So last week, A. and I were having lunch together, and we got into a discussion about postmodernism and what, actually, it is.
Stanley Fish, I read once, defined postmodernism thusly: "Anything you want it to be--so long as you want it badly enough." I used to think that was fairly deep, but then I thought about it, and I realized--that's useless as a definition.
So, here's my thoughts and definition of postmodernism.
To start with, however, we're going to have to take a look at modernism first. Modernism, in a nutshell, was a cultural/intellectual/artistic/literary movement at the turn of the 20th century that was basically a reaction against the Enlightenment and all it stood for. In literature, it included such elements as concentrating on a character's interior world rather than outside actions, writing about subjects considered taboo or unworthy of attention, and, in Paul Fussell's phrase, "irony as a standard means of apprehending the world." To give some examples: Joyce, Faulkner, Eliot, cummings, Woolf, and Hemingway were all modernist writers. (Though it's worth mentioning that the first big modernist author in the U.S. was Hamlin Garland, who began writing in the 1880s, and whom nobody ever reads anymore. Which is a pity, because he had a huge influence on Stephen Crane, and I personally consider Maggie: A Girl of the Streets to be a turning point in American writing.)
To sum up: Modernism says, "The Enlightenment was a bad idea to begin with."
Postmodernism says, "All right, so the Enlightenment was a bad idea. Now what? Where do we go from here?"
So, instead of being a simple reaction against a previous tradition, postmodernism has more complexity, in hopes of bringing together some sort of intellectual foundation to build on.
Here are some ideas that could be called important tenets of postmodernism. (Adapted from Peter Barry's Beginning Theory.) Note that these are fairly theoretical, so don't be discouraged if they don't start to make sense right away.
Language is constituitive.
In other words: Language itself is not an objective record of the world around us. Instead, language actively shapes the world around us. Think about it--the words you use to describe things will often influence the way you, or others, think about them, right? This is why connotation, denotation, and "loaded" words have an effect.
Where it starts to become complicated is in the fact that language, to reduce everything to absurdity, is what makes up the world. (The world, ultimately, is reflected to some degree inside our own skulls; language is the filter that the world passes through to get there.) Given this, everything is to some degree a linguistic construction. In other words, something made up of language. And the other way to say "something made up of language" is "a text." This is what postmodern theorists mean when they say "everything is a text"--but keep in mind that even though the world may be a text, it's one that's 1) still being written, and 2) shaped equally by writers and readers.
Truth is provisional.
This idea follows on from the previous one, albeit somewhat obliquely. Everything is language, and language is a social construction. Fine and well, but here's the core of this idea: Things that we take for granted as "givens" are socially constructed as well--and thus unstable instead of constant absolutes. This means things such as race, gender, identity (both personal and impersonal). (When postmodernists like Derrida say "there are no absolutes," this is what they mean.)
The upshot of all this is that a lot of the stuff we take for granted everyday is up for grabs, constitution-wise. To put it in a somewhat logical context: Postmodernism takes a look at the warrants of everyday life, and takes exception to them.
Meaning is contingent.
Following on from the previous idea. What the stuff around us "means" (in a social, intellectual, ethical, etc. sense) is not objective, but instead influenced by the people around us via language. Since everything is social, there's no such thing as disinterested, objective inquiry--everybody's got a stake in something.
Ideology is always present.
And ideology is the stake that people have. Thinking, inquiry, investigation, etc. are affected and/or determined by the things we believe. And we get the things we believe from the people and the language around us. If you deny this, if you say "I'm just an objective, disinterested observer," you're just trying to put your own position in a place where it can't be criticized.
This idea shows up most strongly in literature and literary criticism, particularly in the debates over shaping the canon. The postmodern attack against the "traditional" (well, at least traditional since the last seventy years or so) canon is based on this idea: "great books" are not maps to some sort of "human nature" that transcends history/gender/race/class/culture/etc.--i
These ideas threaten some people, of course. After all, if you've invested a lot of time and energy to construct your intellect on a foundation based on certain "absolutes," you're not going to take kindly to someone knocking that foundation away.
And yes, these ideas are pretty complex at first glance--they do require a certain amount of mental retooling or deep thought to understand in depth. But I also think that there's something to these ideas--something that requires a closer look instead of brushing it aside as "too intellectual" or "trendy French garbage that doesn't mean a damn thing" or "all postmodernists are just making it up as they go along, so their ideas don't matter."
And you've made it all the way to the end? Man, I'm impressed. Have a cookie.