Callum Brown

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The term ‘postmodernism’ is a somewhat elusive one for it does not constitute an ideology, such as Marxism or liberalism, nor, as Callum Brown argues, is it a ‘state of government or economy… [or even] a coherent set of beliefs’1. However, instead it has been suggested that postmodernism is in fact a theory enabling ideologies to exist in the, albeit questionably, postmodern period.

This ‘postmodern condition’ is the embodiment of a rejection of empiricist values and philosophies (not methods however), where ‘old fashioned certainty over knowledge and morality has been undermined’2 and instead replaced with a theoretical agenda based on opposition to authoritative voices. At its core, postmodernism holds one major fundamental principle; the denial of ‘the possibility of true knowledge…

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[and] in more extreme versions [the denial of] a reality independent of language’3. This principle is based on the belief that reality is unable to be represented in an objective manner, thus only versions of reality exist, and ‘with an inability to represent reality, no authoritative account can exist on anything’4. Because postmodernism is evident in many disciplines (such as literature, art, architecture, and history), its origins are difficult to trace.

However it is clear that the general idea spurted from a small number of influential philosophers during the nineteenth century, such as Nietzsche5 and Weber, and has evolved from what is known as modernism, through to postmodernism. This evolution is marked by several key stages. The first was a transition from the period of modernity to structuralism. This occurred during the mid twentieth century by several influential French cultural theorists such as Saussure, Li?? vi-Strauss, Althusser, and Barthes.

Structuralism arose from the linguistic development created by Saussure in the early 1910’s, gradually shifting from language to culture, and instead became focused on ‘the syntagmatic oppositions in language and how [they] were prevalent in all cultures’6, claiming that the majority of human activity could be understood with linguistic codes and rules. It was this characteristic which linked structuralism to postmodernism, described by one contemporary as ‘the heart of all postmodernist theory’7.

Furthermore, structuralism also found much contempt for the empirical qualities in historical thinking, a quality that postmodernists would hold to the highest esteem later on. However structuralism was unable to ‘provide any… theoretical account of historical… development’8, and so was continually challenged. In its place formed poststructuralism, a notion which ‘rejected the scientific pretensions of structuralism, but retained… [the] insistence on language… as the foundation and model of all social and cultural knowledge’9.

Here the real origins of postmodernism can begin to be seen. Poststructuralism was based upon a concept of textual analysis and discourse, but from the view that there was no determinate meaning which could be identified in any text. The real leap between poststructuralism and postmodernism occurred during the 1970’s (albeit many argue it was more of a combining force then a leap), when ‘the uncertainty, ambiguity and linguistic emphasis… intrinsic to the poststructuralist stance were extended from texts to history’10.

The prominent figure who started this transgression was Jean-Frani??ois Lyotard, creator of the term metanarrative, used in order to attack assumptions oh historical progress or development. This became one of the defining traits of postmodernism, ‘the loss of credibility of these metanarratives’11. The process postmodernists use to derive meanings from texts is known as deconstruction, and implements several key ideas that were developed during the French cultural revolution in the 1960’s and 70’s. Contemporary postmodernists have managed to narrow down the key ideas into six main areas; sign, discourse, text, self, morality, and representation.

The concept of sign and semiotic theory in postmodernism was dominated by Saussure, who objected to the traditional method of studying languages by looking at the evolution of words. Instead he argued for people to think in terms of signs, and that signs and ideas came into existence through interaction. The core principles of Saussure’s theory were that every sign was constructed of two distinct parts, the signifier (the vocal sound of a word or a drawing of an object) and the signified (a mental conception of an object).

What confuses many who try to learn postmodernist theory is that in fact the physical object (known as the referent) is not actually part of the sign system, but is known as to being exterior to it. Although Saussure initially argued that the signified had priority over the signifier, by the late 1970’s (when poststructuralism had taken over from structuralism) this process was reversed, and thus signifiers over structures were prioritised, for example the word over a concept or language over a structure). This shift in priority became known as the linguistic turn and marked a shift towards what is now known as postmodernism.

This work, which ‘undermined the certainty of a connection between a word and a thing’12 was furthered by Barthes during the 1950’s and 60’s, who claimed that oppressive ideologies were made normal in society through silent sign systems in popular culture which, as a result, saw it slowly shift from a ‘study of language to a study of culture’13. Apart from the connections of how political structures use the signified and signifier to impose their ideologies and control society, the sign is of vital importance to postmodern theories in the way they relate to reality, as it ‘introduces the notion of different constructions of knowledge’14.


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