What the hell is postmodernism?
I’ve written a feature essay on postmodernism and I’m still not entirely sure I know what it is. I can paint a general picture, but even the great postmodern philosophers don’t all agree on what postmodernism means.
Most of the time, when you hear the word “postmodernism” thrown around, it’s a kind of insult. It’s constantly blamed for our “post-truth” era. And it’s often considered a school of thought that abolished standards, denied objectivity, and celebrated a dangerous moral relativism.
Most of this is just using the term as a lazy scapegoat, and yet there is at least some truth in these criticisms. The important thing to know in any case is that postmodernism — or what postmodernism is trying to say about our world — is relevant. Because whether we know it or not, we’re living in a postmodern world.
That’s why I was excited to see a new book by one of my favorite journalists: Stuart Jeffries. The book is called Everything, All the Time, Everywhere: How We Became Postmodern and it does more than offer a useful account of what postmodernism is; it also explores how it revolutionized our culture and politics in ways we hardly recognize.
So I invited Jeffries, who now works as a freelance writer for the Guardian and many other outlets, to join me for an episode of Vox Conversations. We try to make some sense of postmodernism and he explains why he thinks it’s bound up with another boogeyman term: neoliberalism.
Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
I wanted to avoid the temptation to ask you to define postmodernism at the top, but I feel like we have to do it, right?
Yeah, let’s try it. So the simple idea is that postmodernism is what comes after modernism. And modernism was a very earnest and serious commitment to progress, a commitment to overturning the frills and furbelows of Victorian culture and early 20th century decorative culture, in the arts and in architecture. It’s joyless, really.
And postmodernism is a rebellion against all that. It’s a rebellion against the idea that we should become leaner and fitter and meaner in our architecture and in our literature. It’s a rebellion against the idea that we’re on some path to improving ourselves as human beings, that we’re heading toward some kind of absolute perfection. Postmodernism disdains all that. It says that’s garbage. The postmodernists said we’re going to tear up the rule books to make buildings, to make art, and make it all about expression and fun.
Now the weird thing about postmodernism is that when you put it like that, it sounds great! But my book is about how there’s another “ism” looming as postmodernism emerges and it’s called neoliberalism, which is a new form of capitalism and very much the world we’re living in now. We’re living in a neoliberal era and postmodernism has become a cultural handmaiden for that.
What do you mean?
I mean the culture of fun that postmodernism proposes ends up serving neoliberalism. That’s why I wrote this book, because I wanted to pull these two movements together and think about how they reinforce each other.
We’ll get to that, but you make an interesting observation that may help to set the stage here. You mark the beginning of the postmodern era as the moment President Nixon removed the US dollar from the gold standard, which I think will strike a lot of people as very strange. What’s the connection?
You’d have thought that postmodernism would be born in something to do with the Vietnam War. Or Watergate. In other words, that you’d have this rebellion against a disastrous war or disastrous corruption. But actually I think it’s the moment in between those two things.
When Nixon effectively takes the world economy off the gold standard, it does something really interesting. It means that money is in free flow. It’s not pegged to anything real. You know, when countries like Britain were running short of money, we’d always think, “Well, we can always just get some gold. We can get rid of our dollar reserves, get gold from Fort Knox, and we’ll be okay.”
So we enter a terrifying world in which there are no real foundations. Credit cards have their era in the years after that. Credit explodes, borrowing explodes. We go completely mad for buying things we can’t afford. And all of these things are reflected in what’s happening in French postmodern theory.
We have these theorists like Roland Barthes arguing that the author is dead as a guarantor of the meaning of a sentence or the meaning of a work. Now we’re in a democracy where the reader has as much power to decide what something means as the author.
So the idea that the author is dead is taking root around the same time the US is coming off the gold standard and it all reflects this deeper loss of foundations, a loss of meaning. And it’s also a moment in which capital goes nuts.
It’s kind of a metaphor for what happens with language and meaning around that time as well, where there are lots of arguments about separating the words we use from the reality they’re intended to describe, and you have all these thinkers basically arguing that it’s all made up.
Ultimately, that leads to where we are now, which is deep into the post-truth world. I’m not saying that Donald Trump or Boris Johnson read Foucault and Derrida and all these French theorists who deconstructed the notion of abstract truths and undermined the plausibility of objective science. But their incessant lying is made possible by the zeitgeist of a world in which truth no longer has the privileged status that it used to. And that meaning isn’t as fixed as it used to be. It’s not as tied to the real world as it used to be.
Postmodernism is tied to the liberation of the individual in lots of ways, and you’re tying that to this neoliberal turn where we start to become consumers above all else and the role of the state is to just get out of the way and let the market manage all of life. Why is that so significant in your reading of this history?
I think it’s because of who I am and where I grew up. I just turned 60, so I’m a child of Margaret Thatcher, who was one of the first world leaders to put the ideas of neoliberalism into practice. And they involved cutting back on the welfare state, on the very idea that there was a community. Thatcher famously said there was no such thing as society, only individuals and families. And she meant it. She meant that all the communal sensibilities that Britain had had since World War II — a strong welfare state, a sense of the country coming out the war and trying to reestablish its identity, with a strong state with nationalized industries and all that — all that was torn down in my lifetime.
And we all know that Reagan quote about how the nine most terrible words you can hear are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” That actually taps into a fear lots of people have about government and it’s not just in the US, it’s everywhere. But it’s particularly resonant in the States, where there’s a deep resentment toward taxation and any kind of state interference.
But I guess I’d say I’ve always been focused on the political dimensions of big cultural changes.
I don’t think we realize how thoroughly postmodern neoliberalism is in the sense that it’s subversive, even nihilistic. It’s a total amoral capitulation to market society.
It’s the ultimate irony, isn’t it? And postmodernity’s steeped in irony. It almost became its go-to response for everything, which is in itself disastrous.
For me at least, the main symptom of postmodern politics is the idea that politics is a personal issue, that politics is a space for self-expression. And what else are we supposed to do when there are no grand ideologies to believe in anymore, no great historical projects to pursue? We’re just individual actors floating in space with no real connective tissue and capitalism fills the void, and everything, including politics, becomes an arena for affirming our status and individual identity.
I definitely feel a nostalgia for a collective society that probably didn’t exist all that much in my lifetime, but I was sort of stamped with it. It always felt like the right goal, something we should be working toward. And that seems like an incredibly naive thing to say now.
It’s much more likely today that we conceive of politics the same way we conceive of shopping. I don’t mean to sound trite about that, but I really do think we approach politics this way. It’s about personal desire and satisfaction and what this guy can do for me. It’s not about anything grander than ourselves, and that seems so petty and sad. Or maybe I’m just utterly nostalgic and naive. But I still think that collective vision is something worth holding onto.
Do you feel like the emancipatory potential of postmodernism was squandered? Like, there was a genuine subversiveness to it that could’ve been revolutionary, but in the end it gets commercialized and becomes another trick of capital.
Absolutely. If you read Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition [the book that coined the term “postmodernism” in 1979], or if you read Gilles Deleuze, both of them are quite radical thinkers. Both of them are born of the disappointment of the failure of the student rebellions in ’68 in Paris. Their ideas are filled with mourning over the lost revolution.
But they’re not Marxist revolutionaries anymore. And Deleuze, the great postmodern theorist, starts to think about desire as a liberator. So forget about socialist organizing, forget about trade unions and barricades — it’s all about desire. Desire is truly revolutionary.
And that just seems so incredibly naive to say now, because you think of how desire — sexual desire, the desire for products, the desire for material titillation — is utterly conformist. Our desires are constantly manufactured and then sold back to us. Desire is so obviously a tool for capitalism.
Lyotard actually wrote very subversively about scientific objectivity. He was pointing out that all the really interesting scientific advantages, particularly in the 20th century, came about as a result of war and a desire for conquest: They are the things that project us forward. So scientific endeavor isn’t necessarily an objective quest for truth — it’s often a money-based pursuit of something that’s gonna keep the shareholders happy.
What a subversive thought that was! I’m not sure it’s true, but it’s a pretty revolutionary thought.
Is it possible that postmodernism was just a diagnosis of the world neoliberalism built?
Neoliberalism seems to be building the stuff that neoliberalism wants. But I suppose you could think of postmodernism as an intellectual critique of neoliberalism in a way. Because neoliberalism’s foundational principle is that the individual is king or queen. What’s wrong is society. And if you read a lot of postmodern theory, it tells you that these notions of the individual, these notions of the self, can be easily exploded, that they’re artifacts of a kind of economic thinking. So postmodern theory could’ve been used to blow up neoliberalism, but that’s not what happened.