Modernism and Post-Modernism



Anthony Giddens

New German Critique, No. 22, Special Issue on Modernism (Winter, 1981), 15-18.

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http://uk.j Fri Sep 900:03:27 2005

Modernism and post-modernism

by Anthony Giddens

There are three comments I should like to make about the content of Jiirgen Habermas's interesting and provocative paper. One concerns the further development of a point that is a key theme in what he has to say; the second of my remarks is in some part critical of Haberrnas's arguments; and the final one is really a question, an enquiry about the differences between Habermas's views and those of Adorno.

1. Habermas raises an issue both of great importance and of formidable complexity in suggesting that certain transformations of time-experience are intrinsically involved with so-called "modernism" in art. He concentrates his discussion upon the "secret" appeal to the classical buried in modernism, and upon the temporal self-destructiveness of the avantgarde which is constantly implicated in the moment of its own dissolution. This theme undeniably connects with a fondness for the scandalous, a distaste for all convention which however acknowledges that today's scandals are tomorrow's conventions - and hence is perhaps unable in fact to realise the impact of that very "negation" which it seeks. I find Habermas's analysis of these matters both subtle and thought-provoking. But I think it is possible to connect them more directly than Habermas does, in this particular paper at least, with transformations of time-space relations introduced by the spread of industrial capitalism in the late 18th and 19th centuries. I am impressed by a convergence of recent work in the philosophy of time, social history, and urban theory, upon what can be called the commodification of time-space with the formation of industrial capitalism; this work, I think, can be directly connected with Marx's classical characterisation of the "commodity." I In capitalism, Marx makes clear, time - as quantified form - becomes fundamental to the intersection of class relations within the labour-process. The quantification of time is the medium of the exploitative generation of surplus-value, in contrast to the "direct" appropriation of surplus production or labour in agrarian c1assdivided civilisations.

Of course, there is an abundance of historical material documenting the diffusion of clocks, the technology for the quantification of time, in post-feudal Europe; Mumford, among others, has argued that the clock,

I. cf. Anthony Giddens, A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism (Berkeley, California. 1981).


/6 Giddens

rather than power-machinery as such, is the prime element in modern mechanical culture. But it takes a good deal of theoretical analysis to connect such materials to a more penetrating understanding of time and space as themselves commodified forms. As Marx shows, all commodities have a "double existence," as both substance and form. A good or product has qualities of its own; but these are complemented, in a capitalist economy, by the "pure form" of exchange-value. As exchange-value, commodities have nothing in common as regards their substance: anything can be exchanged for anything else, via money. Simmel is wrong, however, to regard money as the prime exemplar of the commodification of social relations. More elemental, as Marx indicates expeciaUy in certain sections of the G rundrisse, is "commodified time" (or, as I prefer to say, commodified time-space). Two connected social transformations are involved: time acquires a "double existence"; and commodified time becomes detached from the commodification of space.

Commodified time has become so much an inherent part of our experience in contemporary capitalism, I think, that Heidegger was forced to introduce the most tortuous neologisms in order to recover a philosophical sense of time (time-space). The "substance" of time-space is what Heidegger refers to as "prescencing," the constitution of Being in its fading into nothingness. But in our society, the "substance" of time-space has become overshadowed by time as quantified form, and space as quantifiable extension. The consequences bite very deeply into the character of our daily lives, and help create that distinctively modern "everyday life" of which Lefebvre speaks. The differentiation of commodified time from commodified space is integrally related to the coordination of activity involved in labour discipline in the workplace; to the severance of work from "free time" as sequential segments of a life governed by routine rather than by tradition; and to the severance of human beings from nature through the transformation of urban space through the prevalence of the "created environment" of contemporary urbanism

The profound - and perhaps in some respectr irreversible - character of these transmutations were barely understood by those who experienced the first force of their impact in the 19th century. In art as in the social sciences one can readily discern a split between an essentially Romantic conservatism and a progressivism that puts its weight behind science and technology. I would interpret "modernism" in art (insofar as the term has a clear designation at all) as a break with both of these types of standpoint. Modernism is neither only a protest against lost traditions, nor an endorsement of their dissolution, but in some degree an accurate expression of the "emptying" of time-space.

2. These considerations lead me to take a more positive attitude towards certain developments in art which Habermas treats rather disrnissively. Perhaps surrealism, for example, was a failure as an emancipatory project, as contributing to a recovery of a rational basis for the normative

Modernism and Postmodernism 17

character of "everyday life." But I think this is still to see surrealism within the confines of the residual opposition between Romanticism and progressivism noted above. For surrealism belonged to currents of change in modern culture that stretch well beyond what had become a separated sphere of "art." In literature, in linguistics, in philosophy, in science, we find parallel modes of transfiguration. The fact that there do occur some strikingly similar developments in European culture in the early years of the 20th century might have a good deal to do with Kuhn's "scientific revolutions." Such "revolutions" may be less a generic part of the development of science, stimulated by changes internal to science itself, than features of relatively uncommon, but more embracing, cultural transitions (cf. Bachelard). The common element in the transformations occurring subsequent to the turn of the 20th century is a concern to elucidate the asymmetry of substance and form. The emergence of structuralist linguistics is exemplary in this respect; latter-day syntheses of structuralism and psychoanalysis rest upon deeper conceptual affinities than sceptics may suspect.

However all this may be, I would be inclined to see in surrealism an exploration of substance and form that was by no means just an abortive experiment. Of course, it is hard to say in a cursory way anything that would do justice to a complicated subject. But I think it possible to see in surrealism an investigation of the generative principles that create the "observable" characteristics of the object-world; and at the same time a sublation of that object-world, as commodified time-space.

3. Habermas distinguishes two senses of "modernism," the broader sense referring to the project of Enlightenment. He wishes to affirm a defence of "modernism" in this more general sense, whatever may have been the shortcomings of artistic "modernism," against the attacks of neoconservatism today. I fully share his worries about the rise of "new conservatisms," in various guises and contexts. And I would also accept his view, if I understand it correctly, that the "new conservatisms" cannot just be combatted by established orthodoxies of the Left. The critique of Enlightenment has to be part of the intellectual endeavours of the Left today, not simply the monopoly of the Right. Such a view was, of course, already well-developed in the writings of Adorno and Horkheimer. This brings me to my point of interrogation about Habermas's discussion. He several times refers approvingly to Adorno, and evidently endorses some main elements of the ideas of that author, particularly in respect of the relation between the two types of "modernism." At the same time, however, he appears rather strongly to reaffirm the principles of Enlightenment almost without qualification. What view does he take of the position advanced by Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment? One can recognise without difficulty that Habermas's views have always differed considerably from those of the "older generation" of the "Frankfurt School." But is there any sense in which he is prepared to admit that

18 Giddens

Enlightenment thought and practice (mirroring on a general plane the fate of the avant-garde in the short-term) contained, at source, the seeds of its own dissolution?

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