Postmodernism – The present continuous age

Postmodernism has no conventional definition, or rather; it is beyond such definition. Time and again, scholars and avid students have tried to bind the concept in a structured definition, but every time it has managed to escape such confines. Postmodernism is a free-spirited movement that has come to represent the radical rejection of the conventional school of thought in many areas, primarily in arts and humanities but also in sciences and politics. At best, postmodernism can be better understood than expressed as a loose and modular compilation of like-minded ideas in various disciplines of human activity.

If postmodernism were to be personified, it would best match the persona of a nomad that defies boundaries and definitions alike, the one that accepts no conceptual nationality and yet is so universal that nations have to accept its presence. They had better accept it because postmodernism is the only movement that is in the present continuous tense. Even as these and millions of other words are written on postmodernism, cultures and societies and sciences in the world are living the concept. Simply put, post-postmodernism is yet to arrive. Until then, what is here and now is postmodernism, and its ethos dominates and characterizes the path-breaking activity that occurs in every walk of life in the new-age world – right from pure and applied art to science and technology, right from painting to cloning, right from Pina Bausch to Larry Page.

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Hence, the paper begins by concluding that it is a futile exercise to try to define postmodernism, simply because it is postmodernism that defines us. Hence, we would be better off getting defined by it and getting identified with it.

Origins and evolution of postmodernism

Just like in case of postmodernism’s definition, it is difficult to pinpoint the timeline of its evolution. But one can certainly do better at tracing the nature of its evolution.

Postmodernism came into being as a sequel to modernism, both conceptually as well as contextually. Its evolution perhaps started as a germ that got incubated in the collective mindset and psyche of those leading lights that were active in the fields of the creative expression and humanities during and immediately after the peak period of modernism in early and mid-twentieth century. Hence, postmodernism retains many characteristics and traits of modernism in its belief system. As a direct descendent of modernism, it is influenced by its guiding principles. So, any attempt at understanding postmodernism should first digest modernism – “Perhaps the easiest way to start thinking about postmodernism is by thinking about modernism” (ref01).

Understanding modernism to understand postmodernism

Modernism was born as a reformist reaction to the preceding classical Victorian age. Historically, it embodies the resurgent spirit of a renaissance after WWII – “The “modern” era is associated with the European Enlightenment, which begins roughly in the middle of the eighteenth century” (ref02). This enlightenment was sought in the urge to move away from confusion to clarity, from chaos to order. In this context, “modernity is fundamentally about order: about rationality and rationalization, creating order out of chaos” (ref03). Such a heightened experience was expressed through synonyms in literature, visual arts, music, architecture and stagecraft. This movement then went on to influence the ideology and functioning of the state apparatus, seeking rationality, civic order, stability, positivism and progress. In other words, modernism became modernization – “Modernization is a diverse unity of socio-economic changes generated by scientific and technological discoveries and innovations” (ref04). WWII was a fight with the feudal and dictatorial hegemonies that placed state interest above all on one side, and the liberal, free-spirited reformist forces that gave importance to individual enterprise on the other side. In terms of cultural movements, this circumstance was aptly reflected in the rigid, orthodox and unrelenting classical age on one hand and the reformist, rational modernism on the other hand. After WWII, Western Europe, UK and America were becoming increasingly capitalist, and so modernism, which was by now intricately interwoven with state polity, too started reflecting that aspiration. The scope and reach of modernism included “virtually all of our social structures and institutions, including democracy, law, science, ethics, and aesthetics” (ref05). Modernism, in its manifestation as modernization, came to represent “the progressive economic and administrative rationalization and differentiation of the social world” (ref06).
The macro characteristics of modernism include conceptual tenets derived mainly from literature and other creative pursuits, which were then incorporated in social, political and cultural activities. Major among them are:

  • Importance to subjectivity rather than objective.
  • Rejection of conventionalism in taking positions, questioning the predefined and assumedly orderly.
  • Affinity for asymmetrical and non-conformist thought process, including a penchant for “fragmented forms, discontinuous narratives and a random-seeming collage of different materials” (ref07).
  • Heightened realization and reliance on the response of self or inner voice, hence more individualistic and irreverent approach.
  • Preference for the star over pretentious, which in terms of literature and aesthetics translates into a preference for minimalism over the ornamental extravaganza.
  • Postmodernism, as a product of modernism, carried in it the genes of these characteristics and came into existence as a mirror image of its parent philosophy.
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The ism and the ity

Anthropologists in social and cultural branches have since long debated the terming of the movement and all its aspects under one umbrella term of modernism. Their argument is focused on the premise that every ism has its cultural lineage which is identified by the post-fix ity. For example, realism and reality. Hence, modernism’s culture should be modernity, and that of postmodernism, postmodernity. This makes the terms modernism and postmodernism incomplete without modernity and postmodernity – “There is a sense in which if one sees modernism as the culture of modernity, postmodernism is the culture of postmodernity” (ref08).

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