The subject of much spirited debate for the diverse ideologies it nurtures, postmodernism can be considered a natural reaction to modernism and the specific characteristics of contemporary society. Like modernism, postmodernism is the product of a zeitgeist in Western culture and encompasses a wide variety of disciplines such as art, architecture, literature, philosophy, and other forms of thought and expression under an overarching thematic umbrella.

Here I consider postmodernism to be a movement that doesn’t break with the past so much as splices it, dices it, and repackages it according to contemporary society’s demands. Yet, the best way to define postmodernism is to examine its characteristics alongside those of modernism. Binary comparison may itself be seen as a modernist phenomenon, but as an effect of modernism, postmodernism naturally invites such comparisons. It is true that some consider postmodernism to simply be a later stage of modernism, but I view postmodernism as a separate movement that is best understood against the canvas of modernism, and that is what I will examine here.

To put the movement in context, postmodernism was most active in the late 20th century. It has its roots in the post-World War II period and came to fruition in the late 1960’s. Postmodernism began as an academic discipline in the 1980’s and was strongest as a movement in the 1990’s. For the moment, it is still going strong in our early 21st century.

On the other hand, modernism was most active in the early 20th century. It began in the late 19th century, but gained momentum and had its most recognizable period during 1910-1930, a period that can be termed high modernism. However, some art produced as late as the 1960’s can still be considered resolutely modernist.

Modernism rose and developed at a time when society was becoming increasingly, recognizably, and irreparably mechanized. Naturally, the car became the symbol for this age. Everything mechanical and scientific was exalted and production was hailed as achievement. The period was known as the age of the machine and modernism was a response to this new reality: a society of science, production, and speed.

In literature and philosophy, modernism emphasized the work of rationality and absolute truths – the triumph of science, progress, and order. People believed in the ability of humans to improve their environment and condition through the use of scientific principles.

Stability and order were the bedrocks of modernism and nurtured by so-called grand narratives and ideologies: order renewed the world and led to the redemption of mankind. Modernism thus emphasized the contributions of rational systems to universal happiness and made enemies of that contrary to rationalism as agents of chaos and suffering. It is therefore important to note that the horrific enterprise of World War I, once concluded, was considered anti-rationalist.

In modernism, innovation as progress was revered. As an example, James Joyce’s novel Ulysses is considered the pinnacle of modernist writing. Ulysses is a highly-structured work; the chapters (called episodes) mirror Homer’s Odyssey and all feature a different style and technique and are interspersed with layered correspondences. Though Joyce’s work draws inspiration from disparate sources, it is highly deliberate, rational, and systematic.

In the early 20th century people watched as both the literal and the figurative world of the factory brought with it extreme examples of hierarchy, unity, centralizing tendencies, systems, and order – creating order and making sense from chaos. This was the age of the masses: mass consumption, mass culture, and shared experience. Unity was fabricated and experienced.

In art, architecture, and aesthetics, modernism emphasized simplicity, pure lines, geometric shapes, and a lack of adornment. The modernist focus lay in capturing the essence of a subject or idea, but to the detriment of realistic representation. Pablo Picasso’s Cubist paintings are an example of this extreme attention to shape and line.

In fact, with its emphasis on simplicity, rationality, order, and systems, modernism in general could be seen as an artificial construction. Postmodernism then is easily seen as an inevitable reaction against modernism and modernist values.

In the aftermath of World War II, the Western world began to reflect on the deeply-rooted mechanization, society of absolutes, and mass culture that prevailed; the West began to witness the cracking of the monolithic tendencies of modernism. The civil rights and counterculture movements of the 1950’s and 1960’s in the United States are good examples. Unity was questioned. Things were examined: Who, people wondered, did the current systems serve? Previous assumptions and absolute truths were attacked. A natural result of this was fragmentation, and therefore, postmodernism.

Postmodernism espoused the ideas of truth as a construction and reality as subjective experience. Under the auspices of postmodern theory, feminism, Marxism, post-colonialism, and a host of other schools and tendencies questioned systems, previous assumptions, and the status quo. These “revolutionary” ideas of the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s, however, became widely accepted in academia and the broader intellectual world in the 1980’s.

The next phase of postmodernism was bolstered by technology. The rise of computers and technology, and more recently the Internet, brought about a further fracturing of society. Meaning became relative. Mass experience was replaced by niche marketing. Truth was replaced by logic, rhetoric, and irony. Pure originality was doubted. People, events, and things no longer had inherent meaning but invited subjective experience. Centralization was replaced by decentralization and anarchy. (Some of the work practices of the software industry are a good example of this last point.) Skepticism and cynicism were W28admitted.

In postmodernism, progress is not inevitable and innovation is not always possible. Postmodern society emphasizes instant gratification and chaos. Unity is not valued. Multiplicity is assumed. Knowledge is a commodity, saturation a result.  

Postmodern literature has a difficult burden of proof with respect to a standard canon for the simple fact that postmodernism rejects universal experience and that there is little that unites one author with another, or one work to another. Postmodernism considers experience to be private and personal and defined by a series of personal or group associations and subcultures. Another reason postmodern literature can be difficult to identify, and other postmodern art in general, however, is its apparent lack of pure innovation in favor of a fusion of older styles.

Yet at the same time, the traditionally superior role of the author is often – but not always – called into question in what we may term postmodern literature. The author’s role as a surrogate for God in modernist and earlier literature is often replaced by an author who appears to know as little as the work’s characters. Chance is frequently emphasized and there may not be a recognizable message or path. Redemption can be elusive and there is little margin for comfort for either the author or the reader.

Given the varied and disparate works and ideas that postmodernism engenders and a reigning sense of chaos or helplessness, postmodernism can be considered an expected response to modernism’s emphases on centralization and order, but the movement is perhaps an uncomfortable heir. Lack of unity is not the most expedient of characteristics for a broad movement. Postmodernism requires a personal reading from its proponents and a faith that it will not admit for itself. In recognizing the fallibility of everything, postmodernism inherently recognizes its own fallibility: a product of its age, postmodernism allows that it too will be replaced.