Week 5 Readings: Modernism/Postmodernism

In this week's readings from Lukacs, Williams and Jameson we have some representative analyses of modernism and postmodernism from the Marxist tradition. Marxism has complex relationships to modernism and postmodernism. It is both a product of the epoch of modernity and a systematic critique of some of the most fundamental features of modernity, such as capitalism and individualism. It has influenced postmodern critique, but many Marxists criticize postmodern theories for being nihilistic or self-defeating because they offer no clear basis for distinguishing between possible values or paths of action.

Here I will offer a brief review of the terms to keep in mind as you read the texts. But if you would like to do more background reading, probably the two most widely known texts are Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition, and Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism: Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Excerpts from these texts and other useful texts are collected in an anthology, From Modernism to Postmodernism, edited by Lawrence Cahoone. My own understanding of the conjuncture of the material relations of production and the ideological paradigm of global capitalism in the 1990's is especially indebted to David Harvey's The Condition of Postmodernity (see esp. Ch. 2-3) and Mas'ud Zavarzadeh's essay "Post-ality: The (Dis)simulations of Cyber-capitalism" in Postality: Marxism and Postmodernism. An insightful account of the shift from modernism to postmodernism in the academy, especially as it relates to English studies and Composition studies, can be found in Lester Faigley's Fragments of Rationality.

The social and economic conditions of modernity began to emerge as early as the sixteenth century, with the expansion of international trade, the urbanization of the peasant populations of Europe, and a steady rise in literacy. These social and economic conditions were reflected, and to some extent enabled, by superstructural phenomena such as the Protestant Reformation, with its emphasis upon individualism, literacy and the patriarchal nuclear family, and the Enlightenment, with its emphasis upon rationality, faith in human progress, the development of the scientific method, etc. The period of modernity was characterized by a high degree of centralization of control of production, increasingly large scale capitalization of industry, and a high degree of routinization and standardization of products and processes. Modernity reaches one of its high points of development in the industrial practices of "Taylorism" (follow this link for a Wall Street Journal backgrounder on Taylorism archived on the Cool Fire Technology site) in which the worker's actions are segmented and standardized, effectively making each worker interchangeable, and "Fordism" (follow this link for Ruppert's account of Fordism by Mark Ruppert of Syracuse University) which adds to Taylorism a systematic attempt to control the workers' off-the-job life as well--hence Ford's planned communities, housing, control of media, adult education, etc. The Enlightenment ideals of rationality and scientific progress are similarly reflected in the late 19th century-early 20th century "eugenics" movement, which sought to "perfect" the human race through a selective breeding scheme based on Darwin's theory of evolution. The modernist faith in scientific progress was profoundly shaken when it became clear that these ideas could lead to such horrible consequences as the holocaust.

Postmodernity is characterized by a perceived general breakdown of the conditions of production of modernity as capitalism enters a new phase. For some futurists and other social observers the production of information now seems more important than more traditionally "material" products. Yet, while heavy industry seems to be disappearing in the "first world," it really has been shifted to sites in the "two-thirds world"; mostly to Asian and South American sites. The era of postmodernity is sometimes dated from 1945. This date would include as part of the shift from modernity to postmodernity the wave of anti-colonial struggles in Africa and Asia after World War II; colonialism was a key feature of modernity. This date also marks an ideological watershed; it is harder than ever to defend the assumptions of modernity and modernism after the holocaust, which depended upon modern technologies and "perverted" (or perhaps more orthodox than is generally acknowledged) versions of modernist assumptions about the "perfectability" of the human race. An alternative date for the transition would be the early 1970's, when the Arab oil embargo shook the western industrial machine to its foundations. The oil embargo, which in some ways can be related to the anti-colonial struggles in the 1950's and 60's, provoked a crisis in global capitalism from which rank and file workers in the developed industrial countries have never recovered, though the effects have been somewhat masked by shifts in labor patterns toward two-income households and an increase in child (teenage) labor.

Modernism is an intellectual and artistic movement that developed in conjunction with, and eventually in opposition to, fully developed modernity. Modernist artists and intellectuals were disgusted with the banality and "dehumanized" quality of life in industrial capitalism. They responded to this degradation of the quality of life by retreating into a nostalgia for pre-capitalist organic social order (F. R. Leavis, T. S. Eliot), by embracing fascist leaders and ideologies (Ezra Pound's support of Mussolini, Gertrude Stein's support of Marshal Petain, etc.) by seeking refuge in radical and sometimes anti-social individualism (Hemingway, J. D. Salinger, etc.) or agrarian populism (Faulkner, John Crowe Ransom and the agrarian "fugitives," of the 1930's, etc.). High modernist art often features fragmentation and disruption at the level of form (e.g. James Joyce), though it generally attempts to recuperate a sense of order and faith in universal values at the level of content or overall effect. In this way the modernists attempted to "shore up" (invoking Eliot's phrase from "The Waste Land") the grand narratives, the "absolute" truths and values, of the western tradition.

Whereas the high modernists experimented with abstract representation and formal fragmentation as a way of resisting the degradation of social life in industrial capitalism, postmodernists have embraced this condition, ostensibly rejecting the grand narratives and values for parodies of the classics and exalting popular or "low" culture at the expense of traditional high culture. Postmodern art, then, is characterized by highly self-conscious uses of strategies like parody and pastiche to undermine a sense of order, timeless values, universal truths, and grand narratives. In doing so it emphasizes surfaces at the expense of substance and depth...insisting that "appearance" or "representation" are, effectively, all there is to what the modernists would have called "reality," and that there are in fact many plural "realities" rather than a universal one. For a more detailed introduction to this concept, follow this link to a lecture on postmodernism by Mary Klages, of the University of Colorado.