Topics in the 20th Century: Modernism
The following dictionary definition is from the Online:
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)
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
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
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.;
a free expressive style of dancing distinct from classical ballet (see quots.); hence modern
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.
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
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
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?
(With links to sites that provide either the text in question or information that is relevant).
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
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.
2. The Principia for the complete text)
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.”
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)
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
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”)
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).
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)
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
Identity: Man is (as) the Problem?
Vision and the Primitive
Modes of Critique:
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)
“Originality” and Interrogation
Creation of other “Systems”
The Style and Form of the Modern
Style over Content
Problematising the difference between perception and representation.
Prose, Poetry (and Drama)
The Visual and the Verbal
Point of View: Authorship and Writing
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.
2. CAPITALIST ECONOMICS;
3. TECHNOLOGICAL PROGRESS AND INDUSTRIALISATION;
4. SCIENTIFIC NOTIONS OF TRUTH;
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
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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