NOTES on: Anderson, P.  (1984) 'Modernity and Revolution'.  New Left Review 144: 96-113

Dave Harris
[Defends Marxism against theories of modernity like the once-fashionable M Berman]

This is a review of Berman's All That is Solid...  Berman says that modernity is a mode of vital experience, exciting and dangerous, a maelstrom, offering a paradoxical unity.  It is generated by social upheavals all of which are traceable to the capitalist world market.  Modernization yielded a variety of visions and ideas, including modernism.  The two are linked by the notion of modernity as a development, both economic and a matter of individual self development [which leads to a hint of the notion of simultaneous liberation and eclipse as in Horkheimer]. The phases include accounts of contradictions, like those found in Marx and Goethe.  Contradictions emerge only where the public is aware of premodernity.  Instead, these days we typically we get a segmentation of publics, leading to polarisation, such as that between pessimism and optimism, rather than contradiction.  We can see some of these themes of the old contradictory modernism in the present.  Contradictory themes is the subtext in the criticisms of Marx on communism [communism is also likely to melt, leading either to repression to stop intellectual development or a new communist nihilism]

However, for Anderson,  it is classes that periodise the development of capitalism.  Berman omits these, largely, in favour of a stress on economic and psychological groups.  For Marx, there is also a necessary decline of the bourgeoisie.  Modernism arises very unevenly geographically, for example it barely touched England.  As a social and cultural development, the concept stresses one characteristic, and assumes that culture is already polarized rather than contradictory.  Berman also wants to say that thought has declined, although modernist art seems to be able to constantly renew itself.

Another input is provided by Lukacs: the bourgeoisie was a progressive force until 1848, then it became reactionary and artistically decadent.  We can identify different epochs, and within each one a certain synchrony, permitting generalizations [I think this is being seen as a flaw].  A better alternative, for Anderson, is to use the concept of conjuncture, to see modernism as a conjuncture rather than an underlying trend.  This can be defended by referring to: (A) the development of academicism in visual and other arts in societies still dominated by the aristocracy (104); (B) the emergence of new technologies and inventions; (C) the emergence of a proxy of social revolution, since bourgeois rule was not consolidated.  The new values in (A) emerged as a framework, from new movements of resistance who are able to unify themselves and draw sources for further resistance against the market (105).  For (B), technologies provide new techniques, but in an ambiguous way, partially abstracted from capitalism.  When discussing (C), the proxy revolution provided an 'apocalyptic light' for the social developments, making modernism seem semi-aristocratic, semi-bourgeois, and even a semi-labour movement.  Modernism was able to last until after world war one, and its products included Brechtian theatre and surrealism.

World war two breaks this consensus, and introduces fordism much more widely, installing it as a specifically capitalist technology.  Jamieson discusses the implications of surrealism, seeing its use of objects as a powerful critique, when they were still recognizable as human labour, still subjective and expressive.  Such objects have now gone, and have been replaced by depthless ones.  Hope for the revolution failed too.  We now have a bureaucratic economy of universal commodity production, and no new critical artistic movements after surrealism, now a mere 'gallery system, necessitating regular output of new styles as materials for seasonal commercial display' (108).

At the end of these processes, emerges an ideology, a cult of modernism, celebrating the collapse of oppositions between art and capitalism.  Godard is an exception, drawing on all the three elements earlier, including semi aristocratic culture, and remaining equivocal about technology.  May 1968 was 'validating'(108), followed by a Debray comment: May 1968 was 'the voyage to China which—like that of Columbus—discovered only America: more especially landing in California'.  Permissive consumerism was the only result, but there was still a certain openness in cultural terms.  Now there is a new closure of horizons towards the past and the future.

The third world may be an exception, where the three factors of modernist dynamism still interact.

For Berman, modernity is the subjective experience of self development rather than moral or institutional stabilization.  This pursues a theme based on earlier work, in Rousseau, and displays his paradoxes of self development and moral regulation.  For Rousseau, the self develops first then society, [but the reverse in Marx].  Human nature limits 'infinite ontological plasticity', in contrast to Marx in the Grundrisse talking of sets of primary needs, powers and dispositions.  Freedom for both Rousseau and Marx meant freedom for each and the freedom of all rather than formless desires.  By contrast, Berman comes close to the 'culture of narcissism'[as in Jencks?]

Capitalism is in permanent revolution for Burman, an embodiment of mobility and renewal, heightened as a response to socialism.  But change is a matter of dilution rather than the overthrow of earlier states, indistinguishable from reform or mere metaphor, to mean psychological or moral conversion. There would be a socialist revolution if the new state really was a 'transition or towards the practicable limits of its own self dissolution'. 

Modernism is especially dubious as a label because it is 'vacant and vitiated'.  Postmodernism is 'one void chasing another' a proper revolution would end modernism as the insatiable search for a new and open new possibilities for aesthetic style, beyond what is just new. 'The calendar would cease to tyrannize, or organize the consciousness of art' (113)

Notes on: Berman, M.  (1984) The Signs in the Street: A Response to Perry Anderson'.  New Left Review 144: 114 - 23

Dave Harris

Are Anderson's three conditions for creativity the only ones?  Is social closure permanent?  We must make ourselves at home in modernism.  Discussion of the 'scenes from everyday life' are necessary to show the possibility.  Street art and performance art are places where 'politics invade the most intimate spaces of the self', [with C Schneeman as the example] although 'Alas the public doesn't seem to want to see what she has to show: this show has so far attracted no reviews and made no sales' (120).  [We then get lots of Berman's views and thoughts on walking around the Bronx—massive talk up, my notes suggest].

The intention is to show 'the heroism of modern life', like the poets in Baudelaire.  Such activities do refer to social contexts because the public spaces and environments help us understand modern life—'the street and the demonstration [can be seen] as primary symbols of modern life' (123).  Anderson by contrast is too remote, and seems to be seeking perfection.  Instead he should embrace 'messy actuality'.  Intellectuals rapidly lose touch but it is particularly important that they do not do so, especially if they are on the left.  They should be able to 'see beneath surfaces' [but there is nothing beneath the surface of modernism?], make comparisons,  grasp the hidden patterns of forces and connections 'in order to show people…  that they have more in common than they think' (123).  'Reading Capital won't help us if we don't also know how to read the signs in the street'.

'We can contribute visions and ideas that will give people a shock of recognition, recognition of themselves and each other that will bring their lives together'[an apocalyptic and revolutionary note after all, but also rather apologetic and silly about the revolutionary possibilities of art: mass audiences for Eastenders are more likely to 'bring people together'.  In some ways not populist enough—apparently the academy can bring people together, but who reads the books?]

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