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What is Postmodernism?

PhD, English Literature (Lancaster University)

Date Published: 12.03.2023,

Last Updated: 23.01.2024

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Defining Postmodernism 

Postmodernism is a movement that emerged in the late twentieth century, characterised by suspicion of a universal ‘truth’, which had dominated Western philosophy since the 17th and 18th centuries. Postmodernism moves away from modernism’s utopian ideals. Instead, postmodernism embraced complexity, contradiction and multiple layers of meaning in art, literature and philosophy. Postmodernism has resisted the idea of ‘grand narratives’, which are positioned as a universal truth. Examples of grand narratives (also known as meta-narratives) include Marxism and The Enlightenment, which had been essential for modernist thinkers. These grand narratives, postmodernists believe, are designed to oppress and control. 

In Understanding Postmodernism (2017), Stewart E. Kelly and James K. Dew Jr outline the main characteristics of postmodernism. They highlight that postmodernism ‘challenges the Enlightenment confidence in human reason’ and ‘[views] truth as something that is created/constructed by human beings, rather than something discovered that is (in some sense) already out there’ (2017). Their work further points out that postmodernists have a scepticism for the notion that history and social science can uncover an objective truth.  As Kelly and Dew demonstrate, the central focus of postmodernism is in challenging presumptions of traditional ways of representing the world, prioritising subjective and diverse experiences. 

The principles of postmodernism have formed through the work of philosophers, writers and artists in the twentieth century. This guide will discuss the work of key postmodernist theorists to trace the history and development of the theory and then go on to discuss how this theory is applied to works of art and literature. 


Key Postmodernist Theorists

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) was a major influence on postmodernism through his theory of deconstruction. Deconstruction asserts that a work of art is not limited to one fixed meaning but, in fact, can be subject to multiple and often contradictory interpretations. For Derrida, much of Western art and philosophical thinking centred around a set of universal assumptions – deconstruction is about challenging these assumptions and recognising them. 

Deconstruction is a reaction against structuralism, which argued that if you understand the parts which make the whole, the structures around an object, then you could fully understand that object. Key structuralist thinkers include Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes. An overview of structuralism can be found in Jayasudha Thiagarajan’s Modern Literary Theory: Structuralism and Post Structuralism (2011). 

For example, we can see that Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1623) is a play about a man who kills and overthrows the King to usurp his power. Deconstruction, on the other hand, would say that we cannot all arrive at the same meaning and that structuralism ignores the multitude of other interpretations that a viewer or reader can bring to a text. From the deconstructionist point of view, we learn to see Macbeth through the lens of various other interpretations and themes; we begin to see how ideas of masculinity or ideas around ambition, for example, contribute to the play; we can see how Shakespeare’s use of intertextual reference help to construct and give meaning to his work. 

As Hugh J. Silverman writes in Derrida and Deconstruction (2004),

Therefore, we can look outside of a work in order to interpret it and examine what it excludes. The theory argues that we cannot arrive at a universal interpretation of a work due to the multitude of experiences and cultural differences the writer, viewer or reader may have. 


Jean Baudrillard 

Though Baudrillard has often distanced himself from postmodernism, much of his work has influenced the theory, particularly, his concept of the ‘simulacrum’. Baudrillard has even been described as the ‘high priest of postmodernism’ (Steve Readhead, 2019, 4). The simulacrum is a type of simulation in which reality and representation become indistinguishable. Baudrillard argues there are three orders of simulacra: 

  1. The first occurs in the pre-modern age whereby art is produced that is a clear counterfeit of the real, such as paintings of nobility or representations of religious icons. 
  2. During the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, we see representations become more real with the emergence of photographs and, later, video. Mass production of these cultural images misrepresents reality by imitating the original product with such exactness. 
  3. The final stage is associated with our post-modern society in which the consumer is bombarded so heavily with cultural products that it becomes difficult to distinguish reality from the representation. 

This final stage is further demonstrated by the intertextual quality of a great deal of our media. In this stage, Baudrillard argues, there is no distinction between reality and what it represents, only simulacrum. This is what Baudrillard calls ’hyperreality.’ A good example of this would be social media; though someone’s social media is only a representation of a person’s life as shown through curated images and posts, it comes to represent reality. Baudrillard uses the example of Disneyland to explain these concepts in Simulacra and Simulations (1981 [2020]), writing that: 

Baudrillard’s argument is that because Disney is presented as a world of escapism, a clearly unreal and imaginary space, it positions the world outside of it as ‘real’. This, Baudrillard argues, conceals the fact that much of our experience is manufactured. The hyperreality Baudrillard writes of reveals how our perception of reality is constructed, a key tenet of postmodernist theory. 


Frederic Jameson

Frederic Jameson in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991 [2013]) also saw the postmodern landscape as being a space in which the real is substituted for imitations. Jameson called postmodernism ‘an immense and historically original acculturation of the Real’ (1991 [2013]) arguing that it is difficult to distinguish what is real and what is a cultural product. Jameson’s argument continues as he suggests that, while modernism was concerned with all that was new, postmodernism has no interest in history: it merely churns out empty pastiche which is then consumed. It is for this reason that Jameson sees the postmodern world as a result of capitalist ideologies. 


Postmodern Art

We can begin to understand postmodern art through its opposition to modernist art. As Irving Sandler states in Art Of The Postmodern Era: From The Late 1960s To The Early 1990s,

As Sandler goes on to illustrate, modernists abhorred art which was seen as commercialised and mass-produced. ‘Kitsch’ in particular was regarded as the antithesis of high art (Sandler, 2018). Postmodernists reacted to these criticisms by arguing that there cannot be an objective value judgement for taste. The separation of high and low art was, for postmodernists, another example of a unified assumption, a universal truth about quality. 

One of the most popular postmodern artists was Andy Warhol (1928-87). Warhol sought to criticise mass culture by replicating and imitating it in his art.  Sandler writes that ‘Warhol chose to portray images of commodities because of his interest in them as commodities—as icons of consumerism. He emphasized their nature as commodities by employing the technique of commercial art to duplicate them… Warhol’s commodities exemplified consumption—and advertising’ (2018). Examples of this included his work Brillo Boxes (1964) which were precise copies of the original packaging; Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962) which handpainted the mass-produced advertising campaigns for Campbell’s soup onto canvas, imitating the repetitive nature of commercial advertising; and Marilyn Monroe (1967), a silkscreen painting of the famous actress consisting of fifty repeated images. Warhol’s work unveils the darker side of American consumer culture, and its need for uniformity. Thus, Wahrol challenged perceptions of what gives art value. There is a clear connection here to the work of Baudrillard who saw that postmodern society had begun to resemble nothing but a simulation, our reality constructed through copies of copies. 


Postmodern Literature  

Like postmodern art, postmodern literature sought to challenge absolute meaning. As such, this literature is often absurd, fragmented, metafictional and features temporal or narrative disruption. This type of fiction also challenged authority and was often political. The postmodern text often draws attention to its own artifice and comments upon the nature of literature and fiction, subverting conventional expectations of plot, genre and narrative. The playful use of the text’s construction often indicates the randomness of daily life which, whilst often comic is existential in nature, with the characters’ absurd actions hinting at the purposelessness of life.  Postmodern literature includes texts such as Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996).

This bleak outlook can be further seen through the Theatre of the Absurd, coming from the absurdist philosophy of Albert Camus (‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, 1942). This philosophy posited that while there may well be a meaning to life, humans are limited in their mental capacity and cannot, therefore, ever find such a meaning. Humanity thus continues on lacking a true understanding of its purpose. Such absurdity can be seen in the work of Samuel Beckett. (1906-1989). Beckett’s work is often categorised as ‘tragicomic’ and reveals the bleak nature of human existence through absurdity and black comedy. Emblematic of this is his play Waiting for Godot (1953) two men engage in conversation while waiting for their friend Godot who never arrives. Zehra Gündar in Postmodern Absurdity writes that ‘[t]he uncertainties, the non-resolutions, the waiting for the end to come, the gaps and impasses accompanied with nonsense, incomprehensible language solidify the metafictional or the metatheatrical aspect of [Beckett’s] plays’ (2019, 12). Other famous postmodern writers include Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon and Kathy Acker to name but a few. 


Criticism of Postmodernism 

Criticism of postmodernism has tended to be directed towards specific disciplines, rather than the broad theory. As Robert F. Barsky states in Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent  ‘[t]heorists seldom agree on how to define postmodernism, and the problem is compounded when one moves from one discipline to another’ (1997, 193). Critiques of postmodern architecture, understandably, are different to those of postmodern literature or philosophy and so on. As such, this section will briefly outline some of the main arguments against postmodern philosophy, art and literature. 

Postmodern philosophy, particularly that of Baudrillard, has been condemned by Christopher Norris most notably in his work Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War (1992). This was published in response to Baudrillard’s essay ‘The Gulf War did not take place’ (1991) which argued that the war had been a hyperreal event in which the circumstances of the war can be questioned due to the propaganda surrounding it. Norris condemns this line of thinking by arguing that by accepting this hyperreality as unreal, there is no need for resistance to such atrocities as those occurring during the Gulf War. It is worth noting, however, that Norris does not take issue with all aspects of postmodernism and finds Derrida ‘an example of postmodern lucidity’ (Barsky, 1997, 194). 

In Roy D’Andrade’s article ‘Moral Models in Anthropology,’ he criticises the theory’s definition of objectivity and subjectivity suggesting that moral and objective models must be separated as ‘they are counterproductive in discovering how the world works…Science works not because it produces unbiased accounts but because its accounts are objective enough to be proved or disproved no matter what anyone wants to be true’ (D’Andrade 1995: 402-4). 

Pauline Marie Rosenau provides a thorough examination of the contradictions within postmodernism in Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions (1991). In this work, Rosenau argues that ‘post-modernism devalues any pretensions to theory building. But an anti-theory position is itself a theoretical stand.’ She further points out that although postmodernists stress ‘the importance of the irrational and expressing grave doubts about the Enlightenment’s intellectual tools of reason, logic, and rationality, post-modernists employ these latter instruments in their own analysis.’ 

In addition to postmodern philosophy being accused of using the theoretical models it criticises, postmodern art has likewise been criticised for its uneasy relationship with the mass production it tends to condemn. As Stefan Morawski argues in The Troubles with Postmodernism,

As Morawski identifies there is a difficult tension between what postmodernism condemns and what it promotes. Linda Hutcheon makes a similar argument on the use of pop art finding that there are contradictory and conflicting ways of interpreting the work of Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97). Hutcheon asks in A Poetics of Postmodernism,

Is it totally and cynically commodified in its use of the techniques of advertising and comics? Or does the work of Warhol and Lichtenstein ironically appropriate that commodified American life in order to effect a critical reappraisal of mass culture and to comment upon the commodification of daily life under capitalism? (1988)

Such contradictions mean that postmodern artists have benefitted from the commodity culture and mass production that they condemn. 

Discussions of postmodernism upholding that which it condemns can further be evidenced in literature. Hutcheon argues that in American postmodernism intertextual references appropriate and reformulate ‘the dominant white, male, middle-class, heterosexual, Eurocentric culture’ (Hutcheon, 1998). She goes on to state that Postmodernist literature does not reject these hegemonic norms but ‘signals its dependence by its use of the canon, but reveals its rebellion through its ironic abuse of it’ (Hutcheon, 1998). Therefore, while many see issues of reinforcing these dominant ideologies, the use of parody is used to resist and criticise said ideologies. 


Further Reading & Resources on Perlego


Barsky, R. F. (1996) Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent. EOW Press Digital. 

Baudrillard, J. (2020). ‘Simulacra and simulations.’ The New Social Theory Reader. Routledge.

Camus, A. (1990). The Myth of Sisyphus: Penguin. 

D’andrade, R. (1995). ‘Moral models in anthropology.’ Current Anthropology, 36(3).

Gündar, Z. (2019) Postmodern Absurdity: Metafiction in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Happy Days and Endgame. Lambert Academic Publishing 

Hutcheon, L. (2003) A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. Routledge. 

Jameson. F. (2013) Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press. 

Kelly, S. and James K. Drew Jr. (2007) Understanding Postmodernism: A Christian Perspective

Morawski, S. (2013) The Troubles with Postmodernism. Routledge. 

Norris, C. (1992) Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War. University of Massachusetts Press 

Readhead. S. (2019) The Jean Baudrillard Reader. EUP

Rosenau. P. M. (1991) Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions. Princeton Uni Press. 

Sandler, I. (2018) The Art of the Postmodern Era: From the late 1960s to the early 1990s.Routledge 

Thiagarajan, J. (2011) Modern Literary Theory: Structuralism and Post Structuralism. Lambert Academic Publishing.

PhD, English Literature (Lancaster University)

Sophie Raine has a PhD from Lancaster University. Her work focuses on penny dreadfuls and urban spaces. Her previous publications have been featured in VPFA (2019; 2022) and the Palgrave Handbook for Steam Age Gothic (2021) and her co-edited collection Penny Dreadfuls and the Gothic was released in 2023 with University of Wales Press.