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Postmodernism seems to mean anything, everything, and nothing. It's today's academic Rorschach blot on which nervous modernists and others project all their fantasies, both benign and terrifying. Whatever they're most afraid of, that's what postmodernism is. On the other hand, whatever they most secretly desire, postmodernism promises. So postmodernism is not one thing. Postmodernism originally referred to specific movements in art and architecture, which reacted to a specific movement called modernism, which happened quite a while ago. Postmodernism itself is no longer as central an issue in art and architecture, and the word has been applied in a number of new ways.

For some, postmodernism refers to a renewed attention to "the other," "the marginalized." Many streams of postmodern thought are animated by the desire to do justice to the claims of those whom the dominant culture has excluded politically, economically, and (probably not least of all from the postmodern perspective) rhetorically. That is, they've simply been omitted from the discourse within Western intellectual life. So women, non-northern Europeans, gays, lesbians, and the poor all loom large in the postmodernist consciousness as hitherto unrecognized groups who deserve the same kind of historical and philosophical attention as their polar opposites, which would be wealthy, white, heterosexual men.

Second, this attention to the marginalized has led many postmodernists into a profound skepticism toward modernity's assumptions about knowledge, truth, and reason. These postmoderns question the extent to which modernity's attempts to make truth claims is valid. They've discovered that at the base of almost every truth claim is a story, a story that privileges ...

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November 13, 2000

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