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The development of postmodernism

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The development of postmodernism is a the study of the history of postmodernism, a trend in 20th Century thinking.

Features of postmodern culture begin to arise in the 1920s with the emergence of the Dada movement, which featured collage and a focus on the framing of objects and discourse as being as important, or more important, than the work itself. Another strand which would have tremendous impact on post-modernism would be the existentialists, who placed the centrality of the individual narrative as being the source of morals and understanding. However, it is with the end of the Second World War that recognizably post-modernist attitudes begin to emerge. Central to these is the focusing on the problems of any knowledge which is founded on anything external to an individual. Post-modernism, while widely diverse in its forms, almost invariably begins from the problem of knowledge which is broadly disseminated in its form, but not limited in its interpretation. Post-modernism rapidly developed a vocabulary of anti-enlightenment rhetoric, used to argue that rationality was neither as sure nor as clear as rationalists supposed, and that knowledge was inherently linked to time, place, social position and other factors from which an individual constructs their view of knowledge. To escape from constructed knowledge, it then becomes necessary to critique it, and thus deconstruct the asserted knowledge. Jacques Derrida argued that to defend against the inevitable self-deconstruction, or breaking down, of knowledge, systems of power (called hegemony) would have to postulate an original utterance, the logos. This "privileging" of an original utterance is called "logocentrism".

Instead of rooting knowledge in particular utterances, or "texts", the basis of knowledge was seen to be in the free play of discourse itself, an idea rooted in Wittgenstein's idea of a language game. This emphasis on the allowability of free play within the context of conversation and discourse leads postmodernism to adopt the stance of irony, paradox, textual manipulation, reference and tropes.

Armed with this process of questioning the social basis of assertions, postmodernist philosophers began to attack unities of modernism, and particularly unities seen as being rooted in the Enlightenment. Since Modernism had made the Enlightenment a central source of its superiority over the Victorian and Romantic periods, this attack amounted to an indirect attack on the establishment of modernism itself. Perhaps the most striking examples of this skepticism are to be found in the works of French cultural theorist, Jean Baudrillard. In his book Simulacra and Simulation(1981), he contends that social "reality" no longer exists in the conventional sense, but has been supplanted by an endless procession of simulacra. The mass media, and other forms of mass cultural production, generate constant re-appropriation and re-contextualisation of familiar cultural symbols and images, fundamentally shifting our experience away from "reality", to "hyperreality".

Postmodernism therefore has an obvious distrust toward claims about truth, ethics, or beauty being rooted in anything other than individual perception and group construction. Utopian ideals of universally applicable truths or aesthetics give way to provisional, decentered, local petit récits which, rather than referencing an underlying universal truth or aesthetic, point only to other ideas and cultural artifacts, themselves subject to interpretation and re-interpretation. The "truth", since it can only be understood by all of its connections is perpetually "deferred", never reaching a point of fixed knowledge which can be called "the truth." This emphasis on construction and consensus often breeds antagonism with scientific thinking, as the Sokal Affair shows.

Postmodernism is often used in a larger sense, meaning the entire trend of thought in the late 20th century, and the social and philosophical realities of that period. Marxist critics argue that post-modernism is symptomatic of "late capitalism" and the decline of institutions, particularly the nation-state. Other thinkers assert that post-modernity is the natural reaction to mass broadcasting and a society conditioned to mass production and mass political decision making. The ability of knowledge to be endlessly copied, defeats attempts to constrain interpretation, or to set "originality" by simple means such as the production of a work. From this perspective, the schools of thought labelled "postmodern" are not as widely at odds with their time period as the polemics and arguments appear to point, for example, to the shift of the basis of scientific knowledge to a provisional consensus of scientists, as posited by Thomas Kuhn. Post-modernism is seen, in this view, as being conscious of the nature of the discontinuity between modern and post-modern periods which is generally present.

Postmodernism has manifestations in many modern academic and non-academic disciplines: philosophy, theology, art, architecture, film, television, music, theatre, sociology, fashion, technology, literature, and communications are all heavily influenced by postmodern trends and ideas, and are thoroughly scrutinised from postmodern perspectives. Crucial to these are the denial of customary expectations, the use of non-orthogonal angles in buildings such as the work of Frank Gehry, and the shift in arts exemplified by the rise of minimalism in art and music. Post-modern philosophy often labels itself as critical theory and grounds the construction of identity in the mass media.

Postmodernism was first identified as a theoretical discipline in the 1970s, but as a cultural movement it predates them by many years. Exactly when modernism began to give way to postmodernism depends on the observer and the theoretical framework. Some theorists reject that such a distinction even exists, viewing postmodernism, for all its claims of fragmentation and plurality, as still existing within a larger "modernist" framework. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas is a strong proponent of this view, which has aspects of a lumpers/splitters problem: is the entire 20th century one period, or two distinct periods?

The theory gained some of its strongest ground early on in French academia. In 1979 Jean-François Lyotard wrote a short but influential work The Postmodern Condition : a report on knowledge. Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes (in his more post-structural work) are also strongly influential in postmodern theory. Postmodernism is closely allied with several contemporary academic disciplines, most notably those connected with sociology. Many of its assumptions are integral to feminist and post-colonial theory.

Some identify the burgeoning anti-establishment movements of the 1960s as the earliest trend out of cultural modernity toward postmodernism.

Tracing it further back, some identify its roots in the breakdown of Hegelian idealism, and the impact of both World Wars (perhaps even the concept of a World War). Heidegger and Derrida were influential in re-examining the fundamentals of knowledge, together with the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and his philosophy of language, Søren Kierkegaard's and Karl Barth's important fideist approach to theology, and even the nihilism of Nietzsche's philosophy. Michel Foucault's application of Hegel to thinking about the body is also identified as an important landmark. While it is rare to pin down the specific origins of any large cultural shift, writers such as John Ralston Saul among others have argued that postmodernism represents an accumulated disillusionment with the promises of the Enlightenment project and its progress of science, so central to modern thinking.

The movement has had diverse political ramifications: its anti-ideological ideas appear conducive to, and strongly associated with, the feminist movement, racial equality movements, gay rights movements, most forms of late 20th century anarchism, even the peace movement and various hybrids of these in the current anti-globalization movement. Unsurprisingly, none of these institutions entirely embraces all aspects of the postmodern movement in its most concentrated definition, but reflect, or in true postmodern style, borrow from some of its core ideas.

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