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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 ”postmodern condition” is a disruption in the claim to totality found in the Enlightenment. According to postmodernists, the western world-view, 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 subsequently fail in a postmodern era insofar as the plurality of human existence emerges within a wider cultural space. Postmodern knowledge of the world must take into account the multiplicity of experience or ”phrasings” (Lyotard) and the possibility of new, unanticipated experiences 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. 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. Frederick 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 Spieflbiirger (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.
- Jameson, (1984) Foreword. In: Lyotard, J.-F., The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, pp. vii—xxi.
- Taylor, V. (2000) Para/Inquiry: Postmodern Religion and Culture. Routledge, London.