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Modernism and Cultural Studies: Address to Modernist Studies Association, Birmingham, 26 September 2003
Is there an 'and' - or at least room for the two to come together frictionlessly, a chance for one to be reflected through the other and both to remain unchanged? If there is a meeting point it is one that is negatively formed - one sits in the empty space vacated by the other. Any co-operation between Cultural Studies - which is essentially a methodology and set of presuppositions for approaching cultural analysis, and Modernism - the collective products of an art practice of a certain period defined by formal experimentation and, frequently, socio-political redefinition - would find it hard to reveal anything pertinent about either. And is it not the case that, in many respects, the relationship between them has been constructed as one of animosity and exclusion? Of course - this is no dialogue, but strictly a one way conversation. How could one speak of what Modernism thinks of Cultural Studies, for Modernism by my definition - unlike the avant-garde - is over and all we have is a community of scholars interested in historicising, analysing, explicating an inheritance. And what they think of Cultural Studies is various, given the different understandings of what Cultural Studies might be. So my examples of what this non-relationship might be come only from the Cultural Studies' side.
The self-description of the European Journal of Cultural Studies gives a glimpse into the set of themes that exercise those in Cultural Studies: it 'covers topics including youth culture and class relations, gender, constructions of identities, cultural citizenship, migration, popular culture, consumer cultures, media and film, the body, postcolonial criticism, cultural policy, sexualities.'
All these terms presuppose a compact history of theoretical discussion that underpinned the various rejections of various opposites - youth culture not adult culture, constructions of identities not essential, pre-formed identities, migration not indigenousness, popular culture not high culture, consumption not production. Media and film not literature and art, the postcolonial not the colonial, the body not the mind and so on. And cultural policy - culture's administration rather than cultural production - that is to say, the question of the artist and of production, and therefore of aesthetics, is elided.
A second example - a recent job advertisement for a Cultural Studies post at Middlesex University - I cite this because it seems to me to be the current generic job description in Cultural Studies.
Research and Teaching Interests:
One or more of the following: Cultural theory and identity, popular culture, theories of postmodernism, information society.
There's a set of more or less implicit references here, and each implies the expulsion of Modernism - an emphasis on the contemporary - though perhaps Virginia Woolf could be an allowed as an interest, if her work were accessed through cultural theory and questions of identity - but immediately this would not be an aesthetic interest as such, but a presentation of her and her work in relation to social theories of sexuality and gender.
Popular culture - implicit is contemporary popular culture - and this is always presented at the exclusion of high culture or other types of culture. Popular culture comes to us as the positive sounding term, which necessarily excludes more derogatory terms such as mass culture or low culture. The message - no criticism of the popular allowed.
Theories of postmodernism - more than one, proliferating - whereas Modernism is always presented as homogenised for it to work as the thing that was superseded by the post, that is, for it to be the thing that is worked against, and worked against by something which claims its own nature to be the very multiplicity, beyond all rigidity, that had to be vanquished - that makes sense of the post prefix.
That Postmodernism is always there means that Cultural Studies is always already Postmodernist and therefore not Modernist - or unable to look at Modernism apart from through the characterisation of it from the perspective of the post - a little word which comes to signify so much, and much that is seen to be virtuous. For Postmodernism is fluid, democratic, empowering, and interested in difference. While Modernism is rigid, elitist, hierarchical, insistent on revolution - be that formal or political.
Connected with Postmodernism is information society - a post-war formation - with no apparent Modernist reflex there, even if Walter Benjamin might be brought on for a moment, but always as a precursor to the more contemporary Baudrillard.
Always post. But what Modernism is this post? What is Modernism for Postmodernism? In some accounts Modernism is assimilated to the enlightenment - this is the long view of Modernism and one which appears not to have heard of Adorno's 'dialectic of enlightenment', the immanent Modernist critique. For many Postmodernists, Modernist time is linear progressive time. Modernist space is homogenous. (These are characteristics not many who are interested in Modernist aesthetics would recognise). Modernist culture is elitist. Modernism has a belief in progress - to support this view, mention might be made of Clement Greenberg's progressive development of forms, his teleology - a succession of avant-gardes fulfilling a move towards formal autonomy. This notion of Modernism features for example very strongly in recent design history, strongly influenced by Cultural Studies, where Le Corbusier is taken to be the exemplar of Modernism. His architecture is stark, undecorated, anti-clutter, anti-sentiment, productivist and uniform or universalising - he is a kind of Henry Ford 'any colour as long as it's black' mentality. Against that Postmodernism is vernacular, emotional, pluralistic, respectful of difference and choice. But this version of Modernism, which served the purposes of many who needed something to define against, is such a partial one in many respects and cannot account for Surrealism, dada or various other Modernist experiments, and, anyway, there is always a different story with architecture, for architecture, unlike poems or photomontages or a musical score, must always be bound up with vast sums of money and concentrations of power for it to gain a material presence.
Cultural Studies took two paths to get to the point of Postmodernist rejection of Modernism. One headed for voyeuristic specialism in a sociology of culture that trafficked in a reification of popular cultural practices. The other opted for style, surface, simulacra, textuality, semiotic analysis and the lure of 'cultural theory. Both versions valued the notion of 'difference', and yet asserted 'identity' as their cherished category. Precipitate of both versions was the development on from Althusser's delineation of ideology, and ideological state apparatuses, whereby the state and its organs produce contexts for thought that serve class interests and the market is a force of control, an ideological justification of class oppression. Cultural critique moved towards an embrace of 'culture', understood as the ideological superstructure in all its forms, which came to represent an authentic or post-authentic expression of subjectivity. Ideology was no longer a problematic effluent, but rather the very site of pleasure, resistance, power and counter-power, a place of negotiation. Culture was first hailed as resistant, dissident or empowering, until the point was reached when everyone forgot what was being resisted. Then culture became instead a site of affirmation of (different) identities, while theory focussed on the consumer, that is, on taste, the language of market research, and niche marketing - capitalism's refined tools for product placement. There has been a transformation of Cultural Studies from something interested in resistance in the popular to something interested only in consumption and the ways in which culture is a motor of capitalism, rather than its brake. Now early Birmingham Cultural Studies appears - to a current generation of Post-Cultural studies purveyors - almost as the mirror-face of Modernism. It sought an avant garde but in the popular. It mirrored Modernism's isms in the succession of subcultures - mods, rockers, hippies, punks - and in its heralding of an excluded, marginalised, unassimilable set of practices assumed that the role of culture was to be abrasive, critical, disruptive. Such a progressivist and capital-critical stance is severely chastised by proponents of today's post-subculturalism. Even more so now, populism is all. Anything else is elitism. Modernism was most definitely elitist, then. And it was against the status quo, desirous of change, formal or socio-political. It thought there were fights worth fighting, outside existing systems of representation, in their broadest senses.
If Modernism was junked - too elitist, too high a practice, then another word had to be substituted to deal with that time period. Modernity. (Modernity served another function - it allows capitalism to be bracketed out: with the junking of Modernism came also the junking of Marxism. Which leads me to ask about the connections between those two things, as did Eugene Lunn once, more on that later). Modernity, then, did two jobs - it opposed Modernism, now condemned, and revealed to be partial, and it substituted well for the nasty ring of another epochal descriptor, industrial or high capitalism.
There has been another twist in the theoretical skein. At the heart of modernity are identified cultural formations that can be grouped together under the term Visual Culture. This is a hippogriff of Cultural Studies, Media Studies and Art History. It diagnoses a turn to the visual across the culture, and shifts focus away from objects towards processes or looking - the gaze, the act of seeing, acts seen through Foucault's lens, seeing inculcated with power relations. As 'The Journal of Visual Culture' puts it in its call for papers, which begins: technologies for seeing, machines of the visible, architectures of vision, gazes, glances, voyeurism, narcissism,· the public sphere, privacy, the visible and everyday life, etc. It also permits a move away from exclusive emphasis on popular culture. All that can be seen can be analysed. But Visual Culture always returns to modes of experience, modes of looking, accessed by the self. Subjectivity and power are its key terms. Like Cultural Studies before it, it does not allow the autonomy or objectivity of cultural forms.
Modernism, as cultural practice, is defined by its innovations in form - innovations that can of course be correlated to new modes of experience, but the pressure of Cultural Studies' push towards ordinary rather than extraordinary experience, means that increasingly average life, average vision, is the focus of attention, rather than the special modes of attention of the artist or producer, or the audience with its newly transformed powers of perception or new syntax or new stock of images, still in their infancy and so not generalised yet..
The historicizing and contextualising entreaties of Cultural studies and Visual Culture have been very persuasive. In some sense Cultural Studies has won out. Who fights over the canons anymore? Who would dare to claim that there are hierarchies of culture? Holly Henry's recent book on astronomy in Viginia Woolf notes that Modernist Studies has already moved away from an image of the Bloomsbury Set - the very epitome of High Modernsim - as effete and disconnected from the concerns of the public audience. It is, she notes, not uncommon to find books on Modernism and psychology, Modernism and physics, Modernism and film, Virginia Woolf in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Few though are the studies that do not dissolve their object into the wider setting, losing hold of specificities, doing more than simply telling us that their chosen author was living as an intellectual in a world of change, utilising a reflectionist paradigm, seeking walk-on parts for chosen themes in the life and work of chosen author. We would expect nothing less of a writer, wouldn't we? And especially a Modernist. Where had studies of Modernism got to if they were unable to account for the world that made this culture meaningful, that energised it and was, in turn, energised by it?
But there is a danger in too excessive an embrace of Cultural Studies for any aesthetic analysis. At the heart of all versions of Cultural Studies resides sociology. There is little interest in form and so there can be no aesthetics. Semiotic readings might be undertaken but this is always in order to decode a set of external values pressing in on the work. Where does this leave Stephane Mallarmé's Modernist declaration: 'L'oeuvre pure implique la disparition elocutoire du poete, qui cede l'initiative aux mots.... ("The pure work implies the disappearance of the poet as speaker, yielding his initiative to words....") "Crise de vers").
Still in another sense, there has been a certain take up of Modernist aesthetics into cultural theory more generally. A Modernist interest in multiple identity, dehumanisation, fracture, ambiguity - became a quality of theory. Art was not necessarily necessary to examine this - life itself might substitute. In Judith Butler's performative identities there is a sense of accessing the Virginia Woolf in all of us, or that in Deleuze's striated space we reside alongside Marcel Duchamp's staircase-descending nude. There's something to this - representation as a separate realm is abolished and the life-impulses that formed Modernism return in this Modernism-for-all theory version. It returns to Modernism at least some sense of the greater scope of that project, of Modernists' theoretical sophistication, of the embeddedness of Modernist cultural practice within wider social, historical and political formations - that Modernism is from the very start a confrontation with fragmented lives and bodies, a sense of exploded time-space
But all this assumes - just as does Cultural Studies - that Modernism itself is homogenous. And yet, I know, that given my background in German Studies, my sense of Modernism, and the avant-garde, is different to that prevalent in English departments here. Mine includes or even places centrally - unlike Greenberg's version - Dada and Surrealism, (which Greenberg despised and which are often bracketed out as avant-garde, rather than being key to the Modernist project), photomontage, Russian futurism and excentrism, Moholy Nagy, Karel Teige, Brecht - that is to say, I am listing countless practitioners, who were multi-disciplinary and frequently politically engaged as revolutionaries - some might prefer to reserve for them the term avant-garde. My Modernism sets out from Walter Benjamin's politically rooted techno-criticism, as much as from Adorno's simultaneously utopian and pessimistic proposition that mass culture and high culture both bear the stigmata of capitalism, both contain elements of change and both are torn halves of an integral freedom, to which, however, they do not add up.' Contained in that phrase is the retort to so much recent hot air about blurred boundaries and Adorno's so-called elitism.
To finish, a return to the question of Modernism and Marxism, and that a Marxism informed by Modernism, a Modernism informed by Marxism. For this is, for me, the question, rather than Modernism and Cultural Studies. Marxism is modernism's immanent critique, and Modernism is Marxism's corrective. This Marxism is not about membership of a party - and certainly not the historical Communist Parties, but about the artwork's orientation to the world, its existence in the world, to questions of the division of labour, of the split of mental and manual work, culture and barbarism (those terms placed in relation by Walter Benjamin) - issues of the place and possibility of art, of art existing in a world as simultaneously commodity and not commodity. Modernism was about revolution - revolution in form, formal innovation - the imaging of new possibilities in art, for art, and sometimes, often the re-imagining of the relationship between art and world, and imagining new social possibilities. Explicitly or implicitly Modernism related to the proximity of social revolution, as did Romanticism before it - sometimes in terror, sometimes with enthusiasm. A world presses in on Modernist culture, even if that culture spends its energies walling that world out.
It didn't need Cultural Studies to reveal Modernism's historical foundations or its political resonances after the event - for it had those - working within a Modernist-Marxism - who did it adequately at the time, and who understood that much of what seems paradoxical about Modernism (its distance from popular taste, while it insists on speaking for the masses, its difficulty, while it draws on popular source material, its fundamentalism, while espousing freedom, its commitment to both uniqueness and mass reproduction, its dissolution of the self and its reinforcement of the genius artist) is a by-product of the failure of international social revolution. Indeed Modernism itself, as theme of study, as institutionalised canon, as palette of star turns, is also a product of the failure of the avant garde to transform the art world and the world. Modernism - or a certain version thereof - was born of a New World settlement that emerged after the horrors of Naziism, and it kept art markets, galleries, cultural institutions afloat, Europe's booty now in its safe US home where post-war power was concentrated.
In the conjunction of Modernism and Marxism are the theorists who do most to carry out the work that Cultural Studies wants to do, but cannot do - that is politicizing the work and the world into which it is born and goes on living - that is, historicizing. Adorno, Greenberg, Walter Benjamin, Meyer Shapiro are all touched by Marxism, as much as they emerge contemporaneously from the world that produced Modernism - without bemoaning or rejecting it, a la, in their different ways, TS Eliot and Lukacs. The anti-Stalinist Marxists are the representatives of Modernism's self-criticism, its internal critique. They understand Modernism still in its living form, and worth fighting over. All had simultaneously a social reading (we might say, the aim of Cultural Studies) and an insistence on art's autonomy (Modernism's own contribution). Just as did Trotsky, whose double reasoning may sound contradictory but only because culture exists in contradiction: Trotsky insisted that art must be judged by its own laws. And art cannot be separated from the social world that produces it. What these theorists were able to bring out is the specific truth of Modernism -- that it is about human vision seen through an eyeball requiring a supporting brain, body and (social) being. That it is about words on a page where the print and the paper matter - are matter and have been socially, economically, politically formed as such. Why do we need Cultural Studies to bring this outside world in?
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