Everyone's a modernist

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in the group mind of social networks allows one to move beyond the limits of individual rationality (and the outdated depth psychology that depended on it); the abolishment of privacy online permits us to discard "bourgeois proprieties."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.






The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.


John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.


Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.


Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.


Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.


Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.


Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.


Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.