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on 5 October 2009
It seems strange that OUP should have asked Chris Butler to write a book on a subject matter that he appears to have such little time for. Though the authoritative tone indicates that he has clearly spent a good deal of time wrestling with its key debates over the course of his academic career, the majority of what Butler sweepingly terms 'postmodernism' does not come across in a particularly positive light.

There are of course plus points to such an approach. Refreshingly (and necessarily), it recognises that these ideas are no longer as contemporary and vital as they were 30 years ago or more and that they need to be evaluated with the benefit of hindsight and academic distance; there are no sacred cows. Consequently, the writing legitimates a disinterested analysis, encouraging the reader to take an objective and critical stance in engaging with these ideas.
However, while Butler is correct to argue beyond some concepts, he is frequently dismissive towards others (such as intertextuality) in a manner which it is difficult to see the advantage of (this being a pedagogic overview). Other subjects are barely mentioned: psychoanalaysis receives particularly short shrift, with not a single reference to Lacan other than a typically flippant aside about the absurdity of the post-Freudian phallic symbol.

Despite the title, it is also disappointing to note the absence of consideration towards a distinction between 'postmodernism' and 'postmodernity' (Butler concentrates exclusively on the former). As such, the focus is on the postmodern as a movement, rather than a phenomenon; ideas and works under discussion are almost entirely from a 'high art' context, specifically those which deliberately play with some of the ideas from academia; and little attention is paid to the ways in which mass culture has unconsciously participated in the dissemination of ideas. His argument then, that the postmodern 'period' (i.e. late 60s-80s) produced few works of any consequence, seems to miss the point in a rather small-minded way - surely the emphasis at this time was on producing works which reassed the ways in which we consider and consume culture (the impact of which is still being felt today), rather than simply the formation of a new canon?

It is a shame that Butler's personal biases muddy this otherwise well-written and perceptive account. To publish a book assessing postmodern cultural and theoretical legacies on their own terms (deconstructing the deconstructors, if you will) and presenting it accessibly for newcomers to the subject was a noble aim and could have been a valuable addition to the otherwise excellent Very Short Introduction series. Perhaps it can still be written by an author more sympathetic to (and aware of) the subject matter.
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on 20 June 2005
Though this is accessible, it is much more useful as an introductory account of Butler's own views (incidentally, highly critical of "postmodernism") than of so-called postmodern thought itself. It might be more advisable, then, to read a more sympathetic introduction (say Catherine Belsey's excellent "Poststructuralism" in the same series) before moving on to the more hostile views of Butler, Eagleton, et al.
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HALL OF FAMEon 21 October 2005
Postmodernism is a tricky thing to define. According to Christopher Butler, 'it is certain of its uncertainty', and he intentionally writes 'about postmodern artists, intellectual gurus, academic critics, philosophers, and social scientists...as if they were all members of a loosely constituted and quarrelsome political party.' Butler draws on the work of Derrida, Jameson, Barthes, Althusser and Foucault to provide an intellectual basis for the idea of postmodernism, but does not confine his study to critical and literary theory. The idea of postmodernism is one that has spread into politics and other social sciences, art and the humanities, and even the hard sciences in many ways.
Because postmodernism is more of a method or discourse than a set theory (at least so far as typical Anglo-American concepts of theory would have it), Butler worries that some of postmodernism is lost in translation - owing so much to the French intellectual foundation, and owing much to nuance and subtle readings, the translation of postmodern ideas has been slow to be exactly transferred. This is also in part due to the resistance of English and English-speaking intellectual constructs to permit some of the linguistic aspects of postmodernism in any easy way.
One of the key issues of postmodernism is the idea of grand narratives and metanarratives, and changing the way one uses text, language and symbolic items to interpret the world. This is where deconstruction and reconstruction come into play. Butler addresses these issues in terms of philosophy, history, art and expression, as well as ethical and political theory. He claims that the ideas of postmodernism tend to be more successful in the ethical and political realm, dealing with issues of identity, selfhood, difference and autonomy, all of which tend to be linguistically constructed and supported.
Butler quotes Jameson as seeing the postmodern as 'the disappearance of a sense of history', in culture and in philosophy. The question of Pontius Pilate, 'What is truth?' gets played out again and again in postmodern circles in ways the early Romans and Christians would never have thought. Butler worries for the postmodern condition, stating 'Postmodernists are by and large pessimists.' He says that postmodern thinkers are better at deconstruction than construction/reconstruction, and worries that much of what postmodernism inspires is bleak and dark.
Some reviewers of this text have noted a bias against postmodernism in Butler, which is probably a bit misplaced. Butler is biased against some of the outcomes of postmodernist thinking, and goes a bit further in this Very Short Introduction that perhaps is best in describing what might be the outcome of the logical extreme. Still, this is a very good introduction to the underlying principles of postmodernist thought, with some of the applications in various disciplines of the underlying framework.
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on 5 January 2009
this is an adequate introduction, but hardly brilliant. it is largely, but not always accessible - butler sometimes has an odd turn of phrase and can be slightly longwinded or unclear - but is generally written clearly and with verve.

in my opinion it is a slightly incomplete, or inbalanced introduction - while he touches too lightly on some things, he is also repetitive about others. he is actually not that concise - on a small scale, his paragraphs are longer than they need to be for you to get the point - and on a large scale, certain facets of PM - ie, the 'calling into question' come up again and again while others seem underrepresented - for example, i was really hoping for a summary of key postmodern literature, or at least PM's general effect on literature, but this, if done at all, was only cursorily and indirectly. often butler lists names, which isnt that helpful if they are just names to you. visual art was done better. and, of course, the photos are a great help.

i suppose what i am saying is that it is good on the concepts but not so much on their application (although this is not de facto a bad thing). just dont expect a discussion of samuel beckett or anything.

and yes, butler is unashamedly not postmodernism's biggest fan (kind of odd for an academic who writes about it?) - but i think this is to the book's advantage. it makes it lively, and humanises a topic which is so often presented in a dry and longwinded manner. there is so much mystifying pseudo-intellectualism surrounding postmodernism, and as a student it seems to exert a hegemony on academics, who unthinkingly revere its rhetoric, so it was immensely refreshing to see someone treat it honestly (generally), and challenge this hegemony. butler takes it seriously and in doing so gives it a respect that uncritical worshipping doesnt. it deserves debate (and after all, without this learning can be sterile).

actually, after reading his book i think i like postmodernism (even) more. i definitely care more.
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on 17 October 2007
Postmodernism belongs to that select section of terminology that leaves many critics feeling rather sick. And often with just cause. The definition of postmodernism changes noticeably depending on what area one uses it in. i.e either literature, sociology, architecture etc.
I do pity anyone who takes on the task of writing a book on the subject. I do believe however that one should refrain from such a negative outlook when writing a review as this book claims to be. It did leave me wondering whether a group of pro-postmodernist critics had commited some horrible molestation of Mr Butler or perhaps his mother.
The book therefore became more about Mr Butler's opinions rather than about the subject. Rein it in a bit please, else no one will learn anything.
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on 29 August 2015
Postmodenism is the movement which grew from France's military and social humiliations of 1870, 1916 and 1940 and seeks to bury those national disasters in pointless invention of words, obscurantism and by pretending that there is no "truth", but merely a succession of narratives of equal (zero) value. Only in art, where it has led to a series of interesting questions in aesthetics has it had any impact of interest; in music it led to a dreary and rapidly forgotten school, and in philosophy it essentially wandered off a cliff of solipsism and meaninglessness before it even got going.

Butler approaches the subject in what appears to me to be a pretty even handed manner, but recognises that (for example) Derrida was a rather ill-read commentator on the relationship between language and the world and that Wittgenstein had done an infinitely superior job. He also brings out the hilarious charlatanry which surrounds to entire movement which was exposed and destroyed by the brilliant Sokal and Bricmont article (in English this is called "Intellectual Impostures" and has a successor in "Beyond the hoax") by grossly misusing real scientific terms in a manner which exactly mirrors the proponents of this nonsense.

The attempts of postmodernists to deal with the empirically successful world of science are beneath contempt and it is a great puzzle as to why any of the proponents were kept in employment. Perhaps they really do think that quantum mechanics is 'just a narrative'.

Of course the real reason this stuff was popular in France was that since it was possible to say that all narratives are false and of equal value, the regular and humiliating military defeat and occupation by Germany in the 20th century didn't "really" happen.

But it did.
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on 15 April 2013
If you are ever interested in actually doing some useful postsmodernism you should read this book. It is easy to fictionalise Butler as a former realist who has had to retreat to a critical-realist position in the face of the onslaught on realism that is postmodernism. From this new position he intends to put up a dogged defence and for this reason Butler proves invaluable because in order for him to do so he must really understand postmodernism. Butler also unawarely reveals his privileging position by unconsciously assuming that when those on the margins speak to the centre, they speak to 'us', or when he explains that developments that have been 'immensely liberating' for women and cultural minorities have been the result of postmodernism's 'negative critique'. Still, although he conflates poststructuralism with its parent postmodernism, he demonstrates a depth of knowledge in these areas and is excellent at presenting their complex central themes in a clear readable manner.

Butler begins the narrative of postmodernism in Paris, 1968. Butler deviates a little from the accepted wisdom which is that the marxist's failure to join the barricades resulted in the students dismissing any metanarrative as being potentially liberating. Butler instead seems to infer that the results of this was that postmodernists predicted that metanarratives themselves would ceased to exist. This is an important disjunction for the defence of postmodernism. Throughout the book Butler sets out clearly the progress of postmodern's discourse theory {highlighted in the cultural selection of historical narrative} against realism's rationality, his subsequent championing of 'scientific fact' as being unassailable then seems unreasonable. In its dealings with minorities and women science has a chequered history. In an age when many are concerned about the New Eugenics being practiced by the scientific community, Butler's counter that 'Aspirin works everywhere' doesn't allay fears of a practice of science divorced from philosophy.

Butler engages well at other times and explores postmodern art, architecture music and literature. That poststructuralism is a politics of the left is no secret but Butler demonstrates well how Foucault provides a sophisticated language-based version of the class antagonism of Marx by relying on the beliefs about the inherent evils of the individual's class position. Butler also provides a good explanation {from first principles if you like} of the theory of pattern and repetition - everything is a copy of a copy in postmodernism. Postmodernists are the avent garde of social critique and 'have borne the greatest burden' for a long time; Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that the 'real' America is Disneyland, prisons exist to obfuscate the fact that 'freedom' is also a form of imprisonment. This is postmodernism at its most playful. What is easily forgotten is the extreme hard work postmodern philosophers put into developing the theory behind these vinaigrettes. Butler tells you to watch out because you had better also have worked hard to develop your work.
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on 26 March 2013
As others have no doubt commented, whilst this may be a valid resource it is not a short GUIDE to postmodernism, it is a short CRITIQUE of postmodern - and the distinction is very important.

The basic premis of this series is great - although they are expensive for what you get, and the type-size is way too small for older readers and the dust-jacket/cover doesn't work insofar as the flap jumps out any time you even think of bending the book - oh! and they are glued way too tightly, but apart from those quite serious points, the basis concept is a winner. That is, however, if WYSIWYG and this case it isn't. Case in point, the opening statement. These VSI will only work if they present (as much as possible) unbiased information to the reader. Presenting either neutral data or both the pro and con (better idea, but probably not enough space) is what these texts should be about. One picks up a book on a meaty subject which one has a burgeoning interest in and on the strength of a brief, neutral expose of the main players; the movers and shakers, of the main theories of a particular protagonist, one decides to dig deeper (or not, as the case may be).

What went wrong here is a twofold affair. Firstly this book doesn't fit the brief (previous point, above). Secondly it is a case of the wrong man for the job. Because whilst Professor Butler is clearly a serious academic, who deserves genuine respect for his scholastic fortitude, he is a professor of literary criticism and that makes his angle of sight rather myopic. When he is in his area - on point, as it were, then he can probably hold his own with the best-of-the-best, but he does tend to wander off like an old man in the middle of a childhood anecdote and in addition to that he quite clearly hates and does not `get' postmodernism in equal measure - not the best choice for an introductory foray into the subject! Furthermore, perhaps any Literature professor (however scholarly) is not the best choice for an exploration of a very diverse and eclectic subject as postmodernism. A field which, aside from Literature also covers the social sciences, the visual Arts, social anthropology, popular culture, psychology philosophy, and architecture.

If there is a plus to this work, and there surely is, it is the depth of resources that it delivers to the reader. If, therefore, you ignore the bile and concentrate on this a resource to other, primary sources, then it is a worthy investment of time, energy and coin. I have to add a small note of caution here however, and that concerns the fact that some of the references are slightly off. I found one lauded text was WELL out of print (Hartman's `Glas' [p.28], and also Robbe-Grillet's `La Maison de Rendezvous' [p.94] is no longer printed as a stand-alone ) and on another occasion the author's name was incorrect (`Ray' Federman (p.22) is not actually called Ray, but Raymond henceforth an Amazon search for `Ray' reveals zero - a sloppy error especially given the prominence he places on Federman's novel `Take it or Leave it).

In summation, if you are interested in exploring the fascinating subject of postmodernsm and looking for a NOT SO short introduction, then I cannot but recommend Sim (ed.) The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism (Third Edition). Which is one of the best reference books I have ever come across on any subject.
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on 26 December 2012
We live in the post-modernist era (whatever that means) and so it is perhaps difficult for us to see our age with the correct focus. This book seems to me to be a helpful account of the subject, whatever ones likes or dislikes, though one must distinguish between the art of the age and the theoretical justification thereof, for the critics - largely tenured Frenchmen, with their generous remuneration - do seem to have their own agenda (usually of the marxist-leninist-feminist sort; that is to say biting the hand that enables their critiques) as they seek to enjoy the bonfire of the west. Who knows; they may get their wish, in which case they will certainly be amongst the first to complain.

In the meanwhile I will continue to believe that the dots and dashes in the score (which happens to be Beethoven 5) immediately before my eyes mean more or less what everyone has always thought it meant, and that it is not a colonialist, sexist, racist attack on those who are not even fit to be Beethoven's page-turner, or ear-piece holder, and where even if they are the right notes their is no proof that they are in the correct order. Musst ist sein; ist musst sein!
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on 18 February 2015
This book was the perfect tool for my studies in Fine Art at University. Written in simple to understand terms, it offers the reader a condensed version of events surrounding Postmodernism. Handy small size too, for carrying around.
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