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Reviewed by:
Peter Burger. The Decline of Modernism. Trans. Nicholas Walker. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1992. viii + 189 pp. $35.00 cloth, $15.95 paper.

This is in some ways a curious collection of essays. Together they establish an argument having to do with the development of literary art from a chiefly French seventeenth century to a mainly German and English early twentieth. This argument engages more or less exclusively with the critical tradition of Max Weber and the Frankfurt School. It does so on the basis of assumptions about the progress of bourgeois Enlightenment whose phases are peculiarly unquestioned.

The first essay sets up this dual approach (indicated in the volume as a whole by its being divided into two Parts: one mostly on debates within the critical tradition concerned; the other on specific artistic cases) by developing a brief discussion of Weber's and Habermas's notions of rationalization of society into a rather vague analysis of a supposed French development from a seventeenth-century feudal-aristocratic doctrine classique to a later bourgeois doctrine of genius, barbarism, and eventually the autonomization of art. The rules, bienséances, and moral demands of the former as opposed to the sublimities and subjectivities of the latter echo the opposition of feudal and bourgeois ideologies, in whatever complex ways.

This is a strangely unexamined history, and one which close scrutiny hardly sustains (as I have recently sought to show in The Meaning of Literature [Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1992]). It is of course the case that in their various ways Benjamin, Adorno, and Foucault all relied on a similar kind of analysis, and these are the writers whom Burger's next three chapters seek to show as both criticizing and going beyond the autonomization of art: that is to say, the essential and fundamental separation of literature (and art in general) from the political and moral spheres. [End Page 426]

Part Two explores these same issues by a more detailed tracing of the idea of genius, the problem of the aesthetic treatment of morality in the eighteenth century and the development of the subjective individual (through Diderot and de Sade), the issue of subjectivity as it is paradoxically separated from the social in naturalism (in Zola such that naturalism and aestheticism forge a complete division between the two), and further autonomization of the aestheticized self as portrayed in Wyndham Lewis. The last two chapters, on Peter Weiss and Joseph Beuys, seek to show how this autonomous modern art is declining in favor of an art that once again engages an essential social morality—and therefore politics. Both seem at odds however with a literary criticism still largely under the influence, thinks Burger, of aestheticism.

This seems an oddly conservative analysis, notwithstanding its leftist ring. From the seventeenth century art, and especially literature, was deeply politically engaged: quite explicitly until at least the late eighteenth century. Its simultaneous engagement with the aesthetic, the epistemological, and the ethical meant that even when such explicit political demand was no longer made, it remained embedded in the structures and implicit claims of artwork. Art's relation to the social may now be undergoing change, but some putative autonomy has no place in how we may understand it.

Timothy J. Reiss
New York University


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pp. 426-427
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