Periodizing Postmodernism?

By Carroll, Noel | CLIO, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Periodizing Postmodernism?


Carroll, Noel, CLIO


Introduction: If it is true that historical research often reflects the preoccupations of the present, then perhaps one reason for the current interest in the topic of historical periodization is the fact that for the past two decades Western intellectuals have been obsessed with periodizing our own epoch. In this context, the concept of postmodernism has come to special prominence as the label by which not only scholars, but journalists and even advertisers, have come to identify themselves. It is a concept under which the disparate tendencies of contemporary life -- from gender-bending to multinational capitalism -- are subsumed, and it is meant to stand in contrast to other periodizing, colligatory concepts like modernism and the Enlightenment. The purpose of this paper is to explore several of the problems raised by attempts to periodize the present moment in terms of the notion of postmodernism, and, in the end, I shall go so far as to suggest that the very endeavor rests on a fallacy.

Currently, the notion of postmodernism is used globally. That is, it is advanced across the board as a label for the dominant cultural tendencies, especially, but not exclusively, among first-world nations. By "across the board," I mean that it refers to an ensemble of practices in art, economics, society, politics, ethics, and so on. "Postmodernism" is global in the sense that it is not restricted to one sphere of practice, like aesthetics, but is said to be manifested in virtually every dimension of society.

However, though "postmodernism" is now used primarily with this global signification, the present usage only evolved gradually. The word appears in writings at least as early as the 1930s and 1940s. But it first appears to gain currency in the 1950s and 1960s as the name of various art movements in literature, architecture, and dance, and then, in the 1970s, "postmodernism" becomes the label for certain tendencies in painting, sculpture, and performance art. Only after the term was popularized as a way of drawing certain distinctions among local artistic practices was the attempt made to turn it into a global concept denominating the presiding zeitgeist of the contemporary moment.

That is, initially, labels like Postmodern and Postmodernism caught on as labels that functioned in the local narratives of discrete art forms. "Postmodern architecture" referred to a movement, emerging in the 1950s, that reacted against modem architecture, reasserting the importance of decoration, ornament, and expression against the prevailing taste for austere functionalism in the so-called "International Style."(1) "Postmodern dance" appeared in the 1960s and challenged the expressivity of modern dance through its emphasis on ordinary movement.(2) Postmodernist painting represents a revolt in the fine arts, which coalesced in the 1970s, against such things as modernist painting-that is, against art that saw the exploration of the nature of painting as its proper and exclusive domain of concern.(3)

Each of these labels -- postmodern architecture, Postmodern dance, and Postmodernist painting -- functioned, in other words, as a local style marker, notating ruptures within the evolution of discrete arenas of artistic practice. However, by the late seventies and early eighties, the idea took hold that these local narratives might be assembled into a broader story, one that not only encompassed the developments in these discrete art forms, but which also correlated them with developments in philosophy and science and with changes in the structure of the economy, communication, and society at large. "Postmodernism," that is, became the name of an expressive totality.

When used as local style markers for developments in given artistic practices, the terms postmodern and postmodernism raise no special theoretical problems. They seem at least to reflect the intentions of various architects, dancers, and painters to differentiate their work from that of their predecessors, predecessors who already thought of themselves as modern architects or dancers, on the one hand, or modernist painters, on the other.

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