What did you do in the 1980s, Daddy?
“Style is the dress of thought; a modest dress,
Neat, but not gaudy, will true critics please.”
—Samuel Wesley, “An Epistle to a Friend Concerning Poetry”
Once upon a time, there was a decade called the ‘80s, when everything was different. People wore silly, frilly clothes, had silly, frilly haircuts and listened, in the main, to silly, frilly music. They made films about themselves, like Wall Street; they made TV programmes about themselves, like Dallas; they watched these things and thought, that’s us—we can be like that. And lo, for a lot of the time they were. Lots of people spent lots of time worrying about something they couldn’t properly define, which some of them called postmodernism, of which more below.
WH Auden once described the ‘30s as “a low, dishonest decade”, and lots of people now look back on the ‘80s in a similar way. Steve Beard seems to be one of these people. His book contains numerous short pieces published in the ‘90s but often concerned, as the book’s title suggests, with expressing a critical take on the ‘aftershocks’ of the ostensibly seismic shift in cultural formations that took place in the ‘80s. These include the shift from Fordist to post-Fordist modes of production, from production itself to consumption, from depth to surface, from fashion (and everything else) to style, from state power to multinational power, and so on.
Aftershocks: The End of Style Culture joins the long list of End of-something books that started way back in 1960 with Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology, and will hopefully end soon with somebody’s The End of The-End-Of-Something Books. Beard’s book is oddly self-reflexive in that it basically asserts the ‘end of’ precisely the style culture from which it emerges and to which Beard contributed, i.e. its own style—and, as style was everything in the ‘80s, that means the end of this book itself.
Beard was a journalist writing in the new style magazines of the ‘80s—Arena, The Face, I-D—which gives him some credibility as having been at the cutting edge of the media construction of the decade. This is important, because as far as most people were concerned, the media were often where it all happened. Beard’s reviews, interviews and essays offer some insights into the ways in which the effects of the dominant ideologies of the ‘80s—entrepreneurism, the New Right, monetarism and the new social order - ramify forward in history, and find both echoes and resistances in the cultural productions of the next decade.
The great strength of this book is its taut, crystal-clear style. Beard can write well, and sometimes he can write really well. He has the journalist-cum-cultural-commentator’s knack of condensing his prose down to the central themes of the issue, of conveying in lucid but detailed sentences what something means and some ways of thinking about it. Here he is in 1997 debunking the modern cultural mythology of UFOs:
“Not only do stories of the ‘greys’ replicate earlier tales of little green men, woodland elves and Biblical angels, but they articulate fears of abduction and seizure by shadowy authority figures [?]; not only do stories of alien contact mythify the incomprehensible reality of twentieth-century technology from Nazi buzz bombs to NASA rockets but they resignify History as one long cover-up.”
Here, for comparison, he reviews Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic in 1993:
“For Gilroy, history and hybridity go together. His theory of ‘the black Atlantic’ as the preferred mythic homeland emphasises discontinuity, marginality and exile as the determining features of global black identity. His privileged thematic device for recovering a true memory of what it means to be black is the ship—first the slave ship and then those merchant ships which allowed the peoples of America, Europe, Africa and the Caribbean to trade and communicate with one another.”
Beard’s style is syntactically insistent and constantly to-the-point in its emphasis on the short, succinct description of his topic. Most of the pieces in this book are, consequently, very short, which explains why there’s quite a lot of them. The book changes half-way through, to offer as its concluding section extracts from Beard’s uncompleted and unpublished PhD thesis for the University of Cambridge. This seems to be a slightly meandering attempt to apply some of the insights of postmodern philosophy and theory to Jacobean revenge tragedy, by way of reiterating some of the journalistic pieces in elaborated or other form. This is followed in turn by 12 pages of footnotes, a gesture towards scholarly earnestness that sits a bit uneasily with the slick, assured tone of the rest of the book.
Beard is particularly good at addressing the weird mythology of the late twentieth century as it constitutes itself in culture and in folk legend. He interviews or reviews works by some of the key contributors to and analysts of these mythologies, from David Cronenberg and Stewart Home to Kate Bornstein and Hakim Bey. His range is eclectic but always stimulating, and repeatedly he finds a marginal figure to reify and insert into the book’s ongoing narrative.
The book is divided into thematically organised sections addressing some of the key cultural features of the times as understood in the terms of style journalism—drugs and music, conspiracy theories, cyber-technology and so on. Each piece finds its niche (as in ‘niche market’) in relation to the others, so that we occasionally get a disconcerting kind of connectivity between seemingly disparate fragments that works at a level beyond the stylistic links, and constructs an overall world view which is, at times, a rather acquired taste.
Aftershocks: The End of Style Culture is ultimately the written equivalent of that typically ‘80s/‘90s pop-cultural thing, the compilation album. It consists, in true postmodernist style, of fragments, partial views and highly reflective surfaces. True to form, the name of Anglo-American postmodernism’s high priest, Fredric Jameson, is frequently cited, as if some kind of sponsorship deal was operating. But Beard is too good a writer and too astute a critic to allow theoretical terminology to smother the things he wants to say, and this book is a great primer not just for the ‘80s and their legacy, but also for how to think about them.