Irving Howe’s 1967 Commentary essay “The Culture of Modernism” (here’s a gated link for all you Commentary subscribers in the audience) is the sort of thing I usually don’t have much time for: a lot of fretting about nomenclature (what is modernism?), a preoccupation with literature qua literature, some contempt for the contemporary generation’s aesthetic shortcomings masquerading as concern for the future of humanism, and so on — the Great Critics doing Criticism. But I found it interesting that much of what Howe argues modernists were striving for is what internet culture, in the eyes of its boosters anyway, has achieved. Howe writes, “Modernism keeps approaching — sometimes even penetrating — the limits of solipsism, the view expressed by the German poet Gottfried Benn when he writes that ‘there is no outer reality, there is only human consciousness, constantly building, modifying, rebuilding new worlds out of its own creativity.’ ” That sounds a lot like a paean to virtuality, to humans freed from biological constraints to exist as pure (digital) expression. When critics say online sociality is solipsistic, they don’t recognize that we must “penetrate” solipsism to reach some sort of apotheosis of intersubjectivity. The modernists paved the way, responding to cultural sterility (their “end of history”) with unremitting commitment to innovation for its own sake. Howe cites Lukács (though it may as well have been Schumpeter), claiming that modernists are “committed to ceaseless change, turmoil and re-creation.” It actually sounds a bit like neoliberal economics.
Later, Howe declares that:
In modernist literature, one finds a bitter impatience with the whole apparatus of cognition and the limiting assumption of rationality. Mind comes to be seen as an enemy of vital human powers. Culture becomes disenchanted with itself, sick over its endless refinements. There is a hunger to break past the bourgeois proprieties and self-containment of culture, toward a form of absolute personal speech, a literature deprived of ceremony and stripped to revelation.
That sort of sounds like a status update or a tweet, or a Tumblr reblog — all of which espouse expediency as a kind of sincerity. The accelerated nature of online discourse, in social media especially, lays a privileged claim to the real. The participation in the group mind of social networks allows one to move beyond the limits of individual rationality (and the outdated depth psychology that depended on it); the abolishment of privacy online permits us to discard “bourgeois proprieties.”
So maybe when you sign up for Facebook, you automatically become Samuel Beckett. Social media makes modernists of us all. They democratize the “genius” of modernism and make its “terrible freedom” and the smashing the humbug of bourgeois order everyone’s prerogative. We can all document the self in a spirit of uncompromising full disclosure to deal with the “problem of belief” and the crisis of authenticity in the absence of transcendental truths and radically innovate with language and form. That is, we can build our personal brands on Facebook and tweet all day in LOLspeak.
Basically what aggrieved the modernists in Howe’s view — the crisis of identity and truth; the ceaseless striving for real expression — is what we now tend to celebrate as fun and freedom. Much as management consultants represent precarious work conditions as liberating free agency, the modernist crises of the subject are fun opportunities for self-expression, like some of the postmoderninsts insisted. Howe seems to conclude that the modernists were a bunch of nihilists who end up tormented by their achievements: “The lean youth has grown heavy; he chokes with the approval of the world he had dismissed; he cannot find the pure air of neglect.” That is, in their search for the genuine, modernists sought the “right to be forgotten” but failed. They ended up being liked too much. It will be different for us. We have forfeited that right in advance and tally the likes up to keep score in the grand game that selfhood has become. In our world, we celebrate the quantified self. To have measured out one’s life with coffee spoons is an unmitigated triumph.