Monthly Archives: June 2009

What is theory?

Theory (or postmodern theory) will only make sense when we look at the definitions of Modernity, Modernism and Postmodernism because theory can be said to be interchangeable with the term “postmodernism”.

Modernity (also the Modern) is the development of Western history of, say, the last five centuries. Characterized by the rise of capitalism, science and technology, and rational thought, it challenged traditional authority, that of the Christian Church and legitimacy of political power. It can be seen as the beginning of liberalism. But from it also came even more brutal forms of power, like the absolutism of Louis XIV, XV and XVI. And countries such as England and the Netherlands saw political instability but saw the gains through capitalism and Imperial expansionism. And during the Enlightenment the very notion of “Modernity” becomes self-aware, defining itself against previous traditional ways of lifes, Christian dogma and superstition. So by the 19th century transformation and upheaval was seen as the rule.

Modernity can be seen as beginning of the ideas of progress and evolution, and of ideas as different as capitalism and communism. And even today the technological progress is still a place of much of our misplaced hopes. Modernity is now no longer something we celebrate but rather it is something to which we feel we are condemned.

Modernism (also Modernist) which moved on from the novelty, the “scandal and challenge”, of Modernity is a constellation of intellectual and artistic Western ideals from the mid-nineteenth century. And it is a late development of Modernity. Modernism is an awareness of Modernity’s conflict and upheaval. But it also thoroughly believed, perhaps more than Modernity, in progress and evolution. And it had hoped to solve problems brought about by Modernity with more radical and absolute forms of Modernity, creating even more absolute answers. An example of Modernism in politics is Marxism. And Expression, Symbolism, Cubism, Futurism and Art Nouveau are further examples of Modernist art movements.

Postmodernism (also, Postmodernity, the Postmodern and Postmodernist) can be defined as the dismantling of the ideas and beliefs of Modernism, and does not replace the latter. Postmodernism maintains a relationship with and relativism to Modernism. It returns with rigour to older ideals but in renewed fashion. In art and literature figure painting and realism respectively becomes important once again. Irony and pastiche – rather than metaphysics and parody – become the main vehicles for expression. And with its borrowing of styles it becomes clear that Postmodernism is both anti-authoritarian and anti-foundational in outlook.

Examples of Postmodernism are Deconstruction, Psychoanalytic Criticism, New Historicism, Cultural Materialism, Feminist Criticism, Queer Theory, Poststructualism, Neo-Marxist Criticism, Post-colonial Theory, Reader Response Theory, Postmodernism (as a self-aware position), New Pragmatism, etc. Names associated with Postmodernism are Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, Kristeva, Said, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Fredric Jameson, Raymond Williams, Deleuze, Lacan, etc.