Everything, All the Time, Everywhere: How We became Postmodern
By Stuart Jeffries
Published by Verso, 2021 hardback, £20 rrp
Review by Tim Barton
Jeffries is not seeking to give a straightforward definition of ‘postmodernism’, nor does he dig into the originating thinkers who contributed to its philosophical theory. One of the hallmarks of postmodern readings of authors’ works is the denial that an author’s intent is, 1) relevant or 2) known, really, even to the author. Such insights are admittedly odd, and in my view, whilst they have their uses, tend to be pushed too far. Jeffries himself is happy to play with these thoughts, despite his book being in many ways a critique, and this allows him to get away with ignoring a lot of verbose theory and give us instead, an entertaining read.
The range, embracing pop culture as well as high theory, politics as well as candy-floss, reminds me of the current god of pop-culture theory, Mark Fischer, specifically his K-Punk blogs. Mark’s rise is all the more intriguing, as he has been dead for a few years now. Stuart is not trying to fit his shoes but his gadfly approach is similar.
Chapters here are mostly chronological dating from the rise of neoliberalism, which here is deemed to be 1972. This is philosophically a late start for ‘postmodernism’ but does seem to fit the timing of its bumping into ‘real’ world affairs. Each chapter takes three iconic moments from each year the author has picked as touchstones, taking in pop, technology and politics. This pattern keeps the reader’s attention and he never allows it to be too rigid an approach to cramp his style. Thus, to take two examples, his 1979 takes in the Sex Pistols, Margaret Thatcher, and Jean-François Lyotard; and his 1991 takes in the Gulf War, Vegas, and Silicon Valley. His last chapters bring us from the Credit Crunch up to Netflix, iPods and GTA.
What this approach does is offer a ‘definition’ of the postmodern through illustrative examples. As ‘postmodernism’ is a bit slippery, this is effective and less dry than quoting academic treatises and dictionaries. However, as his argument is intended to show the parallels between consumerist ‘values’ and the neoliberal phase of capitalism, and to then take the latter as the driving force of the former, he misses much out. Aesthetics is a primary area from which postmodern ideas emerged, and it has made an amusing funfair out of the arts and architecture.
A rambunctious aesthetic has emerged, mixing up genres and styles with glee. New architecture might take a bit from gothic and a bit from brutalist; painters might redo Constable in day-glo; musicians might engage in a new ‘kitchen-sink’ production style, as heard from Madonna, Sugar Hill, Stock Aitken and Waterman or Colourbox. This has definitely been FUN. Distracting. Financially rewarding for its successes – people like Jeff Koons in the 1980s and the aforementioned Miss Ciccone – and pocket-draining for punters. It is a fair point that this playful art trend is a boon to late period consumer capitalism, especially as it often involves the public putting their critical faculties on pause and diminishing our attention spans.
So long as ‘postmodernism’ stayed in ‘the arts’ it seemed relatively harmless. Even this is giving too much of a free pass to PoMo pundits, though, as George Sakkai’s new book Whose Truth, Whose Creativity? argues. It has, anyway, long since leaked out and virally toxified much more of our culture, which Jeffries touches on via his analysis of, for example, the Gulf War: starting with Jean Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Never Happened but also more everyday media coverage / manipulation of events. Here we see all narratives being given equal value, or lack of value; the very concept of ‘truth’ being denied in phrases such as Hassan-i-Sabbah’s “There is no truth, all is permitted”. This is the true, toxic, legacy of ‘postmodern’ ideas, the ‘philosopher’s intent’ be damned.
The rise of the World Wide Web and currently dominant social media such as Facebook, Instagram, Tik-Tok, and Snapchat exemplify and exaggerate these effects. There is little doubt the damage done has helped extend a consumerist culture a bit past its natural sell-by date. Nor that it has de-radicalised a large part of the ‘working class’. Indeed, it was Leon Trotsky who first predicted, in 1905 that capitalists would buy off workers by throwing tidbits to them and making of them passive consumers. And here is part of the issue with Jeffries’ thesis: we can see much of the ‘pop culture eating itself’ going on in, say, the 1930s American pulps or in 1950s suburbia, long before the rise to power of the ideas Ayn Rand, von Mises, or Hayek; long before Nixon, or Reagan and Thatcher. Even modernist icons such as James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses in fact fit the aesthetic definition of ‘postmodernist’ just as well. Jeffries is heading in the right direction, but does not go anywhere near far enough in criticising and suggesting the dangers of ‘postmodernism’, and I suspect his book would be a lot less fun if he had.
Because forces in America that promulgated PoMo ideas are far from just capitalist greed-heads, it goes much deeper. The dark rising is on the right, is anti-’communist’, and used PoMo ideas as a means to de-radicalise and fragment the left, student revolt, black power and the anti-Vietnam War generation. A telling anecdote, still heard today says Jerry Garcia fresh from the radicalising ‘Workingman’s Dead’ tour, was recruited by the CIA to depoliticise the flower power generation by switching the Grateful Dead’s output from politically engaged folk-rock to LSD-laced psychedelia. True or not, it stands metaphorically as an explanation for the Left’s political woes of the last 50 years, and is neck-deep in ‘postmodernism’.
Teach it at colleges and you divert the kids before they can learn to fight the system. For lecturers, the obscurantist rhetoric PoMo thinkers use, often to disguise that the emperor is naked as a new-born baby, helps them maintain tenure by invisibly recycling their old ideas. In the words of Edward Bernays in his 1928 book on Propaganda, ‘In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons… who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind”, yet these invisible puppeteers live here too, and are as manipulated by the beast they have unleashed as we are.
Ultimately, ‘postmodernism’ promotes the ideas that ‘there is no truth’ and ‘all narratives are equal’, ideas that fundamentally undermine enlightenment values, rationality and the sciences. A quick look at stickers and posters pasted up all over Hastings, or the arguments on our local Facebook pages, on the subjects of chemtrails, masks, vaccines, 5G, David Icke, ‘great resets’ and aluminium hats will tell you that the battle is all but lost. We do not need to reform the system, we need to break it down and rebuild.
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