We explain what postmodernism is and what its main characteristics are. In addition, we explore postmodern society and postmodern architecture.

Postmodernism rejects the idea of unmediated reality.

What is postmodernism?

Postmodernism is a philosophical, cultural and artistic movement that emerged in the late 20th century as a reaction to the intellectual and philosophical ideas of modernity. It gets its name for being the school of thought following Modernism.

Postmodernism rejects the idea of an unmediated, objective reality independent of the human being, which it dismisses as naive realism. It is characterized by skepticism or rejection of the Enlightenment.

Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998) analyzes postmodern culture in The Postmodern Condition as the end of metanarratives or "grand narratives", the main characteristic of modernity. Examples of these are reductionism and teleological interpretations of Marxism and the Enlightenment, among others.

Rather than denying the identity of what was known until then, postmodernism grounds in the concept of "difference" as productive mechanism. It argues that thought (and what compels humans to act) is a matter of sensitivity rather than reason.

Characteristics of postmodernism

The postmodernist movement held that:

  • Modern Western philosophy creates dualisms. Postmodernism maintains a hybrid or pluralistic stance on reality.
  • Truth is a matter of perspective or context rather than something universal or absolute. This idea arises from Nietzschean perspectivism: Nietzsche states that "there are no facts, only interpretations".
  • Language shapes the way of thinking and there can be no thought without language. Authors like Derrida work on this idea.
  • Language is capable of literally creating reality. Austin's performativity elaborates a theory in this regard.

Postmodern philosophy

Postmodern philosophy emerges as a break from modernism. Though it is difficult to pinpoint the origin of postmodernism, its start can be roughly marked in the 1960s, in France. Most postmodern thinkers are also post-Nietzschean: Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Guattari, Nancy, Barthes and Lacan, among others.

Postmodernism arises as a reaction or attempt to depart from the ideals of the previous era. Many of its authors are concerned with existentialism, deconstruction, posthumanism and contemporary literary theory. All of them break with the primacy that modernism gave to the individual and reason.

Central ideas of philosophical postmodernism are Derridean logocentrism, binary dichotomy and power relations, which are illustrated in works such as Foucault's The Order of Things, Derrida's Of Grammatology, or Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus.

Regarding the concept of difference, various authors adopt similar though not entirely reconcilable positions.

  • For Derrida, there exists the concept of différance or "difference", which is the simultaneous overlap of deferral and difference. This concept first appeared in his 1967 book Of Grammatology, which discusses language and writing not as sign but as a gramma or "differentiated" inscription.
  • Deleuze develops the Bergsonian multiplicity as a form of difference.
  • For his part, Foucault treats episteme as a singularity modified by the exercise of power.
  • In Lyotard's case, he coined the term "dispute", asserting that it is no longer possible to legitimize the historical truth claims of the various Western philosophical systems.

Postmodern art

Postmodernism broke with the established rules in art giving way to a new era of freedom in which "anything goes". It is inherently an anti-authoritarian movement, as it refuses to acknowledge the influence of any style.

In order to challenge the boundaries of collective taste, the postmodernist movement may acquire a humorous, ironic and even ridiculous tone. It takes an anti-dualistic stance opposed to classical preconceptions such as east and west, male and female, rich and poor or black and white.

Examples of postmodern art include minimalism, conceptual art, land-art, happenings and interventions, all of which assert the failure of avant-garde art. Postmodern artists hold that avant-gardes are nothing but a failed response to established canon, since once they make their critique and mark their artistic difference, they end up being part of canon.

Postmodern architecture

The State Gallery of Stuttgart in Germany is a postmodern building.

Postmodern architecture is characterized by its undefined type, which does not oppose traditional styles while managing to differentiate itself from them. It replaced modern aesthetics (unadorned and with right angles) with irregular lines and unusual surfaces.

Some examples of postmodern architecture include: the State Gallery of Stuttgart (Germany), the public square Piazza d'Italia in New Orleans (United States) and the Scottish Parliament Building in Holyrood (Scotland).

Modern architects often regard postmodern buildings as vulgar or having a populist ethic. Conversely, postmodern architects may see modern works as having soulless and bland facades.

Postmodern Literature

Postmodern literature features a style of fragmentariness, diversity, paradox, unreliable narration, parody and "black humor". It rejects the distinction between genres and forms of writing.

Latin America literature in the 1990s experienced a trend towards postmodernism. Major figures of postmodernism include Ricardo Piglia, Diamela Eltit, Rafael Humberto Moreno-Durán, José Balza and José Emilio Pacheco.

Postmodern authors typically blur the line between fictional discourses and essays: they write fiction about literature and essays in fiction style.

Postmodern society

The development of postmodern society meant a shift from production-based to consumer economies and even to compulsive consumerism which has caused harmful consequences that can be seen today.

To counteract the negative consequences, postmodernism began to question environmental disasters caused by the overexploitation of natural resources and the amount of toxic waste generated. It called for a reappreciation of planet Earth and a rise of awareness for its care.

Criticism of postmodernism

In all the fields where postmodernism has been observed, there has been resistance and rejection of the general ideas it puts forward. Whether in architecture, art or literature, generations of artists, writers and thinkers maintain that postmodernism is the symptom of a declining society whose foundations have been lost in time.

One of the most famous examples is the book Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science, written by physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, where they highlight the relativism to which postmodernity is subject. They criticize both the abuse of scientific concepts by philosophers and the use of non-communicative language by authors like Derrida or Heidegger, who tend to write in a non-predicative playful style as a display of thought.

The philosophers and thinkers most criticized by Sokal and Bricmont are Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour and Jean Baudrillard.


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ESPÍNOLA, Juan Pablo Segundo. "Postmodernism".
Encyclopedia of Humanities. 11 January, 2024,

About the author

Author: Juan Pablo Segundo Espínola

Bachelor of Arts in philosophy (University of Buenos Aires)

Translated by: Marilina Gary

Degree in English Language Teaching (Juan XXIII Institute of Higher Education, Bahía Blanca, Argentina).

Updated on: 11 January, 2024
Posted on: 28 September, 2023

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