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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Periodizing Postmodernism?


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.