Ian Randall is an educator, artist and author at Cambridge University Press.
You can view examples of artworks or obtain further information here.


Sunday, January 29, 2012

What is Postmodernism?

I am frequently being asked to explain what is Postmodernism.

To a contemporary reader it is like explaining to a fish what it is like to be wet. If you have the breath of life in you then you have spent your entire life in a Postmodern age.

You are a Postmodernist - You are wet !

So fish - let me try to explain what it is like to be wet.

We are living in an age POST (or after) the 'Great' Modern Age. This was the historical period from the Renaissance until the 'Great' War, 1914. This period of around 500 years encompassed the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, etc. It was an age of progress and conquest, mass migration and navigation, people were swept from every corner of the globe. Empirical knowledge, facts, truth was something to possess and to control. History was the history of Western civilisation. It was the age of scientific discovery, global economics, triumphalism, nationalism and rationalism and the white male 'genius'.

The Modern Age raced at full speed, head long, unchecked and unquestioningly into the Great War. Men were to become heroes, see the world and be home for Christmas. Instead they met the machine gun, military rationalism and a four year war of attrition. The Allies had 6 million soldiers, the Hun's had 4 million, if every one of ours kills one of them before he dies, we've won! - was the Allies strategy.

As you can imagine, nearly 60 million deaths of men, women and children caused something of a re-think about the 'Great' Modernist project. Numbers of intellectuals, poets, writers and artists started to question the assumptions of Modernism and to reject all that was seen to contribute to such destruction. So a new spirit of cynicism, skepticism and questioning spread and was to be recognised as a new historical era.  This new historical period proceeded Modernism and was at the same time irrevocably connected to it. Throughout the Twentieth Century modernism continued to flourish but was coupled with a new self-awareness, self-reflection and self-critical questioning. Postmodernism has many different manifestations in art, architecture, literature, science and in all branches of human endeavour.

Today, Modernism can be seen in areas of international politics, consumerism, globalisation and free market capitalism. Postmodern voices continue to call for a 're-think' of modernist values. Postmodern people are saying 'No' to environmental degradation, social injustice and racial genocide. The 're-thinkers' are swelling in numbers and are becoming a political force via the proliferation of the Internet and social networking. So much so that in many areas the postmodern re-think is becoming the mainstream. You see it when you put out your recycling each week, drink Fair Trade coffee, buy 'organic' veggies, say 'no' to plastic bags, laugh at the ironic cultural references in the Simpson'ssponsor a child in the developing world and subscribe to Amnesty International's emailing list. It is now 'OK' to believe in spirituality, have a religion, learn the ukulele and join a community 'Landcare' group. World history is now understood as multiple cultural 'stories' and the Bible is re-discovered as a 'narrative' rather then a fragmented list of facts and dogma.

The Modernists continue to hold positions of power and privilege and will do all they can to maintain it - but there is an ebb-tide gathering where the masses are starting to swell and are realising that they can make a difference. Just consider the spread of the 'Occupy' movement calling for the end to 'corporate greed'. After the Global Financial Crisis Governments are now at least considering how to make the open market more accountable, more equitable, or at least getting CEO's to pay a fair tax-rate.

Students (Gen Y's) of today are plugged into modern 'pop' consumerist techno culture yet sceptical about their future and are critical about what 'authorities' present. Through the internet they form vibrant communities and want to be engaged in making positive changes in their world. They want to live rich (not $) lives full of meaning and purpose, to be more then a cog in a corporate wheel. Students today need to be given opportunities to consider their options, to be agents for change and we need to encourage our students to continue the postmodern 're-think' and give them the positive opportunities to act on their beliefs.

So, now do you feel wet?

- I imagine this explanation is a work in progress.  
I will continue to edit and change it as I think of better ways to explain Postmodernism - 

A little reading list on Modernism & Postmodernism.

Marshall Berman - All that is solid melts into air. 
Charles Jenks - What is postmodernism
Jean Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition

Ian Randall


Post-modern literature does not begin until after World War II. There are some interesting nuances of meaning compared to Art and Philosophy. The impact of post-modernism in literature is that it opens up the meaning of all texts as it places meaning in the hands of the reader only. It doesn't matter what the author intended, you can imagine what that does for the authority of the Bible. Post-modernism has taken away the idea of a canon of literature. All texts are equal, I have sat through a lecture where we were told that The Bold and the Beautiful had just as much merit as Keats or once again the Bible. Interestingly, there is a backlash to this that is just beginning to gain momentum, in stage 6 English we do texts and contexts, all of a sudden the author's intention matters. The new curriculum is also favouring context rather than the void that the post-modernists like to operate in. In terms of Christianity, I think that post-modernism has denied absolute truth and therefore set itself up in opposition to the Bible and ultimately God. The only point of having an open mind is to shut it firmly on the truth! - K. Leong 

There is post-modern philosophy and there is the post-modern time period; do you think that someone living in post-modernity by default has a post-modern worldview/philosophy?! You mentioned that there still are sections of society that are shaped by "modern" thinking. Maybe where we differ is the amount of trust we place on how much influence this powerful group are still having in shaping the worldview of the fish. I think our young people are a very confused mix causing them to feel somewhat hopeless. - C. Parker

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