POSTMODERNISM AND POSTMODERNITY
The contemporary situation may represent a more revolutionary time than any the Western world—and now the entire globe—has ever known. The idioms and images we associate with postmodernism are not merely matters of styles, fashionable cliches, or intellectual fashions; rather they are an expression of a shift as profound as any we have known since the Renaissance and, in many respects, this shift may represent an even more prof ound change, since it directly touches many more lives and many more facets of our lives than did the one we associate with the Renaissance, and it does so much more immediately. The “decentering” that followed the Copernican Revolution initially touched relatively few lives compared to the pervasive impact of satellite transmission of information and images along with near global access to technologies of reception. I speak of changes and the experience of changes that not only directly altered our concepts of time and space but also altered the very experience of time and space for masses of people.
The proliferation of choices currently available, a proliferation typified by the expanding universes of cable television and the shopping mall, has been devalued by many critics as involving relatively trivial choices. Choices, they assert, that are superficial and that, in their superficiality, prevent the individual from perceiving alternatives that are more consequential in their lives. In considerable measure, such criticisms are not without validity. However, as trivial as such choices may be, they are greater in number than what was previously available to most people. More importantly, it can be the very practice of choosing, albeit between superficial differences, that has a characterological consequence of greater significance than found in most specific choices.
Moreover, we must speak of changes in behavior and its meanings and, moving beyond the superficialities and elasticities of identity, we must speak directly to altered and altering dimensions of subjectivity, of altered and altering dimensions of being human. Not the least of which, as we shall see, is a markedly heightened need for intrapsychic processing of experience in contexts where others and ourselves can less and less be taken for granted (Van de Berg 1974).
The technologies of a postmodern world compel it to mirror itself in the broadest terms and in ways that penetrate all but the most isolated, all but the most self-consciously isolated. By that very quality, postmodernity becomes a contextualizing aspect of almost all social settings. However, the ability of the qualities of postmodernity to pervade all sectors of social life does not mean that all individuals then become models of the postmodern or are immediately converted into uniform postmodern personalities. To the contrary, the speed with which these changes have occurred affects many persons in many different ways. We might learn from Riesman (1969), who reminded us that there is rarely any one-to-one relationship between the qualities of social life and individual psychology; rather, it is a matter of the relative distribution of various types of persons and the varied problematics of the fit between the ways social life is organized and the experienced requirements of specific types of persons.
Most individuals, at any one time, will adapt to prevailing social conditions, some easily and some with only the most self-conscious efforts and distress. It is this very sense of pluralization, one carried to unprecedented lengths by the conditions of postmodernity, that becomes the central issue when one considers specific forms of behavior. One of the most difficult aspects of discussing the very social conditions and qualities of subjective experience that are essential to an understanding of an emergent postmodernity is a pluralism of meaning: a pluralism of meaning derived from a heightened pluralism of voices, perspectives, and—of greatest importance—a pluralization and heightened individuation of human experience.