EN 4224

Topics in the 20th Century: Modernism






Modern, Modernity, Modernism


The following dictionary definition is from the Oxford English Dictionary Online:


Modern (adj)

[ad. late L. modern-us (6th c.), f. modo just now (on the analogy of hodiernus that is of to-day, f. hodi{emac} to-day). Cf. F. moderne, Sp., Pg., It. moderno, G. modern.]  

{dag}1. Being at this time; now existing. Obs. rare.

2. a. Of or pertaining to the present and recent times, as distinguished from the remote past; pertaining to or originating in the current age or period. spec. (the) modern Babylon: London; modern Greats: at Oxford University, the school of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. In Historical use commonly applied (in contradistinction to ancient and mediæval) to the time subsequent to the MIDDLE AGES, and the events, personages, writers, etc. of that time. So modern history: see HISTORY 3b.


b. Geol. and Zool. Belonging to a comparatively recent period in the life-history of the world.

c. Prefixed to the name of a language to form a designation for that form of the language that is now in use, in contrast to any earlier form. In recent philology used technically to denote the last of the three periods into which it is customary to divide the history of living languages; distinguished from Old and Middle. modern English: see ENGLISH n. 1b.

d.  Of a movement in art and architecture, or the works produced by such a movement: characterized by a departure from or a repudiation of accepted or traditional styles and values. Cf. ABSTRACT A. 4d.

[1849 Art Jrnl. XI. 69/3 Between this society and one begun some years ago for the encouragement of modern Art and native artists, there should be no rivalry.] 1895 R. MUTHER Hist. Mod. Painting I. 10 Because this distinction between the eclectic and the personal, the derived and the independent, has not yet been carried out with sufficient strictness..it has hitherto..been found so difficult to discover the distinctive style of modern art. 1927 C. BELL Landmarks 19th-Cent. Painting 5 Géricault and then Delacroix were the new influences in France; in England the innovator was Constable. From these points of departure you can trace the whole glorious history of modern art. 1929 H. R. HITCHCOCK Mod. Archit. xvii. 201 There is..little to compare with the unconsciously ‘modern’ work of those architects who continued the English tradition. 1938 O. LANCASTER Pillar to Post 74 When, shortly after the War, the Modern Movement..was first brought to public notice it led to a natural and healthy reaction against the excessive ornament..of the previous generation. 1958 S. W. CHENEY Story Mod. Art (rev. ed.) p. v, I have accepted here the broadest traditional usage of the term ‘modern art’ as covering the course of creative invention since 1800. 1972 P. M. BARDI Archit. xix. 117/1 The flight of refugees from the Nazis..scattered the pioneers of the Modern movement across western Europe and America. 1973 Times 19 June 14/4 A Child of Six Could Do It, [an exhibition of] cartoons about modern art at the Tate.

3. a. Characteristic of the present and recent times; new-fashioned; not antiquated or obsolete. In spec. phrases: modern convenience, an amenity, device, fitting, etc., such as is usual in a modern house; freq. pl.; cf. MOD. CON.; modern dance, a free expressive style of dancing distinct from classical ballet (see quots.); hence modern dancer, dancing vbl. n.; modern jazz, jazz of a type which originated during and after the war of 1939-45.
1590 SIR J. SMYTH Disc. Weapons 8b, Without composing them of diuers sorts of weapons, according to the moderne vse. 1598 BARRET Theor. Warres Gloss. 251 Moderne warre, is the new order of warre vsed in our age. 1605 B. JONSON Volpone III. iv, He has so moderne, and facile a veine, Fitting the time, and catching the court-eare. 1676 G. ETHEREGE Man of Mode I. i, Bell. He thinks himself the Pattern of modern Gallantry. Dor. He is indeed the Pattern of modern Foppery. 1701 DE FOE True-born Eng. 24 But England, Modern to the last degree Borrows or makes her own Nobility. 1859 [see dish-lift s.v. DISH n. 10]. 1872 HOWELLS Wedd. Journ. (1892) 79 They conjectured..flavours of Tennyson and Browning in his verse, with a moderner tint from Morris. 1885 Academy 24 Jan. 53/1 Perhaps Gray is at his modernest in the ‘Ode on Vicissitude’,..if not most modern of all in that final quatrain of the Elegy which Gray's feeling for unity expunged. 1885 J. PAYN Talk of Town I. 130 A writing on the wall, which, albeit it was not in modern characters, needed..no interpreter. 1898 Westm. Gaz. 26 Jan. 3/2 Against such foes, men with the modernest artillery and highest explosives are utterly powerless. 1912 E. L. URLIN Dancing Anc. & Mod. p. xv, Modern dances..[are] derived from some primary human instinct, such as Worship, Mimicry, Love, or War... Modern dancing begins where..the art survives solely on account of the pleasure it gives to the performer, or to the spectator. 1926 Times 6 May 1/6 (Advt.), Superior accommodation in lady's quiet house..all modern conveniences. 1933 J. MARTIN Mod. Dance 2 There are as many methods and systems of modern dancing as there are dancers. Ibid. 3 By the modern dance we..imply by a method of negation those types of dancing which are neither classic nor romantic. 1937 E. ST. V. MILLAY Conversation at Midnight I. 15 Peace and Quiet poured down the sink, In exchange for a houseful of ‘modern conveniences’. 1955 D. GILLESPIE in Shapiro & Hentoff Hear Me Talkin' to Ya xix. 300 No one man or group of men started modern jazz. 1957 G. B. L. WILSON Dict. Ballet 188 Modern dance, the term used to designate a variety of styles which are not founded on the danse d'école (i.e. the Classical ballet). Ibid. 189 Modern Dance claims to make much use of ‘natural movements’ and it is also a reflexion of a state of mind. 1961 Metronome Apr. 12 By the 1950's ‘modern’ jazz, as the more advanced developments were termed, had to free itself both from esoteric tendencies within jazz itself and from over-dependence on Western European classical traditions. 1968 J. WINEARLS Mod. Dance (ed. 2) 9 The title ‘Modern Dance’ distinguishes those kinds which have been invented, developed, or adapted from various sources during the past half-century and which are clearly marked by an expressive style quite different from that of other forms such as National, Folk, Musical Comedy or Ballet. Ibid., Modern Dancers consider that Ballet cannot deal satisfactorily with all possible dance-subjects.


The word modern is not very new.  It comes from the Latin modo, implying now in opposition to the past of a tradition, and it emerged in the medieval period as a term in the so called battle of the books, in which traditional values in art and thought were opposed to more contemporary, or modern, ones.  So since this time modern has generally described a state of affairs characterized by innovation, experimentation and certain kinds of distancing from the past.  The word modernization comes to describe the swift rise in Europe and America of powerful tendencies manifesting advances in technology and science, as well as the development of nation states, democratic political systems and the expansion of capitalist modes of production.  Associated with modernization, of course, are not only the values of humanism and enlightenment, but also those of colonialism and European Imperialism as the modernization of the west spreads around the world.


Modernism: The word modernism however is used to describe certain trends in art, writing, criticism and philosophy that have had a powerful influence on the development and experience of the 20th century.  Conventionally we can date these trends from the last decade of the 19th century (1890) to about the beginning of the 2nd world war in 1939.  So we can provisionally accept that the texts we are interested in were written within a 50-year period.  Modernism is not, of course, a period in itself (other kinds of art and writing occurred during this time) but it does describe a wide range of textual phenomena that exerted a profound influence on the way we all think and experience our world today.


Actually, the further we get from the period in question, the larger and more wide-ranging it becomes.  Soon after the war modernism, it was generally agreed, described a kind of writing beginning in about 1910 and culminating in the mid-twenties, and it denoted a very narrow circle of writers, often called the “men of 1914,” including among them Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis.  Now the canon is considerably broader and, while it pays to be specific about which trend in modernism we are referring to in any given context, we have learned to be considerably more flexible and sophisticated about what modernism means generally.


In the background are great critical figures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and Ferdinand de Saussure and Albert Einstein  And we cannot discount the importance of certain 19th century literary and artistic trends as well, those of impressionism, post-impressionism and symbolism.  Modernism describes a resolutely international or transnational set of phenomena involving continental as well as Anglo-American writers and artists.  Cities become meeting points for migrating groups and Vienna in Austria and Paris in France play particularly important roles for modernist aesthetics.  Questions about modernist aesthetics turn up in urban centers all over the world at different times … Argentina, Chile, India, Africa, Malaya, China and Japan.


Modernist writers and artists take great risks with technique in order to define their art against an increasingly market driven consumer society.  The principles were those of innovation, rejuvenation and experimentation.  Thus, the formation into small self-supporting movements and groups (e.g., surrealism and Dada) can be seen as ways of standing out against uncomprehending public opinion.  However, by the end of the period (i.e. the late 1930s) the major writers and artists had achieved considerable respect and command of a lucrative market.  Does modernism lose its edge with maturity?  Do T.S. Eliot and Pablo Picasso lose their right to the title modernist as they gain universal institutional respect and wealth?   


Alternative Beginnings/Significant Dates

(With links to sites that provide either the text in question or information that is relevant).


Modernity: It would be impossible to define modernity precisely and the term remains a highly contested one.  Nonetheless, a number of momentous shifts in attitude, historical processes and dramatic technological changes can be observed to have occurred during the period, roughly, between 1500 and 2002.  So, when dealing with the problem of modernity, we are dealing with at least 500 years of social, historical, cultural and political development.  We must even use the word development cautiously because we might be led to easily into thinking that this process is the same as progress, when, as we shall see there are strong arguments for qualifying modernity’s  notion of progress.  It has also been observed that the early stages of these developments were more or less narrowly focused on developments in Western Europe, spreading only later to the Eastern Europe, the Americas, India, Africa, Southeast Asia and Asia, with colonialism and then globalization.  We must always remember, however, that this model of the spread of modernity is a model that belongs to modernity itself.  That is, if we know that modernity begins in the 16th century Europe and gradually spreads around the world then that is because modernity has put it this way in the form of modern history.  In fact one of the greatest problems when trying to engage with the question of modernity is that our means of understanding—our assumptions about time, space, people, individuals, groups, histories, truths, facts, myths, superstitions and lies—are always to a certain extent determined by the forces we’re trying to understand: modernity.  Attitudes concerning consciousness & the unconscious, reason & the irrational, sanity & madness, right & wrong, law & crime, men & women, etc. have already been directed for us—decided in advance and to an extent naturalized so these things are seen to be beyond question—by modernity.  More specific issues, like nationality, democracy, race, class and morality, also rest upon assumptions that are so deeply embedded that we barely notice that they are assumptions.


The major problem—I’ll call it the historicity of modernity (half the class switches off at horrible phrase made up entirely of meaningless abstractions) as a short cut—implies the following: we recognize now that the way we think is largely determined by historically rooted factors—systems of thinking that we remain unaware of most of the time.  Modernity is the name we use for the system of thinking we inherit after 500 years of modern development.  But the main strand of modernity—an attitude that is consistent across all the different variants over the last 500 years or so—constitutes, again in various different ways, the repeated attempt to break free from the constraints and determinations of established systems of thinking.  Modernity is constituted historically as a series of repeated attempts to escape history.  The most powerful of these attempts would arguably be that of Rene Descartes, a French philosopher whose contribution to modern thought both scientific and philosophical has been undoubtedly immense.


1637 (Cogito ergo sum)

     Rene Descartes is as good an example as any of someone who might be said to embody the rather vague notion of a “spirit of modernity.”  Descartes wanted to start from scratch.  He wanted a point of origin, as it were, a secure starting point for knowledge.  In order to achieve this he developed a philosophical method, according to which if you can disqualify every ground of knowledge that is susceptible to doubt then what you have left will be a point of absolute certainty.  So all traditional knowledge (Greek and Medieval philosophy and religious thought) obviously fails this test as no established knowledge beyond doubt actually yet exists.  The most authoritative sources (Aristotle, Aquinas, etc.) disagree with each other.  Secondly, my senses can deceive me.  If I was to believe my senses then I would have to accept that the moon was no bigger than a 50 cent coin.  And when I dream I experience perceptions that I could not possibly really perceive.  Thirdly, my memory is frail and vulnerable to deception by the often damaging effects of my creative imagination, so this must be ruled out as well.  Fourth, language can deceive me into saying and even thinking things that might possibly be untrue.  So what is left?  Descartes comes up with the following statement: cogito ergo sum—Quit with the Latin will you?—OK, je suis, j’existe (I am, I exist) in so far as I am thinking [literally: I think, therefore I am].  There is much of great interest in Descartes’ text but we must leave him now and move on, so what do we take with us?  He has established that, as long as we can doubt the evidence of our senses, our memory, our imagination, our knowledge and our language, we at least have the potential for good sound knowledge.  Two things follow from this, which are central for the development of modernity and, thus, for our understanding of modernism.  First, a general distrust of the senses (hearing, seeing, feeling, tasting and smelling) provokes an emphasis on thoughts and judgments and an over reliance on principles of reason.  Secondly the same distrust provokes the development of technological means of improvement—prosthetic appliances of all kinds, from eye glasses and hearing aids in the 18th century, to prosthetic limbs and a fully fledged virtual reality by the beginning of the 21st century.  Furthermore, because of Descartes’ wonderful facility with rhetoric—he was easily the equal of his contemporaries like John Donne and John Milton as far as forceful literary expression is concerned and his Méditations Métaphysiques (Meditations on First Philosophy) is often justifiably set on literature courses—his text provides a powerful supporting argument for the belief that modernity starts from scratch in 1641.  It doesn’t, of course.  In all kinds of ways we can locate precedents, precursors, preliminaries and seeds sown for thousands of years prior to the European 17th century and from all over the globe.  But part of modernity’s power (and its power over us moderns) involves this powerful myth.         


1687 Newton’s Principia.  There are two good pages:

1   Newton’s theory of motion and

2. The Principia for the complete text)

Shortly after Descartes had died (in 1650) one of the most influential developments of modernity got under way in the form of what is now called Newtonian Science.  Isaac Newton was born the year after the publication of Descartes’ Meditations, so one could justifiably identify him as an heir of an already modern way of thinking.  The Principia (or Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) was published in parts during the 20 years from 1667-87 and presents what Jacob Bronowski describes as “a system of the world.”  Newton’s description subsumes the world under a single set of laws according to mathematical principles.  Modern Science was revolutionized by Newton’s method, in which he took mathematics, in its static Euclidean form, and turned it to a dynamic account of the universe.


Modernism: one of the ways of dealing with not only the vagueness of the term modernism but with the wide variety of currents, events, texts and attitudes it seems to designate, is to locate what is arguably a consistently maintained attitude towards modernity.  What this means is that a number of arguments and interventions made against certain aspects of modernity can be said to constitute an attitude we call modernism.  Peter Childs, in his handy Routledge primer, Modernism (recommended and available in the bookshop), puts it like this:

The counter argument runs, while the dominance of reason and science has led to material benefit, modernity has not fostered individual autonomy or profitable self-knowledge.  It has not provided meaning to the world or to spiritual life, religious or otherwise, perhaps reducing humans to rational(izing) animals who are increasingly perceived as more complex and consequently more emotionally, psychologically and technologically dependent.  Humanity arguably appears without purpose and is instead merely striving for change and transformation, which produces only momentary satisfaction or meaning. (17)

Our first encounter, on this course, with an argument of this kind is with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground.  Written in 1864 (two years before the gigantic Crime and Punishment) after two visits to Western Europe, during which Dostoevsky had become horrified and fascinated by the state of Western Civilization.  The narrator of Notes From Underground (“the underground man”) is not a modernist particularly (nor is Dostoevsky, really) but his position, in (albeit resentfully) accepting the current wisdom of his age (philosophy, aesthetics, morality and science) and taking this wisdom to its logical conclusion, provides us with a glimpse of the absurd and paradoxical grounds of modern life and thought.  References and allusions in Notes from Underground are very wide ranging but some of the more obvious ones deal with the following issues: Newtonian Science translated into the world of social relations; Utilitarian moral philosophy; Romantic Aesthetics; Utopian versions of modern civilization; uses of logic intended to cut down the vagaries of the human “freedom of decision.”  In other words the underground man has come to see that in the world he lives in his capacity for choice, for individual responsibility, is rendered absurd and pointless, because rationalism and science have promised to discover a law for everything.  The principle can be summed up in the single phrase, asserted by the rationalist philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz, “Nothing is without reason” (known ever after as the law of sufficient reason).  The opposition between “law” and “freedom,” of course, is as old as human thought itself.  But Dostoevsky’s little book gives us an excellent paradoxical narrative of the shape this opposition takes in the advanced stages of modernity.


A number of similarly powerful responses to modernity—from within its very system yet putting that system under great strain—can be identified in a number of movements, events and texts that, strictly speaking, precede or predate the conventional notions of modernism


1840 (“Man of the Crowd”)

Edgar Allan Poe’s extraordinary short story, “The Man of the Crowd,” makes an excellent reference point for this course.  You can download the story from the link and you can, if you feel like it, plug through my own article on it, which pits it cruelly against Descartes’ Meditations: Out the Window.  Poe was a favorite of Dostoevsky and, in his paradoxical mocking of modern life, you can see why.  It is one of the first documents to evoke, with any clarity, the increasingly perverse emptiness of modern urban existence.  Written at a crucial time—a time dominated by the very swift, in some cases sudden, explosion of urbanism around the globe (so global urbanism)—“The Man of the Crowd” like the underground man, provides a reflection of ourselves that we don’t probably really want to see.  It was written at a time when instead of urban dwellers constituting a tiny fraction of the world’s population (as they had done before), they were well on the way to becoming the majority, a status we have all easily achieved by now (most of the world’s population are urban dwellers).  Britain was at the forefront of this expansion, with Paris and then Chicago and New York catching up, so it would be wrong to leave out Delhi and Singapore, which as colonial urban nodes were developing at a comparable rate at the same time.



1848 (Communist Manifesto)

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels collaborated on (among many other important texts in political philosophy) the “Manifesto of the Communist Party.”  A relatively lyrical piece that has Shakespeare’s Hamlet as one of its evident influences, The Manifesto of 1848 provides us with one of the earliest and clearest statements of the modernist need for a break with the systems and authorities of the past.  Marx’s most influential argument concerns the way individuals—modern urban individuals living in conditions of economic capitalism—had become alienated from their own interests, their senses of being, purpose, value and self.  The notion of alienation provides an account of the symptoms that many modernist writers attempt to account for.  The system of “exchange value” and the fetish of the commodity levels all previously held distinctions among social relations, threatening to submerge all individuals into a common morass.  Modernist art and writing, then, could be seen as an attempt to escape the flattening out of difference represented by the trends of mass culture—striving instead for something unique that would stress but also redeem the alienation effect of modern existence.


1857 (Madame Bovary)

1900 (Interpretation of Dreams)

1912 (Sinking of the Titanic)



Labour Movements

Emergence of Feminism

The break-up of Empires

The First World War

The Bolshevik Revolution







          The Moment of Modernism


          Inheritance and “Post-Modernism”



          The unreliability of Dates. 

          Historical time-consciousness (apocalypse v. progress)

          “Lived Time” and its expression

          Notions of Change

          Technology and Time


The complex relations between politics, art and culture:

          Bourgeois/anti-bourgeois.  Bohemians, poets and novelists of the 19th century

          The Politicisation of the Aesthetic

          Communism and Fascism

          Psychoanalysis: The Void and the Destructive Principle


Issues of Identity and the Other:

          Gender: Construction of

          Feminization/feminine language

          Identity: Man is (as) the Problem?

          Vision and the Primitive


Modes of Critique:

Stylistic Innovation

Dialectical Thinking

          Influence of Psychoanalysis






          Let us go then, you and I

          When the evening is spread out against the sky

          Like a patient etherized upon a table.” (T.S. Eliot)


Rhetoric and Language

          “Originality” and Interrogation

          Creation of other “Systems”

          The Style and Form of the Modern

          Style over Content


Problematising the difference between perception and representation.

Naturalism, Symbolism

Prose, Poetry (and Drama)

Modern art

The Visual and the Verbal

Point of View: Authorship and Writing

Narrating Events


Cultural Contexts

Visual art


Mass Media

Popular Culture


Urbanism: Modernity and the City

Labour and Social Production




Modernism as Critique


Modernism as critique involves stretching the concepts of modernity to the extent that they can no longer hold.  On one hand modernism can be seen as a kind of revelation of crisis.  As European civilization rolls forward blind to its inherent contradictions and thus to the inevitable catastrophe that faces it, modernism pulls back the rhetorical reins in a series of more or less violent endeavors to halt the process.  On the other hand, modernism can be taken as a form of crisis production, a series of rhetorical gestures that produce the fiction of crisis, a kind of bad faith with no more than disruptive and ultimately destructive motives.  What complicates matters is the fact that modernism cannot really be separated from modernity generally.  Modernist discourse is actually one of the trends that characterize modernity.  So whether or not there are the problems with modernity that modernism variously claims there are, modernism is itself a very real problem, revealing, at the very least, the otherwise hidden rhetorical underpinnings of European civilization. 


There is no doubt that history reveals serious problems with European civilization.  The various movements and trends that together make up what we receive from the textbooks as the philosophical Enlightenment of the 18th Century, each lead in an apparently inevitable way to contradictions, revealed both in philosophy and in history.






5.     RELIGION.


Modernist literature becomes a kind of critique of tradition and traditional philosophy




Modernist forms of representation bear witness to an acknowledgement of the structured, narrative, constructed nature of reality (in the traditional sense).  The attempt both to transgress traditional structures and to reconfigure reality in new forms is typical of most modernist projects.


Spawn   of   Fantasies

Silting the appraisable

Pig Cupid   his rosy snout

Rooting erotic garbage

“Once upon a time”

Pulls a weed   white star-topped

Among wild oats   sown in mucous-membrane

                                                Mina Loy “Love Songs”


“April is the cruelest month” (T. S. Eliot)





Rene Descartes: “I think, therefore I am.”


Catchwords: Empiricism, Freedom, Rationality, Technology, Progress, The Moral Law.


Art is supposed to imitate life.





Art is supposed to invent new forms of life.


Aesthetic, artistic movements containing some quite diverse trends appearing in the 19th century and spreading throughout the 20th century.


Friedrich Nietzsche: “Man is a rope, fastened between animal and superman – a rope over an abyss.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)



Futurism repudiates the past, venerates the mechanical, liberates the word from syntax and grammar, pursues dynamism as opposed to fixity and, in its extreme forms, affirms the necessity of war and welcomes its coming. 

Marinetti and The Destruction of Syntax” (1913).  Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was born in Egypt in 1876 the second son of a rich and successful lawyer, Enrico Marinetti.  He had published a literary magazine between 1892 and 1894, while still at college, and in 1898 he published his first work in what he called the new “free verse” style.  By 1900 he had decided to devote himself entirely to Italian and French literature and poetry.  He founded the international magazine Poesia (Poetry) in 1905 and published it in Milan from 1905 until 1909.  Marinetti wanted to liberate poetry and literature from the constraints of traditional punctuation and syntax and he used Poesia to launch the idea of free verse.

Mina Loy, who had an affair with Marinetti and other futurists later used futurist principles against the less considered aspects of futurism itself.


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