- Modernism’s News
Literature is news that stays news.
Fashion is the eternal recurrence of the new.
Why does literary modernism, by so many accounts, fail to be modern? According to Paul de Man in his well-known essay “Literary History and Literary Modernity,” the “authentic spirit of modernity” attempted a Nietzschean forgetting of the past in order to blast its way into novelty, only to flicker out in the medium of history and fashion. That spirit immediately saw its creation of the original and new fade from “an incandescent point in time into a reproducible cliché” (1983a, 147). In a now standard story about modernism, as soon as the “uniquely shaped flames of the fire” had been washed out by the flow of time, this spirit turned in reaction either toward the past or inward on itself. However, the paradox of this story, whereby making it new produces mere repetition, seems to be generated by the very form of time that many modernists resisted. Indeed, this resistance could be said to lie at the very heart of modernism’s so-called “time obsession.”1
Recall the usual characterizations of modernism’s modernity—as a reactionary turn to a mythical past, a withdrawal from history to spatial form, an imagistic arrest of the instant, a narrative ordering of flux, or a celebration of perpetual change. In all these formulations, we see the new swallowed up or suspended. The possibility of the modern falls into the aporia generated by familiar tensions—continuity and rupture, movement and stasis, vitalism and mechanism, subject and object. My aim in this essay is to ask how [End Page 153] the modern of modernism might be seen as something other than a foundering on the contradictions to which we have condemned it. How might we characterize the modernist present if we were to suppose that it engaged but did not go down in the serial rapids of the deterministic or the aleatory, or in the subjective streams of consciousness, or that it steered clear of the stasis of idealism’s absolutes and realism’s “slices of life”?
In order to begin to rethink the aporetic modernism that results from an unremitting objective time, I will return to de Man to show how an objective temporal grammar underwrites the tension between, on the one hand, the mirage of a specious present that reflects the mystification of the symbol, and on the other, the interminable time of allegory that remains once the illusion disappears. To illustrate how the empiricist version of time generates the impossibility of the modern, I will then turn to a recent collection of essays, Time and the Literary, edited by Jay Clayton, Marianne Hirsch, and Karen Newman, who place de Man’s “Literary History and Literary Modernity” at the center of their investigation of the literary mediation of the temporal. Corroborating de Man’s definition of modernity as punctual and self-coincident, the editors of this collection also point out that the very category of the literary as a form of agency—that is, as the ability to use the textual structuring of durations to enable critique and re-readings—depends on a freezing of the temporal point, followed by its extension and internal articulation to create the distance necessary for critique. However, the question remains as to how the temporality of reading and re-reading can itself be reconciled with the time in which it acts, highlighting the very irony de Man’s framework produces, as well as the stakes involved in moving beyond ironic deconstructions of presence.
Because the objective structure of time is at the heart of the problem of modernism’s modernity, I will examine briefly Bertrand Russell’s scientific treatment of time, change, and duration. His theorization of time as real only to logic—and paradoxical to experience—clarifies the fact that the aporia of this temporal grammar is dissipated only at the cost of the intelligibility of change, novelty, and freedom. Bergson’s thought is typically construed in opposition to Russell’s mathematicization of time, but his vitalism could not sustain a modernism trying to get...