It’s funny how words lose meaning the more you hear them, and yet once you’ve heard them a number of time you believe you know what they mean, even as they mean less.
Prepare for innaccuracy, but I’ll try my best.
Postmodernism, as the name implies, is a type of thought/art/understanding that rejects/moves on from/comes after modernism. Just to confuse though, it’s kind of better understood as a version of modernism than something challenging it. Ulysses by James Joyce is often simultaneously thought of as the epitome of high modernism, and the birth of post modernism.
But that’s useless, isn’t it, because Modernism is probably just as hard to define.
The way I like to understand postmodernism is as a rejection of centralised meaning. If you see modernism as being about the centralising of the self as opposed to ‘top down’ grand narratives, as seen in the flourishing high kick special move of the era, stream of consciousness. The grand narratives were still in play, psychoanalysis in particular (which put even more stock in individual self), but they were seen from that individual point of view.
Post modernism said fuck that to that. The grand narratives (Marxism, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, basically anything that looked at things to explain everything through one specific lens) were not necessarily completely washed away, but they were not allowed to be solitary adjuticating all knowing truths.
Truth was out. Truths were in. A key metaphor became the palimpsest, an old layered bit of papyrus like paper where you would write, then scrape away to clear a new blank, leaving behind traces of the old. Multi-layered meaning, with nothing truly superior became the thing to aim for.
I personally love this idea of holding multiple truths to be equally true, I think it’s possibly the most useful thing that postmodernism gave us.
Now, postmodernism was also about an awareness of the artifice (and the weaknesses) of art, literature, whatever field you’re looking at. One way it deals with this is to actually highlight them. This means being self referential, breaking the ‘fourth wall’, being kitsch, being self aware, and all manner of different things that have become the popular meaning of the word.
When someone describes a film as being postmodern these days they normally just mean some kind of self referentiality or attention being bought to it’s artifice. It’s important to know this isn’t all that postmodernism is about. Not by a long march.
There’s more to it, but one of it’s key’s is it is hard to define. But there is something distinct about it that crosses disciplines. It had a huge effect on everything from biology to philosophy. I’ve naturally come from the angle of literature (if it wasn’t clear).
Postmodernism is copy and pasting. It’s mashing layers together (layers of meaning in particular) until you’ve got something that is both meaningless and loaded with so much meaning that it implodes.
It’s got a reputation for destruction (and self destruction).
But it’s more.
Illustration by Adam.