Aesthetics and Politics:

Time-consciousness and Conflicting Futures.


Our person is a covered entrance to infinity

Choked with the tatters of tradition  (Mina Loy 71)


The lecture provides some indications of the very broad character of modernism.  But it also provides some structure and focus by offering relative precision to the terms we use when dealing with the field.  The main distinction remains the one between modernity (or modern life, its attitudes and assumptions, its habituations and habitudes) and modernism (which is a strand of modernity that becomes self-consciously critical of modern life).  Although, confusingly, this “being critical” is often a celebration of some of the most modern aspects of modernity (technology, futurism, overturning tradition), modernism nonetheless is as likely to be turning these aspects against other aspects.  Some of them include the following:


Commodity Capitalism—the reduction of values to the status of commodities—easily consumed packages identified by easily recognizable images—icons and logos.  The logic of the commodity is not as simple as it seems, especially given that none of us are free from it—it is to large degree the emotional logic of modern life.  Ways of resisting commodity capitalism can therefore often seem rather self-destructive.

Urban Capitalism—the increasingly sedentary nature of modern life and the paradox of mobility: the more mobile we become the more we gather in the same place.  This phenomenon has reached epidemic proportions by the start of the new millennium, with vast numbers of the global population rarely moving from their chairs and in permanent retinal connection to their desk top PCs.

Totalitarianism—as well as fascism and Hitler’s National Socialism.  There is throughout the twentieth century an ongoing crisis in political thinking.  This reaches very intense levels in the first half of the century, which witnessed two fierce and bloody world wars.  Everybody is affected by war, which on a fundamental level happens because of political crises.  The notion of The Political—a kind of formal scheme based on how you distinguish between friends and enemies—emerges in the 1930s.  Only recently have we been able to acknowledge that there may be ways of thinking that can progress beyond the absolute distinction between friend and alien (the enemy is always an absolute other in traditional politics).  The traditional political categories typical of modernity now seem insufficient—Nation, State, Empire, Democracy—irrevocably compromised by massive numbers of stateless refugees, immigrants, diasporic communities and trans-migrants (like the population of Singapore before independence).  Some of the modernist writers—the example of Djuna Barnes very clearly—can be read as developing an alternative way of thinking based on the rule of the exception (as opposed to the totalitarian norm).   

Scientism—overvaluing scientific methods and criteria when evaluating knowledge (it often indicates a belief in the omnipotence of scientific knowledge and techniques as well as the view that the methods of study appropriate to physical science can replace those used in other fields such as philosophy and, especially, human behavior and the social sciences).  The notion of truth that is typical of modernity is derived from scientism.  It is extremely narrow notion of truth and can be seen today as a stupendous reduction of what might count as true.  This reduction has noble origins in the seventeenth century, when a notion of experimental science begins to develop.  Experiment with physical (biological and chemical) processes and substances and see what we learn about them.  This knowledge very quickly becomes a matter of criterion and constraint—if it can be shown through empirical means that such and such a substance always behaves in certain ways when heated, then we call that a fact.  A technical term for understanding truth in this way is: the correspondence theory of truth, according to which the truth can be calculated by evaluating the relationship between statements (e.g. “this vase is green”) and the states of affairs to which they correspond (some vase which may or may not be green).   Truth and falsity thus corresponds to relations between some subject and some objective world.  Obviously, then, the division of reality into subject and object must be taken for granted.  It’s not difficult to find instances where the subject/object distinction is just not adequate or appropriate; literary writings, for instance, rarely if ever presuppose some objective world against which their “truth” might be calculated.  By the nineteenth century people are beginning to sound the alarm, not least Fedor Dostoevsky, whose underground man reveals what the world would be like if governed only by such facts.  It’s a sobering thought (or it should be) that this book seems so prophetic from the point of view of twentieth century commentators.  Of course, one of the most powerful and frightening of the consequences of scientism is the evolution of what some commentators (see Adorno and Horkheimer’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment for a very persuasive argument) have called “instrumental rationality.”  This has much to do with the obsessive development of technology throughout modernity: military, fiscal, academic, industrial, media and telecommunications technologies provide us with examples of a general logic according to which the systematic treatment of some function can be massively extended until it operates semi-autonomously.  Thus, everything functions, from machines to men and women—everything is a function of some other function. 

Liberalism and Humanism—sloppy often neo-religious attitudes masquerading as secular and condescendingly benign approaches to culture and society fill most modernists with a revulsion that can tip them dangerously towards forms of fascism (like the Italian Futurists—flirted with by Mina Loy who was justifiably impressed by their enthusiastic aggression towards chauvinist bourgeois culture and its assumptions).  Conrad too satirizes the whole class in Heart of Darkness explicitly identifying them in the form of Marlow’s audience on the Nellie.  In fact people who show liberal opinions in politics or religion often turn out to be unwittingly supportive of the worst trends of their time.

Religions—religion is not the answer for most modernists (though Dostoevsky in the nineteenth century expressed a very peculiar and by no means convincing quasi-Christian response in the later works and T. S. Eliot, while managing to write some blistering modernist literature, seemed to be attracted to various occult beliefs including a rather bizarre pantheism before becoming conventionally Christian).  But generally, the modernist will not embrace a religion, and here we have a problem.  With a critique of the historicity of modernity (all of what goes on in capitalism, urbanism, scientism, liberalism, humanism, etc.) there doesn’t seem to be much alternative—certainly not that one might want to affirm.  However, this would be a premature judgment.  At its most cleverly progressive modernism affirms that there is no fundamental answer because it is this no fundamental answer that produces the imperative to invent, to create and to decide over and above all the influences and determinations that otherwise come down to shape us from every angle.  So the modernist rejection of religion is not nihilism (which means the total rejection of all current religious beliefs or moral principles).  It is an affirmation of an undetermined and incalculable aspect of our existence without which the world would really just be that instrumental rationality or mechanical technology referred to above.  The terrifying thing about all this, of course, is that we cannot really distinguish between human technology and human spirit any more.  It’s all part of the same thing—our finite life-towards-death.  Not everyone can stand this thought.  If you can’t better go off and do comedy!


Modern Life (or Modernity)

Urban, industrially based, socially fluid and defined by exchangeable wealth (or Capital).  Origins in the 17th Century with dramatic changes in the political and economic structure of society.


Modern Art

Movements and exhibitions of the mid-19th Century.  The -isms.  Global, Urban, International.  Influenced by new technologies and new marketing patterns—lithographs, photography, museums and galleries, temporary exhibitions.  Transparent modernist representation (including realism and naturalism as well as some kinds of impressionism) takes modern subjects (cities, technology, poverty).  Mediational modernist representation focuses as much on the means and styles of representation (includes other kinds of impressionism and most modern art that follows).  The mediational approach gives the artist plenty of scope for exploiting very individual styles so that painters like Cezanne, van Gogh, Matisse and Munch are instantly recognizable.  The thing about a van Gogh is the painting (all those swirling stars in The Starry Night) rather than what is represented in it (the stars play second fiddle to the way they are painted here), at least to start with, but then things get complicated.



The main characteristics of Impressionism (so named by a critic in response to a powerful painting by Manet called Impression: Sunrise) were already evident in English painters like John Constable and J. W. M. Turner, whose Norham Abbey: Sunrise is as “impressionist” as anything by the actual “Impressionists.”  Take a fascinating painting by a minor figure in the Impressionist “movement,” Gustave Caillebotte’s Young Man at his Window.  The first thing to notice is the stark realism of the style, not what we’d normally have identified as “impressionist.”  However, apart from the fact that Caillebotte was brought into the movement because of his considerable financial resources (he had extremely wealthy parents), we might also consider that his subject matter is entirely modern—here, through the window and cast in the hazy brightness of daylight, the young man (the painter’s brother) gazes out onto the brand new buildings and streets of a recently revamped and refigured Parisian cityscape.  A more famous example of the movement would be Renoir’s Ball at the Moulin de la Galette, which represents a classic example of impressionist technique, with its deft brush strokes and sparkling evocation of light.  The scene has a message too—the iconicity refers us back to 18th Century traditions (i.e., the fête gallant) but the reference is to the new urban leisure practices, now involving not just the bourgeoisie but also the working classes.   


Modernist Writing

As in visual representation a number of trends: Naturalist experimentation, the subjective POV, symbolism, synaesthesia and a general connection with urban processes.


Supplementary Materials

Notes for lecture 9 can supplemented by some articles that I have placed on the web, and which I link here as follows:


Through Windows: the trope of the window in the rhetoric of the modern dawn song.  This is a transcript of a conference paper that I gave to a Modernism conference in England last summer.  If you get bored skip to the “Black Lightening” section for my reading of Mina Loy’s “Der Blinde Junge.”  The poem is reprinted here, at the bottom of this page.  I think we can plausibly argue that it is one of the most powerful short works of twentieth century literature.


Out the Window: this is a file containing a paper by me on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd,” which is read alongside the philosophy of Rene Descartes.  It makes up part of an ongoing project, which relates to questions of modernity and its most trenchant tropes: dawn, tree, window, wanderer, night.




The discovery of vision, the eye and the mind, transparency and objectivity opposed to self-conscious representation and expression.  The trope of the window dominates the literature, science and philosophy of modernity.



John Donne “The Sunne Rising” (1633):

            Busy old fool, unruly sun,

Why dost thou thus,

Through windows and through curtains, call on us?

Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?


Rene Descartes: “Meditations” (1633):

If I look out of the window and see men crossing the square, as I just happen to have done, I normally say that I see men themselves, just as I say that I see the wax.  Yet do I see any more than hats and coats which could conceal automatons?  I judge that they are men.  And so something which I thought I was seeing with my eyes is in fact grasped solely by the faculty of judgment which is in my mind. (21).


Edgar Allan Poe, “The Man of the Crowd” (1844):

Not long ago, about the closing in of an evening in autumn, I sat at the large bow-window of the D— Coffee-House in London.  For some months I had been ill in health but was now convalescent, and, with returning strength, found myself in one of those happy moods which are so precisely the converse of ennui—moods of the keenest appetency, when the film from the mental vision departs—achlus h prin epeen—and the intellect, electrified, surpasses as greatly its everyday condition, as does the vivid yet candid reason of Leibnitz, the mad and flimsy rhetoric of Gorgias.  Merely to breathe was enjoyment; and I derived positive pleasure even from many of the legitimate sources of pain. I felt a calm but inquisitive interest in every thing. With a cigar in my mouth and a newspaper in my lap, I had been amusing myself for the greater part of the afternoon, now in poring over advertisements, now in observing the promiscuous company in the room, and now in peering through the smoky panes into the street.



Walter Benjamin (1938/1935 From Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism Verso, London):

The street becomes a dwelling for the flâneur; he is as much at home among the facades of houses as a citizen is in his four walls. To him the shiny, enameled signs of businesses are at least as good a wall ornament as an oil painting is to the bourgeois in his salon. The walls are the desk against which he presses his notebooks; news-stands are his libraries and the terraces of cafés are the balconies from which he looks down on his household after his work is done.  [...] The crowd was the veil from behind which the familiar city as phantasmagoria beckoned to the flâneur. In it, the city was now landscape, now a room. And both of these went into the construction of the department store, which made use of flânerie itself in order to sell goods. The department store was the flâneur’s final coup. As flâneurs, the intelligentsia came into the market place.


From Field of Vision to Field of Action

In art the new interest in capturing light (impressionism) and focusing on urbanism (the reality of city life) leads to a kind of representation that emphasizes the less personal, human side of city life, by taking elements of the city are taken out of context, scattered across the frame, which is itself collapsed into grids of chaotically deformed geometric angles and lines, Like The Crowd, from 1915 by Wyndham Lewis.





Exuberance and excess characterize the modern period, especially in major cities, when faith in technology and finance produced unbridled optimism.  But the decade also had its dehumanizing qualities – the alienation of the modern city and the monotony of the assembly line.  The swelling immigrant population, labor strikes, terrorist bombings and the so called Red Scare added to the paranoia.


Joseph Stella’s Voice of the City of New York Interpreted, from 1920-22, represents New York as the grandest expression of America’s technological and financial world dominance. Its size alone captures the monumentality of New York.  Five panels more than eight feet tall and twenty two feet long make up a huge public mural that is supposed to embody modern American urbanism.  It presents key landmarks starting on the west side with the Battery, then moving to the middle of the island with Broadway and the skyscrapers, and ending in the east with the Brooklyn Bridge. Below are tunnels for trains, electricity, and plumbing.  The five panels with a large center panel and band below echoes the format of Italian religious altarpieces, often showing Christ or the Virgin in the center panel with scenes from their lives below.  Stella implies that American technology is the new religion.  The precision draughtsmanship and formal rigor are reinforced by the deep, saturated colors that create the look of stained glass windows.




Return to the Webpage of JWP