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10 November 2021updated 14 Nov 2021 12:55pm

Theory wars: how postmodernism became weaponised

How did a philosophical movement embracing consumer culture become a target for today’s anti-woke brigade?

By William Davies

Postmodernism, as the journalist Stuart Jeffries demonstrates in Everything, All the Time, Everywhere, is a tricky phenomenon to describe. The term is usually assumed to originate in architecture in the early 1970s, where the work of Robert Venturi, Charles Moore and others defied the austere tenets of the modernist movement that had swept the world under the influence of Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. As Venturi and his co-authors articulated in Learning from Las Vegas (1972), the carnivalesque opulence of consumerism and post-industrial capitalism is something to be enjoyed and appropriated. Postmodernism also mandated a remixing of past styles, which yielded such British peculiarities as Poundbury new town and Venturi’s Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery.

Two decades later, there was a rash of postmodernism debates amongst Marxists. David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity (1989), Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism (1991), Terry Eagleton’s The Illusions of Postmodernism (1996) and Perry Anderson’s The Origins of Postmodernity (1998) explored the new cultural and literary anarchy that had taken hold, and all argued that the underlying mechanics of this new era were the familiar ones of capitalist expansion. Postmodernism, from the Marxist perspective, is the aesthetic froth floating on top of de-industrialisation and globalisation. Consumer culture only appears weightless and playful because its real material conditions have moved offshore. Throughout all of this, there was the background hum of French philosophers, deconstructing and questioning the basic rudiments of Western reason, taking inspiration from Nietzsche and Heidegger, and offering it to a generation of sociologists and humanities scholars, especially in American literature departments. Everything, All the Time, Everywhere mentions Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Jean-François Lyotard, but it is notable that only the latter was ever that concerned with “modernism” or used the term “postmodern”. In many ways, the philosophical ambitions of these philosophers was far larger than a mere rejection of “modern” ideas and extended to a wholesale rethinking of freedom and truth.

In the past five years, however, the term “postmodern” has been revived, largely by people with no real interest in any of its historical movements or debates. Liberals have blamed “postmodernists” for the decline of “truth”, clearing the ground for opportunistic liars such as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. Conservatives have constructed an enemy in the form of “postmodern Marxism”, that is alleged to inject “woke” ideology into the heads of the young at universities. The nadir of this paranoia in the UK was reached in 2020 when the Equalities Minister, Liz Truss, blamed the “fact” that children in Leeds in the 1980s were taught about racism, but not how to read and write, on “postmodernist philosophy – pioneered by Foucault”.

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While these polemics against postmodernism are best ignored, we should at least note the irony of lumping Foucault together with “Marxism”, and treating postmodernism as an anti-capitalist agenda. Many of the most incisive political critiques of French deconstruction came from the left by the likes of the German social theorist Jürgen Habermas, who in the 1980s charged these followers of Nietzsche with conservatism on the basis that they lacked an emancipatory programme. When Marxists such as Fredric Jameson did give some credence to the idea of postmodernism it was precisely to demonstrate that this new linguistic and architectural fluidity was merely the latest trick of capital.

The problem with the term postmodernism today is that it is either a clumsy denunciation, or a jaded label that was applied to things which appeared disorientating and novel 40 years ago. One can point to plenty that originally fitted the vague intuition of postmodernism – and Jeffries’s book is teeming with them, from David Bowie to the iPod, from Canary Wharf to Quentin Tarantino – but to insist on postmodernism as an explanatory cultural framework for the past half century is to adopt the goggles of the cultural critics that first encountered these things. In Britain, the term was often steeped in a mischievous public intellectualism, used by the likes of Marxism Today and music hacks to provoke and show off. By following the concept so faithfully, Everything, All the Time, Everywhere often feels more like a history of cultural criticism than it does a critical history of culture.

Jeffries’s story covers the period from 1972 to roughly the present, and foregrounds a highly plausible economic thesis: that “postmodernism originated under the star of neoliberalism”, providing the “cultural movement to support it”. The de-coupling of the US dollar from gold in 1971 “helped produce the world we live in – one of deregulation, free-floating signifiers and no less free-floating capital”. The book also ends with a swift tour through the global financial crisis and its aftermath. This might suggest an endorsement of the argument of David Harvey and others that postmodernism was really just capitalism all along – in which case, why not write a book about capitalism? But these material underpinnings quickly become submerged.

In between these two economic signposts, the book is organised into clusters of often disorientating case studies, sorted by year. Thus, the year 1979 allows Jeffries to discuss the Sex Pistols, Margaret Thatcher and Lyotard side by side. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History thesis (1992), Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) and the fatwa against Salman Rushdie are all bundled under the umbrella of “1989”. It’s a fun method, up to a point. But it often descends into a kind of Adam Curtis pastiche, in which the slightest analogy or overlap between two disparate topics provides the excuse to leap wholesale into a new one.

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Perhaps, as Jeffries stresses in relation to digital technologies, the medium is the message, and the book has been compiled in a postmodern style, jerking the reader around, unsettling meaning and withholding metanarrative. There are plenty of intriguing nuggets along the way, which are enjoyable just so long as the reader doesn’t think too hard about what they add up to. Everything, All the Time, Everywhere, is crammed with showing and only occasional telling. The effect is like that of the carousel in a sushi restaurant: small plates of hip-hop, Steve Jobs, Netflix and Baudrillard appear, and then disappear as quickly as they arrived. The democratic impulse of postmodernism, in which aesthetic hierarchies are torn down and replaced with something more flippant and lightweight, is reproduced in Jeffries’s approach to his material, which grants each player in the story as much significance as every other. In form, this resembles a coffee table book or blog, in which chunks of text can be read, almost regardless of order.

But what does Jeffries think? And what might the idea or history of postmodernism offer us today, beyond the entertaining but aimless reliving of Madonna’s cultural impact in 1983 or Grand Theft Auto’s in 1997? Occasionally, Jeffries is willing to extrapolate a little, suggesting, for example, that the shapeshifting of early Bowie and Cindy Sherman contained the seeds of our contemporary online selves, in which we dissolve into a constant flow of avatars and imagery. Some of the philosophical innovations he details have more obvious connections to today, such as Butler’s argument for the performative nature of gender identities, a claim that is central to controversies over trans rights. And clearly there might be something connecting the philosophical dethroning of reason and the rise of Trump and meme culture, even if it’s not as simple as too many literature students reading too much Derrida (a minor moral panic that took off in 2016). 

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But digging into some of these genealogies requires the power of hindsight, and not just archival curiosity. Jeffries does grant a historical role to the major disruptors of our current age – Big Finance and Big Tech – but they largely appear in the faux-innocent guise of their cool 1980s product launches, counter cultural gurus and weird new buildings. By permitting such innovations to keep their postmodern masks on, one becomes blind to the political menace they posed right from the start, aided (as Jeffries rightly notes) by the political agenda of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

The general mood of postmodernism was an optimistic one: the idea that pleasures were there for the taking, artistic elites had been toppled, and identities could be toyed with. Contrast that with the fearful loss of confidence in “progress” and the West today. How did the former result in the latter? Apart from the steady rise of inequality wrought by neoliberalism, Jeffries is unclear as to how the carnival went so wrong, and refuses to say whether its freedoms were ever real or not. The figure who stands out in Everything, All the Time, Everywhere for his grasp of his own moment, but also our own, is Lyotard. His 1979 book Postmodern Condition was eminently clear in its concerns. Something was happening to the place of knowledge in society, Lyotard argued, driven by technology and the shifting logic of capitalism. The pursuit of knowledge and that of profit were converging into a single sphere, in which the value of science was to be found in the marketplace. “Science becomes a force of production,” he argued, “in other words, a moment in the circulation of capital.”

Lyotard was anticipating the rise of the idea of the “knowledge economy” in the 1980s, manifest in the expansion of intellectual property rights, and political pressure on universities to drive entrepreneurial activity and “impact”. While Foucault was in the archives reading about mediaeval plague management, capitalist societies were on the cusp of a new mode of governance, based around internationally-connected computers and financial markets, whose authority lay in their capacity to process information on a vast scale. This is how the place of reason in society was revolutionised. In this age, Lyotard correctly saw, knowledge existed in ownable, marketable items. By the early 21st century, these two great powers – Big Finance and Big Tech – would recombine again to produce an even more fearsome epistemological project in the form of platform capitalism, built on a business model that elevates the acquisition of data to the same priority as the pursuit of profit.

Jeffries claims that “if postmodernism is about anything substantial, it is about countering modernist myths of cool objectivity”. But that veneer of playfulness was itself a myth. “Objectivity” may have gone out of fashion, but it was still at work, only now in the service of business. The scientific view was privatised and turned into an asset. It now belongs to the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos. Unless one has abandoned all hopes of learning, let alone of progress, one must assume that 2021 offers some kind of vantage point on the 1980s and 1990s that was not available to cultural critics at the time. Recent work on neoliberalism, for example, offers a far more insightful account of Thatcherism than her own (or her opponents’) rhetoric about there being “no such thing as society”.

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The critical theory that Jeffries seems most drawn to owes more to the subject of his previous book, Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School (2016), than to any postmodern thought. He turns repeatedly to the idea that people have come to “desire their own domination”, and certainly consumerism, credit cards and Netflix are evidence of people willingly inserting themselves into grids of surveillance and control. Yet to understand the working of that domination, in a postmodern world that is more than an endless shifting of surfaces and irony, is to step outside the carnival as an observer and critic. By the end of Everything, All the Time, Everywhere, I wasn’t sure if Jeffries had come to celebrate postmodernism, denounce it, or merely point at it.

Everything, All the Time, Everywhere: How We Became Postmodern
Stuart Jeffries
Verso Books, 384pp, £20

This article appears in the 10 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the Masks