A Singular Modernity

I’ve been preparing a short paper for Phil Wegner’s seminar on “Late Modernism” at MSA next month. The seminar’s call is pretty broad (essentially any aspect, theoretical or practical, of late modernism, however defined), but it’s really devoted to Fred Jameson’s work, particularly A Singular Modernity. So I reread the book. Some thoughts, followed by a sketch of my own comment/argument for the conference.

First, Fred is smarter than I am, which isn’t news to me or to anyone else, but is both invigorating and a little frustrating. A Singular Modernity is the book I wish my dissertation had been, less a few sustained engagements with the literature of the fifties (there’s a short chapter on Nabokov and Beckett, but FRJ’s interest in this case is plainly elsewhere). Many of the things I’ve argued at length elsewhere are present in one form or another here, typically said better and with a broader grasp of the relevant theoretical context. I had a professor once who said he found reading Nietzsche maddening, because everything he wanted to say was already there a hundred years in advance. Same story, minus some decades. Sigh.

But so what of the claims? Thinking through this out loud, more or less … The book has two major sections, the first devoted to theories of periodization, the second to a specific examination of the ideology of modernism, which is to say how modernism was invented as an aesthetic category around the middle of the twentieth century. The first part is relatively straightforward, and it’s easy enough to pick out the take-away points, what with them being flagged as such (for the record, they’re the “four maxims of modernity”). Two notes: (1) I think it’s helpful to have an explicit theorization of the necessity of periodization, especially given the knots into which modernists in particular tie themselves over the contradictions and ambiguities involved in defining or delimiting both “modernity” and “modernism.” The main touchstones are Heidegger (as an aside, the funniest sentence of the book is “Unfortunately, we do not get rid of Heidegger so easily as that …” How often have I said exactly the same thing?), Foucault, and (slightly less so) Balibar (though the range of reference is pretty stunning), and the central claim is that the dialectical relationship of break to period is inescapable in any narrative history (which is to say any modern history); two of the maxims say, essentially, you cannot avoid periodization, and the periodization you do adopt will necessarily posit a series of breaks in historical continuity, this in spite of the many and obvious problems with the very idea of such discontinuity. (2) This section might just as well have been titled “Why the Postmodernism Book Looks the Way It Does,” since it’s an argument about why contemporary theories of contemporaneity need to adopt specific assumptions concerning history and causation. The small, unusual note preceding the table of contents situates the book within Jameson’s much larger project (“the theoretical section of the antepenultimate volume of The Poetics of Social Forms,” which latter is, if I’m not mistaken, essentially the whole of FRJ’s collected works, or at least of the major books since Postmodernism), and suggests that we ought to read it in dialogue with the other work theorizing the present. Much of the confusion about the postmodernism book might have been avoided if the material from A Singular Modernity had been available at the time (an impossible fantasy, I know, but still …)

Compelling as all this is, I suspect the second section of the book will be of more immediate interest to Modernist Studies folks, since it’s a more historically explicit account of the factors that produced the ideology of modernism. The ideology of modernism is roughly equivalent to the theorization of aesthetic modernism as such, and it is largely an invention of the late modern period, i.e., the 1940s and ’50s, when it was pushed heavily by the American New Critics, especially Clement Greenberg (whose—Greenberg’s—attention, obviously, was painting and visual art rather than literature, but the thrust was the same; Jameson has a brief treatment of the critical move between media). Prior to the late modern invention of modernism as a coherent ideological formation, you have either the various national-philosophical-historical theorizations of modernity (as distinct from modernism), essentially descriptive or analytical rather than programmatic, or you have the maxims of the individual practitioners of the arts that would eventually be united as modernist, but that were in fact less harmonized ideologies than calls for specific kinds of (often mutually antagonistic) practice. The primary feature of the ideology of modernism was, as we know well, the absolute autonomy of the work of art, i.e., its rigorous separation from the conditions—personal, cultural, economic, social, etc.—of its production. Jameson points out that the real concern of modernist ideologues like Greenberg and Adorno was to draw a line not between the aesthetic and the non-aesthetic, but between a certain kind of high aesthetics and “culture,” there being, after all, plenty of aesthetic content in the debased business of advertising, mass media, and so on.

This is all true enough, but why should it have been the case? For one thing, modernism (that is, the aesthetic forms of the early twentieth century, give or take a couple of decades) is the necessary product of “conditions of incomplete modernization,” which is to say of a time subsequent to the significant development of the capitalist mode of production, but prior to the full globalization (or financialization, though Jameson doesn’t use that word) of capital. Modernism is or was, in other words, a symptomatic response to the historical conditions of middle-stage capitalism. It is for this reason that we can no longer be modernist, because we are now fully modernized; the dislocations and tensions of modernization are still identifiable in a historical sense, but they are no longer the defining conditions of our own time (which is instead characterized by the depthlessness, etc.—the whole list of postmodern features enumerated in Postmodernism—of late capital). The late modernists, inventors of the ideology of modernism (on which potential conflation, more below), would then have found themselves falling increasingly outside this situation of incomplete modernization after WWII. While they may not yet have been able to formulate (except projectively and at second order, on which, again, more below) the postmodern response to their changing conditions, neither could they maintain a properly modernist orientation toward the “Absolute,” i.e., the belief that the techniques and styles of the earlier modernists were thrusts toward the truth of their situation—indeed that the very purpose of invention in art was to reveal the underlying truth of that situation’s own novelty—rather than simply a codified and regularized set of aesthetic approaches available for appropriation. That was a long sentence. What I mean is that late modernists curtailed the role or engagement of art in part because they realized that art could no longer perform the radical task it had previously set for itself, at least insofar as the material and social conditions in which art was produced were new and different ones after the war. The details of this difference are a bit better fleshed out in the book, of course, but it’s probably worth repeating that A Singular Modernity is much more a piece of theory than of literary or cultural history; there are no detailed readings here like the ones in The Political Unconscious or Postmodernism (or Archaeologies of the Future, for that matter—it’s not as though Jameson has abandoned them in the new work).

A couple of related points:

FRJ attributes the relative accessibility of late modernist work to the abandonment of the Absolute mentioned above; we might understand the thrust of late modernism as a domestication of high modernism, which also enables its commodification. As he points out, the canon isn’t just an invention of the New Critics; its very content is modernism proper. This is to say that the ideology of modernism is neatly encapsulated in the canon; when college students leave the university with a shelffull of great books, they are taking away not (obviously) the condensed history of literature, but the story of late modernism itself.

One of the things that’s tricky about the book—and this is the first follow-up from above, re: late modernist theory and artistic practice—is that it can be hard to distinguish the ideologues of modernism, who were writing in the late modernist period, from the artists of late modernism. To some extent this is because they were doing the same thing; when Nabokov wrote polemically that he pursued only aesthetic bliss, he was of course articulating the ideology of modernism, whether that was exactly his aim or not. But the case seems more complicated with a figure like Beckett, whose own work is much less accessible than Nabokov’s, which hence resembles more closely the technical achievements of high modernism. Of course this resemblance needn’t imply an equivalence of purpose—that’s exactly the point of the codification of modernist technique. And it’s perfectly possible to see the difficulty of Beckett’s work as being, like that of the high modernists proper, brought under the regularizing control of the late modern narrative of canonicity. Still, it seems to me that in general the art of the late modern period looks forward to full-blown postmodernism (though often admittedly only very imperfectly) in a way that the ideology of modernism does not, and I think that Jameson’s use of the term “late modernism” to refer to both sometimes obscures this difference.

Which brings me to my own contribution to all of this. How could I defend the claim that late modernist literature, at least some of it, looks ahead to postmodernism? Isn’t this just the sort of postmodernism-avant-la-lettre (or any x-avant-la-lettre) that makes for dull scholarship and sloppy historiography (and that threatens to forget the dialectic of break and period)? I think not, for the following reason. As Jameson points out, modernism proper is characterized by its frequent use of allegory, and not just of any allegory: “Each [modernist] text is the frozen allegory of modernism as a whole and as a vast movement in time which no one can see or adequately represent” (125). I think this is right; modernist texts do tend toward both allegory and reflexivity, and it makes sense that the whole of modernism should be the kind of ungraspable totality toward which allegory is specifically geared; after all, if you could just tell the story of modernism directly, you wouldn’t need allegory, nor would you any longer be pursuing the (sublime-like) Absolute. We should then expect late modernist criticism, i.e., the ideology of late modernism, to be itself largely non-allegorical, since it claims to see modernism steadily and whole. But late modernist art may be another matter; even if the story of modernism no longer requires allegorical telling, the story of modernist ideology probably does, since it will only be from the position of full-blown postmodernism that the ideological content of modernist theory will be directly perceivable.

So allegory should occupy an important position in both stages then, but it should be of two different sorts: In high modernism, an allegory of modernity; in late modernism, an allegory of allegory itself via a deployment of modernist techniques in a radically altered environment. That’s a bit opaque. What I mean is that modernist allegory might have any specific content, really, since the mere fact of its allegorical signification tells the reader something about the difficult and uncertain relationship between art (or representation) and reality that is the condition of modernity. (This is what Jameson means when he says of allegory in modernism that “the eternal return of the same gesture of innovation over and over again does not disqualify [its novelty] but lends it a mesmerizing, forever perplexing and fascinating spell.”) But if we codify this meaning, which we necessarily do when we codify the experimental representational techniques of modernism, then it no longer works, because codified allegory is no longer allegory at all—it’s simply literal narrative. If late modernism is then going to advance an agenda of its own rather than simply recapitulate the perfections of high modernism, and if it’s going to be relevant to the changing conditions of production in the postwar world, it’s going to have to find a way to use the newly-codified techniques it inherits to new ends. The techniques carry with them the residue of the previous allegorical signification of modernity, now made literal: Stream-of-consciousness means the modern experience of psychology, and we all know it (or knew it in late modernity; the situation is rather different now), even before we know what any specific instance of it actually says. But it’s possible to turn that fact on its head, to use the established, no-longer-strictly-allegorical meanings of modernist techniques to indicate the ways in which allegory is itself a building block of the aesthetic response to a cultural situation that’s not yet well understood, just as the modernists did and just as the late modernists would need to do (but didn’t quite pull off).

There are a lot of details missing here, not least some sense of whether and how this actually happened in late modernist cultural production. I’ve dealt with it at length on a couple of previous occasions, most recently in a paper on Gaddis and contemporaneity that’s under review at Contemporary Literature, and of course in my ongoing book project. Some (but not much) of this detail will find its way into the MSA paper. In the meantime, one last point on A Singular Modernity: Fred closes with a call for “archaeologies of the future” as a means to understand “ontologies of the present.” I agree emphatically, especially insofar as that sounds to my ear a lot like Badiou’s analysis of fidelity and truth, which work always via the future anterior.

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