- Modernist Goods: Primitivism, the Market, and the Gift
Willmott tackles, with intelligence and sensitivity, the developing schism in modernist studies about the vexatious matter of the political [End Page 431] significance of modernism. Exactly what is the politics that modernism implies? Do the modernists work to undermine the hegemonic structures of neo-liberal societies, or are they as involved in and reflective of market society as stock exchanges, corporations, and corner stores? Is cubism subversive or is it merely complicit? He attempts to resolve this dichotomy by looking to the work of anthropologists. Although acknowledging the groundbreaking work in the 1920s of Marcel Mauss, he quickly takes up more recent studies, principally by Marilyn Strathern, Lewis Hyde, Annette Weiner, and Chris Gregory. The move towards ethnographic scholarship on the gift is a welcome relief from the Laputan theorizing that often descends from Derrida's Given Time.
Willmott looks specifically at what he characterizes as 'an archaic type of economy' organized around the institution of gift-giving rather than the exchange of commodities. The important anthropological insight arrives when we realize that there are specific relationships between types of economy and their correlate cultures. There is a culture as specific to the gift-giving economy as the culture one finds in societies organized around commodities. Willmott marks this difference by invoking two institutions, the House, 'the place of gifts and goods,' and the Market, 'the place of the commodity' or, one might add, goods of another sort. This starting point sets the framework in which he develops the idea of a hybrid cultural space, an overlapping and interleaving of House and Market in which he locates two varieties of modernism, what he calls imperialist modernism and aboriginal modernism.
This latter modernist impulse provides a way of understanding the 'economic unconscious' of modernism as a type of displacement of its aboriginal investments in 'primitivist' economies. The book neither looks back nostalgically at a vanished communitarian (and therefore good) order, nor does it appropriate the aboriginal in exoticist terms. Rather, it works through a series of insights in which the cultures of House and Market are held in tension. In four richly detailed chapters he examines several modernist authors along a number of analytical axes: the 'authentic' content of heritage, the status of parody and magic, 'the abject House,' and 'aboriginal modernity.' Hurston, Yeats, Conrad, the two Lawrences, D.H. and T.E., Eliot, Woolf, H.D., and Joyce are read within the anthropological parameters set out in the introduction.
The weaknesses of the argument occur in two principal areas. The framework may be a little too schematic. Although the analytical structure is deployed as a tri-polarity - House, Market, State - House and Market provide more compelling critical engagements than the occasionally woolly rendering of the State as a political concept. In fact, it is high time that scholars of modernism looked at the State in more serious terms than the neo-Marxist caricatures one finds in some recent studies. [End Page 432] The State is neither the Great Satan of 'progressive' political thought nor is it a trifling entity that plays a very small part in the making of art and culture. In this regard, the new work of Matthew Hart on the idea of the State in modernity will be of paramount importance. The second area of weakness is Willmott's reliance on Freudian tools for excavating the unconscious contents of institutions, discourses, and texts. These often obscure as much as they reveal. The discussion of 'the deprival of an imaginary father' in chapter 4 is a case in point. The analysis of this 'deprival' as 'a return of the repressed' and as both an 'abject failure' and generative of 'new kinds of modern culture' blurs the usually lucid presentation of ideas in the book. But these squishy bits do not sink the argument. Willmott's prose style helps. Unlike many critical works these days that read as if they were composed by translation software, this critic's voice comes through loud and clear.