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Archive for July 17th, 2006


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I’m too tired (softball, in this heat, can you imagine?) tonight to do the following justice – an excerpt from the end of T.J. Clark’s response to Perry Anderson’s The Origins of Postmodernity and Jameson’s The Cultural Turn and in particular the distinction that they forge between modernism and postmodernism. Originally appeared in the New Left Review in 2000:

Once or twice in his recent essays Fredric Jameson has turned specifically to defining modernism, and not surprisingly he has gone back to Adorno for help—to Adorno and Hegel. ‘For us,’ he quotes Hegel’s great dictum, ‘art no longer counts as the highest mode in which truth fashions an existence for itself.’ The task of the critic, Jameson says, is to understand why the prediction about art practice that seemed to follow from the dictum—that art, as a significant form of life, would end, or decline into mere decorative accompaniment—did not prove to be true. Something called modernism happened instead. ‘What did not conform to Hegel’s prognosis was the supersession of art by philosophy itself: rather, a new and different kind of art appeared to take philosophy’s place after the end of the old one, and to usurp all of philosophy’s claims to the Absolute, to being “the highest mode in which truth manages to come into being”. This was the art we call modernism.’ [7] Or again, in ‘Transformations of the Image’,

what distinguishes modernism in general is not the experimentation with inherited forms or the invention of new ones . . . Modernism constitutes, above all, the feeling that the aesthetic can only fully be realized and embodied where it is something more than the aesthetic . . . [It is] an art that in its very inner movement seeks to transcend itself as art (as Adorno thought, and without it being particularly important to determine the direction of that self-transcendence, whether religious or political). [8]

These are key episodes in Jameson’s text. Very often the moments at which he returns specifically to Adorno are those where the stakes of his whole analysis come clear. And these recent ones are clarifying. They allow me to state my basic disagreement with Jameson’s picture of modernism and whatever happened to it in the last thirty years—with Jameson’s picture, and, I think, Anderson’s. For the stress here on modernism as turning on a repeated claim, or effort, to transcend itself as art—its belief, to quote Jameson again, ‘that in order to be art at all, art must be something beyond art’ [9]—seems to me exactly half the story. It is, if you like, a stress out of Adorno’s dialectic, which leaves unspoken—and therefore in the end demotes—the other, equally essential moment to Adorno’s account. For surely transcendence in modernism can only be achieved—is not this central to our whole sense of the movement’s wager?—by way of absolute immanence and contingency, through a deep and ruthless materialism, by a secularization (a ‘realization’) of transcendence—an absorption in the logic of form. Jameson’s modernism, that is to say, seems to me posited as a movement of transcendence always awaiting another, a distinct, movement (indeed, moment) at which there will take place, punctually, ‘the dissolution of art’s vocation to reach the Absolute’. [10] And this great, ultra-Enlightenment imagining of disabusal, of the stars coming down to earth, is of course what gives Jameson’s vision its force. But supposing (as I think Adorno supposed) that modernism was already that dissolution and disabusal—but exactly a dissolution held in dialectical tension with the idea or urge to totality, which idea or impulsion alone gave the notion of dissolution (or emptying, or ascesis, or fragment, or mere manufacture, or reduction, or deadpan, or non-identity) sense.

From this picture of modernism there would follow, I feel, a different appraisal of the last thirty years. I guess it would turn on the question of whether, or to what extent, the figures of dissolution and disabusal in art practice—the familiar figures I have just listed—became themselves a form of transcendence; and, as always within modernism, a transcendence doomed to collapse. Or rather, not so much ‘doomed to collapse’ as simply to be confronted again with the pathos lying at the heart of disabusal—disabusal (true secularization) as one more aesthetic mirage among others, always looming ahead of modernism in the commodity desert, as a form of lucidity it never quite reaches. Warhol, inevitably, is for me increasingly the figure of this. How handmade and petty-bourgeois his bright world of consumer durables now looks! How haunted still by a dream of freedom! So that his Campbell’s Soup Can appears, thirty years on, transparently an amalgam—an unresolved, but naively serious dialectical mapping—of De Stijl-type abstraction onto a founding, consoling, redemptive country-store solidity. How like a Stuart Davis or a Ralston Crawford it looks, or an entry from the Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues! ‘History has many cunning passages,’ to quote Gerontion, ‘contrived corridors / And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions.’ Does Warhol come to seem more and more a modernist because it turns out that what he inaugurated was another of modernism’s cycles? Or because what happened next was truly an ending, an exit, from which we inevitably look back on the pioneers and see them as touching primitives, still half in love with the art they are putting to death? I suspect the former. It could be the latter. Neither conclusion is comforting. Thirty years is not enough time to tell.

Do yourself a favor and read the entire essay – it’s short, but full. What Clark ultimately means to say, particularly in the last paragraph, is a bit hard to parse out. And this is probably a good thing. What to make of this “disabusal (true secularization)”? Perhaps he’s there already, but I think it would be valuable to scroll back up my page and take a look at the epigraph that lies underneath my title. That’s where I am headed – or where I’m coming from – on this topic.

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July 17, 2006 at 11:32 pm


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An article that gets written all the time, a sentiment that never stops circulating, sifted out of always-on archives of cliché and delivered over for your perusal here.

Digest version: becoming a professional Englisher alienates you from the things that brought you to the business in the first place.

We’ve heard.

Benton polls his undergrads, most grad school bound, on why they love the lit:

They were all considering graduate school, but their answers had little to do with what I knew they would need to write in their application essays. Sitting in a circle in the grass, backed by purple hydrangeas, they offered the following motives:

Formative experiences with reading as a child: being read to by beloved parents and siblings, discovering the world of books and solitude at a young age.

Feelings of alienation from one’s peers in adolescence, turning to books as a form of escapism and as a search for a sympathetic connection to other people in other places and times.

A love for books themselves, and libraries, as sites of memory and comfort.

A “geeky” attraction to intricate alternate worlds such as those created by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George Lucas.

Contact with inspirational teachers who recognized and affirmed one’s special gifts in reading and writing, often combined with negative experiences in other subjects like math and chemistry.

A transference of spiritual longings — perhaps cultivated in a strict religious upbringing — toward more secular literary forms that inspired “transcendence.”

A fascination with history or science that is not grounded in a desire for rigorous data collection or strict interpretive methodologies.

A desire for freedom and independence from authority figures; a love for the free play of ideas. English includes everything, and all approaches are welcome, they believe.

A recognition of mortality combined with a desire to live fully, to have multiple lives through the mediation of literary works.

A desire to express oneself through language and, in so doing, to make a bid for immortality.

A love for the beauty of words and ideas, often expressed in a desire to read out loud and perform the text.

An attraction to the cultural aura of being a creative artist, sometimes linked to aristocratic and bohemian notions of the good life.

A desire for wisdom, an understanding of the big picture rather than the details that obsess specialists.

But of course, this won’t do. We live, apparently, under the Reign of Theory, which prohibits enjoyment, engagement, anything other than earnest critique in service of the revolution. Benton’s students will learn, the hard way, that life just ain’t all momma reading to you at bedtime, Kerouacian coffeehouse, a precocious Middlemarch devouring under the covers, flashlight.

It makes me sad to think how little those motives will be acknowledged if they go on to graduate school. They will probably go for the wrong reasons: to continue their experience as undergraduates. They are romantics who must suddenly become realpolitikers. Maybe that’s why most drop out before they complete their doctorates. Those who stay have political commitments (and probably come from undergraduate programs where those commitments are encouraged early), or they develop them as graduate students, or they feign or exaggerate them to get through.

Here’s the thing. I’m not sure I understand the equation between theory and dour-faced analysis, politburo-distributed graph-paper writing. Seems to me, theory gets blamed on both ends – it produces irrational exuberant poesy-as-criticism and staid, bureaucratic boilerplate at the same time. As everyone already knows, but for some reason can’t bring themselves to say, is that if Benton’s students reach grad school and find themselves bored and frustrated and manufacturing work that fails to live up to their initial literary aspirations, it won’t be because of theory but rather the new archival / historicist turn in literary studies, that silent but mass counter-revolution that has settled on the accumulation of fact and the castration of purpose to produce inelegant works that sift through the dusty corners of the library, producing nothing new but lots and lots of old.

Whatever. My advice for Benton is the following. When your students bring up these feelings, why not help them to develop them into workable projects that move from idle announcement of interest toward self-aware analysis of it. No, no one wants to hear about your momma’s lap, but examinations of relation between the aesthetic and the commodified alienation of literary works would be valuable. Point them towards the question of the aesthetic, a question that partakes of all of the positions that they have here espoused, and suggest that work through the what and why and to what end of it.

Mooning on about how lovely was the novel they read when they were a kid, no, isn’t going to work. But working toward an understanding of how this strange magic trick – so out of step with an irrationally rational world, so out of touch with the normative economism that fills our lungs with every breath – of a bunch of words that creates a feeling (happiness, warmth, togetherness, isolation, discomfort, desire, disinterested interest, egotistic fire, full wallet of cult capital, whatever) works is something that not only needs to be undertaken, but will find acceptance if artfully done.

(A quick example: “A “geeky” attraction to intricate alternate worlds such as those created by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George Lucas’ might yield something like this, and probably even better, were the student encouraged properly, rather than told at every turn that the question is an either/or, literary interest / abstract politicizing.)

For the field of literature, after theory and during the rise of this new empiricist reaction – a field which currently buys the solid ground but forever fails to build – could use some new blood, self-aware, and ready to take poems and novels as something other than an archive of social data, an archive they were forced to use, when so many other, better archives exist, because they made the mistake of getting into English.

As always, and like never before, we today face the question of the value of literature – and of the aesthetic more generally. We need to know why it is that we return to these textual objects, and what sort of energies might be borrowed from them, what sort of doors they have closed and which they might open. And, in particular, why we are so unwilling to do without them.

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Written by adswithoutproducts

July 17, 2006 at 1:24 pm


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Written by adswithoutproducts

July 17, 2006 at 12:10 am