From the notes I made in 2002, I can see that the first place I came across postmodernism that delineated its concepts most easily for me to dive into them was a book by Tim Woods, “Beginning Postmodernism,” published by Manchester University Press, a second edition of which has been published since I first read it. As dry as most academic books can be, for such a book to write about its subject in a way that makes you feel excited about it is extremely valuable. It was certainly enough for me two write ten A4 pages of notes from it, since rendered moot by my actually buying a copy of the book – I can only assume the original library copy was once I was able to take home.
The notes I made start by explaining that postmodernism is:
“a knowing modernism, a self-reflexive modernism, a knowing modernism that doesn’t agonise about itself. Postmodernism does what modernism does, only in a celebratory way, rather than repentant way. Thus, instead of lamenting the loss of the past, the fragmentation of existence and the collapse of selfhood, postmodernism embraces these characteristics as a new form of social existence and behaviour. The difference between modernism and postmodernism is therefore best seen as a difference in mood or attitude, rather than a chronological difference, or a different set of aesthetic practices.”
That is the kind of introduction you want. Modernism was never replaced by postmodernism, and the impulses to find new ways of explaining how we see the world, and creating new forms in art and society, is true of both movements. Even a modernist group that Dada, that you would think would match postmodernism on mood and attitude, is actually separated from it by its earnestness to abandon the modes of thinking that led society to world war, instead of playing about with them.
My notes contain lots of lists, with Woods creating many summaries of the key characteristic in postmodern forms of thought, economics, architecture, visual design, music, television and film. For example, the list for film talks about pastiche of other genres and styles, alluding to particular scenes and cinematic styles from other films; a flattening of history, presenting the past in the present; self-reflexivity of technique; and celebrating the collapse of distinction between high and low cultural styles, with “Pulp Fiction,” a major Hollywood film aiming to evoke pulpy crime novels, being used as the example. It helped that, during my film degree, we were shown a Jean-Luc Godard film from 1967, “Two or Three Things I Know About Her,” that often abandons its narrative to talk about consumerism, and has characters addressing themselves directly to the camera. I enjoyed it a lot.
A thought my mind always replays is how I am glad I discovered postmodernism when I did, because it has helped explain how the world, and particularly politics, has developed in the years since. The philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, the source of the predominant postmodernist stance of an incredulity towards metanarratives, has his own list made by Woods – in particular, Woods says that postmodernism, according to Lyotard, “does not seek to give reality, but to invent allusions to the inconceivable which cannot be presented. In this respect, there is something theological in his concept of representational art.”
I can see I also made this note from Joseph Natoli’s book “A Primer to Postmodernity”:
“We are responding to a world that is in the process of breaking out of our certitude of knowing, out of the reality box that we have built for ourselves and called it Reality. A lot of formerly closeted people are now out of the closet; or you can say that the camouflage screen, the barrier curtain is down. We’ve got a hunger now to hear everyone’s story at the same time that we paradoxically want to put a gag on everyone but our own buddies. We’re split between two vastly different ways of dealing with the world. But in actions, in how we go about constructing our realities, we are less and less attached to the ‘old order’ of knowing, feeling, perceiving, and more and more attached to exploring as many other realities as we can bring into being.”
“A Primer to Postmodernity” was published in 1997. I also now have a copy of this book, and I can see the above passage was preceded by the author hearing from people that want things to be like the “good old days,” and wanting what we know to be grounded, when it cannot be. After the passage, Natoli then says that his book can only be a “primer” for people to do their part on the ongoing creation of culture. Later, he explains that one viewpoint held by postmodernists is that a gap exists between the world and how we understand it, even if there is not one between ourselves and the world: multiple realities can exist, and while they do not battle for supremacy, they can fade in and out of significance. A later chapter is titled “Moving Across the Profound Surface of a Postmodern Life.”
I don’t treat postmodernism as a religion, but I can see why it may look like that. When coming across something new influences your view of the world, it is great when it is a view that does not insist on someone being wrong as a result, but if you know you are right, you will be able to prove that most easily. What it has never meant is that you can say what you like – if something is not valid, it will go away.