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A Discussion on Defining Postmodernity

Otto Paans:

"There seems to be a broad consensus that either

(i) postmodernity as a whole is a reaction against the extremes of modernism in all spheres of life, such as artistic practice, scientific views, and industrial production, or

(ii) postmodernity is the combination of modernity with a host of other factors that mitigate or diversify modernism’s extremes.

This recombination defies narrative logic, questions conventional forms of knowledge production that developed during modernism, creates new forms of social organization and a anticipates new, flexible economy. Alternatively, terms like “Empire,” “post-industrial society,” or “multinational capitalism,” are used to describe a new and still developing world order.

One of its most salient features is highlighted by David Harvey:

- I begin with what appears to be the most startling fact about postmodernism: its total acceptance of the ephemerality, fragmentation, discontinuity, and the chaotic that formed the one half of Baudelaire's conception of modernity. But postmodernism responds to the fact of that in a very particular way. It does not try to transcend it, counteract it, or even to define the 'eternal and immutable' elements that might lie within it. Postmodernism swims, even wallows, in the fragmentary and the chaotic currents of change as if that is all there is.

Alternatively — and this line of thinking coheres with my outlook— postmodernity is regarded as a transformation of modernity. For instance, Charles Jencks maintains that postmodernity is modernity combined with a number of additional factors that diversify it. For example, in architectural design, the modernist emphasis on functionalism and aesthetic austerity is, in postmodernity, enriched with an exuberant and deliberately ironic aesthetic, while the modernist, functionalist modes of thinking are still alive under the colorful surface. A slightly different interpretation of this transformation is provided by the sociologist Ulrich Beck. His thesis of “reflexive modernity” entails that the ceaseless development and acceleration of modernity starts to affect the process of modernization itself. Modern society becomes an object of concern for itself. In a reflexive gesture, the process of modernization changes its own functioning and future development. Consequently, a global risk society emerges, in which old securities disappear and individuals are “condemned to be free.”6 That these concepts of “liquid modernity” or “reflexive modernity” lead easily to bold statements can also be discerned in Jean-Francois Lyotard’s hallmark study, The Postmodern Condition.

Notably, his claim that the “metanarratives” of history had ceased to function was taken as a mission statement of postmodernity, but it can also be read as simply a diagnosis that modernity had reached a new stage. The subtitle of the Postmodern Condition is “A Report on Knowledge,” and indeed, a significant part of the book is about knowledge-production during a time when computers, automation-of-information, and digitalization more generally, took over. In this process, job prospects, education, institutional structures, and the role of “knowledge procedures” changed in ways that were unprecedented. Lyotard’s assertion that the “metanarratives” were obsolete was not a political assertion in the sense that he advocated a new era of political engagement. Rather, it was the diagnosis of a historical situation: none of the existing metanarratives could do justice to the fluidity of the present. That Lyotard overplayed his hand here is clear: to judge that the metanarratives are obsolete is to place oneself in an external, extra-historical position. Moreover, if the claim is that all metanarratives anywhere are obsolete, one thereby creates a new narrative, assuming that it has universal validity. However, this statement reflects something of the overwhelming transformation of reality that was underway. If many old certainties melt into air, the response may be to exclaim that all hitherto developed ways of thinking are insufficient to comprehend what is happening.

If the traditional ways of thinking are obsolete, ineffective or insufficient, then a new set of intellectual strategies, tactics, and modes expression need to be invented. Thus, postmodernity exploits the fragmentation, disjointedness, and incoherence to which it bears witness, employing them as tools in a strategy for comprehension and sensemaking in a world that is perceived as being out of joint. Consequently, this choice is reflected in artistic and cultural production. Tactics like collage, pastiche, bricolage, and mixed media (and more recently “transmediality”) claim pride of place, suggesting themselves as the expressive tools that will succeed in capturing the cultural currents of today."