In the interest of providing some sense of the range of the debate surrounding
postmodernism, a debate which is central to much current thinking on hypertext,
here is a definition provided by James Morley. It appears here as it was posted
on the Postmodern
Culture electronic conference list.
What is postmodernism?
Firstly, postmodernism was a movement in architecture that rejected the modernist,
avant garde, passion for the new. Modernism is here understood in art and architecture
as the project of rejecting tradition in favour of going "where no man
has gone before" or better: to create forms for no other purpose than novelty.
Modernism was an exploration of possibilities and a perpetual search for uniqueness
and its cognate--individuality. Modernism's valorization of the new was rejected
by architectural postmodernism in the 50's and 60's for conservative reasons.
They wanted to maintain elements of modern utility while returning to the reassuring
classical forms of the past.
The result of this was an ironic brick-a-brack or collage approach to construction
that combines several traditional styles into one structure. As collage, meaning
is found in combinations of already created patterns.
Following this, the modern romantic image of the lone creative artist was abandoned
for the playful technician (perhaps computer hacker) who could retrieve and
recombine creations from the past--data alone becomes necessary. This synthetic
approach has been taken up, in a politically radical way, by the visual, musical,and
literary arts where collage is used to startle viewers into reflection upon
the meaning of reproduction. Here, pop-art reflects culture (American). Let
me give you the example of Californian culture where the person--though ethnically European, African, Asian, or Hispanic--searches for
authentic or "rooted" religious experience by dabbling in a variety
of religious traditions. The foundation of authenticity has been overturned
as the relativism of collage has set in. We see a pattern in the arts and everyday
spiritual life away from universal standards into an atmosphere of multidimentionality
and complexity, and most importantly--the dissolving of distinctions. In sum,
we could simplistically outline this movement in historical terms:
1. premodernism: Original meaning is possessed by authority (for example, the
Catholic Church). The individual is dominated by tradition.
2. modernism: The enlightenment-humanist rejection of tradition and authority
in favour of reason and natural science. This is founded upon the assumption
of the autonomous individual as the sole source of meaning and truth--the Cartesian
cogito. Progress and novelty are valorized within a linear conception of history--a
history of a "real" world that becomes increasingly real or objectified.
One could view this as a Protestant mode of consciousness.
3. postmodernism: A rejection of the sovereign autonomous individual with an
emphasis upon anarchic collective, anonymous experience. Collage, diversity,
the mystically unrepresentable, Dionysian passion are the foci of attention.
Most importantly we see the dissolution of distinctions, the merging of subject
and object, self and other. This is a sarcastic playful parody of western modernity
and the "John Wayne" individual and a radical, anarchist rejection
of all attempts to define, reify or re-present the human subject.