When Did Postmodernism End?

When Did Postmodernism End?

A new book by Stuart Jeffries claims we never left behind this heady, late-20th-century period of cultural and political expression.


When, in the beginning, the Abrahamic God separated the heavens from the earth, the light from the darkness, and the day from the night, He introduced (among other things) one of the few instruments of power to be wielded most authoritatively in the hands of the historian: periodization. The delineation of time into epochs and eras is one of the oldest master narratives, a construct through which humans have long projected notions of progress and superiority, fantasies of lapsed glory and paradise lost. For at least 500 years we have been “modern,” whether “early,” “late,” or, as some would have it, “post,” which may seem rather drawn out until one considers the duration of the Middle Ages (a millennium) and antiquity (five), not to mention what came before. In this grand scheme, periodizing the present becomes a matter of academic myopia, the historiographical equivalent of representing oneself in court.

Stuart Jeffries is a journalist and not a professional historian, a fact that aids his intellectual history of the last 50 years, Everything, All the Time, Everywhere: How We Became Postmodern, insofar as the theorists whose work he digests become more palatable, at times, in his summarization, even as they shed some of their substance, nuance, and bite. By Jeffries’s count, we have been “postmodern” since Richard Nixon brought an end to the gold standard in 1971, and in the intervening decades, the condition of postmodernism diagnosed by the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard in 1979 has become more than just the “cultural handmaiden” of neoliberalism, permeating every surface of what the pessimistic Marxists of the Frankfurt School used to call “the culture industry,” from Disney and Madonna to Grand Theft Auto and Donald Trump. What ties together these disparate artifacts, in Jeffries’s analysis, is their contribution to the sense “that we are ensnared in a system we feel scarcely able to change”: Though postmodern philosophy and neoliberal policy both ascended on the platform of liberation, their rhetorics of freedom were but a Trojan horse with which to disguise the tyranny of a deregulated market and the indignity of a cultural sphere that resembles nothing so much as window dressing for the banks.

Across three chapters, each addressing an irreverent trio of topics representing a single year from 1972 (Nixon, Martha Rosler, Anti-Oedipus) to 2001 (9/11, iPods, debt), Jeffries defines a period “whose spirit still thrives” in a digital world of disinformation, identity politics, and creative paralysis. A proliferation of half-baked hot takes notwithstanding (e.g., Margaret Thatcher was “our first punk prime minister”), Jeffries’s conception of postmodernism and his philosophical glosses do not do disservice to most of the scholars he references (Fredric Jameson, Umberto Eco, Edward Said, Terry Eagleton, Perry Anderson, Raymond Williams, Laura Mulvey, Slavoj Žižek, David Harvey, and others), but his attempt to classify a body of work that also includes David Bowie, Sid Vicious, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Koons into a congruent school is both unoriginal and misguided. While Jeffries takes for granted Lyotard’s doomsday prophecy that “the grand narrative has lost its credibility,” he cannot resist the allure of oneness, and though a grand narrative against grand narratives may be demonstrative of the internal contradictions of postmodernism, neoliberalism, late capitalism, or whatever floats one’s boat, a self-negating jeremiad is likely not what the author was after.

The problem with making sense of postmodernism is that it will not cease to appear as a conceptual ouroboros: The snake cannot help but swallow itself whole. For Lyotard, the legitimacy of knowledge guaranteed by the Enlightenment in the form of scientific and historical progress fell into decline with the advent of postindustrial society, which he named “the postmodern condition.” Postmodernity was enabled by “the blossoming of techniques and technologies since the Second World War” that shifted “emphasis from the ends of action to its means,” along with “the redeployment of advanced liberal capitalism after its retreat under the protection of Keynesianism during the period 1930–60.” With knowledge no longer to be trusted and the beleaguered future of collectivist politics a fever dream, consumer culture and its insatiable attractions did not hesitate to seize power. Paranoid and suspicious of what we once thought we knew, we now find ourselves trapped in a hell of our own making, the narrative goes, with no one to blame but ourselves.

Jeffries agrees with this line of thinking, writing, “By attacking and distancing itself from the sign-systems of capital…the subject creates a fantasy of transgression that covers up its actual complicity with capital.” This is to say that when revolutionary angst can be harnessed to sell Pepsi, it will be, offering in exchange for political passivity the transitory balm of consumer goods that is only “compensatory,” as David Harvey puts it, on its surface. Harvey’s is an update of Marx’s theory of alienation, the separation of the worker from the products of their labor, itself an essential chapter of one of the primary grand narratives that Lyotard targets in his critique and that Jeffries recycles.

Nevertheless, Lyotard’s periodicity has proved especially enticing to contemporary thinkers on the left, often awkwardly so. The British filmmaker Adam Curtis and the American critic Greil Marcus are two examples cited by Jeffries who (though he does not say as much) have made similar attempts to totalize the untotalizable. By trying to reflect, with differing degrees of formal experimentation, the decentralized logic of the postmodern age through storytelling, Curtis and Marcus traverse periods, continents, discourses, and traditions to illuminate some method to our collective madness. But these comparative gymnastics cannot help but fall prey to the basic conventions of narrative—unity, continuity, meaning—that both men insist our era eludes and resists, even as they unveil virtuosic theories of everything that are overwhelming at first but soon leave their audiences a little undernourished, even slightly nauseated.

This left-wing melancholia is Jeffries’s inheritance from Lyotard, Žižek, Harvey, Curtis, and Marcus as much as from Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and the rest of the Frankfurt School, the subject of Jeffries’s 2016 group biography Grand Hotel Abyss, where his anecdotal skill and easy wit resulted in a book both enjoyable and incisive, extracting from the lives of a handful of midcentury college professors a historical drama that, when projected onto the author’s own time, falls appropriately flat. Jeffries eats his own tail too, cannibalizing previously published Guardian profiles of Sophie Calle, Salman Rushdie, German media theorist Friedrich Kittler, and others into, if not a coherent history, a series of events that he intends to represent a fractured, incomplete whole, or at least a marketable follow-up to Grand Hotel Abyss.

Lyotard might describe such fragments as petits récits, or little stories, which he advocates as an alternative to the metanarratives of religion, history, and science. But as Jeffries weaves together his clips, he seems to suggest a kinship among, say, Cindy Sherman, Afrika Bambaataa, and Quentin Tarantino not unlike that shared by Adorno, Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse, all German Jewish Marxist academics born at the turn of the last century and employed by the same university. Jeffries’s portrait of the lives and attitudes of the Frankfurt Schoolers as quintessentially modern relies on a mostly consistent ideological, interpersonal, and aesthetic standing that is mostly lacking in Everything, All the Time, Everywhere. The only kinship to be found among the protagonists here is the designation of their work as postmodern, an explanation of which each essay sets out to provide but does not, with any real insight, move beyond.

Nor is Jeffries’s genealogy particularly groundbreaking. Any humanities textbook published in the past few decades is likely to provide a comparable Who’s Who of postmodernism—from feminist neo-conceptual art and French theory through punk, hip-hop, MTV, post–New Hollywood cinema, video games, and the Internet. While Jeffries’s nods to more recent developments (I Love Dick, Netflix, The New Spirit of Capitalism) are welcome, they do not necessarily merit the rehabilitation of a term like “postmodernism,” which by now serves discrete functions across discourses: The architectural designs of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates are not postmodern in the same way as Jenny Holzer or Curb Your Enthusiasm (of the Season 9 episode “Fatwa!,” in which Rushdie plays himself, Jeffries writes: “If there is anything more post-modern than that, I’d like to see it”).

Everything, All the Time, Everywhere raises more questions than it answers, but Jeffries’s thesis—that postmodernism, as the propaganda wing of neoliberalism, has resulted in the impossibility of “conceiving politics as a communal activity, because we have become habituated to being consumers rather than citizens”—is not as dated as his readings of Jean Baudrillard. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s attendance at this year’s Met Gala in a dress with the phrase “Tax the Rich,” for instance, was an iconically postmodern event because it represented a clumsy intervention of leftist politics into the pseudo-aristocratic domain of neoliberal pageantry, and thus an apt metaphor for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

There is no disputing that postmodernism is with us still, as much as it can be said to exist, but in post-Trump America, even readers sympathetic to the notion that culture and politics are mutually influential may meet Jeffries’s anthropology of the recent past with an ennui befitting a postmodern subject. He mistakes symptoms for the disease, identifying ironic detachment—once the signature posture of Generation X—as postmodernism’s most nefarious legacy: “We need in our culture, not more irony and wit, but more thoughtfulness and kindness,” he writes, as though grinning through the apocalypse will save us from the end. “Once irony was a rebel yell; now it is spiritually corrupting, the voice of the damned of neoliberalism.” Our susceptibility to entertainment, to borrow an allegory from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, will prove lethal unless we do something about it. Exactly what is beyond Jeffries’s purview, but that anything seems better than nothing is the best guess he is willing to hazard.

Regardless of whether we call our time “postmodern” or “neoliberal,” the present feels ripe for a more widespread understanding of the dialectical relationship between culture and politics—our lifestyles, beliefs, preferences, and tastes, on the one hand, and the material circumstances of our lives, on the other. If we feel incapable of changing those circumstances, it is not because we are lacking in thoughtfulness or kindness, or because that lack is unique to us. Irony “can be a numbing response to political and cultural malaise,” as Christian Lorentzen wrote in Bookforum this summer, but it is also “a way of saying things without meaning them and meaning things without saying them,” which was how Robert Frost defined poetry and could also double as a definition for culture itself, “a form of defiance born of rage and pain.” The ancient Greeks were no more neoliberal than we are post-ironic, no matter what they say in The New York Times, and if late capitalism does not manage to kill us off for good, as it threatens daily, a narrative distance between ourselves and the world will be sure to exist long after Jeffries is around to lay it to waste.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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