Brief definition: Literary/Cultural theory. A reaction against formalism and the concept of universal truth; it finds that "truth"--virtue, socially acceptable beliefs--is usually a cultural construction, and therefore highly subjective. (More or less stolen from PaulM's w/u above.)

Real friggin' long definition:

Moe: "It's po-mo."
Homer, Lenny, & Carl: "Huh?"
Moe: "Postmodern."
HL&C: "Huh?"
Moe: "Weird for the sake of weird."
HL&C: "Oh!"
~~The Simpsons~~

When World War I ended, most European empires either fell or were in serious decline, limping along until the next war essentially finished them off for all intents and purposes. And so, with the idea of the aristocracy more or less becoming a relic, combined with a disgust for the attitudes of the 19th century (imperialism, industrialism, etc), and the now-fully-emerged educated middle class, Modernism became the dominant mode of artistic expression and philosophy.

Now, Modernism has the following characteristics:

Modernism, seeing the destruction of the social order thanks to WWI, saw the world as a Babel: fragmented, empty, a desert, a waste land, chaos and vacuum -- and it was their desire to rebuild meaning in that chaos, to fill the void with a new type of art, one which challenged the old ways of thinking and being. Modernism has a purpose -- to interpret the chaos, to create order, to rebuild the universe. It is cosmocratoric. "In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order." Benjy is Christ, Jason is Judas. However, Modernists essentially accept that this is impossible, that the damage is too great. Nihilism is accepted -- though while it rejects meaning as irrelevant and non-existant, in doing so, it paradoxically creates its own meaning by accepting nothingness. Sure, order is an optical illusion--but the mind can't help but accept that optical illusion as somehow true and elusive. That is why man is imperfect, deficiant. Modernism strives against illusion, but knows that doing so is hopeless.

Modernism is tragic in its worldview. The world is fragmented, needing to be rebuilt, but impossible to rebuild. All order, while desired, is an illusion.

Both the power and the futility of art to create a new order was demonstrated in fascism, communism, and World War II. For while some Modernists flirted with one or the other, the use of art to help reconstruct the universe was instead used to march them off to war. There is something aesthetically pleasing about both fascist and communist art -- both promise meaning, both use symbolism. But once again, the world fell into war, genocide, torture, chaos.

And so, Postmodernism is born.

Postmodernism is a rejection of the Enlightenment's ideas of reason, objectivity, and a knowable self. It rejects the idea of a knowable, reasonable world based on workable systems. It rejects science as the final answer. It rejects final answers. But unlike Modernism, it neither views this as tragedy, nor does it seek to reform the system, to create order out of this chaos. It is not Sisyphian. It is not seeking a solution. It is simply reporting what is, what might be, what could be, what isn't but maybe should be.

In Postmodernism, you try to see all sides, like an Omnimax theater. It's like poststructuralism. A text--say, a novel--is not just what the author says it is. It has meanings the author is not aware of. It has meaning to the reader, it has a contextual meaning, a social meaning, a historical meaning, an economic meaning, a gendered meaning. And these meanings may contradict each other, but to the Postmodernist, all contradictions are swallowed up in cloud of unknowing. The text--the physical book--is not the end of the work, for the novel is essentially created anew each time it is read or studied; at the same time, there is nothing but the physical object in front of you. Context, personal history, anything will color the way you read a text; and it is a powerplay for someone to say that your interpretation is fundamentally wrong, since in the end, you are the only one who really knows what you are talking about, what you are experiencing when you read the text. The same reaction, the same interpretation, can be applied to anything. For instance, take this parable a rabbi once told me:

All the religions of the world went out one day into a field. The Jew, the Muslim, the Christian, the Buddhist, the Hindu--everyone. And they sat in a circle. In the center of the circle sat God. And everyone saw God, but no one saw the same angle, the same part of God. But they all saw the same God.

Simplification? Well, I guess that's the nature of a parable. But there's a truth in there--that no one sees anything quite the same way. There are innumerable reasons for this, as many reasons as there are variations of DNA. And so, the Postmodernist, realizing this, often rejects a hard-fast definition of anything. All truthes are true, even though they contradict each other. And so, formalism is dismissed as constraining, a false barrier against creativity, which strives to use all these new perspectives in order to...

To what? Well...

Rennes Descartes said, "I am thinking, therefore I am." Descartes was almost there, as far as the Postmodernists were concerned. He knew that you couldn't trust thought, that you couldn't trust perception--but the fact that you're thinking proves you exist. Postmodernism says, "Well, how do you know you're not wrong?" How is it we know we're thinking? What exactly is thought? Is thought radically different from any other function? Why is thought the determining factor? What if what you think is wrong? What is thought that we supposedly do it, and rocks and trees don't? Is it because we can demonstrate through movement? Yeah, maybe. I dunno. But then, Postmodernism goes that step further and says, "does it even matter if we exist?"

Postmodernism sees that any society is held together through the use of "master narratives" -- what Derrida calls the totality of of a system. In this master narrative, the society, the state, the religion, the race, takes on the role of protagonist in a coherent narrative. In this system, America says that democracy is the ultimate, enlightened government, guaranteeing happiness to those who take part in it, ignoring the fact that, in a truely democratic system, slavery, civil rights, etc., would not exist, since the power-holding majority would have voted against it. More, this narrative often attempts to ignore or simplify the fact that "democracy" is not our mode of government, but an elected republic which is not actually based on a "one man one vote" system, but on an electoral college and gerrymandered voting districts. This is to say nothing of the issues of genocide, poll taxes, womens' sufferage, equal pay for equal work, etc.

Or take classical Marxism: in the meta-narrative of Marxism, history is inevitably marching towards communism, which guarantees happiness to those who take part in it, ignoring the fact that, in a Marxist system, the reliance is based on the will of a person to want to work, to want to be part of the system, a system which punishes those who challenge it by pointing out that human nature is not the nature of a machine. Marxism assumes that the march of human progress (for it assumes that there IS progress) is from bartering, feudalism, through capitalism, to communism. The fact that it hasn't worked out that way, or that it encourages the "purging" of enemies of the system, or the fact that it inevitably ends up becoming the very system it hates -- namely, a powerful oligarchy -- doesn't disrupt the meta-narrative of China or Cuba.

The list of meta-narratives could go on. Religious eschatology. Imperialism. History on a grand scale. Postmodernism rejects the meta-narrative for the mini-narrative. It looks at a small situation and attempts to give all sides. It realizes that the universe is too chaotic and contradictory to attempt to put a "grand scheme" on it. The grand scheme is a lie, a powerplay like a Confucian heavenly mandate. Instead, one should focus on the day-to-day, the interactions of individuals. It is in the everyday interactions that we are immediately affected, and can immediately react.

Amor non tenet ordinem
"Love has nothing to do with order."
~~Saint Columbanus~~

In postmodernism, order -- an illusion -- goes against love. Love is chaotic. Love has no boundaries. We saw this with the troubadours. We saw this with Jesus. Love transgresses the meta-narrative by taking in everything, even that which is rejected. Sex and love -- though not the same -- are inevetably tied up together in this issue, and sex is also the great transgressor. Restrictions against sexual expression or sexual existance are great ways to exercize control over people.

Restriction is the one thing that Postmodernism can be said to be bucking against. The other thing it is bucking against is the certainty of language. Again, this all poststructuralism, really. Language was once thought to be empty--words have no meanings, but only exist to represent ideas. However, what if those ideas are never really expressed? What if those ideas cannot be communicated? The Postmodernist realizes that language has its limits, and that in the end, what we think is meaning is only a perceived meaning -- in the end, I'm not in your head, I've never had your experiences, and so I can sympathize, but I will never fully understand everything that you say, only an approximation. Words have no meaning; words have a multiplicity of meanings.

Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted.
William S. Burroughs / Hassan i Sabbah

But it is a mistake to say that in Postmodernism, nothing has meaning, everything is subjective. Or, I should say, it is a mistake to say that this is all Postmoderism is, or that the above statement is simply a call to destruction. Instead, this is simply a version of Postmodernism, an interpretation of Postmodernism--much as one will differ in interpreting anything, from a translation of Ovid to forms of capitalism. Postmodernism is the acknowledgement that, though there may be a reality, it exists outside of human understanding, and that all perceived reality is, in fact, merely opinion informed with fact, but not fact. The truth really is out there, but not in here, except for the truth you create yourself. What it rejects is a meta-truth, what it rejects is received wisdom. Personal truth changes depending on the situation you find yourself in.

A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
Lao Tzu / Aesop

Think of it this way: are you the same person you were when you were five? Ten? Twenty-one? No. The truth for yourself is constantly changing. The idea of a constant self, of an ego, is false. It implies stability, it implies a personal meta-narrative. It makes one unable to adapt, to take on new ideas. Instead, Postmodernism borrows from Buddhism by saying that the ego is a lie--we are in constant flux, which is evident when placed in an unfamiliar situation. Though you may say you know how you would react to a situation, do you really?

Often the criticism against Postmodernism is that it is amoral. According to this thesis, in Postmodernism, one cannot criticize the Nazis for the Holocaust, since that would imply a moral base, which doesn't exist in Postmodernism. This is false, taking an extreme vision of Postmodernism. Postmodernism doesn't say that genocide isn't wrong--but it does point out that genocide is universial, and it is somewhat hypocritical to scream about Nazis when you're locking up your own citizens. Or, as one man put it, "You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother's eye." Most Postmodernists and Poststructuralists are usually devoted to bettering the human condition, actually, as they are opposed to the powerplays of the Big Lie of the meta-narrative. Nor are they necessarily elitists, just because they use big words and technical terms; if that defines elitism, then all scientists, lawyers, politicians, doctors, and engineers are elitists. And maybe they all are. And maybe we are, too.

Postmodernism doesn't reject compassion; quite the opposite. But it recognizes that it can't back up this gut reaction which says "be compassionate." It can't give a meta-narrative, a god-figure which says "be compassionate." But it recognizes that many world systems stress this idea of compassion, and so does not reject compassion. It has no reason to. Instead, it sees the situation at hand, and decides if compassion is applicable. It usually is. No reason not to, and it generally makes things go smoother in the forseeable future.

Any system, taken to its logical extreme, is cruel in some way. Whether the cruelty is towards the self, or towards others, it is still cruel. Christianity becomes Catharism or the Spanish Inquisition; Islam becomes the Taleban; capitalism allows slavery; socialism becomes Stalinist or Maoist totalinarianism; patriotism becomes fascism. Postmodernism is no different, but it is a convenient target today because of its desire to call into question recieved wisdom and accepted truth. Postmodernism doesn't reject "common sense" such as running out of a burning building; but it does reject the long-term reasoning behind running out of the building. Sure, I don't want to die, but outside of the effect on my family and friends, does it matter if I do? I can't ever be sure, since no god has yet to epiphany on my doorstep.

Postmodernism looks into the abyss, and though ridden by angst, says, "Well, we're fucked. Might as well have fun with it." It is play, it is pun and metaphor, it is self-conscious self-reference, it is irony, it is signification. If it had a mascot, he'd be the signifying monkey. It is the disasterously-named "Modern Era."*

Of course, these are just my opinions; I could be wrong.

Any disagreements with my definition of Postmodernism are not only welcome, but probably true.


  • William S. Burroughs
  • Discordianism
  • Fight Club
  • Dom Delillo & White Noise
  • Foucault's Pendulum & Michel Foucault
  • Kurt Vonnegut
  • Generation X & Douglas Coupland
  • David Lynch
  • Jacques Derrida
  • The Beatles
  • Roland Barthes
  • They Might Be Giants
  • The Simpsons

    I have not attempted to put that list in order. That's very postmodern of me. And the list goes on...

    * And that's where this all started, when wunderhorn1 and I were watching a documentary about Kubrick and started discussing classical music. "What will they call the 20th century style in the future? What will they name what comes after Romanticism? What name is there, since 'modern' won't fit in the future?" He (more or less--I'm paraphrasing) said. From there, it just sort of exploded.

    ~~Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,~~
    ~~life is but a dream.~~