Week 1: Introduction
Avant-garde / Modernism / Postmodernism
© Geoffrey Kantaris 1997
Seminar Paper and Annotated Bibliography
All I can try to do in less than half an hour today is to sketch in extremely rapid overview some of the theoretical positions underlying the terms avant-garde, modernism, and postmodernism, peppering them with some examples inevitably torn out of context and simplified to fit the framework of my argument. But I'll have achieved what I intended if I can encourage you to follow up through the bibliography some of these ideas.
The terms 'modernity' and 'modernism' are perplexing enough without the addition of the prefix 'post-'. Even the attempt to historicize modernity, to try and define its boundaries historically, is a paradoxical task because, in the words of Tony Pinkney (see bibliography), modernity's awareness of itself as modern announces [Q] "merely the empty flow of time itself" [U], and its self-periodization is offered only as a break with the "mythic or circular temporality" (or non-temporality) of the organic community. This is to say that modernity can only define itself in terms of a temporal break with an organic past, but it is a break that has always already occurred no matter which moment one chooses as its starting point. Needless to say, this understanding of the infinite expandability of the modern, and the infinite regress of its origins, itself remains caught up within modernism's internal ideology.
Some commentators attempt to align modernity with the rise of the bourgeoisie during the 19th Century, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and its embrace of rationalism and positivism. Such arguments then see modernity as the culmination of Enlightenment rationality, with its beliefs in science and progress. The argument is often loosely based on Theodor Adorno's and Max Horkheimer's foundational text, Dialectic of Enlightenment, which, written in 1944 towards the end of the Nazi terror, proclaims that [Q] "Enlightenment is totalitarian". Enlightenment rationality is seen as a mode of thought so bound up with knowledge as a form of mastery, that it is destined to reach its grizzly culmination in the rationalized and technologized slaughter of the Nazi concentration camps, as well as, with hindsight, in the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In many such accounts, the Messianic faith of modernity reaches its end in those techno-scientific slaughterhouses too, and the post-war world, dominated economically and culturally by the United States of America, emerges into its post-modern dawn.
Other, more economically grounded arguments, such as David Harvey's meticulously argued book, or Fredric Jameson's more sweeping account, lay less stress on thought or rationality, and more on ideology and the rise of industrial capitalism, with its unleashing of the mobilizing forces of "creative destruction", following Marx's view of capitalism as simultaneously a dissolving and a creative force. It is the phase of capitalist expansion during the 19th Century, with its radical restructuring of social relations, that distinguishes the modern epoch from everything that comes before. Capitalism, in the Marxist view, is seen as "a social system internalizing rules that ensure it will remain a permanently revolutionary and disruptive force in its own world history" (Harvey, p. 107), or to quote Marx and Engels directly:
Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier times. All fixed, fast-frozen relationships, with their train of venerable ideas and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become obsolete before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face with sober sense the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men. (The Communist Manifesto, cit. Harvey, pp. 99-100)
For Harvey, very crudely, capitalism has experienced, from the mid 19th Century onwards, repeated crises of overaccumulation, leading to a phenomenon he terms "time-space compression", after Marx's idea that capitalism is driven through the desire for faster and faster turnover to the "annihilation of space by time". This leads to fundamentally new and disorientating experiences of space and time and in turn to crises in spatial-temporal representation, issuing in strong æsthetic responses. One such period occurs from the 1870s to the 1930s, when capitalism finds a spatial fix to the crisis of overaccumulation in rapid Imperial expansion. Under this argument, the modernist city is, of necessity, the Imperialist city. The latest bout of time-space compression, for Harvey, is the transition, starting in the late 1960s, from Industrial Fordism -- Ford's famous rationalization of capitalist production via the assembly-line -- to a new capitalist regime of "flexible accumulation". It is this shift that marks the transition from modernity to postmodernity within the terms of this argument. The wholesale capitalist takeover of the sphere of culture and representation together with the æsthetic responses generated by this, are part and parcel of this attempt to outline the historical condition of postmodernity.
We have however jumped too far ahead of ourselves, and we need to go back and ask ourselves what continuities and discontinuities there might be between the terms modernism and modernity, let alone between postmodernism and postmodernity. Modernism may of course be considered as a cultural reaction to modernity, whether to the economic, social, or technological environment of high capitalism. If we accept this notion of cultural 'reaction' to a social environment, then we should expect modernism to be sometimes engaged with, and sometimes distanced from and critical of, the experience of modernity. It might try to engage, for example, with heightened experiences of speed and turnover within the urban environment, or it might withdraw from the shocks and jolts of an alienated and alienating social environment into an æsthetic world nostalgic for the lost myths governing an ordered and organic sense of community. Or it might partake of both of these impulses at the same time, becoming internally split, or schizophrenic.
This is more or less the thesis on modernism of Peter Bürger's now classic text, Theory of the Avant-Garde, which attempts to elaborate a theory of the cultural movements extending from the turn of the century until the Second World War. Bürger distinguishes quite sharply between modernism, and what he terms the historical avant-garde or, elsewhere, the revolutionary avant-garde. Modernism, what is even termed æsthetic modernism, is understood by Bürger as a self-protective gesture. Modernist texts -- of which The Waste Land is usually taken as a paradigm -- attempt to forestall their own consumption in the undifferentiated homogenization of either bourgeois utilitarianism, or, at a later stage, of mass-industrial capitalism. The modernist text draws its discourse protectively around itself, resisting its reduction to the status of a mere commodity, in an antagonistic relationship to modernity. While on the one hand it 'thickens its textures' to forestall logical reduction, on the other it is still governed by a desire to re-organize the shattered fragments of modernity into an organic, meaningful whole. Tony Pinkney puts it succinctly in his introduction to Raymond Williams' book The Politics of Modernism, claiming that the great prototypes of twentieth century urban modernism, The Waste Land and Ulysses, are internally split -- there is a dissociation in these works [Q] "between texture and structure, between heightened or even pathological subjectivity and the static absolutist myths which govern these texts" (p. 13).
The important point for Bürger, however, is that the schizoid modernist artefact is unable to recognize its own protective gestures as ideological, nor does it call into question its own institutional status as art: indeed, it can align itself with a highly reactionary politics by highlighting and reinforcing the self-defining institutional role of autonomous art in the face of the 'masses' or 'crowd'. For, under the terms of this argument, the supposed 'autonomy' of art within bourgeois society, as a privileged realm of free play, is in fact in the service of that selfsame bourgeois, capitalist system, providing it with a safety-valve, a neutralized, institutionalized space in which it is possible to believe that one is free.
The avant-garde, on the other hand, is precisely that which recognizes the unpolitical impulses of modernism for what they are and rejects the illusion of æsthetic autonomy within a self-reinforcing 'high' culture. The avant-garde tends to a much more productive acceptance of the energies of popular culture and even mass culture, and, in opposition to high culture as such, attempts to dissolve art into social life, to make its transformatory æsthetic projects into projects for the transformation of the whole of the social sphere, and not of a privileged minority. Walter Benjamin's famous essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' (1936), with its embracing of the politically demystifying possibilities inherent in the mass reproduction of artefacts, the way mass reproduction destroys the aura of distance and autonomy surrounding the work of art, is in clear contrast both to the modernist's lament at the cheapening of art and, as we shall see later, to the postmodern embrace of the mass-reproduced artefact as an emptied-out simulacrum.
Eliot's writings on art and tradition may be taken as emblematic of modernism's problematic relationship to high-cultural tradition. Erik Svarny in a book called The Men of 1914 (pp. 172-3) points out that in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' there is a curious semantic undecidability given to words like "conformity" and "order" in which the relationship of modern art to tradition slips insidiously between the construction of tradition as an infinitely rewritable text -- a co-hering and con-forming of past and present -- and the establishment of tradition as an authority from whose order the present gains its meaning in conformity. Eliot's poetical texts, too, hover between on the one hand a desperate heterogeneity of clashing discourses which comprise the 'unreal' City, fragmented quotations of tradition as a lost totality which can no longer give any coherent structure to the present, and on the other, the attempt to salvage some sense of 'order' by shoring up identity with these fragments of previous discourses, "these fragments I have shored against my ruins" and "shall I at least set my lands in order?" (The Waste Land, p. 79).
Eliot declared in 1923 that the "mythical method" of Joyce's Ulysses was [Q] "simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history [ . . . ] It is, I seriously believe, a step towards making the modern world possible for art". Eliot, a paradigm of modernism within this argument, whose Waste Land gives us an apocalyptic vision of a sexually (read racially) degenerate, tinned baked-bean-eating mass bourgeoisie, proposes ultimately to bring the modern world into line with the higher aims of art, whereas, it is argued, the artists and thinkers of the revolutionary avant-garde, from the surrealists to Walter Benjamin, are looking for an art form that would turn the forms of ruling culture, æsthetic or otherwise, against themselves.
Theories of modernism, which for Schulte-Sasse include much post-structuralist textual theory from Barthes to Derrida and Kristeva, privilege those modernist authors who foreground their signifying material, seeing in the distorting and disruptive effects of textuality -- the semiotic elements of language -- an inherently revolutionary process at work, one which disturbs and finally undoes all totalizing ideologies. Thus, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Lautréamont, Joyce, Céline, Robbe-Grillet and Celan are held up as paradigms of an inherently disruptive 'modern' writing, sometimes even of a 'feminine' writing, which, beyond or rather despite any political 'content' which their texts might contain, just is revolutionary. Politicized theories of the avant-garde, on the other hand, such as those of Walter Benjamin and Peter Bürger, where they pay attention to æsthetic principles tend instead to stress the techniques of fragmentation and montage. Montage and collage are terms which describe a non-hierarchical way of incorporating diverse fragments within the work of art without subsuming them to any totalizing æsthetic order, indeed disrupting any such notion (e.g. Cubism). The emphasis on fragments, or heterogeneous 'chips' of unarticulated experience, is seen as setting up a tension between the annihilated vision of the present as a debased fragment of lost totality and the transformatory, liberating power of remembrance which those fragments enclose, precisely because they liberate us from totality. This radical dialectical vision is perhaps best summed up in Walter Benjamin's description of Paul Klee's 'Angelus Novus', often termed the Angel of History:
[The Angel's] eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. ('Theses on the Philosophy of History', p. 249)
For Bürger, the avant-garde's heroic attempt to sublate art into life, to destroy the autonomous category of art and turn it into praxis, failed, possibly because the bourgeois culture industry was able to incorporate and neutralize even its most radical gestures. Terry Eagleton's essay on 'Capitalism, Modernism, and Postmodernism' interprets postmodernist culture precisely in terms of an emptied-out or hollow version of the revolutionary avant-garde's desire to erase the boundaries between culture and society, claiming that postmodernism [Q] "mimes the formal resolution of art and social life attempted by the avant-garde while remorselessly emptying it of its political content; Mayakovsky's poetry readings in the factory yard become Warhol's shoes and soup-cans" [U].
Eagleton's analysis is hostile to postmodernist culture on account of its ''depthless, styleless, dehistoricized, decathected surfaces'' (p. 132), but above all because it abolishes critical distance and expels political content in its conflation of itself with the form of the stereotype. It nevertheless provides an interesting characterization of the phenomenon which shows how it has developed from a peculiar combination of, on the one hand, æstheticist modernism, from which it inherits the fragmentary or schizoid self, self-reflexivity and fetishism, and on the other, the revolutionary avant-garde, from which it inherits the breakdown of the barriers between art and social life, the rejection of tradition, and pastiche quotation of commodified social relations (p. 146f). For Eagleton, as for a number of commentators, postmodernism does not in any way transcend the politico-æsthetic debates of modernism and the avant-garde, but is seen rather as a collapse into an endless miming of the earlier debates now emptied of any political content. Postmodernism is not a new departure, but is seen as a culture still caught within the very terms of high modernity.
Fredric Jameson, in his programme piece on 'Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism', claims that postmodernism is characterized not by parody, which has a critical ulterior motive, but by pastiche, which is a kind of neutral or ''blank parody'', the imitation of dead styles, pure 'simulacrum' or identical copy without source (pp. 16-18). By way of response, Eagleton argues that if postmodernism parodies anything, it is parodying, in the form of a sick joke, the serious attempts by the revolutionary avant-garde of the 1930s to dismantle the frontiers between art (as institution) and life (as social praxis). This, he suggests, represents an ultimate irony in that postmodernism achieves this crossover in a way which would have horrified the early practitioners: instead of either resisting commodification in the way that modernism did by withdrawing into self-reflexive, auto-telic isolation, or else passing over into revolutionary social praxis in the ways proposed by the avant-garde, the postmodern artefact sweeps away this opposition by 'discovering' that, since the whole social sphere has already been commodified and æstheticized, turned over to ceaseless mechanical reproduction in the compulsive repetition of the market place, it might as well give up all claims to separate status and simply 'copy the copy', become one more commodity/stereotype -- a 'simulacrum', copy of the copy for which there never was any 'original'. Whereas this miming of mime might in the 1930s have carried a revolutionary force, an explosive anti-mimetic, anti-representational power, it has now collapsed into mere tautology and compulsive repetition: [Q] "if art no longer reflects, it is not because it seeks to change the world rather than mimic it, but because there is in truth nothing there to be reflected, no reality which is not itself already image, spectacle, simulacrum, gratuitous fiction" (Eagleton, p. 133).
The various arguments over the political 'effectiveness' or otherwise of postmodern artefacts (by which is meant the possibilities they provide for intervention and socio-political change of the commodified relations of 'late capitalism') turn on whether or not any critical stance is maintained in this conflation of artefact and commodity/stereotype, of which Andy Warhol's reproduced images of Marilyn Monroe, fetishized women's shoes or brand-name soup cans have themselves become the stereotypical example, postmodernism's 'already made'. While Eagleton and Jameson argue that postmodernism is characterized precisely by its disinterest in politics, by its blank pastiche, and ultimately by its complicity with doxa and stereotype, Linda Hutcheon in her The Politics of Postmodernism suggests that postmodernism is characterized, rather, by a double-coding, being undecidably ''both complicitous with and contesting of the cultural dominants within which it operates'' (p. 142). One of Hutcheon's main arguments is that [Q] although ''the postmodern has no effective theory of agency that enables a move into political action, it does work to turn its inevitable ideological grounding into a site of de-naturalizing critique'' (p. 3), which is to say that it carries out a work of 'de-doxification' in contrast to Eagleton's view of it as entirely complicit with the doxa or stereotype. I would like to suggest that it is not enough to look for a critical 'intention' inhering in Warhol's soup cans, indeed ultimately it is futile to try to do so -- and I would add that taking these prints as the paradigmatic example of postmodernist æsthetics is itself highly problematic and tends to lead to a flattening out of the debate which some attention to postmodernist narrative might help to resolve. Instead it would be much more fruitful to focus on reception, to look to a strategy of 'reading' the social and cultural sphere which places the onus of the construction of 'meaning' on the viewer/spectator/reader as opposed to the artist/producer/author. Postmodernism may in fact be at its most effective as a strategy for interrogating the way we read socio-cultural codes and objects which surround us.
One of the problems surrounding the debate on postmodernism turns on its lack of a theory of agency. For Jean-François Lyotard, the postmodern condition can be defined in terms of what he calls the "death of metanarratives", of the "grands récits" of modernity from scientific rationalism, through psychoanalysis, to Marxism. The postmodern era no longer believes in grand narratives of human progress, or in the possibility of an all-encompassing rational standpoint from which it is possible to know the human mind, nor in any grand transformatory political project. The human subject has been colonized by a wholly libidinalized capitalist economy which keeps us in pursuit of the latest commodity. We are the sum of the stereotypes against which we measure our identity, and there is no human agent in control of his/her subjectivity.
In many ways this vision is in stark contrast to one of the most important political movements to have made a successful transition from its foundation at the heart of modernity to the postmodern era, namely feminism. Linda Hutcheon has argued that because feminism sets itself a very precise agenda for social and political change, it tends to maintain a certain critical distance from postmodernism. For example, feminism needs a theory of agency, and needs to be able to understand cultural dominants in terms of 'master' discourses, i.e., literally discourses of the 'Master' which can be contested and overturned, all of which, we are told, postmodernism no longer believes in. It is also likely that the political agendas of various feminisms [Q] ''would be endangered, or at least obscured by the double coding of postmodernism's complicitous critique'' (p. 152). Nevertheless, she argues that there has been an important interchange of techniques and purpose between feminism and postmodernism. Feminism has perhaps to some extent rewritten postmodernism's 'blank parody' (can we any longer refrain from applying a critical feminist reading to Warhol's prints of Marilyn Monroe?), and some feminist practitioners have taken on board postmodern play with stereotype, in ways that provoke a rethinking of our strategies of reading those stereotypes: [Q] ''By using postmodern parodic modes of installing and then subverting conventions, such as the maleness of the gaze, representation of woman can be 'de-doxified''' (p. 151).
Similar to the feminist critique and transformation of the political (non)content of postmodernist culture is that being undertaken by postcolonial critics. Kumkum Sangari, for example, in her essay 'The Politics of the Possible', on the epistemological framing of 'Third World' cultural products by Western postmodernism, argues that postmodern preoccupation with the crisis of meaning does not have universal validity outside of the specific historical conjuncture from which it emerges and which it is completely unable to acknowledge. The dismantling of the "unifying" intellectual traditions of the West [Q] "denies to all the truth of or the desire for totalizing narratives" (p. 243), and, what is worse, for non-Western or peripherically Western countries, postmodernism's denial of agency "preempts change by fragmenting the ground of praxis" (p. 240) at precise moments when such cultures may be engaging in an attempt to produce meaningful historical and/or national narratives (p. 242). Even radical Western theorists of postmodernity, she argues, fail to unpick this new "master narrative" which provides an unexamined frame through which all culture, Western or otherwise, is reduced to the non-dynamics of the Same. [Q] "From there it continues to nourish the self-defining critiques of the West, conducted in the interest of ongoing disruptions and reformulations of the self-ironizing bourgeois subject" (p. 243).
I want to finish this far too hasty birdseye view of the modernism/postmodernism debate with a quotation from Derek Gregory's Geographical Imaginations, itself something of a pastiche of various commentators' views, from Manuel Castells through David Harvey to Fredric Jameson, which underlines from a Marxist perspective the continuity, rather than the disjuncture, between the shrinking experience of space and speedup of time of the modern era, with its rapid global colonization, and an analagous but possibly even more intensified shrinkage of space which we are experiencing towards the end of the Second Christian Millennium:
the emergent forms of high modernity, perhaps even of postmodernity, depend upon tense and turbulent landscapes of accumulation whose dynamics are so volatile and whose space-economies are so disjointed that one can glimpse within the dazzling sequences of deterritorialization and reterritorialization a new and intensified fluidity to the politico-economic structures of capitalism; that the hyper-mobility of finance capital and information cascading through the circuits of this new world system, surging from one node to another in nanoseconds, is conjuring up unprecedented landscapes of power in which, as Castells put it, "space is dissolved into flows," "cities become shadows," and places are emptied of their local meanings; and that ever-extending areas of social life are being wired into a vast postmodern hyperspace, an electronic inscription of the cultural logic of late capitalism, whose putative abolition of distance renders us all but incapable of comprehending -- of mapping -- the decentred communication networks whose global webs enmesh our daily lives. (Gregory, pp. 97-98)
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