As part of my slow going but ongoing Great Books in US Intellectual History Series, I now turn my attention to Robert Genter’s Late Modernism: Art, Culture, and Politics in Cold War America (2010). The timing of my post on Late Modernism—coming on the heels of Kenneth Burke week at the blog—is intentional because Genter depicts Burke as the quintessential late modernist, as perhaps the representative postwar thinker who critiqued modernism from within, who wanted a rhetoric that communicated with more people instead of one that merely expressed the individual desires of the writer or artist, but who also remained committed to the modernist project of exploring new forms of consciousness. In addition to Burke, Genter places C. Wright Mills, Norman Brown, James Baldwin, and David Riesman, among others, in the late modernist camp.
Being a late modernist made one a sort of intellectual outlier and perhaps even a prophet. This is certainly how Genter situates Burke, who believed that most modernists, especially high modernists like Lionel Trilling, had “forsaken the true task of the artist” in their futile attempts to bracket aesthetics off from the social and political realm, those who, in Genter’s words, “fought a desperate campaign to safeguard art as a distinct mode of knowledge separate from industrial growth.” In this way Genter sees his intervention as a challenge to Irving Howe’s claim, made in his famous 1967 essay, “The Culture of Modernism,” that modernism had died because modernist artists and writers no longer had hope that humans could overcome repressive social constraints.
Although Howe’s pessimism was warranted when the high, academic modernism of Trilling was under consideration, Genter’s late modernists contradicted such a declension narrative. In contrast stood late modernists like Burke, who Genter sees as a proto-postmodernist. “Burke’s criticisms in the late 1940s predated what would become a larger revolt against the aesthetic and epistemological assumptions of modernism in the 1960s and 1970s, as a range of intellectuals and artists associated with the movement known as postmodernism criticized the project of modernism in the postwar period as to esoteric, too devoid of playfulness, and too disconnected from popular concerns.” Yet Burke remained a modernist because he posited the existence, indeed the necessity, of a fully formed self. For late modernists, the self—the sovereign political and cultural individual—had not yet fully dissolved, as it later did in the postmodern imagination. Genter thus proposes to revise the standard narrative of the shift from modernism to postmodernism. “We must recognize instead the historical roots of modernism, thereby treating the transition to postmodernism less as a radical shift to a fundamentally new paradigm of literary and epistemological understanding and more as a complex, historically engaged challenge to the dominant strands of modernist practice.”
In addition to giving us a new narrative, Genter gives us a new vocabulary. One of the joys of reading Genter is the way he puts distinctions on thinkers where we thought none existed. He is the quintessential splitter, and I mean this as a compliment, fully agreeing with him when he writes that “the refusal to make categorical distinctions leads… to the night in which all cows are black.” Whereas I previously grouped David Riesman in alongside someone like William H. Whyte, based on my supposition that Riseman’s “other-directed” human was little different than Whyte’s “organization man,” Genter convincingly analyzes Riesman as a late modernist with a much more nuanced appreciation of how modern relations had reshaped the human personality to be more empathetic. Unlike high modernist Theodore Adorno, who Genter portrays rather surprisingly, given Adorno’s western Marxist credentials, as a fairly typical Cold War liberal, the late modernist Riesman was less concerned with finding some inherent weakness in the American character. Riesman’s famous 1950 book Lonely Crowd shared some affinities with the other social psychological studies of the era—such that individual personalities had shifted in response to mass consumerism—but he was less pessimistic than the high modernists about these implications. Riesman’s work “was full of hesitations, corrections, and open admissions of speculation, something Riesman found missing in [Adorno’s] The Authoritarian Personality.” In short, Riesman thought other-directedness was a superior personality type to inner-directedness.
There is a lot more to say about Late Modernism that I might need to save for a second post. But for now I will conclude, not with a critique, but rather with a bit of necessary lumping, which doubles as a warning. Like most recent works of US intellectual history, including canonized books like Kloppenberg’s Uncertain Victory, and no doubt including my forthcoming book on the culture wars (I don’t exempt myself from this lump), a neo-pragmatic consensus shapes Genter’s book. The late modernists whom Genter celebrates are, in effect, pragmatists. In fact, this seems the reason Genter prefers them to the high modernists like Trilling and the romantic modernists like the Beats. Neo-pragmatism seems to be the normative framework from which Genter judges his intellectuals. As Genter writes: “late modernists argued that the self was neither fully whole nor autonomous but instead constituted through an endless parade of generalized and significant others—sometimes with overlapping agendas and sometimes with conflicting interests—that provided the context for self-identity.” This is a rhetorical repetition of the Via Media thinkers so thoroughly dissected by Kloppenberg.
So what does it mean that we are all neo-pragmatists? How can we understand the strengths and weaknesses of our work when we’re all more or less working from the same epistemological vantage point? Alasdair MacIntyre insists that we must learn from pre-modern traditions that enable “us to overcome the constraints on self-knowledge that modernity… imposes.” Is this even possible? What other possibilities for self-knowledge are open to us? Or is it pragmatism all the way down?