Modernism and the Culture of Market Society, by John Xiros Cooper

English Literature in Transition 48: 3 (2005).

JOHN XIROS COOPER claims that the modernists of 1920s-1930s were "the first cells of a new kind of social organization" that would spread the "nihilism" of market culture by century's end. Arguing against Andreas Huyssens's theory of the Great Divide between the avant-garde and mass-market society, Cooper holds responsible various bohemian literary communities like Bloomsbury and Greenwich Village for eroding "inherited values."

Cooper's argument is provocative. There is a trace of moral terrorism in his choice of the word "cell" to describe the continuing presence and ef- fect of modernist communities on contemporary life styles and values. The "cell" metaphor then develops as he describes modernists as "unwitting and possibly even blind social commandos and shock troops in the making of capitalist society and cultures" (21).

Cooper attempts to reveal that the avant-garde has a more complex relation to capitalist culture than previously acknowledged. Though nodding toward the generally accepted view that modernist literary communities were created in "resistance" to mass market values, he nevertheless develops a counter-narrative to show how modernism collaborated and has become the subject of historical irony. He asserts that modernism though resistant to materialist and commercial values at the beginning of the century has now become the contemporary cultural style of the market culture it opposed. He holds modernists "unwittingly" responsible for various kinds of weakened moral authority of parents, priests and political leaders. And he adopts Lawrence M. Fried- man's argument in The Horizontal Society, that "modern men and women are much freer to form relationships [and thus] are on a plane of equality (real or apparent) . . . with like-minded people" (167) rather than on the traditional, vertical forms of kinship and authority.

Despite Cooper's argument, common sense suggests that there is no direct line from the literary and cultural movement of modernism to the persistence of capitalist values and epistemology, moral relativity, new gender roles, sexual permissiveness, and social fragmentation in the twentieth century. Cooper himself acknowledges such when he suggests that it is not "ideas" that drive history. Marx's Capital, he states, did not lead directly to the Soviet gulag or Nietzsche's The Gay Science to Treblinka. Despite this early disavowal, he persists in his rather bizarre argument that modernism is the "cultural spearhead of capitalism" and the materialist values and lifestyles it spawns. We are informed that modernism's innovative techniques and formal experiments as well as lifestyles advocated in various bohemias have unwittingly infected our society with "possessive" and acquisitive market values.

One experiences then two arguments in reading this book: an overt argument that modernization (or modernism, according to Cooper's epistemology) was a welcome strategy for "liberating consciousness" from cultural restrictions and superstitions and, at the same time, an ethical undertow, that such avant-garde communities challenged the forces of tradition and spread negative capitalist values and life styles.

Cooper asserts that it is the capitalist economy that "encouraged the invention and privatization of inwardness" (49). This turning "inward" away from the amelioration of the social reality was considered "decadent" by the Marxist critics, Lukacs and Bakhtin, long before Cooper. This capitalist thrust is then what ostensibly led to the modernist experiment with "interiority" that we observe in Joyce, Woolf, Proust and Richardson. There is no mention that other historical and cultural forces—World War I, shifting gender roles, or the interest in the dark places of psychology and the unconscious evident in Freud and other writers—contributed to the development of "inwardness."

Underlying all this then is an a-historical diatribe against capitalism. Cooper states: "No matter what the received wisdom tells us, historical events like the French insurrection of 1848 (the June days), the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, and most other myriad social and political events of our century which drape themselves in revolutionary rhetoric and ideas, cannot match capitalism for its ruthless tearing apart of all traditional bonds and the tradi- tional societies they held together" (80). There are the inequities of capitalism of which we are aware. But one wonders if Cooper has heard of the death of millions in Mao's ruthless Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution under the banner of another economic system, com- munism.

Cooper blurs the distinction between modernism, usually defined as a literary movement, and modernity, modernization and market society. He is part of a new critical movement that aims to locate modernism "in the context of material and socioeconomic theory" (28). By modernism, he means something more "pervasive" than the literary movement—a response to a variety of social and economic conditions. This thrust is not new. Lawrence Rainey in The Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture (1999) also discusses the work of art as a commodity accompanied by a critique of capitalism.

The topics that Cooper covers are wide-ranging. Part I attempts to es- tablish the ideology and epistemology of "The Posthuman Scene," the mindset and values that develop under capitalism, considered as a "posthuman" system. Part II, "The Regime of Unrest: Four Precursors," explores the ideas of Marx, Flaubert, Emily Brontë, and Lewis Carroll. In Part III, "The Margin is the Mainstream," he develops his argument about the pervasiveness of the modernist mindset based broadly on specific texts: Joyce's Ulysses, Eliot's Wasteland, Lewis's The Tyro, Stein's Autobiography, Barnes's Nightwood, and the Bloomsbury community. It should be noted, however, that his discussion of the texts is narrowly driven in furtherance of his argument.

Modernism is a complicated, international migratory movement that has its social, political and literary dimensions. Its relationship to capi- talism in America and Europe is complex, as is its connection with Fas- cism in Italy or its development in Japan or communist Russia or China. Cooper's discussion of modernism is myopic, limiting its pervasive influence only to the capitalist mindset. The argument is a stretch, if not a conceit in its a-historical leaps. In his introduction, he claims that au- thors like John Galsworthy, Sinclair Lewis and Arnold Bennett may re- late the tragic conflicts of "men of property." But in our decade it is what he terms "the compone impeachment" of Bill Clinton that manifests the tragedy of the capitalist, "the man of property." He flattens the intellec- tual community of Bloomsbury into an Abbey Hoffmantype, "Bloomsbury nation" (making no distinctions among its members). He compares its social and sexual mores to TV programs like "Friends" and "Sex in the City." Cooper also notes that Joyce's and Woolf's "moments of being"— heightened moments of perception or being—are "cognitive training for adapting to market society." Today, he says, advertising makes use of the "aesthetics of the epiphany" in its sound bites and headers (197). In such statements, Cooper exhibits something he has argued against: that

 

 

 

 


John Xiros Cooper, Modernism and the Culture of Market Society, Cambridge University Press (2004).

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