U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Thriving in the Maelstrom’s Mist: In Appreciation of Marshall Berman, 1940-2013

Guest post by Ben Serby, Columbia University

When I first read All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, I had recently graduated from college. This was shortly after the 2008 crisis, and so, like many others in my situation, I was unable to land a job. Uncertain of what step to take next, I was rapidly gaining an awareness of a number of cold facts about that daunting, unforgiving place we refer to as “the real world.” Because, at this deeply insecure time, it was not easy to be hopeful about the future, I came to appreciate one of the concrete meanings of growing up: the loss of a past that had melted into air, and, on the other hand, the frighteningly indeterminate possibilities that time and movement can bring. In retrospect, this was the perfect moment for an encounter with Berman’s book – an intensely personal testament to what he, borrowing from Baudelaire, called “the heroism of modern life.”1

An expansive work, All That Is Solid brims with ideas drawn from literary criticism, urban studies, and seemingly everything in between. Like the best novels, Berman’s unorthodox creation, part memoir and part social theory, gives meaning to the pain, struggles, and hopes of everyday experience. Between the opening discussion of Faust and the closing sections on New York City, he describes a neat arc of different attempts to grapple with what he calls the “tragedy of development.” Berman, who had seen his childhood neighborhood pulverized to make way for the Cross-Bronx Expressway in the fifties, identifies Goethe’s protagonist with Robert Moses, finding in both the same monomaniacal urge to ceaselessly remake the world at all costs, laying waste to whatever – and whoever – stands in their way.

But All That Is Solid is much more than the erudite counterpart to The Power Broker for which it is sometimes mistaken. Berman’s lyrical lament advances a set of claims about the way in which social forces are embedded in personal life. He set out not only to show that longing for the past and hope for renewal are both intrinsic to the experience of modernization, but also to shine a light on the creative ways in which ordinary men and women respond to that experience. Even so, his aim was never to simply narrate this historical dialectic of modernization and modernism from the time of the emergence of a world market, around 1500. Rather, he sought to inspire us all to continue this process of “fighting to make ourselves at home in this world, even as the homes we have made, the modern street, the modern spirit, go on melting into air.”2

Though a self-described Marxist, Berman put forth a decidedly loose interpretation of the way in which world-historical forces intervene in and affect the course of our daily lives, and of how literature often reflects that struggle. And while he chose an aptly evocative phrase from The Communist Manifesto for the title of his book, he clearly felt neither the desire nor the obligation to subordinate his cultural observations to a wider analysis of political economy or social relations. Instead, in the spirit of the young Marx, he stressed the humanistic themes of individuality, self-actualization, and agency.

Berman championed a capacious notion of modernism, seeing it as a struggle not so much to arrest the overpowering, impersonal forces of modernization, but rather, as a heroic effort to adapt to changing circumstances, to find new values amidst the ruins of the past. For him, to be modern is “to be undeterred in our determination to face these forces, to fight to change the world and make it our own.”3

Several figures on the Left reproached Berman for such optimism, which could seem uncritical and perhaps somewhat inattentive to the darker side of economic, social and political transformations. His most thoroughgoing critics detected in his work a lack of concern about the consequences of capitalist development and a justification for political passivity. Just a few years after its publication, Russell Jacoby dismissed All That Is Solid as a set of “lax generalizations and upbeat speeches.”4 Calling Berman “an evangelist of the human spirit,” he concluded, “this is psychobabble for aging leftists.”5 In an otherwise far more charitable review, Perry Anderson went a step further in declaring Berman’s individualism an affirmation of “the culture of narcissism.”6

Years after my initial encounter with All That Is Solid, I too found myself at odds with Berman. The elegance and warmth of his prose still moved me, as did the scope of his vision. But I wondered why he had so little to say about the commodification of the urban culture that he embraced, and the very fact that the newly “revitalized” neighborhood is always already ripe for development before it has begun to blossom. That the “unique vitality and intensity” of SoHo in the 1970’s would eventually undo itself should not have been hard to foresee, but Berman, while acknowledging that “frantic speculations” had already begun to drive people from their homes, offered what seemed only a complacent platitude: “Here, as in so many modern scenes, the ambiguities of development roll on.”7 I was galled. Must the destruction of homes, communities, and lives, be inevitable? His call to accept the “paradox and contradiction” of modernity suddenly sounded, to my ears, like a theodicy for the Schumpeterian formula of creative destruction.8

Last fall, I had the opportunity to raise these questions in person. Berman had come back to his alma mater, Columbia University, for an intimate discussion of his work. With what was undoubtedly a halting delivery, I offered several examples of the way in which ultra-gentrification seemed to be strangling whatever uniqueness and verve remains in Bloomberg’s New York, making it ever more homogeneous and unlivable for the vast majority of people. Pointing to, among other things, the construction of the Barclays Center and the expansion of Columbia into Manhattanville (just down the street from where we spoke), I asked him whether he remained committed to the view that such further development and destruction would indeed generate creative possibilities.

In truth, Berman did not really engage with my question except to express disapproval of my alleged pessimism – an attitude that he clearly considered to be unwarranted. While I came away feeling unresolved and dissatisfied, I was, nonetheless, grateful to have met someone whose ideas I had once found so inspiring. Before leaving, he signed my copy of All That Is Solid: “For Ben – Go, Man!”

Since then, I have often thought about Berman’s remarks on that day. In particular, I remember him mentioning that he felt proud of the fact that All That Is Solid had become important to a large number of readers in Brazil and Turkey – two countries that are currently experiencing the “tragedy of development” in its utmost severity. His powerful narrative seemed to resonate with a diverse set of societies in transition, and its ideas had become intensely relevant to a great many people in the modernizing world. Once again, I thought back to my first time reading the book, and what I took away from it. And it occurs to me now that perhaps Berman’s affirmative stance has no bearing on whether All That Is Solid is a profound piece of writing, for while it does frustrate our urgent demand for ruthless criticism, it is a no less challenging call for boundless hope in the present. As such, for all of its political ambivalence, it may be something more exceptional and perhaps more valuable.

In his response to Perry Anderson in New Left Review, Berman warned that intellectuals on the Left risk losing touch with everyday experience if they become exclusively focused on the world-historical events and structural contexts that shape it. He ended his piece with a crisp quip: “Reading Capital won’t help us if we don’t also know how to read the signs in the street.”9 It was the ordinary and the concrete, “the stuff and flow of everyday life” that Berman knew and loved, and All That Is Solid is a book meant to help its readers find meaning within – and not over and above – this realm.10 While some might see this as an endorsement of quietism and “the culture of narcissism,” it is important to recognize that there remains room for a struggle of properly social and political proportions beyond the scope of the book. After all, there is no reason to rule out the possibility of a world in which values and creative possibilities are continually regenerated, but without displacement, dispossession, and dehumanization. Regardless of when or if that possibility becomes a reality, we will continue to find in Marshall Berman’s writings a source of hope and meaning as long as our restless world goes on expanding, incandescing, and melting, again and again and again.

1 Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity, (New York: Penguin Books, 1988)

2 Berman, All That Is Solid, 348.

3 Berman, All That Is Solid,13.

4 Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals, 212.

5 Jacoby, 214

6 Perry Anderson, “Modernity and Revolution,” in New Left Review 144 (March-April 1984). Online at: http://newleftreview.org/I/144/perry-anderson-modernity-and-revolution

7 Berman, All That Is Solid, 337-338

8 Berman, All That Is Solid, 13.

9 Marshall Berman, “The Signs in the Street: A Response to Perry Anderson,” in New Left Review 144 (March-April, 1984). Online at: http://newleftreview.org/I/144/marshall-berman-the-signs-in-the-street-a-response-to-perry-anderson

10 Berman, “The Signs in the Street.”

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I’m reading Martin Jay’s *The Dialectical Imagination*—about the Frankfurt School and the development of Critical Theory.

    One of the important points Jay makes in the course of discussing Herbert Marcuse’s contributions to Critical Theory, a point that I think applies here, is that its goal of human emancipation necessitated “a strongly imaginative, even utopian strain” (p. 77). This transcended “the present limits of reality.” Philosophical knowledge, to be helpful, had to get out of the grip of the present and the past; it had to be able to consider the future. Jay said that Critical Theory refused “to eternalize the present and shut off the possibility of a transformed future” (pp. 77-78). This was the only way to sustain human action. This transcendent optimism comes through in their admiration for the fantasy inherent in great works of art (p. 78).

    I wonder if this strain of Critical Theory affected Berman’s line of thinking—his optimism? – TL

  2. I’m glad you brought that up because “eternalizing the present” is precisely how I myself may have once formulated my objection. The Frankfurt School adopts this notion of normative utopian critique* (a jumbled phrase, I know, but it gets at what you’re driving at) from Georg Lukács. Berman also read and admired Lukács as a young man,** but I find it difficult to identify any profound way in which All That Is Solid, at least, reflects that. I think that he much more modestly and “pragmatically” locates all hope in the present, which for modern societies means ceaseless renewal. So while his optimism does not necessarily stem from a kind of eternal recurrence, neither does it depend on the “transcendence” of existing conditions.

    * See Seyla Benhabib’s book, Critique, Norm, Utopia
    ** See the essay on the young Lukács in Berman, Adventures in Marxism

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