CONTEMPORARY PHILOSOPHY – POSTMODERNISM AND CRITICAL THEORY
FEBRUARY 25, 2012
Broadly and variously defined, postmodernism refers to a specific period of time that began in the 1940s, a style of literature, architecture, art philosophy, or the plight of Western society in post-capitalist age. This movement encompasses a set of critical and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, and hyperreality to break apart or deconstruct other the structural elements achieved through modernism, including temporality, presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and meaning achieved through unity. The term “postmodernism” first entered the philosophical lexicon in 1979, with the publication of The Postmodern Condition, by Jean-François Lyotard, in which Lyotard utilizes Ludwig Wittgenstein’s model of language games and concepts taken from speech act theory to account for “a transformation of the game rules” for science, art, and literature. For Lyotard, postmodern thought can best be summed up as “incredulity towards meta narratives.” According to Lyotard, postmodernists eschew “grand narratives” that attempt to account for, explain, and compartmentalize human life and history; there is no clearly defined, collective meaning and for the postmodern world, there is no mourning of the loss of meaning because the outcome of one’s own experience and condition will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than exact and universal.
Jean Baudrillard, another influential postmodernist, deviates slightly from standard principles and presents a highly dystopic definition of the postmodern world, stating that we have lost what is “real” and that we have nothing left except a preoccupation with its disappearance. The loss of certain historical myths, the onslaught of mediatization, the spread of the kitsch, and consumerism all combine together to form this postmodern, apocalyptic present. Generally speaking, postmodern critics, largely inspired by the postmodern world in which they live, attempt to rethink and reconfigure a number of concepts touted by Enlightenment humanism and modernism including subjectivity, temporality, progress, empiricism, and the rule of law. Without the required modern unity of the subject and the pressure of seeking cohesive meaning in a modern state, the faculties are set free to operate on their own, thus constantly inventing, reinventing and recreating imagination, understanding, and reason.
Postmodern Critical Theory is a reactionary literary criticism which came about in response to literary modernist theory. For those using critical theory to analyze a work of literature, meaning is ambiguous, socially constructed, and frequently self-contradictory. The concept of the Great Author, which was central to a modernist construction of meaning, vanishes away entirely. Novels, poems, comic books and even buildings were about the nature of language itself, societal pressure, prejudice—anything, but the author himself. Critical theorist Michel Foucault vies the author as simply a mechanism or vehicle for organizing texts and must either be challenged or disregarded completely. Literary postmodernism presents a stark contrast to modernism and is characterized by the following features: an amalgamation of “high” and “low” styles within in the same text; discontinuity of tone, point of view, register, and logical sequence; random intrusions, interruptions and disruptions in the text itself(not the story or narrative), non-linear form, and a self-consciousness about language and literary technique, particularly concerning the use of metaphor and symbol. Features of postmodernism are found in the works of Vladimir Nabokov, William S. Burroughs, John Ashberry, David Barthelme, Adrienne Rich, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, and James Tate.
RESOURCES FOR FURTHER EXPLORATION
General Information on Postmodernism and Critical Theory
Comprehensive guides especially helpful for those interested in other theories, such as Gender and Sex, Marxism, Narratology and New Historicism.
Specific Postmodern Definitions and Information
Find out more about the movement here, including specifics on criticism, language, construction, and Jacques Derrida.
Key Figures of the Postmodern Movement
Browse the following list in order to research other influential postmodern critics.
Consult this website for more information regarding Michel Foucault and his critique of modernity.
The Frankfurt Society and Its Influences
Find out more about the contributions—and controversy—of the Frankfurt Society here.
Read excerpts from The Postmodern Condition and find out more about Lyotard’s “language games” here.
Published by Johns Hopkins University Press, Postmodern Culture is the leading electronic journal for contemporary and interdisciplinary thought. Conduct research and search for articles of interest here.
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