What is postmodernism and why is it important? Klages (2007) reports that:
Postmodernism is a complicated term, or set of ideas, one that has only emerged as an area of academic study since the mid-1980s. Postmodernism is hard to define, because it is a concept that appears in a wide variety of disciplines or areas of study, including art, architecture, music, film, literature, sociology, communications, fashion, and technology. (p. 1)
With respect to the foregoing, although complicated, postmodernism can be thought of as a conceptual framework which can be applied to diverse disciplines in the humanities, the social sciences, and even the physical sciences.
Teo and Febbraro (2002) note that the postmodernism framework arose in relation to modernism which is also a conceptual framework but one that was not seen as sufficiently comprehensive a protest to the traditional culture. Specifically, the authors state that postmodernism was a new and fresh ‘point of view’ or perspective which, like modernism, was a protest against the industrialized, militaristic, business-oriented, mechanical, bureaucratic and technological culture of the modern world, but a framework that embodied a stronger protest.
According to Teo and Febbraro (2002), modernism focused on subjectivity, the internal and the psychic life of people as primary methods of ‘constructing reality.’ Modernism was associated with such movements in art and social science as Existentialism, Surrealism, Expressionism, and Impressionism. Postmodernism would amplify and extend this movement. These movements would all still be valued by postmodernism but with perhaps more gusto or enthusiasm.
Hicks (2004) explains that the centralization and values underlying traditionalism were countered by modernism with a focus that emphasized individuality, autonomy, and diversity in culture. This emphasis ran opposite to the centralization emphasized by the traditional cultural framework which was viewed as leading to people feeling desperate and fragmented. In other words, modernism placed great emphasis on relativism rather than uniformity and was seen as remedy for the negative characteristics engendered in society as a result of the more traditional cultural framework.
Butler (2003) states that postmodernism also has the same framework as that stated above. Further, it rejects the notion of absolutes and objectivity as did modernism. Indeed, almost all that is traditional is rejected by postmodern thought as oppressive. In this regard, Butler states that if traditionalists view something as taboo, the postmodern thinker would tend to regard the same thing as of equal value as that behavior which was traditionally valued. For example, incest which is a traditional taboo would be rejected by postmodern thought as a behavior that deserves some universal ban and cultures where it was practiced without guilt would be cited as part and parcel of the postmodern idea that universal truth is to be rejected and value is to be placed on the relativist meaning that comes with differences in interpretation of behavior.
What should be seen in the foregoing discussion is the degree of similarity between modernism and postmodernism. Lemke (2009) points out that while modernism was a protest against the classical and traditionalistic, postmodernism was a similar protest but one that was, and is, far more extreme. Postmodernism is really an extension and enhancement of the modernist framework and not a separate movement in and of itself.
Hurd (1998) states that postmodernism, as a conceptual framework, can be delineated as having five presuppositions. These presuppositions are:
1. It is futile to search for any universal truth.
2. One’s identity is ‘decentered’ which is to say that it is a composite of many diverse forces which Hurd describes as arising from a person’s interaction with the surrounding culture.
3. Reality is a cognitive construction associated with language and the surrounding culture; indeed, reality is almost entirely subjective.
4. The strongest influence shaping and constructing ‘Reality’ consists of those influence of those who have power. For example, the influence of ‘the media’ would be extraordinarily powerful in terms of shaping the public’s ideas of what Reality is.
5. There is a need to neutralize the influence of the powerful in their efforts to shape people’s reality. However, it should be pointed out here that the move to neutralize the influence of the powerful that is called for by the postmodern thought is not much applied to anything but the forces of ‘traditional influence.’ Those in power who seek to influence in non-traditional ways are not the concern of the postmodernists.
In conclusion, it can be concluded that postmodernism is an important conceptual framework in our culture that has been of strong cultural influence in the West in general and in the United States in particular. This point has been made by Huehls (2009) who points out that postmodern influence on our culture is both negative and positive. For example, postmodernism’s rejection of all things traditional has led to a ‘throwing out the baby with the bath water’ effect in which traditional values that have been shown to be of real benefit to mankind are sometimes rejected.
However, postmodernism also has some very positive effects in that it opens up dialogue between opposing social groups, leading each group to more throughly think through their ideas and notions. It breeds a certain openness to what is new and fresh and novel and it protects and values minority views of all things. Thus, society has definitely benefitted from postmodernist thought; however, there is some need to balance it out with those traditional values, beliefs, and notions that have stood the test of time and been shown to be of real value in human lives.