Modernism Revisited: Artistic Works, Academic Disciplines, Divided Minds

“If you believe in improvement you must weep, for the attained perfection must end in darkness, cold, and silence… Life knows us not and we do not know life—we don’t know even our own thoughts. Half the words we use have no meaning whatever and of the other half each man understands each word after the fashion of his own folly and conceit.  Faith is a myth and beliefs shift like mists on the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die; and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of tomorrow.”

– Joseph Conrad, 1897

Dada aimed to destroy the reasonable deceptions of man and recover the natural and unreasonable order…  Dada is senseless like nature.

– Jean Arp, 1948

Of all the modernist schools and movements, Dada most deserves the coveted encomium, “most radical.”  How typically provocative to proclaim an intention to “recover the natural.”  It was modernist heresy to challenge the self-sufficiency of art, its independence from nature.  But the first impression is immediately undermined and a modernist article of faith restored; for what Dada was out to “recover” was a nature that was senseless and disordered, a modernist nature, seething with aimless forces and quantum uncertainties.

John Locke and Adam Smith had God’s design of nature to guide them, to restrain them, when they imagined constituting governments and political economies.  Hegel, Spencer and Comte could no longer rely on a Deistic or orthodox Creator, but history for them was still going in some direction, however painfully.  They felt supported by a natural process of social evolution—an essential continuity retained.  Nietzsche’s announcement of God’s death stood apart from the chorus of 19th century atheistic proclamations because he wasn’t just talking about religious faith.  Nietzsche was saying that there was nothing for humanity to turn to for guidance—not natural law, not historical progress, nothing.

Coming to terms with that message distinguishes the modernist moment from modernity in general.  Whatever designs might give significant form to human life had now to be conceived by human beings.  Nature and history supplied the matter (instincts, bodies, resources, environments) and that matter imposed limits on what forms were feasible—true, adaptive, functional, even beautiful.  But all meaning and value would derive from modern subjects, now alone once again, with no external support, as they had been originally in the cogito moment.  Think of the tone in Weber and Freud, the stoic willingness to face up to irredeemable loss and make the best of it.  Recall the ferocious absolutism of 20th century totalitarian regimes.  These represent opposing but characteristic moods and both were responses to a condition of abandonment and a consequent responsibility for all forms of human practice—including academic disciplines, to be secured now by rigorous definition of their objects of study and methods of approach.

In After Babel (1975), George Steiner builds his landmark account of modernism around the concept of  “the lacking word.”  It marks the “principle division in the history of Western literature,” he declares, and its irruption “occurs between the early 1870s and the turn of the century.  It divides a literature essentially housed in language from one for which language has become a prison.”  He adds in a footnote, by way of caveat, that “the whole question of the etiology and the timing of the language crisis in Western culture remains extremely involved and only partly understood” (176 – 177).

But modern subjectivity itself was also, and more fundamentally, at issue during that period.  The “lacking word” was a symptom of a larger crisis for all forms of representation and depiction—which ultimately means for modern consciousness in a world that could no longer be comprehended by a self that no longer knew its own mind.  Can it be a coincidence that literature and art turned to experimental reflexivity at the moment when the modern unconscious was admitted to existence? A commitment to interpreting subjectivity phenomenologically, as being-in-the-world, invites this question: what in the world of the late 19th century corresponded to this crisis of representation and to apprehensions of an unconscious at the core of the cogito?

It is important to recall just how prima facie radical an idea “the unconscious” was.  If Descartes or Locke or Thomas Jefferson had been told that they were possessed of thoughts they weren’t thinking and feelings they weren’t feeling, they would have rejected the idea as self-contradictory, like “round square.”  They took for granted Derrida’s “transparency of self-presence.”  That is why the idea of an unconscious, especially as deployed by Nietzsche and Freud, seemed to mark the beginning of the end of the Cartesian/bourgeois subject—even as it spurred that subject to heroic labors in its own defense.

So what in the world corresponds to an unconscious mind within?  Could the beginning of an answer be this simple: sheer complexity, sheer volume, sheer speed—a crossing of some quantitative threshold in the conditions of life in refashioned cities transformed by technologies and teeming with crowds of strangers?  Was “the unconscious” a name for being in a world that had lost its worldhood?[1]  Did the modern mind lose its unity and transparency because the impossibility of comprehending the world became obvious?[2]  Is the modernist retreat to “the work”—and to the psyche—an escape from that incomprehensibility?  Did the sheer presence of so many engines, grunting and pumping and shoving, so many vehicles passing, departing, arriving, so many transmitting wires crossing and re-crossing between so many mouths and ears, so many agencies, offices, and bureaus forming and collapsing and meeting and merging and ordering and reordering and urging so many people to do and wear and say this or that or the other thing, so many roads and bridges and tunnels and lights and signs and memoranda and directives announcing and showing and cautioning and directing and enticing and reporting on unimaginably many other such circumstances—did this vast and aimless jumble of embodied intentions constitute the decadent heir to Barzun’s argument of the device?[3]  Had the modern project of progress apparently been realized as a mass Dada exhibit that showed us we could not be God—not in the real world, anyway?[4]

For what would God amount to, in a modernist register, if not the worldhood of the world—the sense of the world, as Wittgenstein put it in “The Lecture on Ethics”? And what was lost in the vast pile-up that history had become, if not just that sense?

If we look beyond the arts and think of “modernism” as a crisis for the mode of existence of modern subjectivity more generally, certain features emerge as characteristic of cultural developments on many fronts:

1) Most fundamentally, the absence of meaning in nature and direction in history become manifest, as just outlined.  Responsibility for authorship of meaning and direction falls to humanity.  A particular kind of toughness and/or vulnerability emerges among those who take up that task—and an unprecedented elitism.

2) Diachrony lapses accordingly, and synchrony rises.  Depths of origin in evolutionist history are replaced by present, often elusive, psychological origins and depths (hence, “depth psychology”) and by various functionalisms.  The ancient and exotic become a storehouse of resources for contemporary intellectual and artistic projects.

3) Abstraction in various forms becomes a principle strategy for gaining authority—with “abstraction” understood most generally as a gesture that separates the work from the historical world.  For example: “abstract art” per se, of course;  but also the distinction between function and origin in the social sciences;  langue and parole in linguistics.

5) The cogito divides—with the emergence of the unconscious, first of all, but in a range of other ways, improvised in various contexts, to suit various temperaments and undertakings.  The “abstraction” from the world that is the modernist work corresponds to an “abstracted” subjectivity, the modernist creator.  In the words of Marcel Proust, “A book is the product of a different self from the one we manifest in our habits, in society…”  (1998: viii (original 1913)).

6) Universals of some sort—however elusive, however defined—remain vital to the projects of these creators.

7) The distinction between fact and value is drawn, complement to the collapse of evolutionist narratives.

Artistic Self-Definition 

…. if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style… Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.  Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit?

– Virginia Woolf,  1925

An immense pride was buoying us up, because we felt ourselves standing quite alone at that hour, like proud beacons or sentinels facing an army of enemy stars encamped in their celestial bivouacs… We are on the last promontory of the centuries! Why should we look back when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? …Museums, cemeteries! Truly identical, a sinister juxtaposition…

– Filippo Marinetti, 1909


It would be difficult to find more sharply contrasting exemplars of the modernist creator than Woolf and Marinetti.  Yet both saw themselves standing against a world, a universe, that was meaningless, even hostile.  Marinetti’s “enemy stars” are delicately complemented by Woolf’s description of an empty summer house, as spring arrives, and on the patio “…the garden urns, casually filled with wind-blown plants, were gay as ever. Violets came and daffodils.  But the stillness and the brightness of the day were as strange as the chaos and tumult of the night, with the trees standing there, and the flowers standing there, looking before them, looking up, yet beholding nothing, eyeless, and so terrible.” [5]

Both Marinetti and Woolf felt oppressed by conventions of a dead past that wouldn’t let go, so deeply embedded had they become in mass culture.  Alienated from that culture, and essentially alone—especially Woolf in her Cartesian envelope—each was nevertheless sustained by a small group of the like-minded, an elite few who were profound enough to understand their senseless situation and brave enough to produce the works that provided what redemption could be had.  Boundless achievement seemed possible to Marinetti’s gang of proto-fascist visionaries in the years before the Great War.  More ephemeral epiphanies were all that Bloomsbury’s extraordinary souls could expect, and the fact that they could settle for that testified to their exalted standing in their own minds.  As with Marinetti and Woolf personally, so the contrast between the ethos of Bohemian refinement at Bloomsbury and the hothouse atmosphere of the Futurist school could hardly be more striking.  And yet we recognize, at the deepest level, a common form of life.  Modern subjectivity, in extremis, determined to create.

Abandoned by God, adrift in an aimless natural history, the modernists found various consolations in art.  There—on the canvas, on the page, in concrete and steel—there could be a world with meaning and value.  For this work, at least, was entirely authored.  And the authors were not merely producing the works;  they were defining the kinds of works that were worth producing in the first place.  Hence, the torrent of manifestoes, the multiplication of secessions and movements, founded one day, falling apart the next—and then founded once more, always in pursuit of that ineffable something that lingered just over the horizon of what had already been done.  Hence, the obsession with the purity of the work, its self-sufficiency, its place apart.  The true artist, the modernist artist, was bold enough to reject a world that no longer made sense, to decline to represent it, first of all—but to repudiate all traditional themes and methods and attitudes as well.  While philistines wallowed in the kitsch of history, the modernist artist refused to look back, except in search of images and allusions appropriate to present purposes.  The rubble of time, like the chaos of city life, was grist for the mill.  Hence, above all, the cult of originality—the mad desire to be a genius, to prove oneself a genius through an authored work that transcended the given.

That is why modernist art was such an elitist undertaking.  What else could be expected of an enterprise obliged to supply a lack bequeathed by a departed God?

An assembly of reminders follows.  Staples of the voluminous literature on modernism, they point to a manifestation of the modernist way of being in the world, a common “form of life” in Wittgenstein’s sense of the term.

We have already heard from Proust:  “A book is the product of a different self from the one we manifest in our habits, in society…”

Then, these reflections:

“Madame Bovary is based on no actual occurrence… it contains none of my feelings and no details from my own life.  The illusion of truth (if there is one) comes, on the contrary from the book’s impersonality…. An artist must be in his work like God in creation, invisible and all-powerful…”

– Gustave Flaubert, letter to Mlle Leroyer de Chantepie (1857)

“The personality of the artist passes into the narration itself, flowing round and round the persons and the action like a vital sea…. The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails…

– James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914)

“The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality… It is not in his personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting…  the business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all.”

– T.S. Eliot “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1922)

Then this, from a painter:

“Shapeless  emotions such as fear, joy, grief, etc… will no longer greatly attract the artist. He will endeavor to awake subtler emotions, as yet unnamed… his work will give to those observers capable of feeling them lofty emotions beyond the reach of words.”

– Wassily Kandinsky Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1914)

Examples could be multiplied indefinitely.  This particular experience of what Nietzsche described more strenuously as “self-splitting” was common to most, if not all, the modernist creators.  It shaped their self-understanding, even though they lived and worked in different times and places, across all the arts and, as we shall see, the academic disciplines as well.  Whence this experience of a division between the everyday person and the mysterious, almost anonymous, agent of creation within?  What in the world of artistic production specifically—given the overall context just described—can account for this?

Consider the question in light of the founding principle of the New Criticism formulated by Wimsatt and Beardsley in “The Intentional Fallacy.”  They distinguished between “internal evidence”—which meant the words on the page—and “external evidence,” which meant anything outside the work itself, including especially the author’s personal feelings and intentions.  The upshot was that “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art” (1954: 3; original 1946)

Spontaneous reports of internal division from modernist creators found doctrinal expression in this central tenet of the New Criticism.  An explanation suggests itself:  these artistic enterprises had the effect of splitting a creator’s sense of self because that division of subjectivity corresponded to the “abstraction” of the work from the world, from the uncontainable flow of lived experience in the historical flux.  That correspondence is phenomenologically predictable; it follows from the nature of intentionality.[6]  The more separated, the more unprecedented, the more exalted and purified—in many cases, the more literally abstract—the art object, the more the creator felt as if the everyday person who ate and drank and chatted, the person “fallen” into Heidegger’s “average everydayness”—that person couldn’t possibly be the source of an entity so radically distinct from the plane of ordinary existence? [7]

It is worth recalling what “sur-realism” literally means.  Breton and his cohort, tapping into the depths of what they took to be the Freudian unconscious, the other-self from whence their works surged forth, fully intended the imputation of superiority.[8]  A sense of privileged access founded the elitism, the contempt for mass society and sensibility that was so typical of the great modernists.[9]  In Search of Lost Time was sur-real in this enlarged sense, not dogmatically, of course—but just as improbably, and even more strikingly when one considers the characteristic Proustian effect, the “heightened” experience of experience, the transcendence of experience by itself, as it were—thanks to a rendering more faithful than the original.

And—once again, and at a further degree of removal—modernist creators were not only producing sur-worldly works from sur-selfly sources, but were also defining art, defining what sort of thing a poem or a painting or a building ought to be—creating values, in accordance with Nietzsche’s challenge to the “midnightly men” of the future for whom he had written.[10] Parameters of the kind that traditions took decades or centuries to establish were being determined by a few friends sitting around a café table, organizing the Vienna secession or the publication of BLAST.

From this perspective, it becomes apparent why there was so intense a focus on the elements of art, on the actual media, as opposed to whatever art might be “about,” if anything, besides itself.  Steiner’s “lacking word” belongs here.  The sense that conventional means were inadequate was indeed most pronounced in writers.  But that must be understood as part of a larger conversation about the exhaustion of traditional means and techniques across the board—and about all the bold attempts to start again, from scratch, from the level of the most elemental materials.  When Arnold Schoenberg was “loosening the shackles of obsolete aesthetics” he was, at the same time, asking himself “for the theoretical foundation of the freedom of my style” which he would identify musically with mathematical rigor (“My Evolution,” original 1949). [11]  This gesture of self-definition, of complete construction in explicit defiance of the chaos of history, is modernist “foundationalism.”  It will be the principle target of the counter-gesture of deconstruction when it comes.

The fact that language is so promiscuous a medium, so constantly and irretrievably woven into the fabric of mass society, made it that much harder to reconceive and renew.  There was a near limit to what one could get out of arranging words in new ways on the page, after the manner of Mallarme’s Un Coup de Dés.  The same goes for experiments with automatic writing and neologisms and all the rest.  At the end of the day, there were just those 20 odd letters to work with, and just so many words—all of them shamelessly available to journalists and bureaucrats as well as the literary vanguard.  So it was inevitable that writers, reaching for glimpses of Baudelaire’s eternal in the transitory flux of ordinary life, would feel more frustrated with their depreciated medium then creators in the plastic arts.  Here are two representative expressions of that frustration:

“…once again words desert me…  something entirely un­named, even barely nameable, at such moments, re­veals itself to me… A pitcher, a harrow abandoned in a field, a dog in the sun, a neglected cemetery, a cripple, a peasant’s hut—all these can become the vessel of my revelation… can suddenly, at any moment (which I am ut­terly powerless to evoke), assume for me a character so exalted and moving that words seem too poor to describe it.”

– Hugo von Hoffmannstahl, The Chandos Letter, 1902

“More and more my language appears to me like a veil which one has to tear apart in order to get to those things (or the nothingness) lying behind it. Grammar and style! To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Biedermeier bathing suit or the imperturbability of a gentleman. A mask. It is to be hoped the time will come, thank God, in some circles it already has, when language is best used where it is most efficiently abused.”

– Samuel Beckett, letter to Axel Kaun, 1937

As the depictive imperative lost its grip, the possibilities for innovation in painting, sculpture, the performing arts, even architecture would seem to be almost unlimited by comparison.  And those innovations were evident at first glance.  The “shock of the new” depended upon immediacy—as does any genuine shock—and that was provided by Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Duchamp’s Fountain and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  So modernist painters did not typically complain about the “lacking color,” nor did sculptors feel betrayed by their material just because, say, bronze was also used in hackneyed statues of Great Men on Horseback in the public square.  The sheer appearance of Brancusi’s Princess X overcame the happenstance of “bronze” at a stroke, and with strikingly immediate effect that no amount of wordplay in Finnegan’s Wake could match.

So the difference in attitude between writers and artists was essentially an accident, a byproduct of the intrinsic characteristics of the media and their customary social deployments.  The common ground shows itself with the realization that all these modernist creators were intensely and self-consciously concerned with artistic means per se. And, whatever the medium, that concern tended to intensify as a function of artistic aspiration—the more ambitious the project, the more exalted and transcendent the aim, the more concerned with the how-of-it creators became.

Beyond that, it seems impossible to generalize much further.  The sheer experimental variety is astonishing and the accompanying accounts—the treatises and tracts—almost as various. But whether, like Le Corbusier, Malevich or Mondrian, you had identified (often on grounds of psycho-physics) a list of axiomatic aesthetic elements (the cone, the pyramid, the cube…) or, like Kandinsky and de Chirico you were intent on ineffables (or both), the characteristic rhetorical gesture—the tone, the style—is unmistakable:  ultimate matters had been consigned to your care and an aspect of your being—a part of you—had risen to the occasion. It is indeed, as so many have remarked, next to impossible to define “modernism” if the procedure is to generalize about the contents of works.  It was a form of subjectivity in a form of life that constituted the phenomenon.

Academic Self-Definition

… To take a practical political stand is one thing, and to analyze political structures and party positions is another. When speaking in a political meeting about democracy, one does not hide one’s personal standpoint; indeed to come out clearly and take a stand is one’s damned duty. The words one uses in such a meeting are not means of scientific analysis but means of canvassing votes and winning over others…. It would be an outrage, however, to use words in this fashion in a lecture or in the lecture-room.

– Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation” (1918)

In this famous lecture, Weber was concerned with one of the most significant of modernist abstractions—the one separating the realm of  “value judgments” from “judgments of fact.”  The social scientist, like anyone else, must live on the level of incorrigibly messy everyday experience.  At that level, all the determining factors are simultaneously at play, including the personal interests and political commitments of the scientist.   But the disciplined study of a well-defined object depends upon its abstraction from that messy actuality—and when the object is society/politics, the most urgent of all the disciplinary tasks must be to neutralize the “values” that the man the scientist happens to be cannot help but have.  The establishment of the fact/value distinction enacted a split in the consciousness of founders of the modernist human sciences that parallels the division between the artist as creator and the artist’s personal biography.  The correlations of Husserlian intentionality were operating here as well.

The announced aim, of course, was to cleanse these sciences of bias and—finally!—to study human beings objectively as preceding generations of moderns had somehow failed to do, in spite of all their efforts.[12] That long record of failure to live up to the example of natural science accounts for the tone of Weber’s lecture—alternately steely (towards those committed to objectivity) and contemptuous (of those who lacked the right stuff).  It was as if he were rehearsing the extremes of personal discipline that the purity of his academic discipline had required of him.  As indeed he was.

Emil Durkheim had established essentially the same distinction some 20 years earlier when he built his Rules of the Sociological Method (1895) around the scrupulously defined entity his science required—the “social fact.”  Weber—the German, heir to Hegel and to Protestantism—stressed subjective self-discipline.  Durkheim—the Frenchman, heir to Comte and to Catholicism—stressed the object pole.  In his formulation, the key to objectivity lay in treating the social fact as a “thing,” with the implications for value neutrality and personal disengagement understood.

Meanwhile, as if in telepathic conference with Durkheim and Weber, G.E. Moore was standing by, ready to build his science out of what their science had banished.  The “science of ethics” outlined in Principia Ethica (1903),would depend upon a uniquely non-natural and indefinable predicate, “good,” the name of a simple quality that Moore’s uniquely refined intuition had enabled him to abstract from the welter of natural causes and historical events that make up daily life.  As a linguistic philosopher, Moore was even able to identify a “naturalistic fallacy” in the faulty logic of his 19th century predecessors and assign it to patrol, as it were, the boundaries of his well-defined domain—his work—to protect it from contamination.

No surprise, then, to discover that de Saussure, founding his science of linguistics in Course in General Linguistics (1915), decided upon the abstraction of “grammar”—of langue, as opposed to parole (actual speech)—from the myriad overlapping domains that determined linguistic phenomena in their entirety.

But consider also what might be called the rhetorical structure of these foundational works.

The first chapter of Rules of the Sociological Method is called “What is a Social Fact?”   The first chapter of Principia Ethica is called “The Subject Matter of Ethics.”  The third chapter of Course in General Linguistics is called “The Object of Linguistics,” but the titles of the first and second chapter make that a difference without a distinction.[13]  The first chapter (5 pages) is called “A Glance at the History of Linguistics” (no more than a glance was called for) and the second chapter (2 pages)  is called “Subject Matter and Scope of Linguistics; its Relations with the Other Sciences.”  That second chapter amounts to a very brisk house-cleaning operation in which old-fashioned diachronic studies of language evolution are allowed to retain a place under the broad umbrella of “linguistics” understood as the study of “all manifestations of human speech.”  The relevance of other sciences—such as sociology and physiology—is admitted under that broad definition as well.  But it is only when we get to “The Object of Linguistics” that a real science of language is at issue;  langue, the grammar of linguistic signs, makes that possible thanks to the abstraction of this “well-defined object” from “the heterogeneous mass of speech facts” (Saussure 1966: 14 (original 1915)).

All three books were short.  They were not manifestoes exactly, but they had some of the same didactic qualities.  They presented parameters within which research was supposed to unfold over the years to come.  They did no more than sample empirical work, by way of illustration, for these treatises were quite consciously intended as founding documents—intended as “origins” of a new kind, of a synchronic and logical kind.  While they might sample the work of benighted predecessors, there was little sense of obligation, no real legacy to build on.[14] The most salient feature is the overall sense of authorial entitlement conveyed. [15]  In that form of life, the modernist form of life, one had a right to say things like:  “What, then, is good?  How is good to be defined?” or “In setting up the science of language within the overall study of speech, I have outlined the whole of linguistics.”

Imagine someone making such pronouncements today.

A sample, then, of well-defended compartments in the modernist academy, of disciplines as analogues of artworks.  For all these academic instances of abstraction—framing, defining, founding—“well-defended” is not too strong a term.  In fact, the rhetoric these creators deployed around their creations often relied on tropes of purity and contamination and that accounts for the ferocious debates that broke out over ensuing decades over whether or not some issue at hand qualified as “philosophy” or “anthropology” or whatever.  And, of course, the stakes would be that much higher when the whole idea of—the very institutions of—the modernist disciplines came under attack.[16]


An Archetype of Modernism in Context

Hegel once defined philosophy as an age grasped in thought.  If the modernist moment can indeed be characterized in terms of a divided cogito’s relation to its abstracted work, Hegel could not ask for more striking confirmation than Husserl’s phenomenological reduction, the epoche:

Therefore, if we think of a phenomenology developed as an intuitively apriori science purely according to eidetic method, all its eidetic researches are nothing else but uncoverings of the all-embracing eidos [essence], transcendental ego as such, which comprises all the possibility-variants of the de facto ego and this ego itself qua possibility.

– Husserl, Cartesian Meditations (1929): 71

This was the ultimate abstraction.  The entire life experience of the philosopher, as personal-historical (de facto) ego, was to be “detached” from itself, as it were, and treated as the “object” of philosophical inquiry.  An anonymous creator-self necessarily emerged in tandem with that abstraction in the form of Husserl’s transcendental ego in whose essence-grasping eyes the de facto ego of the philosopher would now appear as one (actualized) possibility among an indefinite number of possible ego/worlds accessed through “eidetic variation” in philosophic fantasy.

Notice that the transcendental ego did not merely grasp essences philosophically it constituted those essences in the world through intentionality.  Could there be a more ambitious expression of the modernist aspiration to author meaning?  In the context of this account, Husserl looks like the modern mind’s last desperate lunge toward comprehension of an incomprehensible world.  He feels inevitable.

But Husserl was representative of the modernist moment as it has been described here in other ways as well.  They now appear as necessary adjuncts of the primordial founding act:

He was obsessed with identifying the foundational elements of his enterprise, the essences that would distinguish “regions” of conscious experience and guarantee their stability and universality.

He was as obsessed with method and definition, perpetually tinkering with purifying boundaries that would distinguish philosophy from other enterprises, especially that dreaded interloper—psychology.

Husserl also called the bracketing gesture that abstracts the transcendental ego from the personal-historical ego “abstention” (as in abstaining from judgment and belief about what presents itself phenomenally).  Under that rubric, it shows itself as a more comprehensive version of the fact/value distinction in the social sciences.



[1] “Worldhood” is the term Heidegger used to evoke the ultimate “there” of Da-sein, the environing horizon of all actualities and possibilities that constitutes Dasein as being-in-the-world.

[2] This passage focuses on everyday lived experience but, for the modernist elite, the impact of developments in the sciences—especially in relativity theory and quantum mechanics—reinforced the basic message.  The intuitively accessible Newtonian cosmos, a monument to modern rationality, was no more.

[3] Jacques Barzun, speaking of modernity in general, once remarked that the fact that “the appliance works” was “the great argument that has redirected the western mind” (1964:19).

[4] Marx and Comte are only the best known of the many 19th century thinkers who interpreted humanity’s remaking of the natural and social worlds as a displacement of the deity.

[5]  From “Time Passes” in To The Lighthouse (1927)

[6] In Husserl’s terms, they are noetic and noematic counterparts.

[7] Flaubert famously quipped, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.”—which might seem inconsistent with the claims to indifferent objectivity made to Mlle de Chantepie.  But Flaubert was speaking of himself as a person with a biography in this case, of himself as creator of a work in the other.  Joyce was making the same distinction.  Personal biography provided material for the creator’s work, resources like any other.

[8] Contemporary usage—“it was surreal!”—carries no such connotation.  High Culture brought low under the regime of postmodernity.

[9] Said Ezra Pound, writing from Stone Cottage, where he was at work with Yeats: “…to explain a symbol is to destroy its ability to embody the divine or permanent world; knowledge that could be understood by the uninitiated masses would not be knowledge at all” (in Longenbach 1988: 91)

[10] Says Rudolf Safranski:  “All of the significant currents in the early 20th century, from symbolism to art nouveau and expressionism, were inspired by Nietzsche.  Every self-respecting member of these circles had a ‘Nietzsche experience.’ ”  (2002: 323)

[11] Compare Constantin Stanislavski, creator of what came to be known as “The Method” for actors:  “..the founding of our new Moscow Art and Popular Theater was in the nature of a revolution.  We protested against the customary manner of acting, against theatricality…” And that meant that “we needed a new beginning.  We needed new bases and foundations…” (1924: 330, 483).  Those bases and foundations were psycho-physiological and would eventually be laid out—literally, in a chart—as The Stanislavski System.

[12] And when the time came to deconstruct the modernist social sciences in the 60s and 70s it was this boundary that would be most enthusiastically transgressed.

[13] The fact that this “book” was actually assembled by students from Saussure’s lectures may  account for this divergence.

[14] The undisciplined Herbert Spencer, for example, was a reference point for both Durkheim and Moore, as he was also for Freud;  the world that had seemed comprehensible to Spencer was being divided up into manageable parts, suitable for really rigorous study.

[15] And would be much on Derrida’s mind when he came eventually to describe the “end of the book.”

[16] Margaret Mead was my advisor at Columbia in the ‘70s.  She had been a student of Franz Boas, a disciplinary founder of American Anthropology at the beginning of the 20th century.  Only a few decades from founding to crisis, then—but in the heat of battle it felt to all concerned as if ancient testaments were threatened, for good or ill.

Works Cited

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George Steiner After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation Oxford University Press, 1975

Jacques Barzun   The Glorious Entertainment Harper Collins 1964

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Virginia Woolf The Common Reader Mariner Books 1984

Fillipo Marrinetti “The Fururist Manifesto” in From Modernism to Postmodernism, Lawrence Cahoone (Ed) Blackwell 1996

Virginia Woolf To The Lighthouse Harvest Books 1989

Gustave Flaubert  The Letters of Gustave Flaubert: 1857-1880 Harvard 1982

James Joyce Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Penguin Classics 2003

T.S. Eliot The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism Dodo Press 2009

Wassily Kandinsky Concerning the Spiritual in Art CreateSpace 2010

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Rüdiger Safranski  Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography Norton 2002

W.K. Wimsatt and M. Beardsley “The Intentional Fallacy”  The Sewanee Review 1946

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Constantin Stanislavski  My Life in Art Little, Brown 1924

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And Other Writings NYRB Classics 2005 (original 1902)

The Cambridge Edition of the Letters of Samuel Beckett  M. Fehsenfeld and L. Overbeck (Editors) 2009

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Emil Durkheim  Rules of the Sociological Method Free Press 1982, (original 1895)

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Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Kurt Jacobsen: A Rambling Introduction

By Paul Hoover: The British Small Arms Company: A Motorcycle Memoir

By Andrey Gritsman: Stranger at Home: Poetic Sensibility across Cultures and Languages

By John Nichols: Epistles from the Roadside

By Leonard Quart: Revisiting in the Heat of the Night

By John Long: Got My Kicks on Route 66

By Max Vanzi: Traipsing after Sawada: An American Foreign Correspondent’s Memoir

By Phaedra Greenwood: Two for the Road

By Warren Leming: Looking for Woody

By John Sinclair: Still on the Road

By Anne Waldman: Interview with Anne Waldman: On All Kinds of Roads

By Thomas de Zengotita: Modernism Revisited: Artistic Works, Academic Disciplines, Divided Minds

By Vincent Czyz: Plato’s Gospel

By Joseph Lowndes: Looking Forward to the History of the Tea Party

By Stephen Eric Bronner: On Judging American Foreign Policy: Human Rights, Political Realism, and the Arrogance of Power

By John Clark: Bad I.O.U.: Badiou’s Fidelity to the Event

By Carmen Francesca Banciu: Pollen and Diamonds

By Aaron Leonard: Twilight Saga of the American Empire?

By Lawrence Davidson: Review of Basem Ra’ad, Hidden Histories: Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean.

By John Ehrenberg: Tristram Hunt, Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels

By Denise Poche Jetter: Steven Shapin, Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if it were Produced by People

By Jason Scott: Megan Boler, Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times