Everything, All the Time, Everywhere by Stuart Jeffries Review – How We Became Postmodern | Philosophy books

For the last half century, postmodernist thinkers have sought to discredit truth, identity, and reality. Identity is a straitjacket, and truth is just the opinion of a middle-aged academic. In terms of reality, it has become as outdated as dressing up for dinner. Objectivity is a myth in the service of the ruling powers. If only we could throw ourselves over these illusions, we could revel in a world of infinite possibilities. Instead of waking up to the same boring old self every morning, we could just as easily as David Bowie switch from one identity to another. The ultimate liberation is that everything can mean everything else. When you first kick solid meanings and solid foundations away, you are free to have fun. Postmodernism has to be fun, even if a stream of nihilism runs steadily beneath it. As Stuart Jeffries suggests in this excellent readable study, there is something empty at the heart of its abundance.

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Yet postmodernism is meant to be subversive. Since civilization operates according to order and authority, challenging these things will necessarily seem disruptive. The problem is that neoliberalism also challenges them. Nothing is more fluid and flexible than the marketplace. No one on Wall Street believes in absolute truth. The true anarchists are the free marketers. So is postmodernism a critique of the status quo or a capitulation to it?

Perhaps the ultimate postmodern irony is to be both – to sell out to the system while sending it up. It becomes impossible to distinguish the boss from the bohemian. Postmodernism may be playful, witty and profound, but so is the British Prime Minister. It is rude populist who defiantly embraces everyday life, but so is Nigel Farage. As Jeffries points out, Steve Jobs sold “conformity disguised as personal liberation.” He may have thought of himself as a hippie, but the Chinese factories that manufactured his products had suicide nets under the windows of his dormitories for exploited workers. Madonna is perceived by some as a feminist guerrilla fighter and by others as acting rape fantasies along with the most successful coffee table book (Sex) ever. Post-truth politics may have started on the left bank of the Seine, but they ended up in the White House.

Some studies of postmodernism are cultural, some are historical and a few of them are philosophical. The result of this book is to bring all three approaches together into one. This is rare because those who know Sid Vicious may not be avid readers of Michel Foucault, while those deep in Jacques Derrida may not always be fans of Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick. Jeffries wraps up a remarkable knowledge of postmodern culture on these pages, from punk, hip-hop, film and photography to anti-psychiatry, Rushdie fatwa and queer theory. All of this is put in the context of 1970s neoliberalism, which shows how a renewed capitalism gave birth to a culture of the flexible and provisional – of short-sightedness, endless consumption and multiple identities.

Postmodernism may be a historical fact, but it finds history itself a dull one. The past is simply a collection of styles to be recycled, while the future will be like the present only with a richer range of options. There are no more great narratives like the idea of ​​progress, no significant transformation to fear or hope for. The point is not to change the world, but to parody it. The story has come to an end with Ben & Jerry’s and Grand Theft Auto.

As two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, a new magnificent tale – the conflict between the West and Islamism – began to unfold. For some observers, this meant the end of the postmodern era. Jeffries himself is not so sure: it may have lost some of its youthful spirit, but its evil spirit still lives on. Postmodern ideas certainly survive in the current skepticism of the truth. For an entire generation of young people, it’s just having a conviction to be guilty of dogmatism. When asked about his beliefs, Boris Johnson replied that he had picked up a couple of them to drive too fast. To suggest that someone’s opinion is false is a form of discrimination. Every point of view should be respected, except racism, sexism, homophobia, elitism and anti-Semitism, which are deeply offensive. So it is they, b There are writers today who rightly insist that women have been chained and humiliated throughout history, yet who put words like truth and reality into scare quotes. But how do you determine if moral objectivity is for the birds?

The most useless theory of knowledge is one that prevents us from saying with reasonable certainty, for example, that very many Africans were once enslaved by the West. Yet you can find such theories of knowledge in most seminar rooms, though those who advance them may rightly think of something a little more outrageous than slavery. Perhaps Jeffries’ compelling critique will help resolve them.

Terry Eagleton’s latest book is Tragedy (Yale). Everything, All the Time, Everywhere: How We Became Postmodern by Stuart Jeffries is published by Verso (£ 20). To support Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery costs may apply.

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