Sunday, July 03, 2011

Notes on What Ever Happened to Modernism?

It’s a classic case of "be careful what you wish for". Along with a select few others, I have been writing about the work of Gabriel Josipovici for years, all the while lamenting that he wasn’t more widely read. I imagine that most of us expected more of the same as we anticipated the release of his latest book of criticism, What Ever Happened to Modernism?—the book itself would be up to his typically high standards, but it would sink relatively quickly into oblivion, largely unread or under-reviewed. These expectations were turned upside down when prior to the book’s release a pseudo-interview appeared in the Guardian highlighting some passing remarks Josipovici makes late in the book about such high-profile English writers as Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Julian Barnes. The result was a ridiculous controversy, which threatened to overwhelm the book’s arguments. As a result, for good and bad, it turned out that the book was much more widely read and reviewed than most of us anticipated. Reviews continue to trickle in, ranging from the ridiculous (Eliot Weinberger’s clueless review in the New York Review of Books, ably handled by both Stephen Mitchelmore at This Space and the blogger at Grand Hotel Abyss; please also see Stephen’s own unique review of the book, from last October, which in part responded to the early burst of incomprehension) to the excellent (Max Cairnduff’s review at his blog Pechorin’s Journal; incidentally, I think it's no coincidence that the better reviews have appeared at blogs rather than the mainstream journals). Here is mine.

I think the book is just as necessary as Josipovici’s earlier books On Trust, The Book of God, and the collection The Singer on the Shore. In the course of this essay, there are two aspects of the book I would like to devote special attention to. First is the central role played by "the disenchantment of the world". Second is what I think is a perhaps understandable, though real, miscalculation in the last few chapters of the book, chapters which have been given an overwhelming amount of attention by most reviewers, attention which has not served the book well, though, as noted above, it has perhaps attracted new readers (good and bad). Effectively, reviewers have all too often ignored or misunderstood the former, while taking undue offense at the latter.

The bulk of the book is devoted to an exploration of what modernism, for Josipovici, is. His definition, of course, is not the only definition of modernism available to us, which is but one reason for the confusion surrounding the book (for some salient remarks on this point, in this case with respect to James Joyce, see Stephen Mitchelmore's most recent post). For Josipovici it has to do with art's awareness of and response to the condition of being modern, which in part means that the world has become "disenchanted", among other things throwing sensitive artists into a crisis of authority. Allow me to quote from Mark Thwaite's concise description of the problem:
In a world that moved from being viewed by the vast majority through a sacramental lens, to one where earthly powers had ever more secular explanations, the problem of authority became a problem for art and artists. Why and in what way did the artist have authority to speak? And how could that question inform the art that the artist produced, so that their work did not exhibit the bad faith of pretending that question away. [...] Do artists seek to re-enchant the world (and who/what gives them authority to do so) or to respond to its disenchantment?
How, under such circumstances, can the artist create? For whom does he or she create? Here, then, is Josipovici:
Here the desire, even the need, to create comes to be seen not as a gift but as a curse. For while the desire to create seems to be the most natural thing in the world, something we are all born with, what is it in a world without sure relation to either tradition or authority but a meaningless self-indulgence? When the social trappings of art fall away, when patronage disappears and the artist is forced to compete in the market-place for the sale of his goods, can there be any justification for art other than the desire for money and fame? […] in today's world there is no place for natural, spontaneous creation; everything we do seems false, laboured, second-hand; it feels like padding, pretence, a lie perpetrated by those who like to think of themselves as artists, in collusion with a market which knows that enough people need to feel they are in touch with some higher truth to make the art business profitable.
The book opens with a series of quotations from four writers faced with this dilemma, selected by Josipovici from among many possible options to "stand for a century of pain, anxiety and despair", to "stand for what has been called the Crisis of Modernism": Mallarmé ("...each day discouragement overwhelms me..."; "...I am disgusted with my self; ... and cry when I feel myself to be empty and cannot put pen to the implacably white paper"), Hugo von Hofmannsthal ("I have quite lost the faculty to think or speak on any subject in a coherent fashion"; "...the language in which it might perhaps have been given to me not only to write, but also to think, is [...] a language of which I do not know even one word, [...] in which I may once, in my grave, have to account for myself before an unknown judge."), Kafka ("I can't write. I haven't written a single line that I can accept. . ."), and Beckett ("I speak of an art. . .weary of puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road." "The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.") These quotations all come from the years 1850 to 1950, which is to say the years that are commonly seen as the Modernist period. Josipovici is aware that this makes it all too easy to reinforce the conception of Modernism as a style or period, or both, either way "as something safely behind us", rather than, as he argues, "a coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities, and therefore as something that will, from now on, always be with us". This "precariousness" is seen as a condition of being modern; Modernism becomes, then, "a response by artists to the 'disenchantment of the world'". Josipovici then spends several chapters exploring this disenchantment, using the work of several artists and writers as illustrations of the problem and of the array of artistic responses to the problem.

He begins by discussing two Albrecht Dürer engravings from 1514: St. Jerome in his Study and Melancholia. The former, Josipovici writes, depicts the saint as calm, at ease, "bathed in warm sunshine", "at one with himself and with his God as he works". The latter engraving is, by contrast, full of chaos, furious energy, depicting "art in competition with God", Melancolia as "a terrestrial craftsman cut off from all tradition and therefore incapable of productive work". She is inactive "because all work has grown meaningless to her": "St. Jerome shows us what has got lost; Melancolia I what we are left with.” In the following century, this new situation, combined with new possibilities presented by the printing press, is seen as the occasion for comedy for Rabelais and Cerventes. Both writers, in acknowledging the absurdity of writing in isolation for an unknown audience—where in the past storytellers told their tales directly to an audience—undercut the authority of their own narratives, reminding the reader how things really are—remember, after all, this is just a story. Don Quixote
dramatises the way we as readers collude in this game because we want, for the duration of our reading, to be part of a realised world, a world full of meaning and adventure, an enchanted world. It is no coincidence that the novel emerges at the very moment the world is growing disenchanted.
Somewhat later we have another important example in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (not discussed in the book, though Josipovici has written about it elsewhere), in which the narrator hilariously never quite gets around to getting moving on telling the story of his life. Several key pages are spent on the poetry of Wordsworth (many reviews have indeed taken note of the unique presence of this poet in a book on Modernism) and the philosophical works of Kierkegaard, in particular in connection with problems of authority, anxiety, and inward-looking religious practice.

To be blunt, I don't think enough attention has been paid to what Josipovici says about the disenchantment of the world; it is, as Max Cairnduff writes, “absolutely critical to everything that follows”. Reviewers have missed the centrality of this, while also missing the related observation by Josipovici that this disenchantment is generally assumed to be "a Good Thing", "since it led us from an era of superstition to our modern era of common sense and scientific understanding". Which is to say that for Josipovici, as Stephen Mitchelmore emphasizes, it is "not necessarily A Good Thing". This is no small point, yet it is treated as if it were. It is in fact the main point. But how are we to approach this question, from where we sit? It is, admittedly, not easy. I submit that most readers are unlikely to be receptive to this message, and understandably so, since the very structure of our lives seems to argue against it. It is, however, a message I think we need to hear. I'm not going to spend a lot of time on the problem of authority (this is covered to my satisfaction by both Cairnduff and Mitchelmore in the posts I've linked above). I'm instead going to complicate the matter of the disenchantment of the world, but in a way that I hope will help to clarify some of what is at stake.

In The Book of God (1988), his marvelous study of The Bible, Josipovici wrote the following:
. . . once Luther stood up and asserted the need to speak the truth as he saw it and not pay lip-service to tradition, things could never be quite the same again. We tend to see Luther's break with the medieval church, like Spinoza's with Jewish tradition, as the triumph of light and integrity over the forces of obscurantism and hypocrisy; but this is to see it from their own point of view. It is important, however, to grasp what gets lost as well as what is won in such revolutions. . .
Our point of view, or what feminists call standpoint, can be an obstacle; further, we can learn a lot by considering matters from alternative standpoints, especially those that are underrepresented in official histories. We view these events, respectively, from Luther’s and Spinoza’s perspectives—we see them as signposts, if you will, on the way to our current secular world, a world, in its modernity anyway, that most of us see as desirable and inevitable, if perhaps besieged. We identify with the smug self-congratulation of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment—the very labels tell us how to think about them!—and all too rarely do we consider what was lost, or if we do, we are rarely likely to consider that what was lost is worth worrying about or mourning. Josipovici, along with other critics and writers, has looked past this point of view, to consider the perspectives of artists. And indeed artists can and do offer us glimpses into changes that took place, worlds that were lost. But they do it from their own standpoint, which is a standpoint often at some remove from the events. For when we look at this period from the standpoint of artists, we are necessarily also looking at it also (but not completely) from the standpoint of the elite, or an elite, for in this period artists were either themselves elites, or at least patronized by elites, whether aristocratic, clerical, or bourgeois. So when we think of the declining of traditional authority, we are thinking of not only the Catholic Church, but also the feudal lords. In their place, eventually, are the various Protestant churches, and the bourgeoisie. This was a long process, covering almost the entire period under discussion, in one way or another.

But what if we try to look at this period from the standpoint of ordinary people? What if we think of the disenchantment of the world as a very real thing, with events affecting real people, and not simply as an increasing sense "people" had that things were changing? Because the period we're talking about just happens to correspond exactly with the long transition from feudalism to capitalism. It is the period of Karl Polanyi’s “Great Transformation”. The late feudal period was, again from the perspective of ordinary people, marked by elites banding together, by the bourgeoisie and aristocracy putting aside their longstanding differences to defeat the various diverse anti-feudal movements that had characterized the preceding few centuries, which had taken the form of peasant revolts, popular heresy and millenarian movements, not to mention everyday forms of passive resistance, and so on. So, rather than the traditional conception of a smooth or inevitable "transition" from feudalism to capitalism, it is, I think, more accurate to view capitalism as the counter-revolution (just as the United States Constitution is an outgrowth of a counter-revolution, undermining the more popular democratic tendencies of the American Revolution itself). In this light, common people were caught in between the replacement of one form of traditional authority, which they actively (as well as passively) resisted for centuries, and the newer authority imposed by the emergent capitalist social relations and mode of production, which they also actively resisted.

In this context, then, what is the disenchantment of the world? I see it as two related things, always keeping in mind these shifting modes of authority faced by ordinary people. First is the loss of the commons, and all that entails, including access to means of subsistence, control over reproduction, and community life, including festivals, holidays, gossip, mutual care, and resistance. Second, following from the first and no less important, is the disciplining of labor, which provided the backdrop for the philosophical/scientific attack on the body, as in Descartes, and theories of the state, as in Hobbes, which form twin, if occasionally opposed, pillars of our modern scientific and intellectual heritage. Related to both of these is the privatization of religion, or what could be called the "Christianization of the masses"; we know about the inwardness of mainline Protestantism itself (again, Josipovici dwells on this important point in his discussion of Kierkegaard, a writer he also discusses at length in On Trust), but the Catholic confession dates from this period as well—private religious practice being imposed, just as the more communal religious practices are actively being driven out. The Protestant Reformation was in many respects a massive land grab, another significant moment in the general enclosure of the commons. And this is the period of the witch-hunts, which, far from being the irrational attacks from the undifferentiated, ignorant mob of our popular imagination, were instead more or less systematic secular campaigns against common practices and beliefs, primarily those practices and beliefs of women in the areas of reproduction; a campaign, not incidentally, fully supported by some of the biggest names in our scientific legacy.

As Silvia Federici puts it, in her indispensable book, Caliban and the Witch (note: in the next few paragraphs, all quotes are from Federici, unless otherwise specified, but I am informed here by Marx, Polanyi, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, Maria Mies, Fernand Braudel, and Giovanni Arrighi, among others):
What died was the concept of the body as a receptacle of magical powers that had prevailed in the medieval world. In reality, it was destroyed. For in the background of the new philosophy we find a vast initiative by the state, whereby what the philosophers classified as "irrational" was branded as crime.[...] "Knowledge" can only become "power" if it can enforce its prescriptions. This means that the mechanical body, the body-machine, could not have become a model of social behavior without the destruction by the state of a vast range of pre-capitalist beliefs, practices, and social subjects whose existence contradicted the regularization of corporeal behavior promised by Mechanical Philosophy. [...] This is how we must read the attack against witchcraft and against that magical view of the world which, despite the efforts of the Church, had continued to prevail on a popular level through the Middle Ages. [...] Eradicating these practices was a necessary condition for the capitalist rationalization of work, since magic appeared as an illicit form of power and an instrument to obtain what one wanted without work, that is, a refusal of work in action.[...] Magic, moreover, rested upon a qualitative conception of space and time that precluded a regularization of the labor process. [...] From [the ruling class's] viewpoint it hardly mattered whether the powers that people claimed to have, or aspired to have, were real or not, for the very existence of magical beliefs was a source of social insubordination. [Note: the above has been collapsed into one paragraph, with elisions bracketed off, in order to save space; emphasis is in the original]
This is the disenchantment of the world, and it is, in my opinion, undeniably a tragedy, a regrettable loss, one very much worth mourning. This is not at all popular view in the mainstream, but neither is it popular among leftists or Marxists, who seem just as wedded to the telos of progress as any liberal or capitalist, and who are generally more than happy to consign to the dustbin of history the "rural idiocies" of those ignorant masses dispossessed in this period of "so-called primitive accumulation". Indeed, one of the better reviews of What Ever Happened to Modernism? was by Tim Black at Spiked. Black’s review is from a largely Marxist perspective, and though he calls the book "important" (and actually offers an interesting defense of realism), he also calls it "irritating" and "reactionary". For another recent example of this general attitude, in his book First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, Slavoj Žižek wrote "if there is one good thing about capitalism, it is that, precisely, mother earth now no longer exists" and "we should remain resolutely modern and reject the all too glib generalization whereby critique of capitalism morphs into the critique of 'instrumental reason' or 'modern technological civilization'. " No one who seriously considers the history of capitalism from the perspective of not only what actually happened to those people who were expropriated in the past, but also what is happening to those who are being expropriated today, still, in the same ways, but in different places, can so easily dismiss such "morphed" critiques.

But we were talking about artists. Despite what some proponents of political art would have us believe, it is not the artist's job to report on political events. Nevertheless, their work is instructive. Dürer’s The Fall of Man (1510), which depicts Adam and Eve being ejected from Eden, can be read as "[evoking] the expulsion of the peasants from their common lands". His Monument to the Vanquished Peasants (1526), following the Peasant War of 1525, could "suggest that the peasants were betrayed or that they themselves should be treated as traitors" and "has been interpreted either as a satire of the rebel peasants or as homage to their moral strength". Dürer was a follower of Luther, and his work is said to have "helped to disseminate the teachings of the Reformation". Luther himself condemned the peasant rebellions; Dürer perhaps agreed, but as an artist saw what he saw, and was able to convey some measure of ambivalence. His version of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was but one example of what was at the time a common artistic theme, which with its Biblical imagery reflected the horrible, very real suffering experienced by very real, ordinary people, who, in a situation of enforced scarcity, were constrained from maintaining their own subsistence in the traditional manner. The first half of the 16th century resulted in "the absolute impoverishment of the European working class, a phenomenon so widespread and general that, by 1550 and long after, workers in Europe were referred to as simply 'the poor'." Meat disappeared from workers’ diets—"a historic setback . . . compared to the abundance of meat that had typified the late Middle Ages." Here is Federici expanding on this point, bringing Rabelais back into our story:
Not only did meat disappear, but food shortages became common, aggravated in times of harvest failure, when the scanty grain reserves sent the price of grain sky-high, condemning city dwellers to starvation. This is what occurred in the famine years of the 1540s and 1550s, and again in the decades of the 1580s and 1590s, which were some of the worst in the history of the European proletariat, coinciding with widespread unrest and a record number of witch-trials. But malnutrition was rampant also in normal times, so that food acquired a high symbolic value as a marker of rank. The desire for it among the poor reached epic proportions, inspiring dreams of Pantagruelian orgies, like those described by Rabelais in his Gargantua and Pantagruel (1552), and causing nightmarish obsessions, such as the conviction (spread among north-eastern Italian farmers) that witches roamed the countryside at night to feed upon the cattle.
Allow me to leave here my detour into this working class history. I'd planned on delving more into the responses of artists to this situation, with a special emphasis on Shakespeare (including a digression into Josipovici's use of the work of the medieval historian Peter Brown in his elucidation of Richard II in On Trust; for this, let me instead refer the reader to my piece, "A world about to be lost"), but I believe I've said enough. My point, I think, is sufficiently made.

Few people know this history; fewer still look at it from the standpoint of the ordinary people affected by its forward march, though some are sensitive to the difficult problems that history has wrought. We are most of us ordinary people ourselves, who identify all too completely with the winners. So it's probably the case that most anyone reading the book likely does see the disenchantment of the world as a good thing, if they think of it at all. Josipovici quotes the following from a footnote in T.J. Clark's Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism:
I realize that I shall be taken here and elsewhere to be idealizing pre-modern society, and inventing a previous watertight world of myth and ritual, agreed-on hierarchies, implicit understandings, embodied places, and so on. There is no easy way out of this dilemma. Of course pre-Modern societies (and certainly the ones existing in Europe immediately before the spread of mercantile capitalism and the seventeenth-century crisis) were conflicted and ideologically incomplete. I am on the side of historians who have fought against the picture of a pre-modern Europe characterised by absolute cultural uniformity, immovable religious consensus, the unthinkability of alternative views of the world, etc. Nonetheless, if we do not make a distinction between societies built, however inefficiently, upon instanced and incorporated belief, with distinctions and places said to be inherited from time immemorial, and societies driven by a new kind of economic imperative, in which place and belief are subject to constant revision by the very forces that give society form, then I reckon we forfeit the chance of thinking critically about the past two hundred years. To call such comparative thinking 'nostalgia' (or in the present techno-ecstatic conjuncture, 'Luddism') is just the latest form of philistinism about history in general.
As such, the book is fighting an uphill battle, and not just against philistinism. To the extent that reviewers have addressed the matter at all, nostalgia is indeed usually the charge (regardless of explicit attempts to anticipate and forestall such a charge).

Instead, responses have most often focused on the final two chapters of the book, in which Josipovici turns his attention back to the question raised by the title. What, indeed, ever happened to modernism? Unfortunately, these chapters, while enjoyable reads (large stretches of them are just as fascinating as the rest of the book), are not nearly as successful as the book up to that point, or indeed the rest of his criticism outside of this book. In part this is simply because he mentions several big English literary authors by name (McEwan, Amis, Barnes, etc) without making it clear why they in particular are found wanting. In this way, I think, it has been easy for admirers of those writers to read these passage as attacks. Which is exactly what happened, especially with the very first reactions. For myself, this was the first time in all of his work that I felt he wasn't speaking to me. These two chapters are written, fairly explicitly, to an English audience, with references to "these shores" and the English literary world in particular. At one point, while extolling the virtues of Clark's book, he notes that Clark, by "Writing about episodes in a history",
is free to explore a whole web of stories rather than trace any linear sequence, and thus restore a sense of history being made—by artists, by events—rather than simply lived out, that the blind alleys down which artists have gone at certain periods of their lives are as important as their achieved successes, and that different responses are called for in pre-First World War France, in post-Revolutionary Russia and in America after the Second World War.
I like this a lot, and I especially like the bit about blind alleys (I'm always thinking artists' minor or lesser works are too easily dismissed in this culture because we are impatient to move on to the next book or album or mp3 file). But I'm thrown, just a little, but the clause about the need for different responses. Not because it strikes me as wrong (it does not), but because in the previous chapter, one of the examples he uses of a writer who we read "to pass the time, to reassure ourselves that the world has meaning, and then . . . leave . . . and move on to the next book", is the American Philip Roth. He subsequently spends more time (though still not much) on Roth than he does on any other contemporary writer, because Roth has a reputation for being playful and "experimental", and Josipovici senses that his readers will have mistaken his book as an extended argument for experimental art—"Is that not what Modernism is about?" No, it is not: "If that is your reaction you have not really been taking in what I have been saying." It's clear enough to me, a longtime reader, that Josipovici has not equated Modernism with experimental art, but it's not difficult to imagine it not being clear to readers unfamiliar with his argument from his other work, given the general sense of Modernism as indeed being about experiment and innovation (on the other hand, does anyone really think of Kafka as an experimental writer?). Frankly, his remarks about the big shot contemporary writers are not terribly persuasive (even though I agree with most of them).

Related to this is a curious feature common to many of the reviews I've seen, positive and negative. These readers have noticed that Josipovici favors certain writers over others. They've even noticed to some extent what seems to differentiate those writers. Yet, having read the book, they can still do little more than wonder "why can't you like both" kinds of writers? As if two distinct species of writer were being posited. Some have expressed this point with considerable irritation, annoyed that they are being told what to like. They are being told no such thing. It is apparently easy to miss that Josipovici admits that he has enjoyed many of the novels by the authors in question. But he also says that, when he first read such writers, he wondered why they didn't touch him the way other writers did. They were enjoyable, diverting narratives, but he never felt compelled to return to them. It could be said that this disparity has animated his critical career. Anyway, it is not being suggested that readers cannot like whatever they want, just as it is not being asserted that Martin Amis and Ian McEwan are terrible writers. What is, however, being suggested is, first, what characterizes the condition of being modern, and, second, what an appropriate response to that condition might be. In this context, I wonder if it could be argued that Philip Roth is responding appropriately as an American writing after the Second World War. And if not, it seems to me that his response would still need to be situated in that American context (I happen to think this is a potentially fruitful line of inquiry, considering the American tradition of so-called post-modernism, but then I am an American). Of course, as Josipovici readily admits later in the book, these kinds of assessments are necessarily affected by our own personal situation (it is in this context that he admits that the Marxist perspective on Modernism perhaps has a point).

One of the factors leading to the writing of this book was Josipovici's dismay at the adulation showered on Irène Némirovsky's posthumous novel, Suite Française. Written in 1942, and set in the war, the novel would have been old-fashioned at the time, and in its mode is little more than "run-of-the-mill middlebrow narrative", yet was treated as a modern classic when discovered and finally published in 2004. So, in Chapter 14 ("It Took Talent to Lead Art Astray"), Josipovici discusses Némirovsky's novel, comparing it to a novel of similar vintage, also about the war, by Claude Simon. Némirovsky, he says, "is simply unaware of the inappropriateness of what she is doing, and one has to say that by her writing she makes 'a written renunciation to all claim to be an author'." In this case, it is useful to see the excerpts from the two novels, to see what Josipovici is claiming about the approaches taken by the two writers, to see what he means by an "appropriate" response. But, again, his problem is less with Némirovsky, who could only do what she felt was right, but in the out-sized praise her work received:
[T]he question is not why she should have written as she did, but what has happened to our culture that serious and intelligent and well-read reviewers, not to speak of prize-winnings novelists and distinguished biographers, many of whom have studied the poems of Eliot or the novels of Virginia Woolf at university, should so betray their calling as to go into ecstasies over books like Némirovsky's while, in their lifetimes and now after their deaths, ignoring the work of novelists like Claude Simon, Georges Perec, Thomas Bernhard and Gert Hofmann.
This, then, is a fuller expression of the question asked by the title. But in the very next paragraph he admits that "To answer this would require a sociologist, perhaps, and another book." He is not really in a position to answer the question. It could be said that the book itself intends to raise the question rather than to answer it. Well, one can almost hear it being said (indeed, Weinberger says it with much annoyance), if he's not going to answer the question, what is the point? The point, I think, is that some questions need to be sensitively and intelligently posed before they can be answered. That is, since the disenchantment of the world is a general cultural problem, the question raised by the title cannot be answered via literary criticism alone, or through art history.

Towards the end of the book, Josipovici writes that "There cannot, then, be a definitive 'story' of Modernism. We cannot step outside it, much as we would like to, and pronounce with authority on it. We can only try to persuade people to see it from our point of view." His book is just such an attempt at persuasion, though he has been accused of elitism, of smugness (!!), of nostalgia, of snobbery. Rather, I think, he is peculiarly positioned to be able to perceive things many of us cannot, in part because of the details of his biography. In the final paragraph of the book, he allows that his particular affinities "may be largely because of who and what I am". He closes the book like this:
The late R.B. Kitaj compared Cézanne's rootedness in his native Provence to what he called the 'diasporist' ... imagination of the uprooted Picasso, and he suggested that at some deep level Modernism and the diasporist imagination go together. This may be true if we have a flexible enough notion of disapora to accept that an apparently rooted Frenchman like Bonnard or Englishwoman like Virginia Woolf could also have created a 'diasporic' art—and then one would want to look at Bonnard's relocation to the South of France in the latter part of his life as a kind of exile in which he went with his problematic wife, and at Virginia Woolf's sense of herself as a woman excluded from a male-dominated society. To that extent the Marxist critique of Modernism I mentioned at the start may have a point: Modernism may not be a consequence of the crisis of the bourgeoisie but it may be the product of a general European rootlessness in the wake of the French and Industrial revolutions. All will then depend on whether we see such rootlessness as pathological or as giving those who are imbued with it a certain vantage point, allowing them to see things which might otherwise have remained hidden. In other words, are we to see our own history, that which makes us what we are, as something which blinkers us or which sharpens our vision. This is, in itself, of course, a very Modernist question.
For all that Josipovici is advancing a particular perspective, he leaves it up to us to see for ourselves. Can it not be said that each of us is potentially our own diaspora? We have been fragmented, dispersed, alienated. We constitute a working class massive, but identify all too much with the very power that destroyed the history described above and seems unable to avoid destroying everything it touches, on the way alienating us from not only our own labor, but our very existences, though some of us, not only artists, are afforded glimpses of other possibilities and are receptive to art that suggests such possibilities, and otherwise questions and breathes. This is why all of this matters, and why Modernism continues to speak to us, through the din of received histories and imperial narratives, fictional or otherwise, and why we need critics like Gabriel Josipovici.



Related posts:
"Smoothness of Surface"
"A world about to be lost"
"The very notion of wholeness"
Notes on "The Bible Open and Closed"
"Modernism against Modernity"
Notes in advance of reading What Ever Happened to Modernism?

Review of In a Hotel Garden
Review in The Quarterly Conversation of Goldberg: Variations (and follow-up)
Review of Everything Passes

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3 Comments:

Blogger Jacob Russell said...

In Dürer's Melancholia, there's a remarkable image of a comet--not a good sign in 15th C iconography--but from the time I was a boy, has had rather different associations, not, I think, incompatible with what the Modernist challenge to the disenchantment of the world means for Josipovic.

There it is, above the chaos of the world deep set in the firmament, this harbinger of disorder yet itself obedient to celestial laws--giving the impression that this chaos might be more and other than it seems, the crumbling of an architecture of impediments (Blake's rule of line & weight & measure everywhere visible)promising that magical human contradiction--an Order of lawful freedom--of generative memory--patterns of endless variation...release of the unknown cipher from an overdeterminated artifice of reality.

August 18, 2011 11:51 AM  
Blogger Kevin H said...

This post got me to read Book of God and On Trust, and I wanted to say thanks for that.

October 01, 2011 2:59 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

You are very welcome. Thank you for telling me.

October 01, 2011 11:32 PM  

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