restricted access Modernitalia by Jeffrey T. Schnapp (review)
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Reviewed by
Modernitalia. Jeffrey T. Schnapp. Francesca Santovetti, ed. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2012. Pp. xx + 316. $73.95 (paper).

Modernitalia brings together seven essays previously published in English and five published in English for the first time. These erudite, witty performances are an important contribution to our ongoing attempt to understand aesthetic modernism in both its Italian and international guises. Taken together, they provide a kind of "crash course" in the complexity of the cultural production of the Italian Fascist era.

Schnapp's essays are characterized by a refusal of easy polemic and a dogged determination to specify modernism in all its contradictions. He writes of modernist monuments, "The avant-garde's degree zero of representation and construction, its revolt against ornamental forms of historicism . . . close the door on the past only to reopen it once again in the mode of an archaeology of archaic structures: archaic structures that, however plausibly or improbably, it seeks to enfold within vibrant electric aureoles and glass masks" (82; Schnapp is cribbing these final images from Marinetti). In an essay tracking the links between the interwar theater of the Bauhaus and Fascist Italy, he invites us "to pressure the tidy cultural-historical taxonomies that tend either to disengage cultural modernism from any non-incidental links to right revolutionary culture or to dismiss it simply by invoking such links" (102). Schnapp's careful research even questions the critical commonplace that, as a result of the Axis alliance, the regime's final years were characterized by a certain retrenchment from modernism (164). Schnapp convincingly demonstrates the contradictions of Italian fascism—"due in part to its vitalist underpinnings, in [End Page 407] part to the clientism rampant in Italian politics and to divisions within the fascist fold" (148)—that complicate critical desires either to locate an Italian modernist whose hands remained free of "collaboration" or to blame modernism for the historical calamity of fascism. The contradictions that Schnapp identifies require us to stall those desires, however urgently and sincerely felt.

And when Schnapp engages in polemic, he does so elegantly, in a manner both gentle and pointed. Consider the following:

Contemporary sensibilities may sometimes wish it otherwise, but, for all their emancipatory potential and productivity as secular engines of intensity and thrill, the avant-garde's radical rhetorics of demolition have a built-in tendency to find themselves entwined within the familiar patterns of apophatic mysticism. They flow, that is, just as naturally into radical rhetorics of construction as do rhetorics of the dismantling of selfhood into rhetorics of transcendental selfhood.

(32)

For those of us who came of age intellectually amidst the poststructuralist critique of the transcendental subject and that critique's "emancipatory potential," this remains an important and timely warning, one also found (in a slightly different guise) in Gayatri Spivak's ruminations on deconstruction and in Rosemary Hennessy's critique of queer theory.1 What makes Schnapp's intervention unique is that it arises from a reading of cultural history and thus demands that we attempt to fabulate a relationship between earlier modernist moments and our own. (One of the interesting threads running through the anthology is a tacit call to think through the ways in which a variety of modernist projects on both the left and the right anticipated the (hu)man/ machine that we now call the cyborg.) Schnapp's efforts stubbornly assert the value of thinking historically at a time when, in some quarters, any attempt to construct a causal relationship between past and present is dismissed as historicism.

Outside of these isolated polemics, though, Schnapp offers us an exercise in the pleasures of analysis, whether the text under discussion is a work of architecture, a Futurist agitprop poem, or a twentieth-century graphic artwork. Bringing an attentiveness to his subjects that never degenerates into pedantry, Schnapp seduces his readers' interest with whatever his capacious intellect pursues. In his essay on current applications of Julius Evola, a man notorious for his preface to the 1937 Italian edition of the anti-Semitic The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Schnapp writes, "Missing is the critical middle ground that the present essay seeks to open up" (32). It is this middle...


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