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The Arguments for and against Postmodernism

Updated on May 31, 2016

Attempts to define the post-modern era have so far been futile; whilst it is agreed that it is a movement away from modernism, many of the defining elements are debatable. Whether or not post-modernism is currently the dominant ideology can be discussed via the analysis of contemporary texts, including Sherlock (BBC, 2014) and Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe (BBC, 2015).

It is possible to create a “post-modernism toolkit”, containing the defining elements most frequently agreed upon; these include fragmentation, hyper-reality, intertextuality, and bricolage. The general consensus also takes increased audience participation as a key element of post-modernism; rapid improvements in communications technology have driven the rise of the “prosumer”: an audience with both the capability and motivation to influence the content of products that they consume. This idea is abundant in modern texts, from Star Wars creators recycling past ideas (yet another feature of post-modernism) to meet the desire of the audience, to the creators of Sherlock, who noticeably incorporate fans’ fiction into the real product, e.g. the relationship between Sherlock and Moriarty, shown briefly in “The Empty Hearse” (BBC1, 2014).

Using the “toolkit”, various post-modern elements can be identified in “The Empty Hearse” (Sherlock, episode 1, series 3, 1/1/14); in the opening sequence alone, there are examples of intertextual references, both explicit, such as the presence of Derren Brown, and implicit, such as the inclusion of an over-the-shoulder shot of Sherlock almost identical to a shot of James Bond from the film Skyfall (2012). The opening sequence also contains contradictions, such as Inspector Lestrade bluntly saying “Bollocks”, immediately collapsing the artificial hyper-reality that the audience was being led to believe; the hyper-real scenes continue throughout the episode, at times verging on being so ridiculous that the audience begins to doubt the false narratives, yet a level of believability is maintained, ensuring that the audience is never completely certain of what to believe; this creates a relationship between the writers and audience similar to an unreliable narrator, a concept linked to post-modernism. The obfuscation of the true narrative, together with the humour, the blurring of boundaries between “high” and “low” culture (Sherlock and Mycroft appear to be playing chess, before the camera cuts to show them playing Operation – another contradiction), and the dislocation of time (which overlaps with the hyper-real scenes, successfully disorientating the audience) all show that Sherlock is undeniably post-modern.

Sherlock has demonstrated almost extreme examples of post-modernism, in using the real-world parents of Benedict Cumberbatch as actors playing his parents in the narrative-world. The creators run a blog, where real-world people can view the characters’ interactions, as if they were present in our world. This again shows the construction of a hyper-reality.

The abundance of the aforementioned elements of the “post-modernism toolkit” in BBC’s Sherlock, shows that post-modernism is alive and relevant, in opposition to Alan Kirby, the writer of the 2006 article “The Death of Postmodernism And Beyond”, which is extremely doubtful of the applicability of the concept in the 21st century, claiming that mass media, which has developed the ability to define cultural movements, has developed into a new period – post post-modernism.

It is possible that future academics will be able to more easily define our era once the next one is in force; the defining elements will appear to be more obvious once juxtaposed with contrasting features of a future system. The fact that post-modernism remains indefinable could be seen as an attribute; if the world had moved into a post post-modern, or pseudo-modern era, as Kirby claims, then perhaps post-modernism would have been defined long ago. On the other hand, movements do not simply take dominance overnight; as generations pass by, they take their ideas with them. Thus, pseudo-modernism is likely to slowly merge into common culture, as post-modernism is phased out. This process will take decades; post-modernism still has many years of relevance remaining.

The ambiguity of post-modernism reduces its accessibility to a wider audience as a theory, rendering it an equivocal and superficial subject, the understanding of which is confined to a niche audience. Nevertheless, the prevalence of the agreed-upon features seen in texts released in recent years shows that post-modernism is still relevant; "The Empty Hearse" found 9.2 million viewers, indicating a huge public appetite for postmodern texts.

Is postmodernism still relevant?

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    • Jennifer Mugrage profile image

      Jennifer Mugrage 20 months ago from Columbus, Ohio

      Thanks for this article. You have clearly done more scholarly research about this than I, so take the comments below with a grain of salt ...

      I voted "Yes" above.

      I disagree with postmodernism as an approach to life, although I agree it can be fun within a text. So, voting yes doesn't mean I am voting for it. It just means that I think, yes, postmodernism is influential. And will continue to be. As you point out, ideas have very long tails in culture. Often their impact in everyday life starts to be felt years after they have ceased to be trendy.

      About defining postmodernism, of course it's hard to define. Isn't it an intentionally incoherent world view?

      I take postmodernism to be primarily a reaction against the overconfident, triumphalist, utopian, logical positivist attitude that characterized modernism. I have a lot of sympathy with this reaction, because there was a lot wrong with modernism. However, I don't think postmodernism offers any adequate answers. Just subverting modernism is not in itself an adequate world view.

      Thanks for this article.