Challenges in Defining Post-Modernism


In attempting to define precisely what post-modernism is I will first quickly consider some of the events and thinking that led up to the growth of this exact school of social theory. I will then consider some of the common components of thinking in postmodernism focusing mainly on the writings of Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard. I will also consider the views of David Harvey, a Marxist, who a plethora of people consider to be writing in the postmodern era, who claims that post-modernism is just another variation of capitalism. After looking into his argument, I will finish by presenting my own interpretation of post-modernism and showing that by its very nature it is almost impossible to come up with a single all-inclusive meaning.

The term postmodernism was first used in correlation to architecture. Modern architecture, specifically the of the 60s, were becoming more and more unpopular. Charles Jencks follows the fall of modernist architecture to the destruction of the in St. Louis, and other writers saw this as a sign of the end of modernism. Society was responding against modern architectural ideas, losing confidence in the modern standards. Granted, modern architecture may have been scientifically advanced, using the most up-to-date and cheapest supplies, people did not accept it, choosing to return to an assortment of styles from previous years. Examples of this can be seen in the reconstruction of the Albert Dock in Liverpool, England, and recreated medieval squares.

Similarly, in sociology postmodernism, it goes against the theories of the past, and represents a pause from the current way of thinking. For example, Karl Marx imagined society growing through social change into a flawless, communist society, where there are no issues of class or general discrimination. Postmodernists would say his theory, and those of other sociologists, as a metanarrative, and writers such as Lyotard have seen the rejection of such theories being vital to postmodernism. Simplifying to the extreme, I describe postmodernism as doubt to metanarratives.

People have lost confidence in the metanarratives of the past, and Lyotard realizes that social lives are being formed around language games, which work to defend peoples behavior in society. In these games, a person works to encourage others to accept his or her point of view as correct or true with each testimony being a move in these games.

Lyotard sees these games having progressed from the narrative, the sharing of the stories or legends, to the scientific, or denotative which has become significant during the enlightenment. Such scientific games leaned on evidence and argument to either prove or refute them. As society enters the post-modern era, confidence is lost in the denotative language games and is substituted by technical language games. Truth is not the significant element any more, but its whether or not an idea, or game, is beneficial. Knowledge becomes a product that is to be sold, and Lyotard sees it as possibly the most important element in what he calls the world-wide competition for power.

Lyotard connects the increase in the significance of knowledge to the increase in the use of computers in both societys commercial and social life. In my opinion there are few people who can argue this stance. Someone just has to think about new media technologies and look at the rise in the use of the internet to see that this is certainly the case. Bill Gates has become the richest person in the world, and to a certain extent, someone could say that he controls knowledge, or at the very least, peoples access to it.

Another important characteristic of the post-modern society, is the diversity that endures within it. Even postmodernist theory is not a unified approach. Kellner claims that there is nothing like a unified post-modern social theorythere is a plurality of different post-modern theories and positions (Kellner 1990).

Lyotard sees society accepting the changes within it and uses culture as an example to paint his idea. One listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonalds food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and retro clothes in Hong Kong (Lyotard 1984).

Sociology has measured in the past that there is a certain harmony to the way societies work. In the past, for instance, it is presumed that humans are in some ways very similar as we are today, and that people from different cultures are alike to our own cultures. A view like this allows us to analyze previous events and allow some form of critique over them. In doing this however, sociology is rejecting the uniqueness of human beings. History is dramatically different from our present, and ones culture is dramatically different from other cultures. Once again, if we agree that this is the case, this leads us to refute many past social theories. Ritzer defines postmodernism as a celebration of a range of different theoretical perspectives (Ritzer 2013). He goes on to say that postmodernism has a trend to break down the limits between disciplines and sub disciplines, producing a new method covering ideas from a wide variety of areas.

While Lyotard grasps this diversity seeing it as giving individuals more choices and mainly more freedom, other writers, such as Baudrillard, illustrate a much more discouraging picture of the post-modern society. He considers that society has entered a new era and corresponds this change to language and knowledge, but he sees the effects of this change as an unavoidable trap. For Baudrillard, society is no longer built on the creation of material goods, but on the marketing of signs and images. He also proposes that these signs and images have little to no affiliation to reality. An example of this could be grasped in popular music. If someone thinks of the many modern-day groups, the main concentration is giving off a certain image. Whether or not an artist can sing, perform, or produce their own songs is irrelevant. What is significant is the marketing. That is shown today because there are a ton of artist that are getting big and the quality of their music is really low, but they market themselves really well which makes them popular. Another example could be the marketing of the drink Sunny Delight. An image was proposed that a healthy drink would be good for you. When in reality what was being sold to everyone is a high sugar drink that had little health benefits. Basically, anyone could draw an association to Lyotards work here in the sense that the truth deems to be irrelevant. Even though the media exposed the factual nature of the drink, the public had already believed the image that was presented, the truth was deemed to be irrelevant.

Baudrillard sees the post-modern society containing an exchange of images that he refers to as simulacra. These simulacrums are images of things that do not, or have never existed before. Undeniably, he even sees political leaders as becoming their own simulacra, having no real power or capability to make changes. Power has vanished and nobody can therefore exercise that power. The key factor for this would be nuclear weapons. A war is meaningless due to the fact that both countries could be annihilated at the just the simple push of a button. Baudrillards writings have been condemned for being extremely abstract, however his view is in my view, not simply rejected. In 1999, NATO was engaged in military action with Yugoslavia, dropping bombs on the country. Eventually Russia and China became involved and were pressing for the bombing to come to an end. What control did they really have though? What control does NATO truly have? If the crisis turned into a major war between two major world powers, what could either side do? If either side were to trigger a nuclear attack, the other side would just do the same. Threats can be made in the form of promoting the image of a nuclear war, but in actuality, what side would actually launch a nuclear attack with the certainty that the other side would launch a similar attack right back? Neither side would, because the leaders of the respective world powers know better.

Reality has pretty much died and we are just left with images. Baudrillard even mentions the Gulf War as something that didnt even happen. He has admitted that there was some military action, but claims that this was just shown by the media as a war. It was not a war in the normal meaning of the word, meaning a major engagement between two military power giants. Once again, we were presented images that we believed and deemed true. Even the fighter pilots did not even face their enemy, but just simply saw computer-generated images (CGI) on a monitor. Therefore, unlike Lyotard, Baudrillard sees society as living meaningless lives. Like Lyotard, he sees society as being composed of diversity, with limitations falling in all kinds of areas, but this is shown as a damaging characteristic. There are no propositions on how society can reclaim a purpose or a meaning to its presence, simply an overruling pessimism and acceptance to the idea that this is just how it is meant to be.

Another comparison is that Baudrillard discards the metanarratives of the past, specifically Marx, but for completely different reasons to those metanarratives of Lyotard. Lyotard sensed that people had lost confidence in such metanarratives. For many post-modernists, Marxs theories were unsuccessful because socialism and communism (at least the way Marx viewed communism) had failed to abolish capitalism. Baudrillard, on the contrary, blames Marx for accepting, and supporting, the bourgeoisies own ideology, mainly in regards to the sufficient work as a fulfilment of human essence.

With that being said, we have two major theorists in the subject of post-modernism, one asserting that this new diversity is a positive characteristic, and the other asserting that it leaves society in an unavoidable trap. The primary ideas that they both approve of, even though they are for different motives, is that the previous metanarratives can no longer be used to evaluate society, and that right there has a great deal of diversity that is present in this post-modern era.

But a single question remains in the sense of have things really transformed as much as Lyotard and Baudrillard would like us to believe? David Harvey agrees that significant changes have happened, but still says that capitalism is at the core of modern western societies. Although having arrived in a post-modern era, there are three main characteristics that linger:

1. Capitalism is founded upon economic growth. If there is no growth, then capitalism is in a tragedy.

2. Capitalism is founded upon the idea that workers are paid less than the value of the products they construct, therefore, making a class struggle between owners and workers unavoidable.

3. Capitalism is continuously undergoing changes in order for manufacturers or producers of products to stay in front of their competition.

As capitalism is always changing, there will be periods of tragedy leading to economic changes, which will not only have economic penalties, but also to significant effects on society and culture. Harvey sees post-modernism simply as an answer to such a tragedy. As an economic tragedy hit capitalism in the 70s, as well as the increase in the cost of oil and increased unemployment, capitalism entered an age of adaptation. As an outcome, many cultural changes were indicated as post-modern.

Therefore, underlying the cultural, political, and social changes that were the main point for writers like Lyotard and Baudrillard, are economic changes. Capitalism, Harvey debates, still exists, it is just simply modifying in order to persist. It has had to move into new areas, for example, leisure pursuits, boosting use of a new collection of commodities. In other words, Harvey sees post-modernism as a new chapter of capitalism, and this chapter will make way to another method. He proposes that there have always been different components of capitalism that have revised through history. There is never one stable arrangement, but a swinging back and forth concerning centralization and decentralization, between hierarchy and anarchy, between permanence and flexibility and between authority and deconstruction.

Is post-modernism consequently a new, more adaptable form of capitalism going undercover? Possibly.

So, in coming to my conclusion of what is post-modernism? Lyotard claims that we refuse all metanarratives. There is no truth, and therefore, we must refuse the idea of post-modernism, which after all, is just another metanarrative. By its very nature, it challenges meaning. Maybe Lyotards own explanation is the one we are forced to agree with. In my own opinion, Lyotards opinion is as unrealistic as that of Marxs communism. Despite the fact that society is starting to become way more diverse and we are starting to be more accepting of different groups of society, for example transgenderism, homosexuality, etc., I doubt that we can really say we have reached the post-modern era. As was demonstrated by a fairly recent shooting in 2016 in Orlando, Florida at a gay bar against the LGBT community, killing 49 and injuring 53 others. As accepting as we would like to think society is of a plethora of other point of views, there are still a lot of groups who are still resistant to groups alike. Baudrillard, despite being extremely abstract in his writing, makes numerous valid points, however it is hard to entirely accept his ideas of the fall of power. It can take years to comprehend the effect a governments policies that it can have on peoples lives. In actuality, I feel that society mostly resembles Harveys views. The workforce, with the fall of trade unions, appear to have lost all power that they used to hold, and the owners are able to conduct their mistreatment with the least amount of disagreement. Capitalism has had to change and one only has to acknowledge the world of the internet to understand what significant part capitalism plays in our own free time. Already, the capitalists are essentially taking over the virtual world. Consumers are able to order pretty much anything over the internet. Capitalism is evolving once again swapping the current workforce with a new and cheaper alternative, the computer.

Post-modernism will continue to redefine itself as time moves on. Yesterdays post-modernity has become todays modernity and as a result of that, we can never actually say we are in a post-modern era and therefore we cant ever accurately define it. The benefit that this viewpoint holds for sociologists is to admit that when examining society, it is impossible to apply a one size fits all theory. A range of theories must be considered and all viewpoints must be listened to. Only by accepting such an approach and by welcoming different point of views can we ultimately understand the world that we live in.


  • Cuff, E. C., et al.Perspectives in Sociology. 6th ed., Routledge, 2015.
  • Harvey, David.The Condition of Postmodernity. Blackwell, 1990.
  • Kellner, Douglas.Postmodernism: Jameson Critique. Maisonneuve Press, 1990.
  • Lyotard Jean-Francois.The Postmodern Condition: a Report on Knowledge. Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984.
  • Mills, Brett, and David M. Barlow.Reading Media Theory Thinkers, Approaches, Contexts. 2nd ed., Pearson, 2012.
  • Mizrach, Steve. An Analysis of the Postmodern Movement.
  • Ritzer, George.Sociological Theory. 9th ed., McGraw-Hill, 2013.
  • Ritzer, George.Classical Social Theory. 6th ed., McGraw-Hill, 2010.

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