Saturday, 9 May 2009

Newsreel style theory....

It has been some time since I have talked about the limitations of "cultural journalism". Over time I've made the point on this blog that the style has migrated into the blogosphere. Of course, this can hardly be coincidental, given how so often a publishing deal is dependent upon some kind of established audience as not only a blogger, [but usually prior to this], but in the "real world", as well, most often as a journalist. So the heroic myth of the blogger as a kind of bachelor machine, giving birth to his/herself, is, by and large, purely mythological. The only exceptions I've found are those who approriate a writing style already proven elsewhere, but are able to gain a start in the blogosphere as among the first to do it in the new medium (i.e. before facilitated blogging as more of a mass medium).

It's certainly true that I've mentioned as well some limitations in Terry Eagleton's writing, but I love his review of Peter Conrad's Modern Times, Modern Places. In this instance he manages to offer a succinct appraisal of the key features of cultural journalism. So what I'm wondering, mhuthnance, is whether what Eagleton says about Conrad would be readily applicable to another book we were discussing the other day: Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise? I haven't read Ross, but I own a copy of Conrad's book, so what I have to go on is the seemingly comparable scope of the two works: a grand tour through the culture of modernism. Could the tables be turned somewhat, to focus more on the practice of criticism, than what the book (s) purport to be about. At times like this I can't help thinking like a professional editor, by wondering about the intended audience. Such a rethinking would require a cultural sociology in a different register. Think, for starters, of Andrew Ross' No Respect: Intellectuals & Popular Culture, Eyerman and Jamison's Music & Social Movements (which uses Raymond Williams' concept of "social formations"), and Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.

I also haven't read Owen Hatherley's Militant Modernism, so I can't comment on how it stacks up against the aforementioned works, letalone Williams' posthumous The Politics of Modernism. But the background I have on Hatherley's book is [at least initially] a cause of some concern, given its connections to both the blogosphere and print journalism. I won't speculate further here about the possible merits of that work, but instead ask you, mhuthnance, to keep these passages in mind as a yardstick that could be used to evaluate Alex Ross. Maybe Ross will acquit himself really well, but here are a few of the pointers Eagleton teases out that I feel are particularly worth keeping in mind:

"The book’s method (emphasis mine) thus reflects its subject-matter: Conrad has produced a kind of Modernist montage of Modernism, a curved, centreless space in which any item can be permutated with any other. Each chapter is a mesh of connections but self-contained, so that in a Modernist smack at realist notions of narrative order, no chapter can claim priority over another. The form of the book is Einsteinian rather than Newtonian; indeed the Einsteinian world-picture is a subject it explores at length. Relativity, like everything else in the book, is treated relativistically: Conrad’s prose leaps mercurially from one cultural illustration of the doctrine to another, weaving an intricate web of relations in which they all come to seem indifferently interchangeable. If the book wasn’t so nervous of cultural theory, one might even detect in this method a trace of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno’s notion of ‘constellations’, a brand of surrealist sociology which abandons hierarchies and abstractions and lets its general ideas emerge from the interaction of minute particulars. This, anyway, would be a charitable way of avoiding the conclusion that Conrad is just a good old empiricist who happens to enjoy Continental art.

...Modern Times, Modern Places is an astonishingly well-informed piece of work, which roams from ballet to Berg, Fritz Lang to Jack Nicholson, with the omnivorous energy of the Modernist art it addresses. But Conrad’s pithy style, which hardly stumbles for over seven hundred pages, also sails close to a sort of colour-supplement smartness, hovering somewhere between epigram and sound-bite (‘Freud’s thought turned reality upside down’). If his writing is pointed it can also be glib, covertly sensationalist beneath its clipped impersonality: early 20th-century Vienna possessed ‘a Jewish clerisy, excluded from power, which in revenge exposed the discontents suppressed by civilisation, released the empty air pent up in language, and dismantled the melodic scale’. A lot of the book is more high-class cultural journalism than rigorous inquiry. Social context is conveniently packaged, and though there is much play with scientists and philosophers, one doesn’t sense that the author could hold his own in a discussion of primary narcissism or perlocutionary acts.
With commendable impudence, Conrad refuses to disfigure his text with a single footnote, even if some readers may feel that he wears his learning too lightly. Unlike some avant-garde works of art, this book erases all traces of the labour which produced it. What is worrying, however, is less the absence of footnotes than of original thought. Conrad’s general ideas about Modernism are for the most part standard stuff; what is gripping is the intelligence with which he puts them concretely to work. But this vivid quiltwork of allusions lacks conceptual depth. Analysis gives way to metaphorical resemblances – a flurry of analogies which, as in the Martian school of poetry, are some times coruscating and sometimes callow.

In this, Modern Times, Modern Places is more Post-Modern than Modern. Modernist art may be allergic to absolute meanings, but it cannot rid itself of a dream of depth, plagued as it is by a nostalgia for the days when truth, reality and redemption were still notions to be reckoned with. If the Modernist artwork has shattered into fragments, what this leaves at its centre is not just a blank, but a hole whose shape is still hauntingly reminiscent. Unlike the Post-Modern work, the Modernist artefact cannot give up its hermeneutical hankering, its belief that the world might just be the kind of thing that could be meaningful. For Post-Modernism, by contrast, this is just a kind of category mistake, a scratching where it doesn’t itch, part of a post-metaphysical hangover which deludedly assumes that for a thing to lack a sense is as grievous as for a person to lack a limb. Post-Modernism, being too young to remember a time when there was truth and reality, is out to persuade its Modernist elders that if only they were to abandon their hunger for meaning they would be free.
Modern Times, Modern Places is Modernist in its allegorical habits but Post-Modern ist in its carefully contrived depthlessness. It is a brilliantly two-dimensional book, miles wide but only a few feet thick, which has all the virtues of what Eliot called an art of the surface.

Whatever its limits, his book communicates the exuberance of Modernism as few native English critics have managed to do, and does so with an elegance and concision in which each sentence strives to be an aperçu. If his analogies are sometimes strained, they are rarely less than suggestive. Modern Times, Modern Places tells the story of modern cultural history with unflagging freshness, and without an ounce of surplus stylistic fat."

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