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Postmodernism Explained

I have studied film, literature, and art in college and have a strong interest in critical and cultural theory. I write about it here!

A humorous representation of the progression from premodern to postmodern.

A humorous representation of the progression from premodern to postmodern.

Table of Contents

  1. Brief Introduction to Postmodern Theory
  2. Ihab Hassan: From Postmodernism to Postmodernity
  3. Jean Baudrillard: Simulacra and Simulation
  4. Jean Francois Lyotard: The Postmodern Condition
  5. What Is Postmodernism?
  6. Bibliography and references

1. A Brief Introduction to Postmodern Theory

Postmodernism is a word used to describe a range of areas in society. It derives from the term Modernism, which was the previous movement that surrounded modern thought, character, and practice, but more specifically, the Modernist movement in the arts and its cultural tendencies. In art, Modernism rejected the ideology of realism and made use of the works of the past, through the appliance of reprise, incorporation, rewriting, repetition, revision, and parody in new forms. In general, the term Modernism encompasses the actions of those who felt the traditional forms of art, architecture, literature, and social organization were becoming outdated in the new economic, social, and political conditions of an incipient, fully industrialized world.

Postmodernism is, thus, a movement that describes social, political, artistic, and cultural practices after Modernism. Douglas Mann states in What is postmodernism? (Mann, 1996) that

It can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, trace, the simulacrum and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress and the univocity of meaning.

The concept has gained much attention from theorists who have tried to define the indefinite term, hence also working to define the postmodern era. These theorists include Jacques Derrida, Michael Foucault, Ihab Hassan, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, and Fredric Jameson. This article will examine the definition of the term (or lack thereof), the significance of it and the difficulties due to Postmodernism by analysing Ihab Hassan’s essays Towards a Concept of Postmodernism (1987) and From Postmodernism to Postmodernity: The Local Global Context (2000), Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1984) and Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulations (Baudrillard, 1994).

Postmodern vs Modern


Rejects theories that try to totalize reality

Believes in an all-encompassing "grand theory" that combines culture, science, and history to explain everything and represent all knowledge



No universal truths

There are universal truths that govern the world

Irony, parody, lack of seriousness

Seriousness, directness

No depth, only superficial appearances

Faith in a deeper meaning over superficial appearances

Rejects focusing on past experiences and rejects objective historical trutth

Believes in learning from past experiences and the historical record

2. Ihab Hassan: "From Postmodernism to Postmodernity"

When attempting to identify Postmodernism, Ihab Hassan, in From Postmodernism to Postmodernity (Hassan, 2000) describes how it “eludes definition” and is, like Romanticism and Modernism, fluid as it will “shift and slide continually with time, particularly in an age of ideological conflict and media hype” (Hassan, 2000). Yet this shifting of the word has not prevented it from “haunting” the discussions of various areas of culture and society such as architecture, the arts, social and political features, media and the entertainment industry (Hassan, 1987).

Hassan goes on to explain that the term is “an essentially contested category,” meaning that no one theorist can unambiguously explain the movement. In Towards a Concept of Postmodernism (Hassan, 1978) Hassan endeavors to categorize the term inclusive of its fluidity, and in this light, he continues to attempt at understanding Postmodernism before he can define it.

He builds a “family” of words connected to Postmodernism, such as “Fragments, hybridity, relativism, play, parody . . . an ethos bordering on kitsch and camp". This list begins to build a context around Postmodernism, a way of describing, yet not defining the word. What this implies is that fragments of previous genres are combined with irony and pastiche to create the Postmodern. What it also implies is that, after the Postmodern era, nothing can be taken from the previous as nothing original was designed.

Simulacra has become a significant aspect of postmodern society but if we continue to copy and re-use pieces from the past, then what can be copied from the postmodern era? Hassan creates a list of Modernism versus Postmodernism, which is meant to both explain and portray the complicated relationship between both movements. Under Modernism, we have words like Form, Distance, Interpretation and Grande Histoire, while under Postmodernism we have Anti-form, Participation, Against Interpretation and Petite Histoire. The distinctions are clear, but how do they relate to both Modernism and Postmodernism?

In regards to theatre in the Modern era, distance was imperative to a drama’s success. Bertolt Brecht distanced the audience from the narrative in order to enable the viewers to maintain a critical perspective on the action on stage. By creating this distance, audiences could critically evaluate the meaning of the narrative, and therefore, their own lives. In Postmodern theatre, the participation of the audience is crucial and welcomed to allow participants to re-evaluate the connection between art and reality. Audience members and actors interact, creating the theatre experience together.

John Cage’s "4’33”" is a prime example of this as he records a three-movement composition of silence based on the idea that any sound should constitute music, a truly postmodern contemplation. By creating the Modernist versus Postmodernist list, Hassan began to further understand the postmodern technique. If one analyses art in its Modernist form against its Postmodernist form, the distinction becomes clearer yet. Modernist art consisted of simplicity of structure, uniformity, formalism, and order. It was usually bright, filled with shapes and lack of definition.

Postmodernist art, however, is complex and eclectic. Taking different genres of artistic technique and juxtaposing them. It can also be described as kitsch or ironic. Postmodern art uses pastiche and parody to comment on the original piece of art that it represents. Literature has also come under the scrutiny of postmodern thought as it combined elements of previous genres and styles of literature to create a new narrative voice.

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Hassan, however, does acknowledge the many problems that surround and conceal the term. Other than the problem of context, the word itself has inherent problems as Modern is contained in the word, and it, therefore “Contains its enemy within” (Hassan, 1987). It cannot break away from the clutches of modernism, and may only be regarded compared to Modernism. Another problem it encounters is the “semantic instability” as there is no clear agreement about its meaning among theorists. These, nevertheless, are not the only problems facing Postmodernity as Jean Baudrillard suggests in his essay Simulacra and Simulation (Baudrillard, 1994).

3. Jean Baudrillard: "Simulacra and Simulation"

Baudrillard's account relates to the end of the era of modernity dominated by production, industrial capitalism, and political economy. He proposes that what has happened in postmodern culture is that our society has become so reliant on models and representations that we have lost all connection with the real world that preceded the representation.

Reality itself has begun to imitate the model, which now proceeds and determined the real world “the territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it” (Baudrillard, 1994). Postmodern simulacra and simulation can be found not only in art but in literature, media, and consumerist goods.

However, for Baudrillard, the question of simulacra is no longer of “imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real” (Baudrillard, 1994). Here, Baudrillard suggests not quite that society has become artificial because even artificiality requires a sense of reality to which to compare. Rather, he is suggesting that society has lost the ability to make the distinction between the reality of representation, and the representation itself.

When looking at, for instance, Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe painting, we recognize who she is, and his artistic technique, but what we lose, is the reality behind Monroe and her life. It is a lifeless painting that contains no depth, the simulacrum of the actress has lost touch with the real Monroe.

Baudrillard addresses three orders of Simulacra. The first, associated with the pre-modern period, is the image that is a clear counterfeit of the original. It is recognized as an illusion, which also means recognizing the real.

In the second, associated with the industrial revolution, the distinctions between the image and the representation break down due to mass production. These mass-produced copies or simulacrum, misrepresent the reality beneath them, by imitating it so well that it threatens to replace the original.

The third, associated with the Postmodern age, relies on the complete lack of distinction between reality and its representation, as the representation precedes and determines the real (Baudrillard, 1994). With each mode of simulacra, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish the portrayal from reality.

Baudrillard points to numerous phenomena in society to explain this loss: Media culture, Exchange value, Multinational Capitalism, Urbanization and Language and Ideology. Each of the phenomena proves a new way of thinking that has come about in the last century. When once we saw goods valued for their use, now we regard them by the value they possess.

Consumerist goods have also lost touch with their true form through the complex industrial process. Now society does not know where most of their food comes from. Urbanization is hugely important to the postmodern problem as it distances society from the reality of nature. As we further lose touch with nature, we lose touch with ourselves also, by forgetting where we came from.

This hyper-reality is unrelenting in society, as it blurs the distinctions between the real and the unreal. The lifestyle magazines that portray the perfect home are hyper-realities as the portrayal of the perfect home becomes an element of the real, society cannot perceive the difference between what they are shown and what is the real ‘perfect home’.

The perfect home should not come down to how it looks, but the structures inside the home that work together in order to make it a perfect place to live. Yet the boundary between hyper-reality and everyday life is erased as mass production and constant advertising bombard our every aspect of life. Reality thus vanishes into these images and signs.

As a way of further explaining the difference between the real and the hyper-real in postmodern society, Baudrillard examines the world-famous Disneyland, "The happiest place on Earth". In his assessment of the world of fairy tales and dreams that come true, he states that it is the perfect model of the simulacrum, a play on illusion and reality. It is an infantile world that brings children closer to fantasy as if fantasy was a reality. It conjures up the notion that adults are in the ‘real world', outside of Disneyland.

Disneyland is, thus, an imaginary effect concealing that reality no more exists on the outside of it than on the inside (Baudrillard, 1994). In essence, civilization is inundated with these images and representations, but the problem lies in our inability to discern these images from reality.

4. Jean Francois Lyotard: "The Postmodern Condition"

Jean Francois Lyotard takes a completely different stance on Postmodernism in his analysis The Postmodern Condition (Lyotard, 1984). Lyotard’s epistemological examination of knowledge in the postmodern era portrays how it has changed from knowledge to "information". A century ago, knowledge was something that was earned, obtained through hard work and constant learning. At present, knowledge exists only as information, since there is no hardship in earning it, it can be found at the click of a button.

Instead of learning information, we are simply finding it whenever we want, which leaves the need to learn absent from today’s society. Lyotard believes that cybernetics has come to dominate our culture and due to this the status of knowledge has changed dramatically.

According to him, postmodern knowledge is against meta-narratives and avoids grand schemes of legitimation. He proposes an extreme simplification of the Postmodern as an “incredulity towards meta-narratives” (Lyotard, 1984) and studies the "meta-narratives" of society, the grand theories and philosophies of the world. He designates the Postmodern as a questioning attitude to these Meta-Narratives of Western thought.

These grand-narratives make ethical and political recommendations for society, and generally adjust decision-making and the adjudication of what is believed to be truth. They are predominant paradigms for human organisation and behaviour such as Marxism, religion and language. Each of these dominates the behaviours of society.

Lyotard detests these grand narratives in society, or any philosophies which leads to uniformity of opinion. He describes in great detail the importance of information in world competition for economic dominance and argues for open access to information. He believes that the postmodern condition is essentially indecisive and that it signifies not the end of modernism but a new thinking in relation to it.

Knowledge is produced by opposition, by questioning existing paradigms and inventing new ones, not by agreeing to a universal truth (grand narrative).


5. What Is Postmodernism?

Throughout history, every era has had a defining term used to describe the period in relation to society, the arts, behavior, and politics from the Elizabethan period to the Renaissance, from the industrial revolution to the Modernist age, each window in time has had a certain set of characteristics and styles. However, whether one can precisely define any time in history or not, the titles given evoke images and expectations of certain sets of characteristics.

But what does Postmodernism evoke? According to theorists, it describes a hectic era of simulations, recycling, capitalism and mass production, and consumerism. Postmodernism, therefore, cannot be seen as a movement, like some of the earlier periods, but rather as a condition of the current window in time.

Ihab Hassan attempts to define the term by building a group of words that can be used to contextualize the label. He also compares it to Modernism as it noticeably connects to Postmodernism. What this list signifies is that the latter directly disagrees with the former, where Modernism is concerned with ‘grand Histoire’ and meta-narratives, Postmodernism relates to the ‘petite Histoire’ or anti-narratives.

This idea of Petite Histoire is examined by Jean Francois Lyotard as he suggests postmodernity is focused on the small histories of society. He also explores the status of Knowledge in this period and how it has changed from knowledge to information. He believes this is due to the cybernetics (internet) that has come to dominate our society.

Another aspect of postmodern society is the constant and continuous simulations of reality or hyper-realities that also dominate our culture. This issue is addressed by Baudrillard, who examines the end of modernity and the beginning of representations of the real, rather than accurate descriptions of the real. These interpretations of reality blur the lines between hyper-reality and the real. He argues that society has become too reliant on these models that we can no longer distinguish portrayals from reality.

What we see advertised by the media is an incessant representation of the real. When we see models advertising beauty products, we see their beauty and know that we want the advertised product, however, on closer examination of the model, we find that she has undergone hours of hair and make-up in order to look the way she does. When we examine it even closer, we realize the image itself was distorted by editing software, and the woman who modeled undoubtedly looks much different in reality.

These advertisements are simulacrums that represent only the advances in technology, not the value of the beauty products. They create the illusion of reality while hiding the reality of the images they advertise.

There are various issues surrounding Postmodernism and because of this it is a constantly shifting term, but what exactly can we understand from the term? It describes an era of chaotic advertising and production, an array of techniques in architecture, art, and literature and an incapability to understand our current society accurately. It is impossible to know where we will go from here, what will the next era focus on?

Globalized capitalism, mass production and consumerism of goods we want and simulations of reality already dominate our society. We have already lost our sense of reality and live in more of a matrix than real life, recycling images from history, thus, Postmodernism appears to describe an uncertainty or fragmentation in style, the value of goods, and art and functions in society and culture.


Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. University of Michigan Press.

Fokkama, H. b. (1997). International Postmodernism: Theory and Literary Practice. John Benjamin.

Hassan, I. (1987). Towards a Concept of Postmodernism. In I. Hassan, The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture. Michigan: Ohio State University Press.

Hassan, I. (2000). From Postodernism to Postmodernity: The Local/Globab Context. Artspace Visual Arts Centre.

Heartney, E. (2001). Postmoderism: Movements in Modern Art. California: Tate Gallery Publishing.

Kellner, S. B. (1991). Postmodern Theory:Critical Interrogations. New york: The Guilford Press.

Lyotard, J. F. (1984). La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Mann, D. (1996, 10 23). What is Postmodernism? Retrieved 03 10, 2013, from

Woods, T. (1999). Beginning Postmodernism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

© 2015 Astrid North's Study Guide

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