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More than a hint of desperation – historicizing modernism: Response to C. D. Blanton


Dan Blanton stages a fascinating argument about the temporality of modernism that reads modernist cultural practice in and through the dominant paradigms of literary and artistic critical practice in the second half of the twentieth century. He is thus engaging in a double sense with modernism as both a movement and a moment that exists through the particular discursive regimes that attempt to understand and to some extent to master it. One might perhaps wish to signal a certain unease about the geographical confines of this modernism, and its too comfortable placing within a specific and partial tradition. But that would, I think, be to mistake both what is valuable and what is problematic about Blanton’s overall argument. He is engaged precisely in a struggle with the tradition that provides his own critical and theoretical categories, and that is what generates much of the force of his argument. But he is also hoping to find within the oppositions, conflicts and resistances of his chosen texts not simply ‘the capacity to reflect [their] own enabling conditions’ (p. 137) but also a capacity for historical critique. Blanton’s approach is dialectical in the formal sense that it proceeds through

setting in play oppositions that generate a third term or concept, which is then seen to be inadequate or incomplete. From the beginning, for example, the analysis of Greenberg’s opposition between kitsch and the avant-garde, also described as an opposition between high and mass culture, sets the tone of Blanton’s argument. The opposition is not real in the sense that neither term sustains what is asked of it by Greenberg. Rather, the resistance, the theoretical and historical friction, generated by this separation, is what Blanton finds most productive in Greenberg’s work. The opposition, its non-sustainability, the resistance it enables or at least articulates, are all aspects of what Blanton values in Greenberg’s thinking. Greenberg is simply the first in a line of critics and theorists who fascinate Blanton because they try to articulate a cultural practice that might, in advanced capitalism, preclude unmediated reincorporation under a regime of consumption. Of course, they fail. Blanton lays out the apparently inflexible trajectory of Greenberg’s position,

which leads him ultimately to be caught by ‘the simple question that is never quite answered … of course, of what happens next’ (p. 138). Greenberg is driven into posing what can only ever be an imaginary, or formalist, understanding of the

possibilities of critical or historical resistance. It is here, Blanton argues, that ‘Greenberg’s argument notoriously verges into difficulty’ (p. 140): forcing modernism into a tortuously attenuated “imitation of imitation”, then modernist art itself threatens to lapse into … a secondary phenomenon’ (p. 140), this ‘odd unity of discrepant times’ (p. 140) allows Blanton to formulate modernism as contradiction, but also generates for Greenberg, and for Blanton, more than a hint of desperation in the continuing attempt to answer ‘the simple question that is never quite answered’ (p. 138). Despite this logic of desperation, Blanton endorses much of Greenberg’s pro-

ject, deeming that in spite of himself Greenberg laid out the productive tensions within any materialist account of modernism. Greenberg, Blanton argues, could not solve the complexity of the relationships and practices he identified, and even veered increasingly away from the true logic that underpinned them. But this veering away was the condition of possibility, Blanton argues, for the belatedly modernist enterprise of theory. ‘Theory’ here becomes the new terrain on which the desire for a productively

historical critique is played out. It represents the possibility of an immanent critique within the ideology of modernism. Blanton also, through a particular reading of Jameson, proposes that the defining feature of ‘theory’ is its disjuncture from philosophy: theory is able to articulate what philosophy has occluded, which is the understanding that thought is material and generated through and in the linguistic medium of its expression. Blanton is not arguing that theory is simply a tool that will allow us better to

capture the unfolding logic of modernist cultural practice. Blanton’s claim for and of theory seems to me to be much stronger than this. It is, he argues, rather the case that the emergence of modernism must also be understood as the beginning of ‘theory’: modernism is thus an inherently theoretical cultural mode. Blanton’s own theoretical frame for this argument is familiar, ranging from Paul de Man, Louis Althusser and Immanuel Kant to Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy. The names are shorthand for complex theoretical work, whose significance and relevance to Blanton’s overall argument are not in any doubt. But is it really possible to range these voices so confidently along the front of

‘theory’, particularly when theory is seen as something so distinct from philosophy? Here, I think, Blanton demonstrates something of his own hint of desperation to articulate a distinct space of sustainable cultural knowledge and critique. How would his argument be different if we were to insist that this tradition he is invoking is in fact one of philosophy? Continental philosophy certainly, but Kant, Althusser, and indeed Marx to whom he also refers frequently and effectively certainly have a claim to be read most coherently as part of a philosophical tradition with a much longer historical trajectory than the one Blanton offers for theory. ‘Theory’ risks in this analysis becoming an ideological rather than a historical

category. Blanton seems to need the rupture between theory and philosophy to underpin the logic of his argument: but is it really either defensible or sustainable? When did we begin to think in terms of ‘theory’ as a distinct practice? And

how did it come to be articulated as something distinct from, and even beyond, philosophical inquiry? The notion of such a definitive rupture certainly appears in a text such as Tel Quel’s Théorie d’ensemble (1968) and then seems to gather momentum in the diffuse Althusserianism of the 1970s. By the 1980s it had become the space in which a range of fundamental arguments about culture, history, politics, and the academy were played out. ‘Theory’ in that sense matters, and is certainly worth defending as a form of cultural and critical practice that was capable of disruption as well as insight. But theory as a mode of inquiry that has left the domain of philosophy and

entered into a uniquely productive relationship with modernism seems to me to be a much more problematic category. It is really only in the Anglo-American tradition that we have made this cultural practice so concrete and embedded it in curricula and in texts. Maybe that does not matter for Blanton’s argument, as this is the very cultural space he is seeking to understand. But I am still uneasy with the extent to which this rupture is rhetorically invoked, when I am not sure that it can be either theoretically or philosophically maintained. Across Blanton’s chapter a fascinating set of dialectical oppositions are teased

out, worked through and then ultimately displaced, leaving a sense of the potential and the frustrations of the ‘uneven development’ with which his argument began. These oppositions begin with the invocation of moments of rupture, which are the energetic and historical cause of the complex historical unfolding of modernism in Blanton’s analysis. As I have suggested above, the epistemological and historical contours of some

of these ruptures need fuller exposition if we are not to find ourselves driven by the desperation that underpins our desire for sustainable critique onto what is in the end just another twist in the tail of the logic of reproduction. But there is also more than one way to read a rupture, which takes me finally to the ‘Eliotic provocation’ to which Blanton refers so tantalizingly. Invoking Eliot reminds us sharply that rupture can be experienced, or theorized, as loss, rather than as the possibility of knowledge or of a genuinely critical practice as Blanton prefers. When Eliot conjured up the notion of a ‘dissociation of sensibility’ in his 1921 essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’, he was naming a rupture that had produced in his view a kind of cultural and historical slackening. As Eliot put it in this essay, ‘a dissociation of sensibility set in from which we have never recovered’ (Eliot 1975: 64). If, as Blanton concludes, modernism ‘names the arts in a state of ruptural unity’ how can we be sure whether this rupture signals the movement of a dialectical logic or the stasis and cultural pessimisms of the Eliotic loss?