Do we now live in a postmodern society?

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e-martin | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The term, “postmodern,” has many meanings and applications. If we take the term at its most basic level, the answer to the question is yes, we now live in a postmodern society.

This is true in the sense that the modern era is generally defined to have taken place between the dawn of the industrial revolution and the end of World War II. This is a period in Western history (and world history as well) characterized by massive shifts in modes of production (industrial production, commercial production, media production etc.). If the world was pastoral and the work force skewed toward agriculture before the modern era, it was urban and skewed toward entirely new forms of work after the modern era. Middle management came into existence and with it the post-modern era was born.

Some of the term’s other meanings are helpful here as well. Postmodernism, as a term, is often applied to the arts. Literature characterized by references/allusions and self-awareness (meta-fiction) is seen as postmodern as are works that deal with consumerist angst, information overload and unstable relationships between social groups (e.g., post-colonialism, Marxist criticism, etc.) and instabilities relating to identity and knowledge in general.

A foundational element of postmodern art is a sense that what was once taken for granted, vis-à-vis accepted cultural truths, has now been successfully challenged.  

“The postmodernist is concerned with imprecision and unreliability of language and with epistemology, the study of what knowledge is” (eNotes).

A flourishing of critiques that question a hegemony of ethnic, gendered and sexual normative authority can be identified in many widely accepted movements (feminism, Marxism, queer theory, post-colonialism, etc.) that seek to champion demographics which were under-represented or dis-empowered during the modern and pre-modern eras.

These critical movements have been actively focused on the arts but have also taken part in broad cultural discussions relating to worker’s rights, discrimination, equal pay, equal treatment, cultural bias, international perspectives/relationships and politics in general.

In a postmodern world, facts become contended and the sources of “knowledge” become qualified. Bias is everywhere, in a way, and that means that we must all come to terms with the presumptions and cultural freight we carry into any interpretation, claim or perception we might come to believe in.

To live in a post-modern society is to live in a society where what you know invites questions of how you have come to attain that knowledge, what agenda might be served by that knowledge and thus also how to best contextualize or de-contextualize a given piece of “knowledge.”

While there is ample reason to argue that the art produced by Western culture has been postmodern for quite some time, there is also good reason to wonder if (1) the average person thinks in ways that might be qualified as post-modern (self-aware, self-challenging and troubled/enlivened by issues of unstable categories of knowledge) or if (2) the society we live in has passed through the post-modern into a new era wherein a “knowledge culture” has transformed into a new-fashioned skills-based culture characterized by an impossibility of achieving "total" knowledge due to factors like globalization, niche/splintered cultural modes and an unprecedented amplification of information.

  • If only part of a society thinks in post-modern ways, is that society truly post-modern? 
  • Do you have any evidence or insights that suggest where the average person stands in regards to questioning the stability of categories of ethnic, gendered, commercial/class-based, or national identities? 
  • What aspects of a society are best used in determining its relationship to the definitions of the modern or the post-modern? 

In answering this question, you might consider on definition of post-modern society articulated by in 1994 by the president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel.

“For me, a symbol of [post-modern society] is a Bedouin mounted on a camel and clad in traditional robes under which he is wearing jeans, with a transistor radio in his hands and an ad for Coca-Cola on the camel’s back” (qtd. in eNotes, “Postmodernism”).

Do we live in the world expressed in this image? If post-modernism is simply a social reality wherein borders between categories and cultures have become porous, it is very tempting to say, again, yes. We live in a post-modern society. 

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