- Writing the Modern:The Politics of Modernism
Il faut être absolument moderne.—Rimbaud
Immigration within the first world defines the social base of modernism; the formation and the formulation of modernism occur in what Raymond Williams terms the "metropolitan-immigrant functions" of early twentieth-century capitals of imperial and capitalist states (Culture 84).1 Have altered conditions of production and reception of art in the age of global communication technology and multinational capitalism closed forever the age of modernism as revolutionary artistic practice? As Neil Larsen asks in Modernism and Hegemony, has modernism as an ideological signifier—not only of art but also of theoretical discourses ranging from aesthetics to philosophy, culture, and politics—relinquished yet its intellectual [End Page 549] and cultural hegemony (xxii, xxiii)? And has a new form of postcolonial immigration unlodged this hegemony?
To what extent were the artistic practices of modernism aligned with the ideologies and politics of imperialism and capitalism? Larsen argues that modernism, "as an ideology dominated by but not specific to the realm of aesthetics, is the inversion (the 'inverted consciousness') of a historically objective 'crisis in representation' affecting the construction of what are initially social and political identities."2 This crisis, he claims (in agreement with analyses by Raymond Williams in The Politics of Modernism and Fredric Jameson in works such as "Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism"), is "the result of the modernization of capital itself during the nineteenth century, especially in the period leading up to the transformation of the 'classical' free market capitalism into monopoly/state capitalism and imperialism." Modernism stems from the crisis in representation that entails also a crisis in agency, and it comprehends this crisis in representation as itself stemming from "an intrinsic falsity residing in a purely conceptual operation, representation—and inverts it. The crisis in representation becomes a crisis of representation." But modernism does not relinquish the master narrative that the crisis of representation threatens to dissolve. "Agency must be retained," Larsen points out, "despite its apparent evacuation of the political." It is in this retention of agency that modernism claims the aesthetic, the (modern) work of art "which alone among the postpolitical or subpolitical practices appears to hold out the promise of an oppositional synthesis." It is the logic of ascribing historical agency to aesthetic works and practices that for Larsen is common to modernist ideology, including the avant-garde: "'Works of art' become the conceptual inversions of historical aporias, conceptual forms of anticapital" (Modernism and Hegemony xxiv-xxv).
Even the historical avant-garde oppositional movements of the early twentieth century, those dissident-bourgeois formations of formalist and libertarian radicalism, rebelling against the "institutionalized discourse about art" in bourgeois society, attempting to "reintegrate art into the praxis of life," remain caught in the grip of the very aesthetic logic they were seeking to shatter (Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde). As Williams notes, the avant-garde anticipates not revolution or socialism but imperialism and even late capitalism: "avant-garde formations, developing specific and distanced styles within the metropolis, at once reflect and [End Page 550] compose kinds of consciousness and practice which became increasingly relevant to a social order itself developing in the directions of metropolitan and international significance beyond the nation-state and its borders" (Culture 84).
In exploring what is indeed beyond not only the borders of the nation-state but also the periphery of the metropolitan, late-capitalist state, where "the modern and its Other meet along a boundary more spatial than temporal," Larsen points out that "under such conditions the crisis in representation is overshadowed and displaced by the crisis of the ground itself as the terrain upon which the unity of the historical subject with its object is both affirmed and denied." In these social and historical spaces where capital concentrates its most extreme contradictions, representation retains its problematic aspect. But, Larsen maintains, "the dialectic stipulating its falsity and the necessity to overcome it in a 'work' that directly contains an otherwise impossible synthesis gives way to the more urgent project of producing the terrain of synthesis per se."
The "work" can appear to make available the ideological space for...