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
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
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.
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!