Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Everything, All The Time, Everywhere

This is a book, not really about photography, although some photographers are mentioned. I intend to review it here, for several reasons, not the least of which is that negative criticism is fun to write, and fun to read.

I first ran into this thing on Jörg Colberg's newsletter. He loved it, for reasons that I daresay will become fairly clear. Later, I ran into our friend James Cockroft angrily providing live criticism. He offered to swap me a book he hated (this one) for one I hated (Tulsa, OK) and I agreed, wanting very much to rid myself of the latter. James has published his review of the latter, in which he says nice things about me, so obviously I think it's a simply tremendous piece of criticism (but no, in all seriousness, he's got hold of some stuff I missed, and it was an interesting read.)

But, onwards. A guy named Stuart Jeffries wrote this thing, he's some Guardian writer, which apparently means that he's guaranteed a positive review in the Guardian, which means that his audience knows what to think and duly thinks it. The subtitle of the book is "How we became Postmodern" which gives you maybe a little more information about what the hell it's on about.

The book is trying to make the case that, well, it's not clear what. There's something about neoliberal capitalism, and something about postmodernism, and something about some sort of relationship between these two. The clearest maybe-statement of a thesis is near the end, and is something like "postmodernism is the cultural handmaiden of neoliberal capitalism" which seems to mean something, but doesn't really. It's just, again, a sort of vague statement of some sort of relationship.

First I will give you the secret code, and then we'll take a look at a few bits and pieces of the book to give you the flavah as it were, and also make fun of some people.

The book contains 335 pages of body text, and references 388 separate people. It also references some events, buildings, bands, and so on. This pretty much tells you what is going on here. The book is a relentless tsunami of superficial references. The game is to see how many of the references you "get." If you are the right sort of not-terribly-bright pseudo-intellectual, you'll "get" most of it, because you're kinda read a lot of the source material. It doesn't matter if you really read it, or if you skimmed it, or if you read the wikipedia on it, because the references are wildly lightweight. It's only very slightly above pure namedropping. Since you're not very bright, you won't notice how shallow it all is, and you'll feel Very Clever because you know who Wittgenstein is. Or at least you recognize the name.

You certainly will not be required to know anything about Wittgenstein's ideas, because Jeffries will give you the gloss for the one tiny bit he's going to more or less randomly sprinkle onto the page, and since nothing connects to anything, it doesn't matter if you can't even follow that.

This thing is really very well crafted to appeal to a sort of Twitter-liberal, the dopey leftist who complains about neoliberalism capitalism without having any notion of what it is beyond some sort of boogeyman that has, somehow, prevented me from getting the sweet academic endowed chair that I deserve.

Whether Jeffries actually understands anything he's written in here is unclear. The citations are simply too short and too shallow to be sure. The whole book feels like it could have been titled You would not believe how much Wikipedia I read last summer.

So now you know why Colberg liked it. He's bang in the middle of the audience this thing is crafted to extract money from, and lo, it extracted a small sum and a positive review from him.

Let us look at the book itself.

It opens with an effort to tell us what neoliberal capitalism and postmodernism are. Since these words, in common usage, basically don't mean anything, the field is wide open. Rather than trying to refine things, to narrow the focus down to some specifics, Jeffries embraces the chaos. He offers us multiple conflicting snippets of discussion about everything, creating a kind of vague and incredibly broad space in which to work. Sometimes in this section he's quoting someone talking about postmodernism as a set of ideas, sometimes he's quoting someone telling us about postmodern culture, and Jeffries doesn't seem to notice or care that the target is bouncing around. It doesn't matter, see above on the secret code. Nobody is paying attention, they're just waiting to see if they'll get the next reference.

Jeffries is at some pains to make clear, he drags out Wittgenstein for this, that postmodernism as an idea is Very Elusive and there might not even be a core set of characteristics that make a thing postmodern. If this sounds a lot like "postmodernism is whatever the hell I want it to be" to you, well, you're not alone, and that is precisely how it plays out. Anything can be postmodern, and anything capitalist that Jeffries doesn't like can be neoliberal.

Notably lacking throughout is postmodernism as a set of actual ideas, you know, the things we actually think of as postmodernism. The whole business of truth being a bit less concrete than we thought, the bit about maybe the author's intentions are maybe less central to understanding, all those things are kind of swept aside. What we're left with is that idea that postmodernism is irony and/or pastiche and/or reinvention and/or whatever else Jeffries needs it to be on this page.

Bowie is postmodern because he took on many different roles, and also was commercial (neoliberalism!!1111!!19781721!!!!) Koons is postmodern because he's ironic. Hip-hop is postmodern because it's pastiche. Etc etc.

The structure of the thing is a bunch of chapters each covering three apparently disparate topics. The Sex Pistols; Margaret Thatcher; Jean-François Lyotard! The apparent aim of each chapter is to tie the three things together, in unexpected ways. It's something like the horrible meme that the space shuttle boosters are the width of two horses asses because Roman roads that James Burke's TV show "Connections" endowed us with, but to be honest, the book does not rise even to the level of that TV show.

Let us examine some specifics.

Early on, we are treated to some "shock doctrines" one of which is the USA's exit from the Gold Standard under Richard Nixon. This, we learn, paved the way for modern neoliberal capitalism. Jeffries gives us some macroeconomics, sketching the origin of the Gold Standard, the reasons for leaving it, and the consequences of same. He does this in 11 pages. To propose that this might be a little thin is to somewhat understate the case. We get, essentially, a single thread of narrative, a linear telling of "this happened, which caused this to happen, which caused this, and here we are!"

We don't need to know anything about the facts of the case to know this is trash. Nothing of this sort ever happens for reasons tellable in a neat linear fairy tale. It is invariably far more complex. There is never a single coherent thread that leads from the beginning to the end.

Maybe Nixon's choices here did pave the way for neoliberal capitalism, but certainly Jeffries doesn't know, and he hasn't told us anything that ought to make us believe any such thing.

Colberg specifically called out the Sex Pistols/Thatcher chapter, saying these two things "have more in common than you'd think" so I read that chapter twice to be sure.

Maddeningly, Jeffries seems to think the Pistols can be meaningfully taken as representative of punk, which would get him beaten up by any actual punks, and would have done in 1976 as well. The Pistols were always an act, a commercial operation with a sell-by date, intended to sell out as soon as possible. Vicious and Rotten may not have been totally on board with it, but fuck them, they were not driving. The whole thing was obviously a cynical pop-culture commercial enterprise from day one, and virtually the antithesis of almost literally everything else in punk.

<deep breath>

Anyway, Jeffries does get the commercial sell-out part right, and since this is one of the many many things that can be "postmodern" he identifies the Pistols as postmodern which, ok, I guess.

Moving on, he gives us a sketch of Thatcher and all her terrible ideas, and identifies her as "neoliberal" which I think is actually, for once, correct. Thatcher is almost literally the poster child for neoliberal capitalism, and widely accepted as such.

Ok, so these two have more in common than you'd think, right? Right?

Why yes. They're both rebellions against pale stale males that took place in 1976.

That's it. That is literally 100 percent of the connection Jeffries draws. I mean, he talks about them right next to each other, and there's an opening section to the chapter where he talks about the Pistols, Thatcher, and Lyotard, all at the same time and stuff. But the only actual connection he draws is "rebellion in 1976."

The book goes on and on like this. There's 10 chapters of 3 things each, and in each case the 3 things don't have much of anything to do with one another besides happening at sort of the same time. The postmodern things are rebellious, or cynical, or pastiche, or whatever. It doesn't matter, everything is postmodern. Anything to do with economics or money can be neoliberalism. And, sure, there's been a lot of economics and pastiche between 1970 and now, so, there you are! See? SEE?!

In the end, all Jeffries manages to demonstrate is that neoliberalism and postmodernism are more or less contemporaneous, and that both have, if you squint, some kind of relationship to modern consumerism. Along the way he offers up 30 sketches of things, people, events, sketches so brief, slanted, and superficial that they almost certainly damage your understanding of whatever they are.

There is no conclusion, there is no argument, there is no thesis. Jeffries tells us that some people thing postmodernism ended on Sept 11, 2001, but that other people disagree. Jeffries offers no opinion on the matter, or any theory or description of postmodernism that might guide the way. He just shrugs.

But if in your life you've kind of skimmed Barthes, Wittgenstein, and Hegel, if you're that kind of "New Yorker" reader you probably fell for it.

5 stars! two big thumbs up! would read again!


  1. Neoliberal Capitalism is just capitalism, and postmodernism is a word made up to annoy Noam Chomsky.

  2. Reads like a shit version of what Jameson was doing

    1. I'd never heard of Jameson, but based on the Wikipedia sketch of his book, this thing does look like it could be a shoddy tracing of it.

  3. It's interesting that Terry Eagleton (our English Jameson) gave the book a positive review, but then it seems to be hitting out at all of Terry's favourite targets, and he's not above substituting polemic for argument himself.

    I have no intention of reading any books like this any more ever again in what remains of my life, even if you and everyone else love them, urge me to read them, and sent me multiple copies at Christmas. When you start to nudge 70, the expression "life is too short for [x]" takes on a new urgency.


    1. I must say that I detect the faint whiff of a little club of Guardian writers. Johann Hari has written a couple of books that everyone except the reviewers at The Guardian seem to think are insanely terrible, but which The Guardian reviewers quite liked.

      It almost feels like once you have insinuated yourself into club, you can rely on good reviews!

      I read articles on The Guardian from time to time myself, so it's not as if reading it makes you automatically wicked, any more than reading the New Yorker. But one does from time to time stumble across an odor.

    2. A little whiff? More like a heady stench... But then I'm a Guardian subscriber myself, and we are all notorious for our aversion to a daily shower.


  4. I do not buy, nor do I read, this kind of ugly-ass book.

    1. "It's a pointless pastiche of nonsense!"

      "The cover, or the contents?"


  5. Replies
    1. I have to say, I missed the part where Jeffries discovers within postmodernism the seeds of a critique of neoliberalism. The overall effect is rather that Jeffries declines to have an opinion on anything, and perhaps that's what he means.

      The interview is as the book, though. A lot of disconnected blathering about more or less nothing much.

      Jeffries is one of (albeit an older example of) the modern generation of writers. Doesn't know much about anything, and isn't genuinely interested in much of anything, not much of a writer beyond a basic competence with words, but able to swot up a kind of undergrad essay about pretty much anything, and knock out a book, or a column, or whatever.

      There's a lot of these assholes around. There are entire publications staffed entirely by them.

    2. I think the word you want is "journalist".


    3. True enough. The urge to use the methods that allow one to bash out 1000 words on any current event in an hour or two might perhaps usefully not be deployed in the production of books.

      Arguably there has been a trend to promote journalists to thought-leader/elite types and that's not, to my eye, working out very well. We're not getting very good thoughts.

    4. Agreed. We've got one as our Prime Minister...


    5. Boris is gonna write a book about Leadership, isn't he?

    6. And Churchill. And Shakespeare. And...

      How do I loathe thee, Johnson. Let me count the ways...