U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What is postmodernity and how does it relate to the culture wars?


I am the new regularly scheduled Friday blogger, but since I’ll be on a plane to Boston tomorrow for the annual History of Education Society meeting, I’m going to jump the gun by a day. My post relates, I think, to the excellent ongoing discussion between Paul Murphy and Michael Kramer in the comments section of my earlier post on the “Intellectual History for What?” plenary from our recent conference. How can we speak to a public when no such public, singular, exists? I think it also relates to Ray Haberski’s intriguing post yesterday about how war seems to be the only thing to draw Americans together anymore, the only thing around which a civil religion still exists.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, I want to briefly answer the following two questions, or at least, get a discussion going: What is postmodernity? And how does it relate to the culture wars? These are really important questions that pertain to my thinking about the culture wars.

I define postmodernism as the fragmentation of what was once understood to be a singular public culture. Prior to the 1960s, which I consider the watershed years in U.S. history between modernity and postmodernity, it was possible for politicians, intellectuals, filmmakers, writers, etc., to address a single, common, if imagined public. The imagined part of this equation should not be forgotten, since people were always marginalized from the common American culture. But this speaks to my point. Once more people were brought into the common public—racial and ethnic minorities, women, gays and lesbians— by the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, it became more difficult to sustain a single, if flawed public or political culture. Fragmentation reigned supreme. The culture wars are best understood in terms of this fragmentation, and in terms of failed attempts to reestablish a common culture. This was a truly distressing turn of events for a public intellectual like Christopher Lasch. His biographer Eric Miller writes that “the crisis that so stirred Lasch is bound up in what we call ‘postmodernity,’ the vacuity of the name itself an indicator of the nature of the crisis.” “Lasch spent his life,” Miller believes, “slowly hammering out a way of seeing and living that could sustain hope amidst the grand fracturing of the age.” Such a temperament is so obviously imprinted upon Lasch’s students.

I also think postmodernism, and thus, the culture wars, relate to large social and economic shifts. This is not the same as saying the culture wars were epiphenomenal, which is to say that culture wars were unimportant relative to the economy. The writings of Fredric Jameson help me make sense of this vexing issue. In his famous 1984 New Left Review article, titled, “Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” Jameson attached the cultural particulars of postmodernity, especially fragmentation, to the postindustrial transformations of capitalism. The displacement of industry from the nation’s urban centers, accompanied by the new technologies of imagery that allowed capital to invade the human psyche beneath consciousness, spelled this out. “In psychological terms,” Jameson observed, “we may say that as a service economy we are henceforth so far removed from the realities of production and work that we inhabit a dream world of artificial stimuli and televised experience.” Such a dream-like existence helped explain the prevalence of fragmented or postmodern thinking: “never in any previous civilization have the great metaphysical preoccupations, the fundamental questions of being and of the meaning of life, seemed so utterly remote and pointless.” In a nation like the United States, premised on great metaphysical preoccupations—where God and the Constitution both made the nation a City on the Hill—fragmentation proved especially difficult to accept. The culture wars were how people responded to this.

After I presented some of this at USIH, I was asked by one astute audience member why other nations going through the shift from modernity to postmodernity, such as in Western Europe, did not also experience culture wars, at least nowhere near as intensely. This was a great question. And this is where history matters. The changes to American society in terms of race and sex relations were much more profound, akin to throwing gasoline (altered racial and sexual landscapes) on a fire (postmodernity).

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. So what’s the difference between postmodernity and postmodernism? I buy the existence of the latter as a cultural phenomenon which “succeeded” modernism, itself a cultural phenomenon. But I remain dubious of the notion of postmodernity.

    The fundamental sense of the word “modern” signifies that which is new or recent, that which pertains to the present, i.e., now. To be “postmodern,” in this sense, then, is in ontological terms a non sequitur. And if “modernity” defines the Enlightenment’s transformation of man’s conception of time into one whose essence is the supposition of an open, indefinte future into which humanity is ceaselessly advancing, that hasn’t changed either. On that count, too, “postmodernity” fails.

    Now to the issue at hand. The concept “postmodern” is usually attributed to various strains of European thought that were especially influential in the decades immediately after WWII, such as post-structuralism, deconstruction, existentialism, and so forth. Nietzsche is sometimes credited with being a forefather of postmodernity, even the actual father, while A handful of scholars have traced its roots as far back as the Enlightenment. Elsewhere on this blog it was suggested that postmodernism, at least in its American guise, is an avatar of pragmatism, or perhaps an atavism. All of which prompts me to ask the following questions: Which species of postmodernism, if they are distinct, has been more influential in modern (post-1960s) America? Is the apparent success of postmodernism in contemporary humanities departments (to which James Livingston ascribes the left’s triumph in the culture wars) due merely to its adventitious pollination of already fertile soil? Is the American version, then, a hybrid? In other words, was European postmodernism necessary and/or sufficient to postmodernism’s rise in America? Or, to put it another way which gets back to my question about what is American in American intellectual history: Is there an autochthonous American tradition of postmodernism? If so, what is it? And how does it differ from the European cultivars that usually bear that name?

    The insight about why postmodernity was so much more volatile here than on its ostensible home soil is a crucial one, I think. I’m eager to learn more about why that was so, as I think answering that question will help answer the questions I posed, and help us get some way toward addressing the vexed issues of why the culture wars took place and what they were.

    Oh, and sorry about all the plant and soil metaphors. Must be because of the rain today.

  2. I’m experiencing déjà vu–we already had this conversation, in part at least, a few months ago, right here at the blog. Which explains my “beating a dead horse” qualification. That’s OK, the issues are complex but important. So let’s do this again, but maybe come to a better conclusion.

    David Harvey, in “The Condition of Postmodernity,” is still the best distinguisher between “postmodernity” and “postmodernism.” Per Harvey, postmodernity is the total social condition of “late” or mature capitalism, which began in or around the 1970s. It is the objectively observable advance or shift beyond modernity. It can be defined by the final globalization of capitalism, the commodification of everything, or the new enclosures, and the end of history and all such grand narratives that served as critiques of capitalism. This condition can be seen in cultural changes, such as the hybrid architectural forms that became common by the 1970s, which combined all sorts of historical genres in un-ironic fashion, as if such obliteration of history and form were the norm. Postmodernism, as you recognize Varad, is the cultural form of postmodernity, found in literature, architecture, film, and theory. Postmodernists embrace and even celebrate the condition of postmodernity. Or at the very least, a postmodernist no longer thinks about alternatives to capitalism. This is the end of the grand narrative that is so disturbing to the Marxist critics of postmodernism—because they still think the narrative of class struggle is imperative to our understanding of the world, even in (or especially in) the condition of postmodernity. Although Foucault hardly celebrated capitalism, he is a postmodernist theorist by the standards of Jameson because for Foucault, subject dissolves into object. If the project of modernity offered humans subjectivity or “agency,” then postmodernism is a return to a premodern epistemology or teleology in which everything is determined, this time by the total force of capitalism and its technological superstructure instead of by God or tradition. Cont…

  3. So you will perhaps remain skeptical that postmodernity is a thing, but I buy it. Now, to the comparative Europe-US question. I don’t get into defending pragmatism as somehow inventing or prefiguring later forms of continental thought (Foucault, Lacan, Derrida). By mentioning Nietzsche, you rightly point out that European thought experienced the same trembles at the same time as pragmatism. But, I do think that American culture in the postwar but especially in the post-1960s era was ripe, perhaps more ripe, for the flowering of postmodern theory. This might explain the fascination and celebration of Foucault in universities in the 80s and 90s. I think the impact of postmodernity was more volatile–postmodernism more felt–for a variety of reasons. Differences in race and religion are huge. Capitalism was always less regulated in the US, so the shift to service/information was felt as more of a shock. Basically, everything in the US was more extreme, more on the cutting edge. Does this make sense?

  4. “The fundamental sense of the word “modern” signifies that which is new or recent, that which pertains to the present, i.e., now. To be “postmodern,” in this sense, then, is in ontological terms a non sequitur. And if “modernity” defines the Enlightenment’s transformation of man’s conception of time into one whose essence is the supposition of an open, indefinte future into which humanity is ceaselessly advancing, that hasn’t changed either”

    Neither of those definitions is written in stone, and part of the value of postmodernity is the recognition that society is not necessarily “ceaselessly advancing” into the future.

  5. Andrew, yeah, we did flog this horse before. Or maybe it was the horse Postmodernism and this time we’re flogging the horse Postmodernity. Or vice versa. Either way, they’re hitched to the same cart, and this time I think you did clarify things, since as I read your response it occurred to me that the question I was really asking was whether a discussion of postmodernism entails a discussion of postmodernity, i.e., is the one a logical predicate of the other? And the answer has to be yes, at least on your account, which I see no reason to controvert.

    That’s the thing that always confused me, because it seemed to me that the terms were used interchangeably, even though they represent distinct, albeit phenomena. I would argue that modernity and modernism are distinct phenomena which can be discussed in isolation, and indeed have to be; it would be absurd to talk about modernism in the 1840s, but certainly one may talk about modernity then. Whereas to bifurcate the two “posts” would appear to generate all sorts of conceptual difficulties.

    I’m still not convinced that there’s a there there with postmodernity, but I’ll accept that it’s a necessary postulate if you’re going to discuss postmodernism. I can’t help but thinking, though, that we’re already beyond postmodernism (and postmodernity), and that already the seeds are being planted (damn, more botanical metaphors!) to historicize them both as being the manifestation of some deeper, as yet unclear force. Whatever, that is, that is minting the coin of which they are the two sides. I’ll be sticking with my temporal understanding of modernity (which I take from Koselleck and forms the basis of my USIH paper), but at least now I see why people talk about them interchangeably and carelessly. No doubt a lot of them don’t even realize why they do that. You do know, and I hope you define them in your book and describe their relationship as you do here. I think your readers would find that helpful.

  6. “Neither of those definitions is written in stone, and part of the value of postmodernity is the recognition that society is not necessarily ‘ceaselessly advancing’ into the future.”

    Total, on the first point there may be subsequent definitions, but etymologically that is exactly what the word “modern” means, so in that sense it is written in stone. As for the second, I don’t see postmodernity, whatever it may be, offering an alternative to the temporal consciousness of modernity. It can’t, otherwise it couldn’t be post. It presumes that linear directionality, as far as I can tell; perhaps in a more teleological fashion than modernity itself does, given its Marxist heritage. I am guessing that’s what you mean, since I don’t think you’re suggesting postmodernity holds that society isn’t literally “ceaselessly advancing” into the future, because that would require postmodernity to operate according to different laws of physics than the rest of the universe.

  7. but etymologically that is exactly what the word “modern” means, so in that sense it is written in stone

    “Etymologically” is simply the way society had chosen to define it. Part of that definition is its universality. But that definition isn’t immutable, any more than any other etymological definition is, and neither is the universality.

    since I don’t think you’re suggesting postmodernity holds that society isn’t literally “ceaselessly advancing” into the future, because that would require postmodernity to operate according to different laws of physics than the rest of the universe.

    You assume that “society” will continue to exist. The Aztecs might have some issues with that. The point of that rather flip one-liner is that invoking the laws of physics for human organizations is often rather silly, and it is certainly that now. If human society ceases to exist, is it still “ceaselesslly advancing”? I think not, and that exposes one of the central assumptions of modernity, the underlying whiggishness of the whole concept.

  8. “‘Etymologically’ is simply the way society had chosen to define it. Part of that definition is its universality. But that definition isn’t immutable, any more than any other etymological definition is, and neither is the universality.”

    Total, are you an actual 1980s English department radical, or do you just play a caricature of one on the internet?

  9. “I was asked by one astute audience member why other nations going through the shift from modernity to postmodernity, such as in Western Europe, did not also experience culture wars, at least nowhere near as intensely. This was a great question. And this is where history matters. The changes to American society in terms of race and sex relations were much more profound, akin to throwing gasoline (altered racial and sexual landscapes) on a fire (postmodernity).”

    this question doesn’t seem to have been addressed in the above comments. I would contend, in support of your basic framework, that indeed phenomena analogous to the american culture wars did occur in other parts of the world. if the frame really is the form of capital, then i think it is legitimate to distinguish between parts of the world which have different relations to the global system. on very broad way of putting this might be to lop off the ‘post-colonial’ world from the euro-american core of capitalist accumulation, especially in the 1960s-70s. in general, the economies of western europe are differently structured than the US economy, ditto with their ‘cultural spheres.’ yet, as they liberalize and take on increasingly the profile of a service economy and divisions in wealth intensify, you see political and cultural discourses that aren’t so different from what you’re describing in the US. all proportion maintained, it does seem to me that europe is in just as ‘postmodern’ a cultural situation as the US, and with at least recognizable culture wars to boot. an argument could be made that in postcolonial societies (forget the quotes and the hyphen!) the intensification of identitarian conflict, its projection onto the ‘private’ realm of women’s bodies, and so forth, represents a development pinned to the same moment in the global system.

    the hard part of all this would be making the leap from a basically metaphysical supposition about the unity of ‘capital’ to a more concrete analysis of specific social forms.

    also, although this is maybe beating a long-dead horse:
    “I don’t think you’re suggesting postmodernity holds that society isn’t literally “ceaselessly advancing” into the future, because that would require postmodernity to operate according to different laws of physics than the rest of the universe.”
    i’ve no idea what Total was thinking about, but it seems to me that one of the main ideas is exactly that in ‘postmodernity’ we no longer have a sense of ourselves as advancing linearly into an open future in the way that, indeed, modernity does imply. the sense of linear progression (never mind progress), or movement, is exactly what is at stake. this is not to say that i endorse this view. at this broad-brush level, generalizations are too easy to make and too easy to puncture.

  10. Total, are you an actual 1980s English department radical, or do you just play a caricature of one on the internet?

    Varad, are you a reactionary bore, or do you just write like one on the Internet?

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