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Modernity, modernism, and fascism. A "mazeway resynthesis"

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 15, Number 1, January 2008
pp. 9-24 | 10.1353/mod.2008.0011

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Fascism and modernism: finding the "big picture"

Researchers combing through back numbers of this journal in search of authoritative guidance to the relationship between modernity, modernism, and fascism could be forgiven for occasionally losing their bearings. In one of the earliest issues they will alight upon Emilio Gentile's article tracing the paternity of early Fascism to the campaign for a "modernist nationalism" which was launched in the 1900s by Italian avant-garde artists and intellectuals fanatical about providing the catalyst to a national program of radical modernization. They will also come across the eloquent case made by Peter Fritzsche for the thesis that there was a distinctive "Nazi modern," that the Third Reich embodied an extreme, uncompromising form of political modernism, a ruthless bid to realize an alternative vision of modernity whatever the human cost. But closer to the present they will encounter Lutz Koepnik's sustained argument that the aesthetics of fascism reflected its aspiration "to subsume everything under the logic of a modern culture industry, hoping to crush the emancipatory substance of modern life through modern technologies themselves" (62). Yet more disorienting is Jessica Burstein's attempt to show that the recurrence of the "prosthetic body" in the imaginaire of Wyndham Lewis and Ernst Jünger is the fruit of fascism's "prosthetic imagination", which is in turn the product of a "cold modernism" intrinsically violent and destructive (139, 158).

This article offers an unapologetically "big" picture of the dynamics of (Western) modernity within which to locate fascism's intimate kinship with a full-blooded modernism that by the inter-war period offered a wide range of variations on the theme of cultural regeneration as a way out of otherwise terminal decadence. Certainly, to rush into the pages of Modernism/modernity offering a panoramic view of such difficult and contested terrain would be foolhardy indeed if it were done in defiance, or in simple ignorance, of the sustained postmodernist critique of meta-narratives. It should thus be stressed at the outset that what follows is not to be construed as an attempt to lure unsuspecting readers onto a slippery slope leading inexorably towards a "totalizing" grand récit. True, this essay contains a blatant meta-narrative, but it is a self-consciously reflexive meta-narrative. It avoids the trap of essentialism by renouncing any claim to represent the definitive perspective on fascist modernity. Stripped of such delusions of grandeur it is reduced to the status of Max Weber's "ideal type." Its value is thus to be judged not by its intrinsic truth content, but how useful it is as a heuristic device to make sense of concrete empirical phenomena relating to the topic under discussion.

In order to embark on the construction of a synoptic but non-totalizing narrative of fascism's location within Western modernity it is first necessary to wrest the concept "modernism" from the narrow province of the history of art and of cultural history to which so many have confined it. Thus emancipated, it is free to embrace a wide range of innovative social and political projects extending far beyond the sphere of aesthetics and thought. Fortunately, such a dramatic expansion of the term's semantic scope can build on the success of parallel investigations into aspects of modernity carried out by a number of scholars, notably Modris Eksteins, Walter Adamson, Brandon Taylor, Peter Osborne, Peter Fritzsche, Peter Schleifer, Emilio Gentile, Mark Antliff, and Claudio Fogu. Moreover, my own formulation of a "maximalist" definition of modernism as a reaction (but a non-reactionary, revolutionary reaction) to Western "modernity" is, like theirs, posited on a reading of modernization as a process of disaggregation, fragmentation, and loss of transcendence with respect to premodern societies.

Such an approach is consistent with canonical analyses of modernity offered by several pioneers of the new disciplines of sociology and social psychology whose diagnoses of contemporary history were themselves shaped by the age of high modernism, and hence by the drive to overcome the perceived forces of societal and spiritual decay. Figures who come to mind are Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Friedrich Tönnies, Georg Simmel, Carl Jung, and Sigmund Freud. Their dire warnings about the fate...

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