In pursuit of a definition of modernity, an integral part of my PhD dissertation, I’ve been consulting a number of sources, particularly in the old Marxist order of Eric Hobsbawm and Frederic Jameson. My intention is, after all, to argue that the generic difference is a phenomenon dictated by the market, the growth of industrialisation, labour alienation and urbanisation. In other words, modernity coincides with a growing consciousness of ‘the mass.’ It is ironic that the dawning of the age of a mass culture, and state and private mechanisms for their governance, came into existence in a century known also for two of the greatest catastrophes of human history, the two world wars, the mass slaughter occasioned in the course of both. In The Age of Extremes, 1914–1991, Hobsbawm writes the following about that theatre of mass death, the Western front, and how
it became a machine for massacre such as had probably never before been seen in the history of warfare…The British lost a generation — half a million men under the age of thirty.
One reason for the extent of the lives lost during the wars, and for their longevity, is a phenomenon that Hobsbawm calls ‘infinite war:’
unlike earlier wars…typically waged for limited and specifiable objects, was waged for unlimited ends. In The Age of Empire, politics and economics had fused. International political rivalry was modelled on economic growth and competition, but the characteristic features of this was precisely that it had no limit…the ‘natural frontiers’ of Standard Oil, the Deutsche Bank, or the de Beers Diamond Corporation were at the end of the universe, or rather the limits of their own capacity to expand.
This policy indirectly engendered the ways in which society was constructed in their aftermath. Total war revolutionised technology, production and the management of the masses, sustaining investment at unprecedented levels which would never have been undertaken under normal circumstances. It also fundamentally changed the way in which the state managed its citizens, as the combatants were forced to learn quickly how best to distribute their resources during the war effort.
Modernism then, is a movement that is generally seen as arising in conjunction with managerial consciousness, as a reaction against it, an insistence of elite superiority at the dawn of our contemporary understanding of democracy. This was certainly the case for its foremost practitioners, or those who have come to be historicised as such in retrospect, ‘the men of 1914,’ who frequently spoke of democracy, the proletariat, and hey, the Jewish too, why not, with contempt. The first problem with this definition, aside from its erasure of modernism’s more radical and less male elements, such as Brecht, Stein and Doolittle (mostly because they perhaps lacked the resource to mythologise on the same scale as Yeats, Pound and Eliot) is how indissociable modernism is from this retrospective gaze, and the impositions of those who want to define it against post-modernism, and use their preference for modernism’s high tradition, against contemporary popular culture. I like to call this phenomenon straw modernism. (Not to be confused with IKEA or flatpack modernism, an ingenious neologism from Illocutions to define contemporary novels that half-heartedly engage with the innovations of modernist antecedents without necessarily doing anything which might run the risk of being alienating).
The first indication that Hobsbawm might be instantiating a straw modernism comes in the seventeenth chapter of his history of the twentieth century, unpromisingly entitled ‘The Avant-garde Dies — the Arts after 1950.’ In Hobsbawm’s words, the cultural sector of the late twentieth century can be defined in the following terms:
the boundary between what is and is not classifiable as ‘art’…became increasingly hazy, or even disappeared altogether…because an influential school of literary critics thought it impossible, irrelevant and undemocratic to decide whether Shakespeare’s Macbeth was better or worse than Batman.
Whatever else about this quotation, it takes a remarkable kind of mental calisthenics on Hobsbawm’s part to regard the work of Sontag, Spivak, Foucault, as primarily based in arguing the worth of Batman while shouting down Shakespeare.
And it is, furthermore, absolutely impossible and irrelevant to argue thatMacbeth is better than Batman. Do the people who make such arguments expect tenure for doing so? jfc.
Further, from Hobsbawm’s perspective, the growth of image capitalism and technological mediation in the sixties undermined modernism’s ‘progressive’ claim to ‘non-utilitarian artistic creation’ and formal innovation. A key feature of straw modernism is this supposedly ambivalent relationship with the marketplace, its superiority to and remove from more popular forms of art, which is emphasised at the expense of its fascistic contingent. This is often justified by modernism’s supposed critique of the commodity, a viewpoint which has been systematically deconstructed by Lawrence Rainey’s essay ‘The cultural economy of modernism’ in The Cambridge Companion to Modernism.
Rainey points out that mass culture has long been a subtext within modernism, whether it forms as the agent against which it defined itself, or just plainly within it, demonstrated by substantial portions of Ulysses being drawn from light-opera or music hall performance. Jameson disingenuously justifies this by saying that Joyce or Lawrence only ‘quoted’ this sort of thing, whereas in the work of any number of (unnamed) postmodern novelists, it becomes fundamental to its very structure. Obviously the only difference is one’s viewpoint. The very term ‘modernism’ itself has its origin in Pound’s canny attempts to draw attention to his work in a crowded marketplace. F.J. Marinetti was lecturing at the same time Pound was in London, but was getting significantly more attention than Pound’s arch-medieval troubadour work by loudly proclaiming the age of the modern, and excoriating a bourgeois class for their complacency, who repaid the favour by paying money and writing gleeful articles about this provocateur. Pound, until he copped onto this game himself, was passed over. Pound became an ingenious self-promoter, and manipulator of the marketplace, encouraging publishers to include on his blurbs how much his books were capable of fetching at auction, and engaged in the tortuous negotiations with Vanity Fair for the right to publish Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land.’ The editor hadn’t read it, but accepted Pound’s assertion that cultural capital would accrue to the text in time that would make their fee worth it. By the bye, almost 20% of the issue in which it was carried was advertising.
This notion of cultural capital is key to modernism. It is a market contrivance used to bolster the consumer’s sense of their own sophistication, and belonging to a discerning élite with cultivated tastes, existing within “a profoundly ambiguous social space, simultaneously sequestered and semi-withdrawn from the larger institution of publishing, situated instead within a submarket of collecting.” By way of example, the subscription model ofUlysses run by Shakespeare and Company involved a tiered system, which involved deluxe editions of varying value, one tier would get you a signed copy, another would have custom typeface, another would have a kind of paper chosen by the author. The success of the novel, Rainey posits, was more to do with its prominence within a small market of elite book speculators than the crusaders of artistic autonomy who fought for the right of the common man to read the novel, a line too frequently taken up around discussions of the novel’s censorship.
Jameson, having taken no account of this dimension within the modernist arts, believes that post-modernism is an ahistorical cultural mode, one that will forever stymie the Hegelian trajectory of the Marxist world revolution. In the late twentieth century, the proletariat, in the wake of globalisation, are dispersed. They lack a universal consciousness, and, with the demise of the trade union, resistance, let alone the breaking the chains of the worker, seems to have been indefinitely postponed, and Jameson lays the blame at the feet of contemporary cultural thought. He joins Hobsbawm in his uncritical pile-on identity-based political resistance such as feminism, gender agitation, civil rights along racial and indigenous lines. In her Edward W. Said London lecture, Naomi Klein demonstrated how such political imaginaries are not only not a distraction from class-based agitation, but must become fundamental.
The absurdity that this is all contrasted with the modernist strain, which, if it were to be called merely reactionary would be whitewashing the matter, is clear. Let us formulate modes of resistance that work today, now, in our contemporary setting, rather than praise the artists of the past, for qualities which they did not possess.