Postmodernism

Can pop culture be liberating? –Insights magazine

Review: Everything, All the Time, Everywhere, Stuart Jeffries, Verso.

We are neck deep in postmodernism, swimming in pluralism, saturated with pop culture, old hierarchies drowned in seemingly endless choice from horizon to horizon. That just seems to be the way society is now. But, asks Stuart Jeffries, if you dig deeper, is this a path of liberation or another path of commercialization and self-centeredness?

Postmodernism is infamous for being purposefully opaque while celebrating surfaces – from pop music and comics, to advertising and pastiche. But Jeffries is able to explain the philosophy while jumping from pop reference to pop reference. It covers the quasi-religious rise of Apple, the morally meaningless Quentin Tarantino and Grand Theft Auto, the identity art of Cindy Sherman and David Bowie, the disproportionate (in size and price) kitsch art of Jeff Koons, the gluttony of streaming TV. And Jeffries can mine beneath the surfaces, exposing the often disastrous political and social consequences of postmodernism. Not everyone would see the links between Margaret Thatcher and the Sex Pistols (a cynically fabricated pop group if there ever was one).

A key aspect of postmodernism is its rejection of unified thought in favor of a crucible of ideas. This, somewhat self-referentially, means that postmodernism itself resists definition, and so, too, it is difficult to make judgments about it. Unless you think unchanging uniformity is great and nothing less, devilish.

Postmodernism’s emphasis on cacophony, fluidity and diversity means that an amoral relativism is often attributed to it, but this is misleading. Nobody, says Jeffries, believes that Gandhi’s and Hitler’s theories are equally valid. But postmodernists challenge the notion of objectivity and examine biases, including what we might think “normal” society looks like.

More mundanely (and funnier), global culture is, well, more global. The collapse of ideas of higher and lower art, perhaps beginning with the advent of pop art, means that there has been a belated recognition of the value of popular art (often made by women and minorities). The cosmopolitan jumble of cities has made them more livable, although this has also happened with architects who have imposed the architecture of kindergartens on us.

More insidiously, there has been a confusion between art and advertising, and globalism has allowed the dominance of mega-corporations such as McDonalds, Apple and Google. And a pluralism of ideas and a focus on pop culture means it’s much harder to see the value of the social and to organize politically, not to mention suggesting that any religion can claim to have a hold on the truth. Postmodernism has undoubtedly accelerated a more tolerant – even celebratory – attitude towards minorities, towards those who were out of place. This is part of its democratizing tendencies. But due to the pervasive nature of commercialization, transgressive identities are quickly harnessed to the neoliberal, all-conquering task of selling things. Challenging inequality is turning into online shopping. And the blissful pluralism of postmodernism dovetails oddly with the strident, simplistic binaries of current political debates, but perhaps underlies a fight between those who accept postmodernism and those who fiercely oppose it.

The rise of the Internet is an interesting phenomenon that has revealed similar issues. Initially touted as full of utopian potential, there are growing fears that the internet is being taken over, on the one hand, by increasingly centralized corporate corporations and, on the other, by conspiracy theorists and hate speech distributors, including the governments of entire countries such as Russia and China, who have been able to censor and hijack online information for their own benefit.

Being part of a larger online crowd, Jeffries notes, was meant to expose us to broader views and art and connect us with like-minded people we could learn from. Yet a larger crowd seems to be able to be steered more easily, and the desire for new is channeled into the desire for new and shiny, or at the very least the desire for endless and numbing novelty, thus also enriching those who offer us ways to connect to the Internet. Lost in an online world, we lose touch with reality. Stuck in an imaginary realm, we treat people like commodities.

Supposedly, postmodernism is supposed to hasten the decline of authoritarianism, but one of the effects of a destabilization of meaning, a “semiotic black hole”, as Jeffries puts it, is that there is a loss of community and a lack of responsible government. Politics is more spin-driven than ever, and the chaos allows dictatorial rulers to rise while exploiting the proliferation of “alternative facts”. The onslaught of images from around the world means that celebrity titillation is mixed with images of injustice and misery, making it hard to focus on anything. And attention is replaced by irony.

What is in place – or what can be put in place – of all this? Rather than reverting to mean, authoritarian uniformity, we can hold postmodernism in place and embrace its tendency to open up to us the startling diversity of the world, but simultaneously resist how this can easily devolve into false diversity and the destructive tendency of the world. endless shopping.

Nick Mattiske blogs about books at coburgreviewofbooks.wordpress.com and is the illustrator for Thoughts That Feel So Big.