History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: Social Revolution

Postmodernism click here for audio part 1

I'm going way out on a limb here, because thousands of pages have been written about Postmodernism, and I am not a philosopher. Here I consider Postmodernism as a cultural movement that consciously rejected utopian, abstract, rational modernism. It is related to the science of the day, such as quantum physics and chaos theory, which went beyond even the predictability of Eistein's physics to accept randomness and unpredictability. Postmodernism accepts the ugly and the disorganized in a way modernism does not, and thus provided a channel of expression for subjects previously submerged in society.


One of the most important things about postmodern art is that it can be intensely political, intensely personal, or both at the same time.

Yoko Ono's exhibit: ladder on white platform, magnifying glass handing from high canvas to top of ladder

Yoko Ono's exhibit from 1966 in London was a ladder with a framed piece of paper above. As John Lennon recalled:

I climbed the ladder, looked through the spyglass, and in tiny little letters it said: YES.
So it was positive. I felt relieved. . . That YES made me stay . .

photo of John and Yoko in bed with signs behind: Hair Peace, Bed PeaceLennon stayed and they married. In 1969, they staged a "bed-in" for peace, which some have called "honeymoon as performance art". Knowing how radical the couple were, reporters thronged in hoping for something sexy, but found John and Yoko serious in discussing world peace.

Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party (1974-79) Dinner Party: photo from abovewas a huge installation piece based on one of the arts most associated with women throughout history: embroidery. Chicago called it a "reinterpretation of The Last Supper from the point of view of those who've done the cooking throughout history." It contains place settings for women important throughout history, with additional names from each era embroidered on the tablecloths. It was a feminist statement, designed to educate as well as intrigue. The place settings caused as much controversy as Chicago's choice of females, since the plates contained differently-designed abstract work that all resembled female genitalia.

Goddess setting Pisan setting Wollstonecraft setting
Place settings for the Primordial Goddess, Christine de Pisan, and Mary Wollstonecraft


I realize I have done little with film so far, except for movie star role-models of the 1920s. With the postmodern era the contributions of European and American film-makers provided a mirror on concerns ranging from the Cold War to personal inadequacy.

North by Northwest: Cary Grant running from crop-dusting plane

British director Alfred Hitchcock set ordinary people in extraordinary, and often deadly circumstances. During the 1950s and 60s, he created films which wrapped such characters in elaborate psychological plots. Mistaken identity was a common theme. One example would be North by Northwest, wherein an ordinary businessman is mistaken for a CIA agent. The hero must extricate himself from the trap and catch the real perpetrators, all while seducing the girl. In this scene, the businessman tries to see a diplomat, at whose house he was threatened the night before.

Small Version

HAL disconnected by Dave in spacesuit, inside the computer
HAL gets disconnected as he relives his programming, singing "Daisy, Daisy"

click here for audio part 2 Stanley Kubrick was an American author/director who filmed Nabakov's Lolita in 1962 in such a way as to get it past the censors, but his postmodern focus is more evident in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In this film, the movie moves from prehistoric times to the future, considering space travel in broad, disconnected terms. More memorable for most people, in the latter part of the film a spaceship is run by a computer, the HAL 9000 (one letter difference from IBM), which takes over control of the ship and has to be disconnected manually and painfully by a human to prevent disaster. The film is thus considered a harbinger of the power of computers (including the computer I'm on, which doesn't always do what I tell it!).photo of Trauffaut

Francois Truffaut was at the forefront of French new wave cinema in the 50s, and became one of France's most important directors. He was a great admirer of the moral distance Hitchcock put between himself and his subjects, and indeed he wrote a study on Hitchcock which included lengthy interviews with the British director. In true postmodern style, his life and art intermingled. One film, Le Nuit Américaine (Day for Night) of 1973, is a tribute to filmmaking, starring himself as director. You get to see the backstage sniping and love affairs, as well as the techniques used to make a movie.

Italian director Federico Fellini once said "There is no end. There is no beginning. There is only the infinite passion of life." 8 1/2 photo still with woman and manAlthough his works in the 1950s were realistic, beginning in the 1960s mystical qualities entered his films. His autobiographical movie 8 1/2 (1963) features a hassled director who has lost heart on his current film but can't back out because of the money. Guido is plagued by former stars and crew who want work, and can't find a good idea for his story. He retreats into his own dreams, and his own past, especially his life as a boy and his love affairs as a younger man. In these dreams he finds the will to carry on. Considered Fellini's alter-ego, Marcello Mastroianni played the lead in many of his films.


Postmodernism in literature continued some of the internal trends of the 1960s, but also contained examinations of literature itself. The first is evident in Margaret Atwood's poem.

book Workbook document: Margaret Atwood: They Eat Out

When I read it, I imagine a couple sitting at a restaurant, and he's yakking while she's imagining stabbing him and tranforming their dinner into a gory horror movie scene under her control. It's feminist, but it's brutal. Deadly serious. And very funny. If you don't think so, try it again after hearing click here for audio of song"Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing", the song to which her horrifying scene is set.

book Workbook document: Milan Kundera: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979)

Czech writer Kundera seems to be reviewing the patterns of postmodern literature, even though this is a novel. He looks at writing in a similar way to Truffaut or Fellini lookiing at film-making, from the inside of the goldfish bowl.