Modernism vs. Postmodernism
April 6, 2007 2:01 PM   Subscribe

Modernism vs. Post-modernism

I understand the concepts, but what's the best way for me to identify a text as one or the other. For example, say I were to read a short-story or literary passage, without knowing any context, what would be the easiest way for me to identify it as either "Modern" or "Postmodern". I have a concept of what these terms mean philosophically, but I'm struggling to apply them. Thanks!
posted by nameless.k to Writing & Language (30 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
wow. this is such a widespread academic distinction. this by no means encompasses everything, but here's one way to look at them as a development of ideas:

pre-modern: form before function
modernism: function before form
post-modernism: function is a social construct

i'm probaby going to get blasted in the atmosphere for that reduction, but i'm a little discombobulated right now.

some people would also say the distinction doesnt really exist.
posted by phaedon at 2:25 PM on April 6, 2007


These are generalities: Post-modern text is usually filled with irony, populism and a distaste for rationality. It also contains a lot of say, pop-culture elements (blending high and low culture), intertexualism and the likes.

Look at say, T.S. Eliot's "Wasteland" ... it highlights classical societies, reveres the enlightenment, everything has an order, things happen in a rational way with cause and effect. You get a feeling overall purpose, a higher order.

Now look at anything Pynchon or David Foster Wallace writes. Narratives are often non-linear, the "system" is often portrayed as oppressive or silly, multiculturalism is highlighted, a view of history that portrays corporations and nations as self-serving. Some times things happen that just don't make sense. There is no cause-effect, Enlightenment rationality. Not nihilistic, but a general cynicism about Enlightenment ideals is presented. A common general theme is that why things may look great, the individual is no better off.

In reality it is exponentially more complicated than that, and I used a lot of phrases and words that are not quite correct in an academic sense. I hope it gives you a general idea of what to look for. You can literally write a doctorate on this subject ...
posted by geoff. at 2:30 PM on April 6, 2007


Disclaimer: huge, sweeping generalizations follow.

I'd say that modernist works tend to be "bolder" and more austere in tone, more focused on both formal structure and on stripping away ornamentation to leave only the essentials. They'll often have a more definitive sense of being spoken/written by a distinctive and idiosyncratic personality/voice, and themes will often reflect the times in which the works were written -- war, industrialization, alienation. IMO, experimental modernist works tend be more formally radical and "shocking" to the system and to traditional aesthetic norms.

In contrast to the "bold" character of modernist works, there may be a "slipperiness" to some postmodern works. One will be less certain of what one is reading/encountering, there may not be a clear sense of singular authorship or voice, and the literary style may have the character of a kind of patchwork of different styles or may be less formal and more casual/conversational. Thematically, postmodern works will often incorporate references to popular culture and media, and/or be "about" the production of art or culture. For experimental works, the experimentation may take place more on the level of "content" than on the level of "form." I.e., the text may be presented in a more or less conventional way, but not make "sense' in a conventional way.

Anyway, again, I'm sure there are tons of counterexamples to what I've said, so please take it all with a grain of salt. For that matter, whether these terms are even relevant or meaningful doesn't seem to be a settled question.

It might also be helpful to compare modern/postmodern in other forms of art.
posted by treepour at 2:36 PM on April 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


For me, a huge tip-off for postmodernism is a strong sense of self-awareness, self-referencing, and an overall "meta" vibe.

In other words, modernism simply exists. It is a poem or a song or a sculpture or whatever.

Postmodernism exists on two levels. It is what it is, but it comes with a built-in guide - or reference - or glossary. It is aware that it exists, and that may manifest itself in things like David Foster Wallace's footnotes or David Letterman's commenting on the quality of a joke immediately after telling it.

You know. That sort of thing.
posted by Bud Dickman at 2:45 PM on April 6, 2007 [2 favorites]


It depends on the field how it will be expressed, meaning that I'm not disagreeing with what's above (Ha! how postmodern!).

Look for multiple meanings, power, challenging of universals, making explicit one's standpoint/framework/biases, a blurring between subject/object, discourse analysis. All of these will be understood as socially constructed, negotiated, contextual and interpreted.
posted by kch at 2:53 PM on April 6, 2007


Thank you. This has been very helpful.
posted by nameless.k at 2:57 PM on April 6, 2007


I think these are all really helpful descriptions, but just wanted to add the obvious qualifier. This is a little obvious, but the problem with these sort of binaries (and there's a famous Umberto Ecco essay listing them) is that they break down when inspecting individual works. The Waste Land, for example, is hardly rational or illustrative of cause and effects relationships. Additionally, it's incredibly multicultural (the buddhist liturgy at the end), self-consciously referential (Eliot published it with his own footnotes and line numbers), kitschy (especially the parodies of pope), critical of reason (the whole poem's about the decay of western civilization), dissolving of high/low distinctions (lots of pop quotations, especially in the original draft). Similarly, Borges's Pierre Menard is way more self-conscious of form than, say, DFW's essays, where the use of footnotes is unproblematic. Wallace Stevens and the Williams of Spring and All are way more funny, decentered, flaneurlike, jokey, etc., than a lot of "postmodern" writers. Similarly, when we talk about Le Corbusier, the Picasso of the African masks, and the Pound of IN A STATION AT THE METRO, Kafka, etc., Modernism means a stripped-down purity, but when we talk about Joyce, Eliot, etc., means the exact opposite.
posted by kensanway at 3:08 PM on April 6, 2007 [4 favorites]


The Waste Land, for example, is hardly rational or illustrative of cause and effects relationships. Additionally, it's incredibly multicultural (the buddhist liturgy at the end), self-consciously referential (Eliot published it with his own footnotes and line numbers), kitschy (especially the parodies of pope), critical of reason (the whole poem's about the decay of western civilization), dissolving of high/low distinctions (lots of pop quotations, especially in the original draft).

Thank you. I was just about to chime in that the Waste Land was a spectacularly poor example especially regarding high/low culture, & referential-ness.
posted by juv3nal at 3:24 PM on April 6, 2007


Obviously I was being ironically post-modern to demonstrate post-modernism. Laughs on you!
posted by geoff. at 3:31 PM on April 6, 2007


The easiest place to find modernism in literature, or at least (to my mind), the "cleanest" place, is genre novels. Jim Thompson or Mickey Spillane both have a parsimony of language, and a narrative-based thrust. Contrast that to Paul Auster's City of Glass for a pomo detective story.

Oh, and to sort of shift this to the world of visual arts, where modernism and post-modernism are (again, I think) more helpful and meaningful terms— I had a great art history prof that argued that modernism and post-modernism both started with Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe. Modernism can't exist without a conscious examination of it.
He also argues that Modernism and Post-Modernism are both best understood as times, not movements, especially the latter. We're all post-modern now, in that we live in a time after modernism (when great things were still possible without reflection).
For other modernism, see also the Futurist Manifesto.
posted by klangklangston at 3:58 PM on April 6, 2007


Aw! The stuff of grad school seminars. The very notion of creating rules to govern this dichotomy is a modern impulse. From one angle you can tune your modernity sensor to "grand narrative" and it will start blinking rapidly when you encounter literature or theories that purport to "tell it like it is," that have a drive toward ordering the world, or work to explain how events correspond to some logically ordered path of progress. The notion of "progress" is classic Enlightenment. In contrast, the Postmodern is slipperly as treepour notes. It's playful and often slides across the surface.

Is that a helpful distinction? Maybe not. In the 80s/90s I had one leg in the Frankfurt School (very modern) and the other leg in Postmoderism (Jamieson, Foucault, Baudrillard). It all seemed very profound at the time and I recall many deep and serious debates about the relative utility and meaning of each camp. But as the 90s peaked and we flipped into a new century this debate as seemed less and less interesting and relevant. I walk around, I look at what's on TV, I spend time on the Internet, I travel to different countries and it all seems very very PoMo. PoMo no longer being a forwaqrd-looking critique of culture but a simple description of what's happening everday.
posted by donovan at 4:06 PM on April 6, 2007


This chart should help you. I've given it to my students.
posted by BackwardsCity at 4:13 PM on April 6, 2007 [6 favorites]


An instructor once contrasted the two by describing modernism as the sense that God had left, and humans were now on our own to create a new order to fill the void -- there's still an emphasis on trying to build an all-encompassing structure; post-modernism was the sense that any new order we try to create in the void is arbitrary and ultimately pointless -- there's an awareness of subjectivity and lack of objective truth.

That sounds a bit abstract, but I've found it helps. If the author is trying to create a new, lasting, ultimate-truth structure, it's modern. If the author seems fully aware that whatever he's doing is arbitrary, it's post-modern.
posted by occhiblu at 4:21 PM on April 6, 2007 [3 favorites]


Digging that chart, BackwardsCity, thanks. This is a bit off-topic, but I'm not sure what to make of the epistemology/ontology distinction (I know what the terms mean, I'm just having trouble relating them to modernism/postmodernism) -- do you have any suggestions for further reading on the topic?
posted by treepour at 4:26 PM on April 6, 2007


Here's my answer for architecture. Post-modernism stands out through overdone decoration that symbolizes it being something it's not, or the mixing of architectural styles.

Pre-modern: various decorative trends (Classical, Gothic, Victorian, etc.)

Modern: "Ornament is a crime:" austere concrete skyscrapers. "Form follows function:" exposed heating ducts.

Post-modern: Las Vegas, fake pyramids, 25-foot high Christmas wreaths on the side of a Walmart, buildings that mix styles (Roman, Victorian, etc.) (which to me makes a building feel "weird.")
posted by salvia at 5:35 PM on April 6, 2007 [2 favorites]


Modern: "Ornament is a crime:" austere concrete skyscrapers . . . Post-modern: Las Vegas, fake pyramids, 25-foot high Christmas wreaths on the side of a Walmart, buildings that mix styles (Roman, Victorian, etc.)

FWIW, there are "austere" postmodern skyscrapers too. Here's one of my favorites, the Nations Bank building in downtown Houston, by Philip Johnson (the reddish building with the steeple-like tiers). He also did the building(s) behind that one, the two black obelisk-like shapes.
posted by treepour at 7:35 PM on April 6, 2007


(Ooh, that building is cool, treepour. Guess more specific distinctions are needed maybe.)
posted by salvia at 10:55 PM on April 6, 2007


The best modernism/post-modernism discussion that I have seen (and I will admit that this is NOT my primary interest) is David Harvey's The Condition of Postmodernity. Perry Anderson gives a pretty good history of the term "post-modern" and the various things it has come to mean in The Origins of Postmodernity. Jameson's Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism is also excellent.

I will also just let you know that more and more scholars are really challenging the notion of the modernism/post-modernism split. You can sense this to a certain extent in this very thread and the debates and the "Well, yes, but doesn't (modernist/postmodernist work) also have (postmodernist/modernist characteristics.)" Look for stuff on this coming soon to an academic publisher near you. Personally, I find the notion of "post-modernity" to be not very useful to describe anything in any real intellectually productive way. It's more a tone or feel to classify certain works of art, maybe, but it doesn't carry a lot of content for me. BackwardsCity's chart can be "deconstructed" with extreme prejudice fairly easily, I think (no offense, BC).

However, even going by "traditional" notions, I find it rather implausible to state that either Lacan (as in BackwardsCity's handout) or Foucault (as in donovan's note) are "post-modern" in any sense. Read Zizek's The Sublime Object of Ideology for a debunking of the notion of a post-structuralist/post-modernist Lacan, read Derrida's critique of Foucault (can't remember the essay title, it's in Writing and Difference though. Or just read Foucault's work. I never got the notion of calling him post-modern, as that never springs to my mind about him.

Plus, no offense donovan, but if you're trying to imply that the moderns are inheritors of an Enlightenment notion of progress ... well, I don't know about that. Where's the enlightenment thinking and the inevitability of progress in Ulysses or The Waste Land or The Sound and the Fury? Those are all "modernist" masterworks, yet they are already "post-modern" if you want to use that term (cf. "Oxen of the Sun"). And the Frankfurt school are all about critiquing the enlightenment and undermining any Hegelian notion of progress, so I'm not sure how donovan is using them in his post. Read Horkheimer & Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment for more.

Ultimately, it seems to me that the distinctions are ultimately personal and useful only to the person/work of art who wishes to announce itself as one or the other. Calling your book "post-modern" carries (or carried) a certain amount of cultural capital, but I don't think there's much difference in kind, just a difference in degree. Again, I think it often gets tossed around to mean "difficult theory" or "something that challenges accepted wisdom" and thus attached to people like Lacan and Foucault.
posted by papakwanz at 11:22 PM on April 6, 2007 [2 favorites]


Oh, and re: BackwardsCity's chart: I imagine that if Adorno were to use the vocabulary of modernism/post-modernism, he would classify Stravinsky as a post-modernist (again, for all that term may/may not mean) and Lynch more as a modernist filmmaker (a la Beckett, perhaps). Just my thoughts, though.
posted by papakwanz at 11:25 PM on April 6, 2007


So how would y'all characterize Cormac McCarthy's novels, say Blood Meridian or (my favorite) Child of God?
posted by davy at 12:12 AM on April 7, 2007


BackwardsCity's chart can be "deconstructed" with extreme prejudice fairly easily, I think (no offense, BC).

Oh, none taken. I didn't make the chart, if I gave that impression; I found it on the Internet, modified it for my purposes, and gave it to my students with the original link attached and emphasis on the fact that you can't *really* do this. Even the chart admits that making a chart like this is about the most un-postmodern thing you can do.
posted by BackwardsCity at 6:08 AM on April 7, 2007


treepour:

There's a book by Brian Boyd, if memory serves, that handles the ontology/epistemlogy question well.

Trivial example of the distinction as popularly understood: 'high modernist' novels (appeared to) problematize whether the narrated world could be known, by the reader and to an extent by the narrator him/herself. Think Lord Jim, where the moment of crisis that centers the story - Jim jumps from the sinking ship, dooming the passengers - is curiously skipped over during the account of Jim's crime. Or think Ulysses, where the narration deals with straightforward events but presents them kaleidescopically. It's possible to know everything that occurs in Joyce's book, but the mythical tangents and internal monlogues aren't necessarily full grokkable.

One feature of postmodern novels (again: this is like sub-101-level stuff here) is, say, lingering questions about whether the world itself is real. So in Gravity's Rainbow, say, the protagonist (such as he is) actually disappears in the last 100 pages, and his consciousness is somehow dispersed among various other characters. Or in Fight Club, say, the narrator is unreliable but ultimately so is the story itself.

There's a parallel movement in detective stories, say: First the classical detective (Holmes et al.) who, in stories told by a reliable narrator, hears of a crime and solves it. Then the hardboiled detective of the middle third of the 20th century, who sets out to investigate one crime, unreliable narrated, and ends up finding that the real crime is something else, which he may or may not 'solve.' (Think Philip Marlowe - which reminds me, go watch The Big Sleep again!! Just because. :)

Then you get the next era of detective stories: Blade Runner is a hardboiled detective story in which the detective is himself the thing he's investigating, while The Big Lebowski is a Big Sleep spoof (in part) in which the 'detective' isn't who he's supposed to be and the 'crime' wasn't really a crime and the point of the whole ridiculous affair turns out to have something to do with Vietnam.

So to sum up this low-flying review: the shift from modernism to postmodernism in literature is in part a shift from foregrounding epistemological considerations to doing the same for (generally less dense) ontological questions.

Lots of other stuff too, but commenters upthread have pointed to that to an extent already.
posted by waxbanks at 8:53 AM on April 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


A Blur album started playing as I read this thread and I realized: If Modern life is rubbish, then Post-modern life is the recycling.
posted by isopraxis at 11:37 AM on April 7, 2007 [3 favorites]


waxbanks: A good clarification, I think. Although, I would point out that epistemological questions are inevitably concerned with ontology, and vice versa (imho).
posted by papakwanz at 6:01 PM on April 7, 2007


Even the chart admits that making a chart like this is about the most un-postmodern thing you can do.
posted by BackwardsCity


Which is why it's also the MOST postmodern thing you can do!

(only half-kidding)
posted by papakwanz at 6:03 PM on April 7, 2007


isopraxis, I love that!
posted by occhiblu at 6:08 PM on April 7, 2007


waxbanks, thanks -- very helpful!
posted by treepour at 6:25 PM on April 7, 2007


So in Gravity's Rainbow, say, the protagonist (such as he is) actually disappears in the last 100 pages

ENOUGH WITH THE SPOILERZ.
I kid. It was actually a spoiler for me, but only because I try cracking GR every year and have never gotten even halfway.
posted by juv3nal at 2:31 AM on April 8, 2007


ENOUGH WITH THE SPOILERZ.

It's not all that noticeable. It's not like you're thinking, "Hey, where's that guy that was running around in the pajamas and the artillery shell?" At that point, you're about a mile past the crazy line and accelerating rapidly.

Imagine descending to earth in a plastic rocket, fire licking over the cockpit, the whole thing about to fall to pieces, and you look to your side absentmindedly and think, "Oh my, we seem to have lost the wing. Huh." It's sort of like that.

Still my favorite book of all time.
posted by spiderwire at 5:05 PM on April 12, 2007


waxbanks: "So to sum up this low-flying review: the shift from modernism to postmodernism in literature is in part a shift from foregrounding epistemological considerations to doing the same for (generally less dense) ontological questions."

I can't trust my memory, but for some reason I associate this epistemology-ontology shift with Brian McHale, for what it's worth.
posted by cobra libre at 4:21 PM on April 30, 2007


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