Dictionary of Postmodern Terms

Dictionary of Postmodern Terms - Simulacra, Deconstruction, Bricolage, Semiotics, Commodification, Alterity

This section contains a listing of the key terms used in discussing postmodernism and found throughout this site.



  • Alterity is a philosophical principle of exchanging one's own perspective for that of the "other".
  • State of being on the periphery or fringes due to race, gender, or ethnicity
  • Dissimilarity from cultural norms
  • A lack of personal identity.


  • An aporia is a philosophical puzzle, paradox, or impasse often used in conjunction with 'deconstruction'.
  • A state of wonder and awe due to contemplating the mysteries of life and the universe.
  • An internal contradiction in a statement or theory
  • Literal translation from Greek is 'without passage’


  • Bricolage is a processes by which traditional objects or language are given a new, often subversive, meaning and context.
  • Art technique where works are constructed from various available materials ("found items" or mass-produced "junk").
  • A mashup or creation from a diverse range of existing items or ideas


  • A form of emotional cleansing, first described by Aristotle, which occurs simply from the passive act of viewing a tragedy.
  • The process of freeing oneself from damaging or repressed emotions.
  • A postmodern analogy is that the media's focus on violence is the method by which society cleanses its collective psyche.


  • Term used in Marxist economics when economic value is assigned to something not traditionally considered a commodity.
  • Examples of commodification include: ideas, culture, identity, and even the human body.
  • Appropriating of cultural phenomenon for the physical creation of cheap mass marketed goods.


  • Term attributed to Jean Piaget, who described how knowledge is assimilated and internalized during the process of learning.
  • Postmods contend that the process of matching internal models to the real world is inherently colored by the bias of the observer.


  • Cybernetics is a process by which a biological organism enhances its abilities by the integration of technology.
  • So called "cyborgs" are a common feature of science fiction (Popular examples include: Robocop and the Borg).
  • In postmodernism, much philosophical weight is given to this merging (and interdependence) of man and technology.
  • Many consider there to be similar impact due to reliance on everyday items like glasses or hearing aids.


  • Cyberpunk is a science fiction genre based in the near-future and often set in post-industrial dystopias.
  • The focus of Cyberpunk has been described as "high tech and low life": technology run amok with gritty film noir motifs.
  • Its name is a synthesis of Cybernetics and Punk and often features body modification.
  • Plots often involve hackers, artificial intelligences, and mega corporations.
  • Popular examples include: Snow Crash and Neuromancer


  • A term coined by William Gibson in Neuromancer and Burning Chrome to describe an all-encompassing, virtual reality internet.
  • "A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation... A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding..."
  • A similar term, Metaverse, was used by Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash


  • Dadaism was a cultural movement which attempted to reject and destroy the prevailing standards in art through anti-art.
  • It was a reaction to the horrors of World War I, which its followers believed was due to the reason and logic of the modernists.
  • Dada strove to have no meaning and its works are often described as random or without organization.
  • Ironically, Dada became an influential movement in modern art (examples include Duchamp's "readymades" found objects)


  • Deconstruction is a term coined by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida for a process of critiquing literature and language.
  • It analyzes the built in bias of language and questions its ability to represent reality.
  • Critics see deconstruction as oversimplified and "sloppy" intellectual approach to attacking modernism.


  • Dystopias are societies usually characterized by societal decay and/or oppressive governments.
  • Relevant authors include Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Kurt Vonnegut.

Flattening of Affect

  • Flattening of affect is a scientific term describing a person's detachment and lack of emotional reactivity.
  • Used in the postmodern literature to describe technology's dehumanizing impact.
  • A key example is the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey
    where the main characters lose their humanity whereas the computer HAL gains "his".


  • Hyperreality is a symptom of postmodern culture where a person loses their ability to distinguish reality from fantasy.
  • The hyperreal world is often thought of as an idealized enhancement of reality, much preferable to the real life equivalent.
  • Present day examples could include reality television, pornography, or multi-player online games.


  • Computer science term for text and multimedia content that is linked in a non-linear manner. The acronym HTTP stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol.
  • In postmodernism, references nonsequential expression or narratives that often have ambiguity of cause and effect.


  • Kitsch was originally a German term used to categorize art that is considered an inferior copy of an existing style.
  • Art (often commercially mass-produced) that is done in bad taste or tries to be overly campy or sentimental.
  • From Baudrillard: "one of that great army of 'trashy' objects, made of plaster of Paris or some such imitation material".


  • Mordenism is associated with the period of the mid 20th century.
  • It is associated with constant change in the pursuit of progress, achievable through rationality and logic.
  • In contrast, Postmodernism takes a less optimistic view where constant change becomes the status quo and progress obsolete.


  • Panopticon is derived from the Greek opticon (see) and pan (all).
  • A type of prison designed to allow the guards to observe all prisoners without their knowledge.
  • The goal is to convey a feeling of "invisible omniscience" over the minds of the prisoners.
  • The panopticon is a symbol in many dystopian novels, most notably George Orwell's 1984


  • Pastiche is a tongue-in-cheek imitation or tribute used in literature, art, music, movies, etc.
  • Performed with respect to, or in homage to, other works (as opposed to parody which is done in ridicule or sarcasm).
  • A popular example is the cartoon The Simpsons, known for its pop culture references and recycled plots.

Punctuated Equilibrium

  • A theory in evolutionary biology by which otherwise slow evolutionary change happens during sporadic periods of great change.
  • Postmodernism analogy of technological or cultural change, often used in conjunction with "tipping point" or "singularity".


  • Derived from the botanical term for lateral underground roots.
  • Philosophy term used by Deleuze and Guattari to describe the growing unordered connections "between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles".


  • A simulacra is a copy of a copy, so far removed from its original, that it can stand on its own and even replace the original.
  • Term defined by Jean Baudrillard in "The Precession of Simulacra" from Simulacra and Simulation
    "It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.... substituting the signs of the real for the real".
    Examples included Disneyland, psychosomatic illness, and the Watergate scandal.
  • Another example is the cartoon Betty Boop, who has now become an icon for the long forgotten actresses she was based on.


  • Semiotics is the study of signs, symbols, and how meaning is constructed and understood.
  • Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure proposed the deferentiation between the spoken word (signifier) and mental concept (signified).


  • Steampunk is an off-shoot of cyberpunk set in the steam-powered Victorian era.
  • A type of speculative fiction where fictional and real technologies occur at an earlier date.

Virtual Reality

  • Virtual Reality is a simulation technology providing an immersive computer-generated environment.
  • The environment may be real (medical applications) or imagined (the Matrix).