David Bowie, Cindy Sherman, and Quentin Tarantino walk into a bar: Stuart Jeffries examines the legacy of postmodernism in his new work of cultural criticism

This week, the big new release in cinemas (those that are not shuttered due to the Omicron variant of Covid-19) is Scream, the latest in the franchise of smugly self-referential slasher films begun in 1996. The new movie is a requel – a neologism that conflates the terms reboot, remake, and sequel – and, like 2018’s Halloween before it, drops the number in its title (it would have been Scream 5 ordinally). From the very first iteration, written by Kevin Williamson and directed by the late Wes Craven, the series has indulged in a sometimes cloyingly knowing pose: in each instalment, a group of teens steeped in the pop culture nuances of horror films employ their understanding of the genre to comment winkingly on the horror film they find themselves a part of. In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw notes, “The Scream films, about a serial killer called Ghostface who slaughtered his victims according to the scary-movie rules tabulated by nerd-cool connoisseurs and who can only be survived or defeated by sticking to those rules, were born in the irony boom of the 90s.” In that, the films were almost defiantly postmodern.

What the revival of the Scream franchise indicates, in at least one respect, is the persistence of postmodernism, notwithstanding the raft of books and commentary – journal articles with titles like “What Was Postmodernism?” and “The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond” – proclaiming the movement’s demise. Those two articles are referenced by journalist Stuart Jeffries in the afterword to his new volume, Everything, All the Time, Everywhere: How We Became Postmodern. “Perhaps, if postmodernism is dead, it was the 2008 global financial crisis that killed it,” Jeffries writes, extending his core critique that the literary, artistic, and cultural movement is inextricably tied to neoliberalism in economics and global geopolitics. But despite this supposition, there is good reason to believe that postmodern ideas continue to thrive, and not just on the silver screen.

A cursory glance at any news site or cable news broadcast should be sufficient to demonstrate this. We live in the era of fake news and alternative facts, a culture in which an aggrieved and petulant former U.S. president can claim, against all evidence to the contrary, that his electoral loss was the result of fraud, and a recent poll indicates that two-thirds of Republicans and one-third of Americans generally believe him. Facts have become mutable, relative: if a particular fact or set of facts proves inconvenient, just ignore it or use it as further evidence of a vast conspiracy to steal power away from you.

This is not all that far removed from the theories of Roland Barthes, who in “The Death of the Author” stipulated, “In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered … writing ceaselessly posits meaning ceaselessly to evaporate it, carrying out a systemic exemption of meaning.” Fellow Frenchman Jacques Derrida was sympatico with Barthes, elaborating a theory of différance, a linguistic and philosophical outlook that “affirms play and tries to pass beyond man and humanism.” Derrida saw attempts at meaning making as flawed because the slipperiness of language allowed for an infinite play of signification between and among readers.

Barthes, Derrida, and their countrymen Ferdinand de Saussure, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deluze, and Jean Beaudrillard could collectively serve as postmodernism’s progenitors and champions, and as such have quite a lot to answer for. Not just the entrenchment of moral and critical relativity that is now so pervasive as to appear entirely unremarkable; it is not inconceivable to suppose that without postmoderism, and the French theory that made it possible, fake news would not be such a culturally dominant problem in the third decade of the 21st century. Sympathetic postmodernists would cavil that the philosophy is predicated upon irony and that our current cultural moment seems antipathetic to irony. As a rejoinder, one might point out the apparently self-evident notion that the most feverish proponents of the U.S. voter fraud lie – including, though certainly not limited to, Fox News pundits, Republican Congresspeople and Senators, and the former president himself – must know the line they are spewing is false on its face, but they continue to do so anyway. If irony is defined in part as the distance between an utterance and reality, not only is the mode of discourse not dead, it is thriving.

Jeffries does not engage such arguments in any substantive way; his issues with postmodernism have more to do with its close, though largely unexamined, relationship to capitalism and the neoliberal imperative toward consumerist consumption – the undeniably ironic situation that a movement born out of countercultural ideals has been so thoroughly co-opted by advertisers, governments, and other interested parties dedicated to keeping mass populaces complacent and buying stuff. The video game series Grand Theft Auto, which allows its players to adopt the persona of an inner-city gangster engaging in consequence-free violence and mayhem, has become “part of a global industry that dwarfs cinema box-office and recorded-music receipts.” It also traffics in postmodern obsession with reinvention, of the kind that David Bowie patented and Madonna perfected.

The musicians are two of Jeffries’s key case studies in his book: the former for his ability to shift identities as though doffing clothes – playing with androgyny and sexual ambiguity via characters like Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, and Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicolas Roeg’s film adaptation of The Man Who Fell to Earth – and the latter with her mixture of innocence and experience in the realm of sexuality along with a demonstrated willingness to pastiche her own persona with that of Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, and others.

Bowie and Madonna created their various personae themselves; the Sex Pistols had theirs foisted on them. The brainchild of impresario and Svengali Malcolm McLaren, the Pistols were the Monkees of punk rock, intentionally created to capitalize on the disaffection of late-1970s youth in Britain and, in the process, to make a lot of money. Jeffries points out that the band’s frontman, John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten), was upfront about the irony involved in the group’s branding, stalking off the stage at their final 1978 concert while growling at the audience, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” (Jeffries doesn’t point out how much further Lydon took this in 1996, when the band reunited for its self-consciously straightforward Filthy Lucre Tour. Appearing onstage sans Sid Vicious – arguably the only authentic punk among the original lineup – Lydon kicked off the show by shouting to the accumulated crowd, “Thank you for your money!”)

Jeffries links the consumerist underpinnings of a group like the Sex Pistols with Steve Jobs and Apple, a company that had its first major success in 1984. That was the year the Macintosh was launched with an iconic TV ad, directed by Ridley Scott, positioning the product as a liberatory tool for battling the staid conformity of what was presented as a totalitarian society manqué. The fact that Jobs and his company went on to become one of the most financially successful outfits in the world, convincing millions of consumers to invest in big-ticket items like the iPhone and the MacBook Pro, is yet another unacknowledged irony of the postmodern era. “Jobs’s postmodernism consisted in making us desire our own domination,” Jeffries writes. “He was selling conformity masquerading as personal liberation, and Apple was monetizing what appeared countercultural.”

Not all of Jeffries’s neo-Marxist critiques land equally well. In discussing the early films of Quentin Tarantino, whom Jeffries anoints one of two leading contenders for the mantle High Priest of Postmodernism (the other is the artist Jeff Koons), Jeffries not only misidentifies Tarantino’s character in Reservoir Dogs (he says it’s Mr. Pink, who was Steve Buscemi’s character) but, more egregiously, misreads what he considers the amorality of Pulp Fiction. Tarantino’s 1994 masterpiece does have a claim to being an important work of postmodern cinema, though not for the reasons Jeffries stipulates.

While he is seemingly caught up in the bloodletting and the gangster milieu, the author fails to note that each of the movie’s three sections ends with a character withholding an act of violence. One of these is the Black gangster boss Marcellus Wallace who, far from being “another needy victim who must ultimately rely on the kindness of strangers to rescue him from a rape-in-progress,” is in fact the beneficiary of moral largesse on the part of Bruce Willis’s Butch – not a stranger – who knows that Marcellus could have him killed should he live through the assault. Yet he rescues him anyway; Marcellus responds by calling off the hit on Butch. Hardly a text steeped in wanton amorality and racist animus.

Where Pulp Fiction does demonstrate a postmodern impulse is in Tarantino’s practice of visually quoting from world cinema that has influenced or affected him. This method of quotation – or, in less generous terms, appropriation – is at the heart of the postmodern endeavour, as Jeffries amply demonstrates. There is Madonna slinking around in the video for “Material Girl” dressed as Marilyn from Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend, and avant-garde photographer Cindy Sherman adopting characters from film noir and Alfred Hitchcock for her Film Stills series. (Though here, too, the details seem to bedevil Jeffries. He suggests that in Sherman’s Untitled Flim Still #6, she is making a postmodern gesture by clutching her remote shutter release in her right hand; she is actually holding a mirror, which does make a postmodern comment, though once again not the one Jeffries supposes.)

Where Jeffries is correct is in his assessment of Sherman’s impulse to adopt a series of alternate identities, something he links to Bowie’s onstage practice. Sherman’s approach, Jeffries writes, “captures the desire to perform many identities rather than enduring the life sentence of having one mask congealing to one’s face.” What is paramount here is the verb “perform”: the postmodern condition is not so much authentic as performative, which is itself ironic given our 21st century cultural obsession with so-called lived experience. Jeffries points out the extent to which postmodernism involves self-disclosure, though in the case of an artist like Sherman, there is at least as much self-concealment at work in projects such as Film Stills. Jeffries tilts in the direction of this apparent contradiction when he notes that Princess Diana “was representative of the West’s age of authenticity – an individualistic era in which people are encouraged to perform themselves in public rather than nurse wounds in private.”

Jeffries is antagonistic toward much of the world postmodernism has bequeathed us. He is obviously opposed to the use of postmodern theory and practice as a means of lending cover to the more craven aspects of capitalism in a globalized society (he begins his book with Nixon separating the U.S. from the gold standard and ends with the 2008 subprime mortgage debt crisis). He also courts opprobrium from certain circles with his critiques of identity politics and the gender theories of Judith Butler. He acknowledges the brutalism inherent in much modernist architecture, but suggests – rightly, it would seem – that the postmodern alternative is troublesome precisely because it hides its capitalist motivation behind bright colours and a sense of play. All of this, Jeffries argues, is an attempt to streamline our desires, the better to sell them back to us.

In this sense, Umberto Eco provides the most pristine distillation of Jeffries’s critique. Jeffries points to the late Italian semiotician’s book Travels in Hyperreality, in which he discovers the “absolutely fake cities” named for the iconic American animator Walt Disney and succumbs to a reaction that is ambiguous at best:

After visiting these fakes, he found reality disappointing. On a trip down the real Mississippi, Eco wrote balefully that the river failed to reveal its alligators, whereas on an artificial river in Disneyland, the animatronic imitations of animals had performed obligingly for him. “You risk feeling homesick for Disneyland,” he concluded, “where the wild animals don’t have to be coaxed. Disneyland tells us that technology can give us more reality than nature can.”

Whether it’s Disney’s animatronic alligators or Fox News, we’re all postmodern now.

David Bowie, Cindy Sherman, and Quentin Tarantino walk into a bar: Stuart Jeffries examines the legacy of postmodernism in his new work of cultural criticism
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