6 Pages

Disdained everyday fields: Response to Thomas S. Davis


If a family resemblance exists across works of visual and literary modernism, across some forms of vernacular culture and modern theory (including various forms of philosophy, anthropology, psychoanalysis, and so on), then what propensities would we need to stress, what personality traits would we have to emphasize, to make this resemblance evident? Focusing on political positions, social themes, and cultural values, will take us reeling back into the unmanageable world of ceaseless heterogeneity. More productively, a case could be made for a shared set of technical and procedural resources; devices for attending to the modern world. I suggest that modern theory shares with modernist literature and art a set of

procedures or proclivities that could be roughly described under three overlapping headings. First, the modernist (historian, artist, philosopher, etc.) has to find a field and form of attention, an orientation towards the world often aimed at what has hitherto been deemed unworthy of serious attention. Chance encounters, daily life, routines, lowly environments, commercial entertainments, mistakes, and so on, while not constituting new ingredients for works either of theory or of fiction, take on an intensified status for many modernists. This might include what Siegfried Giedion, the historian of modern architecture and technological forms, described as ‘disdained everyday fields’ (Giedion 1995: 85). Giedion was attentive to ‘grey buildings’, to ‘humble things, things not usually granted earnest consideration’ (Giedion 1995: 85) for his accounts of technological and aesthetic modernism. This included sheds and factories, domestic appliances and ordinary technologies (such as plumbing), items that would pepper the paintings of people like Francis Picabia, the sculptures and prints of Eduardo Paolozzi, and the photographic archives produced by Hilla and Bernd Becher. Similarly, when T. J. Clark suggests that modern art is often marked by ‘a taste for the margins and vestiges of social life; a wish to celebrate the ‘insignificant’ or disreputable in modernity’ (Clark 1985: 55), he might just as well have been talking about Walter Benjamin as about Charles Baudelaire, or about Georges Bataille as much as Eduard Manet.1