What is Postmodernism?

As creative practitioners who have started careers in the 2020s, most of you may easily relate to Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (1966), the famous rectangular pile of bricks, as a work of art (see below).


The taste and judgment of most artists perhaps were not so in the middle of the 1960s, however. What nowadays is a classic example of postmodern art that attracts thousands of visitors to the Tate Modern gallery in London once was ignored, criticized, or ridiculed as boring or even nonsensical! The presentation of that typical example of a postmodern object in the 60s is now considered to be a milestone in postmodern art (Butler, 1994, 1).

What is postmodernism, after all? What is the ‘postmodern condition?’ Who are the iconic figures known to be postmodernists? What are the significant characteristics of this arguably most influential, most debated, and most sovereign intellectual and artistic movement of our time? In this lesson, we provide some basic answers to these questions.



What is postmodern about Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, California?


Within the movement we know as postmodernism, there are different trends with substantially undeniable and undeniably substantial differences. In this overview for convenience, however, we present them as if they are the members of one political party with all the internal quarrels one can imagine (See: Butler, 1994).

Postmodernism, says Bryan Duignan, “is characterized by broad skepticism or relativism and a general suspicion of reason. It also broadly asserts that Western intellectual and cultural norms and values are a product of, or are in some sense influenced by, the ideology of dominant or elite groups and at least indirectly serve their interests.” (Duignan, Britannica). This skepticism revaluates the conventional notions of truth, universality, and objectivity, which were deemed undebatable for a long time in the premodern and modern eras. In a nutshell, the revision of all those notions reinforces the role that the multiplicity of human perspectives plays in understanding.

Dock or Rabbit?!

Fabricating the truth

All of us have watched multiple examples of ‘exposing the truth” in the mainstream media. Postmodernism has been applauded for its critique of the notion of truth that is fabricated in the media. The Egyptian artist and writer Fahmy Shahin provides us with a shocking example of manipulating the truth in the media, in this case, about the US invasion of Iraq. He writes:

“Images from conflict zones frequently go viral, and often, the identity of the photographer and the publisher are lost through millions of people sharing the image. Even well-known photographers for prestigious newspapers manipulate images for different reasons. The famous incident of Los Angeles Times photographer Brian Walski shows that image manipulation does not necessarily mean creating new content. Walski combined elements from two pictures during the Iraq war in one picture. It is not that something fundamentally changed about the image. Still, the act of manipulation justifies any doubt about how our reality is being created by the flood of images in the news that goes mostly unfiltered. The Los Angeles Times published the original and altered images on April 1st, 2003.” (medium.com)

Images before broadcasting:
The image after broadcasting:
  1. Do you find a significant difference between the first two images and the third one? 
  2. What did happen to the message that the images wanted to send?

The first appearance of the term “postmodernism” in the philosophical lexicon goes back to 1979, with the publication of The Postmodern Condition by the French thinker Jean-François Lyotard.” (Aylesworth, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). As briefly mentioned before, postmodernism is a reaction against “the intellectual assumptions and values of the modern period in the history of Western philosophy (roughly, the 17th through the 19th century).” This postmodern reaction is shaped as a downright denial of “general philosophical viewpoints that were taken for granted during the 18th-century Enlightenment” (19th century and early 20th century) (Duignan, Britannica). The prefix ‘post’ in postmodernism explicates the relation between modernism and postmodernism: postmodernism succeeds modernism; it both continues and breaks with modernism. 

Postmodernity is a cultural condition that has been brought to us by the interaction of differences in the late capitalist society around the globe (roughly since the end of WWII), of course, with some temporal differences in the initiation of the movement in different places. Make no mistakes! The differences are too substantial to deny when we look at the postmodern condition in a wide spectrum from Western Europe to the Global South. However, the intellectual trend we know as postmodernism tries to respond to the condition by considering the differences and commonalities of this wide spectrum. Most crucial for us in cultural perspectives is the ways in which postmodern philosophical ideas expound the aesthetics of our time in different artistic formats, platforms, and mediums.    

Since the 1960s, postmodernism has had its own gurus in different fields. In the intellectual battlefield, the following list of postmodern thinkers is by no means exhaustive. Still, it represents some of the most notables:  French thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, François Lyotard, Roland Barthes, Luce Irigaray, and Jean Baudrillard, American thinkers such as Judith Butler, Edward Said, Madhu Dubey, and Richard Rorty, and the Slovenian Slavoj Žižek, among many others.    Since the 1960s, literary theorists and media analysts like Ihab Hassan and Susan Sontag have explored the works of artists such as Jean-Luc Goddard, Carl Andre, Jon Portman, and Marcel Duchamp. Those theorists venture to enumerate the most important characteristics of what we know as postmodern artworks. These works are intentionally concerned with “the processes of our understanding than with the pleasures of artistic … unity.” (Butler, 1994, 4-5). Postmodern works also call for or betray a crisis and decline in ‘legitimizing master narratives’, aka metanarratives (Butler,  13).

Modernity vs. Postmodernity made simple:
Friedrich Hegel (left), Karl Marx (right)

A few words about dialectic: In the next few weeks, you will build up and undertake projects to be introduced to and to apply dialectical inquiry as your research method. In this section, however, it is helpful to know a little about dialectic as the constitutive concept of our method. The word dialectic is both a philosophical term and a literary concept. It is derived from the Greek term for the art of debate: “it indicates an argument that maneuvers between contradictory points” (Ross, 2014). In 19th-century philosophy, German philosophers Hegel and Marx used the term and developed it in their own manners to understand the world and deal with it. In this way, dialectic mediates between the contradictory points. According to Allen Wood, dialectics is best viewed as a general conception of the sort of intelligible structure the world offers and, consequently, a program for the sort of theoretical structure that would best capture it. But this means that the Hegelian dialectic cannot be separated from Hegel’s vision of reality and is best presented in terms of it.” (Wood, 1999: 199). We are not going to delve any more deeply into this term here. For the moment, suffice it to know where this term comes from and what it has gone through. It will help us to understand the method of dialectical inquiry more profoundly. 

A few words about metanarrative: Culture is manifested through practices in every society. The examples of cultural practice are abundant; to mention a handful, we may refer to medical treatment practices, religious and spiritual practices, practices connected with power relations, governance, and forms of artistic expression. In this regard, metanarratives have been supposed to “give cultural practices some form of legitimation or authority.” (Butler, 13). 

Like the coinage of the term “Postmodern Condition,” Jean-François Lyotard is credited for elaborating on metanarratives. According to Ian Buchanan, metanarratives refer “to ideas, concepts, notions, or beliefs which can function to legitimate certain social actions and practices.” (Buchanan, 2010). Let us explore the term via a couple of examples. the first one is the notion of revolution, which has served to legitimate large-scale programs of social change, specifically since the French Revolution (Ibid). Grand narrative is considered any form of “overarching ideology, which it then codes as oppressive.” (Idid). Another example is science; traditionally, science was regarded as a metanarrative to which ideologies and theories like Marxism and Freudianism appeal to legitimize their authority. Lyotard challenges the justifiability of these metanarratives in his works (Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 1984). As Aylesworth has noted: “Postmodern sensibility does not lament the loss of narrative coherence any more than the loss of being. However, the dissolution of narrative leaves the field of legitimation to a new unifying criterion: the performativity of the knowledge-producing system whose form of capital is information.” (Aylesworth, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

In sum and summation, postmodernism is thus a response to modernist allegedly universal viewpoints such as objective natural reality, the sovereignty of science’s logic, the universal validity of logic and reason, etc. In response, “Postmodernists dismiss this idea as a kind of naive realism. Such reality as there is, according to postmodernists, is a conceptual construct, an artifact of scientific practice and language.” (Duignan, Britannica). In the next few weeks, we will immerse more into these notions with more profundity.


Critical Watching!

  1. Choose one of the resources below;
  2. How does the resource relate to elements of postmodernism you learned in this lesson?
  3. How does the argument/theme of the resource relate to your creative practice? specific industry? describe and explain with examples.

Lyotard, Meta-Narrative

Capitalism as a meta-narrative of business: Leo De Caprio’s speech in the Wolf of Wall Street

Warhol and The Simpsons

Truth: Community Booyah Scene



You may already find postmodernism and its key concepts intriguing. If that is the case, in addition to the excerpts from the cited works that are available to you, the following resources can be of your interest. In the recommended readings, You can search for the major ideas discussed in class about truth, metanarrative,  and other components of postmodernity. 

  • Arnold, John. History: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000;
  • Cioffi, Frank and Ihab Hassan. “Postmodernism, Etc.: An Interview with Ihab Hassan.” Style, Vol. 33, No. 3, Postmodernism and Other Distractions: Situations and Directions for Critical Theory (Fall 1999), pp. 357-371;
  • Gutting, Gary. Foucault: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002;
  • Mills, Sara. Foucault (Routledge Thinkers). New York: Routledge, 2003.