What the hell is postmodernism?
I’ve written a characteristic essay on postmodernism and I’m nonetheless not completely certain I do know what it’s. I can paint a normal image, however even the nice postmodern philosophers don’t all agree on what postmodernism means.
More often than not, once you hear the phrase “postmodernism” thrown round, it’s a form of insult. It’s continuously blamed for our “post-truth” period. And it’s typically thought-about a college of thought that abolished requirements, denied objectivity, and celebrated a harmful ethical relativism.
Most of that is simply utilizing the time period as a lazy scapegoat, and but there’s at the least some reality in these criticisms. The essential factor to know in any case is that postmodernism — or what postmodernism is making an attempt to say about our world — is related. As a result of whether or not we all know it or not, we’re residing in a postmodern world.
That’s why I used to be excited to see a brand new ebook by one in every of my favourite journalists: Stuart Jeffries. The ebook is named Every little thing, All of the Time, All over the place: How We Turned Postmodern and it does greater than supply a helpful account of what postmodernism is; it additionally explores the way it revolutionized our tradition and politics in methods we hardly acknowledge.
So I invited Jeffries, who now works as a contract author for the Guardian and lots of different retailers, to affix me for an episode of Vox Conversations. We attempt to make some sense of postmodernism and he explains why he thinks it’s certain up with one other boogeyman time period: neoliberalism.
Beneath is an excerpt, edited for size and readability. As at all times, there’s rather more within the full podcast, so pay attention and comply with Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you hearken to podcasts.
I wished to keep away from the temptation to ask you to outline postmodernism on the high, however I really feel like now we have to do it, proper?
Yeah, let’s attempt it. So the straightforward thought is that postmodernism is what comes after modernism. And modernism was a really earnest and severe dedication to progress, a dedication to overturning the frills and furbelows of Victorian tradition and early twentieth century ornamental tradition, within the arts and in structure. It’s joyless, actually.
And postmodernism is a riot in opposition to all that. It’s a riot in opposition to the concept we should always turn out to be leaner and fitter and meaner in our structure and in our literature. It’s a riot in opposition to the concept we’re on some path to enhancing ourselves as human beings, that we’re heading towards some form of absolute perfection. Postmodernism disdains all that. It says that’s rubbish. The postmodernists stated we’re going to tear up the rule books to make buildings, to make artwork, and make all of it about expression and enjoyable.
Now the bizarre factor about postmodernism is that once you put it like that, it sounds nice! However my ebook is about how there’s one other “ism” looming as postmodernism emerges and it’s referred to as neoliberalism, which is a brand new type of capitalism and really a lot the world we’re residing in now. We’re residing in a neoliberal period and postmodernism has turn out to be a cultural handmaiden for that.
What do you imply?
I imply the tradition of enjoyable that postmodernism proposes finally ends up serving neoliberalism. That’s why I wrote this ebook, as a result of I wished to tug these two actions collectively and take into consideration how they reinforce one another.
We’ll get to that, however you make an fascinating commentary which will assist to set the stage right here. You mark the start of the postmodern period because the second President Nixon eliminated the US greenback from the gold customary, which I feel will strike lots of people as very unusual. What’s the connection?
You’d have thought that postmodernism can be born in one thing to do with the Vietnam Battle. Or Watergate. In different phrases, that you just’d have this riot in opposition to a disastrous battle or disastrous corruption. However truly I feel it’s the second in between these two issues.
When Nixon successfully takes the world economic system off the gold customary, it does one thing actually fascinating. It implies that cash is in free circulate. It’s not pegged to something actual. You already know, when nations like Britain had been working wanting cash, we’d at all times suppose, “Properly, we will at all times simply get some gold. We will eliminate our greenback reserves, get gold from Fort Knox, and we’ll be okay.”
So we enter a terrifying world wherein there aren’t any actual foundations. Bank cards have their period within the years after that. Credit score explodes, borrowing explodes. We go fully mad for getting issues we will’t afford. And all of these items are mirrored in what’s occurring in French postmodern idea.
We’ve got these theorists like Roland Barthes arguing that the writer is useless as a guarantor of the that means of a sentence or the that means of a piece. Now we’re in a democracy the place the reader has as a lot energy to resolve what one thing means because the writer.
So the concept the writer is useless is taking root across the identical time the US is coming off the gold customary and all of it displays this deeper lack of foundations, a lack of that means. And it’s additionally a second wherein capital goes nuts.
It’s form of a metaphor for what occurs with language and that means round that point as effectively, the place there are many arguments about separating the phrases we use from the fact they’re meant to explain, and you’ve got all these thinkers principally arguing that it’s all made up.
In the end, that results in the place we at the moment are, which is deep into the post-truth world. I’m not saying that Donald Trump or Boris Johnson learn Foucault and Derrida and all these French theorists who deconstructed the notion of summary truths and undermined the plausibility of goal science. However their incessant mendacity is made attainable by the zeitgeist of a world wherein reality not has the privileged standing that it used to. And that that means isn’t as fastened because it was. It’s not as tied to the true world because it was.
Postmodernism is tied to the liberation of the person in a number of methods, and also you’re tying that to this neoliberal flip the place we begin to turn out to be customers above all else and the position of the state is to only get out of the best way and let the market handle all of life. Why is that so important in your studying of this historical past?
I feel it’s due to who I’m and the place I grew up. I simply turned 60, so I’m a baby of Margaret Thatcher, who was one of many first world leaders to place the concepts of neoliberalism into follow. And so they concerned slicing again on the welfare state, on the very concept that there was a neighborhood. Thatcher famously stated there was no such factor as society, solely people and households. And she or he meant it. She meant that every one the communal sensibilities that Britain had had since World Battle II — a powerful welfare state, a way of the nation popping out the battle and making an attempt to reestablish its id, with a powerful state with nationalized industries and all that — all that was torn down in my lifetime.
And everyone knows that Reagan quote about how the 9 most horrible phrases you’ll be able to hear are “I’m from the federal government and I’m right here to assist.” That truly faucets right into a worry a number of folks have about authorities and it’s not simply within the US, it’s all over the place. Nevertheless it’s notably resonant within the States, the place there’s a deep resentment towards taxation and any form of state interference.
However I suppose I’d say I’ve at all times been centered on the political dimensions of massive cultural adjustments.
I don’t suppose we notice how totally postmodern neoliberalism is within the sense that it’s subversive, even nihilistic. It’s a complete amoral capitulation to market society.
It’s the last word irony, isn’t it? And postmodernity’s steeped in irony. It nearly turned its go-to response for every part, which is in itself disastrous.
For me at the least, the principle symptom of postmodern politics is the concept politics is a private subject, that politics is an area for self-expression. And what else are we purported to do when there aren’t any grand ideologies to imagine in anymore, no nice historic tasks to pursue? We’re simply particular person actors floating in area with no actual connective tissue and capitalism fills the void, and every part, together with politics, turns into an area for affirming our standing and particular person id.
I undoubtedly really feel a nostalgia for a collective society that in all probability didn’t exist all that a lot in my lifetime, however I used to be kind of stamped with it. It at all times felt like the proper objective, one thing we must be working towards. And that looks as if an extremely naive factor to say now.
It’s more likely in the present day that we conceive of politics the identical approach we conceive of purchasing. I don’t imply to sound trite about that, however I actually do suppose we method politics this manner. It’s about private need and satisfaction and what this man can do for me. It’s not about something grander than ourselves, and that appears so petty and unhappy. Or perhaps I’m simply completely nostalgic and naive. However I nonetheless suppose that collective imaginative and prescient is one thing price holding onto.
Do you are feeling just like the emancipatory potential of postmodernism was squandered? Like, there was a real subversiveness to it that might’ve been revolutionary, however in the long run it will get commercialized and turns into one other trick of capital.
Completely. For those who learn Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Situation [the book that coined the term “postmodernism” in 1979], or if you happen to learn Gilles Deleuze, each of them are fairly radical thinkers. Each of them are born of the frustration of the failure of the coed rebellions in ’68 in Paris. Their concepts are stuffed with mourning over the misplaced revolution.
However they’re not Marxist revolutionaries anymore. And Deleuze, the nice postmodern theorist, begins to consider need as a liberator. So overlook about socialist organizing, overlook about commerce unions and barricades — it’s all about need. Want is actually revolutionary.
And that simply appears so extremely naive to say now, since you consider how need — sexual need, the need for merchandise, the need for materials titillation — is completely conformist. Our needs are continuously manufactured after which bought again to us. Want is so clearly a software for capitalism.
Lyotard truly wrote very subversively about scientific objectivity. He was stating that every one the actually fascinating scientific benefits, notably within the twentieth century, happened because of battle and a need for conquest: They’re the issues that mission us ahead. So scientific endeavor isn’t essentially an goal quest for reality — it’s typically a money-based pursuit of one thing that’s gonna hold the shareholders glad.
What a subversive thought that was! I’m undecided it’s true, nevertheless it’s a reasonably revolutionary thought.
Is it attainable that postmodernism was only a analysis of the world neoliberalism constructed?
Neoliberalism appears to be constructing the stuff that neoliberalism needs. However I suppose you might consider postmodernism as an mental critique of neoliberalism in a approach. As a result of neoliberalism’s foundational precept is that the person is king or queen. What’s unsuitable is society. And if you happen to learn quite a lot of postmodern idea, it tells you that these notions of the person, these notions of the self, could be simply exploded, that they’re artifacts of a form of financial pondering. So postmodern idea may’ve been used to explode neoliberalism, however that’s not what occurred.
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