LINDA HUTCHEON is very careful to distinguish between postmodernity and postmodernism. The former she understands to mean "the designation of a social and philosophical period or 'condition'" (Politics 23), specifically the period or "condition" in which we now live. The latter she associates with cultural expressions of various sorts, including "architecture, literature, photography, film, painting, video, dance, music" (Politics 1) and so on. Indeed, Hutcheon diagnoses as one reason why critics have been led to such disparate opinions about the "postmodern" is because of the conflation of these two disparate if associated domains (socio-historical on the one hand, aesthetic on the other hand). By distinguishing between the two domains, Hutcheon offers a critique of Fredric Jameson's influential attack against the postmodern: "The slippage from postmodernity to postmodernism is constant and deliberate in Jameson's work: for him postmodernism is the 'cultural logic of late capitalism'" (Politics 25). Jameson thus sees postmodern art and theory as merely reinforcing the many things he finds distressing in postmodern culture, particularly the conditions of multinational late-capitalism.

Hutcheon does not deny that postmodernity and postmodernism are "inextricably related" (Politics 26); however, she wants to maintain the possibility that postmodernism's cultural works could be successful in achieving a critical distance from the problems of our contemporary age. On the whole, she agrees with other critics regarding the elements that make up the postmodern condition: a world dominated by the logic of capitalism, which has no regard for the rights of oppressed laborers or the ravagement of the natural world; a society increasingly under the scrutiny of government agencies that insist on casting their disciplining gaze ever deeper into our private lives; an increasing reliance on technologies that separate us from other people and the natural world, thus feeding into our sense of atomism and unease; an emphasis on flat, spatial representations (screens, statistics, ads) that serve to sever us from our former sense of temporality and history; and a culture increasingly dominated by simulacra (computer images, commercial advertising, Hollywood idealizations, commercial mass reproduction, televisuality, and technological replications of all stripes), thus contributing to our sense of separation from the real.

Where Hutcheon departs from critics of postmodernity is by underscoring the ways that postmodern cultural works engage in effective political critiques of the postmodern world around us: "critique is as important as complicity in the response of cultural postmodernism to the philosophical and socio-economic realities of postmodernity: postmodernism here is not so much what Jameson sees as a systemic form of capitalism as the name given to cultural practices which acknowledge their inevitable implication in capitalism, without relinquishing the power or will to intervene critically in it" (Politics 27). Hutcheon therefore explores a wide variety of works from various genres and media to illustrate how the cultural works of postmodernism effect their critique of the present.

Some of those strategies postmodernism borrows from modernism, in particular its self-consciousness and self-reflexivity, as well as its questioning of such Enlightenment values as progress, science, and empire or such nineteenth-century values as bourgeois domesticity, capitalism, utilitarianism, and industry. (See the Introduction to Postmodernism for an outlining of the differences and similarities between modernism and postmodernism.) However, Hutcheon argues that postmodernism does differ from modernism in important ways and that it is this difference from the modernist project that exemplifies the critical potential of postmodern cultural work. For one, Hutcheon points out that postmodern works tends to be critical of "modernism's elitist and sometimes almost totalitarian modes of effecting... 'radical change'—from those of Mies van der Rohe to those of Pound and Eliot, not to mention Céline" (Politics 27). Hutcheon points out how modernists pursued radical change without acknowledging the price that must be paid by the more extremist positions assumed by modernist authors (e.g., fascism, futurism, primitivism, anarchism, etc.). She also questions how effective elitist modernist projects could ever be as political critique.

If there is one thing that especially distinguishes postmodernism from modernism, according to Hutcheon, it is postmodernism's relation to mass culture. Whereas modernism "defined itself through the exclusion of mass culture and was driven, by its fear of contamination by the consumer culture burgeoning around it, into an elitist and exclusive view of aesthetic formalism and the autonomy of art" (Politics 28), postmodern works are not afraid to renegotiate "the different possible relations (of complicity and critique) between high and popular forms of culture" (Politics 28). In The Politics of Postmodernism, she gives postmodern photography as a perfect example, since it "moves out of the hermeticism and narcissism that is always possible in self-referentiality and into the cultural and social world, a world bombarded daily with photographic images" (Politics 29). Those contemporary works that are particularly autonomous and auto-referential Hutcheon tends to call "late modernist" (Politics 27) rather than postmodernist because, as she argues, "These formalist extremes are precisely what are called into question by the historical and social grounding of postmodern fiction and photography" (Politics 27). The other techniques that Hutcheon associates with postmodern cultural works include: the de-naturalization of the natural (i.e. a refusal to present "what is really constructed meaning as something inherent in that which is being represented" [Politics 49]); the questioning of the distinction between fiction and history (thus subscribing to the poststructuralist contention that so-called "objective" history is, in fact, just as affected by generic and ideological constructs or the artificial structures of narrative form as is fiction);note a rejection of grand narratives (in favor of what Lyotard terms petits récits or small narratives—multiple and even contradictory histories rather than "History"); an acknowledgement of the present's influence on our knowledge of the past (for example, the effect of present-day historical narration on the supposedly "objective" past); a recognition of our reliance on textuality (documents, written histories, etc.) and on the limited perspectives of individuals in understanding the past or even any event in the present; the de-naturalization of gender and sex (feminisms "have made postmodernism think, not just about the body, but about the female body; not just about the female body, but about its desires—and about both as socially and historically constructed through representation" [Politics 143]). Along with the breakdown between high and low cultural forms, the most important strategy that for Hutcheon distinguishes postmodern aesthetic works from modernist works is parody. (See the next Hutcheon module on parody). Together such strategies allow postmodern works to maintain a continual and effective critique of postmodernity without, at the same time, ever falling prey to the belief that one can ever completely escape complicity with the ideologies that determine our sense of reality in the postmodern condition.


Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Hutcheon: On Postmodernity." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update, which you can find on the home page. Purdue U. Date you accessed the site. <>.






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