The Postmodern Turn by Steven Best and Douglas Kellner. Illustrated. 306 pp. Guilford. $18.95 (paperback)
For readers new to postmodernism, the last chapter of "The Postmodern Turn" should have been the first. True, the first chapter refers to the end of grand narratives and the loss of faith in universal explanations found in postmodern theory. Yet it is in the last chapter that the major themes of postmodernism are fully outlined: the rejection of unification in favor of complexity; the renunciation of fixed meaning for ambiguity; the abandonment of truth for relativity, and the breakdown of rigid boundaries of knowledge for interdisciplinary study.
That being said, this study delineates the difference between the modern and the postmodern, while asserting that we are living in a transitional period between the two. Modernism saw the artist as an isolated genius whose creations were original and monumental and whose purity of style was rooted in the "high arts." These pillars of modernism implode in postmodern literature: "Instead of deep content, grand themes and moral lessons...postmodernists...are primarily concerned with the form and play of language..."
The emphasis on grand spiritual and emotional themes in the modernist abstract expressionist painting of the 1950s is forsaken by pop artist Andy Warhol, who emphasized commercial culture, and in Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who appropriated everyday objects and broke the barriers between "high" and "low" art. In architecture, the purity of the International Style, characterized by minimalist glass and steel boxes, gave way to buildings that eclectically borrowed from different periods. In the sciences, quantum physics and chaos theory introduced a measure of indeterminacy in place of a mechanistic view of the universe.
Politically, the rejection of universal schemes to save humanity resulted in a fragmentation of social movements. In identity politics, previously marginalized groups, such as gays, minorities and women, asserted their own competing historical narrative against the dominant Western perspective: "Identity politics bears the influence of postmodern theory, which is evident in its critique of modern reductionism, abstract universalism, and essentialism, as well as in its use of multiperspectival strategies that legitimate multiple political voices."
Best and Kellner emphasize how the existentialist philosophers, with their attack on absolutism and disenchantment with rationalism, were precursors to postmodern thinkers. The authors, however, extend their study beyond the theoretical and provide illuminating insights into the ways in which postmodernism has become an all-encompassing cultural force.