Interpreting Postmodernity

How did we get here?

Fall of Berlin wall

Interpreting Postmodernity explores the forces that have shaped the world in which we live, by focusing on the historical shift from modernity to postmodernity underway since the late twentieth century. It is a research project and undergraduate course, Shock and Awe: A History of the Postmodern World, developed by Dr. Mark Hearn in the Department of Modern History, Politics, International Relations and Security, Macquarie University.

MHIS375 Shock and Awe: A History of the Postmodern World

Department of Modern History and Politics, Macquarie University, second semester 2014

Children of Men
Alfonso Cuaron, The Children of Men, Universal Pictures 2006

The course traces the history of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the shift to the neo-liberal culture of enterprise that has characterised the global economy since the 1990s; the tension between notions of progress and their environmental consequences, and the nature of war and terror in the postmodern world.

The course also considers how postmodernity manifests in culture - in films such as Blade Runner and The Children of Men, the music of Radiohead - and the historical context of these cultural expressions. Interpreting Postmodernity focuses on the reconception of historical narratives, as represented by Joe Sacco’s powerful ‘cartoon strip’ history of the Balkan conflict, Safe Area Gorazde.

Radiohead, OK Computer, EMI 1997

By interpreting postmodernity the course reassesses the history of the modern era of the twentieth century: its often violent and utopian politics, and notions of technological innovation and industrial growth that reflected an unquestioning faith in material progress.

The modern project found expression in both liberal capitalism and totalitarian regimes that offered their versions of prosperity and liberation, and the course will explore the nature of these political regimes and their consequences. The course will focus on a range of historical interpretations of postmodernity, and how we might use this historical moment to both rethink the past, and the world we inhabit.

Interpreting Postmodernity: Research Paper

‘Postmodernity need not result in the assertion of new forms of consciousness, politics or culture: In the former Yugoslavia once good friends and neighbours took the opportunity to murder each other in a frenzy of sectarian tribalism.’

This research paper by Mark Hearn provides a brief history of postmodernity as
represented in the breakdown of Cold War power structures, and the cult of
neo-liberalism that has flourished as a consequence. Download paper.

Find out about the world in which you live.

safe area gorazde

Joe Sacco, Safe Area Gorazde, Jonathan Cape 2007

Dr. Mark Hearn
Unit Convenor
Department of Modern History and Politics,
Macquarie University

TimelineOn this page you can track some historical markers that plot the path from the high hopes and promises of modernity to its troubling Other of postmodernity.

Skiing in Dubai

weblinksHere’s some links to various clips and documentaries that help clarify – or at least complicate – an understanding of the unfolding of postmodernity.


Vaclav Havel: Facing our Postmodern Reality

In 1989 the dissident playwright Vaclav Havel became the first president of a democratic Czechoslovakia. In 1992 he addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he reflected on the significance of the fall of communism. Havel urged our creative engagement with the postmodern era, and an acceptance of the opportunities and challenges that confront us:

‘The fall of communism can be regarded as a sign that modern thought based on the premise that the world is objectively knowable, and that the knowledge so obtained can be absolutely generalized has come to a final crisis. This era has created the first global, or planetary, technical civilization, but it has reached the limit of its potential, the point beyond which the abyss begins. I think the end of communism is a serious warning to all mankind. It is a signal that the era of arrogant, absolutist reason is drawing to a close, and that it is high time to draw conclusions from that fact.’

Havel in prison
In March 1990 Havel visited Ruzyne Prison, where he had once been incarcerated.
Photograph by Tomki Nemec,
Columbia Magazine Fall 2006

Vaclav Havel, Address to the World Economic Forum Davos, Switzerland, February 4, 1992.
For the full text visit this site.

See also Vaclav Havel, official website

© 2020 • For more information visit the Department of Modern History and Politics, Macquarie University