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How To Do Things With Modernism

Fig. 1. Kurt Schwitters, Difficult, 1942–43, collage, 31.3 x 24 in. Courtesy Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

What would it mean to talk about certain strands of contemporary artistic production as in some strong, even emphatic sense, modernist? Instead of obeying Fredric Jameson’s periodizing imperatives and submitting to his privileging of the hypothesis of the break over that of continuity, we might use the model of Alain Badiou’s notion of an ethic of truths to account for how certain artists and works exhibit a fidelity to the event of modernism.[1] A contemporary modernism would not merely imitate modernist models; instead, it would treat the innovations of Bertolt Brecht, or James Joyce, or Gertrude Stein as events whose implications required continued investigation. A change in political, economic, and technological conditions would not compel us to accept that art can no longer be modernist but would suggest that it must be modernist differently.[2]

While Badiou himself might prefer the language of commitment to that of affect, his notion of fidelity to the event must assume the affective force of the subject’s encounter with that event. There are the obvious links: surprise-startle in recognition of the new: interest-excitement in the continued investigation of its implications; care for what sustains the memory of the event.[3] But think too of how Badiou’s claim that the event brings the subject into being is echoed in much of affect theory’s interest in how the subject’s affective relationship to the event/object transforms its way of being in the world.[4] Both Badiou and affect theory understand the individual to be seized by the event/object, rather than to be making a conscious decision about it. Moreover, since thinking the event and its implications is a matter of experiments and practice, in other words, a matter of doing something, we assume affect insofar as that is the name we give the visceral, vital force that either converts perception, recognition, ideas, beliefs into action or prevents that conversion.[5] Affect, in short, as what translates the recognition of the event as event, its rupture with extant knowledge, norms, and opinions, into, dare one say it, life. In all these senses the notion of fidelity to the event cannot but possess a necessary (although not sufficient) affective component.

Finally, if one accepts Jameson’s notion of the waning of affect in postmodernism, fidelity to certain sorts of specifically modernist event will involve affect in a distinctive way. Jameson’s thesis is predicated on the vanishing, along with the bourgeois subject, of  “the great modernist thematics of alienation, anomie, solitude, social fragmentation, and isolation.”[6] Fidelity to a modernist event might, then, involve the exploration of these affects and feelings and all that Jameson says accompanies them—style, the thematics of time and temporality— precisely when they are regarded as no longer artistically relevant or even possible.

This model of fidelity to the modernist event thus puts forward an emphatic version of contemporary modernism, in which the contemporary artist is transformatively affected by and attached to a modernist antecedent. Clearly not all contemporary artists who claim modernist affiliations can be classified as contemporary modernists in this strong sense. But what’s at stake in whether they do or not? In what follows I sketch a polemical distinction between fidelity to the event of modernism and fidelity to the institution of modernism. Where fidelity to the event of modernism, that is, fidelity to a rupture in the order of things, demands an investigation of how values might be changed, fidelity to the institution of modernism requires us to take certain values for granted, to accept things as they are, to a conservative affirmation of what is. The contrast sheds light on how fidelity to the event of modernism might offer a way to confront and critique the present and begin to think our way out of it. But it will also reveal the cost of such an investment. To be attached to art that has become untimely produces an historically specific crisis in the faithful subject.

Fidelity to the Institution of Modernism

To see what fidelity to the institution of modernism looks like we might turn to the conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s manifesto Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age. Goldsmith sets out by declaring, “The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.”[7] It’s a paradoxical way to start a book, especially one that presents itself as an avant-garde manifesto, but it is also symptomatic. Whatever possibilities conceptual writing itself may open up, in his manifesto on its behalf Goldsmith wishes to affirm what is. Goldsmith sets out his brief for contemporary conceptual writing, including his own book-length transcriptions of radio weather reports and the New York Times, as our era’s modernism, both because it is descended from figures such as Marcel Duchamp, Stein, Walter Benjamin, and Joyce and because it reflects the characteristic experiences of our time better than its competitors—“language in the digital age.” Goldsmith claims conceptual writing represents a “literary revolution” that overturns our fundamental assumptions about literature—not least that we need to read it (Uncreative Writing, 6). He calls for a shift from readership to thinkership: Goldsmith says he doesn’t want you to read his transcriptions—they’re too boring—he just wants you to reflect on them.

Yet despite the repeated claims to revolutionary thought and practice, Uncreative Writing’s account of conceptual writing is astonishingly dependent on established hierarchies of evaluation and strangely resistant to anything that might motivate actual thinking. Consider the question of value itself. Goldsmith tells us that he is most frequently asked about conceptual writing: “If everything can be transcribed and then presented as literature, then what makes one work better than another?” (9). One might have imagined that he would answer that after the revolution we will no longer know and may not even care. After all, the art theorist Boris Groys argues that the impact of the digital age upon the art world—the world Goldsmith says literature should aspire to—is precisely that of democratization: everyone with access to the technology—a smart phone or an iPad—is an artist now, and as a result we are witnessing a paradigm shift from aesthetics to poetics, from the contemplative appreciation, evaluation, and consumption of someone else’s work to the production and distribution of one’s own.[8] Why shouldn’t the ability to select all, cut, and paste mean something similar for writing in the digital age?  But no. Goldsmith insists that “the moment we throw judgment and quality out the window we’re in trouble. Democracy is fine for You-Tube [sic] but it’s generally a recipe for disaster when it comes to art” (Uncreative Writing, 10). Goldsmith also claims that his conceptual writing is populist, but that doesn’t mitigate his opposition to democracy, it exacerbates it, since the difference between populism and democracy is the difference between claiming the right to speak for everybody and everybody claiming the right to speak.

Central to Goldsmith’s version of literary revolution is a breathtakingly unreflective mobilization of the concept of taste. He asserts that the conceptual writer who is able to make the most interesting or beautiful or, to use his preferred term, “exquisite” selections is the one who “succeeds.” Hence it is “the exquisite quality of Benjamin’s choices, his taste. . . . what he selects to copy” that makes the Arcades Project “[t]he greatest book of uncreative writing” (113, 109). Goldsmith praises Andy Warhol in the same terms.[9] Yet nowhere does Goldsmith explain, nowhere does he suggest that the thinkership should reflect on what counts as good taste, let alone who decides and with what authority. Forget Bourdieu.

The foreclosure of such questions through the conceptual block of taste makes Goldsmith’s claim for the status of Benjamin’s Arcades Project particularly puzzling. One of Benjamin’s central theses in that text, as well as in the famous essays on the work of art and on Paris as capital of the nineteenth century, is that new technologies—whether steel in construction or film in storytelling—call both for new forms and new kinds of value that will emerge from new, potentially emancipatory relationships between art work and audience. For Benjamin, what obstructs the emancipatory potential of these innovations is aestheticization. Yet Goldsmith’s fetishization of exquisite taste produces an aestheticized Benjamin. Yes, the Arcades Project resembles contemporary conceptual writing as a “work of appropriation and citation” and employs “literary montage” (109, 113). Reading it may even anticipate “the way we have learned to use the Web: hypertexting from one place to another” (116). But this gives us an Arcades Project that does not affect us, change us, move us to think or act differently in any way. Instead it mirrors what we in the present already believe about ourselves, our time, our dominant modes of reading and perception. This is an account that also forgets, or does not care, that the Arcades Project was a political work that sought to awaken the twentieth century from the long dream of the nineteenth, let alone that it was a multilingual text, the Passagenwerk, composed in French and German, the product of years of careful labor, incomplete not for intrinsic, structural reasons, but because of the tragic historical conditions of its production. Reflection on these concerns and conditions is not compulsory, but it is strange to claim the Arcades Project as the greatest example of the kind of writing you are espousing, a kind of writing that is as valuable to think about as much as to read, and then to give no thought to the conditions, decisions, and labor that produced it, let alone to its substantive claims. It is to remain quite literally unaffected by what Benjamin has done, and instead simply to see oneself reflected in a very circumscribed image of his work. To prefer simple celebration and imitation of the text’s most obvious formal elements over reflection and engagement is to treat Benjamin not as a modernist event but as a modernist institution, a source of symbolic value, a brand name.

Fidelity to the Event of Modernism

Consider, by way of contrast, Helen DeWitt’s recently reissued 2000 novel, The Last Samurai. The novel tells the story of Sibylla, an American in London, a lapsed Oxford classicist and single mother trying to raise her son, Ludo, conceived after a one-night stand with a successful travel writer whom she refers to, because of the “terrible facility and terrible sincerity” of his writing style, as Liberace.[10] Sibylla teaches Ludo numerous languages and their epics—ancient Greek, Japanese, Icelandic, Arabic, a dozen others—as well as maths, physics, and logic, all of which burst into the text, without signposting, in their proper alphabets and symbols, lest we forget their difference from English, not to mention the labor of learning and translating them. Mother and son watch and obsessively discuss Kurosawa’s film The Last Samurai, Sibylla hoping thus to provide her son with a range of male role models. Sibylla narrates the novel’s first half; Ludo, whose questions often interrupt Sibylla’s narrative, takes over the second half, which tracks his search for a father—not Liberace, whom he finds easily enough, but a figure appropriate to his and Sibylla’s desperate needs.

The modernist figure from whom Sibylla takes her bearings is the Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg. In a crucial passage Sibylla recounts stopping in a bookshop on her way to the party where her fateful encounter with Liberace will begin, and discovering Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony (Harmonielehre). She is astonished when Schoenberg writes:

It is clear that, just as the overtones led to the 12-part division of the simplest consonance, the octave, so they will eventually bring about the further differentiation of this interval. To future generations music like ours will seem incomplete, since it has not yet fully exploited everything latent in sound, just as a sort of music that did not yet differentiate within the octave would seem incomplete to us. Or, to cite an analogy—which one has only to think through completely to see how very relevant it is: The sound of our music will at that time seem to have no depth, no perspective, just as Japanese painting, for example, affects us as primitive compared with our own, because without perspective it lacks depth. That [change] will come, if not in the manner that some believe, and if not as soon. It will not come through reasoning (aus Gründen) but from elemental sources (Ursachen); it will not come from without, but from within. It will not come through imitation of some prototype, and not as technical accomplishment; for it is far more a matter of mind and spirit (Geist) than of material, and the Geist must be ready. (DeWitt, The Last Samurai, 59)

Note that Schoenberg doesn’t think that there is already enough music in the world; nor does he believe that the greatest work has already been done; he argues that things—not just things in general, but things at the most specific material artistic level, the number of notes in an octave—have been different and will be and should be different again. Sibylla experiences this passage—which DeWitt quotes in full—as a modernist event. She describes it as “one of the most brilliant things I had heard in my life” (59). Yet it is not her understanding of music that is transformed but rather her conception of literary representation. Her response, then, is excited, inspired, surprised, but also necessarily imaginative, a kind of translation and transformation, working through the implications of this event for her own time, place, and art, art of a different order, even, than that proposed by Badiou, who thinks that Schoenberg’s work has implications only for subsequent musicians.

Sibylla relates that before reading Schoenberg she thought that if characters in a story were Italians in Italy then they should speak Italian—so one should approve when in The Godfather Al Pacino goes to Italy and the subtitles kick in—but that after the Harmonielehre this seems naïve. In a literature that “would approach the level of the other branches of the arts which are so much further developed” languages become like colors in a palette, so that a writer “would think of the monosyllables and lack of grammatical inflection in Chinese, and how this would sound next to lovely long Finnish words all double letters & long vowels in 14 cases or lovely Hungarian all prefixes suffixes, & having first thought of that would then think of some story about Hungarians or Finns with Chinese” (60, 61). This literature of the future is, of course, precisely the kind that The Last Samurai itself models, with its juxtapositions of various languages in various alphabets, of quotations from films and mathematical formulae. It is also a literature that, insofar as it takes Schoenberg as its model, understands itself to be taking a material risk because it is written in defiance of what constitutes both contemporary common sense and good taste. No sooner does Sibylla discover the Harmonielehre than she learns that Schoenberg never completed his late opera Moses und Aaron because American foundations did not appreciate atonal music—and, with a family to support and bills to pay, he had to teach![11]

One of the most striking features of Sybilla’s ecstatic, inspired response to Schoenberg, however, is that it does not prevent her immediately from taking issue with its central analogy: the purported primitivism of Japanese painting. That the encounter with Schoenberg’s ideas is profoundly affecting, transformative, inspiring cascades of imaginative possibilities, does not mean that her critical faculties have shut down. Indeed, the first thing she says after remarking upon the passage’s brilliance is that it is simply wrong about Japanese painting. But that Schoenberg is wrong about Japanese painting doesn’t mean that his idea is irredeemably contaminated. Fidelity to this modernist event—less the event of Schoenberg than the specific event of this particular passage in the Harmonielehre—does not require DeWitt to proclaim Schoenberg “the greatest.” Fidelity is not fetishism. Here it is more like tough love, in as many senses of the term as you might imagine.

Hence also, perhaps, as a kind of rebuke to Schoenberg The Last Samurai’s exploration of this event with so many Japanese examples: not only The Seven Samurai and the Japanese language interpolations, but also her creation of the character of the pianist Kenzo Yamamoto. Central to Yamamoto’s story is a concert in which he plays Chopin's Op. 10 No. 1 Ballade in D minor fifty-nine times in a row for seven and a half hours, each time accompanied by a different noise (“a bell or an electric drill or once even a bagpipe”)—seeking to expand the vocabulary and experience of music in way analogous to how Sibylla imagines expanding the literary (163). Yamamoto then plays three different works once each: “It was as if after the illusion that you could have a thing 500 ways without giving up one he said No, there is only one chance at life once gone it is gone for good you must seize the moment before it goes, tears were streaming down my face as I heard these three pieces each with just one chance of being heard” (163). By this time, of course, the concert hall is practically empty—people have trains to catch—and Yamamoto’s explorations of repetition and singularity, of the expansion and compression of time, however affecting they may have been for Sibylla, have destroyed his performing career. Here DeWitt revises Sibylla’s initial fidelity to the event of the Harmonielehre. In a way, she holds more firmly to that event, since the expressive possibilities Schoenberg contemplates exist for music as a whole, not for the individual artist. (His vision is, after all, one in which historical evolution renders his own work obsolete.) But DeWitt also indicates that, unlike Schoenberg, she can no longer be confident in the inevitability of such evolution: Yamamoto’s explorations leave him without any audience and—much like Schoenberg—without institutional support.

It is Yamamoto whom Ludo invites, in the novel’s conclusion, to assume the role of his father. Most of that final negotiation doesn’t concern paternity, however. Instead, Ludo asks if Yamamoto might be willing to make a recording of the kind of music he wishes to play but can no longer perform in public, a recording that, they agree, perhaps ten people will buy. This would be a kind of music for which there is neither popular nor institutional support but that nevertheless resonates with those—like Sibylla, “who,” as Ludo puts it, “always wants things to be different”—for whom such works are not simply manifestations of exquisite taste, but rather, in the strongest, most emphatically modernist manner, “a matter of life and death” (480, 479).

In The Last Samurai fidelity to a modernist event means fidelity to the exploration of formal possibility, where formal possibility entails an exploration of what Caroline Levine, borrowing from design theory, has taught literary critics to call “affordances”: what materials (words, languages, musical instruments) are capable of, particularly in the emancipatory sense that obsessed Benjamin.[12] While modernism is just one event among many to which a subject might be faithful, what’s distinctive about many modernist events is the foregrounding of form, which is why the Australian Marxist art historian Bernard Smith preferred to call modernism “the Formalesque.”[13] Given time, one could trace how DeWitt indicates throughout her novel that the modernist exploration of formal possibilities—affordances—ought to be carried out on all human arrangements, in the interests of providing different ways of thinking about, educating, shaping, organizing, emancipating human lives, making them more bearable and even pleasurable.

Where fidelity to the modernist institution means affiliation with established values, fidelity to a modernist event in the sense I’m proposing—at an admitted distance from Badiou’s preoccupation with the immortal—means fidelity to what brings you to life. And in the most emphatic sense: “a matter of life and death.” Why such high stakes? Yamamoto’s work reminds Sybilla that despite the infinite possibilities of art, human lives are brief, fragile, and (as countless literary modernists show) easily spent without ever having been quite lived. But that’s always been true. What’s different is that Schoenberg’s confidence in the evolution of his art is constantly imperiled. For DeWitt (as, more recently, for Boris Groys) the contemporary moment is one of declining faith in the promises of modern projects.[14] DeWitt’s work explores what it’s like to be attached to, have faith in, a modernist event while doubting that the necessary conditions for that event’s emergence and evolution still obtain. And it is this, I think, that motivates the apparently hyperbolic claim that the sheer existence of an artwork like Yamamoto’s is a matter of life and death. Doubt wants proof. The existence of such an artwork is a demonstration of the viability of its existence where the mere idea or image of it is not. More, it shows that the proliferation of formal, emancipatory possibilities is itself still possible even in the time of their violent reduction and contraction. Recall also that if we take Badiou seriously in his claim that the subject comes into existence with the encounter with the event, then the possibility of that particular subjectivity ends if the event to which it is faithful appears unsustainable. But even this consideration seems like a step back from DeWitt’s limit case of fidelity to the modernist event. If there is a fundamental value to contemporary modernism in the emphatic sense I have elaborated, it resides in its refusal to attach itself to and accept the contemporary dispensation, and in its insistence that things should be different, and that we might turn to the innovations of the modernist past to help make them so.


[1] See Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, trans. Peter Hallward (London: Verso, 2001), 40–48.

[2] I explore this idea in greater detail in “The Persistence of the Old Regime: Late Modernist Form in the Postmodern Period,” Modernism and Theory: A Critical Debate, ed. Stephen Ross (New York: Routledge, 2009), 117–26.

[3] In his introduction to Badiou’s thought Peter Hallward describes the individual’s encounter with the event as “a moment of pure surprise, a crisis of some kind” (Badiou: A Subject to Truth [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003], xxvi).

[4] For the subject’s transformation by the object see Jonathan Flatley, Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 17.

[5] For affect as action see Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” The Affect Theory Reader, ed. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 1–26, 5.

[6] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990), 11.

[7] Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 1.

[8] See Boris Groys, Going Public (New York: Sternberg Press, 2010), especially “Introduction: Poetics vs. Aesthetics,” 9–20, 15.

[9] See Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing, 139.

[10] See Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai (Sydney: Vintage, 2001), 54.

[11] See DeWitt, The Last Samurai, 62.

[12] Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Networks (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 6. Emphasis in original.

[13] See Bernard Smith, Modernism’s History: A Study in Twentieth-Century Art and Ideas (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1998).

[14] See Groys, “Comrades of Time,” in Going Public, 84–101, 87–90.