From The Blackwell Companion to American Cultural History, ed. Karen Halttunen (2008)
Modernism has always been a contentious term and remains more a cultural field than a historical period. For more than two generations, it was a relatively stable category defined by literary (and artistic) works between 1910-1940 that featured radical experimentation with language, multiple points of view, and innovative narrative structures, all unified solely by the artist's aesthetic vision. This traditional artistic modernism emerged as both a critique of conformist bourgeois life and an inquiry into the subjective nature of reality employing Freud's keys for unlocking the layers of consciousness. American modernism has long since been de-centered and pluralized along lines of class and identity; in just the past few years, it has been variously approached as "border modernism," "primitivist modernism," "diasporic modernism," "pulp modernism," and "Machine-Age modernism."
International modernism, by contrast, suffers no such identity crisis. Surveys of Eurocentric modernism still provide a sweeping portrayal of modernist thought and culture, but focus almost exclusively on Europe; the United States plays only a small but vital role. For example, William R. Everdell's The First Moderns (1997) begins in Vienna and depicts that city's intellectual ferment in the fields of literature, architecture, physics, psychology, and mathematics, before following key figures to Paris, London, and Berlin. Modris Eksteins’ Rites of Spring (1989) picks up the thread in 1913 Paris, and immediately establishes the concurrent modernisms of art, technology, and politics just before World War I exposed German nationalism and the shock of modern warfare. In the dynamic physical display of Russian ballet, the spatial reorientation of Cezanne and the Cubists, the Futurists' embrace of machine technology, and the rage for ragtime dances, Eksteins reveals the diffuse desires of those attempting, in Gertrude Stein's term, to "kill off the nineteenth century." In these histories, the US provides the innovations and inventions of industrial capitalism and its responsive cultural forms: skyscraper cities, assembly lines, sleek powerful cars, jazz rhythms, and African-American kinesthetics (physical movement).
The analogous texts on American modernism are two anthologies. One maps the impact of technology across the spectrum of the arts, from George Antheil's Ballet Mecanique to Busby Berkeley's musicals (Ludington 2000); the other explores race, class, and gender responses to the quicksilver shifts in markets and production, equating modernism with the embrace of mobile identities (Scandura and Thurston 2001). Both works focus on individual negotiations of the massive social changes in the half-century between 1890 and 1940: the demands of the industrial workplace; immigration and urbanization; ethnic consciousness and labor rebellion; adaptations of the body to machines; the emergence of a national media culture. Such experiential modernism registers "the simultaneous disenchantment and reenchantment of the world ... both anaesthesia and shock, boredom and exhilaration" (Stewart 2001: 22).
Before the late 1980s, three generations of scholars treated artistic modernism as the leading edge of necessary cultural rebellion, featuring a heroic individual Euro-American rising up against both the middle-class materialism of Victorian society and the standardization of mass, industrial society (Crunden 2000). That nearly every scholar and artist still seems attracted to the modernist mantle of self-liberation, autonomous creativity, and cultural rebellion has created a scholarship of inclusion under various hyphenated modernisms. Only with the emergence of postmodernism did it become possible to critique modernism (Ross 1986; Harvey 1989; Jameson 1991).
Philosopher Robert B. Pippin reduced modernism to the question of "autonomy," as first theorized by Kant and expanded by Nietszche (Pippin 1988). Being modern involved the challenge of establishing one's own beliefs through introspection and reflection, and crafting an identity without recourse to family background, religious precepts, or social convention. Such an ethos of individualism was at odds with Victorian notions of "order" that valued hierarchy and stability, utility and rationality, tradition and social progress. As late as 1910, the dominant artistic values of Euro-American white elites could be summed up as the pursuit, in Matthew Arnold's famous aphorism, of "the best that has ever been thought." This intellectual master narrative assumed a seamless connection back to the works of antiquity, and offered individuals either self-mastery through wisdom or the reward of Heaven.
To be modern was to reject the wisdom of the ancients for self-authorization through experience. For such mid-nineteenth century figures as Whitman, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and Dostoevski, an objective, transcendent ideal of beauty gave way to a relativist notion of the sublime (Calinescu 1988). Exposing one's self to the world -- unaccompanied, unprotected -- became the objective of the artistic (or intellectual) life; experiences became the equivalent of deeds. The self-conscious modern artist came into being as a seeker after new truths -- a rebel, a pathbreaker, the avant-garde of an army-not-yet-born.
Certainly the novelists of Stein's Lost Generation -- Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos, among others -- conceived of themselves in these terms. Their canonical works narrated the search of self-conscious bohemians for a floating community of cosmopolitan free-thinkers; their drunken adventures validated a free-spirited lifestyle achieved through engaging the dark side of life spurned by bourgeois Victorian society (sexuality, transience, criminality, substance abuse, poverty). Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises became a handbook for young (white) Americans, a bohemian romance whose characters' absurd conversations mitigate their deferral of middle-class life. Valorizing unproductivity was an exemplary strategy for disaffected modernist youth and the novel's reception sheds light on the generation gap between Victorian and modern. Its characters "begin nowhere and end in nothing," wrote one critic; it was a "most unpleasant" reading experience; "the lives of a group of people [are] laid bare, and … it does not matter to us'" (Wagner-Martin 1998). For Victorian-era literati, the disaffected moderns were adjudged as immoral rebels without cause or purpose.
By way of contrast, the same ethos of autonomy has turned modernist female artists such as O'Keeffe, Kahlo, and Stein into contemporary icons of liberation; concurrently, feminist theory, studies of sexuality, and recuperative work on HD, Amy Lowell, and Marianne Moore have liberated individual female artistic projects from once male-dominated canons (Rabinowitz 2001; Scott 1990). Christine Stansell has shown that the prototype urban bohemia, Greenwich Village, was first settled by female intellectuals from across the nation, creating a café society animated by a love of talk, sexual freedom, and socialist politics (Stansell 1999). At the level of popular culture, modern feminism had "theatrical roots" in the iconic actresses, dancers, and singers who performed the spirited self-sufficiency denied by society, from Sarah Bernhardt to Isadora Duncan to chorus girls. The chorus girl in particular has received attention as an agent mediating the rationality of modernization, mass production, sex, and hedonism for both men and women (Mizejewski 1999; Glenn 2000).
Scholars have achieved no consensus on what modernism is, when it began, what methods its artists shared (beyond self-conscious experimentation), or what role American modernists played in international modernism. Some argue that American modernism was simply constructed out of the self-promotion of its artists, critics, scholars, and camp followers (Poirier 1992); others that it is a habitus, a structural field equivalent in importance to Victorianism or the Enlightenment (Hoffman 1992). While many scholars understand the 1950s and 60s as a continuation of modernism (or "high modernism") via the Beats, Abstract Expressionists, and Black Mountain artists, others -- myself included -- argue that the events of 1945 marked the birth of postmodernism. Beckett differs from Joyce and Pynchon from Stein because artistic responses to the failure of technology, progress, and rationality between 1890 and 1940 must be distinguished from later responses to the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and the arms race.
Four themes mark a distinctively American modernism: the opposition of urban, cosmopolitan culture to the perceived repression of small-town society; the artistic tension between cultural nationalism, self-actualization, and ethnic and gender consciousness; the emergence of popular cultural expressions that mediate modernity, from film to the blues; and, finally, the dialogic relationship of technological "speed-up" and African-American culture. Narratives of modernism now revolve as much around the broader incorporation of Americans into modern society as around specific literary figures.
Modernism, Modernity, Modernization
Marshall Berman first aligned modernism with "modernity" and "modernization" in his landmark meditation, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (1982), and this matrix remains a fruitful mode of inquiry. Modernization concerns rapid technological change in industrial society. Conceptually, new inventions and networks challenge the idea that human life is static and produces concrete objects that compel individuals to "keep up with the times"; further, man-made improvement weakens the religious enterprise. New technologies are alternately thrilling -- as when they serve leisure and consumption -- and terrifying, as when they disrupt traditional aspects of human life. The Italian Futurists were the first intellectuals to celebrate technology and considered "the beauty of speed" in trains and cars the first new modern aesthetic experience, which added to "the world's splendor." Humans would acquire a "new mechanical sense," they believed, and enjoy "a fusion of instinct with the efficiency of motors" (Marinetti 1909: 21) In more mundane fashion, the ownership and handling of an automobile gave Americans a sense of control concerning industrial transformation. As Sinclair Lewis wrote of his emblematic middle-class American materialist, "To George F. Babbitt … his motor car was poetry and tragedy, love and heroism" (Lewis 1922: 24).
On the one hand, machines replaced human labor, resulting in "technological unemployment," and an identity crisis for men in particular (Smith 1993). The "control revolution" subjugated the average worker to alienated repetitive work, the invasive supervision of efficiency managers, and corporate surveillance (Kanigel 1999; Beniger 1986). Yet the American hunger for "the technological sublime" brought crowds to World's Fairs and technological expositions, to railroad fairs and skyscraper sites and air shows (Nye 1994). In the wake of the first World War's destruction, Europe found in American culture a fast-paced, machine civilization and new forms of industrial organization (Fordism) and efficiency (Taylorism). What the French called "Americanisme" in the 1920s, Thomas P. Hughes has called "the second discovery of America" (Hughes 1989).
Many scholars date the emergence of modernism according to Virginia Woolf's cryptic reflection, "In 1910, human nature changed." The more useful declaration came six years later from Henry Ford, the representative figure of the era: "History is more or less bunk." Raised in the Midwest within Victorian ideals of utility, rationality, and progress, Ford created the means to destroy that mindset by doubling the wages of his workers and building an affordable car. The Model T virtually created contemporary American society and its car culture: its suburbs, fast-food, and mobility; its teen-aged rebellion, rituals for adulthood, and sexual mores. "Fordism" may have been the global model of vertical corporate integration, yet by the mid-1920s, Ford himself was nostalgic for the stability of his childhood: he built a museum and a model small town to encourage Americans to return to the alleged virtues of small-town life while publishing pro-Fascist, anti-Semitic rants and moving towards fascism. Ford stood at the crossroads of modernism and "anti-modernism," Jackson Lears's term for the nostalgic yearnings of upper-class elites for the order and spirituality of small-town pastoralism and exotic religions (Lears 1981; Susman 1984).
Modernity, then, concerns the individual experiences of the transformation from an agrarian society into an urban, mass society. The shift entailed a gradual loss of secure identities previously embedded in local social institutions: church and religion, family and community, class and geography. Individuals became just another element in the flow of industrial society, as much as capital, raw materials, or mass-produced goods. The grounds for identity shifted to new forms of popular culture, such as dime novels, radio dramas, films, mass consumption, and the urban, industrial landscape.
Modernity further signifies the sensory (and cognitive) adjustment to new experiences of space and time, speed and movement, self and other (Kern 1983). Bodies adjusted to fast, impersonal transportation networks (rail, auto, air), to communication networks that separated the message from the sender (telegraph, telephone), and to new visual regimes rendered through film, aerial perspectives, or abstract art. The so-called "speed-up" of modern life produced apocalyptic fears of sensory overload, and the "shocks" of these new experiences were theorized by sociologists such as Karl Marx, Georg Simmel, Thorstein Veblen, and Walter Benjamin (Frisby 1986; Adams 1931). With such radical shifts in sensoryscapes, work, leisure, personal contact, and the rate of change, the individual consciousness could hardly remain trapped in nineteenth-century ways of seeing.
Modernism applies to the artistic and intellectual representation of the experiences of modernity and modernization, the search for "new aesthetic vocabularies" to represent "the innovative terms of industrial life" (Kasson 2000: 154). To be "modern" is to undergo perpetual change. And because the modern self has been battered and moved about, modern artists and writers break words and images into fragments (Cubism, "The Waste Land"), creating art and literature that demand constant attention to produce coherence. Shifts in daily rhythms, sensory perception, and the speed of information led to shifts in conceptions of time, the self, and the nature of experience.
Until recently, modernism was configured primarily through literature for a number of reasons: the prestige of literature in the humanities; the historical significance of the 1920s for the nation's emergence of the United States as a world power; the cultural changes of the 1920s, as reflected in novels that maintain their cachet in high school and college curricula (The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, The Sound and the Fury, Dos Passos' USA trilogy); the built-in ending to the "roaring twenties" with the crash of 1929; the romantic self-promotion of the Lost Generation through memoirs and novels; a kinship between writer, critic, and scholar through cultural rebellion and "the virtues … of difficulty" in teaching inaccessible texts (Poirier 1992). Malcolm Cowley first codified the mythology of the Lost Generation of writers in Exile's Return (1934): born between 1891-1905, their education focused on European history and literature; but after World War I, "civilization" became a pejorative term, and they took refuge in cosmopolitan bohemia in protest against the "Babbitry" (Lewis' term) or the "booboisie" (H.L. Mencken's).
Hugh Kenner's A Homemade World (1975) was a landmark work. First, he identified the styles, influences, and formal intentions of the best modernist poets (Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot) and prose stylists (Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald). Second, he identified their common intention of liberating words from their technical function (i.e., signifier from signified) in order to "reconstellate" them on the page. Third, he invoked technology as an equivalent form of artistic creation, calling the discovery of flight by two bicycle mechanics a modernist act of creative transformation. In fact, Lindbergh's solo flight over the Atlantic excited Europeans more than any single cultural event of the 1920s (Eksteins 1989), and linked the "homemade world" of American vernacular technological innovation with the "homemade" poetics of Hemingway and Faulkner.
Invention and self-invention travel hand in modern glove. In fact, modernism involves a dialectic between technological development and self-development; technology was the driving force of the European avant-garde's call for an anarchic vision of a new society. This dialectic became entrenched in World War I, the first modern war: modern in its mass slaughter, its use of transportation networks across Europe (in trains, cars, and planes), its communications networks (radio, telegraphs, telephones), and its technological development of new weapons (machine guns, hand grenades, chemical warfare) (Kern 1983; Fussell 1975). The Great War thus brought together modernization (technological change and adaptation), modernity (new sensory experiences of time and space), and modernism (aesthetic reflections upon these changes), and disillusioned a cadre of American modernist writers who served in the war. Yet the modernism of literary salons, the Lost Generation, the "little magazines" (e.g., Harriet Monroe's Poetry), and the Harlem Renaissance still maintains a stronghold on the discourse. Ann Douglas' Terrible Honesty (1993) attempted to synthesize the concurrent revolutions of modernism and modernization in a panoramic exploration of the "mongrel Manhattan" of the 1920s. Ranging over a hundred modern lives, Douglas showed that immigrants, women, and urbanized Americans aspired to an energized personality in order to compete with New York’s technological displays and its sped-up, jazzed-up tempo of life.
The totemic mechanical agent of liberation was the train, and from 1900 to 1920, literary characters -- in Sister Carrie (1900) and Winesburg, Ohio (1919), for example -- leave town by train to become modern, acquiring a mobile identity and aspiring towards autonomy. Those who stay behind remain stuck in traditional lives governed by church, family, community, sexual repression and bitterness. Similarly, the immigrant's experience is modernist inasmuch as the process of claming an American identity requires self-transformation and a break with the past. Ezra Pound's artistic appeal to "Make it new!," reflects relentless social and global change that makes every person anew, and not solely by artistic means.
Self and Subjectivity
The making of the modern individual involved a radical shift in the experience of time, as theorized by William James and Henri Bergson. Time itself was one of the first industrial commodities, divided into minutes and sections, appended to the human body by chain and pocket, imposed on all Americans by a de facto act of the railroads in 1883. In various cultural forms, artists depicted protagonists taking their bodies back from clocks, factories, and the rationalization of industrial life. For each person to have a separate, subjective consciousness -- the core of Bergson's durée or Jamesian "flux" -- meant that "reality" itself might be plural and not objective, might be determined by agency as much as social role, and might include the irrational and unconscious as constant (and even useful) elements of consciousness.
Stephen Dedalus' prototypical modernist statement in the opening chapter of Ulysses (1922) speaks to this sense of time: "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." History was an ideological foundation of the Victorian social order, an evolutionary narrative that moved from primitive to civilized societies through the Enlightenment idea of "progress." History narrated the triumph of science and rationalism over superstition and emotionalism, setting up the dualism of white European male rationality against the natural, emotional "Others" of women and the darker races. Dedalus's one-liner illuminates the modernist turn to self-awakening through the rejection of social definition, the embrace of subjectivity, and the potential for ethical individuality. As mirrored in a letter home from a British soldier -- "the whole of the past, as far as I can make out, is down the drain" – the nightmare of history led to a postwar embrace of immediate sensory experience wherein "the 'I' became all important" (Eksteins 1989: 211).
Contrast modernism to realism, the dominant literary mode of the late nineteenth century, as it reflected the hopes for stability of an empowered middle-class. Realism features an omniscient narrator with moral authority, characters that worry more about fitting into the social order than finding themselves, and an audience with an assumed dualistic moral sense. James's concept of "stream of consciousness" destabilized that objective, external observer and its stable social order by elevating interior consciousness; his concept was carried to Europe by his student Gertrude Stein, who from her Paris salon influenced James Joyce and others (Crunden 1993). Stream of consciousness precludes the authority of a third-person narrator and disrupts the rational thought process depicted in proper grammar and syntax. The external observer for a bourgeois society based on rationality and productivity gives way to a map of the interior consciousness marked by a constant flow of desires, sense-perceptions, impulses, memories, and fantasies, mirroring Freud's theories of the unconscious.
Faulkner wrote The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying after reading Ulysses, novels informed by the ideas of Bergson and James (according to Faulkner), and inconceivable within a realist framework: there is no narrator, no morality, no judgment of character, no point. In As I Lay Dying, reality can only be constructed by the reader's collation of the characters' responses to the last days of Addie Bundren. Each character's internal monologues contains local history, personal memory, identity and projection, unspoken and thwarted desires; each chapter adds to the reader's knowledge of region, clan and county. Faulkner's method is kaleidoscopic: a single action is split into a mosaic of experience. "My ambition is to put everything into one sentence," Faulkner once wrote, "not only the present but the whole past on which it depends and which keeps overtaking the present, second by second" (qtd. in Kenner 1975: 198). By rendering the internal monologue in vernacular language, Faulkner validates the oral storytelling traditions and rural Southern white dialect he inherited and transmuted into his own artistic language.
In applying Sherwood Anderson's advice to engage his "postage stamp of native soil," Faulkner captured the spirit of cultural nationalism in American literary modernism. In similar fashion, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Hemingway, and Stein attempted to honor vernacular language, oral traditions, ethnic and regional cultures (Pavlic 2002). But the relationship between writer, race, and geography -- and the nightmare of history -- translated differently for ethnic groups. When African-American songwriters Fats Waller and Andy Razaf crafted "What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?," they asked a modernist question from a modernist position: self-referential, detached, outside of stable traditions, buffeted by forces, injured by the nightmare of history that has bruised you black and blue. What are you going to do, now that you're black and blue? Sing it out of your system, show the forces acting upon your life as a roadmap for others, sing it so it becomes part of everybody's system.
This is, more or less, the history of this song. It was originally a lament sung by a dark-skinned woman about internal color bias within African-American communities, as performed by Ethel Waters in a 1929 Harlem revue entitled Hot Chocolates. Seemingly overnight, it became a vehicle for dozens of black performers and a signature song for the young Louis Armstrong. Armstrong dropped the verse about color bias and made it a self-affirming plaint for all African-Americans. Twenty years later, the narrator of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) invokes the song in the novel's prologue as a catalyst for his rebellion, claiming "this music demanded action." Ellison regarded Armstrong as a trickster (or shaman) for the African-American community, and his deft mixture of deference and empowerment -- Uncle Tomming on stage but sending out coded resistance -- suggest an alternative modernist route than those of middle-class Euro-Americans (Appel 2002; Dinerstein 2003). Similarly, James Baldwin singled out Billie Holiday as a poet who guided audiences through the processes of what Toni Morrison calls "re-memory": "When I say poet ... I'm not talking about literature at all. I'm talking about the recreation of experience, you know, the way that it comes back. Billie Holiday was a poet. She gave you back your experience" (qtd. in Pavlic: 257). Holiday's best work invoked tones, textures, cadences, and phrases that inflected the English language to serve as coded markings of African-American past and possibility.
Arguably, Holiday's contemporary global popularity depends upon the grain of a voice that captures the underlying tensions of modernity: the loss of cohesion and stability balanced by the promise of autonomy and the thrill of self-liberation. In consciously attempting to synthesize Bessie Smith's vocal power and Louis Armstrong's subtle phrasing, Holiday's work illustrates how African-American artistic subjectivity first emerged in the blues, a form that has only begun to receive its due as a modernist expression in the past generation (Baker 1984). First, the vernacular artistically formalized in "the blues" consciously defied "Standard English," cultural elites, assimilationist rhetoric, and the Christian themes of the spirituals. Second, blues functions almost entirely through lyrics focused on "the all-important 'I,'" through blunt talk of sexuality, oppression, and transgression. Third, along with the jazz soloist, blues marked the emergence of both an introspective African-American artistic consciousness and African-American music itself as a "counterculture of modernity" (Gilroy 1993).
Modernism and the Other
American modernism marks the intersection of conflicting histories difficult to synthesize. In The Modernist Nation (2004), Michael Soto ambitiously attempts to unite the objectives of the Lost Generation, the Harlem Renaissance, and female modernist writers and artists around the concepts "generation" and "renaissance." Soto presents four unifying, intertwined narratives for modernist artists: rejection of one's philistine upbringing and symbolic rebirth for purposes of self-definition; the creation of a formulaic "bohemian narrative" that naturalizes (and nationalizes) cultural rebellion; the valorization of the artistic imagination against the rational planning of a utilitarian, industrial society; the search for models of cultural nationalism in other colonized or emergent literatures (e.g., such as Irish and Russian). For the purposes of rebirth and rebellion, the language of American modernism is jazz: it provides the new rhythms, the slang, the improvisational method, the subculture of performance (in dance), and the sense of being modern or at least "hip to the [new] lingo" (Soto 2004).
In the 1910s, a generation of young Euro-American elites rejected the waltz, quadrille, and European dances for ragtime dances such as the turkey trot, the grizzly bear, the fox trot, and the buzzard lope. The formal, public performance of these dances made Vernon and Irene Castle national icons and international stars (Erenberg 1981). Their best-selling book of dance and refined manners diluted African-American kinesthetics and marked the first "white-facing" of African-American modernist cultural production. When Henry May identified the first stage of American modernism in the five-year period from 1912-1917, he correlated the significance of the kinesthetic revolution implicit in these dance crazes with more familiar artistic and intellectual influences (James, Freud, Veblen, and Frank Lloyd Wright), singling out the shimmy, a dance that later gave Mae West her first national success (May 1959). In effect, the shimmy gave the lie to the civilizing process, especially as The Castles and Mae West committed classic acts of "love and theft": stealing African-American expressive culture while dishonoring their artistic producers (Lott 1993).
European social dance and kinesthetics were repudiated and have not returned; whether this was an act of primitivism or modernism remains an ongoing debate, but the answer seems obvious -- it's both -- when speaking of a popular revolution both with regard to the aesthetics of movement and in the recognition of sublime response to propulsive rhythmic music. Music and dance of the African diaspora broke down set forms of European pattern dances such as the waltz, liberated parts of the body for individual creative expression, encouraged a playful eroticism, and brought a new sense of spatial orientation to self-awareness. The rhetoric of "getting primitive" protected Americans from honoring non-white cultural production and functioned as a conduit for Euro-Americans to imagine a different relationship to their bodies (Torgovnick 1997). Ragtime and jazz dances paralleled the influential work of Franz Boas' The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), which disrupted nineteenth-century dualism: Boas argued that "primitive" cultures indeed practiced logic and reason, and had their own systems of ethics and aesthetics; conversely, "modern" Europeans practiced tribal rites and customs, and rationalized violence and superstition through irrational beliefs.
Yet a lively debate remains regarding whether the Harlem Renaissance marked the advent of a "New Negro" artistic formation -- an ethnic literary aesthetic -- that successfully broke down ingrained ideas of African-American artistic ability or intellectual equality (Lewis 1981). Did it transform the white gaze of African-Americans, destroy plantation stereotypes, and move Euro-Americans closer to believing in social equality? Yes. Did it produce literary and artistic work that stands alongside the best Euro-American cultural production as modernist work? Yes. Did it leave a legacy that has provided a corrective in the modernist discourse? Yes. Houston Baker has grouped blues, literature, and minstrelsy all together as cultural acts of "maronnage" (after "maroon" societies of runaway slaves) that resist dominant social codes and reinscribe resistant ideas in both popular and highbrow cultural forms (Baker 1989).
The second major site of "primitivist modernism" was Mexico. As a contact zone for modernists from O'Keeffe, D.H. Lawrence and Mabel Dodge Luhan to the Beats, Mexico presented writers and artists with images both to critique a runaway technological society and to imagine an Edenic pre-industrial innocence (Crunden 1993). In Mexico and New Mexico, artists believed they could still find a sense of place, community, stable rituals, and unself-conscious behaviors, while maintaining a distance of exoticism. Such projections took almost no account of the cultural production of Mexican and Mexican-American modernists, and scholars have returned the voice of "the Other" to a "border modernism," pairing primitivist texts of D.H. Lawrence, Hemingway, and Willa Cather with "native" voices such as Americo Paredes (Schedler 2002).
Such questions would seem to point to a debate about defining American culture, but the term "culture" has become so contentious within the humanities that questions of identity nearly always override it. The definition of culture shifted during the modern period from cultivation through arts and education -- classical music, ballet, philosophy -- to patterns and behaviors in everyday life transmitted intergenerationally (Hegeman 1999). Boas provided the ethnographic model brought about the emergence of cultural relativism through the work of his influential students (e.g., such as Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Zora Neale Hurston), and anthropology became the first intellectual field in which women participated as near-equals (Deacon 1997).
Scholars have recently called for a remapping of "American literature" towards a post-colonial, post-nationalist "literature of the Americas." A major aspect of that project would be Hispanic modernism, a six-stage model mirroring the European cultural arc from 1890 to 1940 (Calinescu 1987), including Diego Rivera's monumental murals of Ford's River Rouge plant and Frida Kahlo's self-reflexive paintings of Mexican identity; the illustrations of Miguel Covarrubias and Marius de Zayas, along with the polyethnic cosmopolitan community around Alfred Stieglitz's 291 group (and in Harlem); Americo Paredes's ethnography on South Texas and its legacy in borderlands studies. It would also include major postmodern Latin American writers such as Marquez, Borges, and Llosa, who were indebted to Faulkner for bringing the modernist interplay of time, memory, identity, and geography to peripheral, insulated communities (Cohn 1999).
Technology and the Body
"The machine" (so called) remains a complex, contradictory metaphor at the heart of modernity. All at once, "the machine" was an artistic model of efficient creativity, a metaphor for relentless, impersonal forces, and an invasive system of surveillance and repression. Francis Picabia painted human figures as machines or mechanical principles, such as "The Picture of an American Girl," which was a sparkplug. Technology is the Other of modernism in such representative works as Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), and Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). Yet William Carlos Williams defined a poem (positively) as "a small (or large) machine made out of words," Le Corbusier defined a house as "a machine built for living,", and Margaret Bourke-White created an aesthetic grammar of machine beauty. Alfred Stieglitz's photograph, "The Hand of Man," gets to the heart of this tension: it depicts a train rounding a bend at full steam, juxtaposing human physical labor in a natural landscape to the vitality of machines in an industrial landscape.
The train was the prime mover of modernity, "the primary metaphor of modernity and its metonym" (Scandura and Thurston 2001: 25). The modern American tempo of life arguably derives from train rhythms and its embodiment of machine aesthetics as both object and network (and thus the introduction of terms such as traffic, flow, precision, and efficiency). For rural Americans, the "metropolitan corridor" of every small town was the train station, telegraph shack, and factory warehouse districts on the outskirts of town (Stilgoe 1983). Every major American poet celebrated the colonization of the landscape by train and Whitman granted it pride of place in modernity: "Type of the modern--emblem of motion and power--pulse of the continent."
The experience of looking at landscapes from a train window helped create a new visual regime for the camera eye, framing fast-moving landscapes and a plethora of images into a modern flux without sensory overload. Riding the train also provided precedent for the consumer society: a passenger is both a parcel carried by a train and a consumer staring at a constant stream of new objects from a safe, vantage point. As commodity and consumer, the train provides the conditions for a de-based relationship to nature. This experience trained audiences to watch films, the primary medium by which Americans adjusted to the shocks of modernity. The train itself was the biggest action star in silent film, framed not only for its power and speed, but as the vehicle for the hero's arrival; The Big Train Robbery (1903) taught directors cinematic technique for capturing a moving object (Kirby 1997). Railway passengers of the 1830s frightened by speeds of twenty miles per hour clearly had a different relationship to their bodies than Americans who now drive at eighty miles an hour while eating a sandwich and listening to heavy metal.
In the late nineteenth century, the prevalent metaphor of the body shifted from organic and religious models to "the human machine" (Rabinbach 1990). Mirroring the industrial division of labor, the body was seen as an aggregation of separate parts in an interlocking system. Early research on the body-as-machine came from British studies of the laboring body under duress, and studies of human and animal bodies-in-motion.
Electricity in particular -- the machine as energy network -- became a metaphor for energizing the body, as early as Whitman's "I Sing the Body Electric"; sexual devices such as electric belts (for male virility) and the first vibrators date from the late nineteenth century (de la Pena 2003). The electric landscape of Manhattan, Chicago, and Coney Island was the cultural ground of modernism: it elevated advertising into the sky, celebrated technology for pleasure and awe, and trained the eye to revel in simultaneity, fragmentation, and montage, instead of rejecting such visual cacophony as chaos (Nye 1997).
Modernism involved the adaptation of all bodies to technological society, a process theorized usefully in Sara Danius' The Senses of Modernism (2002). Danius argues that new machines and inventions extend the capabilities of the human body not only through prosthesis, but also through aisthesis, the "interiorization" of technological modes of perception. In the first volume of Remembrance of Times Past, Marcel hears his beloved grandmother's voice on the phone for the first time and has a disturbing epiphany: he hears some old woman, her voice wracked with pain and age. Until the telephone, there was no voice without presence, no message without embodiment; previously, whenever Marcel heard his grandmother, his perceptions were informed by love, devotion, history, and memory. Marcel assumes there's an impostor in his grandmother's body and rushes to her house, where he finds her engrossed in the newspaper. But his perception of his grandmother has already been irrevocably altered; before him sits an old woman. Here is the human eye in the process of becoming a "camera eye": more efficient at gathering sense data but sundered from the organic experience, now just one sense among many within a new division of perceptual labor
Such ambivalence towards machines was mediated through spectacle, such as watching planned train wrecks or turning gear-wheels into ferris wheels. At Coney Island, the pressures of industrial change were transmuted into titillating pleasure: coal carts and tracks became roller coasters; electricity lit up a phantasmagoric skyline; speed and torque created a hedonistic sense of disorientation that bordered on the psychedelic (Kasson 1978). New terminology reflected mechanical metaphors for action, emotion and cognition: a person got "steamed up" or "off-track" or "in gear" (all originally references to trains) (Tichi 1987). In silent film, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd functioned as scapegoats of modernity. Their manic antics and metropolitan meanderings reflected their own modern disorientation as they negotiated machines, crowds, and authorities; victims of social and technological forces, they were constantly in motion (Basalla 1981). In these ways, individuals engaged technology abstractly through what art historians call "machine aesthetics": speed, flow, power, drive, repetition, and precision (Smith 1993).
In jazz, blues, and swing, African-American music and dance captured the pace and power of the industrial soundscape and assimilated machine aesthetics into dynamic forms of popular culture. American college students of the 1920s and female laborers pressed jazz and its dances into service for their own cultural rebellion, rejecting the concept of "sin," especially as it related to sex and the body (Peiss 1986). Whether in ragtime dances, the Charleston (1920s), tap dance or the lindy hop (the 1930s), African-American dance was a participatory modernist art form. The rhythmic drive of all jazz until 1945 came from the "techno-dialogic," an artistic engagement with machine rhythms and industrialization, as African-American musicians developed a musical grammar through "locomotive onomatopoeia" (i.e., the rhythms and sounds of trains) (Dinerstein 2003; Murray 1976). Since the function of social dance in African-American culture is the integration of music, movement, culture, and social forces into "participatory consciousness," black culture became a global lingua franca, reproducing new musical idioms, slang, fashion, and generational identity throughout the past century (Keil and Feld 1994).
Finally, modernism involved a crisis of cultural authority heightened by the emergence of the first national advertising agencies, which filled the mediascape with sophisticated imagery for national brands that continually stimulated desire and consumption (Marchand 1985; Leach 1993; Lears 1994). Concurrent to artistic modernism, consumerism advanced a paradigm shift in the modal self, from Victorian "character" to modern "personality" -- the self as commodity in the urban marketplace (Susman 1984). As images of success, beauty, pleasure, and even piety were drawn from popular culture and generated for commercial ends, the "mediated self" comes into being via mass culture (Gabler 1998). The modernist ethos of rebellion became entrenched in contemporary consumer culture, and what began as adversarial combat with history and tradition has since become rhetorical sloganeering for multinational corporations. Autonomy, choice, rebellion -- these terms register as a permanent ideological matrix of consumer society.
Coda: Modernism and Postmodernism
What cohesive set of Western or American values could remain after the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bombs – even to rebel against? In the immediate aftermath of World War II, American intellectuals and writers embraced existentialism while the first postmodern writers -- Beckett, Borges, and Nabokov – created labyrinthine narratives centered less on self and subjectivity than on the inadequacy of language to represent postwar reality.
In The Post-modern Condition (1984), Lyotard theorized that all European modernism worked within four underlying narratives, all of which were secularized Christian myths of redemption: (1) the Enlightenment ideal of linear progress through knowledge leading to the good society; (2) the goal of autonomy, after introspection and inquiry into the dark recesses of the self; (3) the Marxist promise of the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat; (4) the capitalist narrative of the good society through market forces, enlightened self-interest, and global economic harmony (Lyotard 1978; Calinescu, 1989). The capitalist narrative retains its power and influence (Fukuyama 1990) and Marxist analysis still informs modernist scholarship in the humanities (Jameson 1983), but no sense of universalism frames postmodernism. Instead, all sets of values are assumed to be rationalizations of power, and stability is always relative, whether of self, language, or society (Harvey 1989).
In Brian McHale’s elegant distinction, whereas modernism concerned epistemology, postmodernism is about ontology (McHale 1987). The artist is no longer a guide towards authentic self-knowledge but an assembler of forms into pastiche, its meaning left to the consumer to interpret. In the architecture of Frank Gehry, hiphop musical collage, and the "media assemblages" of Pynchon, artists mix high, low and pop culture, seed their works with genres and cultural quotations, and celebrate irony, camp, gaudiness, and self-reflexivity. In postmodernism, rebellion was simply one pose among many, no more or less valuable than cynicism, stoicism, or romanticism (Hassan 1971). Randomness and instability were celebrated as agents of change – in chaos theory, in self-experimentation, in the pursuit of novelty – and therefore, the antithesis of self and society became moot. Postmodernism reflected a more playful engagement between artistic production and popular culture, and art was no longer envisioned as a privileged critical vantage point.
Perhaps the most significant failed project of modernism was that of the authentic self. Modernist artists saw themselves as guides to a future unburdened by the chains of the past and redolent with sex, pleasure, and meaningful introspection. Such transgression against Victorian morality and order is now the rhetoric of self-actualization as it is used to fuel consumerist ideology; its familiarity reflects the unintended triumphs of modernism. From the vantage point of postmodernism, the goal of autonomy without consequent attachment to community or politics seems self-indulgent, hedonistic, or simply performative. Postmodern critics accuse modernist artists of lacking politics, promulgating a naïve idea of progress, and supporting a vague humanism and universalism that indirectly supported colonialism (Ross 1986; Williams 1989). The challenge of understanding the legacy of American modernism now turns upon the debate over its success or failure in creating large-scale social change.