Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Nature of Modernism

There is a certain uncertainty about the nature of the concept of modernism: the dominant literary mode of 'Twentieth Century British Literature to 194. We have explored its nature as the course has progressed, but you may additionally want to read this engagement with the issue of modernism & personal identity, especially important in Woolf and Madox Ford, from a Marxist angle: especially the key passage quoted here.

Modernism is a term used to lump together an enormous body of artistic work in all forms--poetry, cinema, painting, architecture--that was produced roughly between the 1890s and the mid 20th century. General definitions are difficult, but modernist work tends to be formally experimental and highly self conscious--think of the Cubist paintings of Picasso or the 'flow of consciousness' of James Joyce's novels. Gareth Jenkins is right to emphasise dislocation and fragmentation as characteristics of modernism. The 'high period' of modernism from 1900-1930 was of course a time of unmatched upheaval, in which the promises of the bourgeois revolution were finally shattered by war, slump and workers' revolt. The accelerating development of technology and the penetration of mass production techniques into every sphere of life added to a deep sense of uncertainty. In Perry Anderson's words, 'European modernism in the first years of this century thus flowered in the space between a still usable classical past, a still indeterminate technical present and a still unpredictable political future'.

It has been very tempting for Marxist criticism to glorify modernism given its origin in such a period of upheaval, and its--at least formal--rejection of the past. After the Russian Revolution the intellectuals of Proletkult argued for a rejection of all previous culture, claiming that modernist techniques were the basis for a brave new working class art. Such a simple minded response misses the contradictory nature of all modernism. Gareth is right to point out that modernist work often appears as a retreat from society. Its emphasis on dislocation and alienation could open the way to a kind of rampant subjectivity. His criticism of Virginia Woolf, for example, is telling: 'one cannot escape the feeling, beneath the richness of language, of artistic impoverishment which follows from impoverished grasp of social reality'.

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