What Is Postmodernism?

Matthew McKeever on 2018-08-07

The aim of this post is to explain, in hopefully intelligible terms, and by making reference to some of the central texts, what postmodernism is.

I hope thereby to dispel two ideas that are found commonly enough: that postmodernism is either evil, or nonsense. The former view can be found in Jordan Peterson or other ‘intellectual dark web’ people (at least, I assume in other IDW people; since they mainly communicate via the medium of fourteen-hour youtube videos I haven’t bothered to check). The latter view can be found in most everybody else. Neither, I think, is true: if ‘postmodernism’ doesn’t have any one meaning, it has a range of meanings (I will list five), and those meanings, as opposed to being evil, in fact help us to understand many features of the world as we find it today.

Of the five senses, two are ontological, which means they make claims about how reality is. Jean Baudrillard's view on simulacra has it, roughly, that in the late twentieth century, the relationship between representations (such as language, maps, paintings) and what they represent has been changed: while previously we thought representations were secondary to what they represented (first there were zebras, and then we came along and represented zebras with the word 'zebra'), this order of priority has been changed, and now representations are more important than what they represent. Judith Butler's view of gender performativity has it that there is no underlying essence that makes one be a particular gender; rather, gender is nothing over and above gendered behaviour.

Two are epistemological, or make claims about knowledge or understanding. Jean-François Lyotard claims that there are no unified theories that we can use to understand all of reality; rather, there is just a patchwork of partial theories that apply to this or that bit of reality. Michel Foucault says that the concept of knowledge is inextricably linked with power: to know facts about a thing or person is to have power over that person.

And finally one is aesthetic, or to do with art: Frederic Jameson says that postmodern art is marked by a particular attitude towards past events and artworks. I will go through them in turn, illustrating them with quotations from a popular theory anthology, explaining the often convoluted writing, and suggesting interesting applications of them for today.

Before I do so, a couple of notes: I leave out some important thinkers like Derrida, Nietzsche, Lacan, and Adorno. There's no deep reason for this (it’s mainly because this piece would become unreadably long), and I might write a companion piece about them (UPDATE: I have now written a post on Derrida). And I don't discuss postmodernism conceived of as a reaction against the modernist movement in art, music, and literature.

Baudrillard Let me then turn to the first of our writers, Jean Baudrillard. He is a French sociologist concerned with giving an account of the features of post-industrial society, such as mass media and consumerism. He travelled to America and most of his more famous analyses involve aspects of American culture in the quarter century or so before the millennium.

He remains influential to this day as one of the key thinkers of postmodernism, and indeed has some popular notoriety: Morpheus’s line ‘welcome to the desert of the real’ in The Matrix is from Baudrillard, and the makers of that film forced their staff to read ‘Simulacra and Simulation’, which is the essay we’ll discuss.

Baudrillard is interested in what he calls the precession of simulacra. ‘Precession’ is a technical term from mechanics which, as far as I can tell, Baudrillard uses just as a fancy synonym for 'Preceding'. 'Simulcra' is a fancy word which means, essentially, representation. To say that simulcra are precessing then is to say that representations have come to have precedence. Over what?

Well, to answer that let me present a picture of language that most analytic philosophers, as well as ordinary human beings, would find attractive: there are things out there, and there are words which stand for them. (Some deny this, holding that there is no such standing for relation relating words and things. Words get their meaning not by making contact with some extra-linguistic bit of reality, but by the relations they stand in to other words. ‘Sofa’ doesn’t make contact with some extra-linguistic bit of reality, the sofas. Rather, it makes contact with other (intra-linguistic, obviously) words: ‘chaise-longue’, ‘arm-chair’, ‘bean-bag’, and gets whatever positive meaning it has by its differences with these other words: it is not built for reclining, it is not built just for one, it would not be out of place in a dentist’s waiting room, and so on. Regardless of whether or not this is true — which it isn’t — something like the model in the text must be presupposed to understand Baudrillard, so let’s presuppose it.)

The things, for most of us most of the time, are where the action is at. Gold, the metal, is much more valuable than ‘gold’ the word. There's also a sort of temporal preceding: we have this picture of a pre-existing reality, to the various parts of which we then attach names. Adam named the animals, but the animals were already around.

Baudrillard's big idea is that this idea — that things outvalue and precede representations — is, now, wrong. Here, in his almost incomparably awful style, is how he puts it:

In this passage to a space whose curvature is no longer that of the real, nor of truth, the age of simulation thus begins with a liquidation of all referentials-worse: by their artificial resurrection in systems of signs, a more ductile material than meaning, in that it lends itself to all systems of equivalence, all binary oppositions and all combinatory algebra. It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself, that is, an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes. Never again will the real have to be produced - this is the vital function of the model in a system of death, or rather of anticipated resurrection which no longer leaves any chance even in the event of death. A hyperreal henceforth sheltered from the imaginary, and from any distinction between the real and the imaginary, leaving room only for the orbital recurrence of models and the simulated generation of difference.

(excerpt from ‘Simulcra and Simulation’ in Leitch ed, Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, W.W. Norton and Company, 2001, page 1733. All subsequent references in this post are to this book.)

This whole paragraph, indeed pretty much the whole essay, could be reduced to the bolded (by me) bit.

Now, bad style notwithstanding, the idea that we’ve substituted signs of the real for the real itself is kind of intriguing sounding, especially in the era where some claim millennials have exchanged sex for porn, and we’ve got a reality TV boss for boss of the US. Maybe Baudrillard’s on to something.

To illustrate his point, Baudrillard points to some features of (then) contemporary(ish) culture: Disneyland and Watergate. He thinks that in both cases there’s a natural way to think about these features which is, in fact, wrong. The natural way to think of Disneyland is that it functions as a fictional, unrealistic representation of America: it’s a false world within the real world of the USA. The natural way to think of the Watergate scandal is that it functions as a representation of how politics shouldn’t be done — the scandal by its very scandalousness, points to the non-scandalous normal nature of politics. In each case, we have a pair of distinctions: the fictional, unrealistic world of Disneyland as against the real world outside its boundaries, and the scandal and crime of the Watergate break-in as against the normal, honest course of American politics.

But this is wrong, says Baudrillard. Taking Watergate first, his claim is that there is no such thing as the normal, honest course of American politics. For example, take the wiretapping of Democrats Nixon carried out: this has, it’s known, long been something done or at least permitted by the political establishment (Kennedy and Truman, for example, both did it). If this is so, then if a scandal is a violation of some norms of conduct then, as Baudrillard says, there is no Watergate scandal (at least as concerns wiretapping).

Instead, the function of Watergate was to convince people there is a normal, honest course of American politics. It served, Baudrillard thinks, to impose the idea that it was a scandal, that what Nixon and his gang did was indeed a break with some norms of political behaviour and that therefore there was an order that was being scandalously defied. The scandal which wasn’t a scandal caused a scandal, and therefore brought into being the condition for a scandal!

This is an interesting analysis — whether it’s in any way borne out by what actually happened is another question (we might note that Americans’ faith in their institutions took a nose dive after Watergate; we might note again that Nixon’s replacement, Ford, by pardoning Nixon, attached to himself some of the former’s guilt). But it at least makes sense, and presents a position worth considering: that representations — the sum total of newspaper articles, books, movies, and so on — about the Watergate scandal served to bring into being what was previously lacking, namely the idea that there was an upstanding political order.

Let’s consider his second example, which is a bit less clear: Disneyland. He thinks that its secret is that, although we think of it as a fictional representation of a sort of world, in fact its purpose is to hide the fact that 'all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real....it is no longer a question of a false representation of reality...but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real' (p.1741). Disneyland doesn’t function as an escape into a fantasy world; it functions to distract from the fact that there is no actual world anymore.

What does this mean? In what sense is Los Angeles no longer real? Well, he doesn’t really say. A textbook on postmodernism (Postmodern Theory, Best and Kellner, The Guildford Press p119) suggests that the proliferation of manuals (sex manuals, DIY manuals) makes the same point for Baudrillard: we come to privilege the ideal over reality. We’re not concerned with our actual lawn, or relationship or whatever, but with the expert one the specialists will show us how to create. Another example Baudrillard gives himself is of opinion polls: we think of them as registering opinion, but we know well that they form opinion. If you read in an opinion poll that a given party is doing better than you would have anticipated, you might then come to put your support behind the lost cause.

What should we take from Baudrillard? These are all mildly interesting observations. We do seem, in some sense, to live in a time in which representations are very important, and can even sometimes have this reality making power. Again, the tendency to just point to our current political situation is strong: the quick argumentum ad Trumpum make lead us to think we are definitely in a Baudrillardian world.

Still, we don’t get, from Baudrillard, anything clear enough to give us a sense of postmodernism. It’s obviously not the case that LA is no longer real, and we can note that humans have been defining themselves against ideals, and doing something because they think the neighbour does it too, for as long as there have been human beings. Baudrillard doesn’t make the case that there is something particularly different about post-industrial society that warrants giving it and only it the moniker of postmodernism. But he does suggest a useful partial understanding of some bits of our world.

Lyotard The next person to consider is Lyotard. His basic idea is that postmodernism is defined as an 'incredulity towards metanarratives'. In plain English — we don't believe in overarching theories of the world. For example, back in the day people believed in God, and then they believed in reason, socialism, Darwin, Marx, Freud. In general, it was thought that there was something we were heading towards, some ideal, or that at least we were progressing, and that, moreover, we were doing so according to an intelligible process. For Darwinism, or at least its popular interpretations, the laws of natural selection caused us to be more adapted to our environment than our ancestors, and those laws explain not only why, for example, we don’t brachiate but also our little peculiarities, like why we have useless appendixes or why it’s very hard to stop eating something sweet after you start. For Freud, the laws of the unconscious are what gives rise to our behaviours, from small slips of the tongue and dreams to the sort of partner we choose, and understanding these laws can enable us to free ourselves of the neuroses and anxieties with which we are burdened. For Marx, the laws of capitalism itself suggested its downfall, and, for example, for all their sci-fi bizarreness, uber’s self-driving cars are just the newest working out of an underlying capitalist logic.

Now, though, what do we believe? Freud is certainly out—we don’t assign any deep meaning in our parapraxes, and few would have much time for thinking that the concepts of id and ego and superego limn any psychological reality. While we’re all—apart from the many who aren’t—still pro-Darwin, we’re also very aware of the extent to which science is sometimes irrational or can be misused or is sometimes just false. And Marx—the thought that there is some beyond of the unfettered capitalist system encountering the underside of which in Manchester influenced Engels so—that is hard to see, although it is becoming ever easier.

We are, Lyotard thinks, in an age where the thought that we are progressing in accordance with big picture and meaningful laws ought to be one held with suspicion. In Lyotard:

Neither economic nor political liberalism, nor the various Marxisms, emerge from the sanguinary last two centuries free from the suspicion of crimes against mankind. We can list a series of proper names (names of places, persons and dates) capable of illustrating and founding our suspicion. Following Theodor Adorno, I use the name of Auschwitz to point out the irrelevance of empirical matter, the stuff of recent past history, in terms of the modern claim to help mankind to emancipate itself. What kind of thought is able to sublate (Aufheben) Auschwitz in a general (either empirical or speculative) process towards a universal emancipation? So there is a sort of sorrow in the Zeitgeist. This can express itself by reactive or reactionary attitudes or by utopias, but never by a positive orientation offering a new perspective

(page 1614)

Less fancily: how can you believe in anything after Auschwitz? Not to mention God, but even any sort of belief that humans are progressing — how can it remain? We have given up the thought of progress, the idea that there is one aim towards things tend, and have replaced it with plurality. He uses, vaguely, the notion of a Wittgensteinian language game to try to make this point. At the start of the century came the idea that there was one language which could serve as a pure vessel of logic: a language into which we could translate vague imprecise language that would serve as a universal scientific language. As the century developed, he points out, the number of different logics exploded, each apt to translate a different part of language, with no real concern for there being an underlying language in which everything could be said (a fact which one could, without too much inaccuracy, link to Goedel’s incompleteness results and Wittgenstein’s passage from the Tractatus to the Philosophical Investigations). There was no universal language, it seems, but different languages for different purposes: one language for talking about necessary truth, one for talking about responsibility and duty, and so on. That’s where Lyotard thinks we are: there are just different local languages, local sets of rules, local ways of behaving, not to be subsumed under some big picture story of reality.

Again, a lot of Lyotard’s work is vague and poorly expressed. But nevertheless, and as with Baudrillard, the thought seems worth considering. The thought that definitive of postmodern cultures is that its subjects don't believe in big picture theories of the world has some sort of appeal to it. It is noteworthy, I think, that for a decent percentage of young people the idea of religion is never even considered as an option. And it's also noteworthy that were I writing a hundred or so years ago, there is a decent chance I would be at least receptive to Darwin, Freud, and Marx, each of whom saw an order in things. Does a contemporary, moderately well-informed person, see things this way?

The idea that we're getting better is hard to take with inequality and climate change, and Freudianism has been replaced with the medicalisation of the mind. At the moment, our mental lives have been stripped of their meaning. For Freud, one's sufferings said something, they tried to communicate the kernel of you that makes you unhappy. Even the smallest thing, a little slip of the tongue (a Freudian slip) was indicative of something. Now it's just serotonin and oxytocin and dopamine: we've moved from meaning to neurochemistry. Similarly, Marx had a vision of how capitalism would progress towards its own demise but that vision doesn’t seem to have come true and we have come to accept what Mark Fisher famously called ‘capitalist realism’, the thought that there is no alternative to our current situation (Capitalist Realism, Zero Books, 2011). We can’t even find repose in science. The replicability crisis in the social sciences is revealing that whole swathes of research is rotten to its core, the result of researchers inadequately versed in statistics being forced to churn out research papers for tenure or consultancies.

So it's prima facie reasonable to think that the mark of the postmodern is this absence of big beliefs. But only prima facie. There are two big problems with taking the absence of metanarratives as a particularly definitive feature of our society or even the one that preceded it. After all, people have often been haunted by belief's absence; and is it really true that in our era of the alt-right and identity politics left we don't believe in things?


Let’s turn now to Frederic Jameson. He thinks an important thing about postmodernism is the relation between high and mass or popular culture. He notes that an interest in pop culture is, in a sense, already deeply there in modernism (Joyce, for example, wrote a chapter of Ulysses in the style of cheap romance novels; Eliot fills ‘The Waste Land’ with current songs alongside Latin poetry and Shakespeare references), but he thinks that postmodern works of art have a different way of using these things.

They no longer 'quote' such 'texts' as a Joyce might have done; they incorporate them, to the point where the line between high art and commercial forms seem increasingly difficult to draw'.

(page 1961)

To make this notion of incorporation more precise, he introduces a distinction between pastiche and parody. A parody, roughly, is adopting a voice other than one's own, 'to cast ridicule on the private nature of these stylistic mannerisms and their excessiveness and eccentricity with respect to the way people normally speak and write' (p. 1963).

So, Jameson says, this presupposes a sense of a normal voice, against which the parodied is measured, for example the way the Nausicaa chapter is measured against the first few chapters of Ulysses. But now — what would happen if one no longer believed in such ordinary languages? If all there was was a plurality of different voices, with no baseline, then to speak would involve putting on a voice, but it would not be parody. It would be, in Jameson's terms, pastiche.

Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry ... without that still latent feeling that there's something normal compared to which what is being imitated is rather comic.

(page 1963)

This notion of pastiche seems apt to describe much of the great art of at least the 90s: it captures Tarantino’s aesthetic as well as the manic style of the Simpsons, for example, and arguably finds expression in one of the most interesting genres of music of the 90s, namely rap, which relies heavily on sampling older works.

Jameson also thinks that nostalgia is an important feature of the postmodern outlook. He points to the film American Graffiti, released at the height of Watergate in 1973, and looking back in an idealised way to 1962, and to some other nostalgic films and books of the era, and seems to suggest that nostalgia is a distinctively postmodern thing.

Again, this fits well with at least some 90s art — The Simpsons and Twin Peaks are both set in weird worlds that are simultaneously contemporary and from an earlier era. What he says seems apt:

It seems to be exceedingly symptomatic to find the very style of nostalgia films invading and colonising even those movies today which have contemporary settings: as though, for some reason, we were unable today to focus our own present, as though we have become incapable of achieving aesthetic representations of our own current experience.

Our retro films and TV shows aren’t accurate presentations of the past:

Cultural production has been driven back inside the mind, within the monadic subject: it can no longer look directly out of its eyes at the real world for its referent but must, as in Plato’s cave, trace its mental images of the world on its confining walls…we seem condemned to seek the historical past through our own pop images and stereotypes about that past, which itself remains forever out of reach.

(page 1966-67)

Jameson, writing in the early 1980s, diagnosed a trend that reached its height, arguably, in the 90s, with Tarantino and Lynch and The Simpsons. He sees that nostalgia is a fundamental feature of postmodernism, and taking his suggestion, we can then agree that the 90s are indeed a postmodern decade. It’s worth asking, though, whether we are still postmodern as far as art is concerned. I would suggest that the sort of pastiche and referentiality one finds in The Simpsons is no longer in vogue, and while there are many retro shows (Stranger Things, GLOW, Mad Men), they seem to have a markedly different relation to the past that they represent. Arguably, we’re artistically post-postmodern.

Foucault It is, I think, considerably harder to pull out one big, easily compressible and comprehensible idea from Foucault's writings than it is from the others. His writings are vast, organized into different periods and complicated. What I'll do is explain one part of one central cluster of concepts for which he is famous, and which are relevant for today. These are truth, power, and surveillance. That truth, or at least what is commonly taken to be true (an important qualification, of course), is connected with power is something very intuitively obvious. We need think only of Fox News and The Daily Mail, the millionaires who bankroll anti-climate change research and who buy, on either side of the party political line, elections. Or again, we can think of countries in which the government straight-up censor what its citizens can encounter: again, we have a straight causal connection running from the powerful to (what people take to be) the true.

When Foucault speaks of truth and power, or, as he sometimes does, truth/power, though, it's important to note that that's not what he means. The power that interests Foucault is not to be found in the obvious places: not in the millionaires and the state and the media. Rather, for Foucault, power works much more subtly, constantly, and mundanely.

In order to see this, consider the following two stories about how punishment, conceived of as a manifestation of power, could be wielded. On one, you punish people when they do something really bad. When, basically, it’s you vs them: when the people rise up and try to overthrow you, say. And when you do so, you do so brutally, let’s say with public executions.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this method. Obviously, it incurs risk — if the people are advancing on you, they might win. And brutal ostentatious punishments take time and money too. But it has a certain advantage: you don’t have to really pay that much attention to punishment. The only time you need to have your punishment hat on is during those large and unmissable disruptions. And that in turn means you don’t really have to devote time and resources to attending to your citizenry.

The other method of punishment works by correcting not large infractions, but small ones. Not assassination attempts, say, but juvenile delinquency. This has a certain advantage: if you can nip misbehaviour in the bud before it blossoms into large scale unrest, you can save the time and risk of ostentatious punishment. But it requires a lot more knowledge. You need to be paying attention to the kids constantly, attentive to their every action, so you can be attentive to their every transgression. You need to know a lot more about them — about their daily routines, about how they mouthed off to teacher, and so on. But that knowledge confers power: if you know these small facts, your capacity to punish becomes much more fine grained, and more effective. In the words of some text about young workers in the 19th century Foucault quotes

The least act of disobedience is punished and the best way of avoiding serious offenses is to punish the most serious offenses very severely

(page 1637)

One of Foucault’s basic thoughts is that we moved from the first model of punishment, of big punishments for big transgressions, to the second model around the turn of the 19th century. We did so partly because the individual, the common person, became an object of study then. It became important to know vital statistics like the number of children a person had, their health, the age their parents died at, and so on, in order to manage more efficiently towns and countries. With this rise in the science and practice of statistics (conceived of as measuring features of those who make up the state) the individual became an apt subject of knowledge, and this led Foucault to the study of prisons, hospitals, workhouses, and so on, all of which had this character of what he calls panopticisim — of being places the inhabitants of which are also being observed, with the knowledge culled from that observation being used to keep them in line.

Foucault’s picture is an interesting one. That power is something that runs through our institutions rather than being brutally enforced upon us is worth thinking about. I highly doubt I’m the first to have made this connection, but I think one can quite clearly make a decent case for social media as panoptical, that is as a tool in which observation and the knowledge it yields serve power. Here’s how it would go: you might think that power controls knowledge in social media in one of two ways: either the powerful simply censor what they don’t like, or the powerful make use of the data we give them to direct us in the directions they want us to — in the direction of voting for this person, or buying this thing, or simply of spending all our time on these platforms giving us their data.

The Foucault view, though, or at least the part of it I presented here, would be different, less obvious, and more interesting (this is probably an extremely cold take; if you can anticipate what I’m just about to say, skip this paragraph). It would point to the low level practices that guide us through social media, the small incentives and punishments it offers. For example, heterodoxy, playing devil’s advocate, is often not well received on social media, in the very mundane (and embarassing-that-we-care) sense that if I were to, say, play devil’s advocate and make the free market case for sweatshops then for a start no one would favourite or like my post, and it’s highly possible people would unfollow me (https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/scicurious/popularity-twitter-partisanship-pays). Conversely, if I were to dunk on some libertarian thinkpiece doing the same, I would be treated better. Favouriting, retweeting, following — these are the sort of subtle bottom-up manifestations of power that Foucault would have been interested in, and rightly so.


The final person I want to consider is Judith Butler and her work on gender performativity. Ideas concerning gender being a spectrum, or fluid, or socially constructed, or independent of the bodily organs one is born with, are highly salient at the moment, and at least one influential line has it that a cause of this is Butler’s work (Angela Nagle argues this in Kill All Normies, Zero Books, 2017). And these ideas are much mocked by various alt-right people and snowflake deriders. To what extent we can draw such links — to what extent we should think of such people as in any sense reacting to this postmodern feminist theorist is unclear, but it seems worth in any event exploring the ideas.

Here is a representative passage, unpacking which will help us get clear as to one central line of Butler’s thought. Consider acts which we typically treat as male or female: or fighting versus, say, nursing. The standard view is that in acting in one of these ways, we thereby express something about ourselves. Just as I express my nationality, say, when I open my mouth and my unlovely accent tumbles out, so when I get in a fight I express my masculine core or essence.

Not so for Butler:

Such acts, gestures, enactments [like fighting and nursing], generally construed, are *performative* in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise pruport to express are *fabrications* … [t]hat the gendered body is performative suggest that it has no ontological status apart from te various acts which constitute its reality. This also suggests that if reality is fabricated as an interior essence, that very interiority is an effect and function of a decidedly public and social discourse

(page 2497)

There’s a bit to unpack here. First, consider the notion of performativeness. This is an idea that comes from the English philosopher J.L. Austin (to Butler via Derrida, but I’ll overlook the Derridean aspects here), who noted that while frequently language is used to note facts about the world, sometimes it has another function: it makes facts about the world. When I say ‘I do thee wed’ I am not reporting on a marriage. There’s no preexisting fact I’m calling attention to. Rather, I’m making a fact, the fact that I’m married, just by uttering those words (in Austin’s memorable phrase, I’m not reporting on a marriage, I’m indulging in it).

In the same way, Butler thinks, when I do something coded as masculine, I’m not giving voice to some pre-existing fact: rather, I’m creating the fact of my masculinity in so acting. There is no essence of gender beyond my acts; in Butler’s terms, there’s no thing (it has no ontological status) of being male or female beyond the things one does. And if one wants to hold on to the idea of there being some essence, we need to realize that the direction of causality is different to what we might have thought. It’s not that this essence causes our actions; it’s that our actions cause the essence.

I want to make one point about Butler’s work. It, or at least ideas in the vicinity, has been subject to a lot of criticism. Some of this is because of its style, which is fair enough — it’s not, in my view, a fun book to read. But some of it is that the ideas are completely ridiculous. People think it’s obvious there must be some essence to gender and make fun of her for not thinking that.

But if anything, what I would say about Butler is that her view is kind of familiar. It’s not ridiculous or incredible; it’s just a version of one of the most venerable philosophical ideas out there, namely idealism. For centuries if not millennia, philosophers have been telling us the essence of things is other than where we might think. Plato told us that real things were not physical but his immutable forms; more pertinently, Bishop Berkeley argued that what we took to be real physical objects existing independently of us out in the world where we in fact just ideas in the mind of God.

And it’s not like these are isolated incidents: Kant, Hegel, even contemporaryish and well-respected analytic philosophers like Hillary Putnam and Michael Dummett dabble in similar sorts of positions. Their points of reference might be the philosophy of logic and maths, but the basic thought is roughly the same. So Butler, despite her style and differing intellectual background, belongs to a long-standing venerable tradition and whatever issues one might have with her work, that it’s unprecedently ridiculous is not one of them.

So concludes our whistle-stop tour through postmodernism. I hope I’ve shown that there are many ways to understand the concept, and that they can shed light on features of contemporary life. And I hope that having read this, when you encounter talk of postmodernism in popular media, you’ll now have a greater sense of what the author in question might mean. And if you want to read more, check out part II of this post, on perhaps the most notorious postmodern philosopher, Jacques Derrida.

(My novella Coming From Nothing is, in part, about postmodern theory. If you like fiction, check out a sample here; the amazon page is here.)