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Few terms in the contemporary critical lexicon have been as vociferously debated and as persistently unstable in meaning and use as postmodernism and its various avatars, such as postmodernity. In spite of this instability, postmodernity may be defined as a broad category designating the culture that historically extends from the late 1960s to the early twenty-first century, and that is economically determined by postindustrial capitalism. Postmodernism would refer, more narrowly, to the characteristic intellectual and aesthetic currents and practices of that era, reflected, for example, in certain philosophical ideas or works of literature and art.

The terms postmodernity and postmodernism also suggest a break, respectively, with modernity, determined economically by capitalism and culturally by humanism and the Enlightenment, and with Modernism, the literary and aesthetic movements of modernity in the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. While the distinction between modernity and postmodernity can be made without much difficulty, the distinction between modernism and postmodernism is more complicated. Some early critics argued that postmodernism was not really "post" at all, but simply "late" modernism. It quickly became apparent, however, that, despite its continuities with modernism, postmodernism does represent a definitive break from its predecessor, as well as a broader overall phenomenon, which includes in particular postmodernist theory.

Arguably the single most crucial conceptual determinate of the postmodern era and of postmodernism, defining this break, is an uncontainable and irreducibly de-centered multiplicity of coexisting cognitive and cultural paradigms, without any one of them being uniquely dominant or central. This postmodern de-centering, however, is defined not by the absence of all centrality, but by multicentering as the emergence of many centers and claims upon one or another centrality, including by previously marginalized fields and groups. Multiculturalism and related trends may be best seen as reflections of this situation, whose cultural and political implications, however, have a much greater scope.

Conceptual Postmodernism and Postmodernist Theory

The roots of conceptual postmodernism may be found in the ideas of some of the major figures of modernity and modernism, ideas that set in motion profound challenges to and changes in our thinking about the world and in the status of knowledge itself. Friedrich Nietzsche, in particular, initiated a radical critique of the Enlightenment ideals of absolute truth, universal morality, and transhistorical values, which he replaced with a radically multicentered or, in his terms, perspectival understanding of human knowledge, morality, and culture. It is primarily through Nietzsche and related figures, such as Sigmund Freud and Martin Heidegger, that the genealogy of postmodernist thinking is connected to Poststructuralism, one of the most important conceptual revolutions of postmodernism. Several parallel scientific revolutions took place throughout twentieth-century science, especially in physics (relativity and quantum theory) and biology, and in literature and art, and these revolutions also contributed to postmodernist conceptuality and epistemology.

These changes culminated in the postmodern crisis of, in Jean-François Lyotard's terms, legitimation of knowledge. "The postmodern condition" itself, responsible for this crisis, was famously defined by Lyotard as "an incredulity toward metanarratives," especially the "grand narratives" that seek to provide a single, all-encompassing or teleological framework for understanding the world. Lyotard's key example is the Enlightenment grand narrative of the progress of civilization through reason and science. He, however, extends this critique to other grand narratives of modernity, including Hegelianism, Marxism, and Freudianism. The collapse of the grand narratives has left us with no hope of a single conceptual system or discourse through which we might attempt to understand the totality of the world. Instead we have a plurality of frequently incommensurable worlds and often mutually incompatible systems of language and thought through which to comprehend them.

Cultural and Political Postmodernism

The cultural formations and aesthetic movements of postmodernism are intricately bound up with both the ideas of conceptual postmodern ism and the economic, technological, and political transformations of postmodern ity. A dramatic example of this entanglement is the relationship between "the disappearance of the real," which is an epistemological conception, and media culture. Jean Baudrillard observed that by the late twentieth century, media technologies in their roles as technologies of reproduction and representation, had become so advanced that images or copies have become "simulacra," reproductions sufficiently powerful that they first obscure, then displace, and ultimately replace and function as "the real." This instability in the distinction between reality and representation is an abiding theme and hallmark of postmodern culture and art.

Postmodern technologies are also transforming other fundamental concepts and categories through which people understand the world and themselves. As postmodern bioengineering and genomic technologies erode the distinction between human and machine, humans and their conceptions of themselves are being reshaped and reimagined to an unprecedented degree. Technologies of transportation and communication are creating the "spatialization of experience" and the concomitant disappearance of the temporal, which are linked to a postmodern subjectivity that is fragmented and contingent, an intersection of fluctuating "positions." This spatialization of experience and the loss of a sense of history accompanying it, Fredric Jameson argues, impair the ability of postmodern subjects to "cognitively map" their positions in relation to the increasingly complex political and economic systems of global capitalism.

For Lyotard, postmodernity potentially offers a new and better ground for the practice of democracy and justice. He argues, against Jürgen Habermas, that de-centered postmodern heterogeneity makes obsolete the Enlightenment ideal of consensus, which all too frequently required the suppression of minority dissent. Postmodernity, with its heterogeneous interests and worldviews, allows previously oppressed or marginalized groups to make claims upon justice, and upon a position of centrality, even in the absence of majority consensus concerning such claims.

The status of knowledge is altered as societies enter what is known as the postindustrial age and cultures enter what is known as the postmodern age. Postmodern knowledge refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable.

source: Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.

By contrast, Jameson defines postmodernism as "the cultural logic of late capitalism," for him an inherently unjust formation. The material structures of postmodern technologies, local and international politics, and global capitalism, he argues, ultimately determine our experience of postmodernity and the nature of postmodernist culture and art, and thus put justice in conflict with postmodernity.

Most current views of postmodernity and postmodernism may be positioned between these two visions, between the justice of the heterogeneous and the "cultural logic" and unbridled power of global capitalism. If, however, one combines the views of Lyotard and Jameson, cultural postmodern ism embodies two competing and conflicting drives arising from capitalism and democracy defining postmodern ity. Globalization, in its positive and negative aspects, comes with postmodernity, and together they give rise to conceptual, cultural, and political postmodernism across the geopolitical landscape of both hemispheres.

Postmodernism in Literature and Art

In considering postmodernist aesthetic practices in parallel with the postmodern lack of political consensus, Lyotard invokes "the lack of consensus of taste." Instead these aesthetic practices are characterized by an affirmation of their multiplicity. None needs to be defined by any given form, however multiple or fragmented, as was the case in modernist aesthetics, and as would be demanded from art by the consensus of modernist taste. By contrast, postmodernist aesthetic practices may adopt any form, outlook, or agenda, new or old, and allow for other (than postmodernist) practices and alternative approaches. The postmodernist aesthetic is thus defined by the (political) sense of this multiplicity of practices.


Continuing the narrative experiments of the modernists, the first generation of postmodernists, American and British writers of the 1960s and 1970s "metafiction" (Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, John Fowles, and Angela Carter), produced texts that simultaneously questioned and violated the conventions of traditional narrative. Similarly the postmodernist Language poets (Lyn Bernstein, Charles Hejinian, and Bob Perelman), inspired by the linguistic experiments of modernism and the new ideas of poststructuralism, deployed a fractured, systematically deranged language aimed at destabilizing the systems (intellectual, cultural, or political) constructed through language. The fragmentation, intertextuality, and discontinuity that characterize so much of experimental modernist and postmodernist literature find a kind of fulfillment in the inherently fragmented, intertextual, and discontinuous form of "hypertext," a computer-generated Web text with multiple branching links.

Another hallmark of postmodern literature, and of postmodern art in general, is the erosion of the boundaries between "high," elite, or serious art and "low," popular art, or entertainment. Decidedly serious literary works now make use of genres long thought to belong only to popular work. A related phenomenon is the development of numerous hybrid genres that erode the distinctions, for instance, between literature and journalism, literature and (auto)biography, and literature and history.

The emergence and proliferation of feminist, multiethnic, multicultural, and postcolonial literature since the 1970s is, however, the most dramatic and significant manifestation of the de-centering and de-marginalization defining both postmodernity and postmodernism. In the 1970s and 1980s, American and European literature underwent an immense transformation as writers who had traditionally been excluded from literary canonswomen and ethnic and racial minoritiesmoved from the margins to the centers of the literary world. There are counterparts to this phenomenon in history and anthropology, which have seen a proliferation of histories from below and outsidehistories of women, of children, of the working class. Postmodernism has gone from History with a capital H, to histories, small h.

Visual art.

With the institutionalization of "high modernism" in the mid-twentieth century and the increasing commercial appropriation and commodification of artworks, the modernist ideal of an artistic avant-garde, standing apart from mainstream culture, became increasingly obsolete. Postmodernist art has been, since its beginnings in the movements of the 1960sPop art, Fluxus, and feminist artart that was inherently political and simultaneously engaged with and critical of commercial mass culture. All these movements are linked to the development of multimedia performance art and conceptual art, a term that designates art that is neither painting nor sculpture, art of the mind rather than art of the eye. The logical extension of this definition (following Marcel Duchamp) is that nearly anything, properly "framed" or designated as such, might be thought of as art. One of the most distinctive characteristics of postmodernist art is the dissolution of traditional categories of art and artworks, and the proliferation of new and hybrid forms that have broadened these categories to an unprecedented degree, even greater than encountered in literature.

The feminist art of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s challenged the institutionalized male bias and sexism of the art system in a wide-ranging critique that extended from the writing of art history and criticism, to museums and art galleries, to the predominance of the "male gaze" and the objectification of women in visual media throughout history, to definitions of art that excluded such traditionally female forms as quilts and weaving.

No doubt the logic of the simulacrum, with its transformation of older realities into television images, does more than merely replicate the logic of late capitalism; it reinforces and intensifies it.

source: Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.

Other strains of postmodernist art (from the 1980s to the early twenty-first century), which one might call "the art of simulacra," focus on the prevalence of the image (particularly the media image), technologies of reproduction, and strategies of appropriation of already existing works. It encompasses the work of a broad range of artists and movements, from the video and performance art of Nam June Paik, Laurie Anderson, and Bruce Nauman, to the photography of Cindy Sherman and the graphic art of Barbara Kruger.


While reflecting many general aspects of postmodernism, the phenomenon and concept of postmodernist architecture have a particular specificity and complexity, in part because the term postmodernist architecture was given a specific meaning very early in the postmodern period. What characterizes postmodernist architecture most, however, is its diversity in spirit and in style, and the ways it defines itself, in each movement and project, in relation to this diversity.

For some, the quintessential expression of postmodernist architecture is the shopping mall, an enclosed city in which spatial disorientation seems to have been a deliberate, structural intention. Elsewhere this disorientation also takes on a temporal, historical form, as architects combine disparate elements from previous architectural eras and styles in the same building, an incongruous mixing that initially gave rise to the term postmodernist architecture. Philip Johnson's AT&T headquarters in New York City, an austere, International-style skyscraper sporting a baroque Chippendale pediment, would be a postmodernist building in this earlier sense. For some architects, postmodernism was defined by the abandonment of modernist utopianism and a validation of vernacular architecture, as in Robert Venturi's celebration of the "decorated shed" of commercial architecture. New computer-assisted design and computer-assisted manufacturing (CAD/CAM) technologies and high-tech materials have made it possible to break from the traditional architectural forms and create more free-form and sculptural edifices, such as Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Music and dance.

Although not as widespread or influential as other art forms, postmodern music and dance have nevertheless developed many of the key traits of postmodernism, sometimes in their most radical aspects, both building upon and working against such modernist figures as Arnold Schönberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Pierre Boulez in music, and George Balanchine, Martha Graham, and Merce Cunningham in dance. Radically experimental postmodernist composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, and György Ligeti have gone beyond modernism in dislocating the classical harmonies and replacing them with ever more complex, nearly unmusical, sounds and noises.

The same formal experimentation can often be found in postmodernist dance. Postmodernist dance is, however, particularly characterized by the collapse of boundaries between "high" dance (classical ballet and modern dance) and "popular" dance (jazz dance, folk and tribal dance, ballroom dancing, break and line dancing, and Broadway musical choreography), as choreographers fused their various styles and movements. Among the most prominent representatives of the postmodern dance scene are Bill T. Jones, Twyla Tharp, and Mark Morris. Some choreographers have gone even farther afield, incorporating movements from the martial arts, sports, acrobatics, mime, games, and even the mundane physical activities of everyday life. These trends are found in postmodernist (classical) music as well, from the usage of elements of jazz and rock and roll to the incorporation of street or elevator noises.

Dance, however, became quite literally more a part of the world, as choreographers developed architecturally inspired, site-specific works. At the same time, dance increasingly became a part of the broader forms of performance art and multimedia art, as choreography was linked to political concerns and combined with video, text, and other media. One might say that the choreography of postmodern dance is the choreography of postmodernism itself, its aesthetics and its politics, including its politics of aesthetics defined by the lack of a single consensus of taste.

See also Modernism ; Structuralism and Poststructuralism .


Amiran, Eyal, and John Unsworth, eds. Essays in Postmodern Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Baudrillard, Jean. Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Edited by Mark Poster. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988. A defining treatment of the problematic of reality and representation in postmodernity.

Geyh, Paula, Fred G. Leebron, and Andrew Levy, eds. Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1989. A comprehensive and authoritative study of modern and postmodern spatiality.

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. An important treatment of the relations between elite and mass culture in modernism and postmodernism.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991. The most influential Marxist treatment of postmodernism.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. An important assessment of the state of culture after postmodernity.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington, and Brian Massumi. Vol. 10 of Theory and History of Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. A seminal study defining the problematic of postmodernity.

Phillips, Lisa. The American Century: Art and Culture 19502000. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art in association with W. W. Norton, 1999.

Paula E. Geyh

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Ever since its ideas first took hold in the 1980s, postmodern theory has had a significant influence on the social sciences. At the time, social theory imported certain theoretical concepts from literary criticism, including deconstruction and other discourse-based theories of textual interpretation. It is best, however, to refer to a postmodern turn within contemporary social science, because many academics influenced by these intellectual trends abjure the term postmodernism. Nevertheless, many contemporary social scientists acknowledge a debt to deconstructive methods of textual interpretation and to deconstructions (or poststructuralisms) rejection of teleological theories (or grand narratives) and the concept of a coherent, fixed human subject.

Judith Butlers writings on the unstable and constructed nature of both sex and gender identities played a crucial role in transmitting postmodern concepts into social theory and the social sciences. Yet Butler herself rejects the term postmodernist, claiming only to deploy deconstructive techniques to better discern the discursive construction of identity. Postmodern conceptions of the hybrid, plural, and inconstant nature of identity have had their greatest influence in the areas of cultural, gender, and postcolonial studies, though they have also influenced anthropology (e.g., James Clifford) and international relations theory (e.g., James Der Derrian).

Many people working in these areas reject behavioral, structural, and hermeneutic interpretations of the relationship between individuals, groups, and social structure, favoring instead analyses of the decentered, local, and fragmented nature of social phenomena. Postmodern social theory rejects traditional social sciences goal of discerning causal relationships among social phenomena. It also rejects social science aspirations to discern superior or parsimonious interpretations of human behavior. In the postmodern conception, no readerly interpretation of a text can be more truthful than another. In fact some postmodernists refer to the concept of truth as terroristic, for the truth can only defend itself by repressive exclusion.

Postmodernism represents both a sensibility in regard to social science research and a normative critique of modernity. According to postmodernism, the Enlightenments search for rational understanding that could ameliorate the human condition engendered ideological or false grand narratives of history, which are based on essential-ist, universal, and fixed conceptions of human nature. Drawing upon Jean-Francois Lyotards analysis in The Postmodern Condition (1984), postmodernists reject the Enlightenments search for totalizing theories that offer universal narratives of human motivation and experience. Building on the work of Michel Foucault, postmodern theory claims that these grand narratives underpinned the Enlightenments efforts to normalize human beings through the bureaucratic and repressive institutions of governance (e.g., both state and nonstate organizations, such as the asylum and the hospital) that categorize human beings.


According to postmodernists, social theories that claim to represent reality fail to comprehend that humans have no unmediated access to reality. Human conceptions of reality are, unavoidably, a product of subjective interpretation. Modern media and technology deny people the ability to discern the original author or to distinguish the original from the imitation. In 1936 Walter Benjamin argued that in an age of mechanical reproduction it is nearly impossible to distinguish the original from a copy. Following this lead, postmodern theorists such as Jean Baudrillard have contended that reality itself is a simulacrum (a copy of a copy). In a world of corporate image production and virtual realities, one cannot determine what is authentic or inauthentic, real or fake. When computers allow people to live in cyberspace, the very concepts of reality, time, and space are contestable and destabilized. Thus attempts to interpret the essence or true nature of social phenomena deny the reality that the world is a constantly shifting image.

Postmodern social theory draws heavily upon Jacques Derridas and deconstructions critique of structuralism. Claude Levi-Strausss structural anthropology and Louis Althussers structural Marxism (which investigated the structural role that class played within capitalist economics and ideology) dominated French intellectual life in the 1960s. Both of these theorists drew upon the early twentieth-century structural linguistics of Ferdinand Saussure. Saussure held that the meaning of a particular speech or language (la parole ) is structured by the underlying structure of grammar (la langue, the structured relationship between signifier and signified that yields the meaning of a sign). But Derrida in Marges de la philosophie (1972) held that the relationship between signifier and signified is inherently unstable. For Derrida, meaning includes both identity (what is) and différance (what is not). Thus postmodernists argue that any attempt to fix meaning will yield repressive attempts to eliminate the ineluctable other of human reality.

To avoid eliminating the play of différance, postmodern-influenced social science rejects the binary oppositions that allegedly ground Western philosophy: subject-object, man-woman, reality-appearance, reason-emotion, and speech-writing. In this view, the very effort of representation and causal analysis excludes and devalues the inferior part of the binary term that is traditionally denigrated as being irrational or emotional. This rejection of binary oppositions as repressive and norming has had a profound influence on contemporary feminist and critical race theory, which warn against essentializing identities of gender and race. These studies of identity focus upon the socially constructed, hybrid, and ever-shifting nature of individual and group identity.

Given the absence of a stable referential relation between subject and object, postmodernists argue that social theory should focus upon the way subjects are constructed by discourse itself. The postmodern conception of how the subject is a product of language and thought draws heavily upon philosophical traditions deriving from Friedrich Nietzsche. In addition, Martin Heideggers critique of Western philosophys ineluctable search for a fixed conception of Being, and of its attempt to dominate nature in the name of the human, informs postmodern analysis. Postmodern social science frequently draws upon Foucaults conception of power-knowledge discourses to examine how subjects are produced by discourse. While Foucaults earlier archaeological work on how epistemes (or systems of thought) norm and exclude has influenced postmodern analysis, it is his later genealogical analysis of power as productive and enabling (rather than as primarily coercive) that has most influenced postmodernisms critique of agency. As Butler holds, the conception of a coherent, rational, human individual who exercises conscious agency ignores the reality that human identities are continually being reconfigured through performative self-inscriptions of dominant norms and discourses.


Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffes Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) represents a highly influential poststructuralist critique of the use of grand narrative in the social sciences. Rejecting a determinist Marxism that drew from the workers structural position in production of the teleological necessity of a revolutionary consciousness, Laclau and Mouffe asserted the discursiveand opennature of social consciousness. In the determinist Marxist view, both social democracy and authoritarian communism believed that capitalisms interdependent division of labor would inevitably yield (whether through gradual self-organization or via a revolutionary external agent) a self-emancipating working-class movement for democratic control of the interdependent capitalist mode of production. In contrast to the Marxist tradition, Laclau and Mouffe held that one cannotand should not mechanistically determine a subjects objective, true consciousness from the subjects alleged structural position in society. Rather, consciousness itself is discursively produced and represents a contested arena for politics.

In this view, much of the emancipatory impulse for democracy has come from the new social movements of racial, gender, and sexual identity. The consciousness of these identity-based groups cannot be deduced from their objective social role in society. Thus social theorists had to abandon privileging the old movement of the working class and construct a new, plural, and democratic theory that would unite (without homogenizing) the liberatory discourses of the new social movements. Laclau and Mouffes work has had a great influence on both social movement theory and postcolonial studies.


The postmodern turn in social science has generated considerable controversy, some of it finding its way into the mass media. Most visible has been the neoconservative critique that postmodernist analysis dominates the humanities and social sciences, imparting to students a dangerous, nihilist critique of American democracy. Ironically, this critique conflates postmodernism with Marxism, despite postmodernisms hostility to macrostructural and teleological forms of social analysis, including Marxism. Some left-leaning social theorists concur with the postmodern analysis that the marketing of images and lifestyles partly supplants the production and sale of physical goods in late capitalism. But these analysts of late capitalism (such as the geographer David Harvey and the cultural theorist Frederic Jameson), in contrast to postmodernists, offer macrostructural and analytic explanations for the emergence of these phenomena. They locate the production of images-as-commodities within the global corporate conglomerates of the infotainment, media, and publishing industries.

The postmodern rejection of the realist conception that economic and social institutions constrain the choices of individuals has occurred at a time of rapidly increasing global violence and economic and material inequality, and some critics have pointed out the ironic element in the timing of this development. Postmodernists often explain their critique of fixed, linear conceptions of time and space by metaphorical references to chaos theorys rejection of periodicity and to the finding of quantum mechanics that mass, force, and acceleration cannot be independently determined. This postmodernist rejection of even an unrepresentative realist conception of an external reality independent of theoretical interpretation helped engender the Sokal affair. Alan Sokal, a physicist (and materialist Marxist) at New York University, submitted a paper to the postmodern journal Social Text in 1996. The article cleverly deployed postmodern concepts while making alleged scientific references that any physics undergraduate could readily deem to be ludicrous. After the essay was published, Sokal revealed that it was a hoax aimed at revealing postmodernisms ignorance of both science and the nature of material reality. The story made the front page of the New York Times.

Some leftist theorists note that the postmodern turn arose at the very moment that conservative political dominance decreased the prestige of leftist theory and practice. A crude sociology of knowledge of the postmodern turn might contend that, absent mass social movements contending for state power, left-wing academics retreat into the realm of pure theory. The rejoinder to this might be that postmodernisms insistence on the relevance of the particular, local, and hybrid has had a salutary effect on limiting the imperial claims of grand narratives. Either way, analytic attempts of macrostructural and historically oriented social theorists to discern the interaction between social agency and social structure are likely to remain a major theme within social science. And the postmodern concern with the fate of marginalized groups would seem to push the discussion ethically beyond postmodernisms emphasis on the local and particular. The quasi-universal concepts of citizenship and global human rights may not have an irrefutable, a priori basis in a fixed human nature, but if human beings cannot develop shared understandings and values that bridge their differences, it is unlikely that the emancipatory, democratic project embraced by many postmodern theorists will ever be realized.

SEE ALSO Critical Theory; Enlightenment; Ethics; Foucault, Michel; Hegemony; Knowledge; Modernism; Multiculturalism; Paradigm; Positivism; Power; Relativism; Social Constructs; Universalism


Best, Steven, and Douglass Kellner. 1991. Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. New York: Guilford.

Brown, Wendy. 1995. States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Clifford, James. 1988. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Der Derian, James, and Michael J. Shapiro. 1989. International/Intertextual Relations: Postmodern Readings of World Politics. Lexington, MA: Lexington.

Derrida, Jacques. 1976. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 19721977. New York: Pantheon.

Laclau, Ernseto, and Chantal Mouffe. 1985. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1984. The Postmodern Condition. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Rosenau, Pauline Marie. 1992. Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Joseph M. Schwartz

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Postmodernism is an abstract, theoretical term and should be distinguished from postmodernity, which describes a sociological or cultural climate. The term postmodernism was coined in the late 1940s by British historian Arnold Toynbee, but used in the mid-1970s by the American art critic and theorist Charles Jencks to describe contemporary antimodernist movements like Pop art, Concept Art, and Postminimalism. Jean-François Lyotard, in his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), was one of the first thinkers to write extensively about postmodernism as a wider cultural phenomenon. He viewed it as coming both before and after modernism, the reverse side of it. As such, postmodern moments have subsequently been discerned in thinkers as various as the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Characteristics of the postmodern

For Lyotard, the postmodern is characterized by an incredulity towards metanarratives. By metanarratives he means the appeal to explanatory principles that presume to tell the story of the ways things are. Metanarrratives are accounts of the origin, foundations, and formations of the various forms of human knowledge: for example, motion (Isaac Newton), the mind (René Descartes and Immanuel Kant), history (George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel), the economy (Karl Marx), psychology (Sigmund Freud), and society (Emile Durkheim). Metanarratives assume the world and human activity within it can be known as a whole because it is rational and organized according to certain universal and verifiable laws or principles. Postmodernism announces a radical scepticism towards such universalism and the objectivity or view from no where that is presupposed in investigations into and accounts of these foundational laws or principles. Postmodernity, then, would describe a cultural situation in which such scepticism was culturally dominant. In such a time, the postmodern would not just be a theoretical critique of modernity's rational understanding of the world and the universalism of that reasoning. The postmodern would be an attempt to rethink and experience the world according to that antifoundationalism and the turn towards local knowledges or views from a specific standpoints: gendered knowledges, ethnic knowledges, religious knowledges, for example.

The postmodern world is composed of little other than grand narratives, accounts of knowledge that are aware they are partial in nature, refracted through a certain cultural perspective and constructed. Their constructedness is important, specifically when attempting to assess the impact of postmodernism on religion, science, and the debates between them. The constructedness of knowledge challenges the foundational realism of the empirical sciences in which language is simply viewed as transparently communicating the world as it is, mediating between mind and matter. When knowledge of "what is" is understood as constructed, then reality is soft, pliable, and ultimately open to endless interpretation and reinterpretation. Language no longer simply mediates or acts like a clear window on the world. Language creates, fashions what people see and what they understand by what they see. The universal concepts governing thinking in both the human and natural sciences in modernitytruth, nature, reality, historyare viewed as unstable. The instrumental thinking that accumulated "neutral" data, measured it, calculated the options, and arrived at general statements through an inductive reasoning is seen, at best, as just one form of rationality. Explanation becomes a mode of interpretation. Time (as a sequence of present moments), space (as that which either contains or is the extension of things), matter (as composed of atomized particles) all are refigured by the nonrealism and antifoundationalism of the postmodern. Attention to the constructed nature of representing the world leads to an emphasis upon the metaphoric, the symbolic, the allegorical, the theatrical, and the rhetorical. Rather than a world of inert entities, passive before objective enquiry, in the postmodern all things signify, entities are expressive. The real is an aesthetic effect so that belief in the literal is exactly that, a belief. The literal, the transparency of modernity's understanding of the meaning behind language, becomes an ideology.

Postmodern science and religion

While Silicon Valley scientists were establishing both themselves and cyberspace, the postmodern condition was producing its own understanding of virtual reality. And while astrophysicists were exploring the collapse of stars and the creation of black holes, the postmodern condition was producing its own understanding of the implosion of secular modernity and the sacredness of the void. The parallelisms between what the empirical sciences term "discoveries" and the cultural sciences in postmodernity would call "inventions" are not felicitous but inevitable. If knowledge is produced rather than found within a particular cultural milieu, then such parallelism will necessarily occur. Mary Hesse had already demonstrated this in her book Revolution and Reconstructions in the Philosophy of Science (1980). Paul Feyerabend had taken cultural pluralism right into the heart of the empirical sciences with his Against Method (1975).

At the same time, the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault was developing his genealogies and "archaeologies" of clinics, economics, madness, punishment, and sexuality, and extending the thesis that the way the world is understood and organized is governed by discursive acts of power and practical disciplines in which the body becomes the prisoner of the soul (or the way mind conceives the world to be). A sociology of knowledge led to a sociology of scientific knowledge. New histories were written that countered modernity's "progress" model of scientific discovery. New epistemologies and methodologies were sought, like the feminist standpoint work of Sandra Harding and Helen Longino, which examined abduction or the choices made in scientific research prior to and governing inductive reasoning.

At the same time, a new marriage was emerging between the mythological and the technological. In modernity, as the sociologist Max Weber's "disenchantment thesis" taught, the job of science was to demystify the world, and the various technological revolutions were the practical outworking of this rigorous demythologizing. The success of science was measured by progress in terms of human control over the world. Everything could be explained; science would provide the answers, and technology would harness the answers in order to liberate human beings from the drudgery of labor for the pursuit of civilized living. The supernatural was for the superstitious and the ignorant; religion was for those needing private consolation. Stripped of its liturgies, stories, and priestcraft, religion expressed human ideals of the good life. The priest at the altar was replaced by the scientist in the laboratory as religion, among the enlightened, was viewed as mythological clothing for human aspirations, fears, and projections. As such, modernity's dreams were often secularized religious ones: a new Jerusalem of technological efficiency as intellectually hygienic as it was biologically controlled. The "disenchantment" of the world, cultivated by technological progress, was a fundamental tool in the secularization of the sacred. All values were to be found in this world, not beyond it, and human beings were capable of realizing the very highest of these values themselves, through rationalization and forward planning.

The emergence of the postmodern condition, in critiquing the grand narratives of explanation and pointing up the ideologies of control, appealed to what lay outside of the secular worldview. From the mid-1970s there has been revival of romantic thinking. The gothic imagination flourishes again in popular culture, not only in terms of vampires, warlocks, angels, dungeons, dragons, and fascination with the psychotic, but in terms also of a renewed interest in all things medieval. The mythopoetic was revived, and the character of that revival can be estimated by comparing the Narnia Chronicles of C. S. Lewis to Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy or J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. For Lewis, Narnia was a separate realm reached only through the wardrobe in a professor's rambling Oxfordshire home. But in Dark Materials, the supernatural world is not distinct from the natural world, there is neither one nor the other.

Popular science (promoted in part by various governments wanting to interest the young in the technological and nurture a new generation of scientists and technicians) and science fiction assist now in the re-enchantment of the world. With the spread of home computers, the developments in telecommunications, digital graphics, and cinematic special effects, science promotes the bending of modernity's understanding of the real. Virtual reality is now not standing alongside some naturalistic prototype, virtual realities (plural) confuse any boundary between the natural and the supernatural. Science now promotes the transcendence of the human.

Two important thinkers have helped us to understand this postmodern science: Bruno Latour and Michel Serres. Latour's best known book, We Have Never Been Modern (1993), points out how modernity aspired to a transparency that separated one thing clearly from another. Modernity was committed to distillation. What it feared and policed was hybridities. As such, modernity produced and fostered a series of dualisms: the objective and the subjective; the body and the mind; the public and the private; the organic and the mechanical; the natural and the cultural. But the production and fostering of such dualisms required mediating agencies. The postmodern world is witnessing the return of the hybrid, as the mediating agencies can no longer cope with the infiltration of one category into another. The vampire, the cyborg, and the angel all figure this transcendence of the human, the instrumental, the calculated, and the rational in contemporary culture. The priest and the scientist are, as they often were in the mediaeval world, the same person.

Michel Serres book Angels: A Modern Myth (1993) expounds this new world-view in which postmodern science and religion fuse. Sketching a profound interrelatedness of all things, Serres denies material things are inert. All things communicatethe waves of the sea, weather systems, rock formations, human beings. The world is caught up in endless relays and interchanges of messages. As angels have traditionally been conceived as the purest of messengers, so the world can be viewed as participating in an angelic intercommunication that transcends this particular person or that particular object. Global telecommunications become an expression and development of this participation in a complex, discursive interconnectedness which, ultimately, for Serres, sings a doxology to the Most High. Serres practices the hybridity Latour informs us is the state of things, relating it specifically to a theological (in fact specifically Christian and sacramental) worldview.


The postmodern condition announces the collapse of secularism, but it also announces a new dialogue between religion and science. In premodernity, scientific enquiry submitted itself to religious judgement. In modernity, religion was deemed outdated, if not pathological, by the rise of the new sciences. In postmodernity, neither the oppositions nor the hierarchies pertain. And so the character of the debates between religion and science will change also. The earlier debates concerned themselves with attempting to show that there was no incompatibility between scientific discoveries and the religious perspective. They were conducted frequently by scientists with religious commitments, in an attempt to integrate two divergent views of the world. They constituted a form of liberal apologetics in which science offered the vision of what was, and religionists showed how that did not conflict with a theological worldview. The metaphysics of empiricism and positivism remained firmly in place, dictating the terms of the struggle and the attempts at détente. Postmodernism, having challenged those empiricisms and positivisms, having announced a contemporary incredulity in such foundationalism, will usher in a round of new debates between religion and science that will demonstrate a shift in cultural power, a reciprocal learning, a new respect. Serres's work shows the way, but religionists have recently appealed also to the work of the Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose who, in a different way, endorses an indeterminacy between the brain and the world such that both the material and the immaterial are caught up in complex informational processes. The various alliances between new age religions and concerns with ecology are also significant indicators of cultural change. The basis for the new discussions is an emphasis upon interconnectedness and attention to participating within open-ended informational systems in which the psychic and the material are not distinct but inseparable, mutually informing dimensions.

See also Nonfoundationalism; Postfoundationalism; Postmodern Science


harding, sandra. "rethinking standpoint epistemology 'what is strong objectivity?'" in feminist epistemologies, eds. linda alcoff and elizabeth potter. london: routledge, 1993.

latour, bruno. we have never been modern, trans. catherine porter. cambridge, mass.: harvard university press, 1993.

latour, bruno, with michel serres. conversations on science, culture and time, trans. roxanne lapidus. ann arbor: university of michigan press, 1995.

longino, helen. "subjects, power and knowledge." in feminist epistemologies, eds. linda alcoff and elizabeth potter. london: routledge, 1993.

lyotard, jean-françois. the postmodern condition: a report on knowledge (1979), trans. geoff bennington and brian massumi. manchester, uk: manchester university press, 1984.

poovey, mary. the history of the modern fact: problems of knowledge in the sciences of wealth and society. chicago: university of chicago press, 1998.

serres, michel. angels: a modern myth, trans. francis cowper. paris: flammarion, 1993.

shapin, steven. a social history of truth: civility and science in seventeenth century england. chicago: university of chicago press, 1994.

shapin, steven, and schaff, simon. leviathan and the air-pump. princeton, n.j.: princeton university press, 1985.

taylor, mark c. about religion: economies of faith in virtual culture. chicago: university of chicago press, 1999.

ward, graham. cities of god. london: routledge, 2000.

graham ward

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POSTMODERNISM. In the 1970s, "postmodernism" became a descriptive reference for certain changes occurring in American social, intellectual, and cultural life. The term had an elusive quality about it, and scholarly efforts to give it greater precision abounded. Post-modernism also yielded a critical literature as intellectuals pondered its political and ideological significance. Like "modernism," "postmodernism" conveyed different notions in the different categories in which the word was used. Examining the postmodern phenomenon in those categories does, however, suggest parallel meanings that paint a larger picture of American life in the late twentieth century. Causal interconnections are by no means self-evident, but common themes and motifs do appear.

Economic Affiliation

Postmodernism concurs with the emergence of postindustrialism. In the mid-1970s, the United States became, statistically, a service economy, with more workers employed in that category than in industrial jobs. Longstanding landmarks of the industrial era—steel, auto-mobiles—declined and service businesses—hotels, travel agencies, restaurants, medical and health care organizations, sports, health clubs, real estate—provided the growth sectors of the American economy. These outlets serviced the greater leisure and discretionary time available to many Americans. Family patterns and gender roles were changing and greater personal choice produced a "lifestyle" revolution. Postindustrialism also connoted an "information age." Communications, the television medium, research and development, and the dissemination of knowledge in all forms attained higher prominence and importance. By the century's end personal computers had become common household items and computer functions proved indispensable to virtually every business function in the postindustrial economy. The information age, with its ever-accelerating pace, compelled Americans to process data and symbols in a new sensory environment.

Social critics perceived the change. The futurist Alvin Toffler's Future Shock, a best-selling book of 1970, described the new "feel" of the "super industrial economy." The rapid pace of change, the accelerated mobility of the business world, the "throwaway society" of the consumer market, Tofler asserted, all created the transient and impermanent sense of life in the new era. Human relations became more ad hoc as older social structures dissolved, Toffler believed. Christopher Lasch, in The Culture of Narcissism (1979) lamented the triumph of a hedonistic culture. Reflecting on the "political crisis of capitalism," Lasch recounted the emergence of a "therapeutic sensibility" and Americans' pervasive quest for psychic well-being. According to Lasch, Americans knew only the overwhelming present of the capitalist marketplace; self-preoccupation, indiscriminate hedonism, and anarchic individualism had become the normative social impulses of American life.

Postmodern Intellect

Impermanence, pluralism, dissolution, and the decay of authority constituted thematic emphases in the intellectual dimensions of postmodernism. The major influence, in the fields of language and literary theory, came heavily from the French. In the late 1960s, American students began to hear of thinkers like Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and others. They provided the leads in the redirection in American literary studies, "the linguistic turn" that would have influence in many academic disciplines. Influenced by the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, the French thinkers sought to deflate the pretensions of the logocentric, or word-focused, culture of Western civilization. Literary and intellectual texts, they asserted, always, when under close examination, yield both multiple and contradictory meanings. They "deconstruct" themselves. They do not produce truth systems; they confront us only with an endless chain of signifiers. Meaning always recedes, and eludes the reader. Western thinking, the poststructuralists maintained, had always been a quest for metaphysical comfort—a quest for the Absolute. But the efforts, they asserted, collapse from their very excesses. Poststructuralists such as those associated with the Yale School of academics in the 1970s deprived literary texts of subject authority ("the disappearance of the author"), coherence (texts are "de-centered"), and social reference ("there is nothing outside the text"). On the other hand, in poststructuralism, loss of authority also signified the positive alternative of reading as personal freedom ("re-creation"); Barthes wrote of the "pleasure of the text." In the Yale School, Geoffrey Hartman urged that the very indeterminacy of language empowered a creative criticism that broke the shackles of univocal meaning.

Postmodernism in its poststructuralist mode challenged the European and American left. In France, it replaced a Marxism that had dominated in the universities into the 1960s. In the United States, a sustained attack came from the literary scholar Frank Lentricchia in his 1980 book After the New Criticism. Leftist scholars, and particularly Marxists, had long insisted that literature, like all culture, reflected the hegemony of the dominant classes in capitalism; thus it always had a social connection and a historical foundation. Lentricchia saw in the American poststructuralists merely a formalist and hermetic approach to literature, depriving it of social and political context. "Pleasures of the text" conveyed to Lentricchia only the habits of aesthetic indulgence in bourgeois appropriations of culture, in short, a familiar recourse to hedonism. The linguistic turn to this extent, he believed, registered the most damning aspects of American capitalist culture, dissevering literature from the class struggle and rendering it a decorative and therapeutic device that invites us to take our pleasure as we like it.

In philosophy, Richard Rorty moved in a similar postmodernist direction. His Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) sought, like the poststructuralists, to deflate the pretensions of his discipline. Western thinking, he insisted, had gone awry in its long-standing efforts to secure a foundational epistemology, to make mind the mirror of nature. Rorty faulted the ahistorical character of this quest. Philosophy became defensive, he charged, freezing reality in privileged forms or essences. Appealing to the American pragmatist John Dewey, Rorty wished to return philosophy to the problematical aspects of ordinary life. In this era of "post-" and "neo-" labeling, Rorty called for a "post-Philosophy" that abandons pursuit of the conditioning groundwork of all thinking; instead, philosophy should be a form of hermeneutics. Post-Philosophy, for Rorty, had a relaxed and playful manner; it becomes an aspect of conversation, rooted in social and historical conditions. Here, too, a therapeutic quality stands out: philosophy helps us cope.

Postmodernism had a major social voice in the brilliant writings of the French thinker Michel Foucault. Though a voice of the political left, Foucault represents the postmodernist diminution of Marxism. To many post-structuralists like Foucault, Marxism conveyed traditional Western habits of logocentrism and notions of totality, from Hegel and onto "Western" Marxist humanism in the twentieth century. Foucault added to textual analysis the ingredient of power and saw language systems and intellectual discourse as vehicles of control. Foucault, however, read society like poststructuralists read literary texts, as decentered systems. In contrast to Marxists, he described power not as hegemony but as multiplicities, localities of activities, spaces, in which resistance and subversion are always at work. Foucault faulted Marxism as an intellectual residual of nineteenth-century ideology. Postmodernists like the French critic Jean-François Lyotard, in his influential book The Post-Modern Condition (1979), distrusted all holistic theorizing and "metanarratives." Absolutism in thought, he believed, led to totalitarianism in the political realm, the Gulag.

Postmodernist Arts

Postmodernism had specific references to the visual arts and redefined trends in painting and architecture. In the 1960s the reign of modernism in painting weakened. Nonrepresentational forms, of which the most often highlighted was abstract expressionism, gave way to stark contrasts, as in pop art. New styles proliferated: photo-realism, pattern and decorative art, high-tech art. Although some new genres—such as feminist and performance art—often suggested a subversive intent, generally commentators saw that postmodernism took painting away from the critical edge and alienated mood of modernism. They found in the newer varieties a relaxed posture. And against the arctic purity of modernism, its successor forms invited a sensual indulgence, not only in the marketplace of suburban America, but also in older art forms obscured or discredited by the modernist imperium. Museums sponsored revivals and retrospective exhibits of all kinds.

Architecture saw a similar shift. Sleek, glass rectangular skyscrapers, born of the severe rationalism of the Bauhaus school decades previously, had long dominated the main streets of America's large cities. Revolting against this restrictive formalism of modernist architecture, Robert Venturi led a postmodernist protest. His book Learning from Las Vegas (1972) celebrated the "ordinary and ugly" buildings of that American playground. Then in 1978, Philip Johnson, a noted practitioner of modernism, surprised the critics in revealing his design for the new AT&T building in New York City. Johnson affixed to the top of the slender rectangular slab a 30-foot-high pediment, broken in the center by a circular opening, an orbiculum that capped the building with a stylistic crown. It looked to some like the crest of an old grandfather clock. Almost overnight, it seemed, Johnson's "Chippendale" effect gave architects a license to appropriate freely from any and all older mannerisms. Post-modernist architecture signified a pervasive and playful eclecticism.

These directions raised more critical voices, mostly on the cultural left. The Marxist scholar Fredric Jameson provided the most trenchant attack in his Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). Everywhere postmodernism signified to Jameson the loss of critical distance, the triumph of "kitsch," the collapse of all signs and symbols under the global marketplace of international capitalism. Under postmodernism, he said, historicity dissolved. The past presented itself only as commodifiable pastiche. Postmodernism, in Jameson's account, meant the flattening out of all historically conditioned realities that constitute the vehicle of social reconstruction. It leaves only the reign of simulacra, the therapeutic salve, the pseudo-reality of a dehumanized civilization.

Postmodernist culture reflected the proliferating diversity of American life in the late twentieth century. It fostered a mood of acceptance and democratic tolerance. Some resented its anti-elitism and found it meretricious and too comfortable with the commercial nexus. The postmodernist era brought a politics of diversity and group identity—in women's rights, gay liberation, black, Indian, and Chicano ethnic movements. Here, too, postmodernism broke down prevailing norms and idealizations of American life. Some saw in the effects a healthy, democratic tolerance. Others wondered whether there remained any unifying force or any center in American life.


Bertens, Hans. The Idea of the Postmodern: A History. London: Routledge, 1995.

Hoeveler, J. David, Jr. The Postmodernist Turn: American Thought and Culture in the 1970s. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.

Kellner, Douglas, ed. Postmodernism: Jameson Critique. Washington, D.C.: Maisonneuve Press, 1989.

Silverman, Hugh J., ed. Postmodernism: Philosophy and the Arts. New York: Routledge, 1990.

J. DavidHoeveler

See alsoPost-structuralism .

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postmodernism, term used to designate a multitude of trends—in the arts, philosophy, religion, technology, and many other areas—that come after and deviate from the many 20th-cent. movements that constituted modernism. The term has become ubiquitous in contemporary discourse and has been employed as a catchall for various aspects of society, theory, and art. Widely debated with regard to its meaning and implications, postmodernism has also been said to relate to the culture of capitalism as it has developed since the 1960s. In general, the postmodern view is cool, ironic, and accepting of the fragmentation of contemporary existence. It tends to concentrate on surfaces rather than depths, to blur the distinctions between high and low culture, and as a whole to challenge a wide variety of traditional cultural values.

The term postmodernism is probably most specific and meaningful when used in relation to architecture, where it designates an international architectural movement that emerged in the 1960s, became prominent in the late 1970s and 80s, and remained a dominant force in the 1990s. The movement largely has been a reaction to the orthodoxy, austerity, and formal absolutism of the International Style. Postmodern architecture is characterized by the incorporation of historical details in a hybrid rather than a pure style, by the use of decorative elements, by a more personal and exaggerated style, and by references to popular modes of building.

Practitioners of postmodern architecture have tended to reemphasize elements of metaphor, symbol, and content in their credos and their work. They share an interest in mass, surface colors, and textures and frequently use unorthodox building materials. However, because postmodern architects have in common only a relatively vague ideology, the style is extremely varied. Greatly affected by the writings of Robert Venturi, postmodernism is evident in Venturi's buildings and, among others, in the work of Denise Scott Brown, Michael Graves, Robert A. M. Stern, Arata Isozaki, and the later work of Philip Johnson. Once extremely popular, postmodernism began to fall out of style in the late 1980s.

See also contemporary art.


See P. Goldberger, On the Rise: Architecture and Design in a Postmodern Age (1983); A. Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (1986); C. Jencks, What is Post-Modernism? (1986); S. Gaggi, Modern/Postmodern (1989); D. Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (1989); J. Tagg, ed., The Cultural Politics of Postmodernism (1989); D. Kolb, Postmodern Sophistications (1990); H. Risatti, ed., Postmodern Perspectives (1990); F. Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991); Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates on Houses and Housing (1992); T. Docherty, ed., Postmodernism: A Reader (1993); P. Jodidio, Contemporary American Architects (1993); D. Meyhofer, Contemporary European Architects (1993); N. Wheale, ed., The Postmodern Arts (1995); S. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (1996).

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post·mod·ern·ism / pōstˈmädərˌnizəm/ • n. a late 20th-century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism that represents a departure from modernism and has at its heart a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies as well as a problematical relationship with any notion of “art.” DERIVATIVES: post·mod·ern adj. post·mod·ern·ist n. & adj. post·mod·er·ni·ty / ˌpōstməˈdərnətē/ n.

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