Everything, All the Time, Everywhere: How We Became Post-Modern by Stuart Jeffries - review by Jane O'Grady

Jane O'Grady

Nothing is Real

Everything, All the Time, Everywhere: How We Became Post-Modern


Verso 378pp £20

We easily and often apply the label ‘postmodern’ to particular artworks, architecture, activities and ideas; it is harder to specify some common quality of postmodernism that they all share. Far more than other historical phases, ‘postmodernity’ seems almost to have been concocted by those who write about it. The term suggests an impossible realm – after the present yet somehow already present itself; the concept, judging by the copious literature on it, is precisely about imprecision and lack of essence, and better defined by what it is not. Jean-François Lyotard’s much-cited The Postmodern Condition (1979) diagnosed in it an absence of ‘grand narratives’ (Christianity, liberalism, Marxism), which have been abandoned due to lack of faith in the march of progress. We are left instead, in a Waste Land way, with fragments we have shored against our ruin. Now that modernism has exhausted outrage and authenticity, and been domesticated and canonised, all postmodern art and architecture can do is pastiche and appropriate earlier styles, blazoning their own lack of originality. A central principle of postmodernism is ‘intertextuality’, the notion that ‘any text is the absorption and transformation of any other’, in the words of Julia Kristeva. Not only are ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ statutorily encircled in inverted commas with a mixture of scepticism and knowingness, but even apparently factual statements are held at a dubious remove, as if what is expressed cannot quite be committed to.

Everything, All the Time, Everywhere conveys the essence of postmodernism (or lack of it) through an appropriately postmodern bricolage – a patchwork of events, buildings, photographic and enacted artworks, philosophies, films, technologies and video games. Three examples are allocated to each of the ten chapters, which are ordered chronologically and cover the period from 1971 to 2001. The Sex Pistols, Margaret Thatcher and Lyotard co-feature as punk icons in the third chapter, ‘No Future’; in the seventh, which focuses on 1989, when the Soviet bloc collapsed, Jeffries juxtaposes Francis Fukuyama’s notion of ‘the end of history’ with Judith Butler’s 1990 Gender Trouble (which marked the rise of queer theory) and the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses.

There is a special tone – of high-flown, pell-mell, hyperbolic lyricism – that informs writing on postmodernism, and Jeffries sometimes falls into it. He revels in ‘the giddy, fun, libidinous carnival’ spirit that succeeded modernism’s dourness, even as he rues it. He celebrates the way high and low culture mingle, and 1980s hip-hop, with its stuttering jangle of shreds and patches, the product of different records being played simultaneously or spun backwards so that phrases are jabbingly repeated.

But his more serious intent is to expose the specious undertow beneath postmodernism’s glittering surface and the economics and technology that fuelled its ascent. Postmodernism, he argues, ‘originated under the star of neoliberalism’, which, while trumpeting liberation from deadening state intervention, actually ‘kicked over the ladder and cut holes in the safety net’ of ordinary people. The first chapter chronicles the Nixon Shock of 1971, when the dollar was disconnected from the gold standard (thereby, says Jeffries, severing the relationship between money and value). The last describes the ever-increasing rise of debilitating, state-abetted debt that this severance fostered. Derrida and other French poststructuralists similarly cut the link between language and reality, and between the author and his or her work. Roland Barthes derided the ‘single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God)’. But without it, art and ideas could all too smoothly be co-opted by capitalism through slippery sophistry. One of the signs installed in midtown Manhattan in 1982 by an edgy street artist, Jenny Holzer, read: ‘Protect me from what I want’. In 1999, that became one of the slogans inscribed in metal foil with phosphorescent highlighting on a BMW racing car, Holzer having accepted a commission to work on the BMW Art Car Project. She could, of course, claim that her slogans were still subversive and ironic – that they deconstructed the car buyer’s pretentious self-image; their function, however, was to help sell exorbitantly priced luxury cars. The meaning of the words is indeed unanchored from what they say. Postmodern irony, says Jeffries, may have started out as ‘a rebel yell’; yet now it ‘subverts not what it sets out to critique, but the critical agency of the message itself’.

The philosopher Herbert Marcuse lamented in 1964 that art’s ‘Great Refusal’ – its ‘protest against that which is’ – had ‘in turn [been] refused’, because art had been ‘absorbed into the prevailing state of affairs’ and ‘deprived of [its] antagonistic force’. Reprising Marcuse, Jeffries mourns what he calls the ‘Great Acceptance’. The hippies, the soixante-huitards and the Summer of Love veterans all became entrapped in consumerism, he says, and sold out.

Epitomising this is the life of the entrepreneur Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple. Jobs lauded as ‘one of the bibles of my generation’ the Whole Earth Catalog, a countercultural magazine founded in 1968 to foster ecological living and self-sufficiency by publicising alternative technologies. Originally, the Apple Mac was marketed as hippy and home-brewed, in contradistinction to the products of the giant computer manufacturer IBM. Jeffries describes an Apple advertisement transmitted during the broadcast of the 1984 Super Bowl: ‘Glum, grey workers’ sit in a grim hall watching a huge telescreen on which Big Brother drones on about ‘Our Unification of Thoughts’; suddenly a young, blonde, colourfully dressed woman runs forward and hurls a sledgehammer at the screen, unleashing wholesome light; a voiceover announces the birth of the Apple Mac and promises that the real 1984 will be nothing like the one envisaged by Orwell. But under the guise of promoting freedom and rebellion, Jobs ushered in an era of oppressive conformity. From 1997 to 2002, the company’s ‘Think Different’ ad campaign celebrated ‘the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers’ who ‘have no respect for the status quo’ (Einstein, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Bob Dylan) in order to promote Apple products. In China not long afterwards, netting was placed beneath the windows of factories operated by Foxconn (a company making Apple products) to break the falls of suicidal workers.

The book could helpfully have included photos of the artworks and architecture Jeffries discusses. Sometimes his judgements of them seem strangely arbitrary. He lambasts Jeff Koons’s Rabbit as a complacency-inducing sham, ‘a cultural instrument for capitalism’, and dismisses Quentin Tarantino’s films as cool and stylish but morally vacuous. Yet laboriously decoding Cindy Sherman’s photographs, he pronounces her Centerfolds, which features female adolescents in suggestive poses, to be ‘indicting the male desire for sex with underage girls’. And he describes the intrusive ‘art’ of Sophie Calle and Chris Kraus, who each stalked, harassed and exposed their male victims, as subverting ‘patriarchal norms’, though it is surely the rationale of the terrorist to consider an individual punishable simply on account of the sex, class or any other category he or she belongs to.

‘Our privacy is eliminated, our pockets picked, and our time exploited,’ writes Jeffries of the postmodern age. Postmodern irony is merely ‘the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage’. His bricolage ends in 2001, but he disagrees with theories that postmodernism died when the planes crashed into the Twin Towers. He could, then, have examined how postmodernism jibes with identity politics, counterculture and the new moralism. But that is a minor cavil. His analysis of postmodernism is erudite, astute and enthralling.

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RLF - March