- Archaeologies of Modernity: Avant-Garde Bildung by Rainer Rumold
Paris, circa 1924. The German Jewish expressionist extraordinaire Carl Einstein urges transition editor Eugène Jolas to head to Weimar Berlin, a cultural moment on its last legs. Though Jolas would not visit Berlin for half a decade, despite translating such writers as Carl Sternheim, Georg Trakl, and Gottfried Benn, the paramountcy of Einstein's counsel would prove more than revelatory for the young journalist. Einstein was profoundly troubled by a younger generation of poets living in Germany during those crisis years—artists, who, he prophetically felt, were under threat of stagnancy, almost a decade before the rise of Nazism. A mere echo, he'd announce, of a once-vibrant aesthetic formation. Ever buoyant, however, Einstein and his informal editorship knew no bounds. In a spirit of revolt that we need to understand today, he and others in the transition circle dreamt up Parisian plaquettes for Germany and manifestoes that never came to pass. "Let's hurl something in their faces," he would say to Jolas, gesturing to Berlin from their "Boisserie" at Colombey-les-deux-Eglises, "The two or three poets left there will thank us!"1
Einstein—the anarcho-syndicalist author of such wild tracts as "Totalität" in Die Aktion, in 1914 and 1916 and "Aphorismes Méthodiques" in Georges Bataille's Documents, in 1929, as well as of powerful explorations of African art, interventions in neo-Kantian and Bergsonian aesthetic theory, and playful Goethe-bashing in transition—is a figure we simply cannot ignore. Archaeologies of Modernity builds on Rumold's previous valiant editorial efforts (and those of Germanist colleagues) to bring Einstein's still somewhat occluded presence to an Anglophone scholarly readership, including key texts and discussion in a 2004 special edition of October, and of course his pioneering study, The Janus Face of the German Avant-Garde: From Expressionism toward Postmodernism (2002). Indeed, thanks to such recovery work, Einstein's role in the history of the avant-garde has been shown to be pivotal. With this latest work, we can hear Einstein's critical voice among those of other key artists and theorists of the early to mid-twentieth century, including, among others, Franz Kafka, Oskar Kokoschka, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno.
To be sure, Archaeologies of Modernity is not an easy read: like Einstein's own works, it offers a demanding and invigorating journey through an aesthetic physiognomy of the image, the archaic, and even, as we might put it, the dream of a lightness of spirit in interwar German culture. Rumold asks us to think about ways in which we might reconstellate editorial and artistic voices in order to better understand an essential marker of philosophical reflection, whether it was an archaic to be embraced, torn down, or even—as in Jolas's case—taken as part of a neo-metaphysical Weltanschauung that veered problematically close to protofascistic nihilism.
To begin, then, Rumold lays out the polysemic beauty of the German language, orienting his discussion toward one central, proliferating, word: Bildung. Although itself a traditional idea, Bildung—self-formation, an Innerlichkeit (inwardness), a logic, or an "image zone," to gesture to Benjamin—becomes, for Rumold, a critical lens. This allows for explorations of other forms of Bildung: Goethe's organic concept of Bildung, the bourgeois educational idea of the Bildungsbürger, Wilhelm von Humboldt's concept of self-education, Friedrich Schiller's self-cultivation, or in terms of further compounds such as Bildungsphilister, Wirklichkeitbildung, and Bildtotalität. Rumold identifies the historiographic specificities of the word in order to approach a greater understanding of relations between earlier Romanticism and a modernist response.
Rather than theorize this intellectual history as a break—à la Peter Bürger or Andreas Huyssen—Rumold offers a reconfiguration in which the "dream of Bildung," to use Adorno's [End Page 421] words of 1956, or what Rumold calls a "second innocence," stayed alive in the minds of some of the century's most significant European critics and artists (14).2 The...