In the pabulum that passes for hip commentary on the arts, the term post-modernism is still fetishized and bandied about as a token of perspicuity. For Stuart Jeffries, the author of Everything, All the Time, Everywhere, the term is ‘a riot of color and quotation’, a ‘ghost modernism’ which might seem progressive in its demolition of hierarchies but which in effect submissively relegates truth to The Dude’s dictum from The Big Lebowski: ‘that’s just like, your opinion, man.’
Post-modernism revels in the possibilities for different frames of interpretation and gets inebriated on the simple truth – as un-radical as saying the earth goes around the sun – that everything is mediated. Jeffries quotes the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who felt it was necessary to point out that unquestionable truths do exist: Jack Ruby did shoot and kill Lee Harvard Oswald at 11.21 a.m., Dallas time, on 24 November 1963. Truths are selected and interpreted but the value of truthfulness is unquestionable.
Each chapter in Everything, All the Time, Everywhere focuses on three moments, from the early 1970s to today, that are unpacked to reveal how post-modernism gradually emerged from traditional cultural forms to new online media. Its growth, incestuously involved with consumerism and a cult of libertarianism, is seen to reach its apotheosis in Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter. Ideologically rooted in the economics extolled by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, post-modernism found philosophical support in a book by Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze, Anti-Oedipus (1972), that exploded the notion of identity as something fixed and stable. Deleuze and Guattari saw their book as politically subversive, finding a revolutionary vector in the libidinal, but they failed to see how promises of freedom through transgression brought desire into the marketplace as never before.
The story is continued by Jeffries in his second chapter, covering David Bowie and Cindy Sherman, to reveal how the new grand narrative was that there is no grand narrative. Ignoring the advice in Dylan’s song about not letting other people get our kicks for us, we learned to live vicariously by embracing Bowie’s alter egos and Sherman’s other women. However, as the author uses Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 film, The Passenger, to show in the same chapter there can be no free rides fuelled by surface appearance and the play of multiple selves. Such journeys are escapades, freighted with anomie, ideological holidays that prefer recreation to the harder work of engaged commitment. David Locke (Jack Nicholson), the film’s character who assumes the identity of a dead man, is impelled by a death drive that takes on a literal dimension as the story moves toward its conclusion.
Everything, All the Time, Everywhere is a book replete with philosophical, social, and political references and its range of material is truly impressive: Baudrillard one expects but Grand Theft Auto games and Sarah Gubbins and Joey Soloway’s comedy series, I Love Dick (Amazon, 2016) also come under the spotlight and the book’s buoyant vivisection of half a century of Western cultural history makes for enjoyable reading without being superficial. Interesting connections are made when, for example, the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway is linked with the withdrawal of fire protection insurance, the fires that burned through the Bronx in the 1970s, and the birth of hip-hop. The circularity inherent in post-modernism is neatly illustrated in the self-parody that Salmon Rushdie ended up participating in when Larry David’s HBO comedy series, Curb Your Enthusiasm, appeared in 2017. The cinema of Tarantino is singled out as emblematic of our times because of the way the director, as bell hooks put it, ‘lets us know it’s a sick motherfucking world and we may as well get used to that fact, laugh at it and go on our way.’
Jeffries is spot-on in stressing the way post-modernism is an alibi for monetizing new areas of human experience and how this is happening, thanks to Silicon Valley and the worship of digital technology. We bow down before our profane gods, says Jeffries, and ‘differ from our devout ancestors only in that we worship alone.’ He provides a striking image of movement across the famous Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo where collisions between pedestrians should occur but don’t, and he quotes Marshall McLuhan about ‘supple, well-adapted’ citizens who have learned ‘to hop into the meat grinder while humming a hot parade tune.’
The condition that governs our existence as blatantly and crudely as a force of nature – neoliberalism, in one word – has grown to love post-modernism and now fuels its growth. When a person’s identity was regarded as singular and fixed, market demographics were limited in comparison with a de-territorialized, fluid landscape of shifting selves and affiliations. What once was outré is now passé and, as Everything, All the Time, Everywhere puts it, ‘at the end of the post-modern show, the exit is always through the gift shop.’