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  • Anarchy and Culture: The Aesthetic Politics of Modernism
  • Mark Antliff
Anarchy and Culture: The Aesthetic Politics of Modernism. David Weir. Amherst: University of Massachusettes Press, 1997. Pp. 303. $60.00 (cloth); $17.95 (paper).

David Weir’s thesis in Anarchy and Culture is that anarchism’s success in the sphere of cultural avant-gardism was a function of its failure as a political movement; he assumes a separation [End Page 167] between art and political activism despite his acknowledgment that anarchism claims to overcome such a barrier. In Weir’s reading any fusion of art and politics always favours the former to the detriment of the latter. In his view art and political activism should properly remain mutually exclusive. Weir claims that for the “ideologue” it might be possible to adapt “aesthetics to politics” but that “from the perspective of the poet” a solution might be to “adapt the politics to the aesthetics”: this latter strategy is identified with anarchism, “the one ideology that might have allowed [a poet] to reconcile art and action, since anarchism as a form of individualist politics is perfectly suited to . . . individualist poetics” (2). In Weir’s reading anarchism’s success as a poetics is part and parcel of its failure as a political ideology; moreover, “the contemporary critical strategy of aestheticizing politics” among marxists such as Fredric Jameson is declared a function of the demise of marxism as a state ideology. “The situation whereby ideology attempts to operate outside of politics has already pointed Marxism toward postmodernist culture, just as anarchism moved into the culture of modernism when it ceased to have political validity” (9).

Anarchism in the last analysis could not reconcile “politics and culture” because “it failed to survive in political form.” No European nation, with the brief exception of Spain, “was capable of nurturing anarchism after World War I” for “anarchism was, quite simply, an outmoded ideology in the period between the wars,” unable to survive the advent of Soviet Communism and Fascism in European politics. “Faced with their obvious isolation from politics at large” anarchists “were driven toward culture as the only available means of disseminating their ideology.” Since “the cultural sphere was ultimately no substitute for the political arena,” Weir concludes, “anarchism ceased to exist as a movement” (5). Even before this historical shift, anarchism’s political failure was purportedly foreshadowed in its very ideology, since anarchism did not possess a “consistent political model” but only a model that “was at best secondary to the rhetoric used to articulate it.” Anarchists propounded a “politics of style” that was more “rhetoric than reality, less a movement than a myth” (12). This latter thesis is developed in the opening chapter which analyzes definitions of anarchism promulgated by William Godwin, P. J. Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, P. A. Kropotkin, and the American anarchist Benjamin Tucker.

The remainder of the book charts a cultural history of anarchism’s impact on modernist literature, grappling with its detractors and apologists in turn. Weir finds evidence of anarchism’s success among avant-gardists in modernism’s “tendency toward fragmentation and autonomy,” an “anarchist strain in modernist culture” that would identify culture “with diversity itself” (5). This literary “individualism” replaced the “homogeneity” and collectivism inherent in notions of “common culture.” Thus chapter two considers “the defenders of integrated culture” like Matthew Arnold and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, while chapter three deals with individualism’s apologists, most notably William Godwin, the Rossetti sisters, and Frank Harris. Later chapters chart the affinity “between anarchists and artists of the fin-de-siècle and beyond” as well as provide an account of “the transformation of anarchist politics into modernist aesthetics.” Here Weir’s focus shifts to the continent as he outlines the rapprochement between anarchists like Jean Grave and the Neo-Impressionists before turning to the impact of the Spanish anarchist Francisco Ferrer’s theory of education on American modernists such as Carl Zigrosser, Man Ray, and Adolf Woolf. This historical survey is rounded out with an overview of Benjamin Tucker’s support of avant-gardism and Margaret Anderson’s anarchist defence of modernism following her exposure to the ideas of Emma Goldman. The final section analyzes the “anarchist elements” found...

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