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Reviews371 The Decline ofModernism, by Peter Bürger; translated by Nicholas Walker; vi 8c 189 pp. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992, $35.00 cloth, $15.95 paper. Readers of Burger's Theory oftL· Avant-Garde (Minnesota, 1984) will already be familiar with his efforts to develop a "critical hermeneutics" of modernism, and in these ten incisive and closely argued essays they will find a welcome elaboration of both the principles of critical hermeneutics and the specific ways in which they may be brought to bear on the social history of literature from the Enlightenment to the present. Although the essays are not systematically interlinked, they do form two complementary groups, the essays of Part One addressing broad theoretical issues, those of Part Two providing historical studies which support Burger's sociological reading of modernism and its antecedents. Of the opening four theoretical essays, two are particularly important: "The Decline of Modernism" and "Walter Benjamin's 'Redemptive Critique.' " In the first, Bürger examines Adorno's critique of twentieth-century neoclassicism, arguing that Adorno's hostility to neoclassicism's playful manipulation of traditional materials may be related to his antipathy to such avant-garde techniques as collage. Bürger concludes that modernism must include both the formal tendencies that Adorno identified as modern and those tendencies, whether neoclassical or avant-garde, that challenge the autonomy of the literary institution , further, that "we who are both the heirs of aestheticist formalism and of the avant-garde protest against it" (p. 46) and must "strive to affirm essential categories ofmodernism, but at the same time to free them from their modernist rigidity and bring them back to life" (p. 44). In his study of Benjamin's "redemptive critique," Bürger argues for die complementarity ofBenjamin's methodology and the "ideology critique" of Habermas, calling for the development of a critical hermeneutics "which would include and transcend the two types of critique" (p. 26). What Bürger values in redemptive critique is its ability to grasp "the contradictoriness of the real" and hence "to discover the positive moment even in that which it is attempting to destroy" (p. 26). By embracing both ideology and redemptive critique, critical hermeneutics is thus able not simply to situate a work historically witirin its ideological context but also to account for its continuing significance in the present. The historical essays of Part Two treat key moments in the development of the modern literary institution as a response to the process of Weberian rationalization , which Bürger sees as "indispensable for the analysis of capitalist society" (p. 3). In essays on the aesthetics of genius and on Diderot and de Sade, Bürger effectively demonstrates the complex and often paradoxical relationship in the eighteendi century of the doctrine classique, the aesthetics of 372Philosophy and Literature genius and the Enlightenment to the emergence ofbourgeois rationality within feudal absolutism. In a brilliant study of naturalism and aestheticism, Bürger presents naturalism's passive objectivity and aestheticism's solipsistic subjectivity as "expressions of the alienation experienced by the subject in this phase of the development of bourgeois society" (p. 119). And through a series of careful studies of works by Wyndham Lewis, Peter Weiss, and Joseph Beuys, Bürger refines his account ofthe modernist struggle between formalist and avant-garde tendencies while arguing for the continuing relevance ofthis struggle in debates on postmodernism. Bürger is a sophisticated practitioner of sociological literary history who recognizes the dangers of reductivism, insisting that individual works are not totally determined by literary institutions and that multiple levels of interpretation alone can account for the complexities and contradictions of aesthetic movements. Ultimately, however, Bürger sees the work as a product of the social world and his task as that of applying the science of critical sociology to the analysis of individual works. Hence, the possibility for Bürger that a work might transcend its context or transform the very categories of our understanding of the social world does not seem to exist. Perhaps it is for this reason that Bürger remains pessimistic about the prospects of any revival ofthe avantgarde and skeptical about claims that postmodernism represents a genuine break from modernism...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 371-372
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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