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Some people see postmodern culture as liberating because it has broken away from the limitations of modern culture. Others see postmodern culture as superficial and pastiche of the worst aspects of modernism. Before we can explore these cultural themes and what they stand for, we must first define them.
For the purpose of this essay I will not be going into much detail about the origins, features and differences when considering the concept of culture. But I will be focusing on the differences of modern-and post modern culture.
To start with a simple definition according to Kidd (2003), culture means ‘the way of life of a group of people’. The patterns of social organisation and the ‘normal’ ways in which we are supposed to behave in society touch all aspects of our daily lives. For obvious reasons not all cultures are similar, for example, just because social life, for us, happens to be structured in a certain way, does not mean that it has to be like this, nor that it was like this in the past – or even like this in other societies around the world (Kidd, 2003:5-6).
The sociologist Raymond Williams (1983), in his book Key Words: a vocabulary of culture and society, says:
“Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language. This is partly so because of its intricate historical development, in several European languages, but mainly because it now come to be used for important concepts in several distinct and incompatible systems of thought”(Kidd, 2003:9).
Two of these “incompatible systems of thought” can be considered to be modern- and postmodern culture.
According to Kidd (2003), what we call ‘modernity’ is usually associated with the era of industrialisation and the time when sociology was developed by its founders. Modernity-the period of the modern-comes from the Latin word modo, which means ‘just now’, and this key feature in the modernist spirit is: the founders’ idea that life and society had changed. Their times – their ‘just now’ – were totally different from those of the traditional preindustrial societies of the past (Kidd, 2003:85).
Modernity can be characterised by the following elements: industrialisation; urbanisation; a rise in the importance of science; the growth of the manufacturing industry, secularisation (the decline of religion); the invention of more advanced technology; rationalisation (Kidd, 2003:85).
Modernity was the age of science, sociologists and discovery, based on the belief that humans could understand and control everything. The world of nature (uncertainty) was the slave and humans were now in charge. The mission statements of these scientists and sociologists were to find absolute truth, develop universal and general laws, to control the present, to predict the future and to control the shape and direction of the future (Kidd, 2003:85-86).
Modernity was based on what is called the spirit of the ‘Enlightenment’- the eighteenth-century philosophical movement that addressed the importance of reason and the replacement of religion and superstition with science and rationality. According to Kidd (2003), Max Weber provided an excellent illustration of the modernists’ preoccupation with rationalisation in his ‘sociology of music’ (1968, originally written in 1910-110). Weber saw the historical development of society as the development of rationality in all spheres of social life and social organisation. In this context ‘rationalisation’ means the breaking down of an object of study into constituent parts in order better to understand the whole. Rationality is thus seen as a fundamental part of the rise of both science and technology in the industrial era, and as providing the momentum for industrialisation itself – a highly modernist image of social change.
Weber illustrated the historical development of rationality with reference to musical notation. For example in preindustrial ‘traditional’ society, music was passed down the generations as part of ‘folk culture’. Songs were passed down by word of mouth and instrument making was the task of skilled people. With the onset of rationalisation there developed a concern to analyse what music actually was – to break it down in order better to control it. Hence the creation of a universal system of notation, scales, tabs and so on. Just like the documentation and notation of music, the making of music instruments became a matter of mass production. The rationalisation process was seen as helping people to control the world around them: to seek out absolute truth and to make order out of the chaos of nature (Kidd, 2003: 86-87).
It is very difficult to define the term postmodernism in one short definition because it covers such a large academic field and so much has been written on the subject. Let`s begin with a few short definitions and take it from there.
Postmodernism refers to the intellectual mood and cultural expressions that are becoming increasingly dominant in contemporary society. These expressions questions the ideals, principles and values that lay at the heart of the modern mind-set. Post modernity, in turn, refers to the era in which we are living, the time when the postmodern outlook increasingly shapes our society. The adjective postmodern, then, refers to the mind-set and its products. Post modernity is the era in which postmodern ideas, attitudes, and values reign-when the mood of postmodernism is moulding culture. This is the era of the postmodern society. (Grenz, 1996: 12-13)
According to Klages (2003) Postmodernism, which became an area of academic study in the mid eighties, is a term used to define the era after modernity. The Premodern (medieval) age was labelled the age of faith and superstition, followed by the modern age, the age of reason, empiricism and science. The postmodern age of relativity and, recently, the newest form of postmodernism, the age of holism and interdependence, followed. Respectively, the guiding metaphors are the created organism, the machine, the text, and the self-organizing system (de Quincy, 2002). Modernism has been introduced as a benchmark for the discussion of postmodernism, and two related terms, postmodern and postmodernist.
One of the first writers to use the term ‘postmodern’ was the American literary critic Ihab Hassan. In the second edition of his groundbreaking book from 1971, The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature (1982), he draws up a list of differences between modernism and postmodernism. This list tries to present the focus between modernism and postmodernism and the terms used. Although many of the categories have remained highly controversial, it still is worth reproducing here as a guideline between the difference in mindsets between the two eras:
Antiform (disjuctive, open)
Form (conjunctive, closed)
Art object/Finished work
The Holy Ghost
God the Father
(Hassan, 1982: 267-8; Malpas, 2005: 7-8)
According to Anderson (1996) ‘we are living in a new world, a world that does not know how to define itself by what it is, but only by what it has just-now ceased to be’. This view takes the position that the world has changed so drastically that confusion has taken over from certainty. The modernist world was fixed and it had a definite character. The post modern perspective explains that the absolute truth and definite standards, that modernity held, has collapsed. In post modernity truth, certainty and reality are provisional and relativistic.
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This is the case according to Kidd (2003), not just for morality, but also for the knowledge we have about the world around us. There are too many choices out there, all claiming to be the ‘real’ version of the ‘truth’. Religion, politics, the sciences and so on all claim special access to the truth, but how can we tell which is correct? Knowledge has become a commodity and a form of power, rather than an absolute, a truth. Just as truth fragments into a plurality of truths, so the traditional means of identity formation based on class, gender, ethnicity and so on has been replaced by an individual search for meaning, and life-style has become a matter of choice. Ultimately, uncertainty, confusion, ambiguity and plurality will be all that is left.
The French thinker Jean-Francois Lyotard, in his book The Post modern Condition (1984: xxiv), defines ‘postmodern’ as ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’. What he means by this that in the postmodern age knowledge has become provisional and as humans we see the old claims to truth for they really are – fictions, stories or ‘narratives’. Leyotard suggested that science and scientific knowledge have been exposed for what they are – once powerful illusions that are powerful no longer. Hope can no longer be placed on the highly modernist notions of progress or reason since what claims to be ‘knowledge’ depends on where one is, and how one chooses to see what is around one. There is no such thing as a single truth – nothing more than a commodity. Knowledge can be bought and sold, and in the age of computer technology those who have the most knowledge have the most power (Kidd, 2003:90-91).
According to Kidd (2003) a great deal of postmodern thinking is characterised by a belief called ‘relativism’. Relativism in postmodernism suggests that there are no absolute standards of truth, reality, morality and correctness, instead everything comes down to a matter of choice. This concept of relativism is in direct opposition to the modernist thinking discussed in the “Modernity” section of this paper. The founders believed in progress, development and objectivity but these are seen by postmodernists as nothing but stories, which in their time were powerful and shaped our thinking, but no longer.
Critique of postmodernism
While post modernism in itself serves as a critique on the principals of modernism, we haven’t explored any critique on post modernism yet.
While many have embraced postmodern ideas, some have rejected them. According to Kidd (2003) the critics of postmodernism are concerned about the implications of these ideas for the future of sociology itself. If there is no such thing as truth, then what is the point of sociology trying to determine what the world is like?
There are five main criticisms of postmodernism. First, according to Kidd (2003) is Norris (1992,1993), he considers that postmodernism is far too sceptical and relativistic to be of any use. Norris (1992) quotes an observation made by Tony Bennett:
“If narratives are all that we can have and if all narratives are, in principle, of equal value – as it seems they must be if there is no touchstone of ‘reality’ to which they can be referred for the adjudication of their truth-claims – then rational debate would seem to be pointless.”
Secondly, according to Kidd (2003), Giddens (1990, 1991) notes with some concern that postmodernism does not give sociology a future. It denies the very Enlightenment spirit that led to the creation of sociology. For Giddens the postmodern denial of truth and reason leaves us with nothing upon which to gain knowledge and truth about the world.
Third, according to Kidd (2003), many Marxists have showed that postmodernism may preach about the individual freedom and liberation from the modernists` past, but this freedom is an illusion since it is based on consumption. Given that consumption cost money, then surely some people are going to be more free than others? Postmodernism is said to provide a thinly veiled justification for the false needs created by the capitalist economy – these simply ensures more profits for the capitalists themselves and thus ensures the perpetuation of an exploitative society.
Fourth, according to Kidd (2003), if morality is indeed relative then this leaves us with no means of challenging, discrimination and prejudice in society.
Finally According to Aylesworth (2005) the most prominent critic of postmodernism is Jürgen Habermas. In The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Habermas:1987), he criticises postmodernism at the level of society and “communicative action.” He defends modernists` argumentative reason in inter-subjective communication against postmodernism`s experimental, avant-garde strategies. For example, Habermans claims postmodernists commit a performative contradiction in their critiques of modernism by employing concepts and methods that only modern reason can provide.
Which positions do I agree with?
To conceptualize these two culture phenomena’s in simple terms it would seem that modernism tends to be much more conservative than the liberal postmodernism. I will explain my position using the controversial animated TV show, South Park as example, from the view point of the episode “I`m little bit country”(Parker:2003).
This episode originally aired during the build-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The people of the town South Park are divided about the war. After splitting in two groups, both groups plan rallies: one pro-war (conservative: modernist), one anti-war (liberal: postmodernist), both on the same day in the same street. They end up having a great argument during both rallies, and in the end they get into a huge fight where they begin to kill each other.
Benjamin Franklin (one of the founding fathers) appears in the charracter, Eric Cartman’s coma-dream and explains to him that the new country must not seem to be a war-monger to the rest of the world; at the same time it cannot seem to be weak either. Therefore it must go to war, but allow protests. The United States will go to war on one hand, and use protest to oppose the war on the other. He refers to the this as “saying one thing” and “doing another”. He refers to this as “having our cake and eating it too”. Cartman wakes up from his coma and delivers this message to the two fighting groups in the town, who see`s the truth of that statement and then break out into song (South Park Studios:2003).
Thus my point is that we should apply both cultural phenomena’s when living our lives but when doing so we should consider a healthy balance between the two. It would seem unreasonable to consider that everything has an absolute truth about it, because people and things change all the time and not everything is constant and controllable as the modernists would like to believe. On the other hand everything can`t be relative because there has to be absolute truth in world otherwise our lives would be uncertain in so many ways. For example “all metals expand when heated” is an absolute truth, when you jump of a 50 ft bridge, you are probably going to die. We need truth and freedom to coexist with one another, so if I have to label myself as a modernist or a postmodernist, then I am neither, I will take what I need when I need it .
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