Modernism vs. Postmodernism

A visual representation of the problem at hand.

Susannah asked a really good question that  took me down the rabbit hole.  “What’s the difference between modernism and postmodernism?”  This is a really big question that scholars have shed copious ink and at least a little bit of blood over.  And into this complicated question, I have to throw in another dyadic pair: modernity and postmodernity.

On modernism and modernity, cultural studies folks often have the tendency to point to this guy:

Charles Baudelaire, Poet Maudit
(creative commons image)

In particular, they tend to point to his essay “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863).  Walter Benjamin, one of the great critical theorists of the twentieth century, was particularly influential in promoting Baudelaire as a primordial source of modernity.  For a sense of Benjamin’s ideas about modernity, you should see, in particular, the Harvard UP collection, The Writer of Modern Life (2006) and his unfinished magnum opus The Arcades Project (1999).

Let me pause and regroup, this intervention is meant to answer a specific question, not to become a syllabus for an entire course on cultural theory (I do teach that on occasion, though).

So to get back to the question, which I’ve for simplicity’s sake divided into two; this makes it simpler and more complicated at the same time.  I guess this isn’t surprising.

For our purposes, I want to make a distinction between modernism/postmoderism on the one hand, and modernity/postmodernity on the other.

The modernism vs. postmodernism debate has been going on for at least a half century.  It is a complex debate but began its life as a conversation about aesthetics, in general, and architecture, in particular.  I think the best introduction to this debate, though not the easiest is Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.

Jameson put it this way:

It is in the realm of architecture, however, that modifications in aesthetic production are most dramatically visible, and that their theoretical problems have been most centrally raised and articulated; it was indeed from architectural debates that my own conception of postmodernism – as it will be outlined in the following pages – initially began to emerge. More decisively than in the other arts or media, postmodernist positions in architecture have been inseparable from an implacable critique of architectural high modernism and of Frank Lloyd Wright or the so-called international style (Le Corbusier, Mies, etc), where formal criticism and analysis (of the high-modernist transformation of the building into a virtual sculpture, or monumental “duck,” as Robert Venturi puts it), are at one with reconsiderations on the level of urbanism and of the aesthetic institution. High modernism is thus credited with the destruction of the fabric of the traditional city and its older neighbourhood culture (by way of the radical disjunction of the new Utopian high-modernist building from its surrounding context), while the prophetic elitism and authoritarianism of the modern movement are remorselessly identified in the imperious gesture of the charismatic Master.

Postmodernism in architecture will then logically enough stage itself as a kind of aesthetic populism, as the very title of Venturi’s influential manifesto, Learning from Las Vegas, suggests. However we may ultimately wish to evaluate this populist rhetoric, it has at least the merit of drawing our attention to one fundamental feature of all the postmodernisms enumerated above: namely, the effacement in them of the older (essentially high-modernist) frontier between high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture, and the emergence of new kinds of texts infused with the forms, categories, and contents of that very culture industry so passionately denounced by all the ideologues of the modern, from Leavis and the American New Criticism all the way to Adorno and the Frankfurt School. The postmodernisms have, in fact, been fascinated precisely by this whole “degraded” landscape of schlock and kitsch, of TV series and Reader’s Digest culture, of advertising and motels, of the late show and the grade-B Hollywood film, of so-called paraliterature, with its airport paperback categories of the gothic and the romance, the popular biography, the murder mystery, and the science fiction or fantasy novel: materials they no longer simply “quote” as a Joyce or a Mahler might have done, but incorporate into their very substance.

Jameson saw cultural, aesthetic production as having undergone some fundamental shift, but, being a good Marxist, he saw this as tied to shifting modes of production, or, as he put it, the transition to “late capitalism.”

So if postmodernism is a statement about cultural manifestations and aesthetics (super-structure as an earlier generation of Marxists would have termed it), the modernity/postmodernity debate is a properly historical debate about periodization.  The basic question is when did “the modern” begin and end.  This is an even larger debate that brings in far more scholars and thinkers of various persuasions.  I’ll point briefly to two.

Daniel Bell, one of the most important sociologists of the postwar period, didn’t use the phrase postmodernity.  He preferred post-industrial.  His 1973 book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society proved to be influential.  He foresaw a transition in capitalism taking place that many of us would recognize now and suggested we were moving into a new age.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Jean-Francios Lyotard in 1979 published what would become an important book, which would help shape the debate.  The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge pushed the debate away from economics and social structure and toward epistemology, language, and technology.  Lyotard saw the transition to an information society as central and argued forcefully that the abandonment of the Grand Narratives we have been talking about was both a cause an effect of this transition to postmodernity.  Here is a nice excerpt of The Postmodern Condition.  And to help make sense of it, here is an discussion of postmodernism from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

This was a pretty long and involved answer to the question Susannah posed, but I hope it helps.  I also hopes it shows you how I think blogs can be really helpful for our shared learning.  It gives us a space to work through ideas in a collective manner.  I do hope you’ll join the conversation about this important topic.

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One Response to Modernism vs. Postmodernism

  1. Susannah says:

    Thanks! It is helpful being able to click on links, but it also means I have a lot more reading to do. I really like the first two images. (salt shakers and salt shaker + square + cone?) I’m starting to think that every historical debate manifests itself as a debate over periodization. My next question is how structuralism and post-structuralism fit in here, but we can save that for another day, or month.

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