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Modernism and the moment of defeat: Response to Andrew John Miller

BySCOTT MCCRACKEN

To encounter modernist studies today can be compared with the experience of walking into the 2006 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, ‘Modernism: Designing a New World’. The visitor stepped off the street into a modernist utopia, where everything from the art on the wall to the Bauhaus fitted kitchen sink belied the reality of the interwar period, when modernist forms were a minority taste, even when they did seep gradually, from the end of the 1920s, into everyday life as book covers or posters on the underground. The last twenty years have seen a comparable spectacle in modernist scholarship: the growth of the Modernist Studies Association; the establishment of its journal, Modernism/Modernity; and countless titles with the words, modern, modernism or modernity in their titles. Such spaces, aesthetic and scholarly, have always been part of the appeal of

different modernisms. To bring them together in one space, at the MSA or the V&A, is partly to fulfil their dream, but it is also to lose some of the critical distance required to achieve an historical understanding. Just as the V&A offered a partial picture, contemporary modernist studies can be accused of a certain narrowness. Its examples are too often drawn from Anglo-American literature. There is too little work on the visual arts or music and little to remind us of the widespread scepticism modernist forms provoked in the twentieth century. Modernist studies differs markedly from its more staid and cautious cousin, Victorian studies, which has, over a somewhat longer period, consolidated a productive interdisciplinarity, where text and image, literary and historical and even economic studies co-exist. History and theory are in constant dialogue in Victorian studies. In modernist studies, the conversation falters. Andrew Miller suggests that the problem lies in theory: that the turn to the

archive is the sign of a retreat from the big epistemological questions, which have been replaced with dense descriptions of the relics of the past. I would argue that the real problem is not one of methodology. It is to be found in history itself. The nineteenth century, while far from over in its effects, can at least be contemplated from a distance. The twentieth century has barely ended; its historiography remains in doubt, without the comfortable markers and boundaries of earlier periods. No wonder then that modernism was relatively untouched by the playfulness of new historicism (when new historicism was new), there were few

or no historical verities to play with. Even Eric Hobsbawm’s magnificent The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, likely to remain the benchmark for all future attempts to chart the century’s contours, covers only 1914-91. The unfinished twentieth century means an unfinished relationship with

modernism. Contra Miller, then, I contend that the most urgent theoretical issue for modernist studies today is the historiography of the twentieth century, a problem that is as much political as it is theoretical or historical. For while many of the theoretical currents of the last century, like modernism itself, had their genesis in revolution, the current situation for the Left is, as Perry Anderson has commented, in his editorial to the relaunched New Left Review, one of defeat. As Anderson points out, despite all the socialist experiments of the twentieth century, capitalism is rampant and there appear to be no checks on the rise of global inequalities in wealth. As a consequence, the scholars are working within (although often also weakly against) historical narratives imposed by the consequences of that defeat. The de Man controversy is significant, not because of what it might or might not tell us about poststructuralism, as Miller maintains, but because it reveals the battles of the twentieth century that have not yet been laid to rest. The dominant narrative now is neo-conservative and it is likely to remain so for some time, despite that position’s current setbacks, because of the lack of a popular Left alternative. A version of Fukuyama’s, now recanted, ‘end of history’, the neo-conservative version of the twentieth century does not argue so much that the triumph of the market and capitalist democracy were inevitable, but that it represents the victory of good over a series of evils by men and women, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and George W. Bush, who were prepared to stand up to Nazism, the Soviet Union and ‘Islamic Fascism’ respectively. The twentieth century is flattened out, its diverse ideologies are judged as ‘with us’ or ‘against us’, a process that suggests two possible responses. The first is to say: ‘Well, it’s complicated … ’ Complexity has, in fact, been a

stock response of the Left to its own narratives of triumphalism and progress. Walter Benjamin critiqued the social democratic version of progress in ‘On the Concept of History’; and it was crude, one-dimensional versions of Leninism that were the target of the new social movements that formed around issues of gender, sexuality and race after 1968. Where complexity has threatened to harden into essentialized identities, so that history once again flattens out into being for or against a transcendent structure, the academy has insisted on yet more complexity. Indeed, getting more complicated became, at the high point of theory, the only way to score academic points. It’s a strategy that has paid dividends, but has also had costs. It is questionable how far its benefits can be turned to advantage in the current conjuncture. The alternative is Anderson’s position, that: ‘The only starting-point for a

realistic Left today is a lucid registration of historical defeat. Capital has comprehensively beaten back all threats to its rule, the bases of whose power … were persistently underestimated by the socialist movement’ (Anderson 2000). The historical perspective his position affords is set out in a series of comparisons

between the end of the century and the political circumstances in which New Left Review was (re)started in the early 1960s. Anderson differs from most commentators in that his recognition of defeat does not cause him to dismiss the alternatives to capitalism the twentieth century presented. If not always palatable, they were at least, like the Soviet Union, ‘dynamic’ realities. His arguments have been taken up by a few,1 but have had little resonance in the new modernist studies. In the 1980s, Anderson argued for the ‘proximity of social revolution’ as a defining condition for the emergence of modernism. For him, 1917 was the splash and modernism one of its ripples. Neither the October revolution nor its defeat register now. But registering defeat need not be defeatist. Thinking through the concept of

defeat, learning its lessons, can be productive. First, because registering defeat acknowledges that there has been a conflict; and if there was a conflict then there were alternative outcomes. History’s victors write out not just their victims, but also the possible futures they represented. Those futures do not disappear. Second, because to register a conflict is to question today’s widespread historicopolitical amnesia. Such amnesia is nothing new. Earlier periods of quiescence have experienced it. In 1868, when, for almost two decades European radicals had been subdued, Marx wrote of Eugène Ténot’s study of the coup d’état of 1851 (Paris en décembre 1851, étude historique sur le coup d’état):

The enormous sensation created by the book in Paris, and in France as a whole proves a very interesting FACT namely that the generation that has grown up under Badinguet [Napoleon III] knew nothing at all about the history of the regime under which it is living.