The Legacy of Modernism

The Modern and The Postmodern


The Modern

The modern: we have transformed an adjective (modern, as in modern art or modern style) to a noun, the modern.  What this means is that instead of the rather vague prefix or predicate that has always been part of most European languages since the Greeks we now have a substantive topic or subject.  Writing is no longer informed by the degree to which it is more or less modern but the modern, rather, denotes a kind of ground of conditions from which modern art, thought, science or writing emerges as response, symptom, instantiation or manifestation.  This is Karl Marx:

We do not anticipate the world with our dogmas but instead attempt to discover the new world through the critique of the old.  Hitherto philosophers have left the keys to all riddles lying in their desks, and the stupid, uninitiated world had only to wait around for the roasted pigeons of absolute science to fly into its open mouth.  Philosophy has now become securalized and the most striking proof of this can be seen in the way that philosophical consciousness has joined battle not only outwardly, but inwardly too.  If we have no business with the construction of the future or with organizing it for all time there can still be no doubt about the task confronting us at present: the ruthless criticism of the existing order, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries nor from conflict with the powers that be. (Kolocotroni 5)

What is it about the statement of this nineteenth century political philosopher that conveys or evokes the modern?  We can outline certain assumptions:

1.      Up until now (i.e., 1847) people have been governed by dogmas about their world that are beyond question.

  1. It has always been left to the great thinkers to understand and thus to provide the goods of the world.
  2. The people, on the other hand, have simply gone about passively receiving these ideas, narratives and stories, accepting their lot, whether good or bad.
  3. But now philosophy is in the hands of the people and they can question and criticize the dogmas of the old order.
  4. The old order used to provide narratives about the future: (i.e., progress).  That power has now been dissolved.
  5. However it is now recognized (by us) that the future, or the “new world” will come, will literally be constructed, from the critique of the old one.

In other words, a modern thinker has replaced dogma with critique.  What this implies is twofold:

  1. The Modern implies a break from the old order; but …
  2. The Modern must emerge out of the old order.

Now, what is historically specific about this shift in attitudes and ideas is also twofold: first, the realm of thoughts and determinations has descended from the few (philosophers, religious leaders, Emperors, kings, princes and other political icons) to the many.  People generally now have stopped believing in the dogmatic presentation of their leaders.  Secondly, the realm of thoughts and determinations is no longer considered to be a realm apart from the empirical world (the world of the people’s experiences and actions).  Previously, determination was usually given a realm beyond ours, beyond time and space and beyond death.  By the beginning of the nineteenth century this realm was called the transcendental.  It had lots of other names, of course: variously the divine, the mathematical, the logical, the noumenal, the essential, the ideal.  And actually it is very difficult not to believe in it in some form or other.  But Marx’s point here is that we should stop believing in things we can have no knowledge about.  These are the attitudes and assumptions that, in Marx’s writing, manifest the modern.  However we should note that, while it is possible to identify this brand, impression or manifestation of the modern all over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that is no guarantee that it will catch on very much.  In fact wherever we look, for every modern we’re bound to find hundreds of people exhibiting beliefs in or desires for things to believe in beyond this world.  There’s nothing like a good, rich, sophisticated story about origins and destinations to grab the imaginations of the masses, it seems.  And, for all that, Marx’s critical writings soon, even in his lifetime, began to take on the role of the story or the myth—what he calls the dogma of the future—so that they were to become exactly what he had feared—the perverse predictions that he claims philosophers no longer have the power to produce.


It is this, if you remember, that Dostoevsky seems to be pitting his underground man against in Notes From Underground.  Utopian visions of the future—especially for Russia—would be devastating for its people—a person is not the kind of thing that can be fitted into a scientifically worked out design.  If you put Dostoevsky up alongside Marx you’ll have an indication of what is at stake for modernism.  One thing that the Bolshevik revolution and its aftermath shows, however, is that the realm of ideas when taken in conjunction with the realm of historical activities and events is as powerful as the otherworldly realm of transcendental determinations was always hitherto thought to have been.  The point is as distinctive as you’ll get for a sense of what the modern might mean.  The modern replaces a way of thinking that divides the terrestrial world from its extraterrestrial source and power with a way of thinking that understands this source and power as the very motor of history, in which we are all inescapably engaged.  The danger, now, as I hope you’ll see, is that history itself looks like it might be applying for the job left vacant by the sacking of all the other transcendental determinations (in shorthand: truth—as divinity, logic, reason, Man, mathematics etc.).



Let’s now have a look at the strange word truth.  The following is a quotation from a writer we know:

A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line.  And art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect.  It is an attempt to find in its forms, in its colours, in its light, in its shadows, in the aspects of matter, and in the facts of life what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential—their one illuminating and convincing quality—the very truth of their existence (Joseph Conrad in Kolocotroni 131).

This is Joseph Conrad, of course, an early formulation printed as part of his preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1897).  Now this formulation is actually very typical of its time but I have to say that in the light of what has gone before, it does not feel very modern.  But we might bring our historical awareness to bear on our understanding of it.  First—and remarkably—there is his emphasis on the visual.  Not only does the formulation repeat one of the most common versions of the “ideal/real” distinction—the one that distinguishes the sensible universe from the invisible but nonetheless meaningful realm of thoughts—but it does so by referring to the sensible (remember there are five senses) in terms of the one exemplary sense of vision.  We thus immediately hear a reference to the impressionists and post-impressionists of the modernist visual arts.  But there is another way that Conrad repeats this old division: the sensible universe flutters across his field of vision as transient, temporary and mutable as our poor old mortal bodies themselves are.  Against this, the truth remains invisible—a permanent, eternal and tranquil enduring that only the artist is capable of evoking.  Significantly, he draws an analogy between the work of the artist and that of the philosopher and scientist, of whom he says, “their concern is with weighty matters: with the cultivation of our minds and the proper care of our bodies … with the perfection of the means and the glorification of our precious aims.”  All three seek the truth in different ways and must, he says, make an appeal—whether about the truth of ideas or of facts.  This need to make an appeal is of course crucial, for it directs us to the question of address—who or what is being addressed by the statements of philosophy, science and art.  Conrad, significantly (and in this the modern emerges in his writing) doesn’t distinguish between audiences but between desires and attitudes: science and philosophy “speak to our common sense, to our intelligence, to our desire for peace, or to our desire of unrest; not seldom to our prejudices, sometimes to our fears, often to our egoism—but always to our credulity” (131). But in an essential way, the artist is different:

Confronted by the same enigmatical spectacle the artist descends within himself, and in that lonely region of stress and strife, if he be deserving and fortunate, he finds the terms of his appeal.  His appeal is made to our less obvious capacities: to that part of our nature, which, because of the warlike conditions of our existence, is necessarily kept out of sight within the more resisting and hard qualities—like the vulnerable body within a steel armour.  His appeal is less loud, more profound, less distinct, more stirring—and sooner forgotten.  Yet its effect endures forever.  The changing wisdom of successive generations discards ideas, questions facts, demolishes theories.  But the artist appeals to that part of our being that is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition—and, therefore, more permanently enduring.  (131-2)

The first thing worth noting here is that the truth attributed to science and philosophy has been subtly demolished.  The force of Conrad’s irony as always works gently but with devastating effect.  The ideas and facts of philosophy and science are no truer than the visible appearances themselves as they flutter mutably across the frame of our gaze.  The appeal or the address of art is to whatever lies beneath the heavy armour of conventional wisdom.  In some ways we’re back with Marx now—incredulous of received truths; but what, then, does Conrad mean by this alternative form of inner enduring truth, this gift—or given quality—that is beyond and before acquired or received ideas?  The artist, he writes, appeals to:

The subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.  (132).

Let’s acknowledge the complexity of the statement, which on the surface might just seem to be yet another assertion of the bland universality of art—art appeals to everyone “as evrybody kno.”  Rather, Conrad’s statement can be summarized like this: the mutable world comes and goes in a constant state of flux, as do ideas, theories and facts, despite their capacity to become sediment, hardened like the steel of armour plating, flattering the narcissistic ego and confirming prejudices or replacing them with new ones.  Art on the other hand addresses that part of us that responds to the addresses of others, to a part of us that remains essential because it is the relation to the other and thus includes all possible relations whether to the dead or to the not yet born.  This would be a good point to stress: as modernity advances an increasing incredulity towards theories about the world emerges alongside an increasing awareness of the sheer radical differences of other people.  Here we find that powerful thread of the modern that does not refuse the ravages of temporality on a finite world, that does not gesture to some fabulous beyond but locates the enigmatic truth of our existence in an essential but undetermined relation to the other—at its most basic it would manifest, for instance, as a kind of caring—but caring at its most basic—a care and respect for someone you do not know or for something in those you do know or think you know but which, even in them, you cannot know.  You can think of it is the potential for caring.  A potential is like a promise in so far as it can appear without actually being fulfilled.  I can promise you something quite independently of whether I fulfill my promise.  You need to have the potential before it can be fulfilled but it doesn’t need to be fulfilled.  If it did need to be fulfilled then it wouldn’t be potential.  Modernism addresses that part of us that is potential for caring.


The Undetermined in Late Modernism

Now Conrad is a very subtle modernist, and therefore very powerful, but it’s worth looking into those starker statements of modernism, especially the apparently very grim works of late modernism by, to name the only most prominent, Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, Samuel Beckett and Wyndham Lewis.  Tyrus Miller in his Late Modernism, points out that while these stark worlds of late modernism can be related back to the experience of the Great War, they also exhibit an awareness of and concern for an ethical ground.  He observes that in the confusion between automatism and life, in which both life and robotic activity turn up consistently as forms of imperfection, an ethical imperative is affirmed:

These writers perceived as a general state of affairs a kind of all-pervasive, collective, and incurable shell-shock, from which all suffer and which need not have trench experience as its precondition (though for many, of course, it did).  The distinction between the vital and the mechanical had become less sharp in the interwar years; the world of things had never seemed more animated, while the question “does life live?” lost its apparent non-sensicality for masses of people.  Yet the late modernist writers also discovered the ethical ground for their work in a seeming imperfection in the process: the arrested state of this movement towards the efficient robot, the failure to complete this mechanization of the body through to its end, the comical inability of humans to consummate the man-machine. (24).

In other words, this appearance in artworks of what has been called the absurd has a ground in the perceived need to affirm the uncompleted, the imperfect, or as I have just called it, the purely potential and always undetermined aspect of human relations. 


I’m inclined to find support in Miller’s account of late modernism for my sense that commentators like Art Berman have underestimated the power of modernism in its resistance to the transcendental and universalizing turns of both Romanticism in art and fascism in politics.  In his Preface to Modernism, which is both insightful and sophisticated, Berman links what he calls the early modernist’s transcendentalism (which remains deserving of praise) to a similar tendency in fascism (which, of course, doesn’t):

While fascism shares the early modernist’s transcendentalism, it does so not as an internationalized aesthetics but as a nationalized politics.  Modernism is one of the glories of modern civilization, and fascism is one of its horrors.  The universalization of spirit in art is not the same as the nationalization of spirit in culture, but the romantics themselves, at least in Germany, failed to make this discrimination.  That oversight has contributed to the stupendous havoc in the twentieth century, although the romantics hardly can be blamed for all that followed—nor can the modernists, who themselves did not clearly perceive this distinction before World War II taught everyone how essential it was.  (250).

Two things we might learn from modernism, concerning this point, might be that we need to learn to read the modern in modernism—that critical substitution of questioning response for the passive acceptance of dogma that we find in Marx and that subtle affirmation of potential against the ephemera of modernity’s authoritative discourses that we find in Conrad.  The second thing would be a question about how much, and what, if anything, we have been “taught” by World War II.  The writers of “late modernism” certainly seem to have developed a way of presenting the failure to universalize as a kind of ethical imperative.  They do it under the sign of laughter—the comic, the absurd, the satirical—“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness” (Beckett).  If modernism renders anything universal we should be cautious of assuming, as so many have done, that the universal can be elaborated in terms of theme (as nationalism, for instance, always does).  Themes identified with modernism have, significantly, been those of alienation, exile, loss etc.  Significantly, why?  Because this is how the divisions, transitions, scissions and splits that characterize so much of modernist writing can seem.  But take the motif of the night in Djuna Barnes (and in Benjamin and Loy as well).  The night is conventionally related to the day according to a series of fairly well established polarities (clichés, then).


Night                            Day

Forgetting                    Memory

Madness                      Reason

Woman                        Man

Moon                           Sun

Indeterminacy             Calculation


The list, naturally, goes on following a symbolic course that is ultimately the bane of the Romanticist so I don’t particularly want to go further down there myself.  What Barnes is consistently drawing attention to, on the contrary, is the power of the transitional.  Dr Matthew O’Connor promises to “tell you how the day and the night are related by their division” (296).  Every character in the text is related by a division or divided by a relation.  The apparent oxymoron becomes the key pattern of the text—going into the night is like entering the darkness of an unknown tomorrow and it is significant that the character associated with the night itself, Robin Vote, the somnambulist automaton, is regarded by each of the other characters in turn (except maybe Matthew, who awakens her) as a pure potential—the undetermined through whom they might determine themselves.  In this sense she does reveal them in their absurdity—the frauds, plagiarists, obsessives that they are—while remaining all the time undetermined, manifesting only the purity of potential (as opposed to the purity of the master race in the full automated throes of preparation as Barnes was writing).   


The Postmodern

We might look for the legacy of modernism—what remains of it—in its brash young inheritor postmodernism.  A short passage from the philosopher of postmodernism himself, Jean-François Lyotard, might be a good place to look.  In answer to the question “What, then, is the postmodern?” he gives the following answer:

The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste that would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to present a stronger sense of the unpresentable. (82)

According to this formula I’d say straightaway that—if Lyotard is correct—then the night in Nightwood is the postmodern in the modern.  The one thing that cannot be presented in a world where the distinction between transcendental and “real” no longer holds is the potential for future presentations and relations that remain unheard of.  This potential is itself not presentable (to present it would be to determine it and you cannot determine the undetermined).  This would seem to be the main concern of a postmodernism that finds itself at the heart of modernism, as its future but not realized as such (the realization would obviously cancel it out—i.e., determine it).  In which case Modernism is already postmodernism and postmodernism is not yet.



Armstrong, Tim. Modernism, Technology and the Body: A Cultural Study.  Cambridge: CUP, 1998.

Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood. London: Faber, 1962.

Berman, Marshal. Preface to Modernism. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

De Landa, Manuel. A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. New York: Zone, 2000.

Kolocotroni, Vassiliki, Jane Goldman and Olga Taxidou, eds.  Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Levenson, Michael. The Cambridge Companion to Modernism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Lyotard, Jean-François. “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?” Innovation/Renovation.  Eds. Hassan, I. and S. Hassan. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.

Miller, Tyrus. Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts Between the World Wars.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.


Marcel Duchamp