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MLN 117.4 (2002) 887-907

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Passing Fashion:
Mallarmé and the Future of Poetry in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Ellen Wayland-Smith

"The flight of poetry is only parodied by the wing-span of an open newspaper." 1 Thus wrote Stéphane Mallarmé in 1893, voicing a defense of poetry against the "vulgar" literary sub-genre of journalism. Literary history has generally upheld this image of Mallarmé as the defender of high literature against the incursions of a debased, commercial language. 2 And yet nothing fascinated Mallarmé more than the nascent consumer society of fin-de-siècle Paris. 3 The obvious [End Page 887] pleasure Mallarmé found in composing fashion chronicles for La Dernière Mode, and the numerous essays he in fact devoted to the subject of newspapers, suggest a more complicated relationship between literature and the forms of mass culture in his work. 4 Mallarmé suggests the measure of this complexity in a fashion chronicle from La Dernière Mode where he refers to the printed detritus of a recent soirée—dance cards and crushed flowers, concert programs and menus—as a "literary" corpus, "ayant en soi l'immortalité d'une semaine ou deux." This playful comparison between immortal literature and transitory fashion, which has all the marks of a specifically Mallarmean irony, nonetheless poses a "serious" question: what might mass culture and literature have in common?

Critics have commented extensively on the way in which the "built-in obsolescence" of the mass-produced commodity affected more general patterns of cultural memory in nineteenth-century France. 5 In what follows, I suggest that Mallarmé's fashion writing, read in conjunction with his reflections on journalism, constitute one of the period's most lucid commentaries on the challenge posed to traditional forms of cultural memory—including poetry—by the evanescence of commodities. The strength of Mallarmé's critique lies in the fact that he does not simply oppose the transitory nature of commodified mass culture to the "eternal" in art, but rather investigates the historical conditions underlying the emergence of this opposition itself.

Frankfurt school critics have interpreted nineteenth-century fashion, and by analogy the mass-circulation newspaper, as cultural expressions of the bourgeois soul in its very essence. "Classes and [End Page 888] individuals who demand constant change," remarks the sociologist Georg Simmel, "find in fashion something that keeps pace with their own soul-movements." 6 Simmel builds on Marx, who was among the first to analyze the "soul movements" of the bourgeoisie and the relentless dissolving energy of bourgeois rationality:

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. 7

As Marx's analyses of modernity suggest, the smooth functioning of the market depends upon an uprooting of historical "ossification" or tradition, and the conversion of objects and subjects—commodities, free market individuals—into readily exchangeable quantities. For Marx, commodities assumed their auratic, mystical quality precisely because they had erased their history, or repressed the material conditions of their production. As the commodity was cut off from its process of production, so the individual selling his labor on the free market was cut off from the larger social and historical processes of which he was a part. The cultural practices of fashion and journalism at mid-century were thus both responding to, while helping to create [End Page 889] and reinforce, an increasingly mobile, historically uprooted and "commodified" subject. 8

Written from within the heart of the culture industry, roughly between 1874 and 1894, Mallarmé's fashion chronicles and his essays on the contemporary press contain a brilliant analysis of the modern shape taken by subjectivity and its tendency to suppress historical understanding. In...


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