Postmodern Culture

Postmodern culture is a far reaching term describing a range of activities, events, and perspectives relating to art, architecture, the humanities, and the social sciences beginning in the second half of the twentieth century. In contrast to modern culture, with its emphasis on social progress, coherence, and universality, postmodern culture represents instances of dramatic historical and ideological change in which modernist narratives of progress and social holism are viewed as incomplete, elastic, and contradictory. In conjunction with the end of modernist progress narratives, an insistence on coherence gives way to diversity and the dominance of universality is subverted by difference within a postmodern condition. Additionally, postmodern culture stands for more than the current state of society. Postmodern culture is characterized by the valuing of activities, events, and perspectives that emphasize the particular over the global or the fragment over the whole. This reversal of a modernist ideology necessitates a valuation of variation and flexibility in the cultural sphere. Primarily through the writings of Jean Francois Lyotard, whose seminal book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1984) remains the definitive exposition of the term and its significance to society, postmodern culture has come to be identified with a radical critique of the relationship between the particular and the universal in art, culture, and politics.

The most visible signs of postmodern culture appear in art, architecture, film, music, and literature after the 1950s. The most prominent stylistic features that unite these diverse forums are pastiche, non representationalism, and non linearity. In the art and architecture of postmodern culture, collage and historical eclecticism are emphasized. The American painter Mark Tansey depicts historical scenes and figures in anachronistic situations. His 1982 painting Purity Test positions a group of ‘‘traditional’’ Native Americans on horseback over looking Smithson’s 1970 Sprial Jetty, a temporal impossibility. In architecture, Robert Venturi combines classical and modern architectural features, juxtaposing distinct historical styles. Art and architecture within postmodern culture celebrate collage and do not symbolize historical, thematic, or organic unity. Their postmodern quality can be found in the artist’s or architect’s desire to abandon the constraints of temporal, stylistic, and historical continuity.

In film, literature, and music representative of postmodern culture there is an emphasis on non linearity, parody, and pastiche. Post modern film, such as the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple or Fargo, disrupt narrative timelines and emphasize the work of parody. Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, for instance, ‘‘begins’’ at the end and continually recycles crime scene cliches throughout the plot. Similar aesthetic principles are at play in postmodern literature in which the ‘‘realist mode’’ is thwarted in favor of the seemingly nonsensical. The Canadian writer Douglas Coupland epitomizes this departure from realism. All Families Are Psychotic (2001) depicts the surreal life of the Drummond family – a disparate familial group brought together by the daughter’s impending launch into space and the financial woes of the father. In film and fiction the everydayness of life is shown to be complex, parodic, and undetermined. The division between the so called ‘‘real’’ and ‘‘unreal’’ is collapsed and vast excesses of postmodern society are allowed to spiral out of control. Postmodern culture ‘‘adopts a dedifferentiating approach that will fully subverts boundaries between high and low art, artist and spectator and among different artistic forms and genres’’ (Best & Kellner 1997: 132).

Music in postmodern culture shares a great deal with the previous artistic forms. The discontinuity that one associates with John Cage’s atonal compositions is taken to another level. Contemporary postmodern musicians mix and match different musical styles and traditions, adding a cultural pastiche to Cage’s theory of improvisation. Bubba Sparxxx’s (a.k.a. Warren Anderson Mathis) ‘‘Dirty South,’’ ‘‘Southern Hip Hop,’’ or ‘‘Hip Hop Country’’ style mixes the sound and theme of traditional hip hop music with a Country nuance. His lyrics, especially in his 2001 song ‘‘Ugly,’’ address issues of identity and the hybridity and similarity that one finds among urban and rural youth as they attempt to attain stardom within the entertainment industry. Along the same lines, rapper Kanye West combines hip hop music with Caribbean styles, including the reggae sound and motifs one would associate with Ziggy Marley. West, in addition to his political and cultural messages, offers a ‘‘Christian Rap’’ testimony in his music. His 2004 ‘‘Jesus Walks’’ integrates a heavy, military urban sound with gospel themes drawn from direct references to biblical passages. In popular music, figures such as Paul Simon and Sting utilize non Western (primarily African and Middle Eastern) sounds and style in their recent albums. Music in postmodern culture is heterogeneous, stylistically mixed, and international in influence.

While postmodern culture can be illuminated by reference to specific cultural products, it is important to keep in mind the underlying philosophical logic driving the phenomenon. Postmodernity as a reaction against a modernity, as Lyotard observes, is grounded in the Enlightenment, with its confidence in the faculty of reason to ascertain philosophical ‘‘truths’’ and its dedication to the progress of science and technology to enhance and improve the human situation. Taken together, this confidence and dedication to a particular intellectual framework produces monolithic accounts of the nature of reality and human kind’s place within it. The ‘‘postmodern condition,’’ therefore, is a disruption in the claim of totality found in these Enlightenment generated accounts. According to postmodernists, the western worldview, with its commitment to universality in all things related to being human, gives way under the weight of its own contradictions and repressions. The comprehensive grand theories or grand narratives, as Lyotard describes them, subsequently fail in a postmodern era insofar as the plurality of human existence emerges within a wider cultural space. Postmodern knowledge of the world, as Lyotard explains, must take into account the multiplicity of experience or ‘‘phrasings’’ and the possibility of new, unanticipated experiences or phrasings that will assist in making sense of reality in ways either not permitted or not imagined by a modernist ideology. The content of knowledge we presently possess is continually being transformed by technology and ‘‘the nature of knowledge cannot survive unchanged within this context of general transformation’’ (Lyotard 1984: 4). Culture, as it pertains to postmodernism, is more than a repository of data; it is the activity that shapes and gives meaning to the world, constructing reality rather than presenting it.

Postmodern culture, as a valorization of the multiplicity found in ‘‘little narratives,’’ exhibits anti modernist tendencies, with art and politics rejecting calls to narrative totalization. Jameson (1984), referring to the social theorist Jurgen Habermas, states that ‘‘postmodernism involves the explicit repudiation of the modernist tradition – the return of the middle class philistine or Spiessburger (bourgeois) rejection of modernist forms and values – and as such the expression of a new social conservatism.’’ While an emphasis on the particular over the universal captures the revolutionary impulse found in the political and aesthetic sentiments of Lyotardian postmodernism, it runs counter to a lengthy critique of postmodernism by social theorists, mainly Marxists, who view this turn to the particularity of ‘‘little narratives’’ as a symptom of late capitalism, with its valuation on proliferating commodities and flexible corporate organizational models. The characteristics of multiplicity, pastiche, and non linearity, while viewed as offering new aesthetic, epistemological, and political possibilities by postmodern artists, architects, writers, filmmakers, and theorists, are understood by those who reject postmodernism as examples of the ‘‘logic of late capitalism’’ ( Jameson 1984) in which commodities and consumers enter into rapid, undifferentiated exchange in ever increasing and diversified markets.

Harvey (1989) argues that postmodernism is the ideological ally of global capitalism, which is characterized in part by decentered organizational modes, intersecting markets, and hyper consumerism. While social theorists such as Daniel Bell, Philip Cooke, Edward Soja, and Scott Lash see postmodern culture as a symptom of global capitalist ideology, others view it as an extension or completion of the modernist project. Bauman (1992) notes that ‘‘the post modern condition can be therefore described . . . as modernity emancipated from false consciousness [and] as a new type of social condition marked by the overt institutionalization of characteristics which modernity – in its designs and managerial practices – set about to eliminate and, failing that, tried to conceal.’’ In this account, postmodern culture is viewed as having a continuity with modernism and not necessarily an affiliation with a late capitalist mode of production. Although the features of post modern culture are similarly described and agreed upon by social and literary theorists from across the ideological spectrum, the meaning of postmodern culture remains largely in dispute, with its advocates seeing it as a new condition and its detractors seeing it as an accomplice to late capitalism and conservative ideology.

In the few decades since its inception as a critical concept in the arts, architecture, humanities, and social sciences, postmodern culture remains controversial. Artists, architects, writers, philosophers, social theorists, and film makers continue to explore its vast possibilities, however. Whether it is a new condition, an emancipation from modernist false consciousness, a subsidiary of late capitalism, or a indefinable Zeitgeist, the debate over postmodern culture will be a central feature of intellectual life for years to come.


  1. Bauman, Z. (1992) Intimations of Postmodernity. Routledge, London.
  2. Best, S. & Kellner, D. (1991) Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. Guilford Press, New York.
  3. Best, S. & Kellner, D. (1997) The Postmodern Turn. Guilford Press, New York.
  4. Debeljak, A. (1998) Reluctant Modernity: The Institution of Art and Its Historical Forms. Rowman & Littlefield, New York.
  5. Harvey, D. (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Blackwell, Oxford.
  6. Jameson, F. (1984) Forward. In: Lyotard, J.-F., The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, pp. vii xxi.
  7. Lyotard, J.-F. (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
  8. Taylor, V. (2000) Para/Inquiry: Postmodern Religion and Culture. Routledge, London.

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