- Renewing American Modernism
To the casual observer, the cultural movement called modernism seems a particularly elusive historical entity. Critics and historians have often put forward diametrically opposed interpretations of it. They have clashed over whether modernism embraced or rejected industrial innovation, urban life, and organic wholeness. They have offered absolutely opposing arguments about whether it worshipped technique or whether its thrust was democratic or elitist. Nor is there any consensus about when modernism began its decline, if it indeed has. Given this disagreement, one might be tempted to conclude that analysts have been talking about two or more entirely different phenomena.
Robert Genter has not sorted out the conundrums of the study of modernism. He has, however, written a remarkable book that provides a compelling account of its development in the United States after the Second World War. By showing a set of common positions among a cast of characters not usually grouped together (philosopher and critic Kenneth Burke, sociologists C. Wright Mills and David Riesman, social psychologist Erving Goffman, artist Jasper Johns, and novelists Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin), Genter brings to light a previously unidentified iteration; Late Modernism forcefully challenges the entrenched notion that postwar modernism was moribund and that the postmodernism that gained prominence in subsequent decades constituted a sharp break. Rather, in Genter’s telling, late modernism both reconstituted modernism and anticipated its successors.
Late modernism, like other variants of modernism, took note of the constant change in the postwar world, registering its bureaucratic regimentation and general disenchantment. Genter’s cast of characters were also modernist in their belief that art was a privileged discourse, uniquely capable of disrupting encrusted and oppressive conventions. It was in their understanding of the self and in their aesthetics—two branches of knowledge that became especially prominent in the postwar period—that late modernists were distinctive. Late modernist understanding of the self was an eclectic mix of Freud, Nietzsche, [End Page 506] and the American pragmatist George Herbert Mead, among others. It stressed the flexibility and openness to others of individuals and regarded the self as a project rather than a product of biology or social life itself. Following Kenneth Burke (1897–1993), the premier analyst of rhetoric as a special form of communication, late modernists deemed art as communication to persuade those fluid selves of the necessity of rebuilding communities to allow for a fuller expression of individual personality.
Art intended to persuade invariably took the measure of and engaged with the world as it was. In that respect, late modernism differed from two other forms of postwar modernism that Genter terms “high” and “romantic.” High modernists, who included such leading lights as Theodor Adorno, Lionel Trilling, and Allen Tate, concluded from the rise of fascism that mass culture constituted a particular danger. Although high modernists occupied a wide spectrum of formal politics, they shared an opposition to what they regarded as the mindlessness of culture. They agreed that the best defense against the totalitarian tendencies present in the modern world was a personality that successfully negotiated Oedipal conflicts and had no need for narcissistic projective fantasies. Such a personality developed best in the small-scale order typical of the heroic moment of capitalist production. The ubiquity of a culture industry that catered to infantile desires led high modernists to wall off art from malign influences that were bound to corrupt or misuse it. In its insistence that art was the arrangement of formal elements, the famous New Criticism was the culmination of high modernist separation of art and life.
Their insistence on maturity often led high modernists, in effect, to support the existing order and to tread carefully about supporting collective efforts at change, thus deemphasizing the antistatist and anticapitalist elements of early twentieth-century modernism. Although they were wary of the scientific rationality for its tendency toward abstraction and universalization, they were loathe to endorse anything resembling irrationalism or primitivism, which they saw as equivalent to the destruction of ego boundaries that kept isolation...