I was an undergraduate during post-modernism’s golden age. It was 1998 and things, we had recently been assured, could only get better.
Warwick uni was the quickest to embrace New Labour’s neoliberal reimagining of higher education. Private security goons stalked campus roads to nowhere. Treatises as brazenly unserious as Francis Fukuyama’s End of History were discussed seriously by expensively educated people destined for jobs in think tanks, consultancies and international monetary funds.
Post-modernism was the thing to pretend to believe in, just as Blair was the guy to follow as he could convince anyone that up was down and sell you a PFI contract while he was at it.
And yet, looking back, post-modernism was treated as a joke even then, even by its ultra-ironic acolytes. Did these people, many of them history students, truly believe that there were no truths, only interpretations? Really?
Reading Simon Jeffries’s rollicking, pop-history of almost half a century of this crap, I wonder whether being in on the joke – and, crucially, never truly believing in anything – was kind of the point.
As Buzz Aldrin might put it, post-modernism comes right after modernism. Its proponents rejected and blew raspberries at the old postwar consensus certainties that were fraying during that most surreal of decades, the 1970s.
As a delightful, retrospective quote from David Byrne puts it,
“Like many others I felt [modernism] had both strayed from its idealistic origins and become codified, strict, puritanical and dogmatic . . . Besides, as lovely as it is, modern furniture is cruelly uncomfortable. If postmodernism meant anything is allowed, then I was all for it. Finally! The buildings often didn’t get much more beautiful or the furniture more comfortable, but at least we weren’t handed a rulebook”.
Post-modernism, suggests Jeffries, “was exuberant, fun, irresponsible, anti-hierarchical, and had lost faith in progress.” He argues, compellingly, that it was both handmaiden to and gleeful deconstructor of neoliberalism. Post-modernists not only wanted to have their cake and eat it, they wanted to make a lot of money while doing so.
Bouncing cheerfully from Bowie to Baudrillard, we learn that everything is a mask and everything is left open.
Punk’s expertly marketed nihilism is argued here as a gateway to Thatcherism – Branson and McLaren’s boys a cynical exercise long before Johnny Rotten started selling butter. “Punk didn’t shatter the mask of the dominant culture; that was simply Marcus’s unreliable grand narrative. In the post-modern era, the dominant culture accommodates whatever is thrown at it”.
There are some missteps here. Jeffries’s takes on queer theory and video games veer dangerously towards Guardianista canards: Grand Theft Auto is an easy target but one that shows the author’s lack of understanding of the art form. Similarly, he conclusions on the appropriation of cyberspace by consumerism is true, but there are still other possibilities out there. Netflix standing on our face, forever, is not the inevitable end game, as insidious as its algorithms may be.
The most fun passages are on the theorists and the architecture. Prince Charles’ Poundbury gets a deserved and amusing kicking; Damien Hirst responding to 9/11 with “you’ve got to hand it to them on some level” gets funnier with every re-reading. Compared to the twin towers, who needs half a shark?
But post-modernism survived the age of terror and the forever wars against ideas. Eternal debt, virtual money and NFTS are our current realities. We’re all still within this era of eternal unseriousness. What is post post-modernism going to look like?
In the forthcoming age of climate change management, resource wars, and a very real desert rather than the desert of the real, the most terrifying answer of all may be “not a lot”. But at least until then we have poor Jeffries, trawling through the many words of post-modern pseuds so we don’t have to.