Friday, September 20, 2013
The Question(s) of Modernity
Lately, I’ve been concerned by a series of pressing questions: what is modernism? What is modernization? And what is modernity? I should preface by saying I don’t think they are all the same thing, although I believe they are part and parcel, and that they are all related.
This question has been on my mind partly because it’s the primary topic of one of my seminars, but also because I’m working on a paper that will hopefully be ready for publication sometime next year, and I find myself confronting these same questions. For literary studies, this is a region of controversy. Where does the division between realism and modernism occur? Does modernism succeed realism in an intellectual as well as chronological sense? What exactly is “postmodernism,” and is it important for understanding modernism? (Fredric Jameson thinks so) The scholarship on modernity and modernism is vast, and primarily taken up by literary critics who are intent on describing the modernist “break” from realism; but Jameson, in A Singular Modernity, expresses interest in modernism from multiple angles, and his conclusions prove enlightening (as always).
Modernism, as an aesthetic style, is often isolated to a period of time ranging from about 1900 to the end of World War II (despite the fact that many different styles of literature emerge during this time). In 1899, Freud publishes The Interpretation of Dreams, which inaugurates a shift in literature from history and context to the personal and the wholly subjective. No longer do we see Walter Scott’s hapless Scotsmen caught up in the tragic history of the Porteous Riots, or Elizabeth Gaskell’s Esther left to perish on the streets of industrial Manchester, an exile from society. Now, suddenly, we find ourselves transported into the minds of immensely complex characters:
Stephen Dedalus listens, as a young boy, to his father and governess bicker about religion and Charles Parnell; unaware of the history, Joyce records his impressions as they are received by a young, naïve boy.
Orlando progresses through the ages, blessed (or cursed) with longevity, allowing Woolf to comment on the ephemeral literary styles and movements that precede her in a form both fictional and biographical (Orlando is, after all, a “biography”).
Pound reduces lyrical imagery to its bare minimum, attempting to capture the subjective impression in one brief and envied sweep of his pen.
Benjy yammers on about fences and boundaries, memories popping up almost randomly and sparkling across a narrative not at all rooted in linear time, allowing Faulkner to explore possibilities of knowledge beyond the social and historical (Benjy’s name changed from Maury to Benjamin in 1900; an allusion to some kind of broader historical moment planted in an aesthetic that clings to the first-person…?).
Some scholars will strike back further than Freud, finding the dawn of modernism in the figures of Baudelaire or Nietzsche, and some even daring to stretch back to Marx; but while modernity may very well have begun this early, it seems clear that modernism, as an aesthetic choice, does not begin until sometime after the novels of realism have had their say, realism itself being a reaction to the boom of unchecked industrial capitalism.
Some scholars will say modernism, while influenced by Freud, cannot truly begin until World War I, a war on an unprecedented scale that fragmented not only nations but also psyches, and led to the coercive and forced creation of a global society on a level that no one person could mentally conceive.
Virginia Woolf herself claimed that 1910 was the year when human nature changed.
The jury is still out, it would seem.
But if we can’t discern when exactly modernism and modernity began (and did they begin at the same time?), can we discern when they ended? Did they ever end, or is our current embedment in an unfathomably complex global capitalist state merely a symptom of what some might call “late modernism.” Does postmodernism describe our contemporary state; or is this term “too theoretical, not yet popular enough or in wider currency, the ‘post’ automatically provoking malaise, quizzicality and ironic inquiry” (A Singular Modernity 10)?
Or should we pursue the possibility that modernity already contains within itself the postmodern? Perhaps the postmodern “break,” in Jameson’s language, is already part and parcel of the modernist shift (I hesitate to say “ontology”). Postmodernity, rather than some inaugural break or rupture heralding a new mode and aesthetic that are distinct from those of modernity, is instead a development of modernity, an unraveling of the modernist kernel. From this perspective, modernity (and, by extension, any historical mode or period) cannot conceive of itself unless it has conceived of its evolution as a series of divergent paths (crises? Henri Lefebvre seems to think so…) away from its original (imaginary) unity. The error lies in trying to define and describe. Instead, we should refine and re-scribe.
What are the purposes of such speculation? For literature scholars, the question of periodization, aesthetic – form and content, style and technique – is everything. Many of us today believe that texts, whether they be fictional or factual (whatever that separation means), contemporary or historical, reflect something about the society and culture in which they’re produced and consumed. Furthermore, they also produce something about that culture and society. Drawing a one-way street in which there are individual actors in society who write and publish books that then have a discernible impact on others is futile. No one-way street exists. The books that you buy may produce us, but they are also produced by us – all of us. Texts aren’t the words of an author, although they are partially that. They’re reflections of the cultural consciousness, and (more importantly) the cultural unconscious. And thus, they are artifacts worthy of close analysis.
Of a familial relation to the question of modernism is the question of what exactly happens after World War II. Is Ellison’s Invisible Man a modernist text? Is Nabokov’s Lolita? Is Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus? At this moment in time we begin to see novels that look remarkably less modernist, and yet somehow still modernistic. During this same period we are also seeing numerous texts emerge in the category of “Science fiction,” many of which successfully strive to challenge modernist norms. However, the hackneyed label of “postmodernity,” when it doesn’t cause eyes to roll, simply causes confusion; and it especially raises eyebrows when scholars begin to contemplate what comes after postmodernity…
None of this is to say that I have the answers. My head is spinning just as much as yours is, I hope. All I want to do is begin collecting various objects for a kind of constellation of modernism – calls them items, facts, observations, recollections, speculations, etc. – that will hopefully organize the discussion in a meaningful and productive way.
Let us begin simply by taking the primary thrust of Jameson’s argument in A Singular Modernity: modernity, and modernism, only becomes conceivable as a moment after it witnesses an interminable failure on the part of its later practitioners to identify and break from it. What this means is that only when theorists, writers, and philosophers attempt to organize themselves around something called “modernity” and subsequently move away from it, are we (as a culture) able to recognize that thing called modernity; but we must also recognize that the attempts of those writers and philosophers to break away from modernity ultimately fail. The possibility for us to understand modernism relies on a fundamental failure.
So, to look at the entire process more structurally, we can see that modernity must establish, from the outset, a space (or category) for failure. There is something that modernity must posit as a question to be answered; but there isn’t a single answer to this question, and the answers that present themselves never quite serve to answer the initial question either. Modernity, in this sense, is a process. A process, furthermore, that we have yet to complete (is there such a thing as the “end of modernity”; the “end of history”?) and that is, in the fullest sense of the word, emergent.
In one sense, modernity is, and must be, an ideology. As it organizes vantage points and perspectives, as it structures epistemological frameworks and establishes aesthetic modes. But it is also revolutionary. As it enacts perspectival shifts, as it encounters the edges of its various epistemologies, as it suggests new aesthetically “superior” modes. For an example of all three of these, one need merely look to the enormous change in literary styles and composition between Henry James and William Faulkner (in this example the dialectical relationship between psychological realism and an almost schizophrenic modernism emerges full-blown). Is modernism a radical break with realism? Or is modernism merely a kind of cancelled realism, a realism of a new kind, a realism of impression and subjectivity?
Despite the efforts of recent thought to more substantially posit a break from modernism, its presence looms larger than ever, perhaps even in the inescapability of its numerous “turns”: the Linguistic Turn (popularized by Rorty), the Cultural Turn (popularized by Jameson), and now the controversial Speculative Turn (popularized, although perhaps not explicitly condoned, by various Continentalists, particularly Ray Brassier and Quentin Meillassoux). Even the Speculative Realists (as some begrudgingly acknowledge), who should most actively be pursuing a rupture from modernity, find themselves embroiled in it. Brassier insists that a new study of Romantic “Prometheanism” is in order, a clear influence on modernism, while Meillassoux pursues a new understanding of uncertainty, contingency, and the aleatory, all familiar concepts in modernity. It seems we cannot shake modernity’s tyrannical (or liberating?) hold.
Some may find a study such as this obviously ridiculous. We are modern. The modern is now. Isn’t that enough?
My answer is: not nearly.
If modernity poses an implicit dilemma, a series of unanswered questions, then our responsibility is not to dismiss those questions by explaining them away (i.e. answering them). Our responsibility is, rather, to collect the various answers and theories, to study and reinterpret the hypotheses put forth; not to discern the correct one (as though there could be such a thing) but to identify the patterns and dialectical resolutions that emerge from them. As Jameson says, we must not concoct genealogies of the past – the digging up of old bones to see how they explain current skeletal structures (metaphorically speaking), the reading of old texts to understand the form and content of current ones. Certainly there is a space for this, but it does not lie in the philosophies of modernity (i.e. the question: “what is modernity?”).
Instead, Jameson says, we must explore “archaeologies of the future.” This is the quote that concludes A Singular Modernity, and it also assumes the role of title for his work on Science fiction. This is a definitionally paradoxical statement; archaeologies, by definition, are studies of the past, the term arche deriving from the Greek word for origin. In order to enact such paradoxical archaeologies, we must force a perspectival shift; to skew ourselves in our skin, to boomerang through time, as Ellison’s invisible man does. If we want to understand modernity, then we must try and understand the potential answers to the uncertainties it poses. We must see our present not as the future of a historicized and documented past, but as the past of an undocumented, unforeseen future. Modernity, thus, lies not in the now. Not even close. Nor does it lie in the old, in the early twentieth century, in the texts of Eliot, Pound, Proust, or Joyce. Nor does it lie in the works of Faulkner, of Hemingway, of Stein, or even of Nabokov, or Ellison, or Roth.
Modernity lies in the past in its relation to the present; in the present in its relation to the future. More than anything, modernity is coming.
It’s coming for us all.
(cue ominous atonal music…)
 Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity, New York: Verso, 2012: “No ‘theory’ of modernity makes sense today unless it is able to come to terms with the hypothesis of a postmodern break with the modern” (94).
 See Jameson’s A Singular Modernity again.
 See Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity, New York: Verso, 2011: “If modernity (our modernity) is unfolding as a series of crises, can we not think that these crises are the small change of the unique and total revolutionary crisis envisioned by Marx, which the radically negative and creative proletariat would have resolved in one historic action?” (236)
 Here specifically is where Jameson situates “late modernism,” or “neomodernism.”
 I refer here to the concept of emergence theory, its applications for consciousness, urbanization, language, but also (I believe) historiography. For more on emergence, see the work of Manuel DeLanda, particularly his book Philosophy and Simulation: the Emergence of Synthetic Reason, New York: Continuum, 2011.