I just posted this in response to Sean’s post on Postmodernism earlier this week, but I thought I’d promote it to make sure everyone had a chance to see it.

In previous versions of this class, I have done a lecture on postmodernism. It is a vital concept in all of cultural studies, and it increasingly has cropped up in HCI. Phoebe Sengers recently observed that much of HCI has traditionally had a modernist rhetoric–optimization, transparency, form follows function, etc. (Jakob Nielsen is an unrepentant modernist). But increasingly, HCI is starting to push back and question the field’s modernist heritage. (Note that Sherry Turkle, whose seminal Life on the Screen was published in 1996, made a similar point.)

Postmodernism can be seen in positive and negative terms. Its basic idea is that science and media have sought for centuries to represent the real world truthfully, but that nowadays our representations (e.g., media) never reach back to the “real world” but instead just point to other representations: we’re in a media (or representational) hall of mirrors.

The negative version of that can be seen in American politics, where politicians make claims about reality not because they have (scientific) evidence of their truth, but because the voting population believes them. The voting population believes these claims, because they hear them on the news–which is reporting what the politicians are saying and doing, using partisan talking heads (or, in Fox’s case, entire networks) who spin events to fit their partisan narrative. This is a simplistic version, but you get the idea: there is a circularity of representations that can’t seem to connect to any “hard” reality.

The positive version can be found in Roland Barthes and others, who celebrate the freedom extended to us when we are no longer chained to a single version of the Truth. Postmodernism enables “play,” that is, an emergent exploration of ways to construct and reconstruct reality. It has been postmodern philosophy that underscores much recent feminism and queer theory, both of which attack dichotomies (male/female, black/white, straight/gay) and try to open up a non-binary space in which we form our gendered, sexual, and racial identities.

One common feature of postmodernism is the notion of pastiche, which is the idea that when we make new things, we fabricate out of existing (and meaningful) objects, rather than out of pure or neutral materials. Thus, my espresso machine is a pastiche, because its designers chose a visual language and set of materials from the 1950s.

Steampunk is a much more robust example of postmodern pastiche. It blends different eras’ visual languages, design materials, and meanings to generate novel visual worlds and artifacts, which again (because it is postmodern), do not point back to any historical reality. So the film City of Lost Children is an example of this.

Here is Wikipedia’s take on postmodernism.

On a more provocative note, I sometimes wonder whether one difference between science fiction and fantasy is their respective tendencies to align themselves with modernism and postmodernism.