The Post with the Most

Everything, All the Time, Everywhere: How We Became Postmodern by Stuart Jeffries. Brooklyn: Verso. 384 pages. $30.

Stuart Jeffries is an author and journalist who has contributed to The Guardian for decades as an editor and critic. His illuminating biography of the Frankfurt School, Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, was published in 2016 by Verso. It was a considerable, pleasantly accessible account of brilliant and conflicted thinkers, cultural Marxism, and the fight against fascism. The subjects of his latest book, Everything, All the Time, Everywhere: How We Became Postmodern, include David Bowie, Grand Theft Auto, Margaret Thatcher, Jeff Koons, Chris Kraus’s novel I Love Dick, and Judith Butler, among others. I recently spoke with Jeffries over Zoom about postmodernity, the Frankfurt School, and The Simpsons, among other topics.

CONOR WILLIAMS: Postmodernism can be a tricky idea to grasp. How would you explain it to somebody unfamiliar with the term?

STUART JEFFRIES: What I tried to do in the book is historically situate it so that it follows modernism. I argue that the postwar liberal consensus, and then neoliberalism, were underpinned by cultural “isms.” This isn’t my coinage, it was David Harvey’s, but postmodernism is a cultural sort of handmaiden to neoliberalism, to provide it legitimacy.

Like a symbiote.

Exactly. But as you know from reading the book, this means nothing in terms of what postmodernism is in the academy. There, postmodernism has to do with junking or constraining notions of truth and reality and objectivity and scientific endeavor. The problem I’ve got in the book is trying to meld these two definitions—and then there are even more definitions of postmodernism. You’ve got Jean-François Lyotard and his skepticism towards meta-narratives. The problem is that there aren’t really necessary and sufficient conditions that you can state. And that’s perfectly postmodern in a way, as well, because postmodernity is about that insistence on multiplicity.

The style of the book, and how you weave totally far-apart narratives using big ideas, reminded me a lot of the filmmaker Adam Curtis. His film HyperNormalisation references a lot of the same artists as your book. Curtis, like Mark Fisher and his idea of capitalist realism, says there is no future for us outside the system. I’m wondering how you imagine our future might look.

I come from punk culture, which famously proselytizes that there is no future: “There is no future in England’s dreaming,” as the Sex Pistols put it, and I’ve held that to be true. If you talk to educated friends and you haven’t got a notion of progress, it’s shocking to them. You’re regarded as a postmodern cynic. This is what postmodernism always used to be accused of. In Everything, All the Time, Everywhere, I argue from an old-style social democratic point of view that postmodernity has been a handmaiden of neoliberalism. But within it are seeds of critique of progress. When I was an editor at The Guardian, I was steeped in writing and editing stuff about postmodernity. My life has been steeped in it without really realizing it. And the artists I’ve cared about—again, without me really realizing it—are also steeped in postmodernity. To address that, and all the theoretical stuff (which I brought in from French theory), I needed a book that was a bit light on its feet.

It's very entertaining. People might not even realize how much they're learning.  

I hope so.

You say in the book that “money, like war, has gone virtual. And in the virtual worlds of cyberspace, the real is more desert than ever.” I’m thinking about Bitcoin and NFTs. They’re ubiquitous now. Do you think they strengthen or weaken capitalism?

Presumably they strengthen it. Because capitalism is a dance of the seven veils, it’s always about hiding things. And cryptocurrency is about that. NFTs fascinate me. It’s such a completely counterintuitive thing, that this would arise in the age where everything is reproducible, where everything is quantity rather than quality. But it’s always about money because it’s about creating value from something which, in theory, would not be reproducible.

It’s so strange.

It is strange. The Guardian wants me to commission a hip new artist who works in cyber art, and who is experienced with producing NFTs. There are lots of artists around who will talk to those of us working in print media about how they could make an NFT that would depict the history of The Guardian and we could auction it off, make a mint, and then give that money to good causes. It’s the classic liberal thing of trying to understand something that we don’t quite understand and then trying to make money out of it. The answer must be: All of these things are about making money.

This my favorite book; you’ve got to read it . . .  

For readers, you’re holding up the book The New Spirit of Capitalism by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello.

It’s kind of out of date and a bit over the top, but it’s really good. It argues that capitalism is an amoral virus. It’s written by two theorists who are trying to understand 1968 in Paris, all those groovy rioting students. They thought they were going to change the world and they became a little joke for Timothée Chalamet to play out in a Wes Anderson movie.

The New Spirit of Capitalism tries to explain why there was no revolution, why the students and the workers were co-opted. The overarching idea is that capitalism changes faster than socialist ideas can. There was a split between a romantic idea of revolution—which you can trace back to Baudelaire and people like that, who are tearing up society in a rather romantic, nihilistic, wonderful way—and the Communist Party, full of workers who are bought off with consumer goods. You grow up thinking that it’s going to be the communists fighting against socialists. And now that’s a complete waste. The book really helped me get a sense of what’s at stake for French theory and why it goes nuts after the failure of 1968. All these guys like Deleuze and Guattari, and Baudrillard are completely irresponsible in that really lovely French way. They mount an assault on everything they take to be upholding capitalism. One of the things they say is upholding capitalism is science and truth and objectivity. So, there’s a left-wing postmodern critique of these concepts, which was almost subconsciously inherited by the Trump administration and populists all over the world. They’re riding piggyback on the French theory that they disdain.

Isn’t that ironic.

It’s a great piece of irony, although, of course, we learned from David Foster Wallace that irony is something to be consumed in small doses.

It reminds me of the Guy Debord quote, “In a world that is really upside down, the true is the moment of the false.”

Yeah, I love that paradoxical stuff. That comes from Marxist dialectical thinking or Hegelian dialectical thinking, where everything contains its inverse. This sort of thought is not the base for Trump’s populism, but, you know, that scorn for truth is, which really annoys a lot of academics. A lot of feminist thinkers, like Catharine MacKinnon, believe that truth and all the virtues that were purported to be part of the Enlightenment are under threat from postmodern philosophy and postmodern feminism, from people like Judith Butler . . .  

In your chapter about Butler you wrote, postmodernism “postures as subversive and ends up either co-opted into supporting the system it affects to subvert or relegated to the margins, burnishing its hip academic credentials but otherwise changing nothing very much.” I think that critique fits Butler, because, for example, she donated to Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign, despite Harris’s support for carceral policies. When I hear about formerly radical people who become more moderate, it surprises and disappoints me.

What disappoints you, though? That Butler donated to someone that turned out to be pretty hopeless? It’s naive of her, I agree. The only way I can think about it is that the despair of the previous four years made her want to get involved. Didn’t we all hope that the prison-industrial complex was going to get torn down a wee bit under a Democratic president? Judith Butler—who knows her Foucault, who knows her French theory, all the stuff about what prisons do to people—yes, it’s kind of sad that she didn’t realize that in advance. It confirms the idea that postmodern feminism really doesn’t have a great deal to do with the real lives of minorities, women, oppressed people. I take no pleasure in that, but I think that’s right.

I think what our society could benefit from is a return to the kind of critical assessment that the Frankfurt School were doing, because they weren’t just writing about art. They were writing about the societal and the political context around them and challenging very powerful forces in their lives.

One of the great tragedies about the Frankfurt School was that Walter Benjamin died in 1940, but he could have arrived in the United States. He had a vision of what cinema could be, very different from the culture industry that Adorno and Horkheimer talked about. He had this idea that film could be a revolutionary medium because it was like this prosthesis of slowed down time. You expand time, you play with the space-time continuum in a way that would be helpful in a utopian way of establishing critical consciousness.

That’s why I love experimental film.

I don’t think Adorno really engaged with how cinema might do things like that. But for the most part, I think he’s right. We’re watching Netflix. Much of it very often is not of great artistic merit. The medium is the message in the sense that we’re actually just watching it. You know, we’re spending a lot of time with something that perhaps doesn’t help us develop critical sensibilities at all.

What is it giving us in return? In the United States, especially when it comes to film right now, it seems like there’s such poor media literacy.

It’s hard not to feel that way. My next task is to interview the guy playing Tommy Lee in Pam & Tommy. So, you know, I’m part of the problem. I don’t feel as though my hands are unclean.

Well, I’m not going to say you’re as bad as Jeff Bezos or someone.

Thank you. I interviewed him years ago, like in the last millennium. There was a massive entourage around him, people who were just there to laugh at his jokes, which were never very funny.

You reference Homer Simpson’s quote that beer is the cause of, and solution to, all the problems in the world in this book and in Grand Hotel Abyss.

Do I? I’m so lazy!

Are there any other lessons you’ve learned from The Simpsons?

I should’ve included the gag where Moe does a makeover of the bar to attract a hipster crowd, and he’s trying to explain what it is. He goes, “it’s postmodern!” Carl and Lenny are like, “What?” Moe goes, “You know, Po-mo! It’s like, weird for weird’s sake!” Oh, right, OK!

Conor Williams has written essays and conducted interviews for the Criterion Collection, MUBI, Art in America, Interview magazine, BOMB, Reverse Shot, Screen Slate, and Filmmaker Magazine. He currently works at Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem.