Interpreting Postmodernity

An historical period of postmodernity?

The idea of an historical period of postmodernity is often represented by its critics as a figment of the imagination; no such time has existed. Postmodernism is also dismissed as a strange, abstract intellectual movement that somehow exists outside of history, produced by annoying and predominately French theorists to baffle and infuriate sensible persons – predominately British. Here’s some historical markers that plot the path from the high hopes and promises of modernity to its troubling Other. We begin with the disruptions and challenges to modernity that began in the 1960s; but first, a little context.

In The Condition of Postmodernity David Harvey sees the origins of postmodernity in the cultural Sixties, the period which he dates as 1968-1972. The counter-culture movement was ‘antagonistic to the oppressive qualities of scientifically grounded technical-bureaucratic rationality as purveyed through monolithic corporate, state, and other forms of institutionalised power (including that of bureaucratised political parties and trade unions).’ Gee, I like that kind of talk! Basically, hippies didn’t like squares.

Even more specifically, Harvey repeats the date offered by the architectural historian Charles Jencks as the beginning of postmodernity: Jencks nominated 3.32 p.m. on 15 July 1972, ‘when the Pruitt-Igoe housing development in St. Louis…was dynamited as an uninhabitable environment for the low-income people it housed.’ It was the first time that large buildings were collapsed in this dramatic way, and film of the event was broadcast around the world. Harvey believes the demolition symbolised the end of the le Corbusier inspired modernist dream of creating buildings as ‘machines for modern living.’ It might be nice to focus on people, and their human scale needs, instead.

Personally, I think the factors steadily eroding modernity from the 1960s finally produce a big bang: the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Most of the entries signal developments characteristic of the shift from modernity to postmodernity; the end of the post-Second World War economic settlement and the rise of a neo-liberal economic culture, particularly in non Western nation states; the reaction against conformity and social controls; the gathering concern over climate change and the impact of global industrialisation. Key works characteristic of postmodern perceptions or symptoms are included to provide context and stimulate curiosity. The timeline ends as the postmodern moment recedes before the Global Financial Crisis, the resurgence of nationalism in the Russian Federation and China, and the advent of the Anthropocene.

Dr Mark Hearn
Modern History
Macquarie University

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An historical period of postmodernity?

1956 Continuous monitoring of atmospheric carbon dioxide begins at the Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii

1960 Introduction of the contraceptive pill

1961 Michel Foucault, History of Madness; Alain Resnais, Last Year at Marienbad

1961 Establishment of World Wildlife Fund

1961 Retiring US President Dwight Eisenhower warns of the growing influence of the military industrial complex

1962 Vatican II; launch of Telstar, first active, direct relay communications satellite; JG Ballard, The Drowned World; Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

1963 Assassination of US President John F Kennedy

1964 Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man

1965 Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited

1965 US launches Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam

1966 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things; Ingmar Bergman, Persona; Michelangelo Antonioni, Blow-Up; The Beatles, Revolver

1967 ‘The Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In’. Golden Gate Park, San Francisco; Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology; Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author

1968 Tet Offensive; Prague Spring; Paris riots; assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King; The Rolling Stones, Beggars Banquet

1969-1971 Vietnam moratorium movement

1969 Apollo XI moon landing; JG Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition

1970 Gay Liberation movement begins; Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch; Robert Altman, Brewster McCloud

1971 Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace founded

1971-74 Oil Shock, global recession and end of post-war Keynesian economics

1972 Explosive demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing estate, St. Louis USA

1972 formation of the first environmental political party, the United Tasmania Group, established to oppose the creation of the Lake Pedder dam.

1973 End of Bretton Woods agreement

1973 Establishment of the Dubai free trade zone; JG Ballard, Crash

1975 Microsoft Corporation founded

1977 Punk rock reaction (Sex Pistols) and New Wave irony (Talking Heads); development of personal computers

1978 China initiates economic reform program; Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population

1979 Election of the Thatcher Government in the United Kingdom; Islamic revolution in Iran; invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union; nuclear accident at Three Mile Island power station; Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition; Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics; James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth

1980 Solidarity defies Communist rule in Poland

1980 The Greens (Germany) political party formed

1981 Reagan administration in the United States implements neo-liberal economic reforms

1982 Benoit Mandelbrot, The Fractal Geometry of Nature; Ridley Scott, Bladerunner

1984 Launch of Apple Macintosh computer

1986 nuclear power station crisis at Chernobyl, Ukraine

1988 Establishment of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; formation of al Qaeda militant Islamist group

1989 Soviet Union withdraws from Afghanistan; fall of the Berlin Wall; Tiananmen Square democracy protests, Beijing; Exxon Valdez oil spill; Bill McKibben, The End of Nature; Tim Berners–Lee drafts proposal for the World Wide Web; Tracey Moffat, Something More #1

1990 Gulf War; Dubai free trade zone begins twenty years of exponential growth; development by China of the Lujiazui financial district in Pudong, Shanghai as a New Open Economic Development Zone; WG Sebald, Vertigo; Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book

1991 Dissolution of the Union of Soviet and Socialist Republics and inauguration of the Russian Federation. President Boris Yeltsin announces neo-liberal economic reform program; India introduces neo-liberal economic reforms, stimulating growth as one of the world’s fastest growing economies; Massive Attack, Blue Lines; Nirvana, Nevermind

1992 Vaclav Havel address to the World Economic Forum, Davos; collapse of Communist Yugoslavia, outbreak of Balkan conflicts; Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man; WG Sebald, The Emigrants

1993 Mumbai terrorist bombings

1994 Portishead, Dummy

1995 World Trade Organisation established; Yue Minjun, Execution; Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place; WG Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

1996 al-Qaeda declares jihad to expel foreigners from Islamic lands.

1997 UN Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change; Radiohead, OK Computer

1998 al-Qaeda issues fatwa against Americans, Jews and ‘crusaders’, bombs US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; financial crisis in Russia; Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red

1999 Vladimir Putin becomes President of the Russian Federation; China restricts internet use by its citizens; Freeman J. Dyson, The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet; Michel Houellebecq, Atomised

2000 Mark Buchanan, Ubiquity: The Science of History

2001 al Qaeda attacks the World Trade Centre, New York and Pentagon, Washington; US President George W. Bush declares War on Terror, US led coalition invades Afghanistan; Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections; WG Sebald, Austerlitz

2002 Bali terrorist bombings

2003 Iraq War; Mumbai terrorist bombings

2004 Madrid terrorist bombings; school hostage crisis in Beslan, North Ossetia

2005 Hurricane Katrina; London terrorist bombings

2006 Cormac McCarthy, The Road

2007 First cyber-war – the Russian Federation’s Distributed Denial of Service attack on Estonian government, media and financial websites; Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine

2008 Olympic Games, Beijing; Russian Federation invasion of Georgia and South Ossetia; Mumbai terrorist attacks; the first year in human history when more people lived in cities than in the country. 2008-9 Global Financial Crisis

2009 UN Climate Change Conference, Copenhagen; Mumbai named an Alpha world city

2010 Record year of extreme weather events; Bill McKibben, Eaarth, Making Life on a Tough New Planet

2011 Final NASA space shuttle mission; ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene’, Economist editorial, 28 May

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