What is postmodernism?

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

Postmodernism is defined as “a late-20th-century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism that represents a departure from modernism and has at its heart a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies as well as a problematical relationship with any notion of ‘art’”1.

Postmodernism came in two waves of different foci. The first, at the end of World War II, manifested itself in the reaction against the aesthetic criteria in art, architecture and literature. The second, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, was around a school of thought that proclaimed “there are no truths but only interpretations”.

The postmodernism that came in the first wave attacked the aesthetic conceptualizations applied to art and architecture. It is difficult to assess possible damage to society caused by postmodernism that came in the first wave. After all, what does it matter to society if someone decides to build their house in a pastiche style?2 Or that an art gallery decides to exhibit an unkempt bed with dirty sheets as if it were an art piece? Taste is taste, one could argue.

However, the damage to society caused by the post-modernism of the second wave was soon recognized in its denial of the values of the Enlightenment that gave rise to modernity and which crystallized from the second half of the eighteenth century.

The notion of modernity is well explained in Joel Mokyr’s essay entitled ‘Enlightened and Enriched. We owe our modern prosperity to Enlightenment ideas’, published in the City Journal (2010) and reproduced in PortVitoria (2011):

As unlikely as it may seem, then, a fairly small community of intellectuals in a small corner of eighteenth-century Europe changed world history. Not only did they agree on the desirability of progress; they wrote a detailed program of how to implement it and then, astoundingly, carried it through. Today, we enjoy material comforts, access to information and entertainment, better health, seeing practically all our children reach adulthood (even if we elect to have fewer of them), and a reasonable expectation of many years in leisurely and economically secure retirement. These are luxuries that Smith, Hume, Watt, and Wedgwood could only dream of. But without the Enlightenment, they would not have happened.

Technological progress has become part of our lives. We have learned to expect that science and technology will advance every year and that we will discover more and more about the physical world in order to improve our material existence, whether in medicine, materials, energy, or information technology. Our growing concern with the environment and the influence that technology has had on our fragile planet is adding nuance and sophistication to this belief. The age of Enlightenment burned coal without concern, unaware of the impact of hydrocarbons on the atmosphere. Our age is learning a further lesson: we need technological progress more than ever, but we need to be smart about it. Ben Franklin would agree.

There is no denying that modernity has greatly improved the quality of life of people. However, this modernity did not come as a surprise. It was a product of the maturation of the Western mind and the efforts of thinkers who insisted on understanding the natural world for themselves, without taking into consideration religious revelation. The thinkers at the centre of this movement were not the first to think that way, but simply the first who dared to challenge the power of the Church.
Modernity did not throw away the old knowledge. That was preserved along with the new knowledge. Modernity not only transformed the West, bit it was also incorporated into its identity. This realization begs the question of why people throw stones at it. Where did postmodernism come from? Why does it reject and attack modernity?

The roots of postmodernism
The roots of postmodernism extend to the linguistic school founded by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, at the beginning of the 20th century. The Saussurian school gave rise to the movement known as ‘structuralism’, which arose around the structured nature of the ‘linguistic sign’ (the word) – formed by a ‘signifier’ and a ‘signified’ – which forms the basis of synchronic linguistics which Saussure prioritized over the diachronic or historical linguistics. Linguistic structuralism has been concerned with identifying not only what is evident in the text, but also what is not in the structures of ‘meaning’. In other words, linguistic structuralism was concerned with discovering possible discourses hidden between the lines.

From linguistics, structuralism migrated to literary criticism and anthropology, which soon became concerned with the uncovering of possible conspiracies in elusive subliminal messages sheltered between the lines of theory. As in the saying ‘seek and you shall find’, the structuralists come up with ‘plans’ and generated conspiracy theory stating that ideas and ideologies are imposed on people.

The literary criticism of the structuralists came to see literature not as something based exclusively on content, but as a relative system capable of mutation through history. Luís Althusser (1918-90) borrowed from linguistics the radical ‘semio’ of the word ‘semiotics’ or ‘semiology’, and proposed the term ‘semi-criticism’. Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) saw literature as a vehicle for the dissemination of ideology, and introduced the term ‘deconstructionism’ to designate the technique of revealing the hidden meanings between the lines. The phrase ‘knowledge is power’, attributed to Francis Bacon(1561-1626), was reinterpreted by Michel Foucault (1926-1984), who stated that the desire to acquire technical knowledge was a discourse of power and an instrument of exclusion.

The movement known as ‘post-structuralism’ is structuralism itself, although criticized; it should be noted that not all critics of structuralism have identified themselves as post-structuralists. The best-known proponents of this movement are Althusser, Julia Kristeva (1941-), Derrida and Foucault. Post-structuralists have created a literary critique called ‘post-structuralist criticism’, ‘modern criticism’ or ‘postmodern criticism’, based on the deconstruction of the conceptual structures of the text, in order to reveal the hidden meanings within the lines of the literary text.

Postmodernism, or post-structuralism, took root in anthropology and social sciences in general, and from these roots emerged ‘social constructivism’, the idea of language as an instrument of social leverage and revolution. Two types of social constructionism were identified: the universal and the particular. Both see language and communication as instruments of power and empowerment. Universal constructivism refers to the general construct, whereas particular constructivism refers to the construct of a specific reality of a specific category of individuals. In both the universal and the particular social constructivism, reality is confined to what we are talking about, that is, the only reality that exists is that which appears in the media, and this was emphasized in a review article signed by Naveed Yazdani, Hasan S Murad and Rana Zamin Abbas, published in 2011:

For postmodern philosophers ‘cultural studies’ or studies of identity are the mainstay of culture and the question of identity pervade humanity. Media icons are the key components of postmodern culture and many contemporary philosophers are just as comfortable writing about Madonna as they area about politics or classics or ethics.

Social constructionism is linked to the notion of displaced individuals coming from the most diverse paths of life, from which comes the ‘death of the subject’, which occurs when identity is undone and the capacity for action is lost. The appeal of social constructionism is the hope that anything that is wrong can be repaired, since meanings are not fixed.

Derrida was identified as one of the main instigators of the protests against globalization occurred at the turn of the 20th century in Seattle, Prague, Quebec and Genoa. This was done by demonizing capitalism and planting in young minds the idea that globalization was an ideology that needed to be deconstructed.

The postmodernist inculcation
The postmodernist inculcation in academia has a great acceptance in the teachers’ longing to keep things as they have always been, especially the imaginary fences around the academic disciplines. Such inculcation has sabotaged of the education of more than a generation of young people. How will such individuals find meaning in their professions after they graduate? How are they going to solve problems that require discerning the truth from untruth, or the rational from the irrational?
Despite all its faults, the postmodernism in the American academic environment survived unchallenged for a long time. The most likely explanation for this was the continuation of the split between science and the humanities, which was the topic of a lecture by C. P. Snow (1905-80) in 1959, later transformed into the book The Two Cultures. It is reasonable to assume that most scientists were not aware of the postmodernists’ contempt and insults to science.

Four academics who vigorously challenged postmodernism and its idiosyncrasies were the American physicist and mathematician, Alan Sokal (1955-); the Canadian philosopher of science, Ian Hacking (1936-); the philosopher and classicist, Allan Bloom (1930-92); and psychologist Steven Pinker (1954-), a professor at Harvard University and the author of several books on human nature.

Sokal is undoubtedly the most creative critic of postmodernism. In order to show the frivolity of this movement, he wrote a false article, loaded with unintelligibility, verbiage and subjectivity, which was published in 1996 in the journal Social Text. Sokal wrote another article to announce the hoax, which was published a year later in the journal Lingua Franca. Sokal’s hoax did not bring down postmodernism, but at least it shook it considerably. However, Sokal did not stop there. In 1997, he and Frenchman Jean Bricmont published the book Impostures Intellectuelles, which was first translated into English as Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectual’s Abuse of Science (1998), and then in the UK as Intellectual Impostures. In this book, Sokal and Bricmont showed the absurdities of Sokal’s hoax article, as well as several examples of abuses in scientific terminology and concepts by famous intellectuals.

Hacking’s critique of postmodernism consisted in carefully examining the content of various books which had the word ‘construction’ in the title, in order to unmask the main unifying factors of social constructionism. The results were published in The Social Construction of What? (1999). In this book, Hacking lists an enormous list of things that are said to have been ‘socially constructed’, including race, gender, masculinity, nature, facts, reality, and the past.

Bloom attacked the literary movement called ‘New Criticism’, one of the pillars of postmodernism. In his book The Closing of the American Mind, published in 1986, Bloom denounced the danger of irrational influences such as the New Criticism that became all the rage in American universities. For Bloom, such influences compromise the humanities and destroy the good university culture in the United States. The big problem that Bloom pointed out, was the fact that there was no reciprocity for the ‘openness to closeness’ of the West.

Pinker criticized postmodernism and its many facets in his book Tabula Rasa: The Contemporary Denial of Human Nature. Pinker’s criticism focuses on the misunderstanding of human nature, caused by the various conspiracy theories of postmodernism, according to which ‘observations are always tainted by theories, and theories are saturated with ideology and political doctrines; therefore whoever claims to be in possession of the facts or to know the truth is only trying to exert power over all the rest.’ Pinker also addresses the relativism specifically created to prevent criticism of things that are perceived as ‘cultural’, which leads to a number of violations of people’s physical integrity such as female genital mutilation, the stoning of women and large-scale corporal punishment. cruelty. Here’s how Pinker concludes his criticism:

It is ironic that a philosophy that prides itself on deconstructing the accoutrements of power should embrace a relativism that makes challenges to power impossible, because it denies that there are objective benchmarks against which the deceptions of the powerful can be evaluated. For the same reason, the passages should give pause to radical scientists who insist that other scientists’ aspirations to theories with objective reality (including theories about human nature) are really weapons to preserve the interests of the dominant class, gender, and race.

Of the four critics of postmodernism listed above, only Pinker continues to struggle to correct the errors and misunderstandings of postmodernism. In an article published in 2013 in the electronic journal The New Republic3, Pinker appealed to the authors of the humanities against the anti-scientific mentality that has prevailed in this environment. He explains that the practices of science, such as ‘peer review, open debate and the double-blind method, were specifically designed to deal with the errors and sins to which scientists, because they are human, are vulnerable.

Pinker’s article well illustrates the anti-science offensive of the postmodern mentality in the United States. In the middle of Pinker’s article appeared a hyperlink of a three-minute video with the following title: “WATCH Leon Wieseltier’s replica”. The latter was none but the literary editor of the The New Republic. But that was not all. A few weeks later, Wieseltier published in The New Republic a long essay, full of sarcasm and derogatory terms, entitled ‘Crimes against humanities: Science now wants to invade the liberal arts, do not let that happen’. For some reason, Pinker agreed to participate in a third round of this debate, in a subject entitled ‘Science versus Humanities, III round’, also published in The New Republic, which consisted of a replica of Pinker followed by another by Wieseltier. Other articles and blogs have also been published; in general, attacking not only Pinker and his view of consilience (the union between science and the humanities) but also the aberrations of social Darwinism and eugenics, which had nothing to do with Pinker’s original article. However, Pinker was defended by the philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett (1942-), in an article published in Edge, considered the world’s most interesting and stimulating internet journal.

In the above-mentioned article, Dennett gives a summary of the state of the humanities in American universities. According to him, there is a generation of deficient academics who have no respect for evidence and do not believe in truth; such scholars conform to ‘conversations’ in which no one is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, but only asserted in whatever style one is able to develop.

Postmodernism is an onslaught against modernity that came in two waves. In the first wave, postmodernism denounced culture as an instrument of power, and, in the second, denounced science. However, postmodernism does not represent the first attack against modernity, which was strongly opposed by the thinkers who insisted on placing the Divine Providence in the equation of knowledge.

Postmodern thought interprets the criteria of excellence and objectivity of modern science as a form of elitism. For this reason, the postmodern mentality is unable to see the good things that resulted from the Enlightenment. It attacks the Enlightenment values of the search for the truth of the natural world – as opposed to the supernatural world – which included a belief in unified knowledge, the superiority of scientific knowledge over other types of knowledge, and the recognition of a civilizational canon and its role in liberal education and in the teaching of the humanities. As if these were not enough, it planted in impressionable young minds, the preposterous idea that modern science and the literary canon are social constructs, and manifestations of the West’s arrogance and imperialism. It caused the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, and continues to disrupt the teaching of the humanities, whose students have been indoctrinated to accept relativism and other obscurantist ideas, and to reject the consilience of knowledge.

Although postmodernist inculcation has been firmly recorded only in the academic world of the United States, this does not mean that it has not occurred in other countries. The best prepared individuals in any country or society should beware of cutting-edge radical visions whose ethical implications have not yet been fully elucidated. This is the case of postmodernism, an ideology that revolves around the irrational idea that the values of modernity, characteristic of Western civilization, are part of a great conspiracy by the West to maintain power and hegemony. Postmodernism is an absurd, irrational and misleading doctrine. It is the Trojan horse of civilization.

BLOOM, A. The closing of the american mind. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, New York. 1987. ISBN: 978-0-761-65715-4.
BLOOM, H. The western canon: the books and school of the ages. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, New York. 1994. ISBN:.
DENNETT, D. Let’s Start With A Respect For Truth. Edge, Conversations, 9.10.2013 (www.edge.org/conversations).
HACKING, I. The social costruction of what? Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999. ISBN 0-674-00412-4.
MOKYR, J. (2011). Iluminados e enriquecidos: Devemos nossa prosperidade moderna às ideias do Iluminismo. PortVitoria, UK, v. 3, Jul-Dec, 2011. (https://www.portvitoria.com/archive.html).
PINKER, S. (2002). The Blank Slate. The modern denial of human nature. Part VI. Penguin Books 2003. ISBN-13 978-0-140-27605-3.
PINKER, S. (2013). Science is not your enemy. An impassionated plea to neglected novellists, embattled professors and tenure-less historians. The New Republic, Special Edition, August 6 2013.
SNOW, C. P. (1959). The two cultures. With introduction by Stefan Collini. Cambridge University Press, 1998, twelfth printing, 2009.
SOKAL, A. Beyond the hoax. Science Philosophy and Culture. Oxford University Press, 2008.
YAZDANI, NAVEED, MURAD, HASAN S. & ABBAS, RANA ZAMIN (2011). From modernity to post-modernity: a historical discourse on western civilization. International Journal of Business and Social Science, v. 2 (11), Special Issue. June 2011.

1. Translation of the most common definition in English, obtained through Google: “the late 20th-century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism, which represents a departure from modernism and is characterized by the self-conscious use of earlier styles and conventions, a mix of different artistic styles and media, and a general distrust of theories.” .
2. In 1998, the British artist Tracey Emin (1963-) exhibited her own ‘bed’ as a ‘piece’ of art entitled My bed, which was exhibited the following year at the Tate Modern gallery, when it was nominated for Turner Prize. In 2000, Charles Staachi, owner of an art gallery bought My bed for £ 150,000 pounds. The second time My bed was put on the art market was in July 2015, when it was bought by a German collector named Christian Duerckerheim, who loaned the art piece to the Tate gallery for ten years. Emin had expressed his desire that his ‘play’ be forever in the Tate Modern gallery, but it did not have sufficient resources. At the Christie auction, the piece My bed sold for £ 2.54 million, more than double that estimate. In an interview, Duerkerheim explained that he bought My bed because it was “a metaphor for life, where problems begin and logic dies.” Accessed on Wikepedia and the Guardian portal: .

3. The magazine The New Republic was founded in 1914 by leaders of the ‘Progressive Movement’ (left) as an opinion magazine that seeks to meet the challenge of the new era. In the 1980s, The New Republic incorporated some elements of conservatism. The magazine went on sale in 2012 and was acquired by Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook. On December 4, 2014, it was announced that Gabriel Snyder, from Gawker and Bloomberg, would be his new editor-in-chief, replacing Franklin Foer. In addition, Yahoo’s new CEO Guy Vidra announced his intention to reduce the number of annual editions from 20 to 10, prompting a wave of resignations that included literary editor Leon Wieseltier. As a result, the December 2014 edition was suspended. The New Republic was initially weekly, rising to 20 issues per year. For a short time, he published 10 issues a year, with a circulation of 50,000 copies. On January 11, 2016, Chris Hughes put The New Republic up for sale, and on February 26 it was bought by Win McComack. He took over as editor-in-chief and appointed Eric N. Bates, a former executive editor of Rolling Stones, editor. The New Republic has an impressive record of notable contributors. However, it also has several questionable associations, such as Michael Whitney Staight, who was its editor from 1948-1956, was discovered to be a KGB spy. Source: .

Additional note
This article is excerpted from Joaquina Pires-O’Brien’s book O homem razoável (The Reasonable Man), first published in November 2016, on Kindle edition on Amazon, simultaneously with its Spanish translation.