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Modernism/Modernity 8.3 (2001) 389-403

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Appreciation, Depreciation: Modernism's Speculative Bubble

Jennifer Wicke

What follows is a position paper, although it contains a number of modernist specimen cases upon which, as if they were park benches, it comes momentarily to rest. In the early pages of Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, itself a modernist test case of sorts, Wittgenstein proposes a language game consisting of a single word--"slab"--shouted out as bricklayers build a foundation and a house of language. 1 Think of this essay as akin to the slab game, a somewhat deliberately crude attempt to set up a way of talking about the larger foundation of our enterprise as critics of modernism and modernity, instead of an elegant perambulation within modernist textual spaces. Skirting the perimeter of modernism's walls, my polemic addresses the critical superstructure surrounding modernism's revival, probing its brickwork and sounding its slabs. These slabs, serving as the park benches I invoked above, are different in kind; one is a material conceit coming from the ground literally, while the second offers a critical concept taken from Ernst Bloch as a metonymic bench. Interspersed are leaves drawn from several modernist artifacts, while the entire essay rests on economic metaphors from speculative finance. Bubbles and slabs are antithetical, yet both can refer to critical discourse, in the first case as a speculative investment in value, in the second (slabs) as an antifoundationalist foundation for critical practice.

I'll trace out a conceit through much of the argument, borrowing an analogy from another cultural arena also subject to speculative bubbles. "I speak," to cite Miss Prism in TheImportance of Being Earnest, "horticulturally." Consider the following remark, on its face yet another frenzied, fin-de-siƩcle denunciation [End Page 389] of alterity: "It is impossible to deny that the blending of foreign blood has seriously impaired the value of the pure strains. Many of the continental sorts lack cleanliness and when they crop up amongst their purer sisters their appearance at once betrays them." We imagine we know the discourse of empire, with its binaries of contamination and purity, self and other, so well we could gloss this in our sleep. Yet the excoriation of sordid miscegenation with pure native stock emerges not from imperial apologetics, nor from the popular press, but from a troubled report put out by the beleaguered British tulip growers association, circa 1900. The once majestic Royal National Tulip Society, representing the aesthetic and taxonomic elite of the tulip industry, a society which was down to two members when it tried to confer its varietal prizes in 1926, makes an eerie parallel to the fates and fortunes of the modernist critical industry. 2 The Royal National Tulip Society--which waned altogether in 1936--had been the arbiter of excellence in all things tulip for centuries, at the forefront of aesthetic and horticultural innovation in the United Kingdom; and had an eclectic membership made up of hobbyists, botanists, aristocratic gardeners, and garden-variety tulip fanciers (TT, 247). The creations of the Society, given the name "English Florist's tulips," sprang up as one-of-a-kind marvels in country estate gardens as well as in humble plots cultivated by the side of the railways. Again for centuries, English Florist's tulips were judged semiannually in well-attended meetings held by convention in public houses. There individual tulips, among them the feathered Bizarre, "George Hayward," the soft, yellow "Mrs. Moon," the resplendent "Bronze King," and the Bybloemen tulip, "Princess Charlotte's Cenotaph," went head-to-head for prizes and approbation, their decapitated petaled tresses uniformly inserted into three-inch-tall brown beer bottles.

What had interfered with this long reign of horticultural glory, not to say purity? In a sense mass culture was the villain, the same foe slinking down the pike and gunning for modern(ist) literature and the arts, at least in commonly-held versions of modernism. The first insidious notion capable of shaking the foundation of the Royal National Tulip Society's authority came, not surprisingly, from the United States, that bastion of...