode of discourse on literature and literary criticism, commenting on the nature of literary text, meaning, author and reader, writing and reading. Postmodernism developed in the mid- to late-twentieth century across philosophy, the arts, architecture, and criticism as a departure or rejection of modernism.
Postmodernism relies on critical theory, an approach that confronts the ideological, social, and historical structures that shape and constrain cultural production. Common targets of postmodernism and critical theory include universalist notions of objective reality, morality, truth, human nature, reason, language, and social progress. Postmodernist approaches have been adopted in a variety of academic and theoretical disciplines, including political science, organization theory, cultural studies, philosophy of science, economics, linguistics, architecture, feminist theory, and literary criticism, as well as art movements in fields such as literature and music.
Postmodern thinkers frequently call attention to the contingent or socially-conditioned nature of knowledge claims and value systems, situating them as products of particular political, historical, or cultural discourses and hierarchies. Accordingly, postmodern thought is broadly characterized by tendencies to self-referentiality, epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, and irreverence. Postmodernism is often associated with schools of thought such as deconstruction and post-structuralism, as well as philosophers such as Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and Fredric Jameson.
Criticisms of postmodernism are intellectually diverse, and include assertions that postmodernism promotes obscurantism, and is meaningless, adding nothing to analytical or empirical knowledge. Some philosophers, beginning with the pragmatist philosopher Jürgen Habermas, assert that those who employ postmodernist discourse are prey to a performative contradiction and a paradox of self-reference, as their critique would be impossible without the concepts and methods that modern reason provides. Conservatives Michael Oakeshott and Leo Strauss considered postmodernism to be an abandonment of the rationalist project which many conservatives consider the most important cultural product of humans and Leo Strauss sought to restore rationalism to a more skeptical Aristotelian version “embedded in the ordinary reality that humans perceived”. Others have claimed that persons who are knowledgeable about postmodernism have difficulty distinguishing nonsensical postmodernist artifacts from those that are nominally genuine.
Origins of term
The term postmodern was first used around the 1870s. John Watkins Chapman suggested “a Postmodern style of painting” as a way to depart from French Impressionism. J. M. Thompson, in his 1914 article in The Hibbert Journal (a quarterly philosophical review), used it to describe changes in attitudes and beliefs in the critique of religion, writing: “The raison d’être of Post-Modernism is to escape from the double-mindedness of Modernism by being thorough in its criticism by extending it to religion as well as theology, to Catholic feeling as well as to Catholic tradition.”
In 1942 H. R. Hays described postmodernism as a new literary form.
In 1926, Bernard Iddings Bell, president of St. Stephen’s College (now Bard College), published Postmodernism and Other Essays, marking the first use of the term to describe the historical period following Modernity. In it, he criticizes the lingering socio-cultural norms, attitudes and practices of the Age of Enlightenment; forecasts the major cultural shifts toward Postmodernity, and (being an Anglo-Catholic priest) offers orthodox religion as a solution. However, as a general theory for a historical movement, it was first used in 1939 by Arnold J. Toynbee: “Our own Post-Modern Age has been inaugurated by the general war of 1914–1918”.
Peter Drucker suggested the transformation into a post-modern world happened between 1937 and 1957 (when he was writing). He described an as yet “nameless era” which he characterized as a shift to conceptual world based on pattern, purpose, and process rather than mechanical cause, outlined by four new realities: the emergence of Educated Society, the importance of international development, the decline of the nation state, and the collapse of the viability of non-Western cultures.
In 1971, in a lecture delivered at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, Mel Bochner described “post-modernism” in art as having started with Jasper Johns, “who first rejected sense-data and the singular point-of-view as the basis for his art, and treated art as a critical investigation”.
In 1996, Walter Truett Anderson described postmodernism as belonging to one of four typological world views, which he identifies as either (a) Postmodern-ironist, which sees truth as socially constructed, (b) Scientific-rational, in which truth is found through methodical, disciplined inquiry, (c) Social-traditional, in which truth is found in the heritage of American and Western civilization, or (d) Neo-Romantic, in which truth is found through attaining harmony with nature or spiritual exploration of the inner self.
The basic features of what is now called postmodernism can be found as early as the 1940s, most notably in the work of artists such as Jorge Luis Borges. However, most scholars today would agree that postmodernism began to compete with modernism in the late 1950s and gained ascendancy over it in the 1960s. Since then, postmodernism has been a powerful, though not undisputed, force in art, literature, film, music, drama, architecture, history, and continental philosophy.
Salient features of postmodernism are normally thought to include the ironic play with styles, citations and narrative levels, a metaphysical skepticism or nihilism towards a “grand narrative” of Western culture, a preference for the virtual at the expense of the Real (or more accurately, a fundamental questioning of what ‘the real’ constitutes).
Since the late 1990s there has been a growing feeling both in popular culture and in academia that postmodernism “has gone out of fashion”. Arguing from the context of current cultural production, others contend that postmodernism is dead.
Theories and derivatives
Postmodernism variously employs, references, or gives rise to structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, and post-postmodernism.
Structuralism and post-structuralism
Like structuralists, post-structuralists start from the assumption that people’s identities, values and economic conditions determine each other rather than having intrinsic properties that can be understood in isolation. Thus the French structuralists considered themselves to be espousing Relativism and Constructionism. But they nevertheless tended to explore how the subjects of their study might be described, reductively, as a set of essential relationships, schematics, or mathematical symbols. (An example is Claude Lévi-Strauss’s algebraic formulation of mythological transformation in “The Structural Study of Myth”).Structuralism was a philosophical movement developed by French academics in the 1950s, partly in response to French Existentialism, and often interpreted in relation to Modernism and High modernism. Thinkers who have been called structuralists include the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, and the semiotician Algirdas Greimas. The early writings of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and the literary theorist Roland Barthes have also been called structuralists. Those who began as structuralists but became post-structuralists include Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, and Gilles Deleuze. Other post-structuralists include Jacques Derrida, Pierre Bourdieu, Jean-François Lyotard, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray. The American cultural theorists, critics and intellectuals whom they influenced include Judith Butler, John Fiske, Rosalind Krauss, Avital Ronell, and Hayden White.
Postmodernist ideas in philosophy and in the analysis of culture and society have expanded the importance of critical theory. They have been the point of departure for works of literature, architecture and design, as well as being visible in marketing/business and the interpretation of history, law and culture, starting in the late 20th century. These developments—re-evaluation of the entire Western value system (love, marriage, popular culture, shift from industrial to service economy) that took place since the 1950s and 1960s, with a peak in the Social Revolution of 1968—are described with the term “postmodernity”, as opposed to Postmodernism, a term referring to an opinion or movement. Post-structuralism is characterized by new ways of thinking through structuralism, contrary to the original form.
One of the most well-known postmodernist concerns is “deconstruction,” a theory for philosophy, literary criticism, and textual analysis developed by Jacques Derrida. Critics have insisted that Derrida’s work is rooted in a statement found in Of Grammatology: “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte” (there is no Outside-text). Such critics misinterpret the statement as denying any reality outside of books. The statement is actually part of a critique of “inside” and “outside” metaphors when referring to text, and is corollary to the observation that there is no “inside” of a text as well. This attention to a text’s unacknowledged reliance on metaphors and figures embedded within its discourse is characteristic of Derrida’s approach. Derrida’s method sometimes involves demonstrating that a given philosophical discourse depends on binary oppositions or excluding terms that the discourse itself has declared to be irrelevant or inapplicable. Derrida’s philosophy inspired a postmodern movement called deconstructivism among architects, characterized by design that rejects structural “centers” and encourages decentralized play among its elements. Derrida discontinued his involvement with the movement after the publication of his collaborative project with architect Peter Eisenman in Chora L Works: Jacques Derrida and Peter Eisenman.
The connection between postmodernism, posthumanism, and cyborgism has led to a challenge to postmodernism, for which the terms “postpostmodernism” and “postpoststructuralism” were first coined in 2003:
In some sense, we may regard postmodernism, posthumanism, poststructuralism, etc., as being of the ‘cyborg age’ of mind over body. Deconference was an exploration in post-cyborgism (i.e. what comes after the postcorporeal era), and thus explored issues of postpostmodernism, postpoststructuralism, and the like. To understand this transition from ‘pomo’ (cyborgism) to ‘popo’ (postcyborgism) we must first understand the cyborg era itself.
More recently metamodernism, post-postmodernism and the “death of postmodernism” have been widely debated: in 2007 Andrew Hoberek noted in his introduction to a special issue of the journal Twentieth Century Literature titled “After Postmodernism” that “declarations of postmodernism’s demise have become a critical commonplace”. A small group of critics has put forth a range of theories that aim to describe culture or society in the alleged aftermath of postmodernism, most notably Raoul Eshelman (performatism), Gilles Lipovetsky (hypermodernity), Nicolas Bourriaud (altermodern), and Alan Kirby (digimodernism, formerly called pseudo-modernism). None of these new theories or labels have so far gained very widespread acceptance. Sociocultural anthropologist Nina Müller-Schwarze offers neostructuralism as a possible direction. The exhibition Postmodernism – Style and Subversion 1970–1990 at the Victoria and Albert Museum (London, 24 September 2011 – 15 January 2012) was billed as the first show to document postmodernism as a historical movement.
Jacques Derrida was a French philosopher best known for developing a form of semiotic analysis known as deconstruction, which he discussed in numerous texts, and developed in the context of phenomenology. He is one of the major figures associated with post-structuralism and postmodern philosophy.
Derrida re-examined the fundamentals of writing and its consequences on philosophy in general; sought to undermine the language of “presence” or metaphysics in an analytical technique which, beginning as a point of departure from Heidegger’s notion of Destruktion, came to be known as Deconstruction.
Michel Foucault was a French philosopher, historian of ideas, social theorist, and literary critic. First associated with structuralism, Foucault created an oeuvre which today is seen as belonging to post-structuralism, and to postmodern philosophy. Leading light of French theory [fr], his work remains relatively fruitful in the English-speaking academic world, above and beyond the sub-disciplines involved. The Times Higher Education Guide described him in 2009 as the most cited author in the humanities.
Michel Foucault introduced concepts such as ‘discursive regime’, or re-invoked those of older philosophers like ‘episteme’ and ‘genealogy’ in order to explain the relationship between meaning, power, and social behavior within social orders (see The Order of Things, The Archaeology of Knowledge, Discipline and Punish, and The History of Sexuality).
Jean-François Lyotard is credited with being the first to use the term in a philosophical context, in his 1979 work The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. In it, he follows Wittgenstein’s language games model and speech act theory, contrasting two different language games, that of the expert, and that of the philosopher. He talks about transformation of knowledge into information in the computer age, and likens the transmission or reception of coded messages (information) to a position within a language game.
Lyotard defined philosophical postmodernism in The Postmodern Condition, writing: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards meta narratives….”  where what he means by metanarrative is something like a unified, complete, universal, and epistemically certain story about everything that is. Postmodernists reject metanarratives because they reject the concept of truth that metanarratives presuppose. Postmodernist philosophers in general argue that truth is always contingent on historical and social context rather than being absolute and universal and that truth is always partial and “at issue” rather than being complete and certain.
Richard Rorty argues in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature that contemporary analytic philosophy mistakenly imitates scientific methods. In addition, he denounces the traditional epistemological perspectives of representationalism and correspondence theory that rely upon the independence of knowers and observers from phenomena and the passivity of natural phenomena in relation to consciousness.
Jean Baudrillard, in Simulacra and Simulation, introduced the concept that reality or the principle of “The Real” is short-circuited by the interchangeability of signs in an era whose communicative and semantic acts are dominated by electronic media and digital technologies. Baudrillard proposes the notion that, in such a state, where subjects are detached from the outcomes of events (political, literary, artistic, personal, or otherwise), events no longer hold any particular sway on the subject nor have any identifiable context; they therefore have the effect of producing widespread indifference, detachment, and passivity in industrialized populations. He claimed that a constant stream of appearances and references without any direct consequences to viewers or readers could eventually render the division between appearance and object indiscernible, resulting, ironically, in the “disappearance” of mankind in what is, in effect, a virtual or holographic state, composed only of appearances. For Baudrillard, “simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or a reality: a hyperreal.”
Fredric Jameson set forth one of the first expansive theoretical treatments of postmodernism as a historical period, intellectual trend, and social phenomenon in a series of lectures at the Whitney Museum, later expanded as Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991).
In Analysis of the Journey, a journal birthed from postmodernism, Douglas Kellner insists that the “assumptions and procedures of modern theory” must be forgotten. Extensively, Kellner analyzes the terms of this theory in real-life experiences and examples. Kellner used science and technology studies as a major part of his analysis; he urged that the theory is incomplete without it. The scale was larger than just postmodernism alone; it must be interpreted through cultural studies where science and technology studies play a huge role. The reality of the September 11 attacks on the United States of America is the catalyst for his explanation. This catalyst is used as a great representation due to the mere fact of the planned ambush and destruction of “symbols of globalization”, insinuating the World Trade Center.
One of the numerous yet appropriate definitions of postmodernism and the qualm aspect aids this attribute to seem perfectly accurate. In response, Kellner continues to examine the repercussions of understanding the effects of the September 11 attacks. He questions if the attacks are only able to be understood in a limited form of postmodern theory due to the level of irony.
The conclusion he depicts is simple: postmodernism, as most use it today, will decide what experiences and signs in one’s reality will be one’s reality as they know it.
The idea of Postmodernism in architecture began as a response to the perceived blandness and failed Utopianism of the Modern movement. Modern Architecture, as established and developed by Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, was focused on:
- the pursuit of a perceived ideal perfection;
- the attempted harmony of form and function; and,
- the dismissal of “frivolous ornament.”
They argued for an architecture that represented the spirit of the age as depicted in cutting-edge technology, be it airplanes, cars, ocean liners or even supposedly artless grain silos. Modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is associated with the phrase “less is more”.
Critics of Modernism have:
- argued that the attributes of perfection and minimalism are themselves subjective;
- pointed out anachronisms in modern thought; and,
- questioned the benefits of its philosophy.
The intellectual scholarship regarding postmodernism and architecture is closely linked with the writings of critic-turned-architect Charles Jencks, beginning with lectures in the early 1970s and his essay “The rise of post-modern architecture” from 1975. His magnum opus, however, is the book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, first published in 1977, and since running to seven editions. Jencks makes the point that Post-Modernism (like Modernism) varies for each field of art, and that for architecture it is not just a reaction to Modernism but what he terms double coding: “Double Coding: the combination of Modern techniques with something else (usually traditional building) in order for architecture to communicate with the public and a concerned minority, usually other architects.” In their book, “Revisiting Postmodernism”, Terry Farrell and Adam Furman argue that postmodernism brought a more joyous and sensual experience to the culture, particularly in architecture.
Postmodern art is a body of art movements that sought to contradict some aspects of modernism or some aspects that emerged or developed in its aftermath. Cultural production manifesting as intermedia, installation art, conceptual art, deconstructionist display, and multimedia, particularly involving video are described as postmodern.
Jorge Luis Borges’ (1939) short story Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, is often considered as predicting postmodernism and conceiving the ideal of the ultimate parody. Samuel Beckett is sometimes seen as an important precursor and influence. Novelists who are commonly connected with postmodern literature include Vladimir Nabokov, William Gaddis, Umberto Eco, Pier Vittorio Tondelli, John Hawkes, William S. Burroughs, Giannina Braschi, Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth, Jean Rhys, Donald Barthelme, E. L. Doctorow, Richard Kalich, Jerzy Kosiński, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon (Pynchon’s work has also been described as “high modern”), Ishmael Reed, Kathy Acker, Ana Lydia Vega, Jáchym Topol and Paul Auster.
In 1971, the Arab-American scholar Ihab Hassan published The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature, an early work of literary criticism from a postmodern perspective, in which the author traces the development of what he calls “literature of silence” through Marquis de Sade, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett, and many others, including developments such as the Theatre of the Absurd and the nouveau roman. In Postmodernist Fiction (1987), Brian McHale details the shift from modernism to postmodernism, arguing that the former is characterized by an epistemological dominant, and that postmodern works have developed out of modernism and are primarily concerned with questions of ontology. In Constructing Postmodernism (1992), McHale’s second book, he provides readings of postmodern fiction and of some of the contemporary writers who go under the label of cyberpunk. McHale’s “What Was Postmodernism?” (2007), follows Raymond Federman’s lead in now using the past tense when discussing postmodernism.
Jonathan Kramer has written that avant-garde musical compositions (which some would consider modernist rather than postmodernist) “defy more than seduce the listener, and they extend by potentially unsettling means the very idea of what music is.” The postmodern impulse in classical music arose in the 1960s with the advent of musical minimalism. Composers such as Terry Riley, Henryk Górecki, Bradley Joseph, John Adams, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, and Lou Harrison reacted to the perceived elitism and dissonant sound of atonal academic modernism by producing music with simple textures and relatively consonant harmonies, whilst others, most notably John Cage challenged the prevailing narratives of beauty and objectivity common to Modernism.
Author on postmodernism, Dominic Strinati, has noted, it is also important “to include in this category the so-called ‘art rock’ musical innovations and mixing of styles associated with groups like Talking Heads, and performers like Laurie Anderson, together with the self-conscious ‘reinvention of disco’ by the Pet Shop Boys”.
Modernism sought to design and plan cities which followed the logic of the new model of industrial mass production; reverting to large-scale solutions, aesthetic standardisation and prefabricated design solutions. Modernism eroded urban living by its failure to recognise differences and aim towards homogenous landscapes (Simonsen 1990, 57). Jane Jacobs’ 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities was a sustained critique of urban planning as it had developed within Modernism and marked a transition from modernity to postmodernity in thinking about urban planning (Irving 1993, 479). However, the transition from Modernism to Postmodernism is often said to have happened at 3:32pm on 15 July in 1972, when Pruitt–Igoe; a housing development for low-income people in St. Louis designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki, which had been a prize-winning version of Le Corbusier’s ‘machine for modern living’ was deemed uninhabitable and was torn down (Irving 1993, 480). Since then, Postmodernism has involved theories that embrace and aim to create diversity, and it exalts uncertainty, flexibility and change (Hatuka & D’Hooghe 2007) and rejects utopianism while embracing a utopian way of thinking and acting. Postmodernity of ‘resistance’ seeks to deconstruct Modernism and is a critique of the origins without necessarily returning to them (Irving 1993, 60). As a result of Postmodernism, planners are much less inclined to lay a firm or steady claim to there being one single ‘right way’ of engaging in urban planning and are more open to different styles and ideas of ‘how to plan’ (Irving 474).
Criticisms of postmodernism are intellectually diverse, including the assertions that postmodernism is meaningless and promotes obscurantism.
In part in reference to post-modernism, conservative English philosopher Roger Scruton wrote, “A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely relative,’ is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.” Similarly, Dick Hebdige criticized the vagueness of the term, enumerating a long list of otherwise unrelated concepts that people have designated as “postmodernism”, from “the décor of a room” or “a ‘scratch’ video”, to fear of nuclear armageddon and the “implosion of meaning”, and stated that anything that could signify all of those things was “a buzzword”.
The anarcho-syndicalist linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky has argued that postmodernism is meaningless because it adds nothing to analytical or empirical knowledge. He asks why postmodernist intellectuals do not respond like people in other fields when asked, “what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn’t already obvious, etc.?…If [these requests] can’t be met, then I’d suggest recourse to Hume’s advice in similar circumstances: ‘to the flames’.”
Christian philosopher William Lane Craig has noted “The idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth. In fact, a postmodern culture is an impossibility; it would be utterly unliveable. People are not relativistic when it comes to matters of science, engineering, and technology; rather, they are relativistic and pluralistic in matters of religion and ethics. But, of course, that’s not postmodernism; that’s modernism!”
American academic and aesthete Camille Paglia has asserted “The end result of four decades of postmodernism permeating the art world is that there is very little interesting or important work being done right now in the fine arts. Irony was a bold and creative posture when Duchamp did it, but it is now an utterly banal, exhausted, and tedious strategy. Young artists have been taught to be “cool” and “hip” and thus painfully self-conscious. They are not encouraged to be enthusiastic, emotional, and visionary. They have been cut off from artistic tradition by the crippled skepticism about history that they have been taught by ignorant and solipsistic postmodernists. In short, the art world will never revive until postmodernism fades away. Postmodernism is a plague upon the mind and the heart.”
German philosopher Albrecht Wellmer has asserted that “postmodernism at its best might be seen as a self-critical – a sceptical, ironic, but nevertheless unrelenting – form of modernism; a modernism beyond utopianism, scientism and foundationalism; in short a postmetaphysical modernism.”
A formal, academic critique of postmodernism can be found in Beyond the Hoax by physics professor Alan Sokal and in Fashionable Nonsense by Sokal and Belgian physicist Jean Bricmont, both books discussing the so-called Sokal affair. In 1996, Sokal wrote a deliberately nonsensical article in a style similar to postmodernist articles, which was accepted for publication by the postmodern cultural studies journal, Social Text. On the same day of the release he published another article in a different journal explaining the Social Text article hoax. The philosopher Thomas Nagel has supported Sokal and Bricmont, describing their book Fashionable Nonsense as consisting largely of “extensive quotations of scientific gibberish from name-brand French intellectuals, together with eerily patient explanations of why it is gibberish,” and agreeing that “there does seem to be something about the Parisian scene that is particularly hospitable to reckless verbosity.”
A more recent example of the difficulty of distinguishing nonsensical artifacts from genuine postmodernist scholarship is the Grievance Studies affair.
The French psychotherapist and philosopher, Félix Guattari, often considered a “postmodernist”, rejected its theoretical assumptions by arguing that the structuralist and postmodernist visions of the world were not flexible enough to seek explanations in psychological, social and environmental domains at the same time.
Zimbabwean-born British Marxist Alex Callinicos argues that postmodernism “reflects the disappointed revolutionary generation of ’68, and the incorporation of many of its members into the professional and managerial ‘new middle class’. It is best read as a symptom of political frustration and social mobility rather than as a significant intellectual or cultural phenomenon in its own right.”
Christopher Hitchens in his book, Why Orwell Matters, writes, in advocating for simple, clear and direct expression of ideas, “The Postmodernists’ tyranny wears people down by boredom and semi-literate prose.”
Analytic philosopher Daniel Dennett declared, “Postmodernism, the school of ‘thought’ that proclaimed ‘There are no truths, only interpretations’ has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for ‘conversations’ in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.”
American historian Richard Wolin traces the origins of postmodernism to intellectual roots in Fascism, writing “postmodernism has been nourished by the doctrines of Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Blanchot, and Paul de Man—all of whom either prefigured or succumbed to the proverbial intellectual fascination with fascism.”
Daniel A. Farber and Suzanna Sherry criticised Postmodernism for reducing the complexity of the modern world to an expression of power and for undermining truth and reason: “If the modern era begins with the European Enlightenment, the postmodern era that captivates the radical multiculturalists begins with its rejection. According to the new radicals, the Enlightenment-inspired ideas that have previously structured our world, especially the legal and academic parts of it, are a fraud perpetrated and perpetuated by white males to consolidate their own power. Those who disagree are not only blind but bigoted. The Enlightenment’s goal of an objective and reasoned basis for knowledge, merit, truth, justice, and the like is an impossibility: “objectivity,” in the sense of standards of judgment that transcend individual perspectives, does not exist. Reason is just another code word for the views of the privileged. The Enlightenment itself merely replaced one socially constructed view of reality with another, mistaking power for knowledge. There is naught but power.”
Richard Caputo, William Epstein, David Stoesz & Bruce Thyer consider postmodernism to be a “dead end in social work epistemology”. They write, “Postmodernism continues to have a detrimental influence on social work, questioning the Enlightenment, criticizing established research methods, and challenging scientific authority. The promotion of postmodernism by editors of Social Work and the Journal of Social Work Education has elevated postmodernism, placing it on a par with theoretically guided and empirically based research. The inclusion of postmodernism in the 2008 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards of the Council on Social Work Education and its 2015 sequel further erode the knowledge-building capacity of social work educators. In relation to other disciplines that have exploited empirical methods, social work’s stature will continue to ebb until postmodernism is rejected in favor of scientific methods for generating knowledge.”
H. Sidky pointed out what he sees as several “inherent flaws” of a postmodern antiscience perspective, including the confusion of the authority of science (evidence) with the scientist conveying the knowledge; its self-contradictory claim that all truths are relative; and its strategic ambiguity. He sees 21st-century anti-scientific and pseudo-scientific approaches to knowledge, particularly in the United States, as rooted in a postmodernist “decades-long academic assault on science:” “Many of those indoctrinated in postmodern anti-science went on to become conservative political and religious leaders, policymakers, journalists, journal editors, judges, lawyers, and members of city councils and school boards. Sadly, they forgot the lofty ideals of their teachers, except that science is bogus.”
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Of or relating to an intellectual stance often marked by eclecticism and irony and tending to reject the universal validity of such principles as hierarchy, binary opposition, categorization, and stable identity.
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