What Is Postmodernism

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In trying to define exactly what post-modernism is I shall firstly briefly consider some of the events and thinking that led up to the development of this particular school of social theory. I shall then consider some of the common strands of thinking in postmodernism concentrating mainly on the writings of Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard. I shall then consider the view of David Harvey, a Marxist many consider to be writing in the postmodern tradition, who argues that post-modernism is just another form of capitalism. Having analysed his argument I shall conclude by giving my own personal view of post-modernism and by showing that by its very nature it is virtually impossible to come up with one single all encompassing definition.

The term postmodernism was first used in relation to architecture. Modern architecture, namely the high rise tower blocks of the sixties, were becoming more and more unpopular. Charles Jencks (1977) traces the death of modernist architecture to the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, and other writers (Lemert (1990)) have seen this as a symbol of the end of modernity. Society was reacting against modern architectural ideas having lost faith in the modern ideals. Although modern architecture might have been scientifically advanced using the latest and cheapest materials, people rejected it, preferring to return to a variety of styles from the past. Examples of this can be seen in the rejuvenation of the Albert Dock in Liverpool, and “mock” medieval squares.

Similarly in Sociology postmodernism rejects the theories of the past, and represents a break from the “modern” way of thinking. For example, Marx envisaged society evolving through social change into the “perfect” communist society, where there are no issues of class or general inequality. Postmodernists would refer to his theory, and those of other sociologists, as a metanarrative and writers such as Lyotard (1984) have seen the rejection of such theories as central to postmodernism: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodernism as incredulity to metanarratives”

People have lost faith in the metanarratives of the past and Lyotard sees social life being organised around ‘language games’, which serve to justify people’s behaviour in society. In these games a person endeavours to persuade others to accept his or her point of view as ‘right’ or ‘true’ with each statement being a move within these games. Lyotard sees these games having evolved from the narrative, the telling of stories or legends, to the scientific, or denotative which became important during the enlightenment. Such scientific games relied upon evidence and argument to either prove or disprove them. As society enters the post-modern era faith is lost in the denotative language games and is replaced by technical language games. Truth is not the important factor any more, but whether or not an idea, or “game”, is useful. Knowledge becomes a commodity that is to be sold, and Lyotard sees it as possibly the most important commodities in what he calls: “the world-wide competition for power”

Lyotard links the rise in the importance of knowledge to the rise in the use of computers in both society’s commercial and social life. In my view there are few people who can dispute this fact. One only has to consider new media technologies and look at the rise in the use of the Internet to conclude that this is indeed the case. Bill Gates has become the richest business on the planet, and, to a certain degree, one could say that he does control “knowledge”, or at least people’s access to it.

Another important aspect of the post-modern society is the diversity that exists within it. Even postmodernist theory is not a unified approach. Kellner (1990) argues that: “There is nothing like a...
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