Everything, All the Time, Everywhere by Stuart Jeffries’ critique – how we became postmodern | Philosophy books
For the last half century, postmodernist thinkers have tried to discredit truth, identity and reality. Identity is a straitjacket, and the truth is only the opinion of a middle-aged academic. As for reality, it has become as outdated as dressing for dinner. Objectivity is a myth in the service of power. If only we could get rid of these illusions, we could revel in a world of endless possibilities. Instead of waking up to the same boring old man every morning, we could switch between identities as easily as David Bowie. The final liberation is that anything can mean something else. Once you get rid of the fixed meanings and solid foundations, you are free to have fun. Postmodernism is meant to be fun, even if a current of nihilism regularly flows underneath. As Stuart Jeffries suggests in this beautifully readable survey, there is something empty at the heart of his exuberance.
Even so, postmodernism claims to be subversive. Since civilization works by order and authority, challenging these things is bound to seem disruptive. The problem is that neoliberalism challenges them too. Nothing is more fluid and flexible than the market. No one on Wall Street believes in the absolute truth. The real anarchists are the free traders. So is postmodernism a critique of the status quo or a capitulation to it?
Perhaps the ultimate postmodern irony is to be both – to sell to the system while sending it. It becomes impossible to distinguish the boss from the bohemian. Postmodernism may be playful, witty and shallow, but so too is Britain’s Prime Minister. He’s a shameless populist, defiantly embracing the everyday, but so is Nigel Farage. As Jeffries points out, Steve Jobs “was selling compliance disguised as personal liberation.” He might consider himself a hippie, but the Chinese factories that made his products had suicide nets under the windows of his dormitories for exploited workers. Madonna is considered by some to be a feminist guerrilla and by others as the traffic in rape fantasies, as well as the most successful coffee table book (Sex) of all time. Post-truth politics may have started on the left bank of the Seine, but it ended up in the White House.
Some studies of postmodernism are cultural, some are historical, and some are philosophical. The success of this book is to combine the three approaches into one. This is rare, because those who know Sid Vicious may not be great readers of Michel Foucault, while those who are deep in Jacques Derrida are not always fans of I Love Dick by Chris Kraus. Jeffries packs a remarkable knowledge of postmodern culture into these pages, from punk, hip-hop, film and photography to anti-psychiatry, Rushdie’s fatwa and queer theory. All of this is set against the backdrop of 1970s neoliberalism, showing how a renewed capitalism gave birth to a culture of the flexible and the provisional – of short-termism, endless consumption and multiple identities.
Postmodernism may be a fact of history, but it finds history itself boring. The past is just a collection of styles to recycle, while the future will be like the present with a richer range of options. There are no longer great stories like the idea of progress, no momentous transformation to fear or hope for. It is not a question of changing the world but of parodying it. The story ended with Ben & Jerry’s and Grand Theft Auto.
When two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, a new grand narrative – the conflict between the West and Islamism – began to unfold. For some observers, this marked the end of the postmodern era. Jeffries himself isn’t so sure: he may have lost some of his youthful zest, but his evil spirit still lives on. Postmodern ideas certainly survive in the current skepticism of the truth. For a whole generation of young people, simply to have a conviction is to be guilty of dogmatism. Asked about his convictions, Boris Johnson replied that he had picked up a few for speeding. To suggest that someone’s opinion is wrong is a form of discrimination. Every point of view should be respected except for racism, sexism, homophobia, elitism and anti-Semitism, which are deeply offensive. So they are, but how do you decide that if moral objectivity is for the birds? There are writers today who rightly insist that women have been shackled and humiliated throughout history, but who put words like truth and reality into frightening quotes.
The most useless theory of knowledge is that which prevents us from saying with reasonable certainty, for example, that large numbers of Africans were once enslaved by the West. Yet you can find such theories of knowledge in most seminar rooms, although those who tout them may rightly think of nothing more outrageous than slavery. Maybe Jeffries’ compelling review will help sort them out.