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Reviewed by:
  • The Concept of Modernism
  • David McWhirter
Astradur Eysteinsson . The Concept of Modernism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990. 265 pp. $29.95.

For a decade or more, debate about modernism has been effectively stalled amid reductive assumptions about the reactionary "politics" of the modernist aesthetic. Astradur Eysteinsson's lucid, widely-informed study is an impressive attempt to "disentangle modern literature from the salient forms of its 'institutionalization'"; as such it should provide a much-needed jumpstart for modernist studies, as well some solid theoretical grounding for anyone interested in rethinking the question of modernism's ideological implications.

As its title suggests, The Concept of Modernism is less literary history than a survey of "what modernism has been made to signify" by critical perspectives ranging from Marxist to formalist, New Historicist to New Critical. After an initial chapter that defines the paradigms (and contradictions) inherent in earlier theories (Eliot, Lukács, Adorno, Trilling, Shklovsky), Eysteinsson explores some key discursive contexts—contemporary debates about literary history and the canon; formulations of postmodernism; and theories of the avant-garde—that continue to shape conceptualizations of modernism. His final chapter draws on a rich constellation [End Page 534] of theorists—Kristeva, Habermas, Benjamin, Jameson, and especially the Adorno of Aesthetic Theory —in order to propose his own reconceptualization of modernism as an historically specific "interruption" of realism, which Eysteinsson views as the dominant aesthetic of bourgeois-capitalist culture.

Eysteinsson shows how concepts of modernism, for all their variety, have consistently reproduced a paradoxical dichotomy: often experienced by readers as an "historically explosive," disruptive "cultural force," modernism is nevertheless typically theorized (sometimes by those very readers) as an autonomous, apolitical, purely "aesthetic project." Pointing out that nothing obliges us to assume that formalist notions of poetic autonomy constitute, as is often assumed, "modernist criticism," Eysteinsson offers a subtle, balanced reading of modernism's formalideological nexus, one that rejects the New Criticism's "rigid separation of 'literary' expression from social discourse" while also resisting the seductions of simplistic formulae (Jameson's analogy between modernism and fascism; Gilbert and Gubar's "insistence on a gender-bound dichotomy of textual qualities") that obscure the complex relationship between form and ideology. For Eysteinsson, as for Adorno, the modernist text's "relative autonomy" facilitates social critique by placing us at a distance from society, by refusing to participate in its normative "communicative network."

Eysteinsson is surely right to emphasize modernism's historical specificity as a post or counter realistic discourse. Yet in his frankly acknowledged "wish" to retrieve modernism's radical potential as a "mode of cultural resistance," he runs the risk of reducing realism to a monological (and implicitly conservative) phenomenon—the very thing he accuses theorists of the postmodern and the avantgarde of doing to modernism. Given the ambitious scope of his project, moreover, it is perhaps inevitable that specific "moves" in Eysteinsson's argument will strike individual readers as problematical. It is by no means evident, for example, that No Man's Land can adequately represent the feminist critique of modernism. I am also struck by the absence of any discussion of Ellmann and Feidelson's The Modern Tradition, arguably the most influential "institution" of modernist studies for a whole generation of American students and scholars.

Nevertheless, Eysteinsson's analyses of the texts he does engage are consistently challenging and incisive. The Concept of Modernism, especially in its recognition of the need for a more subtle analysis of how "aesthetically elaborated form (as form) become[s] the vehicle of a specific ideology," is an important critical intervention, one that should provide a valuable stimulus to the emerging reconsideration of modernism. [End Page 535]

David McWhirter
Texas A&M University


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pp. 534-535
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