Department of Theatre and Film
Old Is the New New: Paradox and Duality in the Modernist Project
Darin Kerr is a doctoral student in the Department of Theatre and Film at Bowling Green State University. His research interests include queer theory, (sub)cultural histories, and the performance of gender. He is currently working on a study of the impact of dandyism on contemporary performances of masculinity. His essay, "'A Whole Hundred Years of Questionable Behavior': Wainwright/Garland/Jolson and Performance as Palimpsest" was recently published in The Theatre Annual.
The academic grudge match over the relative modernity or postmodernity of our own era (or, to put it another way, the relative modernism or postmodernism, though I’m already getting ahead of myself) has now gone on for so long that one could only charitably describe the debate as a “modern” one. This very same continued wrangling of scholars and critics over the nature of all things (post)modern, however, demonstrates the need for a continued reassessment of the terms of argument surrounding periodization and style in the study of culture. Though recent works have done much to trouble the master narrative of modernism, further interdisciplinary studies of the kind I briefly outline in this essay are needed in order to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between modernism and postmodernism as one perhaps characterized more productively through a thorough reckoning with its uneasy continuities than through the facile recognition of its (apparent) ruptures.
Cultural critics Antoine Compagnon and Peter Wollen both interrogate the received history of modernism by positing paradox as the dynamo powering its dualistic heart. In The 5 Paradoxes of Modernity, Compagnon characterizes the “modern tradition” as one “made up wholly of unresolved contradictions” (xvii). For him, these contradictions illustrate moments of crisis in the trajectory of the modernist project, moments in which modernism struggles against itself, struggles against the transformation into that which it so vehemently opposed (and perhaps, depending on the moment at which one positions the end of modernism, continues to oppose), the calcifying forces of tradition. Wollen reveals the simultaneously narcissistic and anxious self-image of modernism “as the culmination of the long history of Western culture” (205). He carefully notes, however, the elements of modernism (Orientalism, surrealism, etc.) which, not fully assimilable, tell a story that diverges from the master narrative promulgating modernism as a kind of singular, near-unilateral enterprise. Rather, Wollen argues for modernism as a set of binary relationships that structure the discourse surrounding the historical moment(s) in question: “functional/decorative, useful/wasteful, natural/artificial, machine/body, masculine/feminine, West/East” (29). As such, Wollen articulates his project, the charting of an alternative history for modernism, as a kind of deconstruction, an examination of the historical narrative that begins, not from the point of view of those who dominate the extant histories, but “from the side of the negative, the Other, the supplementary—the decorative, the wasteful, the hedonistic . . . the feminine, the Orient” (29). Both critics use paradox and binary structure as the starting points for their attempts to reconcile the contradictions of modernity and postmodernity.
In his explication of (perhaps) the central paradox of modernism, the relationship of tradition to that which we call “modern,” Compagnon argues that “[w]hat is traditional has long stood in contrast to what is modern, not to mention modernity or modernism: the modern broke from tradition and tradition resisted modernization” (xiii). By constructing this binary relationship, Compagnon establishes the primacy of the temporal in conceptions of modernity, a primacy fully illustrated in the shift in usage (from spatial to temporal metaphor) undergone by the term avant-garde, a shift possibly indicating an alteration in perception engendered through the cultural changes enabled by the technological advances most fully typified in industrialization. This paradigm shift resulted in the cultural valorization of the new, of novelty, a process that ultimately portends a self-immolating constant recycling of cultural tropes in the service of a cult of the new/now. Compagnon frames this paradox as a question: “how much authentic value can the new retain amid the modern idolatry that surrounds it, forcing it to renew itself without end, other than what Nietzsche, who attacked modernity as decadence, called the eternal return, that is, the return of the same thing with a new name—fashion or kitsch” (xv)? The question of value lands Compagnon squarely in the field of aesthetics, yet he carefully resists denigrating the new as a force unequal to the lofty demands of tradition, instead choosing to retain for the new a complexity in keeping with the divergent manners in which different theorists and critics have variously viewed it. If, however, one can legitimately characterize the new as merely another example of Nietzsche’s eternal return, Compagnon’s question gets at the heart of strategies typically associated with the postmodern, a historicized category to which Compagnon finds himself, unlike many other critics, unwilling to grant quite the same authority as a radical break from the modern. He does recognize a variance in strategies between what critics describe variously as modern or postmodern: “Quotation, which paves the way for parody and the like, often serves as a litmus test for the postmodern. Wherever there is quotation, the reader can expect the postmodern, as opposed to the modernist utopia of the tabula rasa” (ix). Here, Compagnon evokes the new in the distinction he draws between modern and postmodern; the modern purports to value the new in a seemingly unmediated fashion, while the postmodern repurposes or reconfigures the old to achieve the appearance or “prestige” of the new.
Much of the difficulty here, of course, revolves around radically different notions of precisely what constitutes the modern. Compagnon notes the discontinuities between German and French conceptions of modernity, for instance, explicating these differences in philosophical, aesthetic, and historical terms:
In German, as Jürgen Habermas insists, modern is inseparable from reason and Enlightenment; breaking away from the modern is therefore identified with obscurantism and neoconservatism, examples of which Habermas finds in French poststructuralism. In France, however, where Baudelaire and Nietzsche are the most prominent moderns, modernity includes nihilism and a distrust of history and progress. This modernity reacts against modernization and is mainly artistic; it is positive only from an aesthetic point of view, whereas the modern project, according to Habermas, is philosophically and historically redemptive. (x)
For Compagnon, Baudelairean modernity stands as the primary exemplar of coherence in meaning between the terms modern and postmodern, rather than serving as the illustration of a rupture. Baudelaire acknowledges the contradictory impulses of modernity, implicitly evoking in the modern condition the specter of its own death, postmodernity. As Compagnon notes, “Modernity, willingly adopts a provocative manner, but its flip side is desperation” (3). He recognizes the temptation to posit a history based on only one side of the proverbial coin, to assimilate (read: annihilate) difference in the service of a rhetoric of “overcoming.”
This very history of “overcoming” (or, at least, attempting to overcome) forms a significant portion of Peter Wollen’s argument regarding modernism. Wollen attends to the overlooked, obverse side of the modernist project in an attempt to illustrate the complexities of aesthetic representation. He demonstrates the lengths to which critics such as Clement Greenberg have gone to suppress this alternative view of modernist aesthetics, citing Greenberg’s view of painting that attempted to reconcile (again, one might read: annihilate) the seeming contradiction between the functional and the decorative: “No longer should ‘mere’ decoration be applied to ‘mere’ canvas, but a painting should be the fused and transcendent unity of the two. Thus decorativeness could be justified in the name of higher values, to demonstrate – as he wrote of Matisse – ‘how the flesh too is capable of virtue and purity’” (16). Here, Wollen intimates that what Greenberg argues as transcendence might more appropriately go by the name of subordination, the reference to “justification” suggesting the implicit hierarchical structuring of the binary relationship in question. Such a hierarchy might, for some theorists, such as Adolf Loos or Thorstein Veblen, suggest the final liberation of the bourgeoisie from the stranglehold of the aristocracy, the validation of bourgeois values, but history demonstrates such liberation as necessarily somewhat short-lived. Though modernism did indeed reign as king of the aesthetic hill for a time, and “[u]tility, function, fitness and the machine superseded ornament, luxury and erotic display” (21), eventually the pendulum swung in the other direction, and the decorative regained the power and influence that, according to traditional narratives, it had lost when modernism achieved ascendance. Wollen makes clear, however, that, like a spot on an x-ray, “the decorative and the extravagant . . . [were] modernism’s symptomatic shadow[s] from the very beginning” (29). Inextricably bound, the two ideas play out in conjunction with one another simultaneously, rather than strictly in succession, troubling the linear chronological timeline that has often served as the basis for reductive explanations of the relationship between modernism and postmodernism.
For both theorists, then, the structures which bind modernism into an apprehensible object render themselves visible through binary, dualistic relationships characterized by paradox, by unresolved contradiction. Unfortunately, this tenuous reconciliation suffers under the scrutiny of some historians and theorists, who seem content either to ignore or forget the lessons of poststructuralism, too often representing these relationships as hierarchical. As a result, such critics obfuscate the role of those elements marked as subordinate, if indeed the “subordinate” element gains recognition at all. For Wollen and Compagnon, however, the project of reckoning with the legacy of modernity explicitly consists of wrestling also with its shadow(s), of giving full voice to those whose utterances appear to chip away at the narrative edifice which modernist practice, in conjunction with critical and academic analysis of that practice, has constructed around itself.
Compagnon, Antoine. The 5 Paradoxes of Modernity. Trans. Franklin Philip. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. Trans. of Le Cinq Paradoxes de la Modernité. 1990.
Wollen, Peter. Raiding the Icebox: Reflections on Twentieth-Century Culture. 1993. London: Verso, 2008.