Understanding modernism and post-modernism

Understanding modernism and post-modernism


Modernism and postmodernism are used liberally in many areas of academic work, and therefore are rarely defined in full. Concepts such as these permeate every aspect of life and society. There are ways to look at the modern period through literature, art, philosophy, culture, politics and many more areas of the human life. For the purposes of this project, I will be situating the discussion of the modern period in the years following 1900 up until the late 1960s. It should be noted, however, that the trends in ideals were influenced by thinkers such as Descartes going as far back as the 16th century.

This is a graph that ranges from 1900 to 2000. It is a line graph of the number of times that the phrase "self sacrifice" was used in any book that Google has in its archives. There is a spike in the phrase during the years of the first world war, while there is a dip right before 1960. It leveled out at a much lower number in the mid 1960s.
Courtesy of Google Ngrams. This tool measures the usage of a word throughout books in the Google database. This graph measures from 1900 to 2000. The word self-sacrifice appears far more often between 1900 and 1930, but begins to fall after this point. It is characteristic of the modern era to talk about the self in terms of sacrifice more often than in terms of referentiality.

The modern period is vast, but it can be understood in different ways. First, we can understand it by looking at postmodernism. The postmodern period is a continuation or a direct contrast to ideals of the modern period. It can also be understood by looking at historical events situated in this period and cultural reactions to those events. There are great traditions, as well, that contextualize the modern period in its literature and through the philosophical ideas that were adopted.

This is a graph for the word duty and how often it was used in books in the Google archive. There is a steady decrease in the word over the course of the 20th century. There is a slightly more steep drop around the mid 1970s.
Courtesy of Google Ngrams. Notice that the word duty is used far more often in the early 20th century, but its use steadily declines as you move through the postmodern. This emphasis on duty was important in the modern era.

The two largest events that took place during the first half of the 20th century in the United States were World War I and World War II. During both of these wars, there was a great amount of civilian support and general patriotism. Though a draft was issued during the Second World War, the reaction was more accepting than that of the draft for the Vietnam War. Judging by posters and songs that we have from these periods, American support for these conflicts was strong. People had faith in their country and their leaders. People believed in a clear sense of right and wrong and held universal values. There was a strong sense of duty. The importance of the individual paled in comparison to the importance of the whole. But that all began to change when the horrors at the end of World War II began to surface…


We cannot understate the role that the Nazi death camps during World War II played in breaking down the ideals of the modern period. In his book Beginning Postmodernism, Tim Woods writes,

“Whereas philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rosseau, Immanuel Kant, and G.W.F. Hegel at the beginning of the Enlightenment placed a great deal of faith in a human’s ability to reason as a means of ensuring and preserving humanity’s freedom, many twentieth century philosophers, especially those living through and after the Holocaust – have come to feel that such faith in reason is misplaced, since the exercise of human reason and logic can just as probably lead to an Auschwitz or Belsen as it can to liberty, equality, and fraternity. Such questioning suspicision of the Enlightenment is principally associated with the work of Jean-François Lyotard, for whom postmodernism is an attack on reason” (Woods, 9).

This is a graph of the word skepticism. It shows that the word was used more and more throughout the 20th century as the line goes continuously up.
Courtesy of Google Ngrams. The use of the word skepticism increased over the course of the 20th century as citizens became dissatisfied with their governments.

When the same ideas used to create strong republics and societies are used to justify decimating a population, the universality of those ideas become less certain. Lyotard believed that postmodernism was the breakdown of grand metanarratives (Lyotard). There were no longer overarching truths that could make sense of the world after World War II. The United States was particularly affected through the aftermath. The Nazis had committed genocide against the Jews, but when the US made the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the casualties were significant.

This is a graph for the phrase moral relativism. This graph shows that this word barely had any use until 1940 and then it began to go up and up. There was a very sharp increase in 1980.
Courtesy of Google Ngrams. In the modern era there were clear ideals of right and wrong. But when the postmodern shift occurred, people began to question traditional morals in favor of relatives. This chart clearly indicates the spike in discussion about moral relativism after the 1940s.

After so many years of supporting the government’s decisions and conflicts, US citizens began to slowly change their minds. The next decade was characterized by the government attempting to curb dissent by distributing propaganda and fear surrounding communism. They attempted to find another enemy for the people to rally behind. Freedom of belief was only acceptable now if that belief did not entail adhering to the philosophy of the Soviets. The US attempted to get its people to rally behind the fight against communism, but they made a grave mistake. The war in Vietnam and Cambodia was the tipping point into the postmodern era. When people saw soldiers on television and the terrible conditions they faced, they wanted them out. Many saw the war as pointless and wrong, and refused to take up arms. When the government forced the draft, this only made many angrier. Gone were the days of faith in the government and common ideals. Counter cultures sprang up and welcomed previously marginalized groups into their midst. This was the age of protest and rock music, of free love and civil rights. America was no longer one united front. It was fractured and skeptical. The period before was viewed as, “dead, stifling, canonical, the reified monuments one has to destroy to do anything new” (Jameson, 2).

The late 1960s were marked by a counter culture, such as free love which evokes images of hippies and flower children. Drugs such as cannabis and LSD became more popular than ever and entered into areas such as music, art, and literature. Popular artists such as the Beatles changed their entire aesthetic to fit a new era. Literature such as Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow represented the paranoia that many felt had overtaken this nation. Some would say that America entered a state of chaos which we have yet to escape from. Others would say that it was a new era of freedom and expression, where people were able to leave oppressive culture behind to be truly themselves.

Below is a timeline of historical events during the 19th century. I have chosen these dates because they are often cited as examples of the modern and postmodern eras, as well as turning points. Interjected into these events are important Gettysburg College events and the dates of the different publications that will be analyzed under the Student Publications section of the website.