Essays Modernism Postmodernism

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Avant-garde / Modernism / Postmodernism

All I can try to do in less than half an hour today is to sketch in extremely rapid overview some of the theoretical positions underlying the terms avant-garde, modernism, and postmodernism, peppering them with some examples inevitably torn out of context and simplified to fit the framework of my argument. But I'll have achieved what I intended if I can encourage you to follow up through the bibliography some of these ideas.

The terms 'modernity' and 'modernism' are perplexing enough without the addition of the prefix 'post-'. Even the attempt to historicize modernity, to try and define its boundaries historically, is a paradoxical task because, in the words of Tony Pinkney (see bibliography), modernity's awareness of itself as modern announces [Q] "merely the empty flow of time itself" [U], and its self-periodization is offered only as a break with the "mythic or circular temporality" (or non-temporality) of the organic community. This is to say that modernity can only define itself in terms of a temporal break with an organic past, but it is a break that has always already occurred no matter which moment one chooses as its starting point. Needless to say, this understanding of the infinite expandability of the modern, and the infinite regress of its origins, itself remains caught up within modernism's internal ideology.

Some commentators attempt to align modernity with the rise of the bourgeoisie during the 19th Century, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and its embrace of rationalism and positivism. Such arguments then see modernity as the culmination of Enlightenment rationality, with its beliefs in science and progress. The argument is often loosely based on Theodor Adorno's and Max Horkheimer's foundational text, Dialectic of Enlightenment, which, written in 1944 towards the end of the Nazi terror, proclaims that [Q] "Enlightenment is totalitarian". Enlightenment rationality is seen as a mode of thought so bound up with knowledge as a form of mastery, that it is destined to reach its grizzly culmination in the rationalized and technologized slaughter of the Nazi concentration camps, as well as, with hindsight, in the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In many such accounts, the Messianic faith of modernity reaches its end in those techno-scientific slaughterhouses too, and the post-war world, dominated economically and culturally by the United States of America, emerges into its post-modern dawn.

Other, more economically grounded arguments, such as David Harvey's meticulously argued book, or Fredric Jameson's more sweeping account, lay less stress on thought or rationality, and more on ideology and the rise of industrial capitalism, with its unleashing of the mobilizing forces of "creative destruction", following Marx's view of capitalism as simultaneously a dissolving and a creative force. It is the phase of capitalist expansion during the 19th Century, with its radical restructuring of social relations, that distinguishes the modern epoch from everything that comes before. Capitalism, in the Marxist view, is seen as "a social system internalizing rules that ensure it will remain a permanently revolutionary and disruptive force in its own world history" (Harvey, p. 107), or to quote Marx and Engels directly:

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier times. All fixed, fast-frozen relationships, with their train of venerable ideas and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become obsolete before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face with sober sense the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men. (The Communist Manifesto, cit. Harvey, pp. 99-100)

For Harvey, very crudely, capitalism has experienced, from the mid 19th Century onwards, repeated crises of overaccumulation, leading to a phenomenon he terms "time-space compression", after Marx's idea that capitalism is driven through the desire for faster and faster turnover to the "annihilation of space by time". This leads to fundamentally new and disorientating experiences of space and time and in turn to crises in spatial-temporal representation, issuing in strong æsthetic responses. One such period occurs from the 1870s to the 1930s, when capitalism finds a spatial fix to the crisis of overaccumulation in rapid Imperial expansion. Under this argument, the modernist city is, of necessity, the Imperialist city. The latest bout of time-space compression, for Harvey, is the transition, starting in the late 1960s, from Industrial Fordism -- Ford's famous rationalization of capitalist production via the assembly-line -- to a new capitalist regime of "flexible accumulation". It is this shift that marks the transition from modernity to postmodernity within the terms of this argument. The wholesale capitalist takeover of the sphere of culture and representation together with the æsthetic responses generated by this, are part and parcel of this attempt to outline the historical condition of postmodernity.

We have however jumped too far ahead of ourselves, and we need to go back and ask ourselves what continuities and discontinuities there might be between the terms modernism and modernity, let alone between postmodernism and postmodernity. Modernism may of course be considered as a cultural reaction to modernity, whether to the economic, social, or technological environment of high capitalism. If we accept this notion of cultural 'reaction' to a social environment, then we should expect modernism to be sometimes engaged with, and sometimes distanced from and critical of, the experience of modernity. It might try to engage, for example, with heightened experiences of speed and turnover within the urban environment, or it might withdraw from the shocks and jolts of an alienated and alienating social environment into an æsthetic world nostalgic for the lost myths governing an ordered and organic sense of community. Or it might partake of both of these impulses at the same time, becoming internally split, or schizophrenic.

This is more or less the thesis on modernism of Peter Bürger's now classic text, Theory of the Avant-Garde, which attempts to elaborate a theory of the cultural movements extending from the turn of the century until the Second World War. Bürger distinguishes quite sharply between modernism, and what he terms the historical avant-garde or, elsewhere, the revolutionary avant-garde. Modernism, what is even termed æsthetic modernism, is understood by Bürger as a self-protective gesture. Modernist texts -- of which The Waste Land is usually taken as a paradigm -- attempt to forestall their own consumption in the undifferentiated homogenization of either bourgeois utilitarianism, or, at a later stage, of mass-industrial capitalism. The modernist text draws its discourse protectively around itself, resisting its reduction to the status of a mere commodity, in an antagonistic relationship to modernity. While on the one hand it 'thickens its textures' to forestall logical reduction, on the other it is still governed by a desire to re-organize the shattered fragments of modernity into an organic, meaningful whole. Tony Pinkney puts it succinctly in his introduction to Raymond Williams' book The Politics of Modernism, claiming that the great prototypes of twentieth century urban modernism, The Waste Land and Ulysses, are internally split -- there is a dissociation in these works [Q] "between texture and structure, between heightened or even pathological subjectivity and the static absolutist myths which govern these texts" (p. 13).

The important point for Bürger, however, is that the schizoid modernist artefact is unable to recognize its own protective gestures as ideological, nor does it call into question its own institutional status as art: indeed, it can align itself with a highly reactionary politics by highlighting and reinforcing the self-defining institutional role of autonomous art in the face of the 'masses' or 'crowd'. For, under the terms of this argument, the supposed 'autonomy' of art within bourgeois society, as a privileged realm of free play, is in fact in the service of that selfsame bourgeois, capitalist system, providing it with a safety-valve, a neutralized, institutionalized space in which it is possible to believe that one is free.

The avant-garde, on the other hand, is precisely that which recognizes the unpolitical impulses of modernism for what they are and rejects the illusion of æsthetic autonomy within a self-reinforcing 'high' culture. The avant-garde tends to a much more productive acceptance of the energies of popular culture and even mass culture, and, in opposition to high culture as such, attempts to dissolve art into social life, to make its transformatory æsthetic projects into projects for the transformation of the whole of the social sphere, and not of a privileged minority. Walter Benjamin's famous essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' (1936), with its embracing of the politically demystifying possibilities inherent in the mass reproduction of artefacts, the way mass reproduction destroys the aura of distance and autonomy surrounding the work of art, is in clear contrast both to the modernist's lament at the cheapening of art and, as we shall see later, to the postmodern embrace of the mass-reproduced artefact as an emptied-out simulacrum.

Eliot's writings on art and tradition may be taken as emblematic of modernism's problematic relationship to high-cultural tradition. Erik Svarny in a book called The Men of 1914 (pp. 172-3) points out that in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' there is a curious semantic undecidability given to words like "conformity" and "order" in which the relationship of modern art to tradition slips insidiously between the construction of tradition as an infinitely rewritable text -- a co-hering and con-forming of past and present -- and the establishment of tradition as an authority from whose order the present gains its meaning in conformity. Eliot's poetical texts, too, hover between on the one hand a desperate heterogeneity of clashing discourses which comprise the 'unreal' City, fragmented quotations of tradition as a lost totality which can no longer give any coherent structure to the present, and on the other, the attempt to salvage some sense of 'order' by shoring up identity with these fragments of previous discourses, "these fragments I have shored against my ruins" and "shall I at least set my lands in order?" (The Waste Land, p. 79).

Eliot declared in 1923 that the "mythical method" of Joyce's Ulysses was [Q] "simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history [ . . . ] It is, I seriously believe, a step towards making the modern world possible for art". Eliot, a paradigm of modernism within this argument, whose Waste Land gives us an apocalyptic vision of a sexually (read racially) degenerate, tinned baked-bean-eating mass bourgeoisie, proposes ultimately to bring the modern world into line with the higher aims of art, whereas, it is argued, the artists and thinkers of the revolutionary avant-garde, from the surrealists to Walter Benjamin, are looking for an art form that would turn the forms of ruling culture, æsthetic or otherwise, against themselves.

Theories of modernism, which for Schulte-Sasse include much post-structuralist textual theory from Barthes to Derrida and Kristeva, privilege those modernist authors who foreground their signifying material, seeing in the distorting and disruptive effects of textuality -- the semiotic elements of language -- an inherently revolutionary process at work, one which disturbs and finally undoes all totalizing ideologies. Thus, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Lautréamont, Joyce, Céline, Robbe-Grillet and Celan are held up as paradigms of an inherently disruptive 'modern' writing, sometimes even of a 'feminine' writing, which, beyond or rather despite any political 'content' which their texts might contain, just is revolutionary. Politicized theories of the avant-garde, on the other hand, such as those of Walter Benjamin and Peter Bürger, where they pay attention to æsthetic principles tend instead to stress the techniques of fragmentation and montage. Montage and collage are terms which describe a non-hierarchical way of incorporating diverse fragments within the work of art without subsuming them to any totalizing æsthetic order, indeed disrupting any such notion (e.g. Cubism). The emphasis on fragments, or heterogeneous 'chips' of unarticulated experience, is seen as setting up a tension between the annihilated vision of the present as a debased fragment of lost totality and the transformatory, liberating power of remembrance which those fragments enclose, precisely because they liberate us from totality. This radical dialectical vision is perhaps best summed up in Walter Benjamin's description of Paul Klee's 'Angelus Novus', often termed the Angel of History: 

[The Angel's] eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. ('Theses on the Philosophy of History', p. 249)

For Bürger, the avant-garde's heroic attempt to sublate art into life, to destroy the autonomous category of art and turn it into praxis, failed, possibly because the bourgeois culture industry was able to incorporate and neutralize even its most radical gestures. Terry Eagleton's essay on 'Capitalism, Modernism, and Postmodernism' interprets postmodernist culture precisely in terms of an emptied-out or hollow version of the revolutionary avant-garde's desire to erase the boundaries between culture and society, claiming that postmodernism [Q] "mimes the formal resolution of art and social life attempted by the avant-garde while remorselessly emptying it of its political content; Mayakovsky's poetry readings in the factory yard become Warhol's shoes and soup-cans" [U].

Eagleton's analysis is hostile to postmodernist culture on account of its ''depthless, styleless, dehistoricized, decathected surfaces'' (p. 132), but above all because it abolishes critical distance and expels political content in its conflation of itself with the form of the stereotype. It nevertheless provides an interesting characterization of the phenomenon which shows how it has developed from a peculiar combination of, on the one hand, æstheticist modernism, from which it inherits the fragmentary or schizoid self, self-reflexivity and fetishism, and on the other, the revolutionary avant-garde, from which it inherits the breakdown of the barriers between art and social life, the rejection of tradition, and pastiche quotation of commodified social relations (p. 146f). For Eagleton, as for a number of commentators, postmodernism does not in any way transcend the politico-æsthetic debates of modernism and the avant-garde, but is seen rather as a collapse into an endless miming of the earlier debates now emptied of any political content. Postmodernism is not a new departure, but is seen as a culture still caught within the very terms of high modernity.

Fredric Jameson, in his programme piece on 'Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism', claims that postmodernism is characterized not by parody, which has a critical ulterior motive, but by pastiche, which is a kind of neutral or ''blank parody'', the imitation of dead styles, pure 'simulacrum' or identical copy without source (pp. 16-18). By way of response, Eagleton argues that if postmodernism parodies anything, it is parodying, in the form of a sick joke, the serious attempts by the revolutionary avant-garde of the 1930s to dismantle the frontiers between art (as institution) and life (as social praxis). This, he suggests, represents an ultimate irony in that postmodernism achieves this crossover in a way which would have horrified the early practitioners: instead of either resisting commodification in the way that modernism did by withdrawing into self-reflexive, auto-telic isolation, or else passing over into revolutionary social praxis in the ways proposed by the avant-garde, the postmodern artefact sweeps away this opposition by 'discovering' that, since the whole social sphere has already been commodified and æstheticized, turned over to ceaseless mechanical reproduction in the compulsive repetition of the market place, it might as well give up all claims to separate status and simply 'copy the copy', become one more commodity/stereotype -- a 'simulacrum', copy of the copy for which there never was any 'original'. Whereas this miming of mime might in the 1930s have carried a revolutionary force, an explosive anti-mimetic, anti-representational power, it has now collapsed into mere tautology and compulsive repetition: [Q] "if art no longer reflects, it is not because it seeks to change the world rather than mimic it, but because there is in truth nothing there to be reflected, no reality which is not itself already image, spectacle, simulacrum, gratuitous fiction" (Eagleton, p. 133).

The various arguments over the political 'effectiveness' or otherwise of postmodern artefacts (by which is meant the possibilities they provide for intervention and socio-political change of the commodified relations of 'late capitalism') turn on whether or not any critical stance is maintained in this conflation of artefact and commodity/stereotype, of which Andy Warhol's reproduced images of Marilyn Monroe, fetishized women's shoes or brand-name soup cans have themselves become the stereotypical example, postmodernism's 'already made'. While Eagleton and Jameson argue that postmodernism is characterized precisely by its disinterest in politics, by its blank pastiche, and ultimately by its complicity with doxa and stereotype, Linda Hutcheon in her The Politics of Postmodernism suggests that postmodernism is characterized, rather, by a double-coding, being undecidably ''both complicitous with and contesting of the cultural dominants within which it operates'' (p. 142). One of Hutcheon's main arguments is that [Q] although ''the postmodern has no effective theory of agency that enables a move into political action, it does work to turn its inevitable ideological grounding into a site of de-naturalizing critique'' (p. 3), which is to say that it carries out a work of 'de-doxification' in contrast to Eagleton's view of it as entirely complicit with the doxa or stereotype. I would like to suggest that it is not enough to look for a critical 'intention' inhering in Warhol's soup cans, indeed ultimately it is futile to try to do so -- and I would add that taking these prints as the paradigmatic example of postmodernist æsthetics is itself highly problematic and tends to lead to a flattening out of the debate which some attention to postmodernist narrative might help to resolve. Instead it would be much more fruitful to focus on reception, to look to a strategy of 'reading' the social and cultural sphere which places the onus of the construction of 'meaning' on the viewer/spectator/reader as opposed to the artist/producer/author. Postmodernism may in fact be at its most effective as a strategy for interrogating the way we read socio-cultural codes and objects which surround us.

One of the problems surrounding the debate on postmodernism turns on its lack of a theory of agency. For Jean-François Lyotard, the postmodern condition can be defined in terms of what he calls the "death of metanarratives", of the "grands récits" of modernity from scientific rationalism, through psychoanalysis, to Marxism. The postmodern era no longer believes in grand narratives of human progress, or in the possibility of an all-encompassing rational standpoint from which it is possible to know the human mind, nor in any grand transformatory political project. The human subject has been colonized by a wholly libidinalized capitalist economy which keeps us in pursuit of the latest commodity. We are the sum of the stereotypes against which we measure our identity, and there is no human agent in control of his/her subjectivity.

In many ways this vision is in stark contrast to one of the most important political movements to have made a successful transition from its foundation at the heart of modernity to the postmodern era, namely feminism. Linda Hutcheon has argued that because feminism sets itself a very precise agenda for social and political change, it tends to maintain a certain critical distance from postmodernism. For example, feminism needs a theory of agency, and needs to be able to understand cultural dominants in terms of 'master' discourses, i.e., literally discourses of the 'Master' which can be contested and overturned, all of which, we are told, postmodernism no longer believes in. It is also likely that the political agendas of various feminisms [Q] ''would be endangered, or at least obscured by the double coding of postmodernism's complicitous critique'' (p. 152). Nevertheless, she argues that there has been an important interchange of techniques and purpose between feminism and postmodernism. Feminism has perhaps to some extent rewritten postmodernism's 'blank parody' (can we any longer refrain from applying a critical feminist reading to Warhol's prints of Marilyn Monroe?), and some feminist practitioners have taken on board postmodern play with stereotype, in ways that provoke a rethinking of our strategies of reading those stereotypes: [Q] ''By using postmodern parodic modes of installing and then subverting conventions, such as the maleness of the gaze, representation of woman can be 'de-doxified''' (p. 151).

Similar to the feminist critique and transformation of the political (non­)content of postmodernist culture is that being undertaken by postcolonial critics. Kumkum Sangari, for example, in her essay 'The Politics of the Possible', on the epistemological framing of 'Third World' cultural products by Western postmodernism, argues that postmodern preoccupation with the crisis of meaning does not have universal validity outside of the specific historical conjuncture from which it emerges and which it is completely unable to acknowledge. The dismantling of the "unifying" intellectual traditions of the West [Q] "denies to all the truth of or the desire for totalizing narratives" (p. 243), and, what is worse, for non-Western or peripherically Western countries, postmodernism's denial of agency "preempts change by fragmenting the ground of praxis" (p. 240) at precise moments when such cultures may be engaging in an attempt to produce meaningful historical and/or national narratives (p. 242). Even radical Western theorists of postmodernity, she argues, fail to unpick this new "master narrative" which provides an unexamined frame through which all culture, Western or otherwise, is reduced to the non-dynamics of the Same. [Q] "From there it continues to nourish the self-defining critiques of the West, conducted in the interest of ongoing disruptions and reformulations of the self-ironizing bourgeois subject" (p. 243).

I want to finish this far too hasty birdseye view of the modernism/postmodernism debate with a quotation from Derek Gregory's Geographical Imaginations, itself something of a pastiche of various commentators' views, from Manuel Castells through David Harvey to Fredric Jameson, which underlines from a Marxist perspective the continuity, rather than the disjuncture, between the shrinking experience of space and speedup of time of the modern era, with its rapid global colonization, and an analagous but possibly even more intensified shrinkage of space which we are experiencing towards the end of the Second Christian Millennium:

the emergent forms of high modernity, perhaps even of postmodernity, depend upon tense and turbulent landscapes of accumulation whose dynamics are so volatile and whose space-economies are so disjointed that one can glimpse within the dazzling sequences of deterritorialization and reterritorialization a new and intensified fluidity to the politico-economic structures of capitalism; that the hyper-mobility of finance capital and information cascading through the circuits of this new world system, surging from one node to another in nanoseconds, is conjuring up unprecedented landscapes of power in which, as Castells put it, "space is dissolved into flows," "cities become shadows," and places are emptied of their local meanings; and that ever-extending areas of social life are being wired into a vast postmodern hyperspace, an electronic inscription of the cultural logic of late capitalism, whose putative abolition of distance renders us all but incapable of comprehending -- of mapping -- the decentred communication networks whose global webs enmesh our daily lives. (Gregory, pp. 97-98)

An arbitrary annotated bibliography

Berman, Marshall. All That is Solid Melts into Air. The Experience of Modernity. London: Verso, 1982. [A classic. The title cites Karl Marx's famous description of modernity in The Communist Manifesto.]

Brooker, Peter, ed. and intr. Modernism/Postmodernism. Longman Critical Readers. Harlow: Longman, 1992. [Contains a useful collection of modernist/avant-garde documents by Adorno, Brecht, Lukacs, Benjamin, as well as some fundamental postmodernist ones by Baudrillard, Lyotard, Jameson, etc.]

Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Trans. from the German by Michael Shaw. Theory and History of Literature #4. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984 (1974). [The classic account of the avant-garde project as an attempt to transform the "bourgeois institution of art", arguing that avant-garde art is characterized by an awareness of art's complicity, in its very "autonomy", with the bourgeois social order.]

Docherty, Thomas, ed. and intr. Postmodernism: A Reader. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993. [A very useful postmodernist reader with good introductions by Docherty.]

Eagleton, Terry. 'Capitalism, Modernism and Postmodernism'. Against the Grain: Essays 1975-1985. London: Verso, 1986. 131-47. [Polemic and lively response to Fredric Jameson's programme piece on postmodernism (below). It is highly critical of postmodernism's apolitical/complicitous impulses (as opposed to the historical avant-garde). Has a lot to say about avant-garde/modernism too.]

---. The Illusions of Postmodernism. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996. [A slightly belated attempt to convince us that we never really believed in the more extreme dictates of postmodern theory; useful in countering its worst excesses.]

---. Walter Benjamin, or, Towards a Revolutionary Criticism. London: Verso, 1981. [A brilliant reading of Walter Benjamin's work through the lens of post-structuralist theories, with the aim of shaking up the latter and producing a genuinely political criticism.]

Gregory, Derek. Geographical Imaginations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1994. [An excellent overview of trends in cultural theory from the perspective of cultural geography. Has a lot to say about modernity, postmodernity, post-colonial theory, etc. See in particular Chapter 3, 'City/commodity/culture: spatiality and the politics of representation', and Chapter 4, 'Uncovering postmodern geographies'.]

Haraway, Donna J. Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Technoscience. New York and London: Routledge, 1997. [A fascinating account of the interfaces between feminism, postmodernism, information technology, and (biomedical) technoscience, concentrating on the proliferating, haunting, hybrids (OncoMouse, FemaleMan) which are materialized from these encounters.]

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990. [A highly influential Marxist cultural/economic account of the transition from modernity to postmodernity. Includes a reading of Blade Runner and Wings of Desire (Chapter 18).]

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. New Accents. London: Routledge, 1989. [Good, if at times over-eclectic, introduction to the notion of postmodern narrative as "historiographic metaficiton" and to postmodernism's difficult relationship to left and feminist politics.]

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture and Postmodernism. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1986. [A classic.]

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London and New York: Verso, 1991. [Rewritten versions of influential polemical essays that set the agenda for the political debate surrounding postmodernism, including the title piece originally published in what was a major running debate in New Left Review (1984).]

Pinkney, Tony. 'Modernism and Cultural Theory', editor's introduction to Raymond Williams, The Politics of Modernism (below). 1-29. [A very good, sophisticated, overview of the relationship between modernism, Williams' thought, and modern cultural theory.]

Poggioli, Renato. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Trans. Gerald Fitzgerald. Cambridge Mass.: 1968. [Still cited, but surpassed by Bürger.]

Sangari, Kumkum. 'The Politics of the Possible'. In Abdul R. JanMohamed and David Lloyd (eds.), The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse. Oxford and New York, 1990. 216-45. [An account of the problems involved in the application of postmodern categories to non- or peripherically-Western societies, comparing Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie.]

Schulte-Sasse, Jochen. 'Theory of Modernism versus Theory of the Avant-Garde'. Introduction to Bürger (above). vii-xlvii. [A very useful overview of Bürger's theory, and its limitations, in relation to modernist/post-structuralist theories.]

Williams, Raymond. The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists. Ed. and Introduced by Tony Pinkney. London: Verso, 1989. [A posthumously published collection of Williams' later writings on modernism. See also Pinkney (above).]


Modernism vs. Postmodernism Research Paper

Modernism is based on the principles of formalism and autonomy. Greenberg links together the concept of modernism and modernity. He states that development of art, science and philosophy gave push to the development of modernism. (Habermas) Another important characteristic of modernism is its opposition to all traditional forms of art and culture. Generally, modernism is regarded as a kind of avant-garde, which challenges traditional culture. Initially it was regarded as a force, which could oppose the dominant culture. Sometime avant-garde is defined as a part of modernism. Classical examples of modernism in architecture are Lever House and Seagram Building. The architectural works of Frank Lloyd Wright can be also regarded as an example of modernist art. These buildings correspond to all ideals proclaimed by modernistic artists. Individualism and deep quest for inner self makes modernist authors turn to the depths of human conscious. The study of stream of consciousness, so popular in Woolf and Joyce’s works perfectly serve for this purpose. This technique is presented in Woolf’s Kew Gardens and Mrs Dalloway, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses and Katherine Porter’s Flowering Judas. Very often existential crisis is expressed through anti-heroes, who become the protagonists. This happens in works of Knut Hamsun, Samuel Beckett.

The Appearance of Modernism

Postmodernism in its turn appeared as a critique of modernism. Art and culture are nothing but reflections of the life of the society. So, next turn in the development of the society gave birth to new style in art and culture and postmodernism became this new style which challenged modernism. There are several factors, which influenced the appearance and development of modernism. For European society the 18th century became the century of innovations and technical progress. During this period the very concept of relations between man and nature had changed and this naturally led to changes in the forms of art and culture. During the period of Enlightenment separation between man and nature appeared. This duality was transmitted to many spheres of human life. The development of science made man a more independent creature and let him increase the understanding of human experience and natural forces. Philosophy gave new direction during this period. The accent on thinking and conscious ego made rational aspect of existence as dominating one. Since then the main accent was replaced to rationality. This gave new push to the attempts of rational perception of reality, material and transcendental objects and human. It is during this period, when the man became the center of the Universe. Rationalistic approach and separation man from nature made it possible to make Man the central figure of history. “With this freedom and centrality comes a strong measure of responsibility and the duty to protect and increase the autonomy of every rational human being.” (Kant) All these changes became reflected in contemporary art and modernism became that mean which gave the artists a possibility to find new relations with reality. Originality became one of the main distinctive features of this new trend of art and culture. This accent on originality made artists on the focus of attention. Artistic genius and authenticity became especially appreciated in modernistic art. During this period art became independent realm of human existence and individual freedom of expression became its highest value. Social disorder, the threat of nuclear war and breakdown of spirit after two world wars added new feature to modernism. People started doubted all the truth discovered during the period of Enlightenment. Criticism of all previous values became peculiar for late modernism, which finally turned to postmodernism.

Postmodernism and its features

Postmodernism is a kind of art that appeared in the middle of the 1980s. It’s difficult to define this concept because it is presented in architecture, sociology, art, music, film, technology and some other areas and it’s not always clear when postmodernism begins in this or that area. Defining and analyzing postmodernism we must start from modernism because postmodernism originates exactly from it. Modernism appeared earlier and can be defined from two points of view. According to the first aspect modernism originates from the aesthetic movement of the twentieth century, the ideas of which are similar to Western ideas about art. The founders of modernism of the 20th century are Eliot, Joyce, Stevens, Kafka, Rilke, Proust, Mallarme and others. Modernism is a movement in literature, art, music and drama. It rejects old Victorian standards about different kinds of art. It presents new conception of art and its functions. The period from 1910 to 1930 is the period of “high modernism” and it is characterized by the change of meaning and function of poetry and fiction.

We’ll analyze modernism from the literal point of view. The main characteristics of modernism are the following: no distinction between “high” and “low” kinds of art, every art is aimed to depict the reality; emphasis on inner feelings, subjective side and impression the work makes on the reader, the process of perception is very important. Another characteristic of this movement is rejection of bare objectivity with defined moral and aesthetic positions, third-person narrators and fixed narration. The distinction between genres is very blurred and so prose becomes more poetic and poetry becomes more documentary. Another tendency is “a tendency toward reflexivity, or self-consciousness, about the production of the work of art, so that each piece calls attention to its own status as a production, as something constructed and consumed in particular ways” (Turner, 115). The process of creation becomes very important and spontaneous works are of great value.

Postmodernism being sequential of modernism follows most of these tendencies and in literature it’s main characteristics are the following: no boundaries between “low” and “high” forms of art, blurred distinctions between genres, emphasis on irony, parody, pastiche. “Postmodern art (and thought) favors reflexivity and self-consciousness, fragmentation and discontinuity (especially in narrative structures), ambiguity, simultaneity, and an emphasis on the destructured, decentered, dehumanized subject” (Barthes, 157).

Although these two movements are rather similar they also have a number of distinctions. For example, modernism presents human life and human subjectivity in fragments and as something tragic and mournful. The idea of fragmentation of the life prevails and this idea is depicted with sadness and grief. According to modernism works of art can present the world in unity, while this unity is lost in the real life. In contrast, postmodernism depict the idea of world fragmentation with enthusiasm and optimism, the world is meaningless and the art can do nothing to change this, the only thing that is left is to depict this world with irony and satire.

Postmodernists define subjectivism of modernism literature as existential crisis and try to avoid it. Narrators deconstruct themselves and they do it consciously. Self-reflection and deconstruction becomes the main themes in the works of Vladimir Nabokov, Vladimir Sorokin,, John Fowles, John Barth and Julian Barnes.

There are several features, peculiar to postmodernism. First of all in postmodernism a priori subject becomes the source of meaning and authority. Abstract reason and truthfulness obtains additional value. Distinctions between high and low culture also become the peculiarities of postmodernism. Postmodernism rejected different oppositions, so popular in modernism. Postmodernism turns to language as one of the means of the realization of the consciousness. Linguistic structures now serves as a way to pass different forms of consciousness. “Thus, “there is no outside-the-text i.e. there is no Archimedian point outside of some conceptual framework, model or form of representation (Derrida). In postmodernism there are no origins of the texts or any references. The notion of discourse becomes extremely popular. All text exists now at the moment it is uttered, read or written and each time the person gets in touch with any kind of text he or she finds its new variant. Accent on personality made in modernism is now replaced by impersonal discourse. “The death of the subject” becomes a distinctive feature of postmodernism, characterized by alienation of subject. Personal style and personal vision, which were the subjects of great concern and appreciation in modernism but become ideological questions in late modernism and fade away in postmodernism. The replacement of accent from an individual and his creative abilities put artists in front of the dilemma. Now they had to find new functions of artists, if they had no creative impulse and could not create anything original. Finally the solution was found and art postmodernist art turned to imitation – recreation of images and forms already created. “The postmodern condition is also characterized by Jameson as a kind of schizophrenia or postmodern temporality. This comes out of a Lacanian (structuralist) analysis of language and its role in the experience of time.” (Derrida, 78) Postmodernists do not believe they can not reach reality directly. Meaning does not appear as a relationship between the word and its meaning in postmodernism. Meaning is realized only in discourse and that is why the meaning of word depends not on its definition, but on other words, which surround it in the discourse. In this way signifier depends on other signifiers. Schizophrenia appears when relationships between these signifiers are broken. This effect is reached by avoiding personal identity and time relations in the discourse. Portalnd Building in Portland and Sony Building in New York are among the earliest examples of postmodern architectures. These buildings still have references to the past and some symbolism, which prove the fact that the influence of modernism still existed. Las Vegas strip is a perfect example of postmodernist architecture.

Frederic Jameson, famous scientist, explains modernism and postmodernism as cultural formations that are characteristics of the particular stages of capitalism. Jameson defines three stages of capitalism which are followed by some particular cultural tendencies. The first stage is called market capitalism and it took place in the 18th-19th century in the United states and Western Europe. This stage is characterized by particular technical innovations, such as steam-driven motor, and domination of realism in cultural sphere. The second phase took place at the end of the 19th century and in the middle of the 20th century and it’s associated with internal and electric motors and modernism in cultural sphere. Nowadays we live during the third stage of capitalism and it’s associated with electronic and nuclear technologies and postmodernism.

Jameson’s definition of postmodernism is correlation with its second possible definition, which is correspondent with history and sociology. This definition doesn’t refer to literature or music very much. According to this approach postmodernism is an entire social formation or even set of historical attitudes. Here words “postmodernity” and “modernity” can be used. Modernism is a cultural movement in the 20th century in Europe and the USA, while modernity is political, ethical and philosophical background for the movement of modernism. The main function of modernity is “to justify and explain virtually all of our social structures and institutions, including democracy, law, science, ethics, and aesthetics.” (Lash, 89) Modernism is based on the main principles of the Enlightenment, which are a bit transformed and adopted to the epoch and social standards.


Modernism is a movement in art, music, architecture, literature and technique in the United states and Europe in the 19th- 20th century, which appeared as a protest to the traditional esthetic culture. Modernism gave people a new way to contact with the reality and man became the master of this reality. Art became more subjective and individual and so artists were in the center of attention. The last half of the 20th century is characterized by the failure of modernist tendencies. Modernism has been replaced by postmodernism.

Postmodernism can be interpreted in different, sometimes even opposite ways, some scientists present postmodernism as anti-modernist movement, while others think that it is revision of modernist values and tendencies. Postmodernism is characterized by the search of new forms to reflect the reality, deeper penetration in the inner world and reflection of the inner thoughts and feelings of rejection. Any movement in literature, art or music is the reflection of social, economic and political sphere of the society and postmodernism is the reflection of our epoch.


1. Mark Jarzombek, “The Disciplinary Dislocations of Architectural History,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 58/3 (September 1999), p. 489.
2. Heinrich Klotz, History of Post-Modern Architecture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998
3. Barthes, R. (1968). Writing degree zero. (A. Lavers and C. Smith, Trans.). New York: Hill and Wang. (Original book published 1953)
4. DeMan, P. (1979). Shelley disfigured. Deconstruction and criticism. New York: Seabury.
5. Derrida, J. (1981a). Positions. (A. Bass, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
6. Ashley, David (1990) Habermas and the Project of Modernity. In Theories of Modernity and Postmodernity. Bryan Turner (ed). London: SAGE Appignanesi,
7. Richard and Chris Garratt (1995) Introducing Postmodernism. New York: Totem Books.
8. Lash, Scott (1990) Sociology of Postmodernism. London: Routledge.
Turner, Bryan S. (1990) Theories of Modernity and Postmodernity. London: SAGE Publications.
9. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, New Haven, Yale
10. University Press, 1999, Pages 263-277
11. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, Pages 1-61
12. Jonathan M. Woodham. Twentieth Century Design, Pages 29-63
13. Georg Simmel. 4Art in Theory (1900-1990) An Anthology of Changing Ideas – , Pages 130-135

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