An taught by time I tak' it so--exceptin' always steam.
From coupler-flange to spindle-guide I see thy hand O God -
Predestination in the stride o' yon connecting rod.
(Kipling, "M'Andrew's Hymn")
Zach Sachs shared T.J. Clark's essay about "modernism, postmodernism, and steam," which is built around the same ambiguous symbol that Kipling is using here: steam, as an emblem both of evanescence and of machinery, represents the basic tension of modernism, which is between the anarchic individualistic tendency of modern (pre-1945) thought and the contrary, regimenting tendency of industrial life. It is surprising how close the parallels between literature and art are -- when Clark says,
You could say of the purest products of modernism [...] that in them an excess of order interacts with an excess of contingency.
he might as well be talking about Ulysses. (By the way, a point this essay brings home is that WW1 was a very minor part of the story, as most of the currents of modernism had been around for years.) Of course it's much wider than that: earlier this afternoon I was leafing through Russell's History of Western Philosophy at a Borders, looking for a passage about Locke, when I found a very close echo of Clark's thesis in Russell's remarks about how the English empiricists were driven by their arguments, against their natural temperament, to a position of extreme subjectivism that was at odds with the Zeitgeist.
So, at a minimum, the tension that Clark associates with modernism is at least as old as Hume and Blake. One is tempted to write a long essay about this but it would never actually get written -- I'm too lazy to finish anything -- and the point of this blog is to record my half-digested impressions without worrying about structure etc. So I'm just going to assemble a few notes.
1. Modernism is, of course, one of two successful responses to modernity, the other being Romanticism. Romanticism wasn't a formalist movement in any deep sense; its basic tendency (seen from the modernist end of the telescope) is escapist; still, escapism might be fruitful under some conditions, and it might be that current conditions are better suited to good escapist art than to good formalist art.
2. Related to this, High Modernism was perhaps a decadent movement in Empson's sense that it depended on a tradition that its example was destroying. The best modernist art and literature works largely through unexplained and jarring juxtapositions. The idea always seems to be to force a new emotion into existence by making you think in multiple registers, each with a certain level of vividness, at once. A lot of the juxtapositions only worked while they remained unexpected, i.e., before the first-wave modernists were assimilated. Much of the later work maintains the unexpectedness by stylizing to a degree that makes the tension unimmediate and therefore ineffective. A lot of Pound is no longer readable: the Pound of flesh is now a Pound of maggots. Looking at the pictures that accompany Clark's text, one is tempted to say that something like this must also have happened in the visual arts beginning around Picasso.
3. An excess of contingency is implicit in an excess of form: why that pattern, one could ask, rather than any other? (The number of possibilities grows with the complexity of the pattern.) Had Keats's odes been identical except for being acrostics, we might think them less inevitable. In Clark's terms, Through the Looking Glass is a deeply modernist work, being schematic in the same way as Ulysses and some of the paintings Clark discusses. Victorian writing differs from Modernist writing in lacking the element of direct shock. My sense is that the shock value was primarily about forcing people to look at the work rather than through it, by frustrating their expectations. I don't think this is feasible or interesting at present because the better sort of readers have no expectations at all.
4. To oversimplify somewhat, the internet has resolved the central tension of modernism; the dominant tendency is currently toward solipsism, and the basic tension is between the world of windowless monads and human nature, which is reluctant to adapt to this world. (The "objective" tendency is represented by neuroscience, which "tells us" that the mind is maladaptive.) So the natural theme of fiction is psychosis, and the struggle to reimagine a reality that is perfectly intelligible on its own terms -- which are Leibniz's -- in ways the mind is at home with. There have, for instance, been several novels lately -- Tom McCarthy's Remainder, Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances (very good!), Richard Powers's Echo Maker (juvenile and lame), etc. -- about characters who are obsessed with the fogeyish notions of authenticity and identity. (The latter two are about people with Capgras syndrome, which (for novelists) is a disorder that leaves you convinced that your family and friends are actually exact replicas of your family and friends.) I wonder if Clark has read these books and what he makes of them.