If, Literature, Politics

Modernism and the Finite Territory of the Avant-Garde

Influenza ward, Walter Reed Hospital, Wash., D.C. [Nurse taking patient's pulse]

This post is about the limits of the avant-garde, and the possibility that the formal possibilities within any art-form are finite.

But first: I recently learned that within the hopeless market for literature professors, the situation is even more dire for aspiring professors who specialize in Modernism — my favorite period in English literature, the period stretching from writers like Conrad, James, and Yeats through writers like Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, Stevens, Pound, and too many others to list: Williams, cummings, Moore, Faulkner…

Apparently there are few or no openings for teachers of Modernism in the entire United States in an average year. A search of the MLA Job Information List seems to confirm this picture, although there are a few positions that include Modernism within a broader job description.

I find this particularly sad, because I’ve always felt that Modernism was the last period in Anglophone literature that succeeded in doing something new and great — the last period that can plausibly claim to stand beside the accomplishments of earlier revolutionary literary moments like Romanticism. As the modernist scholar Marjorie Perloff mentioned in a conversation on Robert Harrison’s Entitled Opinions a few years ago, her students have been attracted to Ezra Pound’s work, despite his promotion of fascism, his embraces of historical, economic, and linguistic crankery, and his voluminously unsatisfying literary experiments, because he at least made a case for poetry mattering — and mattering greatly — and he wrote poetry that attempted to fulfill his grandiose demands.

Growing up in a period when poetry for the most part felt lifeless and faux-antiquarian, Pound rethought how poetry can work from the ground up — using the framework of melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia — worked through countless formal innovations in his own poetry, played a role in launching the careers of other Modernists like Eliot and Joyce, and went on to attempt a monumental “poem containing history,” The Cantos, which, even if it inevitably failed to satisfy his impossible vision, contains some of the most beautiful, powerful, and heartbreaking passages of poetry in the English language — for me at least. The failed ambition itself supplies some of the pathos, especially in the final fragments.

(It is probably no coincidence that the best and most thrilling and memorable work of literary criticism I have ever read, Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, is also concerned with Modernism. It offers a survey of what made Modernism revolutionary, with Pound at the center of the vortex.)

When the literature of the intervening century is compared to the work of the Modernists, it is hard not to feel a sense of belatedness, of arriving after the main act has already ended. From the powerful, quasi-Biblical intensity of the images and music in, for example, The Waste Land, we pass to the mostly self-defeating, self-protecting ironies and light finger-exercises of mid-century poets like Auden and Larkin; the dated, small-worlded pleadings of the countless confessional poets from Lowell onward; the shoddily rambling half-experiments of those who came in Pound’s wake — even the best of them, like Olson and Zukovsky; the dead-end conceptual experiments of the “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” school and the “unoriginal geniuses” like Kenneth Goldsmith whose work Perloff has heroically attempted to defend; the trivialities of countless New Yorker-style MFA-industrial poets attempting to capture what it feels like to drink a cup of coffee at an empty kitchen table while listening to NPR after getting divorced; and on and on.

Similar barrages of uncharitability could of course be directed at the English-language literary prose that has followed in the wake of Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner — and, at the outside edge of the chronology, Beckett. There have been writers who have broken relatively new formal ground, especially through the playful but ultimately exhausting games that we can now look back on as “postmodern fiction,” from Barth and Barthelme to Pynchon to Gaddis and Gass. But none of these writers had the sustained moral or intellectual seriousness of the first Modernists. (I’d say the same thing about pretty much all the magical realism I’ve read, including the two Rushdie novels I’ve waded through.) For the most part, formally innovative contemporary literature has tended to mock or otherwise undermine the notion that literature might matter, rather than exemplifying how it might do so. There have also been less formally innovative, largely MFA-industrial, “program era” writers who have produced lasting work by virtue of their novel subject matter or voice, or simply because they have taken a traditional craft to a new perfection, like Alice Munro. But there have been relatively few works that were both formally new and serious in a way that seems likely to endure — maybe Silko’s Ceremony, maybe Cormac McCarthy, maybe some of Toni Morrison or J.M. Coetzee.

(A lengthy digression on teaching English literature: I assume it is now beyond dispute that gender and other culturally shaped aspects of identity can play a powerful role in determining what a reader finds captivating and why. In part as a result, it makes no sense to assume, F.R. Leavis-style, that one’s own idiosyncratic preferences somehow reflect what objectively deserves to be anthologized and taught. But I’m not sure what the best way forward is. How should faculties respond to the apparent fact that many students can be lured into studying literature by promising them a challenging curriculum of very traditional Great Works, while other students may find this canon stiflingly irrelevant or offensive — selected as it was, for the most part, by genocidally racist white men, for genocidally racist white men, from the works of past genocidally racist white men, plus Jane Austen? How much should an individual teacher attempt to cultivate the love of literature by attempting to share her idiosyncratic passions with her students, and how much should she attempt to offer works that her students, to the extent that they have different backgrounds and life experiences, might find more captivating than she does? If nothing else, I would at least argue that questions like these — means-end questions about how to pass along the love of literature to diverse new generations of students, against the background of a literary past characterized by systemic exclusions — deserve more attention in discussions of curriculum design, as opposed to the esoteric projects of ideological critique that are sometimes emphasized.)

In any case, enough time has passed since the height of Modernism to draw certain conclusions. I think I’ve read enough contemporary literature at this point to allow me to reach the tentative judgment that the current moment in literature, at least for someone with my tastes, is a largely disappointing one, similar to the genteel dead zone that preceded Modernism — and, for that matter, the barren neoclassical landscape before Romanticism. Literature does not seem to matter today, and no one seems to be particularly interested in making a case for why it might matter — except, unfortunately, this fascist idiot. The new literature being produced does not seem to be doing anything particularly new or noteworthy, at least formally, and in many ways thematically as well — despite the commendable and ever-growing inclusion of voices from previously marginalized groups. It is hard to think of anything analogous to the kind of ambition and seriousness that writers like Eliot, Pound, and Woolf brought to their work. If today’s celebrated literature is not quite literature produced by robotic algorithm, it is also not literature that demands to be read, especially if one has already read enough poems and novels to have a general sense of what they can offer.

Today is a golden age of scripted television. The late 1960s through the early 1980s were a golden age in film.

There hasn’t been a golden age of poetry or fiction since at least World War II, it seems to me.


This question is my real interest in this post. Assuming that my disappointment with contemporary literature is not simply an artifact of being exposed to Modernism during my teenage years, when everything seems newer and more exciting, the question seems to call out for some explanation: why has Anglophone literature since Modernism become such an unambitious let-down? Why did it take the downward path of Larkin, Lowell, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, rather than somehow moving forward, formally at least, from Eliot, Stevens, and Pound?

A historical explanation might argue that the postwar rise of MFA culture and workshopping destroyed literature through a process of homogenization and enforced blandeur; or that the changing economics of writing, publishing and reviewing made the production of ambitious literature unfeasible; or that the expansion of college education and the rise of popular culture somehow decapitated the cultural preconditions for literary high culture; or that some other institutional, economic, or cultural shift should receive the blame.

But would any of these factors have been sufficient to send Anglophone literature into the shallow ditch where it has muddled along for nearly a century? As noted above, some writers have continued to experiment. The experiments just haven’t worked out as well as they did before.

What I would like to propose in this post is that there may be formal reasons internal to literature that are at least partly responsible for the listless mediocrity that characterizes so much of the contemporary era in Anglophone poetry and fiction.

It might seem possible, at first glance, that there should always be a potential for an avant-garde in any field of art. This is, in fact, part of the ethos of Romanticism, with its embrace of originality and innovation — an embrace reflected in writings like Emerson’s “The American Scholar,” and persisting even in the writings of the Modernists, despite their vocal dislike of the Romantics, in slogans like Pound’s “Make It New.”

Romanticism, or for that matter Emerson’s America, does not invite us to innovate once and then enter a state of perpetual stasis. It demands constant innovation, constant renewal, constant reinvention. In the Romantic or Emersonian imagination, there is never a closing of the frontier. The horizon always opens out to a new horizon, inviting us onward into another new world. As in Thomas Kuhn’s very romantic image of science as a potentially endless series of paradigm shifts, there is always the possibility of a new revolution. There is no final endpoint that the revolutions are heading toward.

But what if this imagination does not reflect the territory that a literary artist actually inhabits? What if the formal territories of poetry and fiction are, in significant respects, finite rather than potentially limitless? What if the formal territory of literature ultimately ends in a boundary, or a wall of uninteresting noise?

There are at least arguably a finite range of formal axes along which poetic or fictional experimentation can take place before we would no longer call the result poetry or fiction. In fiction, there are, to start with, the formal variables studied by narratology: given a story, a teleological sequence of events imagined as existing independently from its embodiment in any particular narrative “discourse,” the writer can choose one or more perspectives, voices for those perspectives, the order in which to present the events, which events to include, how much detail to use, which details to emphasize, whether to provide non-narrative commentary, and so on. The most simple and traditional approaches will be familiar from children’s stories. The text of a children’s book might consist of a third-person omniscient narrator stating the essential facts of the beginning, middle, and end of a story in which a character learns a lesson, a wrongdoer is punished, or someone who is lost finds the way home. Outside of fiction, we tell each other, and ourselves, simple stories like these all the time as we try to make sense of our own lives and worlds.

Modernist fiction experimented with manipulating each variable studied by narratology, along with many others. Joyce, for example, as Kenner describes in The Pound Era, withheld crucial details of the story from the narratives in Dubliners. Unlike what Ian Watt called Conrad’s practice of “delayed decoding,” Joyce often never disclosed what was withheld. In Portrait, Joyce at one point attempts to represent the first-person perspective of a child who barely has words, taking the choice of narrative voice to a kind of extreme — any further and there may be no voice at all, only sounds. In Ulysses, he presents the story in forms that are sometimes not even narratives in any familiar sense, such as the catechism of the “Ithaca” chapter, or that lack any discernible individual perspective — just as Erich Auerbach describes the indistinct perspectives used by Woolf in the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse.

My aim isn’t to provide an exhaustive list of every formal variable that could be manipulated in a fictional narrative and that the Modernists pushed in new directions. The point is that there are various elements that make traditional narratives work in the way we (perhaps based in part on the interpersonal storytelling that surrounds us from birth) expect them to work, from the use of recognizable words and the arrangement of those words into comprehensible sentences, to the presentation of distinct characters with various recognizable traits and motives in distinct settings with various recognizable features, to the way the beginning of a narrative usually presents a kind of problem that the end of the narrative in some sense resolves.

The violation of these deeply ingrained rules can create powerful rhetorical effects. I would argue that the power of modernist literature results in significant part from such violations. For example, we expect the established facts of a story to remain stable once we have grasped them — in other words, we expect there to be a “story” underlying the “discourse” of the narrative. Ford Madox Ford exploits this expectation to dazzling effect by continually revising the basic outlines of the story in The Good Soldier. To take another example, it might be argued that the characteristic ending of the modern short story, from Chekhov through Hemingway to Carver and the latest issue of the New Yorker, relies for its power on a manipulation of our expectation that the end of a story will present a meaningful resolution. The final event in a typical modern short story offers no resolution, so our minds are left with a dissonant sense of meaningfulness, tethered to no particular meaning — giving us the sense that there is something profound just beyond our grasp, even if this sense is in fact the narrative equivalent of an optical illusion.

My next point is that once the main narrative rules are broken, as the Modernists did, they cannot be broken again for the first time. If we take To the Lighthouse or Ulysses as a starting point, and then demand of the avant-garde that it advance by breaking the rules of traditional narrative even more, what kind of effects are possible? Well, the Modernists themselves already explored even further in (notoriously more admired than read) works like Tender Buttons and Finnegans Wake. What next then?

Further experiments have been undertaken in the era stretching from the Second World War to the present — into automatic writing, the algorithmic assembling of found texts, departures from the traditional rules of typography, and so on. In works like The Poetics of Indeterminacy, Perloff makes the best case that I can imagine anyone making for the value of the literary avant-garde after Modernism. Yet I would much rather read her criticism about the works than the works themselves, to the extent that it is even possible to read them. The formal literary experimentation carried out after Modernism has also never attracted the kind of passionate audience that Modernism did, even among college students with their notorious appetites for novelty, intensity, and revolution. It is unclear to me whether anyone, even Perloff, would defend the achievements of the experimental literature after Modernism in a comparison with the aesthetic achievements of Modernism itself.

What I am trying to argue is that it is an illusion to think that the world may eventually catch up with these experiments and appreciate them as it now appreciates the experiments of Modernism. This illusion assumes, I think, that the territory of formal experimentation is limitless, and that traditional forms are nothing more than arbitrary reference points, rather than being functionally defined.

(I once heard someone make an argument along these lines in defense of contemporary avant-garde classical music, aka “New Music.” He claimed that some of Beethoven’s later work was considered difficult and experimental in his time, but the audience eventually caught up. Yet, I note, decade after decade continues to pass without the audience for atonality showing any sign of materializing… We seem happy to listen to atonal compositions in the background of ominous movie scenes, and that’s about it.)

In retrospect, we can now see that Modernism occupied a kind of Goldilocks position between traditional forms and the departure from their conventions. I find it strange to be making this argument, because it runs against the grain of my general historicism. I’m basically suggesting that ever since the development of the most basic structures of each art-form, from ballet to portraiture to lyric poetry to narrative fiction, there existed the formal possibility of occupying the space that the Modernists wound up occupying. But the Modernists — and their immediate nineteenth-century precursors (for example, in literature the French symbolistes), and various eccentrics before even them (for example, Laurence Sterne) — were the first to systematically explore this territory. Their explorations were one-time events within each art-form. After the Modernists planted their flags in the most fruitful space between tradition and the deliberation violation of its rules, any further exploration was more or less doomed to be less successful.

I’m assuming, controversially but I think defensibly, that the traditional art-forms adopted the conventions they did in part because those conventions worked in various ways, at least within the cultural contexts in which they arose. Following a poetic meter guarantees some musicality; structuring a story around a problem and its resolution guarantees some suspense. It turns out to be possible to depart from these conventions in ways that preserve, and in fact even enhance, what worked about them, as in the heightened musicality of Eliot’s free verse, or the captivating evasion of resolution in The Good Soldier. But the further you break from the traditional form, the less likely it is that you will be able to achieve what worked about it. Verse that not only abandons meter but is generated based on automatic rules is likely to have no compelling music at all, and fiction that has no story or characters is unlikely to generate the curiosity that keeps readers engaged.

It might have seemed, around 1945, that the task of the next generation of artists should be to make Pound, Stravinsky, Picasso, and Le Corbusier look as conservative and outmoded as they made their nineteenth-century predecessors appear. But I now think this ambition was misplaced. The avant-garde is at its most powerful once in history for each art form. It works when it occupies a particular space between convention and its violation where the violations are a sufficient departure to seem fresh, shocking, unexpected, thrilling, new — but at the same time, not so much of a departure that the basic pleasures of the form are entirely lost. Once this space has been occupied for the first time, those who occupy it subsequently are no longer avant-garde. They are repeating what came before. Those who push onward, violating the rules further, belong to the avant-garde, but are often doomed to relative obscurity because their works no longer offer what attracted audiences to the art form in the firm place. There will always be an academic audience for these later-generation avant-gardes — L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, creators of New Music — but except for those who seek out difficulty for its own sake, later-generation avant-garde works will usually seem like false starts, misguided explorations leading to dead ends.

Painting, by the way, may be one exception. In the familiar analogy I’ve been drawing between the violations of traditional formal conventions across art forms, Eliot’s early poetry violates the conventions of lyric poetry (such as the use of standard meters) in a way that is similar to how Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring violates the conventions of orchestral music (such as tonality) and Picasso’s Demoiselles violates the conventions of representational painting (such as not depicting women as monstrous assemblages of quasi-geometric color-fields). These are examples of avant-garde works in the sweet spot described in probably excessive detail above. Next, Charles Bernstein or Lyn Hejinian break further from the conventions of lyric poetry, as atonality or serialism break further from the conventions of classical music — and as the abstract expressionism of Rothko or Pollock breaks further from the conventions of representational painting. These are examples of the later-generation avant-garde works mentioned above. But while I think it is safe to say that Bernstein and Hejinian have never really caught on in the way Eliot did, and you are unlikely to hear recent New Music (or Schoenberg’s twelve-tone works for that matter) even on a local classical radio station that might play Stravinsky, paintings by Rothko and Pollock are at least as widely appreciated as, say, the canonical works of cubism.

I suspect this may have something to do with the fact that an abstract pattern hanging on a wall is less likely to be felt as annoying, frustrating, or oppressive than an hour of loud, discordant notes or a book full of words that don’t seem to make sense.

A skeptic might object at this point: wait, you’re suggesting that the only worthwhile period of avant-garde art across a variety of art forms just happened to take place in the early twentieth century, and then could never happen again? Doesn’t that seem a little coincidental?

A few comments in response to this skeptical objection.

First, I’m not claiming all art forms are somehow magically synchronically aligned. Film existed in the early twentieth century, but many of the conventions and variables that later avant-garde filmmakers like Stan Brakhage would defy and manipulate had not yet been established. Once an art-form is perceived as an art-form, it tends to begin receiving avant-garde treatments very quickly today, because the routine is pretty well-established by now, and artists know that the first avant-garde movers in a field often have more favorable receptions than late-comers. But I’d note cuisine as an example of something like an art-form that appears not to have received a concerted avant-garde treatment until fairly recently. Has there already been a first-generation avant-garde in graphic novels? Video games? Probably all of the above.

Second, even I, despite my love of structuralist simplification and simplistic historical periodizations, do not claim that all the lyric poetry, narrative fiction, classical music, and visual art falling into the sweet spot between convention and its violation was produced between December 1910 and September 1939. As noted above, literary writers began seriously experimenting with violations of standard poetic conventions in the nineteenth century — like Whitman’s free verse, or Mallarmé’s elevation of musicality over sense — and the same could be said in music and, of course, painting — as in Wagner’s Tristan chord, Van Gogh, all the usual suspects. Conversely, it is worth noting that works have continued to be produced since Modernism that fall into the formal sweet-spot occupied by Modernism, even if due to their late arrival I don’t think it would make sense to call them avant-garde. The paintings of Francis Bacon, for example, arguably violate representational conventions to a degree similar to that of some of the early twentieth-century avant-garde — painters of distorted yet recognizable forms like Giorgio de Chirico, Marc Chagall, Georges Braque, or, again, Picasso.

Third, to the extent that I am, in fact, arguing that an especially fruitful, historically irreplicable period of formal experimentation — the sweet spot of the avant-garde — took place across multiple art forms in the early twentieth century, is this really so implausible?

At least in the West, modernity has really only happened once (okay, maybe almost twice if we count classical Athens). The intellectual, ethical, and material preconditions for the kind of formal artistic experimentation that I’ve associated with Modernism only gradually came into existence over the course of the last few centuries. One part of the grand cultural-historical narrative that I find so compelling in the works of Charles Taylor is the idea that the over the course of modernity, Western cultures gradually moved from the assumption that all things are defined by the purpose God gave them within his hierarchical, universal order to the assumption that each individual is equal and should be free to create her own meaning and define her own identity. This modern ethos of free, egalitarian individual self-creation is a precondition for the valorization of originality and genius in Romanticism. And without the latter shift in values — from a classical devotion to the perfection of inherited forms, to the romantic idealization of formal innovation — the bold formal experiments of the modernist period could not have happened. There can be no avant-garde before Romanticism; after Romanticism, the avant-garde was only a matter of time. But then — once formal experimentation for its own sake becomes established as a standard artistic project — it is only steps away from exhausting itself in every field that it approaches.

While art as a whole is almost certainly a territory with no definite limits, a space of possibility in which it is always possible to generate revolutionary new forms — like Defoe inventing the modern novel by creating a fictional imitation of an ostensibly realistic autobiography, or like the forms that are currently being generated for new virtual reality technologies — the formal possibilities within any individual art-form are finite.

(Defoe’s example may actually hold some promise for contemporary literature. Even if it is hopeless at this point to attempt to find some new place within the formal territory of the lyric poem or the novel that would be both radically formally new and really worthwhile, could there be promise in the creation of some altogether new literary form? In retrospect, this kind of thought process may have played a role in my ill-fated decision to write the world’s most literary Choose Your Own Adventure novel, but even if that experiment did not quite produce a Robinson Crusoe-scale revolution, there may still be as-yet largely unrecognized literary forms worth exploring.)


A final thought: stepping back from the argument in this post, it occurs to me that it might be seen as an example of a general form of an argument — what Duncan Kennedy in his semiotics of legal argument might call an argument-bite, and Jack Balkin in his semiotics of constitutional argument might call topoi or “topics.” (Legal scholars are especially attuned to the recurring structures of argument because so much of what lawyers do involves repeated argumentative moves and formulas.) In any domain of human activity in which a celebrated development has taken place — science, the arts, politics, economics, sports — it will be possible for someone after the fact to say: hey, let’s have another development like that one! Sometimes, this will be possible. Sometimes it will be possible to repeat the revolution more than once, or even potentially endlessly, as Kuhn suggested in the domain of science.

But other times, these developments are one-time affairs. The space of possibility in which they take place does not allow for their repetition. They exist in a finite territory of possible moves, and the moves have already been made.

It will often be hard to know in the moment, without the benefit of hindsight, what kind of territory one is inhabiting. In the absence of decisive evidence, both argumentative moves — the claim that another revolution is possible, and the claim that the limits of practical possibility have already been exhausted — will be available, and there may be no determinate basis for choosing between them.

One thing that Thomas Piketty, Walter Scheidel, and Francis Fukuyama have in common with Marx, it might be argued, is a general sense of political-economic history as a finite territory. They seem to suggest that there are universal laws of political economy that continue to govern, and limit, the space of human history even today.

I’d like to close by observing that, while I’m actually very skeptical of utopian-revolutionary claims to have discovered a better general alternative to liberal democracy and the unending progressive improvement of our market rules, I think Piketty’s and Scheidel’s claims to have, in essence, discovered the boundaries of the political-economic territory of the present are extremely premature. In part, this is a way of saying (unsurprisingly) that I agree with Dean Baker’s critique of Piketty. But more generally, it seems to me that modernity was a fundamental, one-time change in human history, and remains relatively new. What is possible and not possible in our economic and political arrangements today, in our current, possibly fairly early chapter of modernity, is far from clear — for better, and for worse.

Once one focuses on the importance of legal institutions to economic outcomes, and the long-term importance of cultural change to the political processes that determine legal institutions, it is hard to see why evidence concerning the distribution and reproduction of wealth in Britain in 1814 should be seen as particularly relevant to our circumstances today or in the near future. I may be wrong. It may be that modernity has already entered a period of maturity in which, from now on, we will simply repeat with minor variations what has already happened since the sixteenth century. But the twentieth century did not follow that pattern. It is hard to see why the twenty-first century should.




One thought on “Modernism and the Finite Territory of the Avant-Garde

  1. Pingback: A Critique of “Critique”: What Is Still Wrong with the Academic Left | Against the Logicians

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