Postmodernism is dead

Prospect Magazine

Postmodernism is dead


A new exhibition signals the end of postmodernism. But what was it? And what comes next?

I have some good news—kick back, relax, enjoy the rest of the summer, stop worrying about where your life is and isn’t heading. What news? Well, on 24th September, we can officially and definitively declare that postmodernism is dead. Finished. History. A difficult period in human thought over and done with. How do I know this? Because that is the date when the Victoria and Albert Museum opens what it calls “the first comprehensive retrospective” in the world: “Postmodernism—Style and Subversion 1970-1990.”

Wait, I hear you cry. How do they know? And what was it? Postmodernism—I didn’t understand it. I never understood it. How can it be over?

You are not alone. If there’s one word that confuses, upsets, angers, beleaguers, exhausts and contaminates us all, then it is postmodernism. And yet, properly understood, postmodernism is playful, intelligent, funny and fascinating. From Grace Jones to Lady Gaga, from Andy Warhol to Gilbert and George, from Paul Auster to David Foster Wallace, its influence has been everywhere and continues. It has been the dominant idea of our age.

So what was it? Well, the best way to begin to understand postmodernism is with reference to what went before: modernism. Unlike, say, the Enlightenment or Romanticism, postmodernism (even as a word) summons up the movement it intends to overturn. In this way, postmodernism might be seen as the delayed germination of an older seed, planted by artists like Marcel Duchamp, during modernism’s high noon of the 1920s and 1930s. (Seen in this light, the start-date that the V&A offers for postmodernism—1970—is quite late.)

Thus, if modernists like Picasso and Cézanne focused on design, hierarchy, mastery, the one-off, then postmodernists, such as Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning, were concerned with collage, chance, anarchy, repetition. If modernists such as Virginia Woolf relished depth and metaphysics, then postmodernists such as Martin Amis favoured surface and irony. As for composers, modernists like Béla Bartók were hieratic and formalist, and postmodernists, like John Adams, were playful and interested in deconstructing. In other words, modernism preferred connoisseurship, tended to be European and dealt in universals. Postmodernism preferred commodity and America, and embraced as many circumstances as the world contained.

In the beginning, postmodernism was not merely ironical, merely gesture, some kind of clever sham, a hotchpotch for the sake of it. It became these things later in lesser works by lesser artists: Michael Nyman, Takashi Murakami, Tracey Emin and Jonathan Safran Foer. Rather, in the beginning artists, philosophers, linguists, writers and musicians were bound up in a movement of great force that sought to break with the past, and which did so with great energy. A new and radical permissiveness was the result. Postmodernism was a high-energy revolt, an attack, a strategy for destruction. It was a set of critical and rhetorical practices that sought to destabilise the modernist touchstones of identity, historical progress and epistemic certainty.

Above all, it was a way of thinking and making that sought to strip privilege from any one ethos and to deny the consensus of taste. Like all the big ideas, it was an artistic tendency that grew to take on social and political significance. As Ihab Hassan, the Egyptian-American philosopher, has said, there moved through this (our) period “a vast will to un-making, affecting the body politic, the body cognitive, the erotic body, the individual psyche, the entire realm of discourse in the west.”

Architecture is perhaps the easiest way to see some of these ideas in practice. In London, the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery (1991) is typical: the classical facets all stand in counterpoint to one another, offsetting and undermining and re-emphasising other more vernacular features like the gaping warehouse-door style entrances and the high non-windows; some of the columns are visible from one direction only; there’s redundancy; everything is over-determined and mannered; styles clash, mix, mingle.

The most contentious example of postmodern design, however, is the AT&T building in New York which was completed in 1984. The story of its reception is symbolic. In essence, the AT&T was considered a betrayal of everything positive and progressive that had been achieved since the war. It was a dissent from the implicit modernist notion that we would all march forward together into those bright and boxy skyscrapers glinting so functionally in the sun. What was this classical pediment with a circle shape cut out of the centre? What were the vast arched entryways and the pink granite detailing? The architect in question was the great Philip Johnson, the same Philip Johnson, it should be remembered, who was previously America’s most celebrated champion of modernism. Johnson died in 2005 but I met his artistic collaborator, Judith Grinberg, the woman who worked on the original drawings with him, and she recounted the impact of the building as we walked through its mighty halls.

“The terrible roar of objection centred on the top—the broken pediment,” she explained. “They hated it. There were people fighting each other in the pages of the press: aggressive, personal, vindictive, often nothing to do with architecture. Some people petitioned. Others denounced us. A lot of people attacked the authorities that had allowed construction… it went on and on.”

The AT&T building in New York (middle), completed in 1984

Grinberg remembers Johnson coming back from a trip to Italy with pictures of Florentine buildings and recalls the fundamental change in his thinking. “With all that reflection and refraction, modernism creates the illusion that there is an illusion when in fact it is a straightforward statement of money and power. But we wanted to get away from that. We wanted to say something else. There was a return to ornamentation—and there was a frivolity—something over and above the brutal structural form of the old modernist designs. You could say that the AT&T legitimised postmodernism to the whole world. The building became a lightning rod for what was happening, socially maybe, as well as architecturally.” This was a building that challenged the modernist premise of functional power by referencing other older, European styles, a building that collated and collapsed previous strictures, but was also something entirely new and radical and, in this, subversive. It was a provocation.


Thus apprised, we can now begin to identify postmodern artworks elsewhere in the period. The ceramics of Betty Woodman, are one example. In her work, the object and the image cohabit and references are made to both the history of colour and the history of ceramics. But no style or shape is privileged—or not for long. The Memphis-Milano movement (an Italian design and architecture group founded by Ettore Sottsass) also generated strongly postmodern work. One such example was the Casablanca sideboard from 1981, which is made out of plastic laminate so as to imply that design itself is theatrical, skin deep, kitsch.

But the attack against modernism was not merely negative. Perhaps the most positive and compelling example of postmodernism—postmodernism at its best if you will—is to be found in the world of dance; specifically, the truly amazing 1981 work, Drastic Classicism, choreographed by the great dancer Karole Armitage. The show begins when four electric guitarists and a drummer come on stage, and begin to crank out a voiceless punky cacophony which has no exact rhythm or melody. Oh Christ, we think. But then on come the dancers and suddenly the performance explodes—detonates—on the senses. Whatever dance was doing before, we realise, it won’t be doing it in quite the same way ever again. There is so much raw energy on stage: classical ballet combines with street dance, punk with folk, hip-hop with moments of ballroom, and then back again to ballet. There are leaps, grimaces, erotic posturing, ballons, brisés, bourrées. Sometimes the dancers dance alone, sometimes together. We begin to see classical ballet in the light of punk and punk in the light of hip-hop and hip-hop in the light of folk…

And thus, through powerful juxtaposition, the constituent parts of the performance, each of which is individually familiar, are renewed in front of our very eyes. We see them in fresh and startling ways. They garner new meanings and suggestions and resonances. That energy, that detonation, that de-favouring of one form over the other, that dissonant reassembly, the reappraisal that must follow, all of this taken together is pure and, yes, beautiful postmodernism.

The pop culture of the time deals in similar ideas. The classic example is David Byrne singing “you may ask yourself: how did I get here?” in the trailer for the Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense (1984), which then asks “why a film?” while he wears that famously huge suit (a statement about over-statement) and the images are interrupted by another question “Why the Big Suit?” and he begins to dance, but doesn’t really, until the next interruption “Why the odd movements?” and so on. Or again in, say, the 1988 video for Neneh Cherry’s song “Buffalo Stance,” which tells us that “no money man can win my love” while Cherry wears a gold dollar sign around her neck and the tune is stopped for her to say “know what I mean?” in an English accent.

The apogee of postmodernism pop, though, is of course Madonna. She is Marilyn Monroe at one moment, Marlene Dietrich the next; she is sadomasochist, virgin, material girl, wearer of the cross; she is the iconoclast feverishly invoking iconography, the eternal shape-shifter obsessed with her body, the image maker; she is brilliant; she endures; and yet she is a terrible actor, a clumsy and effortful dancer and an unexceptional singer. The over-styling, the celebrity-from-scratch, the referencing, the collation of images, the intensely self-conscious mediation with the audience, the whole stopping-making-sense-while-saying-something-about-sense-itself—that’s postmodernism.

So, let’s now turn with a little more confidence to the quagmire of sociology, politics and philosophy—Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault and so on. Postmodernism first appeared as a philosophical term in the book The Postmodern Condition (1979) by Jean-François Lyotard, the French thinker. Lyotard drew on Wittgenstein’s idea of the “language game,” which had pointed out that different groups of people use the same language in different ways, which in turn can lead to their looking at the world in quite separate ways. So, for instance, the priest might use a word, say “truth,” in a very different way to the scientist, who in turn would understand the term in quite a different way to the policeman, the journalist, the philosopher, or the artist. In this way, the notion of a single, overarching view of the world—a dominant narrative (or to use the jargon, meta-narrative)—vanishes. There is no single narrative, no privileged standpoint, no system or theory that overlays all others. Hence, Lyotard argued, all narratives exist together, side by side, with none dominating. This confluence of narratives is the essence of postmodernism. (Lyotard was an adherent of Marxism, one of the most potent meta-narratives of the modern age. But he turned his back on Marx. In this way, the origins of postmodern thought can be seen as, in part, a rejection of the totalitarian impulse—also, and not coincidentally, at its most powerful in the 1920s and 1930s.) Sadly, 75 per cent of the rest of the stuff written about postmodernism is nonsensical, incoherent, self-contradicting or otherwise emblematic of the crap that has consumed the academic world of linguistics and “continental” philosophy for too long. But not all.

There are two important points. First, that postmodernism is really an attack not just on the dominant narrative or art forms but rather an attack on the dominant social discourse. All art is philosophy and all philosophy is political. And the epistemic confrontation of postmodernism, this idea of de-privileging any one meaning, this idea that all discourses are equally valid, has therefore lead to some real-world gains for humankind. Because once you are in the business of challenging the dominant discourse, you are also in the business of giving hitherto marginalised and subordinate groups their voice. And from here it is possible to see how postmodernism has helped western society understand the politics of difference and so redress the miserable injustices which we have hitherto either ignored or taken for granted as in some way acceptable. You would have to be from the depressingly religious right or an otherwise peculiarly recondite and inhuman school of thought not to believe, for example, that the politics of gender, race and sexuality have been immeasurably affected for the better by the assertion of their separate discourses. The transformation from an endemically and casually sexist, racist and homophobic society to one that legislates for and promotes equality is a resonantly good thing. No question.

The second point is deeper still. Postmodernism aimed further than merely calling for a re-evaluation of power structures: it said that we are all in our very selves nothing more than the breathing aggregate of those structures. It contends that we cannot stand apart from the demands and identities that these structures and discourses confer upon us. Adios the Enlightenment. See you later Romanticism. Instead, it holds that we move through a series of co-ordinates on various maps—class, gender, religious, sexual, ethnic, situational—and that those co-ordinates are actually our only identity. We are entirely constructed. There is nothing else. And this, in an over-simplified nutshell, is the main challenge that postmodernism brought to the great banquet of human ideas because it changed the game from one of self-determination (Kant et al) to other-determination. I am constructed, therefore I am. But here we come at last to the trickiest question of all: how do we know postmodernism is over and why?

Let’s go back to the arts, the front line. It is not that postmodernism’s impact is diminished or disappearing. Not at all; we can’t unlearn a great idea. But rather, postmodernism is itself being replaced as the dominant discourse and is now taking its place on the artistic and intellectual palette alongside all the other great ideas and movements. In the same way as we are all a little Victorian at times, a little modernist, a little Romantic, so we are all, and will forever be, children of postmodernism. (This in itself is, of course, a postmodern idea.) All these movements subtly inform our imaginations and the way we discuss, create, react and interact. But, more and more, postmodernism is becoming “just” another one of the colours we might use. (Lady Gaga uses it, for example; but Adele does not.) Or, to switch metaphor, just another tool in the artist’s kit. Why? Because we are all becoming more comfortable with the idea of holding two irreconcilable ideas in our heads: that no system of meaning can have a monopoly on the truth, but that we still have to render the truth through our chosen system of meaning. So the postmodern challenge, while no less radical, somehow feels less powerful to us. We are learning to live with it.

Perhaps the best way to explain the reason for this development is to use my own art form: the novel. Postmodernism has informed literature for as long as I have been alive—Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, Italo Calvino, Don DeLillo, Umberto Eco and so on through the alphabet. Indeed, the way I have written this article—self-consciously mixing both a formal and informal tone—is indebted to its ideas: the high style and the low style coexist for purposes of creating moments of surprise or unsettlement, or obscenity, or insight, in an effort to engage. But—and it’s a big but—the problem, which has been getting worse, is what we might call the postmodern paradox.

For a while, as communism began to collapse, the supremacy of western capitalism seemed best challenged by deploying the ironic tactics of postmodernism. Over time, though, a new difficulty was created: because postmodernism attacks everything, a mood of confusion and uncertainty began to grow and flourish until, in recent years, it became ubiquitous. A lack of confidence in the tenets, skills and aesthetics of literature permeated the culture and few felt secure or able or skilled enough or politically permitted to distinguish or recognise the schlock from the not. And so, sure enough, in the absence of any aesthetic criteria, it became more and more useful to assess the value of works according to the profits they yielded. Capital, as has been said many times before, accommodates all needs. So, paradoxically, we arrive at a moment where literature itself has become threatened, first by the artistic credo of postmodernism (the death of the author) and second by the unintended result of that credo, the hegemony of the marketplace. What then becomes sought and desired are fictions that resonate with the widest possible public: that is, with as many discourses as possible. This public can then give or withhold approval measured in sales.

In other words, increasingly, artistic success has become about nothing except money; and, increasingly, artists have come to judge their own success that way, too. This is the reason today that we feel the genre writer’s cry “I sold millions” so powerfully, even though in truth it can say little about the art form other than “it sold millions.” Changing disciplines, if we take this commoditisation of art to its natural limit, we arrive at Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull, For the Love of God (2007). Commoditisation has here become the only point. The work, such as it is, centres on its cost and value and comprises also (I would say mainly) the media storm surrounding it: the rumours that it was bought for £50m, or that Hirst himself bought it, or that he offset his tax bill by claiming diamonds as tax deductible artistic materials, or that he didn’t buy it at all, or that nobody has bought it… And so postmodernly on. The paradox being this: that by removing all criteria, we are left with nothing but the market. The opposite of what postmodernism originally intended.

And, of course, there’s a parallel paradox in politics and philosophy. If we de-privilege all positions, we can assert no position, we cannot therefore participate in society or the collective and so, in effect, an aggressive postmodernism becomes, in the real world, indistinguishable from an odd species of inert conservatism.

Looked at in this way, it’s easier to see why its power has been diminishing. The postmodern solution will no longer do as a response to the world we now find ourselves in. As human beings, we avowedly do not wish to be left with only the market. Even billionaires want art collections. (Interestingly, that’s often one of the first things they want.) That conversation between artist and the public is therefore changing again, hastened by and in parallel with the dawn of the digital age.

Certainly, the internet is the most postmodern thing on the planet. The immediate consequence in the west seems to have been to breed a generation more interested in social networking than social revolution. But, if we look behind that, we find a secondary reverse effect—a universal yearning for some kind of offline authenticity. We desire to be redeemed from the grossness of our consumption, the sham of our attitudinising, the teeming insecurities on which social networking sites were founded and now feed. We want to become reacquainted with the spellbinding narrative of expertise. If the problem for the postmodernists was that the modernists had been telling them what to do, then the problem for the present generation is the opposite: nobody has been telling us what to do.

If we tune in carefully, we can detect this growing desire for authenticity all around us. We can see it in the specificity of the local food movement or the repeated use of the word “proper” on gastropub menus. We can hear it in the use of the word “legend” as applied to anyone who has actually achieved something in the real world. (The elevation of real life to myth!) We can recognise it in advertising campaigns such as for Jack Daniel’s, which ache to portray not rebellion but authenticity. We can identify it in the way brands are trying to hold on to, or take up, an interest in ethics, or in a particular ethos. A culture of care is advertised and celebrated and cherished. Values are important once more: the values that the artist puts into the making of an object as well as the values that the consumer takes out of the object. And all of these striven-for values are separate to the naked commercial value.

Go deeper still and we can see a growing reverence and appreciation for the man or woman who can make objects well. We note a new celebration of meticulousness, such as in the way Steven Wessel makes his extraordinary handmade flutes out of stainless steel. We uncover a new emphasis on design through making in the hand-crafted work of the Raw Edges Design Studios, say, with their Self-Made collection, objects that are original, informed by personal stories and limited edition. Gradually we hear more and more affirmation for those who can render expertly, the sculptor who can sculpt, the ceramist, the jeweller, even the novelist who can actually write. Jonathan Franzen is the great example here: a novelist universally (and somewhat desperately) lauded, raised almost to the status of a universal redeemer, because he eschews the evasions of genre or historical fiction or postmodern narratorial strategies and instead tries to say something complex and intelligent and telling and authentic and well-written about his own time. It’s not just the story, after all, but how the story is told.

These three ideas, of specificity, of values and of authenticity, are at odds with postmodernism. We are entering a new age. Let’s call it the Age of Authenticism and see how we get on.

“Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990,” will be at the V&A Museum from 24 Sept 2011 to 15 Jan 2012. The exhibition is supported by the Friends of the V&A with further support from Barclays Wealth

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  1. August 3, 2011


    You seem to brush over the analysis of postmodernism as the expression of late capitalism. When you talk of ‘a new emphasis on design through making in the hand-crafted work.. Self-Made collection… limited edition’ do you not see this as the new dawn of cultural capitalism?

  2. August 5, 2011


    Thank you for this article. Agree with the central premise that post-modernism is dead. That’s why there’s nothing on TV at the moment.

    But, i think this article would’ve benefitted more from a better historical argument about how philosophies of cultural communication have swung like a pendulum over the last few centuries.

    I would argue that Romanticism wanted to overthrow Classicism by emphasising the imagination over the rational. It was essentially optimistic in nature. But through the victorian era of doubt and pessimism, the role of imagination and emotion was challenged. Modernism sought to overthrow Romanticism through simplicity, even if simplicity to the point of abstraction.

    It seems likely to me that any new movement and philosophy will be more radical than just relying on ‘authenticity’. Look at history; we’ll know we’re in new territory when someone produces a Beethoven’s 9th or a Waste Land, marrying authentic skill with a new perspective on how culture is done.

    My guess is that what’s coming will be more optimistic than end of culture, everything’s been done post-modernism. My guess is that what’s coming will have definitive aesthetic rules about what has value and what does not. Anything goes will not go any more. Perhaps authenticity will be valued higher, but at present, it only takes someone to insist that they are ‘authentically plastic’ and you’re back in the post-modern cul-de-sac.

    Also, by-the-by, isn’t the death of post-modernism perhaps one of the best reasons to cut arts funding at the moment? The future will never be created through government funding, so money is going into cultural expressions that are hurtling into obsolescence.

    • March 14, 2014


      Simon, with a few quibbles with your historical interpretation of the various movements you mention, I am in total agreement with your last paragraph! very well said.

  3. August 17, 2011

    M. Az

    Wow! “no quetsion.” Just like that. Because he said so. Cudos for the honesty: “I am right because I said so”. Sounds a little…well…

  4. August 17, 2011


    A suitable epitaph for postmodernism, wordy yet unlettered, impenetrable and ineffably empty. It lacks but the PM blizzard of footnotes.

    The V&A’s a bit late – the whole farrago of flimflam was dispatched, dissected, dried and hung on the wall in 1996 by Alan Sokal.

    • November 9, 2012

      william stearns

      Sokal was some wack job Trotskyite or Sparticus Leaguer, so his sense of reality was hardly “all there” to say the least. All he did was pull a cheap “gotcha” trick that proved nothing except his false sense of scientific entitlement to dominate political discourse he didn’t understand a whit.

  5. August 17, 2011


    “We uncover a new emphasis on design through making in the hand-crafted work of the Raw Edges Design Studios, say, with their Self-Made collection, objects that are original, informed by personal stories and limited edition.”

    Nice to see you could sneak an endorsement into this piece.

  6. August 17, 2011

    Caroline Wolff

    You had me till we arrived at Franzen as the pinnacle. So the next movement is narcissistic banality?

  7. August 17, 2011


    Postmodernism is not dead and will “live” on indefinitely, because it is the first movement that elevates both the critic and the curator to the level of the artist. The late Herbert Muschamp, architecture critic of the New York Times, said it best: “The task of the critic is to set the agenda of art.” Nice. Can one imagine Cezanne, Picasso or Wright turning to critics for their ideas? Nonetheless, after these doorkeepers have achieved power they will not let it go, but will flog the essentials of the movement forever to keep it
    moving, though dead, like a zombie.

    And De Kooning was emphatically not a postmodernist. His paintings were mostly about structure, a mark of the modernist.

  8. August 17, 2011

    John Twattingdon


  9. August 17, 2011

    Ed Beaugard

    Did I just waste four precious minutes of my life reading this piece of bollocks shite? By the improbably named Edward Docx?
    Are these minutes gone forever, never to return?
    Yes, it appears that I did and no those minutes will never return.

  10. August 17, 2011

    Gerald Howard

    As a Penguin editor (in the US) in the early eighties I engaged in a serious dicussion with an academic about an anthology or reader to be titled WHAT(THE HELL)IS POTMODERNISM? Nothing came of it, but it is stil a pertinent question, it seems, if now increasingly historical in nature.

  11. August 17, 2011


    Friends get ready for the next era of human existence: Pre-Futurism. It will be a time of hope, hard work, faith, common sense, trust, and charity.

  12. August 17, 2011

    Stuart Munro

    “And yet, properly understood, postmodernism is playful, intelligent, funny and fascinating.”

    No – it was derivative, predictable, insincere, and at best a waste of time, at worse we come back to the old “if you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” Post Modernism did not pretend to solve problems. It was worse than useless.

  13. August 17, 2011


    This is some sort of super-dry parody, right? This shit can’t be for real.

  14. August 17, 2011


    Postmodernism, in a word, is irreverence.

  15. August 17, 2011

    Kev Ferrara

    Any article titled “Postmodernism is dead” already has much to recommend it. :)

    Seriously, it is a well-written article on the whole, although there is much to argue about. For instance, how does any of the history of pomo make sense if one could easily say that Joyce and Duchamp were postmodernists.

    But the sentence that sticks in the craw is this… “All philosophy is political”…


    Somebody’s been eating too much marxism, methinks. If you were a Freudian you would say all philosophy is repressed sexual desire. If you were a rationalist, you would say all philosophy is an attempt to arrive at logical purity. If you were a punk you’d say all philosophy is bunk. If you were religious, you would say all philosophy is an attempt to arrive at a theory of the divine. If you were an idealist, you would say all philosophy is a footnote to Plato, a well-read artist looks on philosophy as a study of aesthetics, etc.

    • August 21, 2013


      One sentence solidified that thought: “The transformation from an endemically and casually sexist, racist and homophobic society to one that legislates for and promotes equality is a resonantly good thing. No question.”

  16. August 17, 2011


    Age of Commodified Authenticism, rather. The background ethos, the emphasis on genuineness, the meticuoulsness — this is just studied, strategic artifice to get you to buy more stuff. Authenticity is not salable, so the “authenticity” you think you’re buying is not authenticity.

  17. August 17, 2011


    While I agree with some of the comments about the presumptuous tone of this article, there are some moments of clarity that summarize the movement well. However, the errors in the opening description, as well as blatant avoidance of discussing examples of postmodernism in art do make it clear that the author knows little about the postmodernism to which the V&A museum refers. As stated above, it is a grave mistake to call De Kooning a postmodernist, when he in fact was a part of the strictest movement of American high Modernism. Which brings me to the next large oversimplification, that modernism was mainly European while Postmodernism American in origins. This is statement is not only wrong, it ignores one of the most oppressive movements of modernism that is often sighted as one of the main instigators for American postmodernists, that is, Abstract Expressionism.

    Mostly, it seems strange to take an art exhibition as the starting point for this article, when postmodernism is barely discussed in an art historical context, while it is architecturally and philosophically. Not only are art historical examples not illuminated, they are blatantly misinformed, which breeds little confidence and makes the larger leaps of faith required by the reader further on in the argument, impossible.

  18. August 17, 2011

    Michael Rover

    The fundamental problem with postmodernism, in its “lite” formulation (as recited here by Docx), is that the thesis “everything is equally valid” is pure gibberish. Postmodernists misunderstood the philosophers they cited, contending that incommensurable discourses means that “everybody and everything is equal.” Of course they never thought through what that actually meant, as “incommensurable discourse” does not mean that an ICBM coming down on you is exactly the same thing as a tulip in spring time, if you just want to talk about it that way. Nor does it mean that a crippled imbecile is “equal” to Alexander the Great. By extracting laughably incompetent conclusions about the purported equality of everything, save for certain viewpoints and things (war, racism, sexism etcetera) that were, quite magically, exempted from its “every view and discourse is valid” stance, postmodernism quickly became an indiscriminate joke, a set of cheap prejudices that tried to justify itself with tissue paper ideology.

    None of this should be taken as a criticism of the philosophy which originally inspired postmodernism, which is far more intelligent and subtle than the confused drivel that emerged and waved the banner of postmodernism.

    Per Docx: “The paradox being this: that by removing all criteria, we are left with nothing but the market. The opposite of what postmodernism originally intended.” REALLY? That’s a paradox? How so? Think that through, Docx. Think it through.

  19. August 17, 2011

    Bjorn Merker

    What lack of historical perspective! As if so called postmodernism ever was anything other than another round of modernism’s iconoclasm, except this time conducted by parvenues on the modernist stage against the icons of their predecessors on that very stage! Docx’s characterization of POSTMODERNISM as “a movement of great force that sought to break with the past, and which did so with great energy. A new and radical permissiveness was the result… a high-energy revolt, an attack, a strategy for destruction… a set of critical and rhetorical practices that sought to destabilise [...] touchstones of identity, historical progress and epistemic certainty” obviously fits MODERNISM to a tee, and one has conveniently forget about the launching of modernism to think of postmoidernism as anything other than more of the same.

  20. August 17, 2011

    The end of the piece made me recall something Frederick Turner, the great poet and philosopher, said a few weeks ago to some of us at a poetry reading, that ambiguity has been done to death, and that the next big thing is clarity. Of course, Turner is the author of such works as “Beauty: The Value of Values” and “The Culture of Hope” and the originator of natural classicism, which is in fact the next big thing. He is also the author of several collections of poetry and of two scifi epic poems. If you want to know what comes after postmodernism, read Frederick Turner.

  21. August 17, 2011


    Edward: Thank you for your farewell/non-farewell to postmodernism.

    Your article, a good read and informative, is nevertheless a perfect example of postmodernism taking itself too seriously.

    First, you express an absurdly jaundiced, not to say ignorant, view of the United States and of the American people. Many Americans, and many thinkers all over the world, are far from persuaded by the philosophical and political merits of postmodernism. You don’t have to be a yahoo from the “depressingly religious right or an otherwise peculiarly recondite and inhuman school of thought” to question the coherence of postmodernism. I’m a Neanderthal, a knuckle-dragger, a hillbilly, a tent-revivalist, and a proponent of some obscurantist philosophy of human sacrifice. But more than 300 million Americans aren’t. So you aren’t in any danger from my countrymen, none of whom you seem to have met.

    Second, your cheerleading for the “politics of gender, race, and sexuality” is embarrassing. These discourses, an unholy trinity, have fatally corrupted the humanities and social sciences in higher education and have inculcated a polarizing, us-vs.-them identity politics in public life. Hence, the cacophony and callowness of the public conversation in American media, which emerges from our colleges and universities. My advice: if you want to get to know the real America, turn off the television and venture off campus.

    Third, you and other postmodernists claim, dogmatically, that “[w]e are entirely constructed.” Do you, Edward, stand outside this claim, which sounds universal? Do you alone maintain a standpoint of critique? Or is the point of view that “we are entirely constructed” itself constructed? It must be, if your thinking is to be consistent. But if the “entirely constructed” claim is itself constructed, why should anyone believe it any more than he or she would believe any competing claim? Why should anyone accept the “entirely constructed” viewpoint?

    Fourth, it’s frightening how insouciantly you assert that “we are becoming more comfortable with the idea of holding two irreconcilable ideas in our heads.” I had been hoping that I would never hear an unqualified endorsement of Orwellian doublethink. But you’ve ruined that for me. The world just became a whole lot drearier.

    Fifth, you declare that “we are all, and will forever be, children of postmodernism.” Speak for yourself. I will defy everyone, every blowhard, every institution, every fad, every faculty-lounge diktat, and everything else that attempts to prevent me from thinking for myself. The powers that be be damned.

    Last, a few infelicities mar your discussion: “lead” in “has therefore lead to some real-world gains for humankind” should, of course, be “led.” “Commoditisation,” a postmodern neologism par excellence, should probably be “commodification,” unless you can explain why “commoditisation,” an awfully clunky word, is necessary. Finally, though itself an “-ism,” postmodernism has always disdained, or has professed to disdain, “-isms.” So the coming “Age of Authenticism” might be better expressed as the “Age of Authenticity.”

    I fear postmodernism will never die.

  22. August 17, 2011

    Virgil Hammock

    Surely, it’s time for Post-Post Modernism. I don’t want to lose my mojo as an art critic. I have worked hard to be not understandable.

  23. August 17, 2011


    I utterly love this article. The author manages a sweeping account of the Postmodernist era, while simultaneously exposing its greatest triumphs as well as the ultimately mistaken ends of the movement and hence the cancers it spawned. A few comments follow:

    “So, paradoxically, we arrive at a moment where literature itself has become threatened, first by the artistic credo of postmodernism (the death of the author) and second by the unintended result of that credo, the hegemony of the marketplace.”

    Yes, yes, yes! This is most emphatically the greatest crisis postmodernism has set in motion, and this is a crisis which has by now become entrenched in contemporary (Western) society. Commercial “market” value has completely hidden intrinsic value, the work of art is now measured by its commercial impact, and the broadening of discursive levels has, unfortunately, equalised all discourse. This is patently a false position, since all levels of discourse -cannot- be equal. Between creator and consumer lies an unbridgable gulf, while there exists an intrinsic link between creator and creation. Yet, thanks to postmodernism, the consumer now judges the worth of a creation.

    Indeed the postmodernist era has caused a fatal democratisation of information and expertise, and today’s ultra-accessibility of information readily creates the wrong impression: everyone is not, in fact, a critic. The work of criticism itself has been derided and forgotten. Mere access to information does not make one an expert, nor does it enable rigorous criticism. Instead of Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, today we have RottenTomatoes. So much for lives spent in the pursuit of inquiry into a specific object, the fruitful and original discourses originating therefrom, and the expansion of discourse driven by the authenticity of the expert. Where would a Barthes or a Benjamin be today? Nobody would pay heed to their words, because every man Jack fancies their own self another Barthes. It is a shameful erosion of expertise.

    This is, of course, all in the interests of capitalistic interests. Capitalism thrives upon non-innovation, since my firm obviously does not want to encourage social research in directions that would collapse my own monopoly. Capitalism has confused, as predicted by Marx, the true value of things and has commodified every human product into a tradeable good. The value of art now rests merely in it’s market price–what a sad falsehood.

    However, as the author notes, there is indeed a resurgence in authenticity and the voice of the author. Perhaps this will be a still-more calcified form of, as one commenter said, commodified authenticism. I want to hope otherwise; I want to think that this will be a movement that restores the author and the critic to their rightful positions, and the audience and spectators to theirs.

  24. August 17, 2011

    Gareth Llewellyn

    Well done!

  25. August 18, 2011


    Why don’t we just give up on this stupid business of historical self-consciousness, give that task over to those who will judge us, turn to making and creating, sans the sense of some historical (Hegellian) necessity? Postmodernism will not go down as a distinct period anyway. Values less original than derivative. Just make flesh out of imagination. William Blake is my teacher here.


  26. August 18, 2011

    Kyle Hawkes

    It seems, at some points, that you were engaging in metaphors too often than would be necessary; perhaps the article could have been more economic with its use of that language, that paradigm, that discourse, that narrative and ‘so on and so on’ – as Slavoj Zizek would say. The text never really leapt out and spoke to me as to exactly what, as an idea, Post-modernism was/is/could be – I enjoyed that you pointed out the possible intention to enrage the reader with the use of both crude and formal language; you succeeded furiously. The article seemed rather crushingly bad at times maybe you were being postmodern about it. The last few paragraphs were a joy to read because you finally managed to say something I can agree with, that people are redefining themselves as authentic thinkers! whereby i simply mean “authentic humans” – is there such a thing? I would enjoy it if you could give some interesting reply, or follow my Twitter perhaps? – how 21st century can you get.

  27. August 18, 2011


    I object to Jonathan Safran Foer being categorized as a lesser artist. Other than that, this was a fantastic article, really interesting and well written.

    Could the New2 Sincerity and the New Spirituality in poetry be manifestations of the desire for “authenticity” you mention?

  28. August 18, 2011


    Simply another case of the pendulum reaching its high point and swinging the other, or another, way, as seems to be the nature of our society based on our collective behavior, isn’t it? In fashion, a new style has replaced the tired, old trend; I still prefer the classic and original though, which sound contradictory, but oh well, we’ve entered a new dawn.
    Great article, by the way.

  29. August 18, 2011


    I read this article and all of the comments below and have to say it has inspired me to learn a lot more about art history, art critic and literature in the light of diverse thinking philosophies. Gosh, I’m passionate about this stuff! If anyone wants to share information, articles and news here’s my email: I’m an undergraduate student majoring in History / art history at Bogotá, Colombia

  30. August 18, 2011


    a lot is correct, but what about the internet? you say, it is the most postmodern thing at all. that’s right, and the internet is only on its beginning, the future will be the internet. even if you’re bored of postmodernism, if you want or not, with the internet, postmodernity rises even more.

  31. August 18, 2011


    Yes. Bring in metamodernism.

  32. August 18, 2011


    “These three ideas, of specificity, of values and of authenticity, are at odds with postmodernism. We are entering a new age. Let’s call it the Age of Authenticism and see how we get on.”

    Soz but another characteristic of postmodern culture is prevailing desire for a nostalgic ‘authenticity’ which we think has been lost. This ‘authentic’ is then packaged up and resold – as you say yourself, Jonathan Franzen is marketed on his own authenticity.

    There is afterall no ‘real way to write’, only the prevailing opinion of the market, that currently appeals to our nostalgia for people who write like we think they wrote in ‘the good old days’ when none of this ‘postmodern nonsense’ went on.

  33. August 18, 2011

    William Strong

    Utter bunk, and that goes for the great majority of the comments, here, too. You cannot declare a concept “dead”, except to further some agenda.

    Rarely have I seen someone so grossly misinterpret a misrepresentation of an outdated view of “postmodern philosophy”, which is itself a straw-man term. It really is a shame that so much “continental” European thought (deconstructionism, for one) has been systematically mistranslated and misunderstood. I am seriously considering writing a rebuttal to the quasi-philosophical nonsense presented in this article, but really – it’s just a shoddily-written promotional blurb for an art exposition.

    On that note, I will refrain from commenting on the art/architecture angle of the article, as I have not studied these in much detail. Perhaps the author should have done similarly?

  34. August 18, 2011

    Malcolm Ryder

    In reality, the audience for this article is a relatively elite one, which is important since the point of the article is to try to explain “why people have cared” about something other people did. Of course, the answer to “why” is that what some people did made other people think about things in a different way. That’s a broadly applicable phenomenon of note, one that the article clearly tries to highlight. But let’s be real about who we’re pointing at: a minute fraction of the population of do-ers (artists) who survived the gauntlet of intellectual consumerism. While both parties included people who are dead serious about their intent, the idea that an “era” hit an end presupposes that these two special parties stopped aiming for each other. That’s all.

  35. August 18, 2011


    I really enjoyed the article. I think you accurately key on on the key issues of post modernism philosophically. It’s much like existentialism in the sense that it doesn’t propose much, but it does enlighten us greatly.It seems to me that part of wisdom is dealing with ambiguity, and attempting to achieve the WIDE EMBRACE (Ken Wilber) of many diverse ideas- now with internet the wide embrace is just being born- the world level of thinking as opposed to the old ethnocentrism.

    You say,
    Because we are all becoming more comfortable with the idea of holding two irreconcilable ideas in our heads: that no system of meaning can have a monopoly on the truth, but that we still have to render the truth through our chosen system of meaning. So the postmodern challenge, while no less radical, somehow feels less powerful to us. We are learning to live with it.

    This is surly a much more sophisticated approach to life than the commandment/principle/school of thought approach that ends up limiting us in the end. Wilber makes a daring attempt at a what I would call a post-modern perspective- “A Theory of Everything”.

    BEING OPEN MINDED, DEALING HONESTLY WITH PARADOX,CONTRADICTION AND AMBIGUITY, and EMBRACING, ACCEPTING and CELEBRATING DIVERSE VIEWPOINTS, have to be a few of the great contributions of post-modernism for human evolutionary development.

  36. August 18, 2011

    brother andy

    All “taste” is a prejudice which should be avoided by individuals and/or groups active in seeking adaptations “outside the box”. You can’t be a part of something and seperate at once. “Art” is a metaphoric “code” language, story-telling. Speaking of it defeats the intellectual (not emotional) aspects of the individual’s realization of meaning. — Brother Andy, Intriguist

  37. August 18, 2011


    If postmodernism insists that all points of view have validity, then it would judge that any point of view about what postmodernism is/was (such as this article) has validity. I found the article to be an interesting take on postmodernism (a movement that has puzzled me for decades). The disagreements voiced in several comments about such details as de Koonig point out the obvious – that any attempt to pigeon hole or categorize artists will always have difficulty with certain individuals.

  38. August 18, 2011

    itzik basman

    What a pastiche of contradictory thoughts, whether or not post modernism is dead. The presentation of it as an aesthetic reflected in different art examples is incomprehensible, making it impossible to distinguish post modernism from surrealism, kitsch, pop art, the absurd, and Dada. As well, the anarchic rejection of meta narratives is at odds with the attempt at a philosophical account, which itself is mind blowing simplistic, as if Wittgenstein as unintended precursor or post modernsim and the French thinkers can be summarized in a paragraph. In point of accuracy, post modernism has its roots neo theorists resurrecting, not turning their backs, on Marx (or equally important to post modern theory, Freud.) Post modernism, in point of accuracy, posits a meta narrative rooted in with Marx the historical dialectic and with Freud the psychic dynamics emerging from his psycoanalytic theory. Deconstruction is getting past surface and breaking it down into the tension generated by the underlying metaphysic as revaled in in the working out race, class and gender as agents of power and its lack.

  39. August 18, 2011


    The V&A wanted to put on some kind of show to get the punters in – what to call it? – Postmodernism – Brilliant! Now get some art critic to write a (long) “intellectual” justification for the arbitary collection of stuff in the show – job done – move on.

  40. August 18, 2011

    Derek C. F. Pegritz

    POSTpostmodernism! Devo even wrote a song about it: Postpostmodern Man.”

  41. August 19, 2011


    I understand the limbo between the modernism and post-modernism. But there’s one point missed out. While there’s the desire for specificity, values and authenticity, the players now are also those in between the modern and postmodernism thoughts– the average people. This is the Age of Commons. And in this age, those who have silently admired the collections of modernism and wondered what post-modernism is all about, have now the capability, skill and the techniques to express, produce & contribute. The present technologies & the social media enabled them to have a voice. The new values now are sharing, participating and engagement. And in the age of Commons, the experts or the connoisseurs are driven by participatory learning, uses all forms of information and knowledge they have access to, and typically, superusers in the web (self-reliant, resourceful, self-taught). For most superusers in the age of commons, many people follow their social network pages.

    I enjoyed reading your post. Have a good day! :)

    P.S. Your tags included only the proper names in your post. Just curious, how come you have not included postmodernism in your tags? You mentioned it 51 times in the article. ;)

  42. August 19, 2011


    Post modernism was another example of french obscurantism that got away. In effect it denied everything except the solipsistic individual. When its own principles were apllied to itself there was found to be nothing.

  43. August 19, 2011

    richard Gold

    Now I see where multiculturalism comes from, the that religion, superstition, and science are equally valid. Therefore, Islamic Law and the US Constitution are equally valid. No wonder democracy is dying.

  44. August 19, 2011


    Bartok as modernist???? Bartok? of all the 12-tone serialist, hierarchy-fetishizing composers of the past century you chose Bartok?

  45. August 19, 2011

    Not news to me

    I wrote an article called “The Death of Postmodernism” in Philosophy Now in 2006. And I published a book about culture after postmodernism called Digimodernism in 2009 (New York: Continuum). This article and the exhibition just confirm I was right all along.

  46. August 19, 2011

    Polly Wannacracker

    A lot of twaddle here, but just a question: have you told the critics all across academe in the English-speaking world and their proliferating ilk that post-modernism is dead? Have you told the right-wing, who have taken up the mantle of post-modern relativism and rendered social and natural scientific inquiry and knowledge impotent today?

    Also, so curious that you did not make an appeal to cognitive psychology and the cognitive and brain sciences, which have revealed a lot of this relativistic BS to be just that, relativistic BS. It’s embarassing to think that so many of these mindless people made careers and money off this crapola, but at least with the post-modern artists they have given us something to think about, look at, read, watch, at least ponder, while so much of the criticism isn’t even worth wiping one’s bottom with a year after it’s spewed into the world.

  47. August 19, 2011


    Does anyone else find the questions posed in the sub-headline delightfully ironic given the subject matter?

  48. August 20, 2011

    scott redford

    This is an absolutely silly and totally warped piece of writing. And its twee ending on cozy hand knitted ‘authenticity’ would please the writer’s grandmother I’m certain. Silly silly writing.

  49. August 20, 2011


    You got postmodernity definition wrong. You were really close with Lyotard, but you got confused by what is postmodernity and the definition given by the continental philosophy. Postmodernity is first a regime, not a movement. And the holy grail of authenticity is a reality but that is just one of the symptom of postmodernity, not a sign of its end. The first two chapters of Mediated have a really accessible explanation on the impossibility of authenticity – as well as Baudrillard. You also have a business book called Authenticity which is brutal in its pragmatism but should show you how authenticity only mean authentic to the constructed representation of authenticity.

  50. August 21, 2011


    Ken Wilber slew postmodernism long long ago.

    He even wrote a really, really (no, really) bad novel about it all called Boomeritis.

    So, Mr. Docx & Co. you`re latecomers already, to this party.

    But better Nate than lever!

  51. August 21, 2011


    Ah come on, we have been crackin’ on with postdigital for the past 5 years and you are doing some half-wit celebart thing about Po-Mo.

  52. August 22, 2011

    Pat Brooks

    This is way over my head. Tried reading it because it was on Richard Beck’s blog. What a gloriously chaotic analysis of chaos!

  53. August 22, 2011

    Ted Schrey Montreal

    I never cottoned on to postmodernism for a single moment. I never even made a problem of this oversight. Now I understand why.

    “…postmodernism is playful, intelligent, funny and fascinating”, the author points out.
    I assume he is right. But I’ve always seen myself as being playful, intelligent, funny and fascinating, which may well have made it unnecessary, and likely even impossible for me to appreciate postmodernism at its non-existing value.

  54. August 23, 2011


    Great article; interesting analysis!

    I do think the current PoMo situation is interesting, especially on yhe sociopolitical side of things, and I think Lady GaGa is actually a great example of the emerging paradox of many in this generation. If our identitites are indeed entirely socially constucted, then why does GaGa appeal so strongly to the idea that “I was born this way” (whether in personality, sexuality, etc.)? Sounds like a very Essentialist/Modernist notion to me.

    In my experience, many “regular people” (read: non-scholars) are PoMo in areas where it’s convenient to be so, i.e., when adopting that philosophy is advantageous to supporting one’s one viewpoint, and will just as quickly espouse rather Modernist/Enlightenment views to support other positions when that method works to one’s own benefit. I’ve yet to meet a person who is consistently Postmodern in their worldview, particularly where that understanding affects real-time decisions and real-world scenarios. So perhaps the author’s observation that we are all selectively Postmodern, Modern, Victorian, etc. is correct?

  55. August 23, 2011


    Whoa–this is a really poorly researched article, beginning with the failure to understand that literature/philosophy; architecture; fine arts –all define postmodernism differently because they all defined modernism so very differently. Even further, racial differences will also produce different types of postmodernism. Comparing across genres is not unlike comparing Karl Marx to a body of water and asking which is the better gardener. I’d like to think the author very deliberately gave us his/her own postmodern nonsense!

    Adding to the confusion is the fact that there is a split in literary theory, which has gone whole-hog poststructuralist. Poststructuralism takes many of postmodernism’s tenets (which are not hard to define despite the noises made from writers such as those above; simply put: be skeptical of claims of “naturally occurring” categories and recognize the world is a random mess of which we at times attempt to make the silliest of sense). So one can find a number of texts and ideas one would label “postmodernist” that are now also “poststructuralist”.

    Postmodern architecture has been “over” for a couple decades, by contrast, but in fine arts literary theorists tend to read the vast majority of art as postmodernist/postructuralist because it is still taking on the sacred cows of essentialism and rendering them pastiche; calling attention to itself as art; and in other ways reversing or subverting the “traditional” (we can add another strain of complication to the way in which “modernist” sometimes stands in for “traditional” sometimes vice-versa).

    The “Age of Authenticism” [sic] as quoted above is actually the backdrop to postmodernist and poststructuralist arguments and artistic/theoretical manifestations; indeed, postmodernism/poststructuralism cannot function without them. Or, to be cruder: the constipated conservatives who miss the good old days that never existed have always, and likely will always be around–most importantly chiming the endless death knell of movements that pass them by and dance merrily to the tune.

  56. August 23, 2011


    If Johnathan Franzen is the great example of a return to authenticity, then literature is even more doomed to obscurity and mediocrity than it was before. Much more too if he is the best example we can arrive at of \the novelist who can actually write.\ And perhaps we should re-evaluate the critical apparatus if a writer of his caliber is \universally (and somewhat desperately) lauded\ as \a universal redeemer.\ It makes me sick to quote that, so i won’t even attempt to stomach that last line.

    Roberto Bolano was the probably closest thing (in recent years) that we got to a universal redeemer, or more likely patron saint, and sometimes he looks much more like an antichrist.

  57. August 23, 2011


    I appreciate the humor of this article – I didn’t realize Damien Hirst was so comedic. The age of art as commodity has made him the poster boy for the period that values art according to the price tag. I can either laugh or cry at this reality, and of course I’m laughing. I also took from this article that the ability to entertain and enthusiastically embrace contradictory ideas has proved the human mind can evolve beyond the black and white thinking that seems to manifest in questions such as “is it ‘I think therefore I am?’ or ‘I am constructed, therefore I am?’” I imagine a conversation with the author would be peppered with bouts of’cathartic’ laughter. The purging of art is quite entertaining in this article – Bravo, Mr. Docx!

  58. August 23, 2011

    Morgan J. Hanam

    I must admit to a feeling of decline for post-modernism for a number of years in spite of not really keeping tabs in any real way. It has always seemed to be a self-evaporating notion, as its methodical desire to destruct method, its need to render all meta-narratives impotent being a meta-narrative itself etc. Perhaps thats a good thing, its appropriatly having a ‘planned obsolescence’ as any good hyper capitalist product should. But also; as this glacier deliquieces it leaves behind its own morain. Perhaps authenticity is not the best place to leave this, as it seems to devolve in a simple Hegelian dialectic. If I use the Captcha I had to pass to write this as an example, the digital is applying reverse Turing tests to humans, the nature of authenticity has definately changed, something always changes. If postmodernism was about the screen, what happens now is about being and exploring inside the screen itself, a new notion of depth.

  59. August 24, 2011

    Bedri Tufekci

    Postmodernism is not dead. Still the forces which want to send us back to times before the Renaissance and the Enlightenment are growing. Universalism, humanism and rationalism are under threat from dark and pessimistic forces in society today. Today the contemporary climate (the intellectual exhaustion that we find in different fields) generates a view of humanity not as an agent to create a universal outlook for positive change, but either as a passive victim of whims of the market, or as a cause of destructive negative change. The destructive anarchy of the capitalist market can only strengthen the cynical conviction that everything is beyond our control.

    Postmodernism will be dead only when we begin to struggle towards a new way of advancing our common humanity and begin to fully develop human potential. This will mean that people must begin to make connections in a real, direct way; through collective action, through struggle, through organisations and through a gradual development of a common sense of purpose. Through these means we will be able to develop new connections in life and art. Art can arise only if we struggle towards a new world. It is on the basis of these actions that art can get to grips with itself once more, but on a higher level, with its task of shaping human experience in aesthetic terms.

  60. August 24, 2011

    william deraymond

    Post modernism is not a whole lot different from neo-classicism. It could actually be called neo-modernism. It is based in the conceptual.
    I know that I am using a somewhat different language or semantic context than most, but there needs to be a shift of consciousness here. I have realized that true modernism is not different than true classicism. Both transcend time based reality. I define modernism as being of the moment. This I arrived at by doing a bit of etymylogical research…and from my own experience as an artist.
    So, being modern is immersing oneself deeply in the present moment and creating from that perspective. I am sure most of you have had some kind of transcendent experience of the eternity of the moment. One thing about art and craft is how they can ground one in the moment,,,of course there are threads of discussion that move out from here, but the main idea is that true modernism is being grounded in the eternity of the moment and creating from that place without concept.

  61. August 24, 2011

    Christopher Ivan

    The call to authenticity you believe may be the next stage in popular consciousness is a bit premature, or conversely, entirely too late, and certainly limited in scope. Since the inception of the industrial revolution, there has been a reactionary and illusory longing for the “authentic,” which has always drifted throughout the moneyed and propertied classes, which shows up in centuries-old literary and other works, and now is bread and butter to all of Asia and for anyone who makes a modern living (watch any anime, Chinese film, Thai commercial, palatial Arabian residence, and you will see). You could even trace the desperate search for authenticity to the still extant Victorian (not exclusive) fixation on the ideal family fortress as traditional sanctuary from the unnatural forces man has unleashed on himself. So much of the driving force behind these “big ideas” as you call them is the artist’s desire to achieve social validation through recognition, such that the evolution of these ideas is intrinsically subject to their egos, and those of the audience, many of whom are themselves hopeful artists and dreamers. The search for authenticity is ultimately a search for meaning, no matter what form it takes, and the true (and like in my case, unintentional) disciple of PoMo thinking sees it as just another mechanism by which we make cognitive life bearable, while the less exacting exuberantly latch on to whatever is “new” in their quest for social legitimacy as basis for self-worth. PoMo fails in that it embraces, and so rejects, every stance, viewpoint, and preference, but it is exactly the search for authentic truth or meaning that has driven us to seek it in all possibilities, and as it is not to be found in any of them save in a trick of deliberate narrowing of perspective or of giving in to motivating emotion without analysis, the search continues, and PoMO lives on.

  62. August 24, 2011

    Agam Brahma

    Terribly insightful — thanks for writing this! I’m not sure I agree about the ‘Age of Authenticism’, but the case for the necessity of a transition from postmodernism is well made !

  63. August 25, 2011

    Eric Rosenwald

    More proof that Postmodernism is dead:

    The popularity of “The Most Interesting Man in the World” Dos Equis TV ads.

  64. August 25, 2011

    andrew sichel

    This article is all over the place. The show sounds interesting and the notion that Pomo is dead fine but The AT&T Building and Jonathan Franzen both of which and whom simply suck! That building was boring derivative and shlock when it arrived and has been an embarrassment since. I just read “Freedom”by Franzen and I did read the whole thing for some reason which says something, probably more than the book did.
    He writes well yes but is he saying anything? No. Not at all. Boring people leading boring lives with would be grand themes of ecology and large and small systems and then… nothing- repeat and that’s the message- a mediocre writer at best.
    As for POMO, many of us knew it was commodification from the get go- The main idea of it which you omit was “Post History”
    That the history of art as such was over the
    story of avant-gardism and overthrowing the father was over- actually like all attempts to
    simplifiy complex situations into “isms” the reality is much more complex, so much so that
    this sort of chat becomes moot and mute.

  65. August 26, 2011


    Perhaps the people that appear PoMo when convenient or Modernist when convenient, are actually something altogether different and you’re having trouble defining them?

  66. August 31, 2011

    Terese Newman

    Wow, this is an engaging and fascinating article, as well as being well-written. And it provides much to ponder and even a jumping off point for those of us who’ve been blindly wandering in (artistic) circles, looking for an answer.

  67. September 1, 2011


    Hey Edward,
    When I finished reading your paper, I felt I am really an idiot-savant! I am just wondering how you got this wired conclusion that Madonna’s works sound a sort of postmodern tradition!?

  68. September 3, 2011


    Postmodernism, celebrated by the whimsical intelligensia, is a dark force. For me it showed its shame on TV when the intelligensia had no answer for Jade Goodie’s lazy reality TV racism. They wanted to preach but couldn’t – it was ironic to see their powerlessness. But job done – we now are victims of the Tea Party – change will need to be more than a celebration of craft.

  69. September 4, 2011


    Great article: tragic though- imagine all those lectures and dry academic ponderments- how are they possibly going to manage to talk about cool stuff like disney land, soup cans and grafitti now?> How about an era of sad modernism?

  70. September 4, 2011

    Eric Calabros

    behind your LED monitor, you can assume anything dead… go take a walk my friend

  71. September 5, 2011


    Nobody in all these years has ever been able to persuade me there is a qualitative, categorical distinction between so-called postmodernism and the so-called Modernists. This, neither in value, aesthetic, social or linguistic construct and crit. For every example drawn from the latter I can, and have, drawn mutliple examples of the same slant(s) and approach from the former. At best, most generously, it could be argued that postmodernism took in hand a Modernist thread, maybe two. Forgetting, unfortunately, that a single thread a fabric does not make. At worst, the whole program could be viewed as disingenuous, intended to mask a certain poverty, intellectually and artistically. That said, I thank the author for the article’s one insight that stopped me. When all values have been discredited all that is left is the commodification attendant on commercialization. Does it sell becomes the last value standing. A sidebar note. I gave off taking seriously postmodernism when it looked to deconstruct the laws of science as socio/linguistic constructs and therefore artificially biased. Understanding Newton’s gravity got people to the moon and back, helps keep the space station in a regulable orbit. List goes on. Said differently, if it ain’t in nature it just ain’t.

  72. September 5, 2011


    If allowed, one more note please. Some favorite deconstructionists through the ages. Got to start with Socrates, right? My favorite is Abelard with his question of real/unreal. Occam stepping forward with razor in hand always gives me a chuckle. Nietzsche, of course, father of modern psychology and so killer of Ideal philosophy. How about that bad boy Rimbaud, a linguist challenging value if there ever was one. Artaud comes to mind. So does Cocteau. So especially does Virginia Woolf. Just a few system sorters no one has ever thought to call deconstructionists but who did a lot of dismantling. I admit to being coy. To think means to deconstruct. To deconstruct does not necessarily mean to think. Especially when ideology comes in to play, as was the case with the postmodernists.

  73. September 6, 2011

    Lucas Spivey

    Ahhh… I see now that the pot-shots like “lesser works by lesser artists” and “terrible actor” are given as evidence of your ‘authenticity’: high brow scholarly citation of works mixed with low brow IMHO commentating. In the same way, please take the comments to your post with a grain of salt; they are just our ‘humble opinions’.

    Thank you for writing this.

  74. September 13, 2011


    Oh, all those attacks to the notion of postmodernism by the author make this conversation soooooooo Postmodern…

  75. September 14, 2011

    Mr. Me Too

    What is the name of that gorgeous building located toward to the front of the At&T photo? Thanks in advance!

  76. September 18, 2011

    Tali Purkerson

    You need to read Albert Borgman’s ‘Crossing the postmodern divide.’ He introduces the notion ‘hypermodernism’- its probably more accurate towards what you are going for, and you can see it across all the arts/politics/ etc.

    Or ‘altermodernism’ as a term is also synonymous with hypermodernism. From what I remember Baurillard curated an ‘altermodern’ exhibition at the Tate or somethingrather dedicated to these same sweeping tendencies and shifts seen in philosophy/art/politics/etc/human consciousness etc.

  77. September 24, 2011


    Anyone who pretends that postmodernism is dead and/or irrelevant should check out this horrible video-clip

    A clip produced by people who would absolutely loathe even the very idea of postmodernism

  78. October 1, 2011


    Can’t knock it for the enthusiasm, I suppose. But I’m pretty sure I came of intellectual age during the PM doldrums. Which means this “declaration” is decidedly late. Also, yes many definitions off and weak references. Sorry, but please for the sake of all of us writers/researchers out there, do your homework before over-publishing.

  79. October 13, 2011


    Great summary article. Juxtaposition, dissonance, if everything is then nothing is.No narrative becomes the narrative. It’s weird having just come back from Artprize, in Grand Rapids Michigan. There are huge monetary rewards based on popular vote. There was good art, mediocre art, and bad art all mixed up in a 3 square mile radius and a lot of hoopla regarding who won. I kept wondering what the public used as a measure : level of difficulty, limited weird materials,how ‘real’ something looked , or the use of a million tiny pieces. One thing for certain, there were a lot of conversations about art.

  80. November 4, 2011

    liam halloran

    fight only for what’s true to the heart.

    strive for the verification of freedom.

    avoid gratuitous absolutes.

    William Kennedy

  81. January 19, 2012

    Naval Langa

    The present day consumer buying and enjoying art has again proved the principle that only the real art sells. They can recognize the values and understand the value embedded in the art-piece.

  82. January 24, 2012

    james Murphy

    god what a self-satisfied, onanistic essentially unproductive mind is at work here! Who cares what PM was or wasn’t? What is to be gained by such sterile, masturbatory classification? It is anal, envious, and impotent. Stop writing novels and get yourself a job in a library mate. – Do you think Michelangelo stopped to ask himself ‘gee am I a renaissance artist – or am I early Baroque?’ No, as an authentic artist as opposed to a logophiliac bighead like the bloke who scribbled this nonsense, Michelangelo concerned himself solely with the representation of the beautiful or true or sublime, in short, the visionary quest of the artist. Full stop.

  83. January 27, 2012

    Sparky the Wonder Dog

    The casual conflation of hermeneutical ambiguities surrounding the ideal of precision suggested by the success of empirically methodological practices (engineering, etc) and the resultant trumping of cleanly hegemonic discourses by the slipperiness of language (and what that suggests about context generally) and some grand meta theory (a political theory of power actually) covering all embedded actions, even actions that quite obviously have salient self-identifies functionally independent of the scope for the meta-theory proposed (say auto mechanics, or a dealing with a noisy neighbor, or appreciating Ulysses ad infinitum) has made pomo a con from the beginning. It always leads to a geometrically diminishing rate of returns off the areas of investigation it thinks it’s addressing. Life is at once far weirder and far more easily “gotten” than pomo thinks. Get out of your head.

  84. January 29, 2012

    leo from chicago

    People who condemn the AT&T Building as a failed bit of architecture don’t really get the point. What it really is is a huge multi-storey middle finger to Modernism. As such, it’s a huge unrivaled success.

  85. March 13, 2012

    Ben R

    Great article–I agree with your conclusion.

    One thing puzzles me–you laud the variety in which postmodernism expresses itself in the arts and even architecture but when it comes to philosophy, you seem to make some startling sweeping (modern?) generalizations that all but 25% of the stuff that manifests itself as postmodern is crap because of it’s incoherence. How do you suggest philosophy better deal with a movement that you rightly celebrate for its “new and radical permissiveness” that is expressed through irony and contradiction? Surely philosophy should be as wide and variegated and incoherent as the thing it describes?

  86. May 28, 2012

    Khurshid Singge

    Good article! but the main point is being missed. Post-modernism as according to the philosophers you named here is anti-foundationalist. So, a post-modernist would not search for a “new” system that is “better” than this,as all these post-modernist artists seem doing. It would only do an “appreciation” of the present system but only with a strong reminder of its “specificity”/”locality”/”genealogy”.

  87. September 12, 2012

    As the years and generations pass by, new trends and styles are innovated and introduced. One of the disadvantages of post-modernism is that only
    the well known ones and legends from the past are remembered. The not-so familiar and unknown people are not remembered or honored. Architecture is
    the area which is highly affected by post-modernism.

  88. December 26, 2012


    For postmodernism to be dead it had to be alive…

    As a concept that was borne out in expression it lived, but it could never have a foothold as the meta-meta-narrative of a growing global politico-economic society. Even Focault ate his own words soon after uttered, that to proclaim there was no single truth was itself false and could not be accepted. The unifying meta-narrative has always been one which is universal…mathematics (pure logic) and the scientific method go beyond all borders. Science may not fulfill a metaphysic, but even evangelical Christians post about the rapture on their iPads these days.

    I do think the postmodern concept was an important one to point out at the time, where we were tangled in dogmatic orthodoxy, both cultural and intellectual, especially in regards to the existential condition. It did allow us to grow as a people, but I don’t think postmodernism ever ruled, by any means. And postmodernism isn’t strictly dead, but an irrelevant topic of discussion/expression in a liberated world. We’re beyond concern for marginalized minorities (culturally and aesthetically).

    I like this article, and I really enjoy the teasing at the end about the “next step” where authenticity and quality has become important and apparent. It harkens back to those universal things, science and mathematics, where the writing is on the wall that the world is having problems like quickly getting hotter and kids shooting kids.

    Today’s issues aren’t about meaning and identity…they’re about working together, the re-birth of community and cooperation. Neo-tribalism, anarcho-syndicalism and/or libertarian communism are the political philosophies being discussed heavily in academia and by burgeoning artists. Artists depict man’s desperation for technology and success as being our undoing. Philosophers are connecting the fall of man (Adam’s apple of reason) to climactic and ecological shifts in our ancestor’s original habitat forcing us to adapt by reliance on reason, and are recognizing the need for harmony, for balance.

    Capitalism the flower of competition defined success individually, and the invisible hand would guide the aggregate…but it has guided us towards peril, and we’re embracing that the teaching of prophets fortold the ills of “rational” self-interest…the age we’re entering into is the age of cooperation, whereby thinking about the aggregate first will guide the benefit of the individuals.

  89. March 12, 2013

    max Newton

    Those who can, do.
    Those who can’t do become teachers.
    Those who can’t teach become critics.

    Arbitrary dates for the beginning and end of art movements are useless except in the rarified ecology of the art history classroom.

  90. March 23, 2013

    andrea ostrov letania

    What was/is postmodernism in a nutshell?

    1. Modernism ran out of ideas and so everyone began to recycle and juggle things.
    Furthermore, modernism had a certain cachet since it had a certain tradition to rebel against. Once the tradition was destroyed and modernism ran out of steam, there was nothing left to do but juggle everything, old and new, as toys to play with.

    2. Post-modernism was very lucrative. By mixing and matching everything, everything became like MTV.

  91. May 10, 2013


    Something which defines itself as POST – is that ever alive? Was?

  92. August 16, 2013


    ‘You would have to be from the depressingly religious right or an otherwise peculiarly recondite and inhuman school of thought not to believe, for example, that the politics of gender, race and sexuality have been immeasurably affected for the better by the assertion of their separate discourses.’

    No, this is absolutely and completely wrong.

    The ‘politics of gender, race and sexuality’ have asserted themselves successfully precisely by articulating their claims within the ‘discourse’ of Enlightenment thought – i.e. by asserting or demanding rights to be treated equally. This is the quintessential Enlightenment demand.

    Insofar as they have proceeded by ‘assertion their separate discourses’, whatever the hell this means, they have achieved nothing.

    As ED observes later in the article, politically postmodernism is actually a species of conservatism.

    • February 15, 2014


      Yes!!! Finally someone gets it!

      The two pincers of conservatism are Postmodernism and Evangelism. Acting like enemies, but actually working together to try to suppress rational discourse.

  93. September 16, 2013

    Martin Echavarris

    You are completely off base. As early as 1965 Peter Drucker spoke about The Post Modern Era in Landmarks of Tomorrow. Kenneth E. Boulding in the Meaning of the 20th Century — the Great Transition. The outcome is still self determinism yet embeddedness in human consciousness, and interdependence looking much like integral theory and systems thinking. I would agree more that something is generating a new level of post modernism that its spiraling to a new stage but it is not dead like modernism is still within the current consciousness. Martin

  94. October 14, 2013

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  95. October 31, 2013


    I would stress that I am do not quite know what is it that anyone denotes through the label of the postmodern, but I do think that the article is misguided on two levels. Generally, it is all too happy to declare the “death” of an extremely diffused tendency in an increasingly diffuse world (as the author explicitly acknowledges, granted, but acknowledging that your actual thesis is incomparably weaker than the headline is not very good methodology).
    Highly problematic is that, while acknowledging the value of politicising culture (again this ‘acknowledging’, used as an excuse for not actually taking something seriously), the author fails to do that in his analysis. As far as he cares, postmodernism was a cultural trend, to which he grants its most obvious political effects, but fails to analyse the political causes either at its beginning or at its presumed ‘death’. It is as though ‘postmodernists’ are to blame for the commodification and general degradation of culture and identitarian convictions – and gosh, now they’re dying away, and everything will be back to normal. If culture and identity are crumbling, we need to look past the mass-marketed labels and do our best to monitor, for starters, the circulations of money and power. I did not do that, but I would be surprised to hear that the lamentable trends are not at some level related to the increasing centralisation of material resources in the hands of the very privileged very few.
    Lastly, the bottomline of the article can be taken in two ways – either we are waking up from the postmodern reverie to finally properly appreciate authenticity, which goes beyond naivete, or that we are just increasinly buying into the myth of authenticity, which seems to me a statement that noone can disagree with – it’s by far too obvious – but it is also absolutely uninteresting without a sound analysis of the underlying structure.

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Edward Docx

Edward Docx
Edward Docx is an associate editor of Prospect. His latest novel is “The Devil’s Garden” (Picador) 

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