The Postmodern Condition

I was asked to explain Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition in a brief, simple way. The book is older than I am but it’s still the best and the most concise explanation of postmodernism.

The postmodern era begins after WWII. People are so horrified by what happened that they lose faith in all grand narratives. A grand narrative is a coherent way to explain everything. Religion is a grand narrative. Marxism is another. Feminism, psychoanalysis. These are grand narratives because they purport to explain everything in the world to the believer.

But after WWII, it became clear that the world is so complex and incomprehensible that there is no narrative that can explain everything. It’s useless to look for an explanation. Nothing has any meaning.

Since nothing has any meaning or leads anywhere, all one can do is have fun and follow whatever whim possesses one at any given time.

So that’s the postmodern condition as it was described in the 1970s. Fifty years later, we can see that people are still desperately looking for a grand narrative. The current fad is anti-racism. It’s going to fail because that’s the postmodern condition. They all fail.

Of course, on the level of individual lives each of these grand narratives can be very satisfying. There are people whose grand narrative is raw food dieting, and they are perfectly content with it. But it’s always going to be an individual hobby or, at most, a very small, niche thing.

That’s all there is, really. Postmodern art is the art that expresses this emptiness, cynicism, and lack of depth.

I’m open to questions.

33 thoughts on “The Postmodern Condition

  1. The diabolical genius of critical theory is that it is able to eat its post-modern cake and have it too. No grand narratives are valid except for the experience of oppression of politically useful groups.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True. And it’s funny because they never manage to convince even themselves of the validity of their theories, which is why it all immediately devolves into calling each other out and canceling each other.


  2. “Postmodern art is the art that expresses this emptiness, cynicism, and lack of depth.”

    Has it moved from this place since then, or is it the Death of Art? I do not see how an artistic tradition can continue thus forever, if it wants to have any value.

    The already cliche question whether poetry may exist after Auschwitz has been answered affirmatively decades ago. Isn’t it high time artists stopped milking tragedies of former generations and started seriously engage with the modern, complex, fluid, highly technological world?

    The subjects are numerous. The world is transforming; new/old dilemmas are springing everywhere. Shouldn’t modern art engage with it?

    Also, you mentioned the lack of one grand narrative. Fine, yet why may artists not present their own narratives, not in the blind faith of discovering ‘the key to all things’, but in the attempt to add their tune to the chorus and find a good enough solution together with others via combining and peer-reviewing their visions?

    Isn’t cynicism the refuge of the lazy and the cowardy?


    1. Visual arts didn’t survive. Literature did in some places and didn’t in others. The Hispanic world has a great postmodern art. The English-speaking world has nothing I’d call art in terms of literature. French literature is dead, too. Russian literature, as well.

      Why an individual writer can’t abstract himself from the Zetgeist without looking ridiculous, this question was answered by Borges in his great short story “Pierre Menard, the Author of Don Quixote.” We are an expression of our times. And art doesn’t look for solutions. Not in modernity, for sure. The whole idea of modern art is that artists don’t have solutions. At best, they can help you formulate some questions.


      1. // The whole idea of modern art is that artists don’t have solutions. At best, they can help you formulate some questions.

        What about doing some analysis at least?

        I felt Bauman and others did want to look for solutions w/o looking ridiculous. Why may not literature join the effort possible in other fields?

        The best part of ‘Dogs of Europe’ was the least “weird” (based on glancing on other parts) and imo the least modernist (or not?).
        The reality it describes calls for change, demands it a little too passionately to be judged as mere cynicism imo.


        1. Baharevich’s greatest failure, in my opinion, is that he can’t shake the thrall of the European postmodernism. He tries so hard to imitate it that he ends up looking like a parody.

          You are right, in the parts of the novel where he stops aping them so much, you can glimpse some real talent. I hope he tries to develop it but. . . He wants to sell in Europe and get prizes and recognition. It’s easier for Hispanics to withstand the lure because they have such a gigantic built-in audience.

          Curiously, the most realist of Hispanic postmodernists, Rafael Chirbes, was gigantically popular in Germany. This tells me that regular readers in Germany do want to read serious good literature, and not just these endless postmodernist poseurs.

          Chirbes, of course, is a postmodernist. Everybody is who writes literature today. But he’s proof that you could do it in a way that can shake a reader to the depths of her soul and not just engage in barren self-referential word play.


          1. What I’d love is to hear from somebody who is in English literature as to why it didn’t survive postmodernism. But for that person to know it didn’t survive, she needs to be very familiar with other artistic traditions. And they never are. It’s a fascinating and a completely unexplored topic.


            1. I was an English literature major (and physics major) as an undergraduate. I’m not in touch with that world anymore since I pursued a career in science. In terms of academics, what amazes me is the longevity of postmodernism (or poststructuralism, or “Theory” or whatever. The name keeps changing but the ideas stay the same). To the extent there was anything new or challenging about it, it was already past its peak when I was in college in the late 80s/early 90s. But it still seems to dominate entire swaths of academia 30 years on.

              As for literature itself, I honestly don’t know. Of course the publishing industry is in terrible shape what with sensitivity readers & etc., but that’s recent. Literature in English had become moribund long before that. I wonder if part of it is MFA programs. I don’t pay attention to it, but there’s an entire self-contained world of MFA programs that teach people to write the sort of work that is read by students in MFA programs, and whose graduates go on to teach in MFA programs.


              1. I have a friend with a PhD in Comparative Literature who holds the MFA responsible for killing off American literature because the MFA grads only write for each other.


              2. She’s definitely on to something. I scour authors’ bios on Amazon for any mention of an MFA so that I can avoid reading it. It’s fruit if long and painful experience.


      2. A lot of Silicon Valley people claim to have been inspired by science fiction they read as children. Possibly post modernism is popular with people who find it difficult to understand the new advances in science and technology.


        1. According to Lyotard himself he had very little knowledge of the science he had been commissioned to write about and made up for his lack of knowledge by making up stories and referring to books that he hadn’t read.

          Many people today seem to be following this strategy.


    2. “The subjects are numerous. The world is transforming; new/old dilemmas are springing everywhere. Shouldn’t modern art engage with it?”

      In terms of visual art, it’s not that artist are not engaging with these subjects, but that there is no demand for their work. Postmodern art has been replaced by identity art. The only matter of importance is whether or not a work demonstrates the “lived experience” of a given identity group. It goes without saying that there is only one type of experience that is acceptable or even acknowledged. I am bombarded with emails and articles with titles like, “10 black female artists on the rise,” “Latinx artists to follow right now,” “5 queer artists of color that should be on your radar.” The work itself is bankrupt. It only exists to reify the existing narrative.

      Real artists are still making art. We just won’t recognize them for another generation.


      1. It’s a ridiculous, inane, and completely empty game. The only interesting thing about it is why people aren’t very tired of it yet. It’s so boring! But it’s been going on for decades. All that changes is the new fashionable identity.


        1. What are you talking about? Everyone is sick to death of it. The game is played by a handful of art world insiders: critics, academics, gallerists, and curators. The talentless MFA grads with fashionable identities and the clueless collectors and “investors” with too much money to spend are their eager pawns. They’re not sick of it because it’s a very lucrative little circle-jerk. The public hates it because it’s so obviously stupid. Even the educated public doesn’t think the Met should waste its time on Kent Monkman’s “Wooden Boat People,” featuring the artist’s gender-fluid alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle (not that you’ll ever hear them admit to it.) Artists hate it because it’s embarrassing, and trivializes the work they’re trying to do. But mostly it’s best to ignore it. We get together and talk about Piero della Francesca and Goya and Bonnard, not whatever nitwit currently taking Chelsea by storm.

          Actually, though, I don’t think the appalling state visual art is in has much to do with postmodernism or identity politics in and of themselves. Historically, whenever the art market gets too strong and starts directing what gets made, the work becomes facile and impotent. Identity art is popular because it’s the probably the easiest type of art to make. The “art” part is utterly unimportant; all that matters is the identity. Art is hard to make, but everyone has an identity. It’s a bubble that sooner or later will burst, because billions of dollars are invested in work that is completely without value. Might as well be warehouses of empty canvases.

          But it doesn’t really matter. Art will always prevail. While Fontana was slicing up canvases and Kazuo Shiraga was painting with his feet, Alice Neel, Andrew Wyeth and Lucien Freud were working right along. From the fallow period of 18th century French painting, there’s Chardin.


          1. I’m a lot more knowledgeable on the literature part of the equation. If things are getting better in visual arts, I’m very glad.

            In literature, though, look at Amanda Gorman. That’s where we currently are.


            1. It does seem like vapid literature has a much broader popular appeal. People sometimes ask me, “Why is contemporary art so confusing? Am I stupid for not getting this? Why is it so ugly?” I mean, what can I say? It is all those things, but billionaires and Artforum editors are having a great time with it. Sorry, but it’s not meant for you.

              I have this weirdly controversial idea that it is necessary to undergo some privation in order to create great art. More people want to be artists than ever, and art schools keep churning out graduates with no resources to create from and nothing to offer the world. It’s the empty art of an extremely affluent, satisfied society. Great art is still being made, as it always has been, just under the radar. It will be at least several decades before the wheat is separated from the chaff.


          2. Someone I know thinks the “art world insider” part of the art world’s main purpose is money laundering. I’m inclined to think there’s some truth to that.


  3. It’s great to see you address postmodernism Clarissa. I think this is the root cause (or explanation) of a lot of the nonsense that we see today.

    “The current fad is anti-racism. It’s going to fail because that’s the postmodern condition. They all fail.”

    It will. To me it’s exactly that same as “the word on poverty”, “the war on terror,” or “the war on drugs.” We are now living through “the war on racism.”

    These things always pass because you can’t wage wars against nouns.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep. These are boring, reductive efforts to find meaning where there’s none. People want to feel like they are part of something big but it all fizzles out into hounding some poor bastard over some clumsy joke he made a decade ago.


  4. “These are grand narratives because they purport to explain everything in the world to the believer.”

    What about losing faith in one theory / discovery – whether it’s Marxism or religion – letting humankind achieve the state of eternal bliss, being the key to Paradise on Earth, yet still being ready to participate in the hard labor of ‘by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground’ ?

    F.e. imagining Earth and humankind as interacting parts of one system, forever in motion v.s. former grand theories of offering the bliss of the steady state which is impossible in a known universe.

    We’ll always have new challenges; the history won’t ever end … for us till we / humankind exist.

    Our task is to deal with that, rise to new challenges, reflect it in art.

    Is it also a grand narrative?


  5. I’m curious how/whether this is reflected in the approach to education and child development. On one hand you want to root the kids in some sort of moral map, which requires at least some trust in absolute values, on the other hand, if everything is relative and subjective, then what’s the point?


    1. Exactly! And we see the clearest manifestation of this worldview in the belief that the results of parenting are completely divorced from the process of parenting. This is such an article of faith in this deeply postmodern society that I’m afraid to say anything to contradict it. People flip their lids in scary ways.

      There’s even a bestselling book arguing this point. I forget the author’s name. But people roll it out whenever one mildly mentions that there might be a correlation between what you do as a parent and the result you get.


      1. The book you mention as being rolled out to support the idea that “parents do not matter” is The Nurture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris. However, the author’s position is more nuanced than that of people using her book to prove that parenting skills have no influence on a child’s upbringing.


  6. Wait. So if a person bakes a cake that they thought would taste good that ends up tasting really bad followed by them spending the rest of the day in a bad mood whining about everything and eating dogfood because they no longer believe that food can taste good and avoiding the obvious solution, which is to get a better cake recipe, we call that person a whiny idiot.

    But if a person had an idea that ends up being wrong that they thought was right followed by them spending several decades in a bad mood whining about everything and drawing horrible doodles while chugging vodka instead of doing the obvious, which is to contemplate and find a new idea that is better than the old failed idea, we’re supposed to call that person a postmodernist and agree that the horrible doodles are “art”.

    Nup 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.