“A dog, if you point at something, will only look at your finger.”
– David Foster Wallace, E. Unibus Pluram
Postmodernism is laughably slippery. Its giants—Lyotard, Derrida, Baudrillard, Foucault, Deleuze, to name a few—each occupy contradictory intellectual spaces across a vast spectrum of thought. Others—namely, Jordan Peterson—add to the whole confusion by incorrectly claiming that postmodernism concealed Marxism under its cloak and by equating it with identity politics.
Because of the diverse array of postmodernists, I try my best to resist the urge to over-generalize at the risk of ignoring the nuance of thought between the aforementioned philosophers. Thankfully, however, we can generalize a little. We’d be correct, for example, to say that postmodernism is, in essence, the black mirror of modernism, a period that prided itself on its distrust of the divine and its affinity for the power of human reason. Of course, this is over-simplistic, but for our purposes, it’s sufficient to differentiate between modernism and postmodernism, whose chief identifier is, as Lyotard puts it, an “incredulity toward metanarratives” (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge); that is, a certain distrust of overarching claims regarding the human experience, history, authority, objectivity, identity, and what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry for “Postmodernism” calls “the univocity of meaning.”
The point of this theoretical discussion is to illuminate a very real, pressing crisis regarding postmodernism as it relates to neoliberalism. The latter has co-opted the former and molded its revolutionary parts into yet another market tool. This is the magnum opus of Western Civilization, its most problematic yet eerily impressive feature in the new millennium. However, limiting this analysis is the fact that the aforementioned philosophers are dead (if there is any silver lining in that statement, it’s that Baudrillard never witnessed the meteoric rise of Tiktok, which I’m pretty sure would cause his brain to explode). But let’s take a quick look at Baudrillard anyway. He posits that we live in a world dominated by representations of representations—signifiers—that have lost any real connection to a referent. As an example, he examines the reformulation of the Gulf War into an American media spectacle and image-driven advertisements that sell more of a product’s aura than the product itself. Baudrillard’s theories continue to resonate today: we exist in a simulacrum in which layers and layers of representations eliminate reality.
Enter Obey (pictured below).
Fig. 1: Shepard Fairey’s original sticker of Andre the Giant, which later transformed into the formal OBEY brand.
Founded by Shepard Fairey in Southern California, Obey initially attached an idea of Big Brother to its postmodern counterpart: absolute meaninglessness. The image you see above is a stenciled outline of French wrestler Andre the Giant—André René Roussimoff—with a caption that reads “Andre the Giant Has a Posse.” I, for one, find it difficult to explain what I’m seeing. But that’s the point. These images were plastered on political billboards and advertisements, subverting them by making them the unaware subject, by attaching the meaningless to the so-called “meaningful” so as to obscure—if not eliminate—the original meaning of whatever you saw before Andre the Giant entered the stage, regardless of Fairey’s intention.
Years after Fairey made the first Andre the Giant sticker, Obey morphed into an elite streetwear brand that’s now chastised for its role in the development of the so-called “hypebeast” archetype. But, most importantly, Obey became inextricably linked to the Obama administration in 2008, when Shepard Fairey made the following poster:
Fig. 2: Barack Obama’s “Hope” poster used during his 2008 presidential campaign, designed by Fairey.
How is it possible that the once subversive, postmodern Fairey has been retooled as the propagandizing instrument for one of the most notorious war criminals of the early twenty-first century, the biggest of Big Brothers? This is not anything new. Leaders in the West, especially U.S. presidents, are a product of a longstanding tradition of unrelenting exploitation and have always been predisposed towards a certain kind of violent nationalism based on American primacy (take Bush’s War on Terror or Clinton’s bombing of Iraq in 1993 as some evidence from recent memory). But, the present represents a jarringly different development in which neoliberalism has become even more insidious. In the same way DFW talks about TV in E. Unibus Pluram, it has been able to digest its own critics and excrete them as marketable, desirable products, hence the defanging of Fairey, the inauguration of overtly and ironic meta ads like these, and the triumph of a much more disastrous neoliberal world order than I ever thought possible.
To me, what makes this point in Western history especially problematic is the self-referential engine of postmodern neoliberalism. Criticisms just sort of melt off the neoliberal body like sweat while constantly reinvigorating it. And we are dogs, looking desperately and myopically at the finger of neoliberalism while singing along to that one Talking Heads’ line: “Well, how did I get here?”